From earliest times the town
has been empowered to hold two weekly markets, one on Wednesday and one on Friday.
The Friday one has long since fallen into disuse. It also had the power to hold
three annual fairs: one at the beginning of February, one at the beginning of July,
and the Rood Fair on the last Wednesday in September. Of course, only the Rood Fair
is still extant, the February fair has transferred to March. Fairs in mediaeval
times had a much greater importance for townsfolk than now. On these days all the
restrictive trading practices of the burgh were relaxed. Merchants brought in luxury
goods from abroad, travelling merchants called 'dusty feet' were allowed to set up
stalls in the street. Acrobats, jugglers, minstrels and men with performing bears
came to add to the fun and the noise. It was the highlight of the year. Buying and
selling horses on the Whitesands was always the biggest part of the Rood Fair. But
there were other distractions too. In the 19th century the High Street and Buccleuch
Street were full of stalls selling crystal and china. Newspaper reports of the town
say that it was so busy that it was literally impossible to move. In the last century
the fair modified slightly and became a hiring fair where domestic and farm servants
would seek new positions. This aspect only died away after the First World War.
Nowadays the Rood Fair is only a shadow of its former self.
What was Dumfries exporting in the Middle Ages? Hector Boece, travelling around Scotland at the beginning of the 16th century, visited Dumfries inn 1527. He had this to say "In Nidisdail is the toun of Dunfreis quhair mony small and deligat quhitis ( a type of white woollen cloth) ar maid, haldin in gret dainte to merchandis of uncouth realmes". Bishop Leslie travelling 50 years later in 1577 says of Nithsdale "heir is a toun nathir base nor of simple digree, to name Dunfrese, famous in fyne claith". So cloth again. The Dumfries Customs Book of 1578, the earliest complete one we know of, backs this up. Duty was paid by Adam Gibson, Edward Edzar (Edgar), John Johnstone and Thomas Glasson on nearly 200 stones of 'voll' (wool). So as you might expect sheep farming was then, just as it is now, a natural industry for the area.
The other items occurring in the book, which covers both imports and exports are tar, vinaiger, ploumdames (prunes or damsons), ledder pointis (leather laces, used where we now use buttons), blew bonnettis, black bonnettis, leddirbeltis, cames (combs), leid alme (alum used as a mordant in dyeing), peppir and ginger. As you can imagine one's appetite for salted meat diminishes dramatically after a short period and spices from the East were eagerly sought after. Other items include paper, cartis (playing cards), hering, lint, worsattis (worsteds), oley (oil), hemp, claith, brass, prenis (pins) and the final entry - Inglis Guddis.
Wine, although not mentioned in this first list, was a major import and looking at
the Burgh Treasurer's account book for the period one can clearly see that the Town
Council were doing their very best to maintain imports. "10th Jan 1669 before the
magistrates went to church five pints of wine and a choppin of ail. The Provost and
Bailie Copland being present 2s 10d. 11th Jan Item due by them, a choppin of seck
(dry sack) and a pynt of ayl before they went to the council, the Proveist, Baillie
Cowpland, Baillie Newall and the twa deacon McKinnels being present £1 1s 8d. 12th
February Twa punts of wyne befair the Magistrates went to the Kirk 3s 4d. 13 Feb.
More. Ane choppin on wyne, a gill of brandie and a quart of ail before the magistrates
went to the court. 23rd July 1672 with William of Terregles and Springkell when they
came from my Lord Maxwell anent the Brigend Mercat, seven pints of wine and 4 shillings
for tobacco and pypes £7 4s. November 11 The Provost Baillie Stephens, Baillie Coupland,
the convenor, Deacon Crosbie and Deacon Herron and the gentlemen of the party when they
were made burgesses, fyfteen pints of wyne, twa pynts of ale and one gill of brandie
£15 5s 10d"
23rd July 1672 with William of Terregles and Springkell when they came from my Lord Maxwell anent the Brigend Mercat, seven pints of wine and 4 shillings for tobacco and pypes £7 4s. November 11 The Provost Baillie Stephens, Baillie Coupland, the convenor, Deacon Crosbie and Deacon Herron and the gentlemen of the party when they were made burgesses, fyfteen pints of wyne, twa pynts of ale and one gill of brandie £15 5s 10d". The list is endless and this practice continued for hundreds of years; simply open an account book at any page. Wine was the tipple of the upper classes and ale was the drink of the working man. Whisky was unknown at this period. Even in the 18th century workmen received beer or a beer allowance as part of their wages. There seems to have been no correlation between the quantities consumed by the Council and the importance of the item to be discussed.
At one stage the Council ran a tavern of its own kept by one Agnes McGill and in the 1690s an establishment run by Mrs Fingas seemed to be the place where most council business took place. Council business was of course private and an act dated 3rd December 1674 provided that "any councillor divulging any secrets moved or spoken in council shall be fined £40 and put out of the council with disgrace".
Dumfries was, and indeed still is, the most important market town for South-West Scotland and as such has always serviced the surrounding countryside. Cattle have long been an important industry and ancillary industries used to be significant in Dumfries; tanning, leatherworking, shoe making, clogmaking and saddlery to mention a few. The agricultural improvements of the 18th century brought about increased yields from cultivated land and considerable areas were given over to the cultivation of oats, barley and wheat. The ancillary industries for these are brewing, distilling and milling.
Galloway cattle together with beasts imported from Ireland were driven south to English markets in vast herds, often as many as 30,000 a year. Towns such as Stranraer, New Galloway, Kirkcudbright and Dumfries served as collecting points on the droving routes, which ran the length of Galloway from Portpatrick to Carlisle. One of the favourite crossing points which saved a detour of miles was from Dornock across the Solway and there is a pub on the English side at Monkhill near Burgh by Sands called the Drovers Rest. One of the places on the distance marker affixed to the Midsteeple is Huntingdon, in the last century one of the most important of the English cattle markets. Droving was killed off by development of steam shipping but meat export continued to be important.
By the 1820s Dumfries had nine tanneries, about a third of the total number in Galloway. Tanning is a complicated process but is worth describing. This is based on an 18th century account: the hides are laid smooth in heaps for one or two days in summer and five or six days in winter. They were hung on poles in a close room called a smokehouse in which is kept a smouldering fire of wet tan; this occasions a small degree of putrefaction, which means the hair is easily got off by spreading the hide on a sort of wooden horse or beam and scraping it with a crooked knife. After this the hide is thrown into a water filled pit to clean out the dirt and is then scraped on the beam to remove "grease, loose flesh and extraneous filth". Then the hides are put into a pit of strong liquor called ooze, made up of bark infused with water. After this they are removed into another pit which contains water impregnated with vitriolic acid or vegetable acid. This opens the grain of the hide and gives firmness to the leather. The hides are then removed and spread out flat in another pit of water and ground bark. After six weeks the hides are lifted out and the whole process repeated. From start to finish tanning could take two years.
You can see that a good water supply was needed and most of Dumfries' tanneries were on the Whitesands or on the other side of the Nith in Maxwelltown. Currie, from currying or tanning leather, is a common surname. It is estimated that the trade in Dumfries, represented a capital of £25,000 in 1812. The last company, the Dumfries Tannery Co., failed in 1920.
Shoemaking, too, was important, and in the town's trades guild the shoemakers ranked second in size to the squaremen (joiners) and in 1832 had more than 300 members. Shoes were one of the town's biggest exports in the last century. Clogs too were exported and Dumfries sold clogs to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. Another trade which flourished about the same time was basketmaking and the proprietor of the Company, a Mr Hammond, employed more people than any other basket maker in Scotland. The harvesting and the processing of the willows was largely women's work and must have been a sweated trade. The traditional county for this trade was Lancashire, around the town of Ormskirk.
There was a considerable pork trade too which started at the end of December and finished at the beginning of April. During the 1820s, 700 carcases of green pork were sold weekly. One Liverpool company regularly sent its representative to Dumfries and once he bought over £3,500 worth of local pork. Dumfriesshire bacon was much prized and used to be sold in London under the name of "Westphalian Ham".
Brewing and distilling, ancillary industries to grain production, have also had their place in earning money for the town. In the 1780s innkeepers in the area still brewed their own beer from locally grown barley and malt but the national Sale of Beer Act in 1795 put an end to private manufacture and irregular sale of ale by requiring the licensing of premises, and brewing fell into the hands of a few.
One Dumfries merchant who capitalised on this was Gabriel Richardson, father of the famous arctic explorer Sir John Richardson, who produced a porter which was well known and its quality considered "very superior to what is often made in Scotland under that name". Barry and Sons had a distillery in Dumfries which was producing 2,000 gallons a year in the 1820s.
That accounts for crafts associated with farming. What about industry and manufacture? Even in the last century commentators who would normally not think twice about praising Dumfries to the skies were reluctant to call it a great centre of industry. McDiarmid who wrote about the town in glowing terms had to admit that "Dumfries, in the proper sense of the word, can hardly be called a manufacturing town". Cotton had been produced on a small scale in the 18th century. Hosiery provided a steady trade and employed more than 300 people in the town and the surrounding villages producing stockings, socks, drawers and flannel shirts.
Hatmaking employed over 200 people in the 1830s but had completely failed by the 1860s. Robert Scott, the biggest hosiery manufacturer, started tweed manufacture at Kingholm. His son, John Scott, set up a second tweed factory at the foot of St Michael's Street. John's brother Walter dissolved his partnership in 1866 and built the mills on the Troqueer side of the river. Walter later took over Kingholm and Nithsdale Mills in 1870. In 1881 James McGeorge emerged as the largest firm in the hosiery trade after his takeover of Robert Scott and Sons. Further expansion took place from 1888 and when Walter Scott and Sons retired from the large St Michael's Mills, McGeorge transferred business to the weaving sheds there. By 1902 the firm had parts of the Nithsdale Mills where 800 workers were employed. Charteris, Spence and company set up Rosefield Mill and in the First World War changed production to the manufacture of khaki and French Army blue cloth. After the war the mills did not recover their old markets and were apparently unwilling or unable to produce cheaper cloth for the rapidly developing multiple tailoring businesses. Troqueer Mill did not reopen after a fire in 1923 and Rosefield Mills were unable to survive the Depression.
Although the tweed trade has disappeared, hosiery is still an important industry although only one of the original firms is still in business, Robertson of Dumfries.
Of all the industrial ventures which have failed in Dumfries, perhaps the most interesting was the attempt to establish a motor car factory. Towards the end of the 19th century farm implements, bridges and tractor engines were made in McKinnel's Foundry, and between 1905 and 1908, as the North British Motor Manufacturing company, the firm made about 125 Drummond Cars. Case hardening of the gears was a weakness and the company went into voluntary liquidation. In 1911, Arrol-Johnston, a Paisley dogcart firm seeking room for expansion, came to Dumfries in order to be nearer the English market and to use local labour. Their factory, the first to be made of ferro-concrete in Britain, is now Gates Rubber at Heathhall.
By 1914 about 500 men were employed and the Arrol-Johnston car had a considerable name in the motor market. During the First World War the factory produced 120 h.p. and 160 h.p. Beardmore and 230 h.p. aero engines, 1500 men were employed and their wages bill was £9,000 a week.
After the war, a number of popular 12.9 and 15.9 o.h.v. models were produced and production of the Galloway car was transferred from Tongland. After the retirement of its managing director, T.C. Pullinger, to whose inventiveness and skill the factory development was mainly due, the company amalgamated with the Astor Engineering Company to make Arrol Astor stationary engines. Mass production elsewhere and trade recession forced the factory to cease production in 1931 and the company were into voluntary liquidation.