Photo of Observatory in 1860s

One of the oldest institutions in the town is the museum which was 160 years old in 1996. Its foundation is an interesting story and worth telling.

In the autumn of 1834 there were proposals afoot to demolish the old windmill which stood at the top of Corbelly Hill and redevelop the site. This met considerable opposition and Robert Thomson, shipowner, shipbuilder merchant and pioneer of trade with New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, circulated a printed subscription form round the town - "The spirit of commercial enterprise respects not objects, however picturesque and as the fate of the building has thus been decreed, nothing can save it but union and exertion on the part of those to whom it is nearly as dear as the Nith itself. In every part of the world there are Dumfriesians who remember well the Corbelly Hill with the mill, the kiln and the cozie seat which this latter afforded them in a winter day, the huge reefed arms that expanded above and the long and broad shadows they incessantly cast when the wind was strong and the weather fine, It is proposed therefore to form an Association under the name of the Dumfries and Maxwelltown Astronomical Society". One of their principal aims was "That a Telescope and a Camera Obscura be purchased as soon as the necessary funds can be raised".

The appeal was most successful and a meeting of interested persons was held in late November 1834. A committee was appointed and in December, Thomson purchased the windmill on behalf of the Society at a cost of £350 from the heirs of the late Mr Ferguson, the former owner. By the official public meeting of 23rd January 1835, 107 people had purchased shares at £5 each. Thomson told the meeting that the place was well fitted for an Observatory and urged them to "relieve him of the bargain" . The Society did so and further instructed the committee "to enclose the property with a proper wall, prepare plans of the alterations necessary to be made in the tower" and obtain "estimates of the expense of the instruments required". At this inaugural meeting although the subject of a Museum did not come up, Major Adam Adair presented his collection of Greek and Roman coins: the minutes and first accession book show that from this point, material flowed in continuously though the word 'Museum' was still not mentioned for several years.

Thomas Morton, a Kilmarnock carpet machine manufacturer and enthusiastic astronomical instrument maker, wrote to the Society - "I am glad to hear that the good folk of Dumfries has it in contemplation to erect an observatory it is of great importance for the Rising Generation of a town to have an opportunity of viewing the splendid firmament of the skies with a powerful telescope and as none excels us in the manuf(act)uring of Reflecting Telescopes for viewing the Celestral Bodies and if I am employed will for a public Body make them a telescope of the Very Best and at the most moderate Charge".

The Society, however, sought further advice and contacted Alexander Adie, an Edinburgh optician who had made the Camera Obscura in the Edinburgh Observatory. He recommended "the refracting kind of telescope as less liable to go wrong than a reflecting one" and offered to furnish (one) at the price of £73 10s. He also offered to supply an Obscura for £60. The final "Egyptian" design of the windmill alteration was very much based on his recommendation that the Obscura be placed at the top of the tower and that windows "with stone brackets" be put in the room below in order to "allow (a telescope) to be pointed with great ease to every part of the sky".

The Society's committee seemed set to take him up on his offer but first decided to get more information on the question of whether a reflecting or refracting telescope would suit their needs. They consulted Captain Sir John Ross, the Arctic explorer (1777-1856), who lived at Stranraer and who was "well known for his love of science". Sir John visited Dumfries on 6th April 1835 and informed the Society "that although reflectors were much more powerful than refractors the former were apt to become tarnished. This is a serious objection". John Jackson, the Society's secretary, promptly wrote Morton informing him of the opinion of Sir John and asking whether he could make refractors. He knew that Morton was intending to visit Dumfries, and by this time the committee were becoming expert in the technical details of the subject. He added - "I give you this hint as a friend that you may brush up a little before making your appearance".

Morton replied that "when a reflector is properly made, no refractor will carry equal power according to its light: 8 inch Gregorian or Newtonian, if perfectly made, will have a more perfect image of the Moon, Jupiter with his Moons, and Saturn with the division in his ring and his Moons, than any refractor of 4 inches. Another Evil in large (reflector) telescopes are Wooden Tubes, which through a Course of years hurts the Speculums, all these I have avoided; as mine are all fitted up either with Brass or Copper Tubes. I examined the speculums of my 9 feet Newtonian the other day and found it as pure as the day it came from the polisher. You should at all events have either an 8 inch or a 7 feet Newtonian. If I am favoured with the order it must beat the Captain's (telescope) or I will not send it".

By the 28th April, the Committee was in a position to make up its mind. It chose Morton. His personality, enthusiasm and persuasiveness had won the day. He was instructed to supply an 8" Gregorian telescope for £73 and a Camera Obscura for £27 10s. The design of both of which had to be approved by Sir John Ross. Jackson wrote to Morton immediately to tell him of the news; they could hardly wait for the instrument to arrive - "Lastly I am instructed to ask at what date it will be in your power to furnish us with the two Instruments. A Comet it is said is to make its appearance sometime in July or August and our Members are very anxious to have the glass here before that time". The comet was Halley's Comet and its arrival in 1986 was only the second time it has been seen since the 1830s. Morton was slow to deliver, however, and the occasion was lost.

During 1835-36 the mill was altered. Its furnishings were sold, raising the sum of £23 7s 5d. A spiral staircase was constructed in the tower round a ship's mast of Memel pine and a wall was built round the grounds. A caretaker was appointed and he and his wife did not "receive anything for their services saving the right to possess free of rent the lower part of the Tower". Shareholders were issued with "Tickets or Medals made of Tin having a figure of the Observatory stamped on the one side and the name of the Shareholder engraved on the other", costing "about 8 ½d each". These were to be shown to the Caretaker to gain admission to the Tower. It was decided that it would be open on Sundays "excepting during divine service" and that "no refreshments of any description be furnished in the Observatory or Grounds on the Sabbath". To raise more money annual admission tickets were sold at 10/- per person; even so, the Society had to borrow money to pay the contractor's bills.

In July 1836 "Mr Black, clockmaker in Dumfries, made and presented a very valuable Timepiece to the Society" and, as a mark of appreciation, the Society presented him with a Share in the Observatory. The alterations were by then complete. The instruments came down by cart from Kilmarnock as the railway had not at that time reached Dumfries. By 28th July everything was ready and the Committee met to inspect the instruments. They were satisfied with them, "so far as the state of the weather will allow them to form an opinion". It was raining!

The building opened to the public on 1st August 1836. The newspaper reported that "when the Telescope was pointed to the lower part of the town, a lady was seen sitting at her window reading a letter, and when this was mentioned, Mr Morton remarked that by putting in the most powerful glass, he could enable the beholder to read the letter too. This, however, was not done, and if the Directors can help it, it will never be attempted. When the strongest glass was tried placards were read on the walls of Mr Rankine's and other shops near the Old Bridge". As for the Camera Obscura - "the colouring is as perfect as the eye could desire, and as the weather on Saturday was breezy in the extreme, it was beautiful to observe huge masses of river water chafed into foam as it hurried along. But it would be endless to record all the pleasure the Camera table affords, let our town readers therefore cross the bridge and judge for themselves, under the firm conviction that even the walk will do them good".

One of the first visitors was the writer Thomas Carlyle. By 1843 so many items had been deposited in the Observatory that a catalogue was published. Very much a gentlemens' club, the Society did not allow members of the "working classes" to be admitted to the "House and Grounds" until 1849 and even then only on Saturdays. An anemometer was acquired and detailed daily weather records were made for over 30 years. One entry, however, simply records the weather as "Dreadful!"

Dumfries Museum as it is today

Gradually the collection of antiquities, curiosities and bygones became the major function of the Observatory and astronomical readings ceased in the 1870s. The museum's collections now cover the natural and human history of South West Scotland.

Back to