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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter XXXIII


THE DUMFRIES PARISH REGISTER IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY --TERRIBLE FAMINE AND PLAGUE IN 1598-99-TWO BURGESSES GO ON A CATTLEBUYING ENTERPRISE TO WIGTOWNSHIRE : THEIR PERILOUS ADVENTURES BY THE WAY-ANOTHER FATAL YEAR: 1623-DREADFUL MORTALITY IN DUMFRIES, OCCASIONED BY SCARCITY AND DISEASE- PRECAUTIONS USED BY THE AUTHORITIES TO PREVENT THE PLAGUE OF 1665 REACHING THE BURGH-RAPID INCREASE OF THE INHABITANTS AFTER THE REVOLUTION -THE BRIDGE WRECKED BY A FLOOD-IMPORTANCE OF THE BRIDGE TO THE ENTIRE COUNTRY--THE INHABITANTS, UNABLE TO OBTAIN GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE, RESTORE THE BRIDGE AT THEIR OWN COST-INTERESTING MEMORIAL TO HIS MAJESTY ON THE SUBJECT-THE BRIDGE DUES ACQUIRED AS A SOURCE OF PERPETUAL REVENUE BY THE TOWN -SETTLEMENT OF THE FIRST GLAZIER IN THE BURGH - INTRODUCTION OF THE POSTAL SYSTEM, AND ESTABLISHMENT OF A POST-RUNNER TO AND FROM EDINBURGH.

THE Parish Register of Dumfries goes back to the 6th of October, 1605, as regards baptisms; in the following year the names of sixty infants, "bairns lawfullie begotten," are entered in the list; and it is not till the 12th of May, 1616, that marriages, and not till the 11th of May, 1617, that burials begin to be inserted in the record. In 1618 the total baptisms were 111, marriages 19, and deaths 51; though, in all probability, the latter figures considerably underrate the mortality for the year. In 1660 there were, according to the register, 116 baptisms, 31 marriages, and 122 burials; but we may very safely add a fourth to the first two of these entries, and a third to the other, to make up for omissions, which would bring up the returns to 145 births, 39 marriages, and 139 deaths. These bear the proportion of less than one to four of the registrargeneral's figures for the Parish in 1860; and supposing the population to have been in the same ratio to the returns in both years, the inhabitants of the Parish, burghal as well as landward, must have numbered barely 4000 two hundred years ago. [Nearly the same result is arrived at by taking the number of the Trades as a basis of calculation. See awe, p. 365.] This is a rough mode of calculation, and can only be regarded as approximately correct. There is every reason to believe that the long desolating wars, and the cruel persecution, to which the town and district were subjected, seriously thinned their population, and otherwise checked their prosperity. Other agencies, the chief of which were famine and pestilence, produced like results.

In 1598, as we learn from the "Chronicle of Perth," "the wheat was blasted" over all Scotland, and oatmeal was so scarce that it sold for 6s. the peck; "ane great deid amang the people" being occasioned by the dearth. A virulent plague followedDumfries suffering much from both visitations; while, to add to its distress, it was cut off from all intercourse with neighbouring towns. A minute of the Kirkcudbright Town Council shows, that that body, on the 20th of April, 1599, took alarm on account of "the pest being verie ill in Drumfries," and prohibited the inhabitants, "under the paine of xi. s. ilk fault, and tinsall of their freidome," to enter the infected Burgh, or even to venture below the Water of Urr, or hold intercourse with any one from the east side of that river. As a consequence, the trade of the town was utterly paralyzed; the cattle of the burgesses disappeared, and none came from a distance to supply their place.

In such sad circumstances, two men, James Sharpe and John Martin, were sent into the western parts of Galloway on a cattle-buying mission. On reaching the burgh of Wigtown, they were well received by its magistrates, and allowed to bargain for as many beeves as they needed, on condition of paying the market dues, as well as the price of the stock. Whilst the men were driving their purchase-thirty-eight head of nolt-homewards, they were encountered at Minnygaff by a large armed party, commanded by the Wigtown authorities, Provost Hannay and Bailies Edgar and Tailfer, who, by dint of main force, brought both cattle and drovers back to their burgh; the reason assigned being, it is supposed, that the latter had not paid the full amount of custom. When at Wigtown the cattle were detained eight days on scanty fare, so that they were reduced to the condition of Pharaoh's lean kine. In the end, their purchasers, after laying down a hundred additional merks, were allowed to depart with the animals, which, by cropping the wayside pasture as they went along, would probably reach their journey's end in tolerable "fettle." This pitiable affair, which reads so strangely of Dumfries, now the scene of magnificent markets for the transfer of cattle, came under the notice of the Privy Council, and was remitted to the ordinary judges, to be settled by them as they might think best. [Chambers's Domestic Annals]

Again the two fell destroyers visited the country in 1623. At midsummer, that year, Calderwood tells us, the famine was so sore that " many, both in burgh and land, died of hunger;" numerous poor folks, who flocked into Edinburgh in a vain search for succour, falling down lifeless in the streets of the city. For several months prior to Michaelmas, the mortality in Perth was at the rate of ten or twelve deaths per day: [The Perth Chronicle] some other towns suffered in the same proportion ; and Dumfries, perhaps, in a greater degree than any. Fearful must have been the condition of the Burgh in that fatal year: many of the people pining for want-many more perishing under the "arrows of the pestilence," - some suffering from both the famine and the plague. To the names of a hundred persons who died during the year, the words, "puir," "extreme puir," or "pauper," are annexed in the register of the Parish. During the first ten months, there were no fewer than 492 deaths (those for the rest of the year not being recorded); so that the Parish must have lost about a ninth of its inhabitants by this terrible scourge.

We cannot wonder that the Dumfries Town Council, after such sad experiences of the plague, should, in the summer of 1665, when it was raging in London, have taken special precautions with the view of keeping the Burgh unvisited by the destroyer. The importation of English merchandise was strictly forbidden; and it was duly certified that any inhabitant who should receive such goods would be liable to a penalty of five hundred merks, to have his house closed up, and himself and " haill family sequestrate without the town for the space of 40 days thereafter." Then, as some of the Dumfries pedlars were away South, hawking the linen and woollen cloths manufactured in the Burgh, they were debarred from returning to it under a similar penalty, unless furnished with "a bill of health;" and, finally, lest strangers should enter the ports, bringing more mischief in their wake than even the English Borderers of old, twenty-four men kept watch and ward over the town by night and day. [Town Council Minutes, and Burnside's MS]

When the Revolution brought peace and rest to the country, Dumfries began once more to thrive: the population of the town increased till it rose to about 5,000 in the beginning of the eighteenth century; and in 1790, as mentioned in a previous chapter, it numbered nearly 6,000, besides 1,400 in the rural portion of the Parish; the annual births in the Parish being then 200, marriages 50, and deaths 150.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, full of trouble though it was, the town acquired some new elements of material progress. Its great annual fairs, at which horses, cattle, agricultural produce, and merchandise were disposed of, became increasingly important. The most ancient of these was the Rood Fair; and to it James VI., on the 31st of November, 1592, added two others, only one of which-Candlernas Fairhas continued till the present day. These trysts, growing in importance, did much to promote the trade of the town. In 1623, Dumfries acquired what has come to be called "the backbone" of its revenue-the right to levy tolls and customs at the bridge. So early as 1425, this privilege seems to have been possessed by the Douglas family, then in the plenitude of its power; and in that year it was conveyed by Margaret, Countess of Douglas, to the Minorite Friars of Dumfries. In 1557, when monastic establishments began to feel the shock of the Reformation, the right of exaction was transferred, by royal charter, from the brethren of the Vennel to John Johnstone of Nunholm, whose sister and heiress, Marion Johnstone, [We find the following entry in the Retours, under date December 10 1616:-" Mariota Jhonstoun, spousa Danilis Kilpatrick, ephiparii burgensis de Dunfreis, haeres Joannis Jhonstoun, in Collegis de Lincluden, burgensis de Dunfreis, fratris germani-in custuma seu tola nuncupata Brigcustume in omnibus locis infra territorum de Dunfreis. E 10 m 3s 4d. "] granted it to the Provost, Bailies, Council, and community of Dumfries, by whom it has been held till the present day. [Report of Robert Kemp, town-clerk of Dumfries, upon the Bridge Custom, May, 1854.] What seemed at first a dire calamity, helped in the end to secure to the Burgh the continued possession of this somewhat lucrative source of income. One day in 1620, the Nith, which had tolerated the bridge for more than four centuries, swelled by tributary streams, the rains of heaven, and-shall we say? - its own rage, came down with tremendous force, and turned Devorgilla's useful structure into a wreck, "to the great hurt of the Burgh and countrey, and discouragement not onlie of the haill inhabitants thereof, and countrie people thereabout, but also of all his Majestie's subjects of all his Majestie's three kingdoms of Scotland, England, and Ireland, it being the onlie passage" by which they can traverse the said kingdoms to and fro. In such dolorous language as this the disaster was described, in a royal document dated 16th July, 1621.

Though the value of the bridge was thus highly rated by his Majesty, the Burgh was left to build it up anew from its own resources. When Government aid was solicited by the magistrates for the work, they were told to appeal for voluntary contributions to "his Majesties good subjects in burgh and land throughout the whole kingdome;" and this having been done without eliciting a favourable response, the Burgh single-handed and bravely proceeded with and completed the structure nearly ruining itself by the exhaustive effort. In a second appeal to "the most Gracious and Sacred Soverane," the rulers of the town spoke of their enterprise in the following terms: " So being left to ourselffs without all hope of help, we resolved to interpoise and begin the work ourselffs, wherein, after long stryving, and in end overiding all difficulties, with continuall turmoyle, trouble, and labour both day and night; wherefra none within the said burgh was exemit neither in their persones nor purses, we brought the work to a gude and happy conclusion; and in one yeare we performed and accomplished the samyn in a more substantionire and stately manner nor it was befoir; and now may trewlie affirme, without ostentation, or ydle or vane show, that it was the greatest work that ever was done in Scotland in so short a space be ane handful of pure persones, without the help or assistance of uthers." The weakening results were thus set forth:- "For doing wherof we have exhausted the whole common rent and patrimony of the burgh, and hes not left so much as one penny therof frie; and by continuall and daylie contributione, most frelie and willinglie advanced among ourselves, our purses are so emptied, and we so disabilled from undertaking any uther, ether for the weill of the said town or comon weil of the kingdom, that we are forced to yield to necessitie, and to sink under the heavie burdens which we have so long supported, and which now indeid hes ourmaisterit us." The petitioners become more pathetic and eloquent as they proceed:- "The estate of the town is no longer yable to subsist in that positione wherein it formerlie stoode amonge the burrowes, bot as ane decayit and faillit member, will fall off from the rest of the bodie, unless your Majestie out of your accustomat princlie comiseratioun of the distresit of everie particular member of the common weill, put to your helping hand, the consideratioun whereof hes moved us in most submissive and humble attitude to prostrate us befoir your Majestie's feet, and to lay open befoir your Highnes (as the soveraine fountaine and livelie spring wherewith the politique body of the estate and everie particular member thereof is cherished and nourished) these our wants and necessities: beseiching your Majestie to consider the necessitie whereunto we are driven be this occasioun of the bridge, and accordinglie to extend such proportioun of your benevolence and favour towards us as your Majestic shall think fit for redemptioun and relief of our comon rentis engagit by us for the performing of the said work." The petitioners conclude by expressing a hope that his Majesty will send "ane favourable and gracious answer" to their request. This well-written and interesting document, [The petition, a copy of which is among the Burgh Records, has, we believe, never been previously published.] drawn up by the town-clerk, Mr. Cunningham, is signed by Provost Coupland, two bailies, and by the clerk, in name of the other councillors. A most considerate reply was given to it by the King. "Inasmuch," he said, "as the Burgh of Dumfries had re-edefeit and biggit up the brig of new agane," and put it in a better condition than before, being a work "maist incrediblie to have been performeit be thame without his Majestic's help," he, by way of recognition and recompense, grants and. dispones to the magistrates, Council, and community of the said Burgh a right to levy the tolls and customs at the bridge as hitherto, for ever. [Kemp's Report] It must not be supposed that the bridge of the thirteenth century was thoroughly destroyed by the flood of 1620, and that what we see of the fabric just now is but the remains of what was "re-edified." In so far as we have been able to learn, five entire arches were rebuilt in that year-the old piers of these arches, or some of them, having been still retained. In other words, about a half of Devorgilla's structure, which consisted of nine arches, was rebuilt, and the remaining portion repaired.

The Burgh soon after this period claimed and exercised authority to levy custom on articles crossing the Nith, at any point twelve miles above and twelve miles below the bridge. In 1681 this claim was disputed by the noblemen and gentlemen of the district; who, in petitioning Parliament against it, went the extreme length of questioning the right of the Burgh to levy any bridge custom at all. [Burgh Records] On the 6th of September in the same year, the case for the town was laid before the Estates, and was so well maintained that its right to exact custom at the bridge, and beyond it, within certain restricted limits, received legal confirmation, in terms of the subjoined agreement:-" It is agreed betwixt the Shyre and Town of Dumfries, anent the Customs of the Water of Nith, anent which there is a Bill depending before the Parliament, That in tyme comeing the same shall be regulat as follows, viz.:-That the Custumes and Imposition of all goods and bestiall, as the same has been in use to be exacted by the Burgh of Dumfries, shall be uplifted be them hereafter from Portractfoord exclusive, downward to the Water Mouth of Nith, whereunto they are declared to have right, for maintaining the Bridge of Dumfries and Portractfoord; and all upwards to the march of Kyleshall, in all tyme coming, be uplifted be such as shall be appointed be the Earle of Queensberry and the Commissioners of the Shyre, for repairing and maintaining the Bridge of Drumlangrig, qherunto the said Burgh are to have no interest; and that ane Act of Parliament be extended in favour of both parties, giving them right to the said Custome and Imposition, as the same has been in use to be uplifted, according to the division above written. In witness qhereof, the Earl of Queensberry and Commissioners for the Shyre, and the Provost of Dunfries for the Burgh, has subscribit thir presents at Edinburgh, the 15th Sepr., 1681. Sic subr., QUEENSBERRY. W. CRAIK, for the Burgh." [Burgh Records]

This agreement, with other documents bearing on the question, having been laid before the Duke of Athole, as Lord High Commissioner, and the Lords of the Articles, they recommended Parliament to sanction the same. The result appears in the following minute:-"Edinburgh, 17th Septr., 1681.-His Royal Highness, His Majestie's High Commissioner, and Estates of Parliament, haveing considered the within written petition and report forsaid, doe approve of the said report, and appoint ane act to be extended conforme thereto. Sic subr., ATHOLE, Jpd. par." [Ibid]

An Act of' Parliament, in accordance with this recommenda-tion, was forthwith passed, which, whilst it put a veto upon an unauthorized assumption oil the part of the Burgh, placed its rightful claims to the bridge custom on an unassailable basis. [Appendix I.]

The houses, at the period we speak of, were rude and poorly furnished; but stone had in a great degree superseded timber for their construction, and it was chiefly obtained from a quarry belonging to the town, situated in what is now a beautiful garden at Castledykes, and from which the burgesses were at liberty to take, for a trifling charge, as much material as they required. There must have been few masons settled in the Burgh in 1665, since the Town Council, that year, were under the necessity of sending for a quarrier to Carlaverock to "wyn" stones for them before they could erect a new meal market [On the 20th of June, 1662, the Town Council ordained that the Commissioner to Parliament should be reimbursed for the expenses incurred by him "in getting a warrand from the Parliament to build ane meal mercat;" and they resolved to impose "four lib. Scots on everie sack of meal" sent into it for sale.] which they had resolved to build, and which in due time arose on a site north of the Tolbooth. There would, however, be no difficulty in getting any smaller public structures or private houses erected by resident workmen. A fish cross, which cost just 39 17s. 2d. Scots, was built, in or about 1640, by Herbert Anderson-a native mason, we infer from his name. His charge amounted to 13 6s. 8d.; and among other items in the account there are 3 10s. to Henry Logan, quarrier, for "70 draught of stanes, some of them great lang stanes;" and 5 5s to Thomas Crocket and George Blunt, carters, for leading the same from the quarry to the Cross. Glass for windows was a rare luxury, restricted to ecclesiastical houses and the mansions of the affluent. The Council, in 1666, contracted with a Glasgow glazier to supply glass for St. Michael's Church at the rate of six shillings Scots per foot ; and inasmuch as there was ,(no glassier in this countrie," they encouraged him to commence business amongst them by making him a freeman of the Burgh. [Town Council Minutes]

Postal communication of a regular kind was begun in the district in 1642. That year a rebellion raged in Ireland; and the English Parliament, wishing to keep up a closer intercourse with the troops sent to cope with it, arranged with commissioners from Scotland to establish a line of posts between Edinburgh and Portpatrick, and between Portpatrick and Carlisle. To Robert Glencorse, merchant in Dumfries, was assigned the duty of making the necessary arrangements. Robert himself having the good luck to be installed as the first postmaster of the Burgh, his charge extending twelve Scots miles to the town of Annan. The other appointments were: "Mark Loch, betwix Carlisle and Annan, twelve mile; Andrew M'Min, betwix Dumfries and Steps of Orr, twelve mile; Ninian Mure, betwix the Steps of Orr and Gatehouse of Fleet, twelf mile; George Bell, from thence to the Pethhouse, eleven mile; John Baillie, from thence to the Kirk of Glenluce, thirteen mile ; and John M'Kaig, from that to the Port, ten mile." These persons were looked upon as "the only ones fit for that employment, as being innkeepers and of approved honesty." [Privy Council Records]

Up till 1664, however, there was no direct postal connection between Dumfries and the capital ; the inconvenience arising from which being much felt, a committee of the magistrates was appointed, in December of that year, "to establish a constant foot-poast to go weikly betwixt this and Edinburgh, to appoynt his selarie, and consider quhat sall be payit for the post of lettres." [Town Council Minutes.] We thus see that, even in the stormy period of the Persecution, the material interests of the town were not altogether retrogressive-a circumstance that may partly be attributed to the favourable harvest seasons which marked the reign of Charles II., and to which the Jacobites afterwards made a boastful reference:

"When I see the corn growin' green on the rigs,
And a gallows set up to hang the Whigs."


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