Black Douglas clan leader joins battle to preserve ancient church

THE head of the "Black Douglas" clan, who was forced to sell the Borders estate which had been in his family’s possession for almost 600 years, has joined the fight to preserve an ancient Douglas church and burial ground.

James Palmer-Douglas, 80, moved away from Cavers, near Hawick, in 1975, when the remaining lands of the once vast estates in Roxburghshire were put on the market. Some 10,000 acres came into the hands of his ancestors soon after the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, where the Earl of Douglas was killed in a bloody clash with English forces.

Now Mr Palmer-Douglas, who lives in Caithness, has taken up the pen rather than the sword in a bid to beat off plans by an English farmer who wants to convert Cavers old kirk into a house.

Last week, The Scotsman told how members of Clan Douglas societies in the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia had expressed strong opposition to Peter Bennett’s proposals for the site where generations of Douglases have been buried since 1622 .

Mr Bennett recently bought the 95-acre Townhead of Cavers estate and says his 250,000 development would safeguard the future of the decaying listed kirk. But according to Mr Palmer-Douglas, the church and its surroundings should not be touched or altered. He is urging the Borders planning authority to restrict any work to essential repairs and maintenance and to reject the proposal to turn it into a private residence.

"My views on Mr Bennett’s application are coloured by my Christian faith," he said. "I am a Black Douglas, the head of one of four Douglas families that can trace their ancestry back to 1170. That is why I have become so deeply involved in this issue."

The male line of the Douglas dynasty ended in 1878, when Mary Douglas inherited the estates and married Edward Palmer, from Sussex.

When James Palmer-Douglas was born in 1922, the 10,000 acres remained intact. But Cavers was a so-called "entailed" estate, which meant while the owner could look forward to his descendants being masters of the property for the foreseeable future, it was extremely difficult to sell any of the land.

Changes in the law meant it became easier to market parts of entailed estates and by the time Mr Palmer-Douglas inherited, the holding had been reduced to 5,000 acres following sales of farms at Denholm and Spital.

"I went to war at the age of 20 in the Royal Air Force, and when I left the services I was in no mood to go to university to study estate management," said the former laird of Cavers. "The estate continued to be sold farm by farm to pay the bills, and finally I sold the remainder to Patrick Murray in 1975."

However, he says he has never lost his love for the place where both his parents are buried, and describes ground near the west end of the church as a private plot reserved in perpetuity. "The ancient graveyard dates back to the 1600s and has associations for many Borders families."

In his submission to the planners, Mr Palmer-Douglas will claim local roads were built in the days of horse-drawn travel and are totally inadequate to take more traffic. The drainage system is unsatisfactory and the electricity supply has little spare capacity, he will add.

"Mr Bennett also wants to build two other houses at Townhead, but Cavers is no longer a village and it would be wrong to allow any further development there," Mr Palmer-Douglas declared. "New housing would clash terribly with the old properties in the area."