The military communications of ancient Rome, the National Bard of Scotland, pioneering steamboat technology and the best preserved example of a 'tin kirk'
- all feature in tiny Dalswinton's history.
The village was developed as part of the Dalswinton estate after its acquisition in 1785 by Patrick Miller (1731-1815),
the wealthy and well-connected Glasgow-born merchant, banker and friend of the poet Robert Burns. He had never seen the estate before buying it:
'It was in the most miserable state of exhaustion and all the tenants in poverty. When I went to view my purchase, I was so much disgusted for
eight to ten days that I never meant to return to this county.'
Another piece of exhausted land in his ownership was the farm of Ellisland on the opposite side of the River Nith near Auldgirth.
This famously was the scene of Robert Burns's final and ill-fated attempt to make a success of farming before going full-time into
the excise service. Miller leased it to Burns in 1788. The two men had originally met in Edinburgh in 1786 when the banker gave the poet some much-needed cash,
about which Burns wrote to a friend: 'An unknown hand left ten guineas for the Ayrshire Bard in Mr Sibbald's hand, which I got. I have since
discovered my generous unknown friend to be Patrick Miller Esq., brother to the Justice Clerk; and drank a glass of claret with him by
invitation at his own house yesternight.' Burns's wish to turn his back on Ellisland after three years put some strain on their relationship
for a while but cordiality was eventually restored (see Robert Burns, Doonhamer).
In spite of his initial disappointment Miller stuck it out at Dalswinton and transformed the estate's fortunes through a vast
programme of agricultural improvements, including the introduction of iron ploughs, a new type of threshing machine and cultivation of the turnip.
He planted extensive woodlands, re-directed the course of the Nith to prevent flooding and created Dalswinton Loch.
An ancient stronghold of the Comyns, the Bruce family's rivals for the Scottish crown in the fourteenth century, was removed
to make way for Miller's new mansion in the classical style, Dalswinton House.
Miller had started his working life at sea and from then on he had an obsession with naval architecture.
His natural inventiveness led him into experimenting with the mechanical propulsion of vessels.
His first efforts involved hand-cranked paddles. The next challenge was to develop a steamboat and to this end he
collaborated with the mining engineer William Symington (1764-1831), then working at Wanlockhead.
On 14 October 1788 their pioneering 25-foot-long, double-hull steamboat was successfully trialled on Dalswinton Loch.
It reached a speed of five miles per hour.
The experiments continued and the following year they launched a larger version on the Forth and Clyde canal.
This was less successful. The paddle wheels broke and Miller was so exasperated with his engineer partner that he consulted James Watt,
whose judgement was that Symington's engine was losing too much power through friction. Miller lost patience with Symington,
describing him as a 'vain extravagant fool', and severed their partnership. Symington took to drink, moved to London and died there in poverty.
Miller re-directed his energy into his banking career (in 1790 he became deputy governor of the Bank of Scotland)
and into further development of the Dalswinton estate. The round tower to the north-east, close to Clonfeckle farm,
was erected to celebrate Miller's next major agricultural innovation, the introduction to Scotland of fiorin-grass from Ireland.
The monument is dedicated to Rev Dr William Richardson (1740-1820), a well-to-do Irish cleric and naturalist who promoted the
grass's nutritional qualities with evangelical passion.
Miller's son, also called Patrick, an army captain, was the successful Whig candidate for the Dumfries Burghs parliamentary
election in 1790. He was only 20 at the time. Burns described him as 'a youth by no means above mediocrity in his abilities:
and is said to have a huckster-lust for shillings, pence and farthings.' He featured him in the election ballad 'The Five Carlins':
The neist [next] cam in a Sodger-boy
And spak wi' modest grace,
And he wad gang to London Town,
If sae their pleasure was.
He wad na hecht [promise] them courtly gifts,
Nor meikle speech pretend;
But he wad hecht an honest heart
Wad ne'er desert his friend.
The Dalswinton estate fell out of the hands of the Millers after the father's death in 1815. It had been left to Patrick jnr
but the other four children challenged this arrangement. A costly and protracted legal wrangle went as far as the House of Lords in 1818 a
nd even then it was not settled for another four years, by which time the executors had been forced to sell the estate to pay the lawyers' bills.
In 1919 Dalswinton was bought by David Landale who had made his fortune in the Dumfriesshire-dominated Hong Kong trading
corporation Jardine Matheson.
His descendants run the estate to this day.
To the south of the village, Dalswinton's 'tin kirk', put up in 1881, is probably the best example of its kind to
continue in use in Scotland. Mission churches like this were a common Victorian way of cheaply providing places of
worship for communities some distance from established ecclesiastical buildings. They were easily constructed from corrugated-iron kits.
The Roman road from Nithsdale to Clydesdale via Durisdeer passed along here.
From Dalswinton another route may have headed west to the Glenlochar camp in Kirkcudbrightshire.
Thus Dalswinton was probably an important junction in the Roman road network and so here too were a fort and at least one
temporary encampment, which have been identified through aerial photography.