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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter LIII


THOUGH for many years after 1817 the rulers of the town were much engrossed by matters of finance, they did not neglect other public questions; and the enterprise of private parties united with theirs in promoting several beneficial measures. A new approach was made to the Burgh from the north; the site of the cattle market on the White-sands was enlarged and paved; a free school was built on the Green-sands in 1821; and the Mid-Steeple and St. Michael's steeple were each supplied with a new clock, the cost of both, defrayed by subscription, being about 190. Just when the monetary shoe might have been supposed to pinch most severely, the lieges clubbed their shillings and guineas on an expensive article of luxury with which to decorate their chief, though the town could barely pay its debts. This was a magnificent double chain of gold, which cost within a trifle of 150. It was publicly presented to the Provost, Mr. John Kerr, on the 3rd of August, 1822; the Rev. Dr. Scott, minister of St. Michael's, making an eloquent presentation speech in name of the subscribers, and the Provost responding in appropriate terms. At the next meeting of Council a minute was adopted recommending his honour to wear the smaller part of the chain constantly, but to reserve the longer and heavier part, with a medallion that is attached to it, for "extraordinary occasions." This advice is still acted upon; and on great days the Provost also wears a rich ermined robe purchased by the Council in 1862.

The modern part of the town-commenced in the north, after the building of the new bridge-received an important addition when the new Assembly Rooms were erected, in 1825; and the following year was signalized by a great event-the lighting of the Burgh with gas, provided by a company having a capital of 8,000. Almost contemporaneously with this increase of material illumination, there came into existence a society which has been the means of diffusing much intellectual light-we refer to the Dumfries and Maxwelltown Mechanics' Institute. It was started on the 15th of March, 1825, at a meeting held for the purpose in the Trades' Hall, presided over by Provost Thomson; and in the course of the following year it was in full working order. The members of the original committee are entered in the minute-book as follows:-Provost Thomson, Mr. John Gregan, Mr. William M'Gowan, Mr. Connechie, Dr. T. T. Duncan, Mr. Grierson, Mr. J. Charteris, Convener Anderson, Mr. John Gibson, Mr. Thomas Roberts, Dr. H. Duncan, Mr. Barker, Mr. Walter Newall, Mr. Thomas Watson, and Mr. James Wilson. At first the annual subscription was 8s. per annum; for children of members, and apprentices, 4s. When the Institute was ten years old it numbered 150 members. Its fortunes have been very varied: more than once it almost ceased to exist, and was only kept alive by the zealous efforts of Mr. William Mundell, grocer; Mr. Thomas Roberts, carver and gilder; Mr. John Bell, ironmonger; Mr. James Charteris, turner; Mr. Alexander Crombie, architect; Mr. William C. Aitken, brassfounder; Dr. W. A. T. Browne, president of the Institute, and others of its early promoters. Sixteen years ago, when the Institute was in a somewhat sickly condition, Mr. Christopher Harkness became its secretary; and from that date it has grown in size and improved in health. It is now, and has been for a lengthened period, one of the most prosperous societies of the kind in the United Kingdom. There are connected with it an excellent reading-room, a well-selected library of nearly 8,000 volumes, a course of lectures during the winter, and classes for young lads whose early education has been neglected. The terms are only 4s. a year for adult males, 3s. for females, and 2s. for apprentices. Usually the membership numbers between 600 and 700. A very elegant and commodious hall, built for the Institute from a design by Mr. Alexander Fraser, architect, was opened about the close of 1861. It has sitting accommodation for 1,000 persons, and cost about 1,500.

One of the local journalists, writing on the 5th of September, 1826, thus notices the improvements to which the introduction of gas formed a sort of climax. "For a long period," says the writer, "Dumfries was so stationary that it might have been included in the list of what an Irishman calls finished towns. But a new spirit has gone abroad. . . . If we consider the number of streets in Dumfries and Maxwelltown that have been finished, planned, and partly executed within the last few years, the tenements rebuilt, the houses gutted to make shops of, or in other respects remodelled and repaired-the marvels, in a word, worked by Messrs. Sinclair and Howat, Newall and Inman, Brown, Hair, and many others, we are quite sure that the original `shooters of the Siller Gun,' were they to rise from their graves at this moment, would scarcely be able to recognize the ancient Burgh they lived, died, and earned their bread in. The widening of English Street, and the approach by the Townhead, are both very great improvements ; and strangers visiting us from the South and North must now receive favourable impressions of the cleanliness and neatness that characterize Dumfries from the moment they approach the shores of the Nith."

One of the changes involved the removal of a large old pile called the Turnpike, the town house of the Lag family, and in which the noted persecutor Sir Robert Grierson spent the latest years of his life, and died in 1736. It is pretty generally known that Sir Walter Scott depicted Sir Robert under the title of Redgauntlet, in the romance of the same name; but the facts are known to few, that the monkey companion of the aged knight, Major Weir, had a veritable existence, and that the " cat's cradle," where the curious creature slept, was a remote turret of the Turnpike that had been built for a place of observation in ancient times. [The Laird of Lag and his favourite are so racily described by Wandering Willie, in Scott's romance of "Redgauntlet," that we must here introduce a portion of the sketch. "There sat the Laird his leesome lane, excepting that he had beside him a great, ill-favoured jackanape, that was a special pet of his; a cankered beast it was, and mony an ill-natured trick it played-ill to please it was, and easily angered-ran about the haill castle, chattering and yowling, and pinching and biting folk, especially before ill weather or disturbances in the State. Sir Robert ca'd it Major Weir, after the warlock that was burnt; and few folk liked either the name or the conditions of the creature-they thought there was something in it by ordinar'. . . . Sir Robert sat, or I should say lay, in a great armed chair, wi' his grand velvet gown and his feet on a cradle-for he had baith gout and gravel-and his face looked as gash and ghastly as Satan's. Major Weir sat opposite to him in a red laced coat, and the Laird's wig on his head; and aye as Sir Robert girned wi' pain, the jackanape girned too-like a sheep's-head between a pair of tangs : an ill-faured, fearsome couple they were. The Laird's buff coat was hanging on a pin behind him, and his broadsword and his pistols within reach; for he keepit up the auld fashion of having the weapons ready, and a horse saddled day and night, just as he used to do when he was able to loup on horseback and away after ony of the hill-folk he could get speerings of." The Major was literally pistolled by Sir Gilbert, the next laird of Lag, though not (need we add?) under such circumstances of diablerie as are so graphically narrated in the romance.]

The inquiry into the town's pecuniary matters made the circumstance painfully prominent, that some of the legal deeds by which its property and privileges were held had been lost or destroyed. Lest injurious results should follow, the Burgh's legal agent in Edinburgh was instructed to take steps for obtaining a confirmation of its chartered rights. On the 8th of May, 1827, the Provost (Mr. William Thomson) intimated to the Council that the agent had succeeded in procuring, at an expense of 144 15s., "a renewed charter of confirmation by his present Majesty of the former charters granted to this Burgh by the sovereigns of this part of the United Kingdom, in which all the privileges, immunities, jurisdictions, and customs pertaining to the Burgh were particularly and specially enumerated and confirmed." It was further reported by the Provost, that on the 23rd of the preceding month, public infeftment had been taken on the new charter at the market cross, a record of which would be duly entered in the registers of sasines for the Burgh and County.

By the same royal grant the Burgh acquired a right of guildry, which it did not previously possess. [Town Council Minutes.] As already pointed out, strenuous efforts were put forth by the merchant councillors in the reign of James VI. to obtain a privilege of this nature, which failed chiefly on account of opposition from the Trades. The King, as appears from a document discovered in 1826, when the Burgh records were removed from the old to the new Council Chamber, actually gave his sign-manual in favour of the application; but infeftment was never passed upon it. The dean, annually elected by the Council, had no very extensive jurisdiction; but the charter of 1827, when given effect to, converted him into a dean of guild, increased his powers considerably, and gave him a court and officers of his own. Mr. John Barker held the office in its simple form when the new law carne into force; and he having resigned it, was thereupon elected as the first dean of guild in Dumfries, at a meeting of Council held on the 31st of July, 1827; and at the same time five gentlemen were appointed to co-operate with him, and a clerk and procurator-fiscal were attached to his court, all in terms of the charter.

The crops of 1826 suffered from a protracted drought, which has made the year a memorable one. As a consequence, grain advanced considerably in value: oatmeal, which had formerly been selling in the Queensberry Square market at a moderate figure, rose to fully three shillings per stone-an advance that occasioned much discontent in the town and district, and ultimately led to a serious riot. On Wednesday the 12th of July there was a very welcome fall of rain-the first that had occurred for several weeks-accompanied by a brief but exceedingly violent thunderstorm. Just before the elemental strife commenced, a storm of popular indignation burst forth, provoked by a meal-monger from Maxwelltown, who, seeing that his stock was in great demand, advanced its price to three shillings per stone. When challenged for doing so, he defended his conduct; and, in exchanging verbal compliments with the dames of the market, he ventured to assail one of them with an epithet which no woman cares about submitting to. Blows followed words, and a dangerous scuffle would have ensued had not the hot-headed man of the meal been apprehended, examined before a magistrate, and committed to prison.

He was unfortunately liberated on bail, and with consummate foolhardiness resumed his position beside his meal-bags, and vaingloriously announced to an assembled crowd that "ThreeShilling Rab" was among them once more, and that he must have an additional twopence per stone on account of the trouble he had been put to. "Meal at three and twopence! Sorrow on ye for a rascally auld skin-flint! Take that, and that, for yer shamefu' greed!" And with these significant words came a shower of corresponding missiles, directed against " Rab," who, hurriedly retreating from the furious tempest he had reawakened, found temporary shelter in the house of Mr. Bairden, on the opposite side of the square. From the voices of the disappointed mob rose sounds which rivalled the bellowing of the thunder that afterwards rolled above the Burgh. So violent was the rabble outcry, that in answer to it the trembling refugee had to be turned out; and when that was done, off he darted down the Long Close into Irish Street, in as great trepidation as Tam o' Shanter with the witches on his track. Less fortunate than that famous wight, he was caught at the foot of the close by a party of the rioters who had taken a ready cut for that purpose; and after they had given him a sound beating, he managed to escape from their hands; and, all bloody and bruised, he reached with difficulty the Maxwelltown side of the river, where he remained safely hidden for the night. The poor man's house was then visited by the populace, who broke its window panes; and then, in the madness of their rage, hurried to the houses of other meal-dealers, which they treated in a worse way, though their owners had not sinned after the similitude of "ThreeShilling Rab."

"The scene that now ensued," says the local journalist, " baffles description. Stones and other missiles were flying in all directions; windows were smashed, doors forced, furniture broken, and even stolen; and some houses in which not an obnoxious individual resided, soon exhibited an appearance resembling the effects of a bombardment. The damage thus done to many individuals was great; and one in particular rates his loss at upwards of 20. On the Dumfries side the police and special constables prevented, in a great measure, the fatal results which might have been anticipated; but in Maxwelltown there was no regular police or public body of sufficient power to suppress such general risings, and hence the fury of the mob raged there almost without control, until it might be said to have exhausted itself merely by its own violence."

A meal-dealer in Church Street had a narrow escape. He was closely besieged in his own premises; and when doors and windows had been beaten in, he retreated by a back door, and hurrying out for bare life, broke through a thick thorn hedge, and near "the noon of night" presented himself, pale and trembling, at the house of a neighbour, by whom his escape was facilitated. We well recollect seeing, next day, the "cairn" of huge stones, some of them ten pounds in weight, which, piled up in the floor of his shop, seemed in our childish eyes a terrific memorial-and it was really such-of the fury of the rioters. The cause of all the commotion was punished with a fine of two guineas. When returning from the police court, he received some verbal abuse, but no actual violence; and in the afternoon he propitiated the populace, and saved himself from further annoyance, by offering his meal at the reduced rate of two shillings and nine pence per stone.

By far the greatest riot that ever occurred in Dumfries of modern date, took place on the 6th of February, 1829. For months before, the deeds of the notorious Burke, who strangled a number of persons and sold their bodies to doctors for dissection, excited the horror of the whole country. He suffered death for his crimes, but his accomplice, William Hare, escaped by turning "king's evidence;" and the authorities in Edinburgh having arranged to send him to his native country, Ireland, he arrived at Dumfries by coach on his way to Portpatrick. The news spread rapidly; and under its excitement a vast crowd, estimated at eight thousand people, collected on the streetsthe greatest concourse being in the vicinity of the King's Arms Hotel, where Hare was located, waiting the departure of the Galloway mail. At first, several gentlemen were freely admitted to see him. When, however, the crowd outside increased, and began to use threats of violence, he was removed for greater security to a closet adjoining the tap-room. There he was traced; and a fierce band of intruders, with cries of " Burke him! Burke him!" burst in, who would undoubtedly have made their words good, had not several policemen arrived and cleared the room. The time for the Portpatrick mail to start (eleven o'clock) having come, the inn-yard was cleared with difficulty, the horses were yoked, and the coach was drawn out. Hare did not make his appearance. If he had ventured forth, no trembling quadruped with the name he bore ever experienced a worse fate than that which awaited him. The wrath of the "Monument rangers," of the "Kirkgate blades," and all the nameless rabble of the town, from the Moat-brae to the Cat's Strand, was fairly up : they would have torn him to pieces without mercy; and it is scarcely exaggeration to say, in the words of Shakspeare:

"Had all his hairs been lives,
Their great revenge had stomach for them all."

Two passengers were sent forward a few miles in a gig, and the coach started perfectly empty, excepting the guard, driver, and Mr. Alexander Fraser, one of the sons of the proprietor. The vehicle literally toiled through the multitudinous living mass that surged and heaved in High Street, and barely opened to let it pass. When at the head of Buccleuch Street, the coach was stopped and scrutinized. No one was found inside; and lest Hare, who was a small man, should be secreted in the boot, it too was searched; and the mob being satisfied that the object of their hatred must still be at the King's Arms, permitted the mail to pass on its journey without further harm. According to a statement current at the time, the rioters had arranged to stop the coach a second time at the bridge, and throw Hare over the parapet into the river; and failing that, to "Burke" him at Cassylands toll-bar, the gates of which had been barricaded by them beforehand. Not having found him in the coach, they returned bent on finding him in the hotel, and making him there feel their vengeance.

Strange to say, many persons were allowed to visit Hare in the afternoon at his quarters in the tap-room, whilst a posse of policemen stood at the wide entry to the inn, keeping the angry crowd at bay. "By these successive visitors he was forced to sit or stand in all positions; and cool, and insensate, and apathetic as he seemed, he was occasionally almost frightened out of his wits. Abuse of every kind was plentifully heaped upon him, as the only fitting incense that could meet his ear; and one woman, it is said seized him by the collar and nearly strangled him; while a sturdy ostler who happened to be present, though perhaps not at the same moment, addressed him in these emphatic words:- `Whaur are ye gaun, or whaur can ye gang to? Hell's owre guid for the like o' you-the very deevils, for fear o' mischief, wadna daur to let ye in; and as for heaven, that's entirely out o' the question!'" [Picture of Dumfries, p. 100.]

How to get rid of the unhappy man became every hour a more pressing question for the magistrates. They saw that on no account must he be kept in the King's Arms till after sunset; as the mob, favoured by darkness, might resort to desperate measures in order to reach its prey. It was thought if he could by any means be consigned to the prison in Buccleuch Street, its walls would defy any siege to which it might in consequence be subjected; and, with this end in view, an ingenious device was resorted to. A little before three o'clock a chaise and pair were brought to the door of the inn, to which a trunk was attached, and about which a great fuss was made. "Now we'll catch the gallows loon, and gie him't hot and heavy!" roared the exulting rabble. Not so, good Master Mob, bent on a red-handed ministry of retribution; the chaise you see is but a delusive decoy-duck, and the wretched man you seek for has, under guidance due, leaped from the window of his apartment, crawled like a viper, as he is, along a lengthened line of wall lest his upright form should attract observation, and hurrying into another chaise that stood ready for him at the bottom of the yard, has set off in it at a lightning-like pace.

The postilion, Murdoch by name, plied his whip and managed his team in gallant style. Had he been driving a worthy man instead of a vile miscreant away from a host of foes, he could not have performed his task more heroically. Before reaching his destination he had to make the circuit of half the Burgh-down Shakspeare Street; round Nith Place, the corner of which was turned so sharply that the conveyance ran for a moment on two wheels, and was nearly upset; up the White Sands. Lashed right and left, how the half-maddened horses did run! Even if they had flown like the fiery Pegasus, they could not have altogether eluded the vigilance of the Argus-eyed multitude; and just as the clattering equipage dashed by the foot of Bank Street, it was encountered by such a rush of rioters from that thoroughfare and other quarters, that to make way against the cataract seemed for a while impossible. Many a one in the condition of the King's Arms Jehu would have compounded for his own safety, by complying with the fierce demand, "Stop, and let the murderer oot!" that greeted him on all sides; but Murdoch neither stopped nor parleyed, but drove right on, though before he reached the head of the Sands, the crowd, swelled by contributions from Friars' Vennel and Maxwelltown, had become so dense that he only made way through it with the utmost difficulty. Several times the chaise, caught by a score of hands, was brought to a dead stand; and had not the mettled steeds plunged forward again the next minute, Hare would have had no chance. Keeping up the panel as best he could, cowering in a corner to escape the stones directed against him, his condition during that terrible ride was truly pitiable ; though perhaps scant pity was due to the monster who had without compunction assisted in putting numbers of his innocent fellow-creatures to death.

Up Bridge Street! The mass becomes closer as the passage grows narrower, and the panting horses make scarcely any progress up the incline. The mob becomes denser and more desperate; and the vehicle, wedged in all round, rocks with the heaving multitude as if it would capsize. At this moment, when all hope must have left both driver and passenger, the crowd suddenly opens up; a portion of it withdrawing to the end of the new bridge, to hold it, in the belief that the route of the chaise lies that way. It luckily lies in quite an opposite direction. Now then, postillion, there is yet a chance left of life and safety! Handle your ribbons and lay on whip as you never did before! And he does by a marvellous feat in jockeyism clear the corner into Buccleuch Street, almost at a bound; and then, having a wide thoroughfare before him, he rapidly leaves the baffled rabble behind, reaches the prison-the next instant its huge door opens, and then closes between the fugitive and those who seek his blood.

His escape raised their fury to a higher pitch than ever. They forthwith laid regular siege to the jail; and for hours afterwards the whole neighbourhood rang with a Babel of noise -the sound of blows struck against the prison gate, of breaking gas lamps and window panes, of howls, threats, and curses, by which the "night was made hideous." For four hours the north-west part of the town was in full possession of the rioters; and it was only because the jail was strong compared with their "munitions of war," that their pertinacious endeavours to storm it proved unavailing. They wrenched the ponderous knocker from the massive door, kept up an incessant battery of large stones against the door itself, while lighter missiles of the same metal - a truly petrifying shower-were poured down into the prison yard, doing much mischief to the buildings. Whether the leaders of the assailing mob had ever heard of the means by which Bruce in 1305 won the Castle of Dumfries, we know not; but when their other appliances failed, they thought, like him on that occasion, of resorting to fire. "Tar-barrels and peats!" "Peats and tar-barrels!" they muttered to each other. "Ay, ay; let us burn down the door, and roast the wild beast in his den!" responded in louder terms the rank and file; and in all likelihood the incendiary proposal would have been acted upon, and much valuable property been laid in ashes, had not a hundred special constables reinforced the police and militia staff at this critical period, and joined them in a bold attempt to clear the ground.

Repeated charges were made by the men of peace for this purpose, and eventually with more success than could have been looked for, seeing that the "insurgents" were so numerous and menacing. Once that the rabble tide began to turn, its waters receded rapidly, and in one short hour afterwards it became manifest that the fearful crisis was over; though a diminished crowd occupied most of the street, and seemed still bent on mischief. When the ten o'clock bell rang, the rioters, congregated outside the ring made by dint of staff and baton, numbered several thousands; but a while before midnight they melted away, till only a few hundreds were left; and when the morning of the 7th of February came, cold and bleak, it found not a solitary son of violence astir. Wearied with the work of the wild day and wilder night, the mob, dissolved into quiet fragmentary units, was taking its needed rest; and none but the friends of order kept the streets. Before day-dawn, Hare was roused from a troubled slumber, and told to prepare for his instant exit: he was rightly looked upon as an Achan in the camp, who for the sake of the town's peace, not less than his own safety, must be thrust out, now that an opportunity for doing so presented itself, before that the populace rose again in wrath, "like a giant refreshed with wine;" and so he was conveyed to the English road by a sheriff's officer and two militia-men, and the tempestuous episode of Hare in Dumfries was brought to a peaceful issue. [Hare had, it appears, been smuggled out of Edinburgh jail muffled in a cloak, and been taken up by the mail coach at Newington. "In his progress to the South, his life was repeatedly placed in the greatest jeopardy. Like Cain, a mark was set on his head; yet he finally escaped, and, when the storm blew over, found his way in a coasting vessel to the shores of Ireland. Half a year afterwards, his sister, while returning from the harvest, called for his bundle at the King's Arms Inn, announcing herself in a whisper; and readily obtained an article that was found lying in a corner of the tap-room, like a polluted thing that nobody would appropriate, or even encounter the defilement of throwing away." - Picture of Dumfries, p. 102]

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