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


If you are heading up the High Street, then you are ascending the DUM, which derives from Gaelic dun, 'hill'. No one is entirely sure what the FRIES is: probably it is either from the Gaelic for a copse or a reference to possible occupation by Frisians from northern Europe. The hill of Dumfries, on the summit of which the statue of Robert Burns now sits, was a particularly attractive location for early settlers. It was entirely encircled by natural defences: the River Nith on the west and the north, while to the south and the east was a daunting morass of bogs, mosses and waterways such as the Loreburn and the Millburn. The fordability of the relatively shallow stretch of the river here (see below) was another natural feature that helped lead to the growth of a settlement.

Artist's impression of Dumfries Castle on a plaque in
Castledykes Park marking the site
The twelfth century saw the beginnings of Dumfries as we now know it. At the south end of the town a castle, of the motte and bailey type, was built in the 1170s under the authority of King William the Lion in what is now Castledykes Park.

Around the same time the town became a royal burgh and it grew as a mercantile centre servicing the castle and the periodic military operations aimed at undermining the doughty independence of the Gallovidians.

Castle Street at the opposite end of the town derives its name from a later castle, a sixteenth-century fortified town-house built by the Maxwells of Caerlaverock near Bankend.

The medieval burgh was originally centred on where Nith Place now is and spread steadily northwards along the ridge of the High Street and then outwards from there. At the top end, modern Friars Vennel was part of the boundary of the Greyfriars Convent founded, apparently by Devorgilla de Balliol, in the 1260s.

The church of Greyfriars was infamously the scene of the murder of John Comyn by Robert Bruce in 1306 (see Some Historical Background).

After the Reformation the friars' sources of income were transferred to the town authorities and thereafter the religious buildings steadily disappeared as cartloads of ready-dressed building stone.

A new Greyfriars kirk was built on the site in the 1720s. This was demolished and replaced by the present Greyfriars in the 1860s.

What is now the public expanse of Queensberry Square began as the medieval market-place. In time there was a need for substantial civic buildings. A structure known as the New Wark was put up to serve both as a barracks and as a prison, the original castle having been destroyed during the fourteenth-century Wars of Independence. A tolbooth or council house appeared in the 1480s. Close by was the Painted Hall, where James IV was entertained in 1504 and where in 1617 James VI presented the town's Incorporated Trades with the Siller Gun, the prize for an annual shooting competition.

The New Wark was defunct by the beginning of the 1700s and the town embarked on a new phase of civic building. This was when the defining presence of the Midsteeple came into being. In 1703 the burgh council received a sizeable tax windfall and decided to lavish it on a new headquarters. The requirements were set out in detail:

...the toun is not at present provided with sufficient prisones, whereby several malefactors guilty of great crimes, and others for debt, have made their escape, to the dishonour and imminent perill of the Burgh; as also that there is not ane steeple in the whole toun, nor ane suitable council-house and clerk's chamber for keeping the charter chist and records of the Burgh, nor ane magazine house, nor room for the sure keeping of the toun's arms and ammunition thereto belonging.

The new building was to be placed 'on the waist ground at the back of the Cross, being in the middle of the toun and highest place thereof.' John Moffat, a Liverpool architect, was commissioned 'to visit Glasgow steeple' and to 'furnish a modall'. Having done what he was asked, Moffat then dropped out, not wishing to carry on as the contractor, and the council turned to Tobias Bachup, a builder from Alloa.

The final design, then in the vanguard of fashion, seems to have emerged from Bachup's adaptation of Moffat's original scheme. Construction began in 1705 and was completed two years later, at the same time as the parliamentary union of Scotland and England was taking place (see Some Historical Background).

The elegant classical order is strikingly offset by playful asymmetry: the steeple placed not in the centre but at the north-east corner; and the positioning of the forestair causing the main door to be set to the left of the frontage.

Four centuries on, this handsome structure, though subsequently superseded in its function, still serves the town well as an emblem of civic pride.

As the town expanded through the eighteenth century new streets sprang up around the medieval spine of the High Street. From the early 1700s Irish Street, laid almost parallel with the High Street and cutting across the old kitchen gardens in the backlands, was where the country lairds liked to have their town houses. Loreburn Street, Shakespeare Street and English Street developed around the same time. Buccleuch Street came later in the eighteenth century as an approach road to the New Bridge (see below), only in the 1860s coming to be dominated by the romantic exuberance of the Sheriff Court.

Rather like Edinburgh but in a much smaller way, Dumfries got from the early 1800s a sort of New Town, laid out to the north of Buccleuch Street and consisting most notably of George Street, Castle Street and Irving Street. Queensberry Square, meanwhile, was taking on the appearance that it still largely has today.

The elegant Trades Hall was built during 1804-6. By then the square already had its Queensberry Monument, a 1780s Robert Adam design commemorating the 3rd Duke. The monument was actually taken away in 1934 to be re-erected in front of the County Buildings in English Street but returned to its original site in 1990.

With its increasingly suave architecture, the town took on what one nineteenth-century observer described as an 'intellectual and polished tone', not to mention a reputation for 'gaiety and fashionable dissipation'.

Queensberry Square with the Trades Hall and the Queensberry Monument

As mentioned above, one of the factors in the original growth of a settlement here was the Nith's suitability at this point for river crossings. At first man and beast had to make do with wading across a ford. The first ford was to the south of the modern town-centre, off the present Castledykes Park. The shallowness here was lost when the river's rocky bottom was blasted away to improve navigation. A new ford was created in line with Nith Place. This was the main route into the wilds of Galloway and, since many of the medieval travellers were destined for the shrine of Ninian at Whithorn, the road at the Maxwelltown end is called the Pilgrim's Way.

Devorgilla's Bridge

It was not until the thirteenth century that the town got its first raised crossing of the river. Devorgilla's Bridge, so named after the pious benefactress of Sweetheart Abbey fame, was originally a wooden structure; it was re-built in stone in the 1430s and again in 1620 after being damaged by flooding.

It was ill-suited for the increase in wheeled traffic and so the New Bridge, now the Buccleuch Bridge, was completed in 1794.

The demands of twentieth-century traffic led to the building in 1925 of the downstream St Michael's Bridge, faced with local sandstone but structurally of reinforced concrete.

The pedestrian Suspension Bridge was put up in 1875 and re-constructed to the original design in the 1980s. Its original purpose was access for townsfolk employed in the mills of Maxwelltown.

Along the east bank of the river between the Buccleuch Bridge and the Suspension Bridge the wide space known as the Whitesands was, as the name suggests, a natural phenomenon until the land was reclaimed and embanked (none of that, though, stops it being notoriously liable to severe flooding).

This was a multi-purpose gathering-place. It was a tryst along the old cattle droving routes as well as a livestock market. It was also where crowds gathered for civic ceremonies, for entertainment and for the gruesome public executions of Covenanters and so-called witches (see Some Historical Background).

Cattle market on the Whitesands

South of the Whitesands, the name of Dock Park is a reminder that Dumfries once had a harbour, though never satisfactorily. While Annan had fairly direct access to the sea, Dumfries was chronically troubled by the unpredictability of the River Nith, which - in the words of an official report - 'rambled from place to place to the great annoyance of shipping'.

Despite various efforts at improvement the town stretch of the Nith could not provide berthing facilities for anything other than the smaller types of vessels. But the first half of the eighteenth century saw a huge expansion in overseas trade, particularly with North America, and the rapidly expanding metropolis could not afford to be left out of the mercantile loop. In the 1740s the town council authorised expenditure on harbour developments along the lower reaches of the Nith. This was when the quayside villages of Kingholm and Glencaple came into existence. At the same time buoys were put in place to guide shipping between the firth and the river, and it was in the interests of Dumfries to pay for the Southerness lighthouse on the coast of Kirkcudbrightshire.

Schooner at what is now Dock Park

The Nith, however, seemed to have a will of its own and continued to thwart the best endeavours of both the engineers and the navigators. By the early nineteenth century the river was again treacherous and its harbours had become well-nigh unusable: silting had disabled Kingholm, while the river channel had simply moved away from the quay at Glencaple.

The Nith Navigation Commissioners undertook more improvements under a parliamentary act of 1811: the cutting of new channels and the building of embankments to enforce them. Even this was not sufficient and further improvements were made in the late 1830s. In the following few years Nith traffic reached a peak.

Then the railways arrived and that was the beginning of the end along the Solway for the movement of goods by sea, except for small-scale coastal traffic that hirpled along into the early years of the twentieth century. The decline was so drastic that in 1867, as an economy measure, the light at Southerness was extinguished [it was later re-instated].

Dock Park has a memorial to two workers who lost their lives in the Titanic sinking of 1912: band violinist John Hume and steward Thomas Mullin. Hume is reputed to have been one of the musicians who famously played 'Nearer, my God, to Thee' as the ship went down.

Hume had been employed by a Liverpool music agency. A few weeks after his death the father received a letter from the company asking him to settle his son's uniform account, which included 1 shilling for sewing White Star [the Titanic operator] buttons onto his tunic.

Two years later Hume's sister Kate was the accused, aged 17, in a sensational court case headlined 'Atrocity hoax trial'. She was found guilty of forging letters that purported to be authentically grisly descriptions of World War I German soldiers mutilating and murdering her sister, a nurse. All along the sister was alive and well in Huddersfield. The jury at the High Court in Edinburgh was told that Kate had been emotionally damaged by her brother's drowning. Though convicted, she was released because she had already spent three months in custody.

There are numerous locations in the town associated with the residency from 1791 till his death of the poet Robert Burns.

Bank Street running down from High Street to the Whitesands is where he and his family had their first Dumfries home. The street was then called the Wee Vennel.

The Globe Inn at 56 High Street was a favourite, as was the barmaid Anna Park.

Burns was a founder member of the Theatre Royal when it opened off Shakespeare Street in 1792; its present exterior owes more to a re-building in 1876.
Due south of the High Street, the Burns family's second and final home was in Mill Street, now re-named Burns Street.
St Michael's Kirk Further to the south-east St Michael's kirkyard is where the poet was buried.

The kirk, named after the town's patron saint, was built during 1742-49 on a site used for religious purposes since medieval times.
Burns Mausoleum in St Michael's kirkyard
Across the road from St Michael's is the Jean Armour statue erected in 2004, a belated tribute to the bard's long-suffering wife.

The poet’s fondness for strolls along the Nith is commemorated in a signposted Burns Walk

The Burns memorial with the greatest visual impact is the statue facing down High Street. It was erected in 1882. Local newspaper editor and town historian William McDowall campaigned for it and funds were raised through a grand bazaar.

The statue is made of Carrara marble and was sculpted in Italy from a model by Amelia Robertson Paton (1820-1904), wife of the pioneering photographer David Octavius Hill. Her other credits included a statue of the poet Shelley.

The guest of honour at the unveiling was the politician Lord Rosebery whose speech contained a rather misleading comment: 'There is the image of the man that once stood shunned in your streets.' Not quite, your Lordship. A correspondent for the Times described the celebrations:

At 1 o'clock a large public procession paraded the streets of the town. It was composed of representatives of all the trades and societies of the counties of Kirkcudbright and Dumfries. The first place was allotted to dairymen and ploughmen, the former driving their carts, and being accompanied by the dairymaids. At 3 o'clock the unveiling ceremony was commenced. The withdrawal of the sheet which covered the statue was greeted with deafening cheers from the immense multitude of people around its base. "There was a lad that was born in Kyle" was played by the band, and a party of young ladies hung garlands of flowers upon the pedestal when the statue was exposed to view.

On the west bank of the river, the Robert Burns Centre - a museum and a cinema in one - was created in 1986 out of the town's last surviving mill. There had been milling on this site for hundreds of years. The present building was constructed in the 1780s but was reduced from five to three storeys when it was converted into a hydro-electric power station in 1911.

Robert Burns Centre looking towards the Caul and Dervorgilla's Bridge

The caul or weir, which is an almost iconic feature of the town's appearance, was formed to divert water to the mill. When it was first proposed the owners of fishing rights up-river objected on the grounds that the salmon runs would be affected, but the town authorities won the court case that followed. William McDowall welcomed the new picturesqueness for a river that 'used to flow rather tamely past the town.the sound of the broken water, whether murmuring softly or swelled to tempest-pitch, is like music in the ear of all the genuine sons and daughters of St Michael.'

Maxwelltown, to the west of the river, used to be a separate burgh in the neighbouring county of Kirkcudbrightshire. It had its own provost and councillors, and in the 1890s the former Maxwelltown Court House was built in Terregles Street. After having been a burgh of barony from 1810, Maxwelltown officially amalgamated with Dumfries burgh in 1928.

Prior to their union the two burghs cooperated on the creation of a museum in Church Street on the Maxwelltown side. This 1830s project grew out of a wish to rescue a redundant eighteenth-century windmill from demolition. The Dumfries and Maxwelltown Astronomical Society was set up with the purpose of turning it into an observatory and camera obscura.

When it opened in 1836 a local newspaper reported that 'when the Telescope was pointed to the lower part of the town, a lady was seen sitting at her window reading a letter, and when this was mentioned, Mr Morton [the telescope maker] remarked that by putting in the most powerful glass, he could enable the beholder to read the letter too. This, however, was not done, and if the Directors can help it, it will never be attempted.'

At first it was not intended to have a museum. This function just evolved after a local man gave them his collection of Greek and Roman coins and more donations followed until finally the astronomical role was discontinued in the 1870s.

Another museum in Maxwelltown (just) is Old Bridge House at the west end of the Devorgilla Bridge. The house, the town's oldest, was built into the bridge in 1660 and is now a museum of everyday life in the past, including an early dental surgery.




The Ewart Library, at the opposite end of town in Catherine Street, was opened in 1904. How appropriate that it was named after a local member of parliament who promoted an act authorising free public libraries.

William Ewart (1798-1869) was not himself a Dumfriesian but a Liverpudlian with Kirkcudbrightshire ancestry. His father was a wealthy businessman, who was godfather to the future prime minister William Ewart Gladstone. Ewart was educated at Eton and Oxford and trained as a barrister but from the age of 30 his career was entirely political. He had a number of English constituencies before being elected in 1841 for Dumfries Burghs, which he continued to represent for the next 27 years. Like Gladstone, he was a Liberal and a very liberal one at that, making his name as a dogged opponent of slavery, capital punishment and church domination of schools. He saw education and public libraries as ways of emancipating people from poverty. At the London headquarters of the professional body for librarians there is a Ewart Room.

The Gracefield Arts Centre, at the townward end of the Edinburgh Road, began as just Gracefield, a mid-Victorian private villa. A committee of enthusiasts, looking for premises for an art gallery, bought it in 1951 and the inaugural exhibition was in connection with the post-war Festival of Britain. The core of its collection came from that belonging to the Dumfriesshire Educational Trust and is strongest on the 'Glasgow Boys', the Scottish Colourists and the Kirkcudbright art colonists.

Dumfries Academy was opened in 1804 but not in its present buildings, which were begun in the 1890s. The original school site had been a little to the west, in the Moat Gardens area.

The first Academy brought under one roof several educational establishments scattered around the town. There had been schools of sorts since at least the sixteenth century. Improvements came about often thanks to benefactors. The merchant John Paterson, when he died in 1722, bequeathed money 'for teaching children in ane free schooll in this Burgh the Latin Rudiments and grammar, rhetorick, classick authors, and Greek New Testament'.

Earlier the town council had authorised a girls' school where they were to be taught 'shaping and sewing all sorts of white and colloured seims, embroydering and paistry'.

Distinguished alumni of Dumfries Academy include the writer J M Barrieand the actor John Laurie.

To the south of Dumfries, between the Bankend and Glencaple roads, is the town's outstanding set of facilities: eighty-five acres of fine buildings and parkland, once a renowned mental hospital but now transformed into the Crichton Campus, the country's first multi-university complex.

The site was first developed in the 1830s. The original finance came from the estate of James Crichton (1765-1823), a Dumfriesshire physician who made a fortune through the East India Company. After his death it was his widow Elizabeth Crichton (1779-1862) who had the task of realising his wish to found something with a charitable purpose. Elizabeth tried at first to set up a university but the 100,000 earmarked for the project was insufficient. She therefore switched to the idea of a 'lunatic asylum'.

In 1839 the first patients entered the new Crichton Hall, later re-named the Crichton Royal Hospital. The accommodation was allocated according to ability to pay: 'the building is so constructed, and such arrangements have been made, as to admit of individuals of the most elevated rank in society enjoying all the comforts, luxuries, and privacy, which their tastes, habits, or station, may render agreeable or necessary'. The value of therapy through creativity was emphasised from the start. The first theatrical performance by a cast recruited entirely from a 'lunatic asylum' took place here in 1843.

The facilities continued to expand well into the twentieth century. The recreational Easterbrook Hall was completed in 1938. The most concentrated period of expansion took place during the 1890s, when the hospital acquired a church built on the scale of a cathedral, its own electricity station, an artesian well and a farm with accommodation for eighty men ('Insanity is a disease which demands a stimulus, and there is no stimulant equal to fresh air and exercise').

By the 1980s new attitudes towards the treatment of mental illness had downgraded the residential element and the Crichton properties - more than two dozen of them - became available for other purposes. That was the opportunity to revive Mrs Crichton's original vision of an institution for higher education. 1999 was the year of the first intake at the new Crichton Campus embracing local colleges, outposts of the universities of Glasgow and of Paisley, and Bell College in Hamilton; the Paisley and Hamilton establishments later amalgamated as the University of the West of Scotland.

In 2000, outside the Crichton Memorial Church, the Prince of Wales unveiled a statue of Elizabeth Crichton.

To the north-west where the Cluden Water meets the River Nith are the magnificent ruins of Lincluden Collegiate Church. It is sometimes still referred to as an abbey, which it was when it was founded in the 1160s, reputedly by Uchtred, son of Fergus, Lord of Galloway. It originally housed nuns but in 1389, on the grounds that they lived 'disgracefully', Archibald 'the Grim', 3rd Earl of Douglas, ousted the women: they 'do not trouble to repair the beautiful buildings.through their sloth and neglect, but deck with fine clothing and ornaments their daughters born on their immoralities whom they rear in common with them in the same monastery.'

The nunnery was turned instead into a 'college' with a provost, secular priests and bedesmen [employed to say prayers for the benefactors]. The twelfth-century building was extended at this and subsequent periods, Douglas wealth being lavished on particularly sumptuous carved stonework, thought to have been the work of the Parisian master-mason who was also employed at Melrose Abbey in Roxburghshire.

Some of the fifteenth-century re-building was the gift of Princess Margaret, eldest child of Robert III and wife of Archibald, 4th Earl of Douglas and Lord of Galloway. When she died in 1450 her tomb was given pride of place in the church choir. Margaret was also Duchess of Touraine, her husband having been given the duchy as a reward from the French king for military service. Archibald was killed in 1424 while fighting in France and, from Threave Castle in Kirkcudbrightshire, Margaret ran the Galloway lordship single-handed for the next 23 years.

The poet Robert Burns enjoyed visiting Lincluden for its riverside tranquillity. He probably admired the scene from the top of the ancient castle motte which appears to have been incorporated into a garden scheme at some point. Of the ruins Burns wrote:

Ye holy walls that still sublime
Resist the crumbling touch of time.

The Gates factory at Heathhall, to the north-east of the town, was in the architectural avant-garde when it was built in 1913 for motor car manufacture. It was one of the first ferro-concrete industrial constructions in Britain, based on the example of Albert Kahn, the 'father of modern factory design' who masterminded the early automobile plants of the USA.

It was built for the move from Paisley of the Arrol-Johnston engineering company. Shortly after it began operations, production had to be switched to aero-engines for use in World War I. After the armistice Arrol-Johnston unveiled a model called the Victory. The making of the Galloway model transferred to Heathhall after the Tongland factory in Kirkcudbrightshire was closed. Arrol-Johnston were already struggling during the 1920s and the Great Crash of 1929 finished them off.

Locharbriggs, north of Heathhall, is renowned for its quarry, which has provided excellent red sandstone for buildings not only in Dumfriesshire but also in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It has been a source of material for the Penpont-based sculptor Andy Goldsworthy.

Between Heathhall and Locharbriggs, the Dumfries & Galloway Aviation Museum is on a Second World War site. RAF Dumfries was established as a storage place for aircraft newly delivered from the manufacturers. It was also used for air observer training. In 1977 a group of aviation enthusiasts opened the museum, with the former control tower as its central point.

A millennium after the Vikings, Dumfries was again invaded by Norwegians in 1940 - but in the nicest possible way. Thousands of soldiers had to be evacuated from Norway after it was overrun by the Nazis and those who arrived in Scotland were sent to Dumfries where they began preparing for an armed return to their homeland in 1944. A few months after their arrival they were visited by their king, Haakon VII.

When the war ended some of them settled permanently in the town with their Doonhamer wives. In 1962 Haakon's son and successor Olav V came to the town to receive its freedom. He told his hosts that 'in Norway Dumfries is a well-known name and it stands for kindness, friendliness and hospitality.'

Queen of the South, the town's professional football club, was formed in 1919 as part of the effort to revive the game after the First World War. The idea was to bring together three previously separate teams: Dumfries, the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the works team at Arrol-Johnston (see above).

To the fans they have always been known familiarly as the 'Queens', a name adopted before the wider acceptance of queen as a male homosexual, typically one regarded as ostentatiously effeminate' [Oxford English Dictionary].

The doughty Doonhamers are famous for being minnows who from time to time give the sharks a shock. In the 1953-4 season they had wins against both Rangers and Celtic. In 2008 they reached the Scottish Cup Final for the first time in their history: Rangers only just beat them 3-2. Being finalists meant another first for the club, their debut in a European championship. But they got no further than the preliminaries of the UEFA Cup, losing 4-2 on aggregate to the Danish side FC Nordsjaelland.

The biggest name associated with the Queens was the fiery forward Hughie Gallacher (1903-57). No one has so far beaten Gallacher's scoring rate for the national side. In nineteen appearances for Scotland he notched up twenty-two goals. He was one of the legendary 'Wembley Wizards' who trounced England 5-1 in the home international of 1928. By this time Gallacher was playing for Newcastle United and would later join Chelsea. None of his national triumphs took place while with Queen of the South. He was at Palmerston Park for only a few months at the start of his professional career before moving to Airdrie.

The Queens' outstanding example of local talent was Billy 'Basher' Houliston (1921-1999), the only player to have been capped for Scotland while still with the Doonhamers. He was a member of the famous Scottish squad that hammered England 3-1 at Wembley in 1949. Houliston began his working life as a nurse at the Crichton Royal Hospital and ended it as a popular local hotelier and publican.

Over the years the Queens' ups have been overwhelmingly outnumbered by their downs. If supporting them seems like an exercise in self-flagellation, it should be remembered that for some people masochism is a pleasurable experience. In the case of Queen of the South, telling jokes at one's own expense is an enhancement of the pleasure. A Dumfries man living in the south of England was asked by fans of another Scottish club 'So are you a Queen of the South supporter?' When he said yes, the response was 'Nae wunner you left hame.'


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

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