FIRST BEGINNINGS

map of Dumfries and surrounding area 1564

Dumfries does not exist where it does by accident. Our ancestors placed the town here for quite logical and natural reasons. People have lived here for over 800 years and the town has survived and flourished when other places such as Polmaddy near New Galloway and Kirkconnel at Springkell have been abandoned. Today it is by far the largest town in the South West of Scotland. There is much information about the town after the 1500s but before then the records are fewer and more difficult to understand.

Centuries of digging, draining, constructions and demolitions have changed the lie of the land almost out of all recognition. The centre of the modern town sits on the top of a ridge overlooking a sharp bend on the river Nith. This well drained piece of land used to be surrounded by bogs, marshes and burns so that ten centuries ago, all of the marshes and burns are no longer visible, most having been drained or diverted underground. Now even their names are forgotten. Names such as the Watslacks, and Braidmyre, the Goosedubs or the Cranberrie Moss mean little to the average "Doonhamer" today. Most, however, were visible until the middle of the last century. The ridge itself was much hillier than today and much levelling and filling in of hollows has taken place over the centuries.

The most important consideration for our ancestors when choosing where to live was protection from their enemies either animal or human. Hilltops were always a favourite, also caves and lakes on which they could build artificial islands. These are called crannogs of which there are many remains in Dumfries and Galloway such as Milton Loch, Carlingwark, Loch Arthur and Lochrutton Loch. Dumfries would be considered an ideal place to settle. The river borders the West and the North; and on the East, the South and the North East were a series of deep bogs; whilst beyond these from the Solway to well North of the town was the greatest marsh in the South of Scotland - the Lochar Moss. The most formidable barrier remained impassable until the 18th century although there was a small track across it from Collin in 1264. Two extensions of it are the Carnsalloch and Dargavel Mosses. The Gill Loch was the deepest part of the marsh known as the Watslacks or Wetslacks. This stretched from Alderman Hill round the base of the Craigs to Milldamhead and from there with its accompanying moss, the Cranberrie Moss, to St Mary's Street and Leafield Road to the east of St Michael's Church. The names Lochvale, Gillfoot, Rashgill tell us where the Gill Loch was. Another large moss which lay to the north of the Wetslacks was the Braidmyre which stretched from the Railway Station to the Edinburgh Road and eastwards to the junction of the Moffat and Lockerbie Roads.

Much closer to the town was the marsh through which ran the Loreburn whose name in later times became the rallying cry of the town in times of attack - to the muddy (lore) burn (stream). Its source was a deep bog in Catherine Street and it ran southwards parallel with Loreburn Street. It turned to the east after crossing English Street and joined the Millburn on the east of Queen Street. When the foundations were laid for Dumfries and Galloway Council Offices in 1914, its course was plotted. The Millburn also ran through swampy ground from the Brooms Road/Annan Road junction through the old railway goods yard. It crossed Queen Street and flowed on through the gasworks to behind Clerkhill, where it turned into the Millhole, the site of the original Burgh mill. Finally it crossed St Michael's Street and entered the river. Nowadays it runs underground and its culverts can be seen in the river wall beside the Suspension Bridge. Whenever the Nith floods, Nith Place is about the first place to receive the water thus recreating the conditions that must have been a common sight in past centuries. By 1215, it was called the rivulet of Dumfries.

Surrounded by bogs, Dumfries had only two narrow exits, one at the north and one at the south. Bankend Bridge was built in 1617 to facilitate the progress of James VI in his return to England and the low road from Noblehill to Annan including a bridge over the Lochar was built from the proceeds of the sale of the estate of a tobacco merchant called Pirrie in 1724. The Edinburgh Road was built about 1770 and the Lockerbie Road about 1791.

So in the middle of a vast array of marshes and burns is the low hill which became the town of Dumfries. The name has been variously interpreted - one, "Domus Fratrum" - Home of the Brothers is an allusion to the monastery of Greyfriars. Edgar in the earliest history of the town written in 1746 favours "Dum Freash" - rising ground on which bushes grow but a likelier one is Dum Fres - for among the brushwood or Dum Fries - fort of the Frisians, a tribe mentioned by Procopius in the late 6th century as one of the three tribes inhabiting Britain. The last two of these interpretations agree on the derivation "fort".

It is quite likely that there was a Roman fort in Dumfries. Excavations at Wardlaw above Bankend have revealed a Roman fort beside the native British hillfort, now marked by the copse at the top of the hill. It is possible to trace the line of a Roman road along the top of the ridge heading towards Dumfries. It goes past another iron age hillfort at Trohoughton but it then becomes difficult to trace. Its most likely path entering the town is along St Michael's Street. There may be a Roman fort about the position of the Midsteeple or another possibility is that it may be under St Michael's Church, a site paralleled by many examples in England, where mediaeval churches can be found on Roman sites.

The fact that the site was a suitable one for a fort is not in itself a sufficient reason to retain a population. The district is full of abandoned forts. Dumfries may have had something extra which has given the place a strategic importance. At this point up the Nith from the Solway were the first readily available fords into Galloway. Many towns owe their existence to fords across rivers. Travellers, pilgrims (particularly those visiting the shrine of St Ninian at Whithorn), merchants, delayed by flooding all sought hospitality in their vicinity. Invading armies camped beside them. Smiths, wrights, tailors and innkeepers found enough work to enable them to remain in the place; weavers, bakers, woodcutters and water sellers tried to earn a living. Their mud and wattle dwellings clustered about the burn on which they afterwards built their mill. The first ford across the river was at Castledykes where the river has a rocky bottom. This was blasted away in the 18th Century to provide deeper draught for ships coming up the river. The most important ford, however, is that which crosses the Nith opposite Nith Street. The most ancient road into Galloway has now dwindled to a little lane running upwards from the ford and is now called Pilgrims Way, only receiving the name as recently as the 1970s. It continues further on as Park Road.

Nith Place, therefore, may have been the centre of the primitive village, the first beginnings of Dumfries. From this point on the north side of the Millburn, the streets radiate south, west and north-east and north-west. Later in the 1500s a substantially built stone bridge crossed the Millburn at this point. St Michael's Street is the direct approach to the bridge but before a bridge was built, there would be a ford. The houses would stand back from the burn and this is why Nith Place is still a wide street. This then is the situation at about 1100.

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