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Walks in Burns Country
Riverside
Approx 2.5 miles


Follow the steps of Robert Burns, 'The National Bard of Scotland'

As drawn up by The Burns Howff Club of Dumfries (Approx 1mile, 1.6km)

The fountain in the High Street, is the starting-place for all our walks about Dumfries and for this walk we examine the attractions of the other side of the river, starting by moving in a Southerly direction down the High Street towards Shakespeare Street, where we turn right and go down to the Whitesands - the area on this the east side of the river. Turning left at the Whitesands, we move in the direction of St. Michael's Bridge, or towards the traffic lights at the entrance to the bridge.

On the east side of the river, i.e. on this side, we see, across the Bridge Road, the Dockpark or Dock Green, which, in his day, was a favourite walk of Robert Burns. In the Dockpark or Dock Green is a memorial stone reminding us of the White Star 'Titanic', which left Southampton on her maiden voyage for New York on 10th April, 1912. Four days later, at 11.40pm, she collided with an iceberg and sank two and a half hours later. The loss of life was appalling and few towns were untouched by the tragedy. John Law Hume and Thomas Mullin, natives of Dumfries and Maxwelltown, went down with the ship. An obelisk in the Dockpark was erected in their memory.

We now retrace our footsteps, this time going across the bridge and turning left at the traffic lights - along to Troqueer Church. This Church has been in existence as an ecclesiastical unit for a very long time, possibly for as long as a thousand years. Therefore, it is not surprising that no specific date can be assigned for its foundation; nor is this remarkable, when it is remembered that this parish, like all others in Scotland, was involved in the revolutionary turmoil of the Reformation and the century that followed. Nothing like a continuous history of the parish can be traced in the years preceding that momentous event in the Church's history. There are, however, enough sporadic references to let us know that the Church of Troqueer was there all the time, carrying on its work and witness in these very distant days. The parish was called, very largely as a matter of personal taste or inclination, either Troqueer, Troquire, Troqueir or Troquer.

John Blackadder was minister of Troqueer Church during the time of the Covenanters, when, like many others of his brethren, he was thrust out by the Act which is commonly called the Drunken Act of Glasgow - that was in 1662. After this Blackadder went and preached in the fields, where he had numerous meetings, particularly at the Hill of Beath, in Fife, in the year 1670. Blackadder was caught and appeared before a tribunal in Edinburgh, where he was sentenced to be banished to the Bass Rock, where he died in the year 1686. He was buried in North Berwick, where a handsome tombstone still marks his grave, bearing the following epitaph:- 'Here lies the body of John Blackadder, minister of the Gospel at Troqueer in Galloway, who died on the Bass after five years imprisonment, anno dom. 1686, and of his age sixty-three years.'

As we enter the gate to Troqueer Churchyard, we see, on our right, the graves and tombstones of William McDowall and, just slightly further on and also on the right, John Syme. McDowall was the Dumfries' historian while John Syme was one of Burns' greatest friends, who, besides having his Stamp Shop below Burns' Bank Street house, accompanied him on his tour of Galloway. Syme was also a member of the Mausoleum Committee, 'formed for the purpose of taking into consideration the measure of opening a subscription for erecting a Mausoleum over Burns' remains in St. Michael's churchyard, Dumfries'.

When the Hitler War began in 1939, and Norway was invaded, the Norwegian Army came to Scotland and was stationed in Dumfries. Troqueer Church was their place of worship. Troqueer manse was a second home for many of them and Mr. and Mrs. Wilson kept open house every Friday and Saturday evening, where very many enjoyed their hospitality. The Norwegian Army left Dumfries in 1942 and Major O Myrseth, on behalf of the army, spoke of the many kindnesses shown to them during their stay in Dumfries. They then presented the Kirk Session and Congregation of Troqueer with a handsome baptismal font bearing the inscription:

'To Troqueer Church
in gratitude
from the Norwegian Army
1940-1941
When exiled from our own country
we found in this House of God
Peace and Strength.'

We now re-trace our steps and carry straight on through the traffic lights in a Northerly direction, and this brings us to Church Street.

Approximately 100 yards along Church Street we come to Dumfries Museum. Before entering the Museum itself, we see almost facing us the 'Old Mortality' Statuary Group. This was a work by John Corrie (or Currie), who was trained in his native village of Lochfoot, some 5 miles west of Dumfries, but showed an artistic bent from the beginning. He was commissioned to execute a group of 'Old Mortality' for Balmaclellan village, and while on work at this he completed this group which he raffled. The tickets for the raffle in 1840 were 6d and the lucky or unlucky winner was Dr. John Sinclair, a young naval surgeon, who was involved in a gig accident at Titchfield, dying almost immediately, unaware of the fact that on the previous day a ticket which he had bought had won the lottery. When purchasing it, he had said that if he won it he would present it to the Observatory (founded in 1835), and, on his death, his family duly presented it, in accordance with his wish, and as a memorial to him.

The Museum's Camera Obscura is deservedly one of its main attractions, so it may be of interest to give a little background information on it. Why is the Camera Obscura, now the oldest astronomical obscura of its type still in use in the entire world, now the only part of the original observatory in everyday activity? Probably because obscurae (this one made by Morton of Kilmarnock and installed in 1836) attract the general public and continue to do so through great changes. Those who, on the obscura screen, watched shipping on the river at the Whitesands in the 1830s or timber rafted up to the yards, blankets being tramped out in large tubs or the bustle of the cattle or horses at the markets on the 'Sands', were a different audience from that of today, accustomed as it is to photography, film and television. Yet the appeal of moving mirrored image in the dark room - and that is all that Camera Obscura means - is as strong as ever, and the sight on one's own car sitting at the gate calls out the same exclamation of pleasure as did the horse carriages of 1836. Though 'members of the working classes' were not officially admitted until the late 1840s, and then only on certain days of the week, it is clear from the beginning, every one from artisan or farmer to country laird or visiting notable, has taken a tremendous interest in the screen in the dark room.

You dare not depart from the Museum complex without visiting the Museum itself. Over a fairly recent period it has found a home for the collections of the Grierson Museum at Thornhill, Langholm Museum, the small Folk Museum at Moffat and the late Major Olaus Myrseth's (Norway) Folk Museum, each of which sadly had to close. The Dumfries Museum was founded in 1835 as an astronomical observatory and museum, sited in the 18th century stone windmill at the top of Corberry Hill. The tower rooms were furnished with show cases in 1842 and the mill hall was added in 1862, to house the collections of newly-formed Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. The Museum was taken over by the Town Council of the Royal Burgh of Dumfries in 1934 and with various re-organisations, has changed hands several times. The Museum's collections now cover Dumfries and Galloway, an area some 110 miles from East to West and 45 miles North to South, with 210 miles of coastline.

Leaving the Museum and carrying on along Church Street, we turn down the steps a little further off Church Street on the right, now Millbrae Street, and, on the bank of the Nith, we find ourselves at the Robert Burns Centre.

This exhibition centre, with its multi-projector audio-visual theatre diorama, together with exhibits devoted to and remembering Robert Burns, was opened in 1986 by Princess Alexandra. It contains a book shop, restaurant and display areas on the ground and upper floors. Many of the relics formerly displayed in Burns' Burns Street home have been transferred to this location. Admission is free, but there is a small charge for the audio-visual theatre. The Centre was formerly the Old Town Mill of Dumfries destroyed by fire during the previous year. It was in use as a corn mill until 1911, using water from the nearby Nith to power the grinding-wheel. In 1911, however, it was converted into a hydro-electric station. The giant fly-wheel from the electricity wheel ex the electricity works is preserved and can be seen opposite the Centre. In 1987, it was proposed to construct a dock between the Centre and the river for the permanent exhibition of the replica of Patrick Miller's steamboat, after it was incorporated as a maritime exhibit at the Glasgow Garden Festival of 1988. This, unfortunately, never came to pass because of technical and other reasons.

While we are at the Burns Centre, if we glance behind us to the South, we will see a park with fallow deer. This was an excellent idea of the Council in 1969, and the fallow deer, having been chosen because of their composed nature, came reluctantly to Dumfries and took some time to settle into their new environment (especially getting out of the van which conveyed them from Edinburgh to Dumfries). They are now, however, well-settled and content in their present location.

Proceeding North along the bank of the Nith, we come, on the right, to the Old Bridge and the Old Bridge House Museum. With the Town Council worrying about the safety of the bridge, James Birkmire, a barrel-maker living in Bridgend, the suburb on the west bank of the river, had begun building a house against the end of the bridge, projecting slightly onto the roadway. On the 14th of May, 1660, the Council ordered him to pull back the line of the house front, permitting him to build out an equivalent distance at the back. A few weeks later the house was complete, and, on the 27th of August, the Town granted him a feu of the house, i.e. he held it on payment of annual feu-duty - on condition that he prevented heavy loads of timber coming over the bridge until the Town Council had been told about it.

The house retains many of its original features. The outline of the original arched doors and windows can be seen half buried on the bridge side of the house - the bridge roadway has been heightened many times since 1660. Some of the original timbers can be seen in the ceiling of the downstairs kitchen and the double floor of the attic is packed with an insulating layer of rye chaff. Boulders at the corner of the building, to fend off the Grain Wagons going to and from the mills, can also be seen.

The house functioned mainly as an inn, until the end of the nineteenth century, when it again became a dwelling-house. The last occupant, who lived in the upper part of the house (the lower having been empty for a number of years) died in early 1959. The house was so closely tied to the Old Bridge, a scheduled ancient monument, that it could not be demolished, and it was converted into a museum of town life: the stairway, which, over the years, had been walled in and hidden, was re-discovered and the two houses reverted to one.

Although minor changes in the use of the six rooms have been made at various times since, the basic principle of period rooms has been adhered to.

On the top floor is a 16th-18th century room, a 1900 kitchen and a dentist's room, constructed from the surgery of Dr. Dykes, a local dentist: on the lower floor, an 1850 kitchen, an 1870 bedroom and a childhood room, undoubtedly the most popular with the younger children.

Not only did Devorgilla, daughter of Allan McDowall, first Lord of Galloway, erect the Franciscan Monastery in the vennel off the Whitesands, but the Old Bridge, which is almost in line with the vennel and which we now cross, but she also erected Sweetheart Abbey in the village of New Abbey. Passing along the venerable bridge, we notice that its remaining arches are all of a different pattern, and that it looks the age that history assigns to it. Beaten by winds and floods of seven centuries, and necessarily frail, the bridge is still serviceable for foot passengers. There is a general belief, when built, around 1280, it consisted of thirteen arches; but, though it was said to have been, at the time, the most magnificent structure of its kind in Scotland, we have seen evidence which forces us to conclude that it never had more than nine arches, even though Mr. Pemberton, an English traveller, assigns to it the traditional baker's dozen. Robert Burns' friend, Captain Grose, took notes of it in 1789, and a small gate, called the Port, which figured in the picture he had been taken down some twenty years before 'in order to lessen the weight on the bridge, which was then found to be in a tottering state'.

If, while crossing the bridge and going across to the Whitesands, we cast our eyes to the right, and see the CAUL, which was built to act as a weir to power the Old Walk Mill, now demolished, but was later used to drive turbine which in turn generated electricity which served the Town until the introduction of the Grid System. The date of its construction was approx. 1600.

When we come off the bridge and walk across the Whitesands, we come almost directly opposite to a street or vennel going Eastwards to the High Street. This is FRIARS' VENNEL. This is unquestionably the most ancient portion of the Town; we are therefore inclined to think that it and a small part of the High Street, with a few adjoining outskirts, formed the Dumfries of the eleventh century. A spate in the Nith was (and still is) a serious visitation and the Vennel (Friar's Vennel that is) looked like a miniature canal - the impetuous waves threatening to invade the row of little cabins which then occupied the area, halfway up at Irish Street, or, as it was in those days, St. David's Street. Some time in the latter half of the thirteenth century, swarthy foreigners from the sunny South were seen mingling with the (air-complexioned Celts and Saxons of the Town. 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 rough grey gown, having a head of the same materials, and fastened at the waist with a hempen cord by way of a girdle. These grotesque looking strangers were the original Grey Friars, the primitive tenants of the Monastery at the top of the Vennel, and from which the Vennel and the Church at the top on the left, got their names. Afterwards they would he joined by numerous recluses from the neighbourhood, and when the foreign friars had acquired some knowledge of the local dialect, the order would enter upon its duties, which, as summarily expressed in the rules of its founder, were 'to live to preach, and to beg to live'.

At the Northern corner of Friars' Vennel and Irish Street stood the last of the projecting tenements, a very ancient building, the gable of which was built over one of the pillars of the gateway of the Monastery of the Minorite Friars, which pillar was plainly visible until the house was demolished in 1862.

At the top of Friars' Vennel we come again to the High Street, and, leaving old Dumfries behind, turn right and past the Midsteeple, reach the Fountain at which our walk commenced.


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