How did the town grow?
The houses around the mill in Nith Place were the start of the burgh. St Michael's
was there in the 1180s built on high ground overlooking water like nearly all churches
dedicated to the Archangel; St Michael"s Mount in Cornwall and the Mont St Michel in
Brittany are the best known examples. Greyfriars Convent, at what is now 'Fads', was
founded around the year 1262 by Lady Devorgilla, daughter of Alan, the last Lord of
Galloway. The site for a friary was always carefully chosen. It had to be on a beautiful
and fertile spot; the brow of the hill to the north of the Burgh being an ideal place,
overlooking the curve of the Nith. The southern boundary of the Convent was the north
side of Friars Vennel and apple orchards grew on the right-hand side of the street.
Until 1793 when alterations took place, Friars Vennel continued across Burns Statue
and into St Andrew's Street.
As the town developed the houses started to expand along the top of the ridge towards
the Convent. A long wide street was formed, the basis of today's High Street. The market
would be held in the middle of this street in the space we now know as Queensberry Square
and the market cross, the sign of the town's royal privileges, would be placed where the
Midsteeple is today.
In the 13th Century Dumfries remained an important military centre. Where Alan of Galloway
died in 1234 the Galwegians revolted, showing their old hatred of Norman rule.
Thirty years later when Alexander III gathered his fleet at Dumfries to attack Magnus
Olafson, the Viking King of Man, the town must have been a hive of activity. The
Norse king submitted without a fight and came to Dumfries to swear fealty to Alexander.
It is to this period that the coins minted 'Walter on Fres' belong. Coins minted in
a town are a good indication that it was important.
As the town developed the houses started to expand along the top of the ridge towards the Convent. A long wide street was formed, the basis of today's High Street. The market would be held in the middle of this street in the space we now know as Queensberry Square and the market cross, the sign of the town's royal privileges, would be placed where the Midsteeple is today.
In the 13th Century Dumfries remained an important military centre. Where Alan of Galloway died in 1234 the Galwegians revolted, showing their old hatred of Norman rule. Thirty years later when Alexander III gathered his fleet at Dumfries to attack Magnus Olafson, the Viking King of Man, the town must have been a hive of activity. The Norse king submitted without a fight and came to Dumfries to swear fealty to Alexander. It is to this period that the coins minted 'Walter on Fres' belong. Coins minted in a town are a good indication that it was important.
The town had three more castles after Castledykes. The Townhead Mote, where Moat House used to be on Academy Street, was granted to Lord Herbert Maxwell in 1299 and the two others were on the west side of the river at Troqueer and Lincluden. A number of chapels were built in the town. These were generally on one or other of the principal roads into the burgh. Christiana Bruce, sister of Robert, erected the Chapel to the Holy Rood on the spot where her husband, Sir Christopher Seaton, had been beheaded by the English in 1306. Robert dedicated it in 1323. The remains of the chapel, called Christies or the Crystal chapel, were visible until the 1830s when St Mary's church was built on the site. The Chapel of St Thomas was another. The Chapel of the Willies, which was the more popular name of the Chapel of Our Lady, stood at the corner of Bank Street and Irish Street. Willies means willows which signifies how close it must have been to the river - the roots of the willow are good for binding loose soil and they were often planted close to rivers. The Chapel to St Mary lay on the road to the south and the Chapel of the Willies by the ford from Galloway.
A school existed in Dumfries by 1330. We know this because John, Rector of the School of Dumfries, paid his burgh taxes in that year. It was at the junction of St Andrew's Street and Burns Statue.
Most of the houses were built of wood and Dumfries has been burnt many times during its history, sometimes by the English, sometimes accidentally. Cramped housing and bad sanitation led to plague and the town has had its fair share of this too. Dumfries is especially mentioned in 1439; the Auchinleck Chronicles record that "in that same year the pestilence came in Scotland and began at Dumfries and it was called the Pestilence bot Remeid (without remedy) for of those that took it, none ever recovered but they died within 24 hours". The town's quarantine area was on the Lockerbie Road and names like the Bane Loaning, the Black Loch, Deadmans Hirst and the Scabbit Isle are ominous reminders of unpleasant episodes in the town's past.
Even so, the Burgh continued to grow. The houses in the High Street increased in number and began to spread along the main exits of the town. Each dwelling in the mediaeval burgh normally had its yard behind or beside it. As each burgess grew at least part of his own food, he had on this ground his barnyard, barn, kiln and stone trough which was used for threshing, drying and steeping the grain. The line of these houses and the depths of the yards can still be traced. The houses lay on the west side of the High Street and St Michael's Street, the east side of Queensberry Street and the south side of English Street. The yards extended respectively to Irish Street, the river, Loreburn Street and Shakespeare Street. Access to the barns and yards was obtained by passages at the sides of the houses; for between each rig was a piece of waste ground. In these side passages we have the origins of our closes and even with the huge shops which are the tendency at the moment the town is unable to throw off its original character. In the 16th Century Loreburn Street was the passage at the back of the "yairdheads". Shakespeare Street and Irish Street were called "Under the Yairds" and in the 18th Century they had all changed their name to the "Barnraws". All these streets were originally back entrance lanes and encircled almost all the 16th Century burgh.
Queensberry Street was the main exit north-eastwards but after the Mid Row, the block containing the Hole in the Wall was built in the 1620s, the street became known as The Back Row and of course is still popularly the "Back Street". The Mid Row was built with its gables to the streets and the passages between the houses were closed by gates making it easier to defend. A small alley ran right down its centre parallel with the High Street.
The most prominent building in the town was a massive structure with vaulted cellars. This was the New Wark. Situated near the centre of Queensberry Square we first hear of it in 1442. It was used as a barracks and a prison and it is possible it replaced the castle at Castledykes when that was destroyed, the town requiring a new fortification. It was in a ruinous state by the 18th Century and was demolished in 1764. What was left was incorporated in a range of dwelling houses which in turn were demolished in 1846.
Immediately south of the New Wark, about where the Wimpy is, was the Painted Hall, the home of one William Cunningham. James IV was entertained here in 1504 and the Reformation was first preached in Dumfries in its hall in 1558. James VI presented the Siller Gun to the Seven Incorporated Trades of Dumfries on its balcony in 1617. The town must still have been quite rural at this stage, the north part of the High Street being known as the Cowgate and around the Market Cross was the Grasshill.
We don't know when a bridge first spanned the Nith at the foot of the Vennel. Certainly Friars Vennel is not sighted on the Old Bridge. If one projects the Vennel to the river, it crosses the Nith between the Old Bridge and the Caul on the site of the old ford. There was probably a bridge in wood on the site of the Old Bridge by about 1300 but we can say with absolute certainty that the Old Bridge we see today dates to 1431. A papal document of this year refers to the bridge near the "burgh of Drumfres" which "has recently been begun" and gives absolution to anyone giving money to fund its building. There has never been any proof that the bridge was first built by Devorgilla. Since then the bridge has been a great expense to the town council having fallen down several times.
The Whitesands was of course always subject to flood and was wisely left as animal grazing until the end of the 18th Century when the present line of buildings was erected.
At the north end of the High Street, about where Greyfriars Church is, a large fortified house was erected by Lord Maxwell in 1572. It became known as the Castle. Bank Street was originally known as Cavart's or the Stinking Vennel and owes its existence of a passage beside a stream which drained the rubbish of the High Street into the river. The stream was known as the Gutter of Causey. Starting in Great King Street among the pigsties and dung heaps there, it picked up what the Fleshmarket had to offer in Queensberry Square, drained through the Plainstones and headed down Bank Street towards the Nith. The name Stinking Vennel is perhaps not inappropriate.
Assembly Street is quite a new street coming into existence in the 1750s and used to be known as the New Entry. Great King Street was formed about 1915 when a row of houses to the east of Queensberry Square was demolished. It was formerly known as the Wide Entry.
A Tolbooth or council house was erected in 1481 about where Burton's is opposite the Plainstones. It had cellars in the basement, four shops on the ground floor and the council chamber was above these. Access to the chamber was by external stairs at the north and these later received the name Rainbow Stairs from the name of a tavern, the Rainbow Inn, that occupied the premises when it ceased to be the council chamber. Under the steps was a small cell which was used as a lock-up until the Midsteeple was built in 1707. To the north of the tolbooth a prison was built in 1579, a stone from it inscribed "A Loreburn" was incorporated into the Midsteeple in 1909. A meal market was built in 1664 on the site of the Halifax bank. A coffee house was erected to the south of the tolbooth (also where Burton's presently is) in 1731 and the town council purchased newspapers for it. Robert Burns allegedly purchased the carronades from the brig Rosamund to send to the French revolutionaries at the roup sale of the ship's possessions held there in 1792.
Finally, the defences of the town. Dumfries was never a walled town like Berwick, York or Carlisle but in common with other Scottish burghs it was protected by ditches at the backs of the yards of the private houses. Burns Street, Shakespeare Street and Irish Street mark the boundary of the 16th century burgh but the ditches around these streets had the unglamorous task of keeping out unfreemen, beggars, gypsies and thieves rather than the heroic one of repelling the English. Once the greater outer marshes had been negotiated the town must have been easy pickings to any raiding enemy.
The next feature of the defences was the ports - the heavy duty gates which controlled admission to the town. As a general rule they were found at the narrowest part of each ancient exit. Dumfries had four. The Nether Port was just at the junction of Burns Street and St Michael's Street. It was taken down in 1641 as "now useless and likely to fall down". The Lochmabengate Port was about where the Army Careers Information Office is in English Street. The Townhead Port, removed in October 1764 to widen the street, was at the junction of Catherine Street and Academy Street. The Friars Port, or "Port of the Vennel" was at the junction of Irish Street and Friars Vennel. This gate was transferred to the middle of the Old Bridge in 1666 so the developments in Friars Vennel could be protected by the town's defences.
So here then was the mediaeval town - thatched roofs, central hearths, earth floors, cruck beams - pigs, geese, chickens running in the patchily cobbled streets with their central gutters and rooting in the Middenheaps beside the doors of the close mouths. Few doors opened onto the main street as the half timbered wattle and daub houses turned their gables to the street for defence, and were entered by wooden stairs up the closes. Filling the streets, the colourful townsfolk and the drab country folk mingled. All the men equipped with a sword; traders with a full kit of weapons at market stalls just as the regulations demanded. Peat stealers (for the burgh had the right to cut peats from the Lochar Moss) being dragged to the Tolbooth stairs to have their cheek branded with the town clock key, heated red hot in a fire of the stolen peats. Legal announcements being made in the same place - those "Rainbow Stairs" which survived until the 1930s. The "Tron", the municipal scales standing at the Cross. These are the scenes in mediaeval Dumfries.