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


Moffat was made a burgh of barony in 1643 but it would soon become no ordinary trading town. A source of sulphureous mineral water had recently been discovered in the hills to the north-east and, on the back of what were believed to be the therapeutic qualities of Moffat Well, the village was on its way to becoming Dumfriesshire's spa town, a fashionable resort with easy access for the leisured classes of Edinburgh.

In 1748 a second source of valuable spring water, this time of the chalybeate type (ie containing iron), was discovered further north at Hartfell, a fortuitous bonus from excavations aimed originally at finding copper ore. The Hartfell water was bottled and exported.

Moffat Well in the eighteenth century and today

In 1745 a visitor to Moffat Well described the 'briskness' of the scene from about seven o'clock in the morning onwards:

Pedestrians then begin to stream in, and about half an hour later two or three omnibuses, and sometimes several other vehicles, add their contents to the swelling tide, and the verandah is completely animated; the company present - ladies, gentlemen and children - numbering perhaps two hundred. It is the bounden duty of one and all to drink.

In the town-centre the main street was bustling:

At the bowling green were to be seen sauntering, city clergy, men of letters, county gentlemen and ladies of rank and fashion; while the diseased, decrepit of the lowest rank, who had toilsomely travelled from far-off districts to taste the magic waters, loitered in their rags in the village street.

What is now the Town Hall in High Street was built in 1827 to house therapeutic baths, to which the hillside spring water was piped.

Another network of pipes crossed Gallows Hill to supply a vast Hydropathic Hotel that was opened in 1878. It had 300 rooms. Fire destroyed it in 1921.

The Dumfries surgeon J Erskine Gibson, writing of Moffat water in A Medical Sketch of Dumfries-shire (1827), hailed its good effects on scrofula (a disease of the lymphatic glands) but pointed out the downside of this for the town:

'The success of the sulphureous water of Moffat over scrofulous complaints, has, I am sorry to say, been the cause of a sort of stigma being attached to its visitors. This ridiculous prejudice, however, has of late years greatly declined, and I hope it will be entirely obliterated by the present liberal and spirited endeavour of the inhabitants of Moffat, to render their little town a pleasant place of resort for summer tourists, as well as for invalids.'

Opinions differed over the water's taste, smell and appearance. While one Victorian customer thought it was 'like champagne', another compared it to 'a slightly putrescent egg'. But with enterprising Moffatonians doing their best to make the experience as joyous as possible, there was no keeping the punters away:

a Band of Music is stationed at the Well to assist the drinking - three large tumblers being the statutory quantum. As several hundred usually assemble at this time, the Well is not a little gay and the walk there and back does much to appetize the visitors for breakfast - the lazy, infirm or juvenile having, however, the facility of riding in a bus.
[1859 eye-witness]

In the 1870s the Scottish-born journalist and novelist William Black, who had worked as a correspondent in Germany, found Moffat to be not quite jolly enough:

If Moffat is to be likened to Baden-Baden [a German spa], it forms an exceedingly Scotch and respectable Baden-Baden. The building in which the mineral waters are drunk looks somewhat like an educational institution, with its prim white iron railings. Inside, instead of the splendid saloon of the Conversationshaus, we found a long and sober-looking reading-room. Moffat itself is a white, clean, wide-streeted place, and the hills around it are smooth and green; but it is very far removed from Baden-Baden. It is a good deal more proper, and a good deal more dull.

Moffat's trade was much enhanced by the opening in 1883 of a railway branch from the main line at Beattock. It stopped taking passenger traffic in 1954 and finally closed in 1964, after which a hotel was built on the site of the station.

The picturesque little line was immortalised in 'Beattock for Moffat', one of the most popular short stories by the writer R B Cunninghame Graham (1852-1936). Old Andra', exiled in London, is fatally ill and desperately wants to die back home in Moffat. His brother Jock goes to fetch him back by train from Euston. The whole journey is dominated by a single concern: 'can ye last as far as Beattock, Andra'?'

By the time they reach Lockerbie things are beginning to look bad. 'The death dews gathered on his forehead as the train shot by Nethercleugh, passed Wamphray, and Dinwoodie, and with a jerk pulled up at Beattock just at the summit of the pass.'

So he had made it - well, to Beattock but, alas, not to Moffat: '...on the platform, huddled on the bench to which he had been brought, Andra' sat speechless and dying in the rain. The doors banged to, the guard stepping in lightly as the train flew past, and a belated porter shouted, "Beattock, Beattock for Moffat," and then, summoning his last strength, Andra' smiled, and whispered faintly in his brother's ear: "Aye, Beattock - for Moffat?" Then his head fell back, and a faint bloody foam oozed from his pallid lips.'

And Jock '...after helping to remove the body to the waiting-room, walked out into the rain, and, whistling "Corn Rigs" quietly between his teeth, lit up his pipe, and muttered as he smoked: "A richt gude fecht - man aye, ou aye, a game yin Andra', puir felly. Weel, weel, he'll hae a braw hurl onyway in the new Moffat hearse."'

The spa trade and the town's position along the main route to Edinburgh (until the 1820s when a new road was built via Beattock) meant that Moffat developed hostelries aplenty.

The oldest now still in operation is the Black Bull Hotel in Church Gate, where 'Bloody Clavers' and his troops were billetted in 1683 while hunting for Covenanters.


In the High Street the 1860s Star Hotel’s claim to fame is that, at only 20 feet wide, it is the narrowest hotel in Britain.

The Moffat House Hotel, also in the High Street, was originally built in the 1760s as a grand private residence for the Earl of Hopetoun.

Nowadays most of the town's hospitality business is done with travellers by coach and car who prefer reaching the capital by the scenic route.

How many million photographs must have been taken of the centrally placed Colvin Fountain, better known as the Moffat Ram? This was gifted in 1875 by Sir William Colvin of Craigielands in Beattock.

The sculptor William Brodie forgot to give it ears. It has been said that he killed himself out of shame. This is nonsense. The following year he became Secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy and was still in post when he died in 1881.

The ram features in the packaging for the popular Moffat Toffee, which has been made by generations of the same family since the late 1800s to a secret recipe that gives it a sharp lemon centre.

Another favourite stopping-place, north of the town, is the vast hollow known as the Devil's Beef Tub, of which Sir Walter Scott wrote in Redgauntlet that it 'looks as if four hills were laying their heads together to shut out daylight from the black, blackguardly abyss of a hole that it is.' It was a conveniently secretive place for cattle rustlers to graze their booty.

The location has multiple associations with death.
John Hunter memorial

There is a memorial to the Covenanter John Hunter who was killed by government loyalists at nearby Corehead in 1685.

Another memorial pays tribute to two postmen who froze to death trying to keep the mail service going in a blizzard.

Memorial to the postmen

In the 1930s the notorious doctor turned murderer Buck Ruxton thought that the Devil's Beef Tub would be the ideal place to dispose of bagfuls of body bits from his two victims, his common-law wife Isabella and their maid.

Ruxton, an Indian-born GP from Lancaster, was violently jealous by nature and during a row with Isabella strangled her. He then turned on Mary Rogerson, who was employed to look after their three children. In the bath he drained their bodies of blood, cut them up and drove to Moffat to get rid of the evidence.

But he had left behind in Lancaster too many blood-stained clues, which matched up with the maggot-ridden remains after they were discovered in the Gardenholme Linn. He was convicted in 1936 and hanged.

Famous names with a Moffat connection include the road-builder John Loudon McAdam. He had a grandmother in the town and when he returned from America in 1783 he stayed for a year or so at Dumcrieff to the south-east. It was while he was making a return visit to the town in 1836 that he died, aged 80, and he was buried in Moffat cemetery.

In 1816 Dumcrieff was bought by Dr John Rogerson, the Dumfriesshire physician who made a fortune working for the Russian imperial court.

Station Park has a memorial to Moffat-born Hugh, Lord Dowding, the RAF supremo credited with winning the battle of the skies against Hitler.

To the east of the town are the remains of Frenchland Tower, begun in the sixteenth century and enlarged in the seventeenth. The French family arrived in these parts as tenants of the Bruces in the early 1200s. The tower was still inhabited as relatively late as the 1720s.


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

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