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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter XLVIII


AT Michaelmas, 1783, a gentleman was elevated to the provostship, who, for more than a generation afterwards, took a leading part in public affairs - Mr. David Staig. If, during much of that time, any one deserved to be termed the king of the town, it was he. It is related of a member of Council, who, being rather deaf, could not well hear the discussions, that he habitually asked, before a vote came to be taken, "What does Provost Staig say? I say the same as Provost Staig." And to many councillors besides this openly subservient one, Mr. Staig's word was law. He had a fair share of natural abilities; was shrewd, inventive, enterprising, politic, fond of power, not insensible to flattery; was, withal, warm-hearted and virtuous - using his influence, so far as his judgment went, for the advancement of the public weal. For upwards of forty years he represented the Bank of Scotland in the Burgh - and was thus a monetary potentate, with a host of most obedient subjects; and but for the electoral law, that prohibited one man from being chief magistrate longer than one year, or two at most together, under a penalty of a thousand pounds Scots, he might have reigned as provost for life.

The first important undertaking with which his name is closely associated, was a measure to provide for the paving, cleansing, lighting, and watching of the Burgh, for which there had long been a felt necessity. It received from Mr. Staig a hearty advocacy; and when the Council agreed to apply to Parliament in the matter, he and Mr. Aitken, town clerk, were sent to London for that purpose; and also to obtain, if possible, another renewal of the duty on ale and tonnage, which was about to expire, and which had become more than ever a necessary item of the revenue. Thanks to the energy of the deputation, and the valuable assistance rendered by William, Duke of Queensberry, Sir James Johnston of Westerhall, member for the Burghs, and Lord Kinnaird, an Act of Parliament for the joint objects aimed at was obtained-the police portions of it taking effect from 1788. [The Act was a very costly affair. Exclusive of personal charges, the expense was 421 12s.; contrasting seriously with the outlay for the Ale Act, in 1737, which was only 157, and for its renewal, 270, in 1762. Besides, Mr. Aitken was paid 26 5s. for drawing the bill, and for loss of time in going to London; which, with the expenses incurred when staying there seven weeks, and for travelling, increased the entire charge against the town to 550 - one third of which was charged on the police rate to be henceforth levied, one third on the ale duty, and the remaining third on the tonnage.]

In the rank and file of the merchant councillors; there was a man of a far higher stamp than the civic chief. His name first appears associated with town matters in the following minute:- "29th September, 1789. - The said day, Patrick Miller, Esq., of Dalswinton, one of the four new merchant ,councillors, before being sworn in, was admitted a burgess in the usual manner, and accepted and gave his oath of burgessship in the ordinary way, and promised to keep a sufficient gun and sword for the defence of the town when called for; and the Council, for good services done and to be done by the said Patrick Miller, remit the burgess composition payable by him." Well might the members of Council pay this compliment to their illustrious colleague, "for good services done." He had already, by improving his estate of Dalswinton, a few miles from Dumfries, set a noble example to the agriculturists of the district; and had, just a few months before, launched on a lake formed by him out of a noxious swamp, the first paddlepropelled vessel ever made-the product of his mechanical genius, and the pioneer of those magnificent steamers that have revolutionized the commerce of the world. [Attempts have been made in our own day to rob Mr. Miller of his claim to be considered the originator of steam navigation; but that he not only invented the paddle-wheel, but was the first to propose the application of steam to it as a motive, power, has, we think, been proved satisfactorily. As early as February, 1787, Mr. Miller published a pamphlet, in which, after describing his proposed mode of propelling ships, he said: "I have reason to believe that the power of the steam-engine may be applied to work wheels so as to give them a quicker motion, and consequently to increase that of the ship. In the course of this summer I intend to make the experiment; and the result, if favourable, shall be communicated to the public." During that year Mr. James Taylor, for whom the credit has been claimed of suggesting the application of steam to the wheels instead of manual power, was engaged as tutor at Dalswinton; and when Mr. Miller's invention was put to a practical test, in October, 1788, Mr. Taylor furnished the subjoined notice of the great event to the Dumfries Journal:-" The following is the result of an experiment no less curious than new. On the 14th instant, a boat was put in motion by a steamengine upon Mr. Miller's (of Dalswinton) piece of water at that place. For some time past, his attention has been turned to the application of the steamengine to the purposes of navigation. He has now accomplished and evidently shown to the world the practicability of this, by executing it on a small scale: a vessel twenty-five feet long and seven broad, was on the above (late driven with two wheels by a small engine. It answered Mr. Miller's expectations fully, and afforded great pleasure to the spectators present. The engine used is Mr. Symington's new patent engine." In this and other instances, Mr. Taylor gave Mr. Miller the undivided honour of the invention; and it seems sufficiently clear that Mr. Symington's connection with it was simply that of a practical mechanic.]

In the spring of 1796, the Burgh once again suffered from a dearth of food, and consequent disturbances. For several seasons before, the harvest was deficient; and, in consequence, oatmeal, the staple of the district, rose from about its usual price of 1s. 10d. a stone to 2s. 6d. - a large sum at a time when labourers earned barely 1s. a day, and few tradesmen so much as 2s. Even in ordinary years, it was customary for the Town Council to store up grain or meal, when they could get a good bargain, in order to retail it at or below prime cost to the inhabitants ; and when a pinch came, or was threatened, the Council used special diligence to obtain supplies. On the 2nd of February, 1795, the Council, at the instance of Mr. Staig, laid in 10,000 stones of meal, he liberally advancing the purchase-money. Before the year closed, this large supply was exhausted; the renewed scarcity was rendered less endurable by the rigour of a December day : a resolution was therefore adopted to purchase no fewer than 16,000 additional stones of meal. Mr. Staig once more furnished means for so doing; and a public subscription was opened towards the expense of selling out the meal, and paying the interest on the money advanced for its purchase. Whilst these patriotic arrangements were being made by the Council, the lower classes, either ignorant or mistrustful of them, and suffering the pains of a protracted scarcity, rose to riot and pillage in almost the same manner as is described in a preceding chapter. The alarming saturnalia began on Saturday, the 12th of March, 1796, became increasingly violent on Sabbath the 13th, and were with difficulty suppressed in the evening of the latter day. On Monday, the 14th, the Council met with the Sheriff-Substitute of the County and several justices, to devise means for allaying the prevailing excitement, and to prevent further breaches of the peace. Among other steps taken by them for these purposes, they issued a printed notice of the following tenor:- "Disturbances of a very serious nature having taken place within this Burgh and the neighbourhood, about the want of meal, the Sheriff-Substitute of this Shire, sundry justices of the peace for the County, and also the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, and the magistrates and Town Council of Dumfries, think it necessary to give this public intimation, that a very large quantity of meal is now purchased by the town for the supply of the inhabitants until a new crop comes in, and that it will be sold out as the necessities of the community require. Notice is also given, that if, after this intimation, the tumults which have already taken place are persevered in, the civil power will think it incumbent on it to call in the assistance of the military, to repel such outrages; and it is earnestly requested, that all heads of families keep within doors their servants and children." The authorities, on the following day, issued an address to farmers, "requesting, in the most anxious manner, that such of them as have quantities of meal to spare, will, without loss of time, send the same into the town of Dumfries to be sold in the market place;" a word of caution being added to the inhabitants "not to impede, hinder, or molest farmers or dealers from bringing their meal to market."

At a conference which the Provost held some time previously with the members of "The Practical Farming Society of the Shire of Dumfries and Stewartry of Kirkcudbright," they had signified their readiness to supply the Burgh "with meal sufficient for the consumpt thereof, at the market and selling price," only objections had been taken to the mode in which certain dues were levied at the market. No sooner were the sacks of meal, pease, beans, and potatoes set down there for sale, than in came the Calcraft of the day armed with a capacious iron ladle, which he dipped into each sack, and depositing what was drawn from them in a wallet of his own, walked off: thus in a legal but repulsive manner tithing the staff of life in part payment of his services as the dread minister of death to evil doers. Many abortive attempts had been made by farmers and grain-dealers to get rid of these exactions; and on one occasion, in 1781, when the executioner, Roger Wilson, was about to levy his dues, he was violently opposed by a dealer named Johnston, who refused to let the detested ladle of the detested functionary pollute his meal-bag, and was sent to jail in consequence-from which, however, he was soon liberated, as lie threatened to prosecute the magistrates for wrongous imprisonment.

There being a likelihood that this opposition would be followed up by others, the Council asked advice on the whole matter from the distinguished advocate, Mr. Andrew Crosbie of Holm (the Pleydell of "Guy Mannering," as we have already explained). In the memorial laid before him, the following among other statements were made --"The town have a common executioner or hangman, who executes not only the sentences pronounced by the magistrates of the Burgh, and of the King's judges on their circuits, but also the sentences of the sheriff, and of the justices of the peace at their quarter-sessions. The town has been in use to pay his house rent, and a salary over and above. Roger Wilson, the present executioner, has since he was admitted received from the town 6 of salary, and 1 13s. 4d. for a house rent. Over and above this salary and rent, he and his predecessors have been in use of levying and receiving weekly-to wit, each market day, being Wednesday-the full of an iron ladle out of each sack of meal, pease, beans, and potatoes, and the same as to flounders. ... Nor is it known how the custom came to be introduced, whether there ever was any agreement thereanent betwixt the town and County; but certain it is, that such custom or tax has been levied past the memory of the oldest people without quarrel or dispute till Wednesday." The resistance given by Johnston to the tax is stated, and the memorialists then proceed to say:- "As there appears a fixed resolution and conspiracy to resist and forcibly obstruct the levy of this usual custom, and as it is of some importance, being, according o the executioner's own account, worth upwards of 13 yearly, the magistrates and Council request the advice of counsel how to act in the business."

In answer to this memorial and queries annexed to it, Mr. Crosbie expressed his belief that an officer of the law can acquire right to duties "established by custom upon no other title than that of his office;" and that therefore the Dumfries executioner had a clear right to the market dues "that have been levied by himself and predecessors in office from time immemorial." He, however, though approving of what had been done to Johnston, counselled a more formal course of procedure towards future delinquents, adding: "If the officers, when assisting the hangman in his exactions, are deforced, the deforcers may be committed to prison and tried criminally by the magistrates for the deforcement." The opinion thus obtained was acted upon with good effect; but the question continued in an unsettled state till, at the juncture which arose in 1796, Provost Staig, with characteristic sagacity, proposed to surrender the obnoxious tribute; and the Council concurring, it was forthwith abolished. In lieu of the dues, Joseph Tait, the then executioner and the last functionary of his kind placed on the regular staff of the Burgh officials, was allowed 2 a year in addition to his former salary. At the close of March, the meal purchased by the town was sold to labourers at 2s. 6d. per stone, and to the higher classes at 3s.; by midsummer it fell to 2s.; and before the season's crop was gathered in, it rose to 2s. 4d. and 2s. 6d. But we do not read of any further food riots occurring; and it may be fairly inferred that peace, with comparative plenty, was enjoyed by the Burgh during many after years. It was acknowledged on all hands that Mr. Staig was "the pilot who weathered the storm " at this tumultuous period. The County magistrates concurred with those of the town in thanking him for "his cool and steady conduct" whilst the tempest raged ; and a massive silver epergne, value 80, was voted to him by the Council as a token of their gratitude for this and other valuable services rendered by him to the Burgh.

The closing years of the century were distinguished by something better than bread riots-more especially the building of a handsome bridge over the Nith. As the traffic of the town year after year increased, the old bridge, on which much of it was thrown, became the less able to bear the burden. The venerable pile had withstood the flood below, and borne its living tide of passengers, for fully five hundred years. It required and deserved rest and relief; and the Burgh and the district needed more accommodation than its narrow thoroughfare supplied. Not only the Burgh of Dumfries, but the County, and the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, went heartily into the movement for a new bridge as soon as the subject was fairly mooted, in 1790. A committee of thirteen gentlemen, made up of representatives from each, managed the undertaking. The contractors engaged by them-Mr. Thomas Boyd, architect, who furnished the design, and Mr. William Stewart, mason-became bound to build the bridge for 3,735; but owing to alterations in the plan, and unlooked-for difficulty in founding one of the piers, a much greater outlay was incurred. Besides, in order to make a suitable access at each end, land and houses had to be purchased at a dear rate, by which the expense was still further swelled; so that the enterprise came to be a very serious one in a pecuniary sense. The Burgh, the County, and the Stewartry contributed 1,000 each to the fund; the Government, after many pressing representations, gave a similar sum; individual subscriptions being relied upon to make up the rest. In presence of vast crowds stationed on both banks of the river, and on the old bridge, the foundation stone of the fabric was laid with masonic honours. [The stone bore a Latin inscription, of which we append a translation:- "By the will of Almighty God, in the reign of the most august prince George Ill., and in a most flourishing period of the British empire, the foundation stone of the bridge over Nith, to be built for public convenience, and at the joint expense of the County and town of Dumfries and Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, was laid (amidst the acclamations of a numerous concourse of spectators) by Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch, Esq., grand master of the mason lodges constituted in the southern district of Scotland, accompanied by a respectable body of the order, on the 19th August, of the Christian era, 1791-from the institution of masonry, 5791. May the undertaking be fortunate and prosperous, and merit the approbation of posterity."]

For awhile the work went smoothly onward ; but when, at the close of 1792, preparations were made for founding the abutment nearest Dumfries, it was discovered that the rock, which was easily reached on the Galloway or west side, sloped away to such a depth on the east as to be virtually inaccessible. With the view of getting a solid resting-place for the abutment, a proposal was made to place it eight or ten feet further west, at the risk of spoiling the symmetry of the bridge, by contracting its three mid arches to that extent. On a day in July, 1793, when the Nith was low, a final trial was made: thirty men working at three ordinary pumps, and twelve at a chain pump, whilst the contractors drove down an iron rod in search of the coveted sandstone. The water, as if jealous of the operations, would and did rush in, spite of all the pumping, which proved as ineffectual to keep it out as were the webs of silken cloth and twine to save the Scotch king's ship from the destructive tide.

["They fetched a web o' the silken claith,
Anither o' the twine,
And they wapped them into the gude ship's side;
But aye the sea came in."
- Sir, Patrick Spens.]

In the words of the committee's report, "the water came pouring in on all sides so fast, that the workmen had much difficulty in emptying it; and it appeared that the further they went down, the greater quantity of water came in." Though the rod was driven down nineteen feet four inches below the surface of low water, "there appeared no certainty of reaching the freestone rock, and the quantity of water that issued from the gravel on all sides continued to increase." In these perplexing circumstances, Mr. Staig, at the committee's request, took means for obtaining the opinion of a skilful engineer, Mr. John Richardson, Edinburgh, on an ingenious device contrived by themselves for founding the abutment. Wooden piles to support the masonry were at one time thought of. It was ascertained that the third pier eastward of the old bridge was based on timber, and why not this abutment of the new? A timber foundation was ascertained to be as impracticable as one on stone; and the plan proposed by the committee having been sanctioned by the engineer, was acted upon and found to answer. It was of this nature:-The pier or landstool was commenced thirteen feet and a half below the surface of low water mark, with a course of stones in the front, each six feet long, two feet broad, and fourteen inches thick, the ends projecting fully a foot from the face of the pier. Behind this row another was placed; the stones of the same breadth and thickness, but only five feet in length. Thus a foundation was laid, eleven feet broad at the base, on which stones lessening gradually in size were built, till the requisite thickness was obtained when the masonry reached the surface. The advantage secured by this process was, that the stones were laid in the gravel in such a way as to be level at the upper end with one another, whilst each kept its own quantity of water at bay; the whole being well pointed with mortar, so as to prevent the insidious element from impairing the solidity of the mass. The pier, after about a month's labour, was successfully finished on the 3rd of August, 1793, and the whole bridge was satisfactorily completed in the autumn of the following year.

In connection with the bridge, a new street had to be formed between it and the old bridge, and an embanked roadway - the precursor of Buccleuch Street - had to be made in the direction of the New Church; so that the whole character of this part of the town was revolutionized. When the expense of these and other works was added to that of the bridge, it was found that the sum amounted to 6,356 19s. 6d.; the cost of the bridge itself, and of the approaches to it, being 4,588 3s. 6d. To meet this large outlay, there was the 4,000 formerly mentioned, contributed in equal proportions by the town, the County, the Stewartry, and the Government, and 12,006 subscribed by sundry noblemen and gentlemen; leaving a trifling balance, which was cleared away by additional subscriptions. By the erection of the new bridge, a low, flat, unoccupied bank of the Nith was transformed into an elevated site for stately houses, and a beginning made to the most fashionable part of the Burgh; and it may safely be said, that no previous undertaking since the middle ages so altered and improved the aspect of the town, not to speak of the direct advantages which it secured.

Both the Infirmary and the new bridge were, as we have seen, founded with masonic pomp and display. Freemasonry was first represented in the district by the Kilwinning Lodge, Dumfries, chartered on the 7th of February, 1750-twenty-two years before the Infirmary was founded. The Journeymen Lodge, Dumfries, followed; date of erection, 10th December, 1754. In course of time this lodge almost lost its distinctive character, by the admission of members who could neither hew nor build; and eventually the latter swarmed off to form the Operative Lodge-those who remained receiving a new charter as the Thistle Lodge, on the 7th of February, 1776. Another lodge was erected in Dumfries, in April, 1775, under the name of St. Michael. So numerous did the brethren of the "mystic tie" soon become in Dumfriesshire, that it was constituted into a "district," or province, in 1756. Its first president or grand master was Mr. Andrew Crosbie (Pleydell); its second, Mr. Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch, "so famous for wit, worth, and law," and the triumphant hero of the "whistle" symposium at Friars' Carse; its third, Mr. William Campbell of Fairfield; its fourth, Mr. Francis Sharpe of Hoddam; its fifth, Major William Miller, younger of Dalswinton, and sonin-law to Provost Staig; its sixth, Mr. John Babington of Summerville, near Dumfries; its seventh, Mr. Stewart of Nateby Hall; while its eighth and present "P. G. M." is Mr. Lauderdale Maitland of Eccles, one of whose ancestors was the Norman knight Eklis, already introduced to our readers. There are at present three masonic lodges in the Burgh : the Thistle, the Operative, and the St. Michael. The Kilwinning has been long dormant, if not extinct; and so have two other old Dumfries lodges-the St. Andrew, and the Union. Altogether, the Dumfries brethren in active membership number at present about a hundred-the greater proportion of these belonging to the Thistle Lodge.

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