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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter IV


EPOCH OF DEVORGILLA – SHE BUILDS A BRIDGE OVER THE NITH – SHE ALSO FOUNDS A GREYFRIARS’ MONASTERY IN THE BURGH, AND NEWABBEY IN KIRKCUDBRIGHTSHIRE – BENEFICIAL EFFECTS OF THE BRIDGE UPON THE TOWN – THE SEAL OF DEVORGILLA – HER DEATH AND BURIAL.

AT the period now reached – the middle of the thirteenth century – Dumfries would probably have much fewer than two thousand inhabitants. When Devorgilla [The lady’s name is variously spelt: on her seal, preserved in Balliol College, Oxford, it appears as “Dervorgille,” the words added being “deballio alani de Galawad;” sometimes it is written “Devorgille;” at Oxford the style used is “Devorguilla.” Dugdale, appending the family name, calls her “Devorgilla Macdowall.”] visited it after her marriage with the Lord of Barnard Castle, it must have worn a very primitive aspect; and she would readily realize the loss to the inhabitants, as well as the inconvenience to herself, caused by the want of a bridge over the Nith to connect the town with Galloway. Her family had possessions on both sides of the river, in England also not less than in Scotland, and as a ready means of communication between them a bridge was needed; and such a structure would at the same time promote the well-being of a town in which she began to take a deep interest. Impressed with this idea, she was not long in giving effect to it. The Lady Devorgilla belonged to one of the most opulent families in Europe: she was large-hearted and liberal-minded up to the full measure of her wealth; and no greater boon could she have conferred on the Dumfriesians of that and many after-generations than by linking together the two sides of Nithsdale. The river, a few miles above the town, when it rolled past Dalswinton Castle – where her future kinsman, the Black Comyn, resided – and the opposite territory of the Kirkpatricks, looked very much as it now does, and it then laved the Abbey-lands gifted by her ancestor, just as it now steals gently past the ruined house of Uchtred; but when within a stone-cast of the high ground crowned by the “castle in the shrubbery,” it took a wider sweep eastward that it does at present. Not that the channel of the Nith, near to and opposite the town, has been absolutely changed during the six centuries that have intervened. On this point there is no small amount of popular misconception. The bed of the river is still essentially the same; but, down till the reign of William the Lion, its margin next the town had little natural and no artificial embankment. As a consequence, the upper sand beds, or Green-sands, and the lower sand beds, or White-sands, were seriously encroached upon; and a watery dominion, more or less wide, was established over the Dock Meadow as far down as the other stronghold of the Comyns at Castledykes – the high rock on which the fortress stood at this point giving the encroaching element a westward curve, till the river fringed an ancient mound on the Troqueer side, the mote-hill from which Devorgilla’s forefathers, as Lords of Galloway, must often have administered brehon law to their vassals. [The Scoto-Irish colonists of Galloway and Nithsdale had, for a long period, no written laws; and cases were usually decided by the will of the brehon or judge, guided by traditional precedents.]

The rocky bed of the Nith at Castledykes still impedes the navigation; but it shot up higher, shallowing the water much more in old times that at the present day, and a flood in the upper reaches, therefore, ebbed out at a very indolent pace. A spate in the Nith was, for these reasons, a serious visitation, seeming, sometimes, as if the Solway had advanced seven miles further north; the Vennel looking like a miniature canal, and the impetuous waves threatening to invade the row of little cabins which then occupied the site of Irish Street. The tides, when high, had a range only less extensive, depositing a vast accumulation of sand, which still lies below the herbage of the dock and houses that are now beyond the sweep of the tidal flux and river. These statements are further borne out of old sazines, which make the Nith the boundary of certain gardens in St. Michael’s Street. Under such circumstances, the crossing of the river by boats or on horseback must have been often dangerous, and sometimes impracticable, though easily enough effected in these ways, or even by wading, when the water was in its normal state.

The bridge was not the only fabric raised for behoof of the town of Devorgilla. She was full of spiritual fervour; and, quite in accordance with the practice of her family and of the age, her piety expressed itself in the erection of religious houses and the endowment of monastic fraternities. The vast extent of her wealth, and her desire, as she fondly thought, to store up a portion of it in heaven, were proved to the world, when a convent at Dundee – with which town she was connected through the Comyns – another at Wigtown, and Greyfriars’ Monastery at Dumfries, and, last of all, Newabbey in Kirkcudbrightshire, grew up at her command. Baliol died in 1269; and we are inclined to think that all these religious houses were erected after this date. Her affection for him seems to have been abounded: perhaps she sought, by the building of such expensive fanes, to promote the eternal well-being of her departed husband.

The dates of these erections are unknown, except in the case of Newabbey, which, Fordun tells us, was built in 1275, [Fordun, in the Scotichronicon, gives this date twice vol. i., p. 474, and vol. ii., p. 124.]: a period when the Decorated style of Gothic architecture was just beginning to enrich the severer dignity of the Early English. The abbey is of this complex transitional character; and as the monastery was in the Early English style, no difficulty is felt in determining that is came first into existence, and that it could scarcely have been built later than 1270 – the probability being that it had a somewhat earlier origin. There were no architects among the ordinary Celtic or Saxon population of Dumfriesshire and Galloway competent to design such buildings – no masons able to fashion the materials, and weave them, as it were, into the requisite shape. The Norman nobles and yeoman, who had newly come into the country, had little relish for such artistic or industrial pursuits: more liking had they for “the pomp, pride, and circumstance of glorious war,” and the exuberant pleasures of the chase. When it entered into the mind of Devorgilla, therefore, to dower her native district with goodly temples dedicated to God’s service, she had to bring artists and operatives from a distance before her conceptions could be carried into effect. The lady’s wealth was a handmaid to her will, which, like the talisman of Aladdin, brought agents at her call ready and able to do the work assigned to them. There were building associations in France and Italy formed for the very purpose of erecting, or assisting to erect, gorgeous religious structures adapted for the sumptuous ritual of the Western Church. [Appendix A.] Some of these, on being appealed to, would only be too glad to visit Nithsdale, in order to realize the grand ideas of this bountiful princess and dutiful daughter of Rome. 

In due time a band of foreign workmen would arrive at Dumfries; and probably, after completing their contract there, a portion of them would be engaged on the greater undertaking further down the river. There is no necessity, however, for supposing that all the head and hand work employed on these buildings was furnished from abroad. Some native churchmen may have co-operated with the foreign architects; and Newabbey, at all events, manifests some features, such as the depression of the upper window of the transept, which are never found in French or Italian buildings of the same style and period.

The site selected for the Abbey was an admirable one – a pleasant nook of land, watered by the Glen Burn, and within a short distance of the Solway; and there arose the marvelous pile which is still charming in its decay, though sadly changed since the wimpling rivulet an the surging sea sang responsive to the vesper melody of its inmates.

Its humble sister building, which has long since disappeared, was a monastic establishment belonging to an order founded by St. Francis of Assisi, who, from being a wild libertine, had become an ascetic devotee, and died in the odour of sanctity about the year 1230. When brooding sorrowfully over his wasted prime, he heard a sermon on Matthew x. 9, 10: “Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses; nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat.” This discourse fixed the destiny of young Francis Bernardone – had a wonderful influence too, as we shall afterwards see, on the fortunes of Scotland; for if he had not established a monastic order in consequence, there would probably have been no friary at Dumfries, and in that case no slaughter of Comyn, and the pliant Lord of Annandale might never have grown into resolute heroism – never have ripened into the Bruce of Bannockburn. Francis, interpreting the Scriptural injunctions literally, gave up all his worldly goods, attired himself in coarse raiment, and, wandering the country round, begged from man and prayed to Heaven by turns: one of the first specimens of a mendicant friar which Europe had ever seen. He obtained a numerous train of followers – formed an order on his own self-sacrificing model, which, in further proof of his humility, he named Fratres Minores – as if they were too contemptible to be put on a footing of equality with the other religious brotherhoods. Devorgilla, a devotee herself, cordially sympathized with these poor ascetics. She had conceived the idea of building and endowing a magnificent abbey for monks of a more patrician class – the Cistercians: she resolved first to found a house for the lowly Franciscans, the fame of whose virtues and sacrifices had often been sounded in her ears, and had won her warmest admiration.

This monastery, though a small building as compared with Newabbey, had a handsome external aspect. In that respect it had no rival in Dumfries. The Castle had more strength than ornament; the smaller fortress, southward of the town, belonging to the Comyns, was a rough piece of masonry; and the primitive church, erected during the Scoto-Irish period, would be simply a square or oblong fabric, with probably a roof of thatch, and certainly with few pretensions to architectural beauty. The new religious house was erected westward of the Castle, near the head of the oldest street – still called on that account the Friars’ Vennel. It consisted of a range of cloisters, a refectory, a dormitory, with other necessary appendages; and there was added to it a church – not commonplace, like the other church, but made up of nave and aisle, chancel and choir: all in the Early English style, with prevailed for about eighty years after the disappearance of the Norman style, in the beginning of the thirteenth century.

Some time in the latter half of the same century, swarthy foreigners from the sunny South was seen mingling with the fair-complexioned Celts and Saxons of the town – in, but not of, the ordinary population. Their language, dress, and mode of life were alike strange: some of them spoke Norman-French, others the soft Italian tongue – in curious contrast to their rough attire, which consisted of a coarse grey grown having a hood of the same stuff, and fastened at the waist with a hempen cord by way of girdle. These grotesque-looking strangers were the original Grey Friars, the primitive tenants of the Monastery in the Vennel. Afterwards they would be joined by numerous recluses from the neighbourhood; and, when the foreign friars had acquired some knowledge of the native dialect, the order would enter upon its duties, which, as summarily expressed in the rules of its founder, were – “To live to preach, and beg to live.”

But the liberal lady who brought the brethren to Dumfries did not wish them to interpret these words too literally: she fancied that a fixed income would be an acceptable addition to precarious doles given by the charitable; and, accordingly, the house was endowed by her with the customs extracted at the bridge. The Nith was now no longer wild, untrammeled vagrant river, rioting wantonly over its eastern bank, playing at high jinks when it pleased, dashing its spray upon the lieges as they looked out of their little domiciles, and saying complacently to itself, “I shall have these encroaching houses down some day.”

The river was bridged; a beginning had been made of the embankment townward at the bottom of the Vennel; and though spring tides and Lammas freshets still at times turned the stream into an island sea, its destructive power was sensibly reduced, and, rage and foam as it might on such occasions, it could not get rid of the curb put upon it, or break the bond of stone which rose above its subject billows to unite Dumfriesshire with Galloway. The bridge was a colossal one, of nine arches, having no equal at that time in Scotland. [Appendix B.] Some of the workmen, who literally left their mark on the monastery, would probably be employed in its construction also. Three years were spent, fully five centuries afterwards, in erecting the new bridge over the Nith; and we may reasonably suppose that the building of the old bridge would occupy a still longer period. This latter structure helped to make Dumfries: it was thereby brought into a close relationship with Galloway, and became an important station on the leading highway between England and Scotland. The founder of Dumfries is unknown; its first royal patron was William the Lion, and the person to whom it was indebted next to him in mediŠval times was Devorgilla. Before the charters and the bridge a humble village – after them a thriving burgh.

In or prior to 1282, when other ten years or less had elapsed, Devorgilla gave yet another proof of her extraordinary munificence by establishing Balliol College, in the University of Oxford, so called in memory of her deceased husband, who was rarely absent from her thought. [The original building has long since disappeared, and in the existing College there is nothing earlier than the middle of the Fifteenth century. The foundation at present comprises a master, twelve fellows, and fourteen scholars, besides exhibitioners. – Walk through Oxford, p. 103.] The original deed embodying the statutes of the foundation is still extant, with an impression of Devorgilla’s seal attached – both precious relics. [Appendix C.] The impression of the seal – a double one, reproduced on the title page – is especially interesting: one side exhibits the arms of Baliol impaled with those of Galloway, the other a full-length figure, doubtless her own, holding up the shields of both families, one in each hand, with two more shields below; one consisting of three garbes, the other of three piles conjoined in point, and representing respectively the related house of Chester and Huntington. Wyntou [Cronykil, Book viii., e. 8.], Prior of Lochleven, states that Devorgilla was a comely personage – “rycht pleasand of bewtÚ;” that

    “A bettyr ladye than she, wes nane,
In all the yle of Mare Bertane.”

Pity that some of the lines in this miniature likeness have been so obliterated by “time’s effacing fingers,” that the nobility of mind which made her higher and richer far than her princely rank or her boundless wealth is not seen imprinted on the features; but the reflex of the eloquent eyes has been to some extent preserved, and the soul of the sainted lady seems, as it were, to look through them still, and through the mist of the long cycle that has intervened since she passed away from earth.

Devorgilla breathed her last at Barnard Castle in 1289. Her husband, John Baliol died at the same place twenty-one years before, and was buried there – all except the heart: which symbol of our emotional nature the sorrowful widow caused to be embalmed, and placed in a little ivory casket, and kept beside her as a daily companion, till the erection of Newabbey furnished for it a fitting shrine. It was built in over the high altar of that magnificent monumental fane: hence the romantic name it ever afterwards bore, Dulce Cor, or Sweetheart Abbey.

[“That ilke hart than, as men sayd,
Scho bawmyd, and gert it be layd
In-til a cophym of evore,
That she get be made there-for,
Annamalyd and perfectly dycht,
Lockyt and bwndyn with sylver brycht;
And alwayis quhau scho ghed til mete
That cophyne scho gert by hir sett;
And till hyr Lord, as in presens,
Ay to that she dyd reverens.”
Wyntoun’s Cronykil.] 

They brought the body of Devorgilla to her native Nithsdale, burying it within the walls of the Abbey, and placing upon the lady’s bosom her husband’s heart, in obedience to her dying wish: another affecting illustration of the strong love which made them one. A tombstone, of which there is left no certain trace, marked the spot, bearing upon it an inscription, which, unlike most epitaphs, did not recount one half of the virtues possessed by the lady who slept below. The epitaph, composed by Hugh de Burgh, Prior of Lanercost, ran as follows: -

  “In Devorvilla moritur sensate Sibilla,
Cum Marthaque pia, contemplative Maria;
Da Davorvillam requie, Rex summe potiri
Quam tegit iste lapis cor pariterque viri.”

“In Devorgil, a sybil sage doth die, as
Mary contemplative, as Martha pious;
To her, oh! Deign, high King, rest to impart
Whom this stone covers with her husband’s heart.”


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