Something that might surprise
the visitor is the fact that Dumfries used to be a considerable port. The port of
Dumfries covers Dumfries, Kingholm Quay, Kelton, Glencaple and Carsethorn. Much of
the trade was local coasting and at all times imports predominated over exports. In
1694 William Copland of Collieston (Blackwood) later Provost of Dumfries, had his
ship captured by French privateers on his way to San Sebastian. Her cargo was
removed and the ship allowed to proceed. Customs records show a considerable
increase in shipping in the early 18th century and the town had already established
links with the North American colonies. In the 1740s so much tobacco trade was
passing through Dumfries that the town was called "The Scottish Liverpool".
Coal from Cumberland was by far the largest item of trade into Dumfries and continued as such until 1947.
Lime was another common import, particularly after farming methods improved in the 18th century. Brandy, wine, dried fruits and luxury textiles came from France and Spain. These, together with tobacco, formed the chief support for the Solway smugglers in the 18th century. The customs accounts of the time relate what a hopeless task it was to control it.
About the beginning of the 18th century buoys were placed in the lower reaches of the Nith, that most fickle of all rivers, and blasting took place at Castledykes to remove obstructions from its channel in 1710. There was still, however, no harbour worthy of that name. In 1746, the Earl of Nithsdale gave land at Glencaple for an outport, and stone from his quarries at Bankend in return for free passage for his goods over the toll bridge at Dumfries. In 1747 Kingholm Quay was built. In the Autumn of 1748 the town commissioned Milligan, the mason of Borron Village, to build a lighthouse at Satterness (Southerness) and this appears as 'lighthouse' on General Roy's map of 1753. In the 1790s it was unlit but there was a beacon on the point. By the beginning of the 1800s the town was buying oil and paying a lighthouse keeper. Trade was brisk and destinations from Dumfries included Whitehaven (one of the greatest British ports at the time), Workington, Thurso, London, Caernarvon, Liverpool (which was well down the list), Leith, Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Virginia, New England, Rotterdam, Trondheim, Gothenburg, Malaga, Oporto, Danzig, Cadiz, Dieppe, Bordeaux and many others. The key exports were grain, potatoes, sheep, cattle, pigs. By 1810 navigation in the Nith had become very dangerous even for small vessels and virtually impassable above Kelton for vessels over 60 tons, except at high tides. The town decided to take action and a survey of the Nith was undertaken by James Hollingsworth, a civil engineer, who drew up a plan for improvements in the course of the river. An Act of Parliament passed in 1811 appointed commissioners to superintend improvements, with powers to borrow £16,000 to execute the work. The aim was to improve navigation so that vessels with a depth of at least six feet could come and go.
The early 1800s saw a tremendous amount of emigration to the colonies from Dumfries, particularly Canada, and newspaper advertisements show emigrant ships sailing regularly from Glencaple and Carsethorn.
The coastal trade of the port of Dumfries reached its height in the 1840s with almost 25,000 tons entering the river and steamboats such as the Countess of Nithsdale maintaining long established links with Liverpool.
The cost of the many improvements to the channel, however, was too great for the traffic generated and the coming of the railway in 1850 started a slow decline in seaborne trade. The opening of Silloth wet dock in 1864 was another nail in the coffin and because of increasing debts the Nith Navigation Commission extinguished the light at Southerness in 1867 to save money. Finally in 1875, the steam tug Arabian was involved in an accident in the river. The owner sued the Commission successfully and reduced it to insolvency. Although this part of the judgement was later set aside, no one would now serve on the Commission, and anyone if appointed, promptly resigned.
This century has seen an almost complete decline. The Great War brought the port to a virtual standstill and the Second World War completed the process. Very occasionally a cargo arrives at Glencaple but that is about all.