Other Pairs of Eyes
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

Other Pairs of Eyes

When, from the early eighteenth century onwards, the British reading public acquired their taste for literary travelogues, Dumfriesshire was frequently brought to their attention by the star exponents of the genre. There is a simple explanation for this. Even if, as far as Scotland was concerned, writers were habitually allured to the Gaelic far north, they still had to get there by way of the lowland south. So, almost by default, Dumfriesshire was written about while being passed through.


Richard Franck (died possibly 1708) is thought to have been a captain in the army of Cromwell. His Northern Memoirs is basically about an angling tour from Dumfriesshire to Caithness in about 1657. He described the people hanging around the centre of Dumfries:

In the midst of the town is their market place, and in the centre of that stands their tolbooth, round which the rabble sit, that nauseate the very air with their tainted breath [how did he get that close?], so perfumed with onions that to an Englishman it is almost infectious.

He moves on to 'Zanker' [Sanquhar] where he seems to have had problems with his sleeping quarters:

It's true I was not murdered, nor was I killed outright, yet I narrowly escaped as eminent a danger when almost worried to death with lice.

Daniel Defoe

There was nothing accidental about the visit to Dumfriesshire undertaken in the first decade of the eighteenth century by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). He was no ordinary travel writer. The author now better known for novels such as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders was at that time an agent of the English government. In the prelude to the formal union of the Scottish and English parliaments in 1707, he was sent north on official business, as both objective intelligence-gatherer and undercover propagandist for the proposed merger. His impressions of Scotland, sent at the time in despatches to his political masters, would later find their way into the three volumes of his A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-6).

Despite a century of the two countries having had a common monarchy, Scotland in 1706 was still to Defoe a foreign land and a poor one at that, so his tone is patronising. His first experience of Dumfriesshire was a visit to Annan*. The town struck him as being 'in a state of irrevocable decay' and he had an explanation for it:

It was but a dull welcome into Scotland to see, not only by this town, that the remains of the old devastations, committed in the time of the hostilities between the two nations, were so visible, so unrepair'd, and, as we might say, so likely to continue unrepair'd; whereas, tho' there are remains also on the English side, yet, not so plain, and in many places things much restor'd, and in a way to be more so: But the poverty of the common people, and the indolence of the gentry, will fully account for the difference.

In this landscape of relative poverty Defoe was astounded when he came across, amidst hills with 'the wildest and most hideous aspect in all the south of Scotland', the aristocratic excess of Drumlanrig Castle near Carronbridge*. He could scarcely believe that here was 'a palace so glorious, gardens so fine, and every thing so truly magnificent, and all in a wild, mountainous country, the like we had not seen before'.

While in the vicinity of Drumlanrig, Defoe was taken aback by another sight, one with which he, as a puritan dissenter from the Church of England, could readily sympathise. It was a Cameronian field-meeting attended by some seven thousand worshippers.

.all sitting in rows on the steep side of a green hill, and the preacher in a little pulpit made under a tent at the foot of the hill; he held his auditory, with not above an intermission of half an hour, almost seven hours; and many of the poor people had come fifteen or sixteen miles to hear him, and had all the way to go home again on foot.if there was an equal zeal to this in our part of the world, and for that worship we acknowledge to be true, and of a sacred institution, our churches would be more throng'd, and our ale-houses and fields less throng'd on the sabbath-day than they are now.

Tobias Smollett

The Scots-born writer Tobias Smollett (1721-71) based his final novel The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771) on the adventures of a group travelling around Britain and towards the end they pass through Dumfriesshire on their way back to the south of England. The novel is in the form of letters posted by the various characters to their friends and associates in England. After spending the night at Drumlanrig Castle near Carronbridge* 'by invitation from the duke himself, who is one of the best men that ever breathed'.

.we prosecuted our journey to Dumfries, a very elegant trading town near the borders of England, where we found plenty of good provision and excellent wine, at very reasonable prices, and accommodation as good in all respects as in any part of South Britain. If I was confined to Scotland for life, I would chose Dumfries as the place of my residence.

Thomas Pennant

Just a few years after the period in which Smollett's novel was set, the Anglo-Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726-98) crossed the border into Liddesdale and made his way to 'Cannonsby' [Canonbie] at the start of a journey that became A Tour of Scotland (1774). He quickly becomes enamoured of the landscape as he travels around on horseback:

The ride was extremely diversified through thick woods, or small thickets, with sudden transitions from the shade into rich and well-husbanded fields, bounded on every side with woods; with views of other woods still rising beyond. No wonder then that the inhabitants of these parts yet believe the fairies revel in these delightful scenes.

He is impressed by the local approach to the building of a house:

Most part of the houses are built with clay: the person who has building in view, prepares the materials, then summons his neighbours on a fixed day, who come furnished with victuals at their own expense, set cheerfully to work, and complete the edifice before night.

Pennant is never backward about expressing disapproval when appropriate and in Langholm he comes across a form of punishment that he regards as barbarous:

The magistrates of this place are very attentive to the suppression of all excessive exertions of that unruly member the tongue: the brank, an instrument of punishment, is always in readiness; and I was favoured with the sight; it is a sort of headpiece, that opens and encloses the head of the impatient, while an iron, sharp as a chisel, enters the mouth, and subdues the more dreadful weapon within. This had been used a month before, and as it cut the poor female till blood gushed from each side of her mouth, it would be well that the judges in this case would, before they exert their power again, consider not only the humanity, but the legality of this practice.

William and Dorothy Wordsworth

In 1803 a formidable literary threesome passed through Dumfriesshire at the start of an extensive Scottish tour: the English poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge accompanied by the former's sister Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855). Dorothy kept notes on their experiences and published them as Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland A.D. 1803.

Coming from their homes in the Lake District, they crossed into Dumfriesshire at the River Sark and, naturally enough, the first place they encountered was Gretna* Green, already notorious for its trade in quickie nuptials. Dorothy was not impressed by the place. 'This [its name] sounds well, but it is a dreary place; the stone houses dirty and miserable, with broken windows.'

When they reached Annan Dorothy perked up a bit:

The town of Annan made me think of France and Germany; many of the houses large and gloomy, the size of them outrunning the comforts. One thing which was like Germany pleased me: the shopkeepers express their calling by some device or painting; bread-bakers have biscuits, loaves, cakes painted on their window-shutters; blacksmiths horses' shoes, iron tools, etc. etc.; and so on through the trades.

It was market-day when they arrived at Dumfries and 'everyone had a smile for us'. But the mood changed when they went to pay homage at the grave of Robert Burns, who had died seven years earlier. His remains had just been joined by those of his fourteen-year-old second son Francis Wallace. 'We looked at the grave with melancholy and painful reflections.'

Melancholy, of a rather unctuous kind, seems to have hung around them for the couple of days they spent in the area dwelling upon the poet's fate. 'We could think of little else but poor Burns, and his moving about on that unpoetic ground.' They stood at the graveside self-righteously quoting to each other lines from Burns's own self-epitaph:

The poor Inhabitant below
Was quick to learn and wise to know,
And keenly felt the friendly glow
And softer flame;
But thoughtless follies laid him low,
And stain'd his name!

They called at the Burns family home but 'Mrs. Burns was gone to spend some time by the sea-shore with her children.' Jean had a lucky escape. In her absence the maid invited the uninvited visitors in and gave them a tour of the house. William wrote two ghastly poems about his thoughts on Burns, and later wrote a third addressed to Burns's sons, whose moral welfare had now become the object of the Wordsworths' 'melancholy concern':

Through twilight shades of good and ill
Ye now are panting up life's hill,
And more than common strength and skill
Must ye display;
If ye would give the better will
Its lawful sway.

Hath Nature strung your nerves to bear
Intemperance with less harm, beware!
But if the Poet's wit ye share,
Like him can speed
The social hour - of tenfold care
There will be need;

For honest men delight will take
To spare your failings for his sake,
Will flatter you - and fool and rake
Your steps pursue;
And of your Father's name will make
A snare for you.

The Wordsworths seem to have been obsessed with the idea of an 'intemperance' gene in the Burns family (this from a couple whose travelling companion was an opium addict). After visiting Burns's last farm, Ellisland, Dorothy had yet more gloomy thoughts when she and her co-travellers settled in for the night at an inn at Brownhill: 'I fancied to myself, while I was sitting in the parlour, that Burns might have caroused there, for most likely his rounds extended so far, and this thought gave a melancholy interest to the smoky walls.'

The three of them moved on to Thornhill where the Duke of Queensberry had been responsible for new workers' houses which, according to Dorothy, were 'so small they might have been built to stamp a character of insolent pride on his own huge mansion of Drumlanrigg [sic]', and she takes a swipe at the grandiose design of the mansion for being 'like a gathering together of little things'.

Further into the north of the county, they meet a group of lads with no shoes or stockings and are shocked to discover that they are receiving a sound classical education. 'They told us they lived at Wanlockhead, the village above, pointing to the top of the hill; they went to school and learned Latin, Virgil, and some of them Greek, Homer, but when Coleridge began to inquire further, off they ran, poor things! I suppose afraid of being examined.'

Richard Ayton

The Sussex-based playwright Richard Ayton (1780s-1823) wrote the commentary for the early volumes of William Daniell's collections of engravings published, between 1814 and 1825, as A Voyage Round Great Britain. It was in 1813 that Dumfriesshire came under his witty and insightful scrutiny. Like many travellers from the south, he was offended by the vulgarity of the border marriage trade at Gretna*.

When he got to Annan, he was amused to see confirmation of a Scottish stereotype:

That whisky is the favourite drink of the people is very evident, not only from the prevalence of red noses, but from a direct notice that it is to be bought at every other house in the place. The vending of it is combined with every other trade, every dealer well knowing that whatever may be his success in other ventures, he is sure of a few customers for this seductive cordial. Opposite to me, as I sat in the inn, I perceived a "draper and dealer in spirits"; a little lower down is a "grocer and dealer in spirits"; and in the town is a still more extraordinary union, a "banker and dealer in spirits". Exclusive of these supplementary dealers, there are plenty of professed publicans, so that a stranger might suspect that this was the great whisky magazine of the nation, till he discovered that in the copiousness of its store, it is only like every other town in Scotland.

On a Sunday in Dumfries he finds support for another preconception, 'a droll exhibition of Scottish economy' among the country women making their way into town for the kirk:

They were mostly very gaily attired, but had all their shoes and stockings off, which they carried wrapped up in their handkerchiefs, and would not put on till the moment before their entrance into the town. From this notable expedient there obviously results a most important saving in the wear and tear of the articles, besides the advantage of preserving them unsoiled till the instant of public exhibition - and all of this at no expense of ease or comfort, for these hardy damsels consider shoes and stockings as things of mere ornament, or rather encumbrances than otherwise to those who walk. I observed that some of them, and some of the smartest too, were altogether without them, and these would flaunt into Dumfries without fear or danger of ridicule, though the eye of an Englishman was not much less startled by their appearance than it might have been had he seen gentlemen straying in the streets without their breeches.Here you may see a lady with a white gown, a silk shawl or spencer, and a straw bonnet with artificial flowers in it, nay, with gloves on too, and all this finery terminated by a huge pair of bare, begrimed legs and feet, which look as if they could scarcely belong to her. The legs and feet, from exposure to wet, and cold, and the sun, become red and puffy, resembling in surface and colour a great overgrown radish.

Ayton's sojourn in Dumfriesshire left him with a strong impression that even the humblest Scot was well educated:

.in these miserable hovels I found the people exceedingly decent in their manners, with their minds improved and refined by education - sunk into a state of the profoundest piggishness in all their forms of living, yet highly civilized, intelligent, and moral. There was not a man or woman in the village that could not read and write, nor a single hut without a book. A little boy not more than nine years old, without shoes or shirt, and only half a sleeve to his jacket, and not a button or button-hole about him, came running up to me with some shells for sale; I offered to buy his whole stock if he could read a page in my itinerary, and he fulfilled the condition with the utmost facility.

John Keats

In 1818 another English poet, John Keats (1795-1821), passed through Dumfries during a walking-tour of Scotland. He paid the seemingly obligatory visit to Burns's grave and wrote a sonnet, 'On Visiting the Tomb of Burns'. In a letter to his brother, Keats described having composed it 'in a strange mood, half asleep'. One can see what he meant:

The town, the churchyard, and the setting sun,
The clouds, the trees, the rounded hills all seem,
Though beautiful, cold - strange - as in a dream,
I dreamed long ago, now new begun.
The short-liv'd, paly Summer is but won
From Winter's ague, for one hour's gleam;
Though sapphire-warm, their stars do never beam:
All is cold Beauty; pain is never done:
For who has mind to relish, Minos-wise,
The Real of Beauty, free from that dead hue
Sickly imagination and sick pride
Cast wan upon it! Burns! with honour due
I oft have honour'd thee. Great shadow, hide
Thy face; I sin against thy native skies.

In his letter Keats promises that 'I shall endeavour to get rid of my prejudices, and tell you fairly about the Scotch'. But it was not easy for him to do so. His travelling companion Charles Brown reported:

Keats has been these five hours abusing the Scotch and their country. He says that the women have large splay feet, which is too true to be controverted, and that he thanks Providence that he is not related to a Scot, nor any way connected with them.

This is the best the poet could manage:

Yesterday was an immense horse fair at Dumfries, so that we met numbers of men and women on the road, the women nearly all barefoot, with their shoes and clean stockings in hand, ready to put on and look smart in the towns. There are plenty of wretched cottages where smoke has no outlet but by the door. We have now begun upon whiskey [sic], called here whuskey - very smart stuff it is - mixed like our liquors, with sugar and water, 'tis called toddy, very pretty drink, and much praised by Burns.

William Cobbett

Robert Burns was also uppermost in the thoughts of the radical political writer William Cobbett (1763-1835) when he visited Dumfries in 1832. He too appears to have taken the pious approach to the poet's alleged excesses:

Poor BURNS, the poet, died in this town, an exciseman, after having written so well against that species of taxation, and that particular sort of office. Oh! Sobriety! how manifold are thy blessings! how great thy enjoyments! how complete the protection which thou givest to talent; and how feeble is talent unless it has that protection!

Cobbett also wanted to call on Mrs Burns 'as a mark of my admiration of the talents of her late husband, one single page of whose writings is worth more than a whole cart load that has been written by WALTER SCOTT'. But he was in too much of a rush to get to Annan for the next stage of his lecture-tour. He had been pleased by the turn-out in Dumfries: 'considering that the people have been frightened half to death about the cholera morbus (of which disease great numbers have actually died here), the attendance was wonderfully good.' (on cholera, see Some Historical Background.)

Henry, Lord Cockburn

Henry, Lord Cockburn (1779-1854), the Scottish judge who wrote vivid and often acerbic accounts of his life and times in journals published after his death, often visited Dumfriesshire while officiating on the South Circuit. He came at least five times between 1839 and 1850 and was always pleased to be in Dumfries:

My love of Dumfries - at least of its beauty - increases. A most respectable country town, it wants nothing but an old cathedral. However, its church and churchyard, its nice, half-Anglified, reddish houses, with their bright windows, its clean streets, paved with small stones, its most beautiful river and green, and the memory of Burns, give it all a pleasing and respectable air.

In 1839 he was intrigued by 'the new Lunatic Asylum' [the Crichton at Dumfries*]:

While asking a little boy on the road some questions about it, he used a word, which it is to be hoped does not truly indicate the character of the internal treatment.
He pointed out a man who was walking in a gallery, as "the Breaker."
"What do you call the Breaker?"
"The man that breaks the daft folk."

Two years later:

I was told a singularly pleasing fact about their Lunatic Asylum. A box is occasionally taken in the theatre for the patients, who go respectably in coaches and sit happily and enjoy the play. A very curious and delightful fact.

In 1841, staying the night at Langholm, he was struck by the almost total absence of street lighting and the comic consequences:

It was all pitch dark to-night at nine. Except from the shop of 'Anderson, Baker and Grocer', there was not so much as one candle shining from one window. Yet the people were not all asleep. On the contrary they were walking about in considerable numbers, only as no one could see his, or her neighbour, they seemed to feel the necessity of hailing, for I never heard so much whistling.

As for the court work that brought him to the county in the first place, his comments about 'expert' witnesses in a child murder case at Dumfries anticipate controversies of our own times:

...doctors differed as to their scientific "tests" of the child having been born alive. But its throat was found crammed full of bits of coal, and there were marks of a thumb and two fingers on the outside of the neck. These practical tests had little effect upon medical opinion; but as mothers don't generally throttle children that are dead, they were quite satisfactory to the jury...Whenever any of the murderous appearances, such as finger-marks on the neck, was put to one of the doctors in defence, the scientific gentleman, after parading his vast experience, always stated that however these things might startle the ignorant, they were of no consequence to a person of great practice, and that he had seen hundreds of children born with these very marks. "Ay, but, doctor," said an agrestic-looking [rural in appearance] juryman, "did ye ever see ony o' them born wi' coals i' their mooth?"

Cockburn's final professional visit to Dumfries was fruitless. For more than three weeks he lay there ill:

...on my way by rail...I was seized with what from its frequency seems to be an attack generated by railways, and reached Dumfries in great torture and great danger. I lay in the inn there (the King's Arms) twenty-three days before I could be brought back to Edinburgh...

It is but justice to the King's Arms to record that, if any one should have to be severely ill in a Scotch inn, he should select this one, which, though in a noisy position, was quiet inside, and contained a household of the most devoted attention and apparently affectionate kindness.

H V Morton

Dumfriesshire was the final stage of a Scottish tour described by the great travel writer H V Morton (1892-1979) in his classic In Search of Scotland (1929). He spent a hilarious last night before returning across the border in the midst of a drunken sing-song at Burns's old watering-hole, the Globe Tavern:

It seemed to me that even Burns's Night with its customary haggis, its time-honoured songs, and its spate of eulogy was not so fine a tribute to the 'immortal memory' as this casual gathering of humble labourers and mechanics in the old 'howff' at Dumfries.

The Dumfries experience compared favourably with his earlier visit to Burns's birthplace in Ayrshire:

...I felt much nearer to Burns in this public-house than ever I did in the swept solemnity of the old clay biggin at Alloway. There was all the difference between the deserted temple and the living church.

Morton loved Scotland so much that he came back and the result was In Scotland Again (1933). And back he came too to the Globe for its authenticity: 'probably one of the few places in Scotland in which Burns would feel instantly at home if he could return from the Shades':

The Globe in Dumfries is...full every night of ordinary workmen, road-menders and labourers, who drink as much as they can afford to drink, and sing the songs of Burns because they understand them and like them. Reverence, which is such a frightful aspect of all literary societies, is delightfully absent in the Globe. They call him 'auld Rabbie', and remember all the things about him that the Burns societies try to earnestly to forget. I call this the real thing; and it will be a lasting disgrace to every admirer of Burns, and to every Burns society in the world, if the old Globe Tavern is ever allowed to disappear.

The funniest aspect of Morton's second visit to the Globe is that by then his vivid description of the place in his first book on Scotland had become known about locally. It came up in conversation but Morton never let on that he was the author:

I fell into conversation with a red-faced, blue-eyed young man, talking to him about Burns and the Globe like an ignorant and benighted wayfarer. This is the only way to make people talk to you. My morale was considerably shattered when the young man advised me to read my own book on Scotland. I promised to do so. The inn-keeper in his shirt sleeves leaned over the bar and said, referring to myself: 'Aye, he was here in this very room, but he didna' make himself known.' He said that he would know me at once if I ever came in again, and he hoped someday to stand me a large drink as a tribute to my faithful description of his inn on a song night. I was so touched by this tribute, and by the generous things that this gathering said about me...that I pulled up my coat collar and hid as well as I could in it...I said goodnight and left the Globe with the queer feeling that I was my own ghost.

One aspect of this second visit to Dumfries disappointed Morton. He adored the ramshackle quaintness of old coaching inns, 'the ugly, dark, inconvenient, inefficient and rather amusing old country hotel which is one of our final links with an age of horses'. But on this occasion, when he was shown to his hotel room, he was shocked:

...I walked into a room that might have been anywhere. It was panelled in fumed oak. Pictures of York hung on the walls, with a few bright versions of Canadian rock scenery...and then it broke over me, and my heart ached at the knowledge, that the hotel had been brought up to date! Gone was the vast mahogany sideboard, gone the bell-pull that never worked, gone the old pictures and the Victorian lincrusta: one more touch of individuality had vanished from a world whose god is Uniformity...If Dumfries can do this, a town that I should have thought might have been one of the last to stand firm for mahogany and decentralised heat, then, I mourned, we must say good-bye to the little old corners of the world in which a man can forget the idiocies of progress.

One shudders to imagine how Morton might have reacted, three-quarters of a century later, to the modern Dumfries of Tesco and Travelodge!


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

Acknowledgements     XML Sitemap     HTML Sitemap     ROR Sitemap    
Copyright © Galloway Publishing 2012.    All rights reserved