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


Local pride here is encapsulated in the old tale that Adam and Eve, after their expulsion from Paradise, ended up in Thornhill. A bard of the 'Gill' (an old colloquialism for the village) describes the couple's first impressions:

Surprised, enchanted, Adam stood
And noted mountain, river, wood,
The silvery Nith, the hill of Keir
And Tynron Doon.
Says he, "Oh Eve, quick, hurry here;
Our rest comes soon."

The view which lay before their eyes
Was not less fair than Paradise,
And as they thatched their wee bit biel
Where stands Thornhill,
Eve whispers, "Adam, we've dune weel;
Ca' this the Gill."

The first settlement in these parts was further to the south-west along the River Nith where in the fifteenth century there was a ford and also a ferry. This was the medieval village known as Dalgarnock, now entirely vanished apart from its ancient kirkyard which itself appears to have vanished from the latest Ordnance Survey map (see below). In the early seventeenth century the commercial centre of gravity shifted closer to where the modern town now is. A burgh of barony called New Delgarno (what was wrong with Dalgarnock as a name?) was created in the 1660s and from this Thornhill emerged along the new Dumfries to Glasgow road laid during 1714-15. In 1714 a market cross was erected: Thornhill was open for business.

It was later on in the eighteenth century that the amorphous new burgh was planned into the layout of today. This was done under the patronage of the dukes of Queensberry at Drumlanrig Castle north-west of Carronbridge.
The two main interconnecting streets, the north-south Drumlanrig and the west-east Morton (the name of the parish), were created in the 1770s and at the same time the market cross was moved to its present position. The ducal connection continued to be reflected in the naming of new developments. The Buccleuch and Queensberry Hotel was built in 1855, shortly after the railway station (closed 1965) was opened. The lime-trees along Drumlanrig Street, a defining feature of the town, were planted in the 1860s.

The African explorer Joseph Thomson moved here in boyhood from Penpont.

A memorial bust was put up in East Morton Street in 1897, shortly after his early death from diseases contracted during his travels.

In his youth Joseph Thomson had been a protégé of the eccentric local physician Dr Thomas Grierson who made a name for himself as an impassioned collector of scholarly bits and pieces: geological samples, fossils, old maps and curios of all kinds. His stranger objects included two-headed calves, snakes in bottles and the bones of a Moa, an extinct species of bird that could not fly. He felt under an obligation to do what he could for public education and for this purpose he opened a museum in 1872, having done much of the building work in New Street himself. It was Thornhill's first tourist attraction. Grierson had no systematic way of displaying the collection: it was just a glorious clutter.

Thomson's brother, Rev J B Thomson, described Dr Grierson's appearance:

The roughly and carelessly clothed figure enveloped in the inevitable dark-coloured Scottish plaid, and walking with a rapid gait, as of one absorbed - the mass of straight brown hair hanging heavily as a curtain to the one side of his brow, and made more noticeable by the forward stoop of the head - the face, spare and serious, that spoke of simple living and much thinking - the pensive mouth with its drooping extremities, and the blue-grey eyes, with a far-away, mystical, dreaming look about them - such were the characteristic lineaments of the man, as he moved before the eyes of his fellow-villagers for thirty years or more. A man compelling observation!

'Unfortunately,' wrote the Dumfries museum curator A E Truckell in the 1950s, 'when the Doctor died in the 1880s, the motive power of the whole conception disappeared. He left money for its maintenance, but it was not enough, and the collection and building have gone steadily downhill'. The Grierson Museum finally closed in 1965, to Thornhill's eternal shame.

Thornhill was the home town of the writer Joseph Laing Waugh who, though he lived all of his working life in Edinburgh, specialised in comic stories of rural life narrated in Dumfriesshire Scots. Apart from his works of fiction, Waugh wrote a charmingly rambling history of his native burgh, Thornhill and its Worthies (1903), which he revised a decade later with a growing sense of the characters and their way of life having disappeared.

Alongside the 'worthies' are one or two of the less worthy kind, like the work-shy Jeems Geddes who sat at the foot of the cross from early till late every day, 'only leaving his seat to go home for his meals'. He inspired a local expression: 'When a man is out of work and asked what he is doing, he generally replies, "Helpin' Jeems Geddes!" '

Waugh appears to have been slightly struggling to fill his chapter on 'Famous Visitors to the Village'. The 'Ettrick Shepherd' James Hogg and Dumfriesshire's very own Thomas Carlyle did not exactly have far to come. The author therefore had to make the most of even the flimsiest connection with celebrity beyond a fifty-mile radius: 'Edmund Kean, the great tragedian, always remembered Thornhill with kindly interest, as it was here when a boy, as a member of a travelling company, he made his debut as an actor.'

Waugh was keen to stake Thornhill's claim to associations with the poet Robert Burns and indeed he devotes an entire chapter to the matter - despite the fact that 'Burns in his published writings makes no mention of Thornhill or of any of his visits to the village'. It appears that Thornhill did good service to the great bard's feet:

It will be news to many to know that although Burns had his choice of good bootmakers in Dumfries he continued from the time of his entering Ellisland until he died to get his boots from a Thornhill shoemaker. In fact, the last pair of boots he wore - a pair of top ones - were made by Andrew Johnstone, who had a little shop at the foot of Old Street, where the Buccleuch Hotel now stands.

Apparently the bootmaker was late with an order for Burns and was worried about the possible consequences: 'Man, I was terrible feart he wad mak' poetry about it.'

To the south-west of Thornhill, Dalgarnock kirkyard is all that remains of the medieval village mentioned above. Anyone trying to reach this obscure spot should be warned that the adjacent farm of Kirkbog is well named. The outstanding feature of the kirkyard is the granite obelisk commemorating the 'Nithsdale Martyrs', all 57 varieties, who died in the Covenanters' armed resistance to Episcopalianism during the seventeenth century (see Part 2 - Some Historical Background). The monument was erected in 1928. In Scottish Pilgrimage in the Land of Lost Content (1942) T Ratcliffe Barnett devotes a whole chapter to what he calls the 'cross of Dalgarnoc':

The Martyrs' Monument in Greyfriars' Churchyard, Edinburgh, certainly commemorates about a hundred noblemen, gentlemen, ministers and others who gave their lives for Christ's sake. But there is no monument known to me in Scotland which commemorates so many men of the Covenant from one district who died for their Faith. Fifty-seven! Truly, Nithsdale was drenched in the blood of the martyrs.

Dalgarnock is the location for a Robert Burns song about a woman who has played so hard to get that her suitor goes off instead with 'my black cousin Bess':

But a' the niest week as I fretted wi' care,
I gaed to the tryst o' Dalgarnock;
And what but my fine fickle lover was there?
I glowr'd as I'd seen a warlock, a warlock,
I glowr'd as I'd seen a warlock.

And the upshot?

He begged for Gudesake I wad be his wife,
Or else I wad kill him wi' sorrow:
So e'en to preserve the poor body in life,
I think I maun wed him to-morrow, to-morrow,
I think I maun wed him to-morrow.


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

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