Mass travel has really only been
with us for a little more than a hundred years but there have always been intrepid
travellers prepared to journey on horse or by foot and their accounts provide us with
a fascinating insight into the Dumfries of our ancestors.
Hector Boece travelled round Scotland in 1527 and he arrived in Dumfries from Annan. He wrote "In Nidisdail is the town of Dunfreis where many small and delicate whites (white woollen cloth) are made, held in great dainty to merchants of uncouth realms" (he may mean the English!). From this we learn that the town produced cloth. He also passed through Lochmaben and remarked that its inhabitants lived "a poor and miserable life" because "they have the Englishmen their perpetual enemies. They are so accustomed to thieving that even in peacetime they cannot desist".
Fifty years later Bishop Leslie passed through the town; he wrote "The inhabitants because of hot wars with the Englishmen are always in readiness and are all horsemen". We can see that in the 16th century South West Scotland was a dangerous place to tour round.
Richard Frank who came from Cambridge and who had fought in Cromwell's army came to Dumfries in 1656 and described the town centre "In the midst of the town is the market place and in the centre of that stands their tolbooth, round which the rabble sit that nauseate the very air with their tainted breath, so perfumed with onions, that to an Englishman it is almost infectious".
The London post horse fared no better when it was socked on the jaw by a local in 1690. John McGillter had been in jail for a week when he wrote asking to be set free - "the petitioner was in town on Wednesday 2nd April and being exceedingly drunk did strike at the London post horse which occasioned the man and the horse both to fall upon the High Street. If the petitioner had not been a drunken beast he would not have meddled with the post. He admires your Worships that you do not load him with irons or make him a spectacle to the whole town. He is exceedingly sorry and he shall be more sober for the time to come". A small note in the margin tells the verdict - "continued for 8 days".
John Mackay travelling in 1729 was impressed with the town. He described it - "there is a street that leads from the (old) Bridge by an easy Ascent to the Castle. The Castle (which is now the site of Greyfriars Church) belonged to the Earl of Nithsdale and from it the High Street runs by an easy Descent to the church at half a mile distance. The High Street is spacious with good stone buildings on each side; those on the North Side having their hanging gardens to the Right side. This is a very thriving town, yet their shipping don't come up within two miles of the town".
Daniel Defoe came here in 1753. By this time Southerness lighthouse, Glencaple and Kingholm Quays had been built. He wrote - "Dumfries was always a good town, full of reputable and wealthy merchants. They employ a considerable number of ships especially since they have embarked in trade to the English Plantations. Though it stands near two leagues from the Sea yet the tide flows up to the town and ships of burden come close to the Quay about four miles below it, the largest merchants ships in Britain may ride in Safety".
Pennant wrote one of the first traveller's guides to Scotland in 1773. "Had a beautiful view of an artificial water fall just in front of a bridge which consists of nine arches. Cross it; pass through a small town at its foot and walk up Gorbelly hill remarkable for the fine prospect of the charming windings of the Nith towards the sea, the town of Dumfries and a rich vale towards the north".
After Burns stayed here the town became a source of pilgrimage for 19th century poets. The Wordsworths came here in 1803. Dorothy gives us an interesting description of Burns House - "It has a mean appearance and is in a bye situation, whitewashed, dirty about the doors, as almost all Scotch houses are; flowering plants in the windows. Mrs Burns was gone to spend some time by the sea shore with her children. We spoke to the servant maid at the door, who invited us forward and we sat down in the parlour. The walls were coloured with a blue wash, on one side of the fire was a mahogany desk, opposite to the window a clock and over the desk a print from the 'Cotter's Saturday Night', which Burns mentions in one of his letters having received as a present. The house was clean and neat. We were glad to leave Dumfries which is no agreeable place to them who do not love the bustle of a town that seems to be rising up to wealth. We could not think of little else but poor Burns and his moving about in that unpoetic ground".
Richard Ayton, who travelled round Britain with the illustrator William Daniell,
visited Dumfries in 1814.
"I thought the entrance into Dumfries, the capital of the South of Scotland, very unpromising, and as I passed through a mean street between two rows of the aboriginal huts of the island, was preparing some better reproaches; but before I had time to note them down in my common-place-book. I was in the High-street, which at once changed by disposition, displaying a stateliness suited to a town of this rank and importance in the country. The eye is offended by the awkaward situation of the town-hall, which stands plump in the middle of the street, interfering materially with the beauty of its perspective, and not a little with is commodiousness as a thoroughfare. There are several other good streets, one in particular of great elegance, called Buccleugh-street, but just finished, and not yet inhabited".
He described Maxwelltown: "A few years ago it was a sink of filth, wretchedness and worthlessness, peopled principally by vagrants from Ireland, noted for their laziness, drunkenness, and quarrelsomeness. It now bears a very different character: the houses have been thoroughly cleansed inside and out, and are neat and decent; and the people having underegone the same operation, have become sober, quiet and industrious". The imposing memorials of St Michael's did not impress him: "On casting one's eye over this pompous burial-ground, one might imagine that it was the chosen cemetery of the warriors and sages of the world, instead of the peaceful and plodding dealers and chapmen of a provincial town".
The Old Bridge he considered to be of "no use" and "interfering with the effect of the new bridge (completed twenty years previously) which is a very handsome structure". He left town on a Sunday and was amused by girls heading to church from the surrounding villages. "They were mostly very gaily attired, but all had their shoes and stockings off, which they carried wrapped up in their handkerchiefs, and would not put on till the moment before their entrance into the town ... for these hardy damsels consider shoes and stockings as things of mere ornament. Here you may see a lady with a white gown, a silk shawl or spencer, and a straw bonnet with artificial flowers in it, nay, with gloves on too, and all this finery terminated by a huge pair of bare, begrimed legs and feet, which look as if they could scarcely belong to her. The legs and feet, from exposure to wet, and cold, and the sun, become red and puffy, resembling in surface and colour a great over-grown radish..."
Keats came here on a walking tour in 1818. As he approached the town he saw cottages for which there was "no outlet for smoke but by the door". He found the people "more inanimated that necessary" and he too was offended by the "large splay feet" of the women. A man pointed out Burns' tomb: "There, de ye see it, amang the trees - white, wi' a roond tap!"
Nine years later 'Picture of Scotland', a travellers guide book describes the newly formed Burgh of Maxwelltown formerly Brigend. "Maxwelltown seems to be the great standing joke of its proud neighbours the Dumfriessians. Some idea may be formed of its character from a saying of Sir John Fielding, the great London magistrate; that whenever a delinquent got over the bridge of Dumfries into Maxwelltown, he was lost to all search of pursuit".
The crotchety and cynical circuit judge Lord Cockburn visited Dumfries many times in the 1830s and 40s recording his thoughts in his diaries - "Autumn 1839. The old windmill has been converted into what they call an Observatory; which means a windmill looking tower with a but of shrubbery round it, ginger beer in the ground floor, a good telescope in the second storey and a camera obscura in the third. So the astronomical dignity of the establishment is not great, but still it is an agreeable and civilised institution. I never enter mad-houses but the new Lunatic asylum (Crichton Royal) is very striking outside. I have always liked Dumfries. It stands high in the rank of our Scottish provincial towns. Any my decision is (for judges always gave decisions!) that its windows are the cleanest in Scotland".
Five years later he is back. "My love of Dumfries increases. There are just, if I recollect right, three country towns of the kind in Scotland, Dumfries, Inverness and Perth. I was delighted to see some comfortable iron seats placed on different parts of the green, near the infirmary, marked "for the sick poor". These elegant little seats are still in the Dock Park. The visit, however, was marred, "Our public dinner at the Commercial (latterly the County Hotel), was the worst I ever beheld even at a Circuit. I record it as a dinner of unexampled abomination!"
Finally the last word from our travellers in time must go to William Lithgow when he visited us in 1628 - "I found here in Galloway in diverse roadway inns, good cheer, hospitality and serviceable attendance".