The Dumfriesshire Companion
Haig Gordon



Some Historical Background

The Border

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey -
Thomas Telford

Robert Burns - Doonhamer

The Sage of Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

Other Literary Figures

The Artists

Fame and Fortune

Other Pairs of Eyes


The name means 'river', from the language of the original Celtic settlers, and water is certainly the key to why a settlement grew up at this location. The River Annan on the west side could be forded at this point, while to the south the Solway Firth could be crossed via the Bowness Wath linking with Cumberland. Cattle were droved along the Bowness ford. But so too were invading armies. As a frontier town, Annan was inherently vulnerable.

Annan first became important in the twelfth century when the powerful Bruce family, progenitors of the hero-king Robert the Bruce, were given the lordship of Annandale and chose to build their first castle on the motte which can still be seen by the riverside. So long as this remained their principal base the surrounding area enjoyed a degree of protection. But when the Bruces transferred their centre of operations to Lochmaben, Annan was left exposed. Its history from then until well into the sixteenth century features a recurrent pattern of recovering from one incursion only to fall victim to the next.

When Robert the Bruce defeated the English at Bannockburn in 1314 and took full control of Scotland as Robert I, his family's long patronage of Annan meant that the town enjoyed more or less full burgh status, though it was not until 1532 that it was formally constituted as a royal burgh. 'By royal command', however, was no unending guarantee of mercantile success.

The demolition of the Bruce castle in the early 1600s looks now like an omen of decline, for when the town re-emerges in the history books towards the end of the seventeenth century we find that the townsfolk 'have neither forraigne nor inland trade and that they hade no wine nor brandie vented within their toun these fyve years bygone except one hogshead of each'.

The eighteenth century started off no less unpromisingly, with the government informer Daniel Defoe describing the town as being 'in a state of irrecoverable decline'.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century Annan was beginning to recover. Cotton-milling was introduced in the 1780s and more industries were to follow: brewing, distilling, tanning and bacon curing. In the early 1800s the town began to exploit more fully its coastal position by upgrading its harbour and shipbuilding yards grew up around it. Meanwhile, land access was improved with the completion in 1826 of the present road bridge across the River Annan, a handsome construction in local sandstone designed by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

Annan Harbour. Past its best.

In addition to the town-centre quays eighteenth/nineteenth -century Annan had berthing facilities to the south at Waterfoot where the Annan flows into the Solway. There were two jetties and a wooden lighthouse. From here Dumfriesshire cattle and other agricultural products were exported by sailing ship. But so too were people, the dispossessed and the discontented who emigrated for what they hoped would be a better life in North America.

The poet Robert Burns, on duty for the excise day-job, was at Waterfoot in 1792, as we know from a letter 'written at this wild place of the world, in the intervals of my labor of discharging a vessel of rum from Antigua.' It was along this stretch of coast in the same year that Burns was involved in the seizure of the smuggling vessel Rosamond. He is reputed to have written the song 'The Deil's Awa wi' the Exciseman' while awaiting reinforcements for the boarding operation. This claim should be treated with some scepticism. Recent editors of his collected poems dismiss the story as 'probably myth' (see Robert Burns, Doonhamer).

Fishing off the Annan coast, particularly for salmon and trout, was once considerably more active than it is now. There are numerous traditional methods of catching: the fixed stake net and poke net, both of which lure the fish into pockets or traps; and the haaf net mounted on a wooden frame that the operator, wading chest-high into the channel, drags through the water. Drift netting from boats was known locally as whameling. From the 1850s shrimp trawling developed on a large scale. By 1900 there were estimated to be seventy fishing boats working out of Annan; by 1945 the figure was down to sixteen and now the industry has virtually disappeared.

Stake nets on the Annan shore.

Fishing brought by accident a significant influx of settlers to Annan in the late nineteenth century. A contingent of trawlermen from Morecambe in Lancashire, fishing in the Solway for the herring that were once common in these waters, had to take refuge in the town during a severe gale. They liked what they saw and returned for good with their families.

From the middle of the nineteenth century sea-going transport had to compete with, and was ultimately undermined by, the new Glasgow, Dumfries & Carlisle Railway. Annan station was opened in 1848. Twenty years later the town had a second railway passing through. This was the remarkable Solway Junction Railway whose viaduct across the firth from Cumberland came to land at Seafield to the east of Waterfoot (see Some Historical Background). The town today is fortunate in still having a railway connection. Its Annanside harbour, on the other hand, lies moribund at the foot of Port Street.

Solway Viaduct. Annan End.

In the nineteenth century Annan rivalled Gretna Green as a venue for 'runaway' marriages, and it was here on 8 August 1812 that the fiery swashbuckling naval hero Thomas Cochrane, 10th earl of Dundonald (1775-1860) secretly married a sixteen-year-old Essex orphan Katherine Barnes.
    Pity there was no Hello! magazine to pay big money for the rights: Lord Cochrane spent much of his adult life narrowly averting financial ruin.
    Though their Annan nuptials were legal there was sufficient doubt for the couple to go through two further ceremonies: an Anglican one in 1818 and a Church of Scotland version in 1825. 'Marry her!' exclaimed Cochrane, 'I would marry her in a hundred churches. I would marry her all over the world. I would do it a thousand times.'
    Lady Cochrane was less enthusiastic: 'There was no end of marrying me.I was so tired of being married.'
    Though at times tempestuous, their union endured and produced four sons and one daughter. When Cochrane went off to South America to command the anti-colonial navies of Chile, Peru and Brazil, his wife went with him.

On the cusp of the twentieth century heavy industry arrived in the area in the form of the Cochran (no connection with Lord Cochrane) engineering company that opened its plant at Newbie on the opposite side of the river. Though the name is now synonymous with boilers, the firm has in the past manufactured ships, submarines and parts for the World War II floating Mulberry harbours.

2007 saw the disappearance of the Annan area's most distinctive landmark of recent times: the demolition by controlled explosion of the four cooling towers of the Chapelcross nuclear power station. The safe disposal of the nuclear reactors will take considerably longer. The official estimate in 2008 was that the site would not finally be de-licensed and made available for potential re-use for another 120 years.

Chapelcross was Scotland's first nuclear power station. Its primary purpose was military: the production of weapons-grade plutonium for the British nuclear capability. The by-product was the generation of electricity for the civilian market. Building of the station began in 1955 on the site of the former training facility RAF Annan. It became operational and was officially opened in 1959. Built by the UK Atomic Energy Authority, it passed into the hands of British Nuclear Fuels in 1971. In 2005 the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority took over responsibility.

Chapelcross nuclear power station.

Annan's Old Parish Church was built in the classical style in the 1780s.

Its grounds contain a white marble statue of the freakish nineteenth-century preacher Edward Irving who was brought up in the town.

Edward Irving's friend, the writer Thomas Carlyle, was partly educated at the town academy and later returned, briefly and unhappily, to teach there.

Annan Academy

The African explorer Hugh Clapperton was an Annanite.

A plaque on a cottage in Bruce Street records that it was the childhood home of the Victorian painter William Ewart Lockhart.

The Town Hall, which was completed in 1878, has Lockhart works on display (but viewable only by appointment).


The town hall's council chamber incorporates the Brus Stane with a carved inscription translating as 'Robert de Brus Count of Carrick and Lord of Annandale'. In 2007 a campaign was begun for the raising of funds to fill the empty statue pedestal on the town hall frontage. The motive behind the initiative was: if Lochmaben can have a public effigy of Robert the Bruce, why not Annan?

A more recent personality to emerge from an Annan upbringing is the actress Ashley Jensen (born 1969), who has become a star on both sides of the Atlantic. Having first made her name in the Ricky Gervais television comedy Extras, she moved to Los Angeles to work on the USA sitcom Ugly Betty. Her character was originally conceived as a New Yorker but re-written as a Scot so that Ashley could play it.

And life in LA? 'The things you see! The guy who rides to work on his unicycle and the woman who takes her iguana up the canyon for a walk and holds it up to let it piss. I think: "Hmmm, interesting, I'm not in Annan now." '


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

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