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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter XII


GLANCE AT THE MATERIAL AND SOCIAL CONDITION OF DUMFRIESSHIRE AND ITS CAPTIAL DURING THE MIDDLE AGES – THE PRIMITIVE FORESTS – THE NATIVE HERDS AND FLOCKS – THE HUSBANDRY OF THE DISTRICT – WAGES, LABOUR, AND PROVISIONS – STATE OF THE HUMBLER CLASSES – HOUSE ACCOMMODATION, AND DEFENSIVE STRUCTURES.

TURN we now from the narration of events, to glance at the social and material aspect of Dumfriesshire and its capital during the middle ages, up till the period at which was have arrived; and for much of this view we must be indebted to the learned and industrious author of “Caledonia.” In the thousand years which elapsed after the invasion of Agricola, no perceptible impression seems to have been made on the original woodlands of the County. When the Scoto-Saxons settled within its vales, they found clumps of forestry in all directions; and hence the frequent occurrence, throughout the district, of the Saxon term weald, which signifies “a woody place.” Familiar instances are found in the names Ruthwald, Mouswald, Torthorwald, and Tinwald; and in the following, where the work appears in its modern form: - Locharwood, Priestwood, Kelwood, Netherwood, Meiklewood, Norwood, Blackwood, Kinmontwood, Dunskellywood, Woodhall, Woodlands; and in others, such as Hazelshaw, Blackshaw, Cowshaw, Laneshaw, and Bonshaw, in which a synonymous word for “wood” is introduced. The oaks, firs, and birches embedded in the mosses of Nithsdale and Annandale, afford abundant evidence of the same fact; and fine natural wood, the progeny of primitive forests, still fringes many of the rivers and streams. The parishes of Morton, Durisdeer, and much of the neighbourhood, were in ancient times covered with trees – the resort of the wild boar, the wolf, the stag, and other animals of the chase, to hunt which was the favourite pastime of our ancestors. We read in the beautiful ballad, “Johnnie of Breadislee,” how

                                                “Johnie busk’t up his gude bend bow,
                                                  His arrows ane by ane;
                                                  And he has gone to Durrisdeer,
                                                  To hunt the dun deer down.”

Of a far-stretching forest in Moffatdale, another fine old lyrical effusion, “The Lads of Wamphray,” makes mention as follows: -

                                                 “ ‘Twixt Girth-head and the Langwood en’,
                                                  Lived the Galliard and the Galliard’s men;
                                                  But the lads of Leverhay,
                                                  That drove the Crichtons’ gear away.”

An ancient manuscript informs up, that near to the old Castle of Morton, which figured so much in the early history of Dumfriesshire, “there was a park built by Sir Thomas Randolph, on the face of a very great and high hill, so artificially, that, by the advantage of the hill, all wild beasts, such as deers, harts, roes, and hares, did easily leap in, but could not get out again.” The writer quaintly adds: “And if any other cattle, such as cows, sheep, or goats, did voluntarily leap in, or were forced to do it, it is doubted if their owners were permitted to get them out again. [MS. Account of the Presbytery of Penpont, drawn up and transmitted to Sir Robert Sibbald, the well-known antiquarian writer, by the Rev. Mr. Black, minister of Closeburn.]

On the 3rd of March, 1333, Edwrd III. appointed John de la Forest Bailiff of the Park or Forest of Woodcockayr, in Annandale, an office which the Maxwells acquired afterwards, and were in the enjoyment of in the reign of James VI. Dalton Forest, on the west bank of the Annan, Loganwoodhead Forest, between the Sark and the Kirtle, Blackberrywood Forest, in Upper Eskdale, are mentioned in official records; and we read of Robert I. and David II. granting lands in “free forest” within Dumfriesshire.

The manner in which the abounding woods of the County were tenanted may be inferred from such names as Wofstane, Wolfhope, Wolfcleugh, Raeburn, Raehills, Hartfell, Harthope, Deerburn, Hareshaw, Todshaw, and Todhillwood. As the Scoto-Irish, like the British aborigines, whom they succeeded, delighted in woods, they were sparing in the use of the axe, The forests furnished them with shelter, food, and the means of recreation; and their rural economy was in keeping with their tastes in this respect, seeing that it consisted rather in the feeding of herbs and flocks than in the cultivation of the soil.

When another race – the Saxons – began to mingle on the banks of the Nith with the Scoto-Irish natives, they did not materially change the husbandry of the district, though after their appearance the plough was brought into greater request: vast herds of cattle were still seen browsing under the woodland shade; multitudes of swine battened on the mast which fell plentifully from oaken boughs; and countless “woolly people” continued bleating and nibbling in the glades. These and other domestic animals abounded greatly in the County; and no stronger proof of the prevalence of pasturage could be desired than is furnished by the fact, that when Malcolm Canmore and David I. reigned, the Crown dues in Dumfriesshire were paid in swine, cows, and cheese. The latter monarch granted to the monks of Kelso a share of cattle and pigs he thus received from Nithsdale; but as such payments were found to be inconvenient, Alexander II. allowed the same fraternity a hundred shillings instead of the “vaccarum et porcorum et coriorum” which they were wont to receive from the “Valle de Nyth.” Hunting, more than farming, was the occupation of the landowners; but the latter business was pursued with considerable success by the monks: “and as they,” says Chalmers, “were the most skilful cultivators, as well as the most beneficial landlords, during the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, it is to be lamented that they did not possess in those times more extensive districts in Dumfriesshire.” 

There was no great religious house within its bounds; but the monks of Holywood owned lands in Nithsdale, the Priory of Canonby drew rents from estates in Lower Eskdale, and the Monasteries of Melrose and Kelso were enriched by revenues drawn from the Shire, the former having extensive property in Dunscore and Upper Eskdale, and the latter lands in other districts, which were tilled by bondsmen belonging to the brethren. From the rental of these ecclesiastical farmers we may form a pretty accurate idea of the land-rent paid at a time when acres were relatively more plentiful than gold pieces. During the thirteenth century, the monks of Kelso gave to Adam de Culenhat a lease of the tithes of the parish of Closeburn, for the yearly rent of fifty-three merks and a half; the tenant, however, being obliged, in addition to this money payment, to supply the Abbot, on his visits to the parish, with fuel, litter, hay, and grass. In the beginning of the fourteenth century, the same body of monks had forty acres of land, with a brew-house and other appendages, in Closebure, which rented for two merks yearly; and about the same time they had for tenant of their whole lands in the Parish of Dumfries one Henry Whitewell, a burgess of the town, who paid them twelve shillings sterling annually for the same. [The value and the denomination of money, down till the reign of Robert I., continued the same in Scotland and England; and the Scottish money was not much depreciated for a century or more afterwards. The silver merk was value 13s. 4d. – Tytler’s Scotland, vol. ii., p. 325.]

The monks, in some instances, as has been stated, rented their lands to freemen; “and they had thereby,” says Chalmers, “the honour of beginning the modern policy of a free tenantry in Dumfriesshire;” but the great body of cultivators were bondmen attached to the glebe. The free tenants frequently enjoyed long leases, by which they were encouraged to apply greater skill and labour on their farms. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the land divisions of the Shire were the same as in England, giving rise to the carrucate, the bovate, the husbandland, and the acre. In the charters of Robert I. and David II. we read of pound-lands, merks-lands, shilling-lands, penny-lands, half-penny-lands, and farthing-lands, from which valuations many farms derived names that some of them still retain.

The author whom we have repeatedly quoted, and been guided by in this inquiry, sums up his account of ancient agriculture in the Shire, by saying “The barons, the monks, and the tenants had inclosed fields; they had hay; they had mills of every sort; they had brew-houses; they had fish-ponds; they had the usual appendage of orchyards from the prior Britons [The Britons along the Annan, the Nith, and the Clyde delighted in apple trees; while they loved the cider, as we know from the elegant writer of the “Avellenau.” We may learn, indeed, from the names of places, how early they had orchards in Annandale. The hamlet and church of Applegarth, signifying “an orchard,” had its name, in the twelfth century, from an orchard. A few miles above this, a farm had long been called Orchyard. Appletreethwaite, signifying “a small inclosure of apple trees,” Appledene, or Applevale, and Appletree, are all mentioned in charters of Robert I. There were in former times several orchards at Dumfries. The monks of Holywood had a fine orchard at that monastery. There was also an orchard at the Priory of Canonby. – Caledonia, Note on p. 122, vol. iii.]; they had salt-works on the Solway [There were salt-works at various places on the shores of the Solway at this period. The monks of Melrose had one at Renpatrick, or Redkirk, which they let in 1294 to the monks of Holm-cultram, who had several of their own on the Galloway side of the Solway. In the parish of Ruthwell there were many salt-works; and there was one in Carlaverock parish at a place which obtained, on that account, the name of Saltcot-knowes. – Inquisit, Special, p. 16.]; and they had wheel-carriages, with artificial roads: all during the early part of the thirteenth century.”

Throughout the entire Scoto-Saxon period, till the doleful succession war began, in 1296, the people of Dumfriesshire continued to improve in all that could make them more affluent, civilized, and comfortable. That war not only stopped further progress, but made everything retrograde; and the family feuds which followed ruined much that the foreign enemy had spared – each of these adverse influences operating for ages. It need scarcely be remarked, that the manners of the people were rendered ruder by the perpetual collisions of battle and the broils of faction; and that the refinement that was beginning to spring up suffered a sad blight when the atmosphere of the district breathed constantly of war. While the inhabitants were involved in all the national quarrels with England, and generally had to bear the first brunt of the fray, their proximity to “The Debatable Lands” of the Border, and the turbulent ambition of their local magnates, kept them in a chronic state of warfare, even when a truce existed between the kingdoms.

Other counties of Scotland enjoyed at times lengthened periods of repose; but Dumfriesshire, for several reigns prior to that of James I., had only brief, fitful seasons of rest. How, under such circumstances, could the tillage of soil, the operations of trade and commerce, and the arts, which civilize and refine, get a fair chance of success? Here, as in other parts of the kingdom, a considerable foreign trade existed in the prosperous and peaceful reigns of Malcolm Canmore and Alexander III.; but little traces of it remained, and it must have been, in fact, all but annihilated, till Bruce ascended the throne, about which time many adventurous Flemish merchants settled in the country, and gave a powerful stimulus to its commerce, which the wasting wars that succeeded seriously weakened, but did not altogether destroy.

Whatever aspect of the Vale of Nith may have presented in the Arcadian times of Alexander III., much of it must have worn a bleak and wasted look, only partially relieved by large stretches of luxuriant woodland verdure, and patches of yellow grain, during the succession war, and for at least a century afterwards.

In 1300, the neighbouring province of Galloway grew vast breadths of wheat, that sufficed to sustain the English army of invasion, as well as the native inhabitants; but very little wheat was sown in Nithsdale or Annandale at that unsettled period. The cereals chiefly cultivated were oats and bere, or barley – the latter for furnishing the national beverage, ale; but often before the peasantry could make meal of the one crop and malt of the other, both were burned up – “the reaper whose name is Death” being sure of a rich harvest on such occasions. Edward I., however, usually interdicted, for his own sake, such acts of incendiarism; and there is an instance on record in which he gave compensation for loss of grain caused by his troops. A cavalry having destroyed eighty acres of oats, the King compensated their owner, William de Carlyle, by a present of two hogsheads of wine, value about £3 sterling. [The Wardrobe Accounts, p. 126.] To the oaten diet of the common people was, however, added a goodly proportion of animal food: in this latter respect, the humbler classes of Dumfriesians being better supplied, perhaps, than their descendants of the present day. It was more easy then to breed cattle and sheep profitably than to grow corn, as, on the approach of an enemy, the herds and flocks could be driven off to the woods for safety, or penned within the lower story of a baronial keep. Fish, too, were plentiful in the rivers that ran into the Solway: the red deer which roamed the neighbouring forests furnished venison without stint for the tables of the rich; and not seldom, through favour or by stealth, that dainty article of diet found its way to the cottages of the poor. Altogether, in spite of the chronic infliction of war, the phrase of “the good old times” is, we think, not altogether inapplicable to the mediæval period in Nithsdale and Annandale. This opinion is strengthened by what is known as to the low market value of food. The wardrobe accounts of Edward I. show the current rates of cattle and produce in Dumfriesshire and Galloway at the period of his visits (1300-1308). An ox of large size could be purchased for 6s.; a fat hog for 2s. 2d. to 3s. 9d.; a quarter of wheat for 7s.; a quarter of barley for 4s. 4d.; a quarter of oats for 3s. 6d. These prices are relatively much lower, as compared with the value of labour, than prices in the present day. A labourer then could earn as much money in eight days as would buy a quarter of oats; but he would have to give now more than his wages for three weeks, in exchange for the same quantity of grain. Liquors were equally cheap – ale selling at 12s. to 18s. a butt (108 gallons); a good wine, £1 10s. per hogshead (54 gallons): while there was a commoner kind – having in it, we dare say, only a small modicum of grape-juice – that was retailed at less than a penny per gallon. 

All the houses in town or county, except those occupied by barons, were built of wood or clay, roofed with straw or heather. “Generally,” says Tytler, “we connect the ideas of poverty, privation, and discomfort with a mansion constructed of such material [as timber]; but the idea is a modern error. At this day (1829), the mansion which Bernadotte occupied as his palace when he was crowned at Drontheim – a building of noble proportions, and containing very splendid apartments – is wholly built of wood, like all the houses in Norway; and, from the opulence of the Scottish burghers and merchants during the reigns of Alexander III. and David II., there seems good reason to believe that their mansions were not destitute either of comforts, or what were then termed the elegancies of life.” [History of Scotland, vol. ii., p. 391.] For ages afterwards, this perishable material continued to be put to the same use. Streets so formed could easily be destroyed by an enemy; but, then, they could be restored at a much less expenditure of time and labour than if stone had been employed. The Dumfries of Bruce’s day was a town of timber. The freestone quarries at Castledykes and Locharbriggs had been partially drawn upon, but only for building the Castle, the bridge, and the few ecclesiastical structures of which the Burgh could boast; and stone tenements for any but the middle and upper classes were rare within it till the reign of James III. About that time houses began to be erected with the ground story of stone, and a projecting upper one of wood – a style which continued long in favour with the burgesses.

The Border strengths were of three classes: the large, massive fortresses of Carlaverock and Lochmaben occupying the first rank; the smaller, but still powerful, Castle of Dumfries, Morton, Lochwood, Torthorwald, Sanquhar, Durisdeer, Dalswinton, Tibbers, Closeburn, and Buittle being included in the second rank [Torthorwald is placed in the second rank, not because of its size, for that was small, but on account of its strength and accessory defences, in which respects it was not excelled by some of the first class fortresses. “The building,” says Grose (vol. i., p. 149), “seems to have consisted solely of a tower or keep of a quadrilateral figure, 51 feet by 28, the largest sides facing the east and west. The walls were of an enormous thickness; the ceiling vaulted. In the northeast angle was a circular staircase. It is supposed to have been last repaired about 1630; a stone taken from it, and fixed up against the out-offices of the manse, having that date cut upon it. An ancient man not (1789) living at Lochmaben remembers the roof of this building on it.” The castle was anciently surrounded by a double ditch. The appearance of the ruin at present differs little from the picture of it given by Grose, the lapse of seventy-eight years having made scarcely any impression upon it.]; a numerous array of keeps or fortalices forming the third, of which Amisfield and Comlongan may be deemed fair representatives. Even the humblest of these strongholds had walls varying in thickness from seven to twelve feet. Lime made of burnt shells, slightly intermixed with sand, was generally used in their erection; and the fluid mortar, poured in hot among loose pebbles, placed between the outer and inner blocks, bound all together so as to make a wall of adamantine strength. [The walls of Lochmaben Castle, as shown by its crumbling ruins, must have been from ten to twelve feet thick, and built with run shell-lime. The place where it was prepared is still known as Limekilns. Both the outside and inside courses were of polished freestone, evidently brought from Corncockle Quarry, regularly squared. – Grahm’s Lochmaben, p. 73. The Castle of Sanquhar was surrounded be a double fosse. The walls are of great thickness; and masses of them have fallen from the top without being separated into pieces. This shows the immense strength of the mason work. – Dr. Simpson’s History of Sanquhar, p. 23.] The fortlets of the commoner class consisted of a square tower, with subterranean vaults for stores and prisoners; a ground floor for a guard-room; an upper story, where the family resided; the whole surmounted by battlements, within which warlike operations were mainly carried on in a time of siege. A series of similar towers, with surrounding walls, moat, and ditch, went to make up a leading baronial castle. No where in Scotland was there a more perfect specimen of castellated architecture to be seen, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, than that of the Maxwells, with its triangular, shield-like shape – its narrow curtained front – its gateways protected by a portcullis – its immense machicolated towers on each angle – its deep fosse – the Solway sweeping past, at no great distance, on one side – the impenetrable swamps of Lochar helping to protect it on the other.


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