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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter XIII


THE original charters granted by William the Lion to the Burgh have been lost sight of for centuries, and not even a copy of any of them has been preserved. In the subjoined memoranda a list is given of the principal writs belonging to Dumfries in 1633. It is dated on the 8th May of that year. “The said day thair is taking from out of the Towns’s box the particular wryts under wrytting to be sent to Edinburgh, viz.: Ane charter of the Friar’s lands, and annual rents granted be King James to the town, daited the fourt January, 1591. Item: excerpt of sesine relating to the above, 2nd February, 1591. Item: extract of the town’s original charter of this Burghe grantit be King Robert, 28th Apryll, 1395. Item: a Commission for halding of tua fairs, 30 Nov., 1592. Item: the original charter of the Brig Custome grantit be James, Erle of Dowglas, to the Freirs Minories of Dumfries, 4 January, 1452. Item: ane charter of the said custome, and of lands therein, grantit be King James to John Johnstoun in College of Lynclowden, datit 8th July, 1591.”  We subjoin the text of Kin Robert’s charter: -

“Robertus, Dei gratia Rex Scotorum, omnibus probes hominibus totius terræ suæ clericis et laicis, salutem: -  Sciatis quia assedavimus et ad firmam dimissimus Præposito, Ballivis, Burgensibus, et Commitati Burgi nostri de Drumfriess dictum Burgum nostrum eis et eorum successoribus de nobis et hæredibus nostris, in feodo et hereditate in perpetuum tenens et habens cum omnibus et singulis libertatibus commoditatibus asiamentis et justis pertinenciis suis quibuscunque ad dictum burgum spectantibus, seu juste spectare valentibus quoque modo in futurm,cum primis nostris et anuis dicti Burgi, cumsuis custumis et tolloniis cum curiis et curiarum exitibus ac terries Dominicis ejusdem Burgi, cum molendinis multuris et suis sequelis; una cum piscariis aquæ de Nith ad nos pertinentibus (piscariæ tamen datæ et concessæ per predecessores nostros reges Frateribus Minoribus ejusdem loci Divini caritatis intuitu duntaxat exceptæ) ac cum omnibus aliis previlegiis tam citra Burgum quam infra quibuscunque quo iisdem Burgenses nostri et Communitatas temporibus nostris et antecessorum nostrorum reges Scotiæ aliquo tempore hac tenus habuerunt et possederunt adeo libere et quiete plenarie integre et honorifice bene et in pace sicut aliquis Bugus infra regnum nostrum Scotiæ libere et quiete do nobis tenetur seu possidetur per omnes cectas melas suas antiquas et devisas suas; Solvendo inde nobis et heredibus nostris, dicti Prepositus, Ballivi, Burgenses, et Communitas qui pro tempore, fuerint ac eorum successores annuatim pro perpetuo in cameram nostrum viginti libras usualis monetæ regni nostri, ad Festa Pentecostes et Sancti Martini in hieme proportiones equales. In cujus rei testimonium presenti cartæ nostræ sigillum nostrum precepimus appari; testibus Veneralibus in Christo, Patribus Waltero et Matheo, Sancti Andreo et Glasguæ Ecclesiarum Episcopis; Comite de Fyffe et de Menteith; fratri uno charissimo, Archibaldo, Comite de Dowglass, Domino Galwidiæ; Jacobo de Dowglass, Domino de Dalkeith, Thoma de Erskyn, consanguineis nostris dilectis militibus; et Alexandro de Cockburne, de Langtown, custode magni nostri Sigilli. Apud Glasgow, vicessimo octavo die Aprilis, anno gratiæ millesimo ecc.  nonagesimo quinto, et regni nostri anno sexton.”


“Robert, by the grace of God King of Scots, unto all trusty men of his whole realm, clergy and laity, greeting: -

 “Know ye that we have granted to the Provost, Bailies, Burgesses, and Community of our Burgh of Dumfries our said Burgh, to be held by them and their successors, of us and our heirs, in feudal inheritance for ever. With all and every the liberties and privileges, the immunities and just pertinents whatsoever, appertaining to the said Burgh, or which may afterwards in any way rightly belong to it. Together with our feus and rents in the said Burgh, with their customs, tolls, courts and court revenues, markets and roads thereof, and our Lord’s lands in the same Burgh. As also the thirlages, multures, and their pertinents. Together with the fishings in the Water of Nith belonging to us, excepting only the fishing granted by our royal predecessors out of Divine charity [or love] to the Minorite Brothers of the same place, and with all other privileges both without and within the said Burgh which our said Burgesses and Communities have at any time formerly held or possessed in our reign or that of our royal ancestors in Scotland; and that as freely, equally, fully, wholly, and favourably, in peace and comfort, as any burgh within our realm of Scotland is held or possessed from us freely and peaceably in all its old and righteous boundaries and adhesions. Upon condition that the said Provost, Bailies, Burgesses, and Community at present, and their successors for ever, shall pay into our exchequer twenty pounds current coin of our realm yearly, in equal shares, at Whitsunday and Martinmas.

“In testimony whereof, we have caused our seal to be affixed to this charter before these witnesses: - The Venerable Father in Christ, Walter, Bishop of St. Andrews; Mathew, Bishop of Glasgow; Robert, Earl of Fife and Menteith; our most beloved brother, Archibald, Earl of Douglas, Lord of Galloway; James de Douglas, Lord Dalkeith, Thomas de Erskyn, our trusty cousins and knights; and Alexander de Cockburn, of Langtown, Keeper of our Great Seal. At Glasgow, the twenty-eighth day of April, year of grace one thousand three hundred and ninety-five years, and the sixth year of our reign.”

A grant more comprehensive than is here conveyed can scarcely be imagined. In the first instance, the Burghal authorities get a present of the Burgh itself. It once belonged to the King – was as much his own property as any other portion of the royal dominions – but now he surrenders it to its magistrates and the community whom they represent, giving along with it the revenue derivable from its land and trade, its multures and fishings; the only condition attached to the munificent grant by the royal donor being that its recipients shall pay him a small nominal sum per annum.

Not only so: “all other privileges without and within the Burgh,” previously conferred upon it, are ratified by this charter. These words have an extensive meaning, including, among other things, the fundamental right of the Royal Burgh, as such, to monopolize all trade, foreign and domestic, within its jurisdiction. And as the charter does not specify in detail all the exclusive privileges given to the community, neither does it enumerate all the valuable equivalents exacted by the King. It says nothing of the liability of the burgesses to be called upon to serve in the royal host like other military tenants of the Crown – of their being obliged to maintain an effective police – of their being subject to direct taxation on special occasions – and of their having always to pay into the State exchequer the “great custom,” an impost levied by means of his Majesty’s own customarii on all staple commodities of foreign trade. Yet we know, from other documents, that such conditions were imposed on the towns that were royally chartered: so that the privileges conferred by Robert III. on Dumfries were paid for at a much higher rate that £20 a year. It is right to remark, however, that the Burgh could not be taxed for Government purposes till after it came to be represented in Parliament, which would be many years prior to 1395 – the claim of all the King’s Burghs, to form a distinct estate in the senate of the nation, having been recognized in the days of Bruce.

While the Great Chamberlain received the customs on foreign trade, for behoof of the Crown, he left what were called the “petty customs” unmeddled with: these, imposed upon articles of domestic consumption, were collected by the Burgh Chamberlain, and, with ground-rents, fishing-rents, market dues, and court fines (“exitus curiæ”), made up the municipal income, as specified in the charter.

At an earlier period, as we have seen, the rulers of Royal Burghs were elected by the inhabitants at large: but, long before the days of Robert III., the suffrage was restricted to owners of property; and doubtless the Provost and Bailies spoken of in the charter granted by him to Dumfries, were chosen by the wealthier class of burgesses – acting, however, in the name of the general community. Within the course of another century, even this qualified form of popular election was taken away, by a statute of James III [Acts of the Scottish Parliament, 1469, vol. ii., p. 95.], which, on the plea of silencing the clamour of common simple persons at the yearly choosing of new officers, provided “that the aulde Counsail of the toune sall cheise the new Counsail, in sic nowmyr as accordis to the toune; and the new Counsail, and the auld of the yeir before, sall cheise all officiaris pertenying to the toune. . . . And that ilka craft sall cheise a persone of the samyn craft, that sall have voce in the said electioune of the officiaris for that tyme; in like wise yeir be yeir.”

The Dumfries charter of 1395 recognizes the existence of privileges conferred on the Burgh by preceding sovereigns. Some of these would probably include nearly all the rights and immunities specified in that document. Indeed, the charter of erection, by which William I. raised it from humble villagedom to be one of the King’s own burghs, must necessarily have conferred upon it rights so extensive as to render future charters rather confirmative of old grants than donative of new privileges. No reference is made in King Robert’s charter to any distinction between merchants and craftsmen, because as yet the artizans had not acquired a political position in the realm. In some places they were beginning to form guilds, which incipient organizations provoked the jealous opposition of the merchants, who did not relish the idea of having their exclusive rule in the burghs endangered by a rival class. The smiths, the tailors, the tanners, and the cordwainers of Dumfries would probably be longing, like their brethren elsewhere, to obtain a share of royal favour and of municipal privilege: but as yet they were few in number, disunited, without a head, without a seat at the Council Board; and the “blue blanket” – grand banner of the incorporated trades – had not even been seen in vision by the artizans of the Burgh. But when, in course of years, the tradesmen came to be numbered by hundreds instead of tens, and each craft was systematically organized under its own deacon, no power in the realm could long keep them unrepresented in the local parliament. Conscious of their own strength, they then determined that their officers, besides looking after the apprentices, and seeing that all fabrics operated upon were of good stuff, should try their hand at burgh-craft, and not allow the venders of their wares, and the holders of the soil, to do everything according to their own will and pleasure. The deacons occupied their position in virtue of an Act passed in 1424, which authorized them to “assay and govern all werkis made to the wurkmen, sud that the Kingis lieges be nocht defrauded and scathyt in tyme to cum, as thai have bene in tyme bygane, through untrue men of craftis.” [Acts of Scottish Parliament, vol. ii., p. 8.] They wished to get justice done to their own body, not less than to the general community; and, for somewhat rudely seeking to bring about that result, they were looked upon as unsafe demagogues by the Crown. An Act of Parliament set them up; but a second Act, passed two years afterwards, to put them down, failed of its object. [Ibid, vol. ii., p. 14.] The Trades were too powerful for the mercantile interest – could even sometimes overawe the King: their deacons, therefore, continued in office, waxing stronger and bolder, till eventually, in Dumfries, as in the other Royal Burghs, they took their place at the Council Board, along with the merchants, as rulers of the town. At first only the principal trades acquired a right of incorporation, including self-government. This privilege was conferred upon them by the Town Council granting what were termed “Sigillum ad Causas,” letters under the Burgh Seal, which protected the recipients from all rivalry, prescribed the mode of admitting members, of electing office-bearers, and of enacting bye-laws. [Royal Commissioners’ Report on Municipal Corporations, p. 79.] At one time there were at least eleven different crafts incorporated in Dumfries, namely: the smiths, the wrights, the masons, the websters, the tailors, the shoemakers or cordwainers, the skinners, and gauntlers or glovers, the fleshers, the lorimers or armourers, the pewterers or tinsmiths, the bonnetmakers, and the litsters or dyers; the latter four of which became defunct, or were absorbed by some of the other trades. These acquired monopoly within the Burgh, not in virtue of any charter, but solely, as we have said, by the Burgh’s own Seals of Cause. Probably, however, when the Trades, while still maintaining their individuality, joined in one aggregate corporation, which they did before the end of the sixteenth century, they obtained the requisite authority from the Crown – no longer jealous of its loyal, though independent, craftsmen. [As illustrative of the text, we quote the following curious extract from the Records of the Convention of Royal Burghs (p. 31), Stirling, 20th October, 1574: - “John Douglas, alledgit Provost of Haddingtoun, being ane cordinar [shoemaker] of his occupatioun, presented ane comissioun; . . . but the saidis comissionaris all in one voice fyndis and delyveris that na craftisman has ever had, nolder aucht or suld haif, voit or comissioun amangis thame;” and they ordered the said John Douglas to withdraw, and admitted “John Seyttoun bailie thereof” in his stead.]

In accordance with a practice that sprang up at an early period of the middles ages, Dumfries was placed under the guardianship of a spiritual patron. No saint of the Romish calendar was fixed upon for this purpose: soaring ambitiously above all canonized mortals, the rulers of the Burgh selected as their special protector the chief of the heavenly hierarchy. Till this day, the figure of St. Michael remains the heraldic symbol of the Burgh, and is to be seen on its official seal, and carved in low relief on the Provost’s chair; also, in a bolder form, on the south front of the Mid Steeple, with wings outspread, armed with a pastoral staff, treading on a writhing serpent, yet calmly surveying his tutelary charge, as if the overthrow of the foul fiend below his feet were but an ordinary affair. [Though the patron of Dumfries is not exclusively a Romish saint, he has always been held in the highest reverence by the Church of Rome. He is described as follows, in a document of our own day, by the Cardinal Vicar of the Pope: - “The Invincible St. Michael, Archangel, the Captain of the Celestial Phalanxes, the first Support of Divine Justice, the glorious Conqueror of the earliest revolt – that of the rebel angels – the Defender of the Church of God under the Old and the New Testament dispensations, the Patron of privileged souls at the tribunal of the inexorable Judge of the living and the dead – he, moreover, who is destined to confound and enchain Lucifer, in the consummation of the ages, for the eternal triumph of Jesus Christ, of his immaculate mother Mary, and his immortal Church.”] The proper arms of the town were a chevron and three fleurs de lis on a shield argent, which device was visible eighty years ago above the gate of the old prison, that stood nearly opposite the Mid Steeple; and the stone bearing it was said to have been taken from a preceding jail, that was built as far back as the beginning of the fifteenth century. [Burnside’s MS. History.] This escutcheon has been long out of use, Michael the archangel doing duty in its stead. At a very early date, as we have seen the name of the patron saint was given to the Parish Church. The armorial shield above noticed bore the word “Aloreburn;” and the motto is engraved on the ivory head of an ebon staff put into the Provost’s hand at the time of his election. A memorable term it is, full of high significance, suggestive of forays and broils, of invasions and sieges. Often, from the reign of Robert III. till the Rebellion of 1715 – a period of three hundred years – did this ominous word, shouted from street to street, shake the echoes of the town, calling all its male lieges, between the ages of sixteen and sixty, to arms; their familiar place of meeting being the margin of a sluggish little stream west of St. Christopher’s Chapel, anciently named the Lordburn – a term which, when slightly altered, furnished a slogan to the Burgh. [We have repeatedly met with the word Lordburn, as applied to the little brook in question, in old records. Mr. Bennet, in his History (Dumfries Magazine, vol. iii., p. 11.), takes a different view of the origin of the term. “The place of rendezvous was appointed,” he says, “near a low, swampy piece of ground to the eastward, where, in rainy weather, a considerable quantity of water is collected, which discharges itself into the Nith by two small rivulets, or rather ditches, the one running northward, the other towards the south. These two rivulets, which, connected as they are by their common source, from to appearance only one, are known by the name of the Lowerburn, or rather, according to the popular elision which they have undergone, Lorburn.”] Much of the ground which lay between this rivulet and the Castle was as swampy as if it had been a continuation of Lochar Moss. This marsh, especially in rainy weather, would be felt as an unpleasant neighbour by the inhabitants; but, unhealthy as it was it helped to guard the Castle, especially at a time when the Burgh had no mural defences. Early in the fourteenth century, however, a wall was built around it, which afforded more security than the swamps, mosses, and trenches which had been previously relied upon. Stone was chiefly employed in its erection, the height being generally eight feet. As, however, that was a scarce material in mediæval times, it was, when the nature of the ground allowed, dispensed with, and a deep ditch, having an earthen bank on its townward side, formed an excellent link in the defences; while, at other intervals, both wall and ditch gave place to horizontal piles of wood, formed in breastwork fashion, between the natural loopholes of which the townspeople could securely reconnoiter the enemy, and salute him with their feathered shafts, their cross-bow bolts, or the culverin balls of a later period. The wall, starting from the Moat overlooking the Nith near the Castle, stretched almost in a straight line to St. Christopher’s Chapel, forming an acute angle on the townward side of that building; it then took an oval sweep, coming round the north side of the Parish Church, and terminating at the river, a little to the south of what is now called Swan’s Vennel. Three huge gates strengthened the wall, and allowed communication with the country lying north and east: one, called the North Port, stood near the Moat; the second, called the East Port, adjoined the Chapel; and the third, called the South Port, rose near the Church. The bridge was also fortified by means of a port; and in course of time a series of inner ports – the Vennel Port, the Lochmaben Gate, and the Southern Gate – were added to the defences of the town.

Lochar Moss, which is now felt to be a noxious blot on the face of the County, was then of profitable service to Dumfries. Stretching from the shores of the Solway to the base of Tinwald Hills, it formed a natural protection which no force or artifice of an enemy could neutralize or overcome. Then it was more marshy, as well as more extensive, than it is at the present day; and woe to the rash marauders who, for the purpose of avoiding the forts which defended the more accessible way to Dumfries, tried to cross its treacherous expanse. It was rarely, indeed, that invaders from the south made such a hazardous attempt; the road usually taken by them being an indirect one round the western extremity of Tinwald Hills, which was indifferently guarded by the Towers of Torthorwald and Amisfield, or a more direct, but dangerous one, that lay between the Castles of Carlaverock and Comlongan, and between the western fringe of the morass and the Solway. By means of this vast wilderness of peat, intersected by bogs and ditches innumerable, and fringed by an array of strongholds, beginning at the shore seven miles south of Dumfries, and ending at Dalswinton, five miles to the north-west, a regular line of defence retarded, though it too often failed to repel, the English visitors to Nithsdale, on foraying or fighting bent, and quite prepared to engage both.

When an invading force, though signalled by  blazing bale-fires, challenged by angry garrisons, and, it may be, confronted by opposing bands, succeeded in reaching the gates of Dumfries, and evinced an unmistakable desire to get inside, the wall would stand inconveniently in their way. When the mural impediment was at length breached or scaled – a degradation to which it was often doomed – and the assailants had fairly entered the town, its defenders had other resources left, which they were in the habit of exhausting before they yielded to the enemy. They could, and often did, resist the advance of the intruders, by disputing with them every inch of ground; but their common practice was to retire into certain strong peels, or fortified town houses, belonging to the neighbouring gentry, where their wives and children, goods and gear, had been previously placed, and there remain, whilst the enemy, perhaps, was employed in appropriating movables that lay unprotected elsewhere, or in setting the defenceless parts of the Burgh in a blaze.

Besides these peel-houses, small and great, some of which rose into existence at a very early period, many of the more private houses were turned into places of defence in times of need; and some of the closes connected with the High Street were furnished with iron gates, and turrets overhead, capable of giving a stout resistance to the foe. One side of a gate of this description was visible at the head of Assembly Street so recently as 1826; and, only a few years before, a part of the superincumbent arch was also standing. In prosecuting this domestic warfare, if it may be so termed, the females of the period are said to have exhibited Amazonian strength and courage, so that they not unfrequently rivalled the actions of their parents, husband, or lovers [Their females caught the warlike spirit of the country, and appear often to have mingled in battle. Hollinshed records that, at the conflict fought near Naworth (1570) between Leonard Dacres and Lord Nunsden, the former had in his company many desperate women who there gave the adventure of their lives, and fought right stoutly, - - Border Antiquities, p. 81.]; and, if we are to place full reliance on what is said respecting their achievements, the glowing picture given of the heroine of Saragossa will correctly represent the warlike damsels of Dumfries when defending their household shrines: -

                                                “Her lover sinks – she sheds no ill-timed tear;
                                                     Her chief is slain – she fills his fatal post;
                                                 Her fellows flee – she checks their base career;
                                                     The foe retires – she heads the sallying host.”
                                                                                    [Byron’s Childe Harold.] 

To this mode of defence the narrowness of the streets and the numerous high houses gave peculiar facility. With brands of fire, boiling water, stones, and other weapons of promiscuous warfare, showered from doors, windows, and gate-surmounting turrets on the heads of the invaders, they were often compelled to decamp altogether, or commence operations at some more vulnerable portions of the Burgh.

A picture is extant, which professes to represent Dumfries as it appeared a century or so after the date to which the preceding remarks chiefly refer. The town wall has the range already assigned to it; the Castle at the head of the Burgh, St. Michael’s Church at the foot, and “Christy’s” Chapel at the east, forming an angle with them, are the only objects that have a prominent bulk – no tall spire having as yet risen large and massive – quite a Titan, as compared with the wooden fortalice of Celtic times: a series of battlemented turrets, extending to the verge of the river, is crowned by a tall square tower looking down High Street – the whole built in the Norman style, and suggestive of colossal strength. St. Michael’s Church is seen occupying a site a little eastward of the present building, the only imposing feature about it being a square turret above the main entrance; the Chapel, with its painted buttresses, fine east window, two side windows, and stepped gables, presenting a more ornate appearance. [We have heard it vaguely reported, that the original painting was sold at Drumlanrig Castle about fifty years ago. A sketch of it from memory, as supplied by the late Mr. John M. ‘Cormick, Dumfries, an intelligent and enthusiastic local antiquarian, has been lithographed.]

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