Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter I


DUMFRIESSHIRE, about whose chief town this work is principally written, lies in an elliptical form on the north side of the Solway Frith, its greater diameter extending about fifty miles, from the mountain of Corsincon in Ayrshire to Liddel Moat in Roxburghshire; and its smaller diameter stretching from Loch Craig, on the confines of Peebleshire, to Carlaverock Castle, on the Solway – a distance of about thirty-two miles. It has a sea shore of fully twenty-one miles, running from the mouth of the river Nith, the Lochar, the Annan, and the Sark: [Singer’s Survey of Dumfriesshire, p. 2] its whole surface measuring 1,098 square miles.

The County is separated from Kireudbrightshire for several miles, on the south-west, by the water of Cairn, or Cluden; and from the point where that stream ceases to become its boundary line it is cinctured by a high mountain range, which breaks away westward from Cumberland into the south of Scotland – the only exception being an open part of Liddesdale, that slopes smoothly into the neighbouring shire of Roxburgh. At this exceptional point a frontier is supplied by the Liddel, and afterwards by the Liddel in conjunction with the Esk, till the line, coming overland westward, touches the Sark, runs with that stream to the sea, then follows the devious margin of the Solway till it terminates at the estuary of the Nith; the Sark becoming in its course not simply the fringe of the County in that direction, but the small, faint border-line which divides England from Scotland. Dumfriesshire comprehends the districts of Nithsdale, Annandale, and Eskdale: which natural divisions nearly agree with the ancient jurisdictions that prevailed; the first having been governed as a sheriffship, the second as a stewartry, and the third as a regality. Its population, which was 39,788 in 1755, had risen to 75,878 in 1861. There are fifty-three parishes in the Synod of Dumfries, ten of which are in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright; these ten, with seven that are in the County, making up the Presbytery of Dumfries. The Parish of Dumfries has an area of fifteen square miles: its population a hundred years ago was about 5,500; at the beginning of the current century it was little more than 7,000; it is now double that amount.

The Nith is the chief river of the County. Coming from its cradle among the mountains east of Dalmellington, in Aryshire, it describes a south-westerly course, watering by the way the Royal Burgh of Sanquhar, at the head of the dale, and further down the ducal village of Thornhill, around which the country opens well up – spacious plains, claiming with success ample room and verge from the highlands, that seem at points further north as if they wished to shut up the valley altogether. From an eminence westward of Thornhill the enormous mass of Drumlanrig Castle is seen, says Robert Chambers, looking down “with its innumerable windows upon the plain, like a great presiding idol” – the embodied genius of feudalism. One of the barrier ridges northward is pierced by the narrow gloomy pass of Enterkin, through which the sister vales of Nith and Clyde keep up precarious intercourse. Lower down, at Auldgirth Bridge, near Blackwood, the mountain ranges that environ the dale approach each other more closely, then recede, till round and below Dumfries a spacious plain, like that of “Lombardy in miniature,” is formed; differing chiefly from its beautiful Italian type in having a larger proportion of upland compared to its champaign country. [Fullarton & Co.’s Gazetteer of Scotland, vol. i., p. 425.] The Nith is swelled by numerous brooks at various stages of its course – its latest and greatest acquisition being the Cluden, a mile above Dumfries; and about eight miles below the Burgh the river falls into the Solway Frith: its entire course being forty-five miles.

An upland spot, where the counties of Lanark, Peebles, and Dumfries confront each other, gives birth to three streams, according to the popular rhyme,

                                    “Annan, Tweed, and Clyde,
                                     All arise from one hill-side.”

The Annan, after headlong rush from its highland home, five miles above the pretty watering-place of Moffat, is joined two miles below that town by several tributaries; it then proceeds more leisurely in a southerly direction down the dale to which it gives a name, and which, narrowed at first by rocks or ridges, expands into a wide fertile basin called the Howe of Annandale, studded with villages and spangled by the nine lakes of Lockmaben; Bruce’s ancient burgh and the town of Locherbie occupying conspicuous situations on its western and eastern sides. Other rivulets, including the Dryfe, give increased volume to the stream below Lochmaben; the valley narrowing again as the waters grow wider and deeper. When little more than a mile from its bourne in the sea, it waters the second town of Dumfriesshire, the Royal Burgh of Annan; the entire course of the river measuring nearly forty miles. The ancient stewartry of Annandale had a wider range than the valley of the Annan, as it comprised the tracts of country that lie eastward to the Sark, and westward along the Solway towards the Lochar.

Dumfriesshire is separated from England for fully a mile in extent by the Esk, which river, starting from the frontiers of Selkirkshire, takes a southern route, sweeps past the baronial town of Langholm, and after being a Scottish stream to the extent of thirty miles, it enters Cumberland, passes by Longtown, then takes a westward turn, and falls like its two sister rivers into the Solway. The length of the Esk is nearly forty miles: part of its lower waters, meandering through the Debatable Land, constitutes a portion of the Western Border; and often, as we shall have to notice, its waves ran red with blood to the sea, owing to its boundary position between two hostile nations.

Having given these brief sketches of Nithsdale, Annandale, and Eskdale, let us point out with a little more detail the position and aspect of the County town. Snugly built on the left bank of the river, eight miles above where it loses itself in the Solway, stands the Royal Burgh of Dumfries. When viewed from the neighbouring heights, especially those on the opposite Galloway side, the town with its environments forms a charming picture. The old Burgh is seen lying nestled in the plain below, bosomed in umbrageous woods, while gentle acclivities or bolder elevations rise like the seats of an amphitheatre on every side. Hill and dale contrast finely with each other; country and town seem linked in kindly fellowship – the handicraft creations of man mingling without harshness or abrupt transition with the inimitable works of nature; while here and there may be noticed a barren track or rugged peak, varying without impairing the attractiveness of the landscape. Nithsdale, with its queenly capital, looks indeed beautiful when seen at summer tide from such a “coign of vantage” – the sight suggesting the appreciative words of Burns: -

                                    “How lovely, Nith, thy fruitful vales!
                                                Where spreading hawthorns gaily bloom;
                                     How sweetly wind thy sloping dales!
                                                Where lambkins wanton through the broom.”

A range of hills far to the north, or left, is cleft by the river; and one of the separated portions, passing eastward, terminates in the heights of Mouswald; while the other, taking a western sweep, culminates in Criffel. Within the enclosure thus formed lies the oval-shaped strath itself; and after marking its fertile fields, its “lown,” sunny nooks, and its smiling groves, the eye rests with human interest on the spires and pinnacles, that tall chimneys and clustering domiciles, just below, where a “link” of the Nith is seen lying like a miniature lake – all telling that a hive of industry, busy though small, has its homestead in these vernal bowers. [Visitor’s Guide to Dumfries, p. 3.]

The Burgh, thus pleasantly situated, lies in the latitude of 55 degrees, 8 minutes, and 30 seconds north; its longitude being 3 degrees, 36 minutes, west. Its population at the date of the last census, in 1861, was 12,360. Maxwelltown, separated from it by the river, joins with it to form a Parliamentary Burgh. The Burghal constituency numbers 536, and the Parliamentary constituency 651. The population of the Royalty has rapidly increased since 1861, and may now be reckoned at about 13,500.

Such, in brief, are the aspect and size of the Burgh in 1866; and after this preliminary glance at it, the district with which it is associated, we must withdraw from the picture for a long while. Going far back into the misty depths of the past – the distant days of other years – we must endeavour to ascertain the origin of the town – see how it looked in its embryo state, when its first rude buildings threw shadows on the rising beach, or were mirrored in the river’s bosom; then follow its varying fortunes – mark its growth and periods of temporary decadence – till we can reproduce the sketch just laid aside, of Dumfries as it now is, and fill in a few details to render the likeness more complete.

No positive information has been obtained of the era and circumstances in which the town of Dumfries was founded. There are distinct traces of its existence as far back as the eleventh century; and it may be fairly inferred that it had its origin at a period much more remote – though we fear those writers who hold that it flourished as a place of distinction during the Roman occupation of North Britian, would experience great difficulty in establishing their hypothesis. It is not unlikely that the Selgovæ, who inhabited Nithdale and neighbouring districts at that time, and who, by means of their rude but strong forts, long resisted the legions of Agricola, may have raised some military works of a defensive nature on or near the site of Dumfries; and it is more than probable that a castle of some kind formed the nucleus of the town. This is inferred from the etymology of the name, which, according to the learned Chalmers, is resolvable into two Gaelic terms signifying a castle in the copse or brushwood. [Caledonia, vol. iii., p. 44.]

According to another theory, the name is a corruption of two words which mean the Friars’ Hill; those who favour this idea alleging that St. Ninian, by planting a religious house near the head of what is now the Friars’ Vennel, at the close of the fourth century, became the virtual founder of the Burgh; [MS. Lecture by Rev. H. Small, Dumfries.] but Ninian, so far as is known, did not originate any monastic establishments in Nithsdale or elsewhere, and was simply a missionary or evangelist on a great scale. In the list of British towns given by the ancient historian Nennius, the name Caer Peris occurs, which some modern antiquarians – without any sufficient warrant, we think – suppose to have been transmuted, by a change of dialect, into Dumfries. [Paper read by Mr. Skene before the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland, on the Early Frisian Settlements in Scotland.] Others, again, fancy that Bede alludes to the town when he states that St. Wilfred, a zealous North of England Bishop of the seventh century, held a Synod “juxta fluvium Nidd.” [Bede, Eccles, Hist., lib. V., cap. 20.] But, if so, it is singular that so careful a chronicler as Bede did not denote the town in more specific terms. Most likely the Nidd he speaks of is the river of that name in Yorkshire.

In connection with this question there is yet another hypothesis. When, in 1069, Malcolm Canmore and Williams the Conqueror held a conference respecting the claims of Edward Atheling to the English Crown, they met at Abernithi – a term which in the old British tongue means a port at the mouth of the Nith. [Redpath’s Border history, p. 63.] Surely, it has been argued, the town thus characterized must have been Dumfries; and therefore it must have existed as a port in the Kingdom of Strathclyde, if not in the older Province of Valentia. Unfortunately for this assumption, the town is situated eight or nine miles distant from the sea; and we cannot suppose that the estuary of the river was higher up in the eleventh century that it now is, whatever is may have been in the pre-historic ages. Some forgotten village called Albernithi may have, long since, looked out on the waters of the Solway; but that name could scarcely have been borne by the Burgh of whose origin we are in search.

In the earliest charter to the town, still extant – that of Robert III., dated 28th April, 1395 – the appellation given is “Burgi de Dumfreiss,” a form of spelling which, with one “s” omitted, continued in vogue till about 1780. During the reign of Alexander III. and the long interregnum which followed, the form nearly resembled that of the present day – the prefix being generally Dun or Dum, rather than Drum: thus, in a contemporary representation made to the English Government respecting the slaughter of John Comyn in 1305, the locality is described as “en l’eglise de Freres meneours de la ville de Dunfres;” [Sir Francis Palgrave’s Documents and Records Illustrative of the History of Scotland, p. 335.] and, thirty years afterwards, we read of the appointment of an official as “Vice Comitatus de Dumfres.” [Rotuli Scotiæ, vol. i., p. 271.] Such uncouth spellings of the name of Dunfreisch, Droonfreisch, and Drumfriesche, occasionally occur in old documents; but the variations are never so great as to leave any doubt as to the town that is meant; and nearly all more or less embody the idea of a “castle in the shrubbery,” [The only exception we have net with occurs in a Papal Bull issued against Bruce in 1320 for the homicide of Comyn, which is stated to have been perpetrated in the Minorite Church of “Dynifes.”] according to the etymology of Chalmers, which we accept as preferable to any other that has been suggested. [Chalmers’s words are: “This celebrated prefix Dun must necessarily have been appropriated to some fortlet, or strength, according to the secondary signification of that ancient work. The phrys of the British speech, and the kindred phreas of the Scoto, signify shrubs:  and the Dun-fres must consequently mean the castle among the shrubberies, or copsewood.” – Caledonia, vol. iii., p. 45.]

Whist we are unable to identify Dumfries with any organized community of Britons during the Roman period, there can be no doubt that the district in which it lies was for several centuries ruled over and deemed of much importance by the invading Romans. Apart from the written testimony on the subject, many traces of their presence in Dumfrisshire are still to be found; coins, weapons, sepulchral remains, military earthworks, and roads being among the relics left by that conquering and civilizing race of their lengthened sojourn in this part of Scotland. An interesting inquiry it would be to consider how far they intermingled with the aboriginal population, and let the impress of their genius on its living tide as well as on the material soil; and we may fairly hazard the supposition, that though the Romans visited the territory of the Selgovæ as enemies, they in course of time became in numerous instances friends and relatives by marriage, as well as conquerors. Thus, not only could the Dumfriesians of a later date speak of their Celtic, Cimbrian, British, Saxon, and Norman ancestors, but they might, in common with those of some other Scottish districts, have claimed blood-relationship with the masters of the world. The apostle Paul claimed rank and privilege as a Roman citizen on account of his birth at Tarsus; and it is a curious fact that the Caledonian tribes in the south of Scotland were invested with the same rights by an edict of Antoninus Pius.

In all, twenty-one British tribes occupied North Britain during the first century of the Christian era, and remained for ages afterwards the chief occupiers of the soil. Five of them, including the Selgovæ, subdued by the arms and civilized by the arts of Rome, occupied the extensive range of country which stretched from the rampart of Severus to the wall of Antonine, and was called the Province of Valentia by Theodosuis, in honour of his imperial colleague Valens. These Romanized Britons of Dumfriesshire, Galloway, and the land further north, to the Frith of Forth on the east and the Frith of Clyde on the west, received freedom as well as civilization from their Italian conquerors. That the subjugated people were treated generously, is proved by the circumstance that they were, as we have said, made citizens of the Empire; and, as further evidence of the same fact, they were permitted to choose their own chief governor, or pendragon – whose rule, however, was often challenged by the district chiefs, though rarely interfered with by the Roman Emperors – that is to say, we suppose, when the tribute due by the province was promptly paid.

Late in the fourth century, the masterful race who had exercised a beneficial influence on Valentia took farewell of the country. The Empire, undermined by luxury, and harassed by barbarous hordes from the north of Europe, was falling to pieces; and its ruler Constantine, who for a time resided in Britain, left its shores, taking with him the flower of his army – all the forces belonging to Rome, in various parts of the world, being needed for its defence. Then the Britons of Valentia, whom the Romans had helped to protect when assailed by the Scots from Ireland and their Caledonian neighbours in the North, found themselves in an unenviable predicament. The sixteen aboriginal tribes who had never acknowledged the Roman yoke, and remained as barbarous as they were brave, did not relish the idea of being shut out of the rich district that lay south of the Rampart of Severus. Impelled by acquisitiveness and a love of adventure, a portion of them, under the name of Picts, sailed down the Frith of Forth in their canoes and curraghs; whilst others of them, still more resolute, scaled the interposing wall; and soon the Britons found, to their dismay, that their hitherto happy district was overrun by painted savages, carrying with them fire and sword.

The Picts repeatedly ravaged Valentia in all its borders, and doubtless the Nith was often stained by the blood they shed; and if, at this early period, as some of our chroniclers assert, the drum or acclivity on which Dumfries now stands was occupied by a fortress, there would, we may suppose, be many a fierce struggle for its possession.

The Valentians were unable to shut out the invaders from their territory; and the latter, though powerful enough to plunder and slay, were not sufficiently organized to take complete possession of the land. They were wild marauding clans, held together by common instincts rather than by a regular form of government, or even the asserted supremacy of a ruling chief. It is probably owing to this circumstance that the Britons of the far north, the un-Romanized Caledonians or Picts (for these are probably the same people under different names [Caledonia, vol. ii., p. 6.]), did not conquer the south of Scotland. Had they done so, and established their authority over the whole country, the tide of its civilization would have been rolled centuries backwards, and Scotland could scarcely ever, in the nature of things, have occupied a high position in the scale of nations. The brave defence made by the Selgovæ and their allies, combined with the disorganization of the Picts, kept Valentia from being thrown back into barbarism, and saved the sceptre of the future kingdom for better hands – those of the Scots, a people of the same Celtic origin as the Britons, who had long been settled in Ireland, had frequently sent over to Galloway and other parts of Britain shoals of adventurers, and who eventually, after subduing their Pictish rivals, conquered the Britons also, and gave their rule and name to the entire country, from the Promontory of Orcas to the Wall of Antonine.

We must, however, confine our attention at present to the fortunes of the primitive inhabitants of Dumfriesshire. Two of the tribes with whom they were associated, the Ottadini an Gadeni, though able to hold their own against the Picts, were subdued by the Saxons from Northumbria, who, after defeating them at the battle of Cattraeth, occupied their territory, which lay between the Tweed and Forth. Thus Valentia came to be restricted to Teviotdale, Dumfriesshire, Galloway, Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Strathclyde, and parts of Stirlingshire and Dumbartonshire. This district, still a very extensive one, was called Regnum Cambrense, the Kingdom of Cumbria, and sometimes the Kingdom of Strathcluyd, its metropolis being Alcluyd, which the Scoto-Irish subsequently called Dunbritton, the fortress of Britons – hence the modern name of the town, Dumbarton. For at least a century after the Scots had established their supremacy over the rest of the country, the Strathcluyd Britons maintained their independence. The Saxons and Danes sometimes invaded their territory; and the former appear to have subdued a portion of it at the close of the seventh century, and to have partially colonized Dumfriesshire, or, as Chalmers says, to have scattered over it “a very thin settlement.” [Calndonia, vol. iii., p. 61.]

A century later, however, we find members of their royal family intermarrying with those of the Scottish monarch – a proof that the Selgovæ and their kinsmen were still a powerful race. Gradually, however, their strength became reduced, and their dominions circumscribed. The nuptial alliances made with the neighbouring sovereigns proved a new source of weakness to the dispirited Britons, as they were the means of introducing amongst them so many Scots that they could scarcely call the place their own. The strangers settled in great numbers throughout Galloway, and not a few of them passed from that province to the left bank of the Nith, till all the southern portion of Strathcluyd seemed to be on the verge of a peaceful social revolution.

The Cumbrians were almost subdued by the new comers before they fairly realized their danger; and, thoroughly jostled out of the territory which their race had colonized and occupied for many centuries before the Christian era, they arranged with Gregory, King of Scots, to leave it and seek asylum from their British countrymen in Wales. Whilst on their sorrowful journey southward, they were seized with home sickness – repented that they had tamely yielded up their rich heritage, and resolved to win it back or perish, rather than pine in exile. A report reached them that the King of Scots had, after their departure, disbanded his army, and was therefore defenceless – which news either originated or confirmed their determination to retrace their steps.   

Our historians do not exactly agree in their account of subsequent events; but they concur in stating that after the expatriated Britons has re-entered their territory, and plundered the new settlers to a large extent, they heard with alarm that Gregory had collected a considerable force, and was hastening to overtake them. The tidings proved to be correct. The infuriated monarch fell upon them at the place now occupied as Lochmaben: a brief but sanguinary struggle ensued, which ended in the utter rout of the Britons, Constantine their king falling among heaps of slain. His followers who escaped the battle were slaughtered in the pursuit, few of them being spared to tell the tale; but the huge Tumuli, still visible at the scene of the contact, [Statistical Account, vol. iii., p. 241.] tell of the terrible carnage in which the vengeance of Gregory was slaked, and the Kingdom of Cumbria annihilated. [Buchanan’s History of Scotland, book vi., chap. xi.; and Chalmers’s Caledonia, vol. iii., p. 61.] After this decisive engagement, which took place in the year 890, the Britons existed no more as a separate people in Scotland; and the government of that country began to be consolidated and directed by a single sovereign.

In is not to be supposed, however, that the British element was, by this memorable exodus and overthrow, entirely blotted from the population of Dumfriesshire. Many of the Cumbrians formed matrimonial alliances with the dominant Scots, and many others would probably remain in the district while the great body of their countrymen went on their forlorn expedition to Wales. We think there is every reason to believe that the people who lived in it for eleven centuries at least, and were the first to settle in it, of which history takes notice, became nearly as much as either the Scoto-Irish or the Saxons the progenitors of the existing race; and if they are thus in one sense continuing to occupy a part of the soil, which they long exclusively held, we know that their language still survives in the names of rivers, streams, mountains, and headlands, most of which in Dumfriesshire and Galloway are British: the nomenclature of the first colonists thus remaining unchanging by the conflicts of race or the flight of ages.

Return to Book Index


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus