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 took at an Ordnance Survey map of the Sanquhar area you will see, a short distance north of the town-centre, an earthwork named Sean Caer, Gaelic for 'old fort'. And thus you have the origin of the town's unusual name. Its pronunciation 'sanker' appears to be a secret largely kept from television newsreaders.

The ruins of the later Sanquhar Castle, home successively to the Crichtons (hence its former older name of Crichton Peel) and the Douglases, are towards the south of the town, close to the River Nith.
It is difficult to date the various stages of the castle's construction, partly because in the 1890s a descendent of the Crichtons, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who had a mania for 'improving' ancient structures, embarked on a restoration that played havoc with the chronology of development. But the castle certainly dates back at least to the thirteenth century and there were probably four more phases of building up to the sixteenth century. In the following century the Douglases, of the future dukedom of Queensberry, abandoned Sanquhar for the opulence of their new Drumlanrig Castle near Carronbridge.

In the late thirteenth century Sanquhar Castle was supposedly fought over during the William Wallace campaign against the English occupation of Scotland. In 1297 it was in the hands of English troops. According to the traditional story, Wallace's ally William Douglas, realising that he did not have sufficient forces to re-gain the stronghold, resorted instead to ingenuity. He got one of his men to impersonate the woodman who regularly delivered supplies. The woodman cooperated by allowing his clothes to be used for the disguise. A Victorian historian charmingly described how the collaborator 'was easily induced to lend his assistance; and, when he pocketed the golden pieces by which his honesty was corrupted, he probably soothed his conscience by the reflection that the men he sought to betray were the enemies of his country, and a curse to the neighbourhood.' Once admitted inside, the impersonator overpowered the man with the keys and the rest of the Douglas men were able to take the occupiers by surprise.

Its earlier charters having been lost, Sanquhar was formally re-instated as a burgh of barony in 1484 and in 1598 James VI raised it to a royal burgh. But the town seems to have been habitually short of money and, for cost-cutting reasons, often failed to exercise its right to attend the national Convention of Royal Burghs: the fine imposed for non-attendance was less than the expenditure required to send a delegate.

Stone and roof lead were removed from Sanquhar Castle for the building during 1735-7 of the Tolbooth, the town's architectural gem, which looks as if it cockily delights in obstructing the traffic trying to negotiate the High Street.
An earlier building had fallen into a bad state of repair and was demolished.
The architect William Adam was commissioned to design its replacement.
The double forestair leading to the first-floor meeting-rooms is a notable feature.
At ground level were the prison cells. For felons an alternative to incarceration was public humiliation by being attached to the jougs outside the tolbooth. These were still in use up to the 1820s.
The tolbooth now houses a rather splendid museum.

Relative poverty, remoteness and a sense of being excluded from the mainstream induced in the Sanquharites of old a tendency to dwell overmuch on the niceties of religious dogma.
The early-twentieth-century historian James Reid put it a little more politely: 'There is something in the air of the uplands of north Dumfriesshire that makes for the love of freedom and for the firmness of character which goes along with it.'
All of which means that the town was avid for the more obdurate wing of the Covenanting cause and it was here that the arch-fanatics of the movement, Richard Cameron and James Renwick, successively made their famous Sanquhar Declarations of 1680 and 1685.

A monument in the High Street commemorates these events (see Some Historical Background).

Sanquhar shared with Kirkconnel in the coal-mining boom of the nineteenth century and shared too the effects of the industry's decline during the second half of the twentieth.
Other industries - textiles, carpets, bricks - have come and gone over the years. The precariousness of the local economy led to a reliance on family incomes being supplemented by small-scale craftwork done in the home. The readiest raw material for this was wool from the sheep of the surrounding hillsides and from that grew a cottage industry with which the town's name is still associated.

Sanquhar knitting was first heard of in the early eighteenth century when a traveller observed of the town: 'Gloves they make better and cheaper than in England, for they send great quantities thither.' Later in the century a government inspector surveying the rural industries of Scotland reported from Sanquhar: 'Here are five frames in the stocking way, and a great deal of stockings knit and sold here.which they do better here than anywhere in my tour (Aberdeen excepted)'.

A distinctive local style emerged, strongly geometric and usually black-and-white. Ironically, the bold simplicity of this style contributed to the cottage industry's demise because it was easily reproduced by machinery in the factories of the nineteenth century. An alternative form of home-based employment also came along, the muslin embroidering known as 'flowering', organised as piece-work under the control of agents.

The town's unique knitting patterns, however, did not die out entirely. In the 1950s and '60s there was a nostalgic revival of interest when the Scottish Women's Rural Institute collected and published them. A pair of Sanquhar gloves retains a symbolic importance on ceremonial occasions in the town, particularly for the equestrian participants in the annual Riding of the Marches. The patterns have bonnie names like Rose and Trellis, Drum and Cornet, Pheasant's Eye, and Midge and Flea. A new one called the Glendyne was specially created in the 1920s when Robert Nivison (see below) entered the House of Lords as Baron Glendyne of Sanquhar.

Sanquhar's quaintest curiosity is its post office, which presents itself as 'the oldest in Great Britain'.

The date given on the sign over the doorway is 1712. Not so long ago a sign in exactly the same position proclaimed 1763. The British Postal Museum says that 'the earliest known evidence' is for the later date, though it concedes that 'local records suggest that there was a postmaster in Sanquhar as early as 1739.'

So what is it to be: 1712 or 1739 or 1763? It appears that the difficulty with dates lies in the uncertainty of when previously ad hoc arrangements were formalised.

If any scholar of such matters ever discovers the truth, let us hope that Sanquhar will be kept posted.

Robert Burns was often in Sanquhar. It was a handy stopover on his journeys between Dumfriesshire and Ayrshire and as a result he became friendly with one of the local inn-keepers.
However, the friendship was to no avail one bitterly cold January night in 1789 when a wealthy woman's funeral cortege monopolised the inn and Burns had to move on twelve miles to New Cumnock.
The dead woman was Mary Oswald, widow of an Ayrshire and Kirkcudbrightshire landowner who had enriched himself as an arms dealer. Burns disliked everything that the Oswalds represented and claimed that 'among her servants and tenants I know that she was detested with the most heartfelt cordiality'. Burns wrote to a friend:

...I had put up at Bailie Whigham's in Sanquhar, the only tolerable inn in the place. The frost was keen, and the grim evening and howling wind were ushering in a night of snow and drift. My horse and I were both much fatigued with the labors of the day, and just as my friend the Bailie and I were bidding defiance to the storm over a smoking bowl, in wheels the funeral pageantry of the late, great Mrs Oswald, and poor I am forced to brave all the horrors of the tempestuous night...when a good fire at New Cumnock had so far recovered my frozen sinews, I sat down and wrote the inclosed Ode.

Bile oozes from the 'Ode, Sacred to the Memory of Mrs Oswald of Auchencruive':

View the wither'd beldam's face -
Can thy keen inspection trace
Aught of Humanity's sweet melting grace?
Note that eye, 'tis rheum o'erflows,
Pity's flood there never rose.
See those hands, ne'er stretched to save,
Hands that took - but never gave.

After receiving a copy of the poem, Burns's correspondent Mrs Dunlop remarked: 'Are you not a sad, wicked creature to send a poor old wife straight to the devil, because she gave you a ride in a cold night?'

In 'The Five Carlins', an election ballad in which local burghs are characterised as women, Burns cast Sanquhar as 'Black Joan frae Crichton-peel/O' gipsey kith an' kin' and sums her up as 'A carlin stoor [harsh] and grim'.

Sanquhar's earliest recorded native celebrity was a sixteenth-century scion of the Crichton family who, before his extremely premature death, so bedazzled the princes of Europe with his intellectual brilliance that he was dubbed everlastingly the Admirable Crichton.

Robert Nivison (1849-1930), another Sanquhar boy made good, rose to eminence in a way that was rather less glamorous but decidedly more profitable. The son of a colliery manager, he began his working life in the local branch of the British Linen Bank and, moving to the City of London when he was 20, became the stockbroker most trusted by overseas governments to handle their stock market investments. He was knighted in 1914 and in 1922 elevated to the House of Lords, taking the title Baron Glendyne of Sanquhar. He distinguished himself in the Lords by never once speaking in the chamber.

Robert Nivison


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

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