Being in the Dumfries and Galloway area a lot, we have explored most of the major places there. Just after new year we started our travels again, and went to Dumfries…
Status: Dumfries and Galloway (historically Dumfriesshire), Town, Scotland
Travel: Scotrail (Gretna Green – Dumfries)
Eating & Sleeping: Costa, Greggs
Attractions: Dumfries Midsteeple, Robert Burns Museum, Cathedral Towers, High Street Fountain, County Hotel, Queensberry Column, Queensberry Square, Devorgilla Bridge, Whitesands Caul, Court House, River Nith, Camera Obscurer, Robert Burns House, Robert Burns Mausoleum, St Michaels Church, Greyfriars Church, Jane Armour Statue etc
Our journey began, as it so often does, at the local train station as we pulled in on a Scotrail service heading North to Glasgow, coming from Gretna. Opened in 1848, the station is located on the Glasgow South Western Line, which has regular passenger trains through the West of Scotland, complimenting the West Coast Main Line which is the other main line through the region. Historically there were other lines radiating out from Dumfries, including those to nearby Lockerbie, Castle Douglas and out to the coast looking over to Northern Ireland, at Stranraer, however both of these lines have subsequently closed, around the 1960’s during the Beeching Cuts.
The station is reasonably centrally located, and it was only a 10 minute walk into the main town centre. On the way, we passed a number of landmarks, and buildings of importance.
The 1st of these is essentially the acting County Hall for Dumfries & Galloway, as the Council is based here. It’s a grand building dating back to 1914, located on English Street which runs between the station and the town centre. Historically Dumfries was the county town of the county of Dumfriesshire, however by 1975 after local government reform throughout the UK, and Scotland, the county no longer existed in it’s previous form. Dumfriesshire was combined with Kirkcudbrightshire and Wigtownshire to create 1 of 32 new Scottish Council Areas, called Dumfries & Galloway. The name derives from of course Dumfries, and Galloway, the region at the far West of the new area.
Dumfries is the major retail centre of the Council Area, and also it’s largest settlement. The County Buildings are very impressive, taking the form of a large U-Plan building created out of beautiful Red Ashlar, a common feature in this area of Scotland.
Moving on towards the town centre, we passed the last remaining structures that made up part of the Cathedral of St Andrews, in the form of the 2 Towers.
The Roman Catholic Cathedral was built in 1815, and from 1878 it became the new seat of the Bishop of Galloway. The North Tower was designed by Marmaduke C Maxwell and completed in 1843 (left), and by 1858 the South Tower (right) was added by John H Bell from Dumfries. The Spire was then added the same year to complete the South Tower, by Alexander Fraser, and stands a magnificent 135 ft tall.
The Bishop soon moved however, as under a re-organisation of areas under the Diocese in the 1950’s Dumfries was no longer the largest settlement within the area, this became the town of Ayr, but St Andrew’s survived and continued in it’s role as a Cathedral despite the Bishop officially living in Ayr.
Sadly the building burnt down just a decade later, in 1961. The only surviving sections were the main spire as well as St Ann’s Tower on the left. As the Bishop had already moved, permission was given by the Catholic Church for the Cathedral to be officially moved to Ayr, which we encountered on one of our later trips.
A new St Andrew’s was built in Dumfries, but on a smaller scale and with only Church status. The new Church can be found behind the Cathedral Towers, as it was built over the old Cathedral Crypt in 1964. If you walk around the gardens at the front of the Church you will actually be walking through the original Cathedral Nave, which connected up with the Towers at the front.
It’s a shame such a wonderful building is no longer here, but it’s another chapter in history. I haven’t been able to find any old pictures of the Cathedral intact, so if anyone knows of a link to any please would you send it me in the comments, thanks!
Moving into the town centre, we arrived in one of the pedestrianised streets, where the main shops, restaurants and attractions can be found. In the centre lies the famous MidSteeple, which dates back to 1707, the year that England and Scotland united to form one country. It’s main functions were as the towns court and prison, however since then it has also contained council offices, and the present day local booking office.
The walls you can see today aren’t the original ones, as in 1909 James Barbour reclad the building effectively rebuilding the exterior. Scotland has a lot of buildings like these in the centre of town, other good examples being those in Ayr, Falkirk and Dunfermline.
At the South end of the street, called High Street, is the High Street Fountain, cast in the 1880’s by a firm from Glasgow called Smith’s Foundry. Erected in 1882, it’s a stunning piece with exquisite detail on it.
Behind the Fountain sits the County Hotel, also known as Number 79 High Street. Just looking at it from the front it is obvious that the building was constructed in 2 stages, starting with the lower 2 storeys at the start of the 18th century. The upper storeys were then added around 1860.
Sadly only the facade is an original build now, as the rest of the building was rebuilt with a new sturdier steel frame during the 1980’s. The building has an interesting history, as by 1745 it had come into the ownership of Richard Lowthian, a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie AKA Charles Edward Stuart (1720 – 1788, pretender to the British Throne). The Prince was allowed by Richard to plan his campaign in one of the upper rooms, and he eventually marched into England, however he only reached the city of Derby before he was forced to turn back.
Not far away from the Midsteeple as you head North up the pedestrianised streets you will find the Queensberry Column, the central feature of Queensberry Square. Completed in 1780 by Robert Adam, it stands as a memorial to the 3rd Duke of Queensberry, Charles Douglas (1698 – 1778) who died 2 years prior. The title was created in 1684 as Duke of Queensberry, and still exists today, held by Richard Scott (Born 1954) who is the 12th Duke. His heir apparent, who will one day succeed him as the 13th Duke is expected to be his son Walter Scott (Born 1984).
Their ancestral home is Drumlanrig Castle (late 17th Century), some 20 miles North of Dumfries itself, near the smaller town of Thornhill. The Castle is open to the public however it remains a functioning Castle so only certain parts of the building are open.
One of Dumfries’s most pleasant areas is just a few streets away, down by the river Nith, which you can cross via a series of bridges. I took this picture from the other side of the river, after we had crossed the Devorgilla Bridge, shown above. It’s a charming old stone bridge, different incarnations of which have stood here for centuries.
The original bridge dates back to 1431, which had 9 arches on it. It was almost completely washed away in 1619 during flooding, leaving only 4 of the arches standing, so the bridge was rebuilt over the next few years. The small parapets on the side of the bridge were later added in 1725, and regular maintenance was carried out across the structure.
The most recent change was the reduction of the number of arches from 9 down to 6, when the 3 arches at the east end (far side of the river back towards the town centre) were demolished, and that area of the town reclaimed from the river, which originally extended further into town. This left the surviving 6 arches of this historically interesting little bridge.
In the background a number of local landmarks are visible. starting with the turretted building in the centre of the picture. This is Number 40 Buccleuch Street, which is also known as the local Court House. A lot of Dumfries dates back to the mid Victorian times, and this building is no exception, as it was completed in 1866 to designs by David Rhind from Edinburgh. It’s a stunning building and looks more like a small Castle than a Court House, and has a lovely medieval quality about it.
Next is the Spire of Greyfriars Church, over to the right. The Church has been located at the end of the pedestrianised streets since 1868. Outside the Church in the centre of a small roundabout stands a statue of Robert Burns (1759 – 1796, famous Scots Poet) who quite famously lived in the town near the end of his life. Later on in our exploration of the town we would find his house and final resting place, but more on them in a bit…
The view towards the town centre from this side of the Nith is very impressive, and you can see a lot of the towns most important buildings. To the left you can just see the tower of the Midsteeple in the town centre, and to the far right the spire of St Michael’s Church is also visible. Robert Burns’s Mausoleum is located in St Michael’s Churchyard and was one of our last stops later in the day.
The view out across Dumfries reminds me of a similar one you get in the Scottish city of Perth, not far from Dundee. A vast, still river which perfectly reflects the settlement above it, with an impressive skyline.
Just downstream of Devorgilla Bridge is the “Whitesands Caul”. The area the town centre inhabits is known as Whitesands, whilst this side is known as Maxwelltown. The Nith flows through the centre, from its source up in East Ayrshire amongst the Carsphairn Hills, then through to Dumfries and beyond to the Solway Firth where it completes its 71 mile journey towards the sea.
The Caul acts as an artificial Weir in the centre of the river, and dates back to 1705 when it was completed by a contractor called Matthew Frew. If you look closely you can see the bricks used to create it, which were the 1st indication that this wasn’t a natural Weir. Much like Devorgilla bridge this isn’t the original incarnation of the Weir, the function of which was to serve a mill on the river bank by diverting part of the water flow.
Staying on the Maxwelltown side of the Nith, we took some time out to explore the Robert Burns Centre, a Museum dedicated to the life and works of the famous Poet. Inside there are various interesting exhibits, which include items of his clothing and a story of his life.
The building itself is quite interesting as well, as it was originally built as a grain mill in 1781, and may even be the mill associated with the Weir. Since then it has been converted and altered a number of times, resulting in the present building you see today.
You can find out more about the Centre on their official website here.
Keeping with the Robert Burns theme, we moved back over to Whitesands and arrived outside Burns’s Birthplace, located on the aptly named Burns Street, at Number 24. This road is directly opposite St Michael’s Church where he is buried.
The House is now a Museum open to the public, and documents Burns’s time here in Dumfries. Around 1791 Burns moved to Dumfries after selling his farm, also along the Nith further out in Dumfriesshire, and he moved into this specific house in 1793. He lived here for the rest of his life, along with his wife, called Jean Armour. He sadly passed away in 1795 at the age of just 37.
The house has been well preserved over the following centuries, and is perhaps the most famous building in the town, celebrating a man who gave us some of the most famous poems we know today including “Auld Lang Syne” which became the traditional New Years song, and “Tam O’Shanter” one of his best known poems.
Making the short journey towards the Church from Burns’s house, we stopped to admire the statue of his wife Jean Armour, located at the East end of Burns Street. Burns died in 1795 but Jean survived him by a number of years, and she lived on in Dumfries until her eventual death many years later in 1834. Together the couple had 9 children, although only 3 survived into full adulthood. Like Burns, she is also buried in the Mausoleum across the road.
The statue was erected in 2004 by the “Burns Howff Club” who commemorate Burns and offer walking tours around Dumfries about his life.
We soon arrived in St Michael’s Churchyard, with the mighty Tower/Spire of the Church towering over us. The building remains the oldest Church in Dumfries, and is almost 300 years old, having been completed in 1746, on the site of an earlier Church. Interestingly the lead which was originally supposed to line the roof was sold to the military to make bullets, although the civil war orchestrated by the Scottish Jacobites who were supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie, ended the year the building was completed.
The 2nd picture shows the famous Mausoleum which contains the bodies of Robert Burns and Jean Armour. Originally Burns was buried with just a plain slab to mark his grave, on the orders of Jean. This caused some controversy however, and as he became more and more well known thanks to his works being sold across the country, his body was moved into a purpose built Mausoleum in 1817. Jean’s body was immediately buried here as well in 1834.
Looking back from the Churchyard, we spotted one final notable landmark, located back on the other side of the river. The imposing, circular white form of the Dumfries Camera Obscura sits high on a hill overlooking the Nith and town centre.
It has the distinction of being the oldest working camera obscura in the world, having been in constant use since the 18th Century Windmill it inhabits was converted in 1836. The building is attached to the Dumfries Museum, completed in 1862, which contains a number of artefacts found in the region throughout history. In 1981 new areas of the Museum opened, with a new shop as well as offices amongst the building work.
The Camera works by allowing light in through a hole on the camera, which then reflects it up as an image onto another surface. The principle behind it led to the discovery of photography and the ability to transfer light to film. You can find out more about the Museum and the Camera on their official website here.
Dumfries is an interesting town with plenty of fantastic buildings, stunning both architecturally and material wise, as well as lots of history to accompany the many centuries which have passed here. Transport wise local buses run to nearby towns and villages, as well as through Annan and Gretna into the English city of Carlisle. As mentioned earlier the town is on the Glasgow South Western Line, with regular trains between Glasgow Central, through Kilmarnock and Ayrshire down to Dumfries, through Annan, Gretna Green and finally Carlisle. Connections in both Carlisle and Glasgow are available to join the West Coast Main Line between London and Glasgow/Edinburgh via a number of important cities such as Manchester and Birmingham.
Dumfries is a great place to explore, and to use as a base to travel around the wider area of Dumfries & Galloway, from the lovely towns of Lockerbie and Lochmaben, to the historic village of Gretna Green and the stunning views along the Solway Firth and the Galloway Coast.