Follow the steps of Robert Burns, 'The National Bard of Scotland'
drawn up by
The Burns Howff
Dumfries, the 'Fort among the Brushwood', celebrated its Octocentenary in
1986. The main street, now pedestrianised, is the High Street, and just on
the South side of it our walks begin - at the FOUNTAIN, standing at the
junction of High Street and English Street. The fountain is an ornate
structure commemorating the introduction of water to Dumfries in 1851.
Today, it is an especially welcome sight on a hot summer's day. Bells were
rung and bonfires lit to celebrate the passing of a Bill through the House
of Commons in May, 1850, authorising the introduction of the gravitation
of water from Lochrutton Loch, which is four miles west of Dumfries. At
the time, Dr. Grieve, a resident medical man gave his verdict, saying,
'Indeed, I may safely say there is not at the present time a more healthy
town in the United Kingdom than Dumfries'. The town is now excellently
supplied with water.
Opposite the fountain, adjacent to the present Marks and Spencer, was the
COMMERCIAL and later the COUNTY HOTEL. Although the latter was demolished
in the 1980's, the original facade of the building was kept. Room No. 6 of
the hotel was known as Bonnie Prince Charlie's Room and appropriately
carpeted in the Royal Stuart tartan. The Young Pretender had his
Headquarters here during a 3-day sojourn in Dumfries towards the end of
1745. Dumfries in no way sympathised with the Jacobite cause and, with a
view to punishing the town, a sum of £2,000 was demanded by the Prince,
together with 1,000 pairs of brogues for his kilted army, which was
camping in a field not one hundred yards distant. A rumour, however, that
the Duke of Cumberland was approaching, made Bonnie Prince Charlie decide
to leave with his army, with only £1,000 and 255 pairs of shoes having
been handed over. Dumfries was later reimbursed by the Government of the
day for what had been delivered to the Prince.
Between the Fountain and the Midsteeple is where the old markets were held
and it is over this area, in a Northerly direction, we now tread.
before we reach the Midsteeple, there was on the right the 'Rainbow
Stairs' or 'Rainbow Steps', which were the site of Royal proclamations and
the like. The term 'rainbow' was used because the double steps were in
semi-circular form, just like a rainbow. Beside these stairs, was a junk
shop kept by MARY GOLOGLY, one of the town's most kenspeckle figures in
the period between the two world wars.
Next, we arrive at the MIDSTEEPLE, located in the middle of the High
Street. John Moffat, a Liverpool architect, having submitted the original
design, the final touches were later completed by Tobias Bachup of Alloa.
The foundation stone was laid in 1705 and the building was used for
Council Offices, with prison cells on the second floor. Thomas Wilson
(1750-1825), known as 'Blin' Tam', was the bell-ringer for 63 years,
summoning the labourers to work and repose by ringing the bells at 6am and
10pm. Burns immortalised the building thus:-
'Who will not sing God save the King,
Shall hang as high's the steeple;
But while we sing God save the King
We'll not forget the people!'
the time of his death in 1796, Robert Burns' body lay for one night,
almost 'in state' you might say, until the funeral procession commencing
from the Steeple on July 25th.
Allan Cunningham, a contemporary and biographer of Burns, describes the
scene thus:- 'He lay in a plain, unadorned coffin, with a linen sheet
drawn over his face, and on the bed around his body, herbs and flowers
were thickly strewn. The room in which he lay was plain and neat. We stood
and gazed on him in silence for the space of several minutes. We went and
others succeeded us - man following man patiently and orderly - not a
question was asked, not a whisper heard'. Today, on the South wall of the
Midsteeple, can be seen a rough map depicting Dumfries at the time of
Passing the Steeple we find, on the right, QUEENSBERRY SQUARE, where,
among other events was held the Feeing Fair, where Farm Servants who
wished to change their employer went to meet other Farmers in search of
labourers, ploughmen or dairymen. The Queensberry Monument was erected in
1780, and moved for a while to a site in front of what are at present the
Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council Offices. It was moved back to
Queensberry Square in 1990, with the pedestrianisation of the Town Centre.
Designed by Robert Adam, the monument demonstrates the esteem in which
Charles, Third Duke of Queensberry, was held by Dumfries people.
on the North-east side of the statue there is a ground plaque denoting the
site of an ancient 18th-century well.
Still moving along the High Street in a Northerly direction, we pass the
Hole in the Wa', a hostelry frequented by Robert Burns while in the town.
Then we come to BURNS' STATUE. The erection of this statue followed a
campaign to have such a monument, and this was eventually accomplished in
1882. A figure of Robert Burns modelled by Amelia Hill was selected from a
number of designs, and a life-sized statue in Carrara marble was
close our eyes now, picturing the scene three hundred and more years ago,
where Greyfriars Church now stands, and envisage, instead of the church,
the CASTLE OF DUMFRIES with a Monastery on the left, where the shops now
are. Part of the Castle remained standing until 1719, when it was
demolished and the materials used in the construction on the New Church,
superseded by the Gothic building we have at present.
The Monastery consisted of a Church, a dormitory, a refectory, a small
square tower and a granary; the gates of the Monastery looked down Friars'
Vennel to the river. It is famous in Scots history of course, as it is
where Robert the Bruce slew the Red Comyn, who favoured the cause of
Edward I rather than that of Bruce - a scene graphically described in Sir
Walter Scott's 'Red Gauntlet'.
Before moving in a Westerly direction down Buccleuch Street towards the
River Nith, if we move a few hundred yards to our right, in an Easterly
direction, we see above the Trustees Savings Bank on Church Crescent, a
statue of DR. HENRY DUNCAN, who was founder of the Savings Bank.
Previously the minimum sum that could be deposited in an ordinary account
was £10, but Duncan was prepared to take coppers, which were more within
the reach of the poorer workers. The statue, known in the town as the 'Stane
Man', got many a nod from Dumfriesians, who believed that if they had more
than £100 in the Bank, the statue would respond by a nod of
little further on we can see DUMFRIES ACADEMY, where a large number of
pupils who achieved fame in many fields were educated, not the least of
whom was J. M. Barrie, the author of 'Peter Pan'. Barrie is said to have
found the inspiration for Peter Pan from memories of his childhood days at
play in the garden behind what is now Moat Brae Nursing Home, situated at
the junction of Irving Street and George Street, close to the Academy.
now return to Greyfriars Church and continue, with the Church on the
right, to Buccleuch Street, at the top of which was Buccleuch Street
Church, which traced its origin to the Relief Kirk in Dumfries. The Relief
congregation was formed in 1787, and had for its first minister the Rev.
John Lawson, inducted in 1790.
Further down Buccleuch Street, on the left, the COUNTY PRISON, erected in
1851 to accommodate sixty inmates, stood, just after the entrance to Irish
Street (previously St. David's Street). The place of execution was the
corner of the jail wall, and gallows were publicly displayed in that area,
for the last time in Scotland. This can be no glamorous claim to fame -
that the last man and the last woman to be executed publicly in Scotland
were hanged in Dumfries. On the 8th of April, 1862, Mary Reid or Timney
was charged with the murder of her neighbour, about 5.5 miles North of New
Galloway. The evidence against her for murdering Mrs Hannah was so strong,
that she was sentenced to death, and despite many efforts to gain a
reprieve, was eventually executed. On the Monday prior to her death she
was visited by her husband and two children. The scene, as one can
imagine, was heart-rending in the extreme. The prisoner was bathed in
tears, and when the time had expired, and when they were about to depart,
she had to be dragged away from her children. The morning of the execution
was fine, and many thousands had congregated and taken up their position
at an early hour. The cap was drawn over her head and the hangman duly did
1868, Robert Smith was condemned to die after he had raped and murdered an
eleven-year-old girl in a plantation near Annan, robbing her of nine
shillings and elevenpence. After committing the murder, he calmly walked
into town to buy tobacco and biscuits, before an attempt to murder a woman
near Cummertrees. He shot and stabbed her in her home, but she escaped
because two boys came to her door selling turnips from a donkey cart. What
they thought was a parrot screeching was Jane Crichton fighting for her
life. Robert Smith took fright and escaped from the house. Six hundred
people watched him being launched into oblivion. When the body was cut
down, the lay preachers scurried away and a Carlisle plasterer, called
Rushfirth bound forward and took a cast of Smith's skull. This cast is now
in Dumfries Museum.
Opposite the place where the gallows stood, is seen a handsome structure.
This is on the site of what was once a Haldamite place of worship, then a
Court-house and now the Municipal Chambers of Nithsdale District Council.
When it was the Court-house, there was an underground tunnel from the
building to the prison across the road.
few hundred yards further down, on the left hand side of the street, is
one of the most stately buildings in the town -the SHERIFF COURT HOUSE.
The court-house was completed and opened in the Spring of 1886.
we continue down Buccleuch Street and take the first turn on the left, we
arrive at the WHITESANDS, where the market was held and which could tell
many a tale. Opposite Thomson, Roddick and Laurie Ltd, a cross on the
ground marked the spot where JAMES KIRKO, a Covenanter, was shot by the
English Dragoons. As part of their celebrations of the Octocentenary Year
of the Burgh in 1986, Nithsdale District Council unveiled a memorial cairn
just outside the market, in memory of Kirko, who had been shot in 1685. A
laird in Dunscore parish, he had been implicated in the Pentland Rising.
His grave is in St. Michael's Churchyard near that of Robert Burns.
this cairn was where nine presumed witches were burnt at the stake in
1659. The Commissioners adjudged that 'Agnes Comenes, Janet McGowane, Jean
Tomson, Margaret Clerk, Janet McKendrig, Agnes Clerk, Janet Corsane, Helen
Moorhead and Janet Callon, as found guilty of several articles of
witchcraft mentioned in the dittayes, to be tane upon Wednesday come eight
days to the ordinar place of execution for the burghe of Dumfries, and
ther betuing 2 and 4 hours of the afternoon, to be strangled at staikes
till they be dead, and thereafter ther bodyes to be burned to ashes, and
all ther moveable goods to be esheite. Further, it is ordained that Helen
Moorhead's movables be intromitted with by the Sheriff of Nithsdale, to
seize upon and herrie the samin for the king's use'. At four o'clock,
after the fire had subsided, the crowd could see nothing where the nine
poor martyrs of superstition stood, save blackened bones and a heap of
human dust, which were, even then, being swept away.
Opposite Bank Street, (the first street on the left), there is a ford
where the heavier traffic crossed the river. A little further to the
south, is another ford which was used by pedestrians and also pilgrims on
their way to the Isle of Whithom. One can, see, just a little down the
river, a suspension bridge which was built in 1872, mainly to take workers
across the Nith to the two tweed mills in Maxwelltown.
going up Bank Street to our left, we find at No. 11, the house to which on
11th November, 1791, Robert Burns and his family moved to Dumfries from
Ellisland. They lived in three small rooms on the first floor. Robert
Chalmers provided a very graphic description of the Burns family's first
Dumfries house:- 'The small central room, about the size of a bed-closet,
is the only place he has to seclude himself for study. On the ground floor
immediately underneath, his friend John Syme has his office for the
distribution of stamps. Overhead is an honest blacksmith called George
Haugh, whom Burns treats on a familiar footing as a neighbour. On the
opposite side of the street is the poet's landlord, Captain Hamilton, a
gentleman of fortune and of worth, who admires Burns and often asks him to
a family Sunday dinner'.
Burns' house was not far from what was at the time the Coach and Horses
Inn, at the corner of Bank Street and the Whitesands, and which, it would
not be wrong to surmise, Burns visited on occasion. The years spent in the
Wee Vennel, however, were not the happiest of Burns' life and Burns
depressed, wrote to Robert Ainslie as follows:- 'Here must I sit, a
monument of the vengeance laid up in store for the wicked, slowly counting
every click of the clock as it slowly, slowly numbers over these lazy
scoundrels of hours, who, d... . d them, are ranked up before me, every
one at his neighbour's backside, and every one with a burden of anguish on
his back, to pour over my devoted head - and there is none to pity me. My
wife scolds me! my business torments me, and my sins come staring me in
the face, every one telling me a more bitter tale than his fellow. You
will guess something of the Hell within and all around me.' And yet, some
of Burns' best work was composed here - around sixty or so poems and
plaque inscribed, 'Robert Burns the National Poet lived in this house with
his family on coming to Dumfries from Ellisland', was placed on the
building by William Aitken around 1890. Another plaque, bearing a portrait
of Robert Burns painted by David Ferguson, was put up by James Urquhart in
1971, and reads:- 'Here, in the Songhouse of Scotland, between November,
1791, and May, 1793, Robert Burns completed over sixty songs'. A visit to
Rabbie Burns Cafe, next door to the poet's house, will provide more
information of Burns' Bank Street days.
now proceed up to the top of Bank Street and on to the High Street where,
on the right, is the Fountain where we started this walk, and, just beyond
that on the left, the Globe Inn, the Head-quarters of the Burns Howff Club