The Old Place of Sorbie

From the Clan West Archive – Originally published in November of  2011. This is part of a series of articles that were initially published by the now-inactive Clan Hannay Society West.  Many thanks to Gigi Hanna, Convenor Emerita.

Note: The core of this article is excerpted from Vol. I of the Studies in Grey Galloway, a series published by the Galloway Gazette in 1969-1970. Any hyperlinks and images that may have been in the Clan West website version are now lost. Hyperlinks below were added (and references to lost images removed or substituted) when the archived version was reviewed and revised in August, 2020. 


by I. F. MACLEOD, M.A., F.S.A. Scot.

Resident Tutor in Galloway, Department of Extra-Mural Education, University of Glasgow

Newton Stewart 1969

The tower house in Scotland conforms to a standard type from the middle of the fourteenth century to the end of the sixteenth century, compact, but adaptable to changing requirements. In the earliest towers, the walls were up to 8′ thick, with defense conducted mainly from the wall walk and from projecting timber hoardings; by the sixteenth century defense is mainly from the ground level by hand guns and small arms, and the top level of the tower lends itself to decorative turrets and detail.

The earliest examples are square or oblong, three or four storys high, with access by ladder or an external wooden stairway to the first floor, and a turnpike stair in the wall thickness at one corner to the upper floors. The “L” plan provides additional accommodation in a wing of five to six storys, and perhaps takes the stairway. The walls are a maze of passages and chambers.

The outer defenses are a ditch and stone barmkin or courtyard was, mainly for protecting stock and goods. The tower is not usually free standing, as within the courtyard will be barns and stables and various other buildings.

In most later towers the entrance is on the ground floor, in the re-entrant angle between the projecting wing and the main block where appropriate.

Elaborate Z plan tower houses and the rich north-cast group of castles by the Bell family of master mansions (Crathes, Craigievar, Midmar, Castle Fraser) have no real parallel in Galloway, but otherwise this province has a very comprehensive range of examples of Scottish tower building. The following list of Galloway examples would form an exhaustive list of castles to visit (numbers 1,3,4,6,9,11, and 12 are Ancient Monuments open to the public).

1 Threave Castle, west of Castle-Douglas, on an island in the R. Dee (NX 739623).

2 Corsewall Castle, north-west of Stranraer (NW 992715).

3 Cardoness Castle, west of Gatehouse-of-Fleet (NX 591553).

4 Orchardton Tower, south-east of Castle-Douglas (NX 817551).

5 Garlies Castle, north-east of Newton Stewart (NX 423692).

6 Carsluith Castle, between Creetown and Gatehouse-of-Fleet (NX 495542).

7 Barholm Castle, between Creetown and Gatehouse-of-Fleet (NX 521530).

8 Rusko Castle, north of Gatehouse-of-Fleet (NX 584604).

9 Drumcoltran Tower, north-ease of Dalbeattie (NX 869683).

10 Craigcaffie Tower, north of Stranraer (NX 088642).

11 Castle of Park, west of Glenluce (NX 189571).

12 Maclellan’s Castle, in Kirkcudbight (NX 683551).

13 Isle of Whithorn Castle, in Isle of Whithorn (NX 475366).

14 Castle of St. John, in Stranraer (NX 061608)


The Old Place of Sorbie or Sorbie Tower was built towards the end of the sixteenth century to replace a wooden building on the motte or alternatively another structure within the immediate area. The style of the tower suggests a date in the 1580’s or 1590’s, but a slightly earlier date is certainly possible.

The design of the tower and its construction would be the work of some local family of master masons, perhaps based on the burgh of Wigtown, but unfortunately nothing further is known about this.

The tower, though still a very substantial building, is in poor state of repair, particularly the east wing of the main block, and part of the vault over the kitchen has collapsed. Unlike many Galloway tower houses there is no record of recent occupation, e.g. as accommodation for farm laborers, and the Old Place of Sorbie seems to have stood empty since the middle of the eighteenth century.

The site of the tower, with protection from swamp and water about it, was in itself perhaps an adequate defense against surprise attack. That such security was necessary even a very later date in Galloway is clearly illustrated by the history of the Hannays of Sorbie in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Patrick Hannay of Sorbie was slain in 1543 by Patrick Maclellan; John Hannay was killed in a quarrel in 1640; a Hannay of Sorbie was involved with other Galloway gentlemen including Fergus McDowall of Freugh, Alexander McDowall of Garthland, and McKie of Mertoune, in an affray in the street of Edingurgh in 1526 in which a prominent Dutchman and several others were killed, and which had a sequel in which Thomas Maclellan of Bombie was killed in a clash with the Gordons; and, lastly, the ruinous series of feuds with their neighbours, the Murrays of Broughtons, in a succession of quarrels involving the Stewarts of Garlies, the Dunbars, and the Kennedys, in the 1590’s and 1600’s, including incidents of fired barns, stolen crops, etc., indeed all the ingredients of a ‘Western” film melodrama.

The tower probably had the additional protection of a water filled ditch, of which perhaps sections can still be traced to the east of the tower and elsewhere, and of a barmkin or enclosing wall round a courtyard, and no doubt relied on defense if necessary with small firearms and handguns from the tower itself.

Nothing remains of buildings and structures associated with the tower, such as barns, stables, additional retainers’ quarters, etc., but the wooded area beyond the fenced section has a number of features, not however necessarily associated with the tower, deserving future examination. In particular, there is a stone lined well south-east of the tower, there are some small stony mounds to the east of the tower, and there is a long narrow mound to the north of the tower which does not seem entirely natural.

The Old Place was an obviously carefully planned L plan tower house, with stone vaulted basement, first floor hall, second and third storys and attic with timber flooring, designed for its period on a spacious scale – basically domestic rather than military architecture. It clearly belongs with, for example, the Castle of Park, and Maclellan’s Castle in Kirkcudbright, and Dunskey Castle at Portpatrick, in the class of castellated buildings where, at least as far as the main building itself is concerned, defensive considerations are no longer predominant. The rubble stonework and present ragged appearance gives no real indication of how colorful and pleasing the original would have looked in the sixteenth century, covered with ‘harl’ or roughcast, and with other associated buildings, and perhaps gardens and a dovecot, nearby.

The entrance is on the ground floor in the re-entrant angle in the east wing of the L plan, and opens on to the bottom of the staircase on the left leading up to the left, right and right again to the first floor hall. The staircase is of generous proportions for a tower house, wide and not steep. Access to the second and third floors and the attic was by the turret stair which was corbelled out over the re-entrant angle, with the corbel termination ending in a grotesque human head.

Above the doorway to the left was a square recess in which the arms of the Hannays would have been displayed, and above the door itself very probably the family motto with the name or initials of the Hannay who built the tower and his wife. A small window to the right of the door, lighting the passageway to the kitchen, would also have provided coverage to the area in front of the door with a hand gun.

The main block is 40′ 3″ by 24′ externally, i.e. outside the walls. The wing projects 25′ 9″ from the main block and is 20′ wide.

The ground floor consists of three cellars and a kitchen. The vaulted passage runs from the south end of the main block by the entrance area to the kitchen at the north end. The vaulted kitchen measures 17′ by 13′ 6″. It has a fine fireplace, 17′ by 5′, in the north gable wall, with a window, possibly for draught for the fire, in the west wall, and a recess for storage in the east wall.

Off this passage are two vaulted cellars, one with one narrow window in the west wall, and the second with windows in the west and south walls. The third cellar is under the main staircase in the east wing, and has a window in the south wall.

The great hall occupies all of the first floor of the main block, and is 27′ by 16′ 6″. The east wing is occupied by the main staircase and the turret stair. The hall would have been a grand and comfortable room, with wooden roof, tapestries on the walls, iron grated windows with glass and wooden shutters, perhaps portraits of members of the Hannay family, collections of books, seats in the in-goes of the windows, and fine tables and chairs. There was a good-sized fireplace in the east wall, and additional heating would have come up from the kitchen fireplace underneath and its chimney in the north gable. The hall was well lighted, with two windows in the west wall, one in the south wall, and one in the east wall. There were three simple rectangular cupboard recesses in the west and south walls, and two mural chambers in the north gable, each with a small window.

It is no longer possible to go beyond the first floor as the stairway in the turret has virtually disappeared. The second and third floors would have provided rooms and sleeping accommodations for the Hannay and their guest, with the attic utilized as room for staff or simply as a dormitory.


The Hannays of Sorbie may have originated in the Anglo-Norman or Flemish settlers in Galloway in the twelfth century, or could possibly represent an earlier Norse element in the area. The existence of West Hanney in Berkshire, Haningtons in Hampshire and Northamptonshire, and Hanwell in Oxfordshire, should be noted, but generally speculation on the matter is not really a profitable exercise. There is no direct evidence to show that the Hannays held the lands of Sorbie until the middle of the fifteenth century, but clearly there was a family with that name in the area long before that time.

It is not possible to conclude that Gilbert de Hannethe and Gilbert de Annethe, listed in the “Ragman’s Roll” of 1296, actually held Sorbie, but they were certainly magnates of importance in Galloway. It is possible that the name actually represent the same person listed twice by a clerical error, and referred to in a 1296 inquest as Gilbert de Hannith. Other members of the family active in Galloway in the fourteenth century were Fynlaus a’hanna (canon of Whithorn in 1390) and Findlay Ahanna (resigned the living at Kirkmaiden. Rhins. In 1393).

The free spelling of Hannay as A’Hannay, A’hanna, Hanna, Ahannay, etc., using the Welsh prefix A or Ap, and the mediaeval version de Hannethe, de Annethe, etc., is a source of confusion, but there is no reason to suppose that these represented different family groups.

The earliest known Hannay at Sorbie seems to have been Ethe Hannay of Sorbie, pre 1460-1485, who was succeeded by Robert Hannay, who acted for his brother-in-law, Quentin Agnew, as sheriff of Wigtownshire in 1498/99, and was certainly a person of considerable importance.

The family was at the height of its power and influence about the middle of the sixteenth century , with wealth accumulated partly from the post-Reformation acquisition of church lands, but perhaps more significantly from territorial aggrandizement in the Machars area, partly through marriage, and perhaps most important of all from active participation in trade and mercantile endeavor in Wigtown and area. Various members of the Hannay family were burgesses and provosts of Wigtown in the sixteenth century, and clearly a residence in the burgh was maintained, e.g. the license, already quoted, to William Hannay, provost of Wigtown in 1550, to build a fortified house within the burgh. Alexander Hannay, his father, acquired the lands of Kirkdale in the Stewartry in 1532, perhaps largely from profits from his business interest in Wigtown.

Alexander Hannay of Sorbie, who took over lands of Sorbie in 1569, and who was dead by 1612/13 may well have built the Old Place of Sorbie. It was, ironically, his feuding and violent disputes with his neighbors which brought about the initial decline of the fortunes of the Hannays of Sorbie. His son, John, who was killed in 1640, revived and continued these quarrels, and much of the Sorbie estates were sold in 1626 to Sir Patrick Agnew of Lochnaw, lands later deeded to the Stewarts of Garlies, who finally took over the Old Place of Sorbie in 1677.

The last resident of the Old Place was Brigadier-General John Stewart, M.P. for Wigtownshire in the British Parliament of 1707, who held the Old Place from 1695 until his death there on 22nd April, 1748, and who is buried in the Old Kirkyard.

Perhaps the most interesting Hannay was Patrick Hannay, court poet, diplomat, and adventurer, possibly the brother of John Hannay of Sorbie and Sir Robert Hannay of Mochrum, or else a Hannay of Kirkdale. He was the author of various pleasant pieces, ‘A Happy Husband or Directions to a Maid to chose her Mate’, 1619; ‘Two elegies on the Death of Queen Anne with Epitaph’, 1619; ‘A wifes behavior before marriage’, 1619; and ‘Philomel or the Nightingale, Shertine and Mariana, Songs and Sonnets’, 1622


The Old Place of Sorbie or Sorbie Tower (Map Reference NX 451471) is situated in the Old Tower Plantation approximately one mile east of Sorbie village. The site is north of the B7052 road which runs east off the A746 (Newton Stewart to Whithorn) from Sorbie to Garlieston.


Map references are recorded on the National Grid Reference System. The first three numbers represent the distance from the left edge of the map and the second three numbers represent the distance from the bottom edge.

The best coverage of the area for most purposes in the Ordnance Survey map NX 44 on the scale of 2″ to 1 mile, or Sheet 80 on the 1″ to 1 mile scale.