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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter LII


THE year 1817 was a melancholy one for Dumfries. It was to the Burgh what the day after an exhaustive carouse is to a repentant prodigal. For a hundred years or more the town had been living beyond its means; and latterly it had been incurring heavy liabilities, which became daily more burdensome and pressing. Great improvements had been effected; important public buildings had been raised for beauty and use: all these undertakings being excellent in their way-only, they were too numerous and costly for the revenue of the town, even had that been rigidly economized. But frequently the feu duties and rents, of which it was in a considerable measure made up, were badly looked after; expensive law-suits were recklessly entered into; and every year a good round sum was spent by the authorities on what were delicately called "entertainments," which in plain English meant eating and drinking at the expense of the public. Perhaps the facilities given by Mr. Staig for obtaining loans from the Bank of Scotland during the long period in which he was at the head of affairs, tended to make the Council additionally extravagant. The bank was deemed by them an inexhaustible mine, into which they could never dig too deeply; and a long array of bills bearing heavy discounts, bore witness to the persistency with which they drew upon its resources. What with lavish outlays for objects proper and improper, money borrowed at excessive rates, expensive litigation, and losses incurred from defaulting feuars, tenants, and collectors, the Burgh was brought to the verge of bankruptcy.

An unfortunate circumstance occurred in the summer of 1816 which precipitated the crisis. The chamberlain or treasurer resigned his office; and when his accounts came to be examined, it was found that he was the town's debtor to the extent of at least 1,500, a sum he was unable to refund. [Town Council Minutes] His cautioner or surety, Mr. John Maitland of Eccles, was called upon to make up the deficit; but before he did so, the creditors of the Burgh became alarmed, and some of them pressed their claims unmercifully-in particular the Humane Society, which, with a rigour at variance with its name, demanded instant payment of 1,000 it had lent to the town. Whilst this body clamoured and threatened, the trustees of the deceased Robert Wilson, tanner, commenced a process against the Council, without previous warning, for the payment of 800, for which bills had been given. The dilemma into which the authorities were thrown is indicated by the minute of a meeting held by them on the 14th of April. Air. Maitland, it appears, had received notice that, unless he paid the money for which he had become bound, diligence would be used against him; and at the above meeting it was announced that no communication had been received from him in reply. It is then stated that as an arrestment had been used in Mr. Maitland's hands, at the instance of Mr. Wilson's trustees, "the Council authorize the magistrates, or any other members of Council, to enact themselves as cautioners in the Sheriff-Court books to make the arrested funds forthcoming, and thereby obtain letters of loosing the arrestment used in his hands, and in the hands of the town's debtors, tenants, &c.; and such of the members of Council as grant such bonds of caution, the Council declare the obligation to be for behoof of the town, and the Council become bound to relieve them of their cautionary engagements; and until this is accomplished, the meeting delay giving any directions with regard to the diligence against Mr. Maitland."

At another meeting, held soon afterwards, it was intimated that at least temporary relief had been obtained by Messrs. Shortt and Locke, the town clerks, having subscribed a bond of caution for loosing the arrestments; and that Mr. Maitland was about to sell part of an estate belonging to him, so as to be able to satisfy the town. During this breathing time a Committee appointed to consider the revenue, for the purpose of introducing more economy into its management, laid before the Council an elaborate and interesting report on the subject. It showed that the total annual revenue of the Burgh was 2,306 7s. 11d., made up as follows:-Permanent feu duties payable by the town's vassals, 124 4s; rents of lands, houses, cellars, and timber yards, 484 11s. 9d.; rents of mills and granaries, 546 15s. 3d.; teinds payable out of the lands of Drum and others, including small teinds from town's vassals, 68 11s. 2d.; customs payable at the bridge, trone, three ports, &c., the average of which for the last seven years was 656; impost on ale, which had yielded on the same average 100; fees for admission of burgesses, also on an average of seven years, 50; church seats, the rent from which had latterly been 176 5s. 9d., but to which the committee proposed an increase of 100. Deducting 13 1s. 1d. as stipend payable to the minister of St. Michael's Church, the net revenue from all these sources amounted to 2,293 6s. 10d. [Town Council Minutes.]

The expenditure, as already stated, had been gradually, year after year, getting more out of keeping with the income ; and how to proportion them, so as to let the difference be on the safe side, was the most difficult part of the task assigned to the Committee. With the view of securing this desirable result, they proposed means for augmenting the revenue as well as reducing the expenditure. The Committee stated that the interest on the debts first required to be dealt with: these consisting of sums permanently placed in the town's hands for charitable and useful purposes, and for the greater part of which heritable security was granted betwixt the years 1730 and 1740, over the mills, Milldamhead, Dock, four inclosures of Barkerland, customs at the bridge, and other duties. Of these there were mortified to the hospital and poor, 2,201 6s. 6d.; to the schools,. 1,119 4s. 1d.; to two poor individuals under Paterson's deed, 20: in all, 3,340 10s. 7d. Then, secondly, there were temporary loans amounting to 18,898 9s.; current bills, 1,399 5s. 8d.; accounts due to tradesmen, agents, &c., 1,422 19s. 8d.; interest of these debts up till Whitsunday, 1817, 945 3s. 1d.; deducting rents and feu duties in arrear and falling due, 1,454 6s. 9d.; and computed sum to be owing by the late chamberlain, 1,300, the debts of the town were 23,252 1s. 2d. - the interest on which was 1,162 12s. The Committee's reductions under this head were very trifling, but they suggested various changes in regard to the clerks' fees, salaries of subordinate officials, and outlay for repairs, by which a saving of several hundred pounds a year might be effected. In regard to the municipal feasts, they proposed that "all entertainments be laid aside, excepting the annual dinner at the election of magistrates, and that even considerably restricted in the amount usually contracted." [Town Council Minutes.] It was admitted that about 80 a year had been of late spent in this way; and the Committee, after suggesting that the allowance should be restricted to fifteen guineas for the Michaelmas dinner, relented so far as to add five guineas for other festive incidents "of an unavoidable nature."

A mode of letting the small feus so as to be more productive, and several other proposals for increasing the revenue, were embodied in the report; the annual expenditure, as modified, being set down as follows:- Interest, 1,162 12s.; repairs, 100; management, 144 19s. 10d.; salaries to ministers, schoolmasters, chamberlain, fiscal, billet-master, jailor, officers, precentor, and bellman, 512 5s. 10d.; total expenditure, 1,919 17s. 8d.; which deducted from the revenue, 2,293 6s. 10d., leaves a surplus of 373 9s. 2d.; which balance, however, must be reduced to 250 in order to allow a small contingency fund of 123 9s. 2d. a year. "This sum of 250," said the Committee, will certainly not speedily produce any important reduction of the debt of the town, but if its operation as a sinking fund be allowed to accumulate annually, it will, with the operation of compound interest, in the course of thirty-three years, fully discharge the whole debts, except what is called the mortified money, amounting to 3,340; or in twenty-two years and a half one half of these debts will be discharged." The Committee noticed to deplore the embarrassments occasioned by the various law-suits in which the town was unfortunately concerned, and recommended that in future, wherever practicable, all disputes with other parties should be settled by amicable arrangement or arbitration.

Finally, the Committee proposed that the revenues of the Burgh should be handed over to trustees for behoof of the creditors; and that an effort should be made to negotiate a loan on heritable security, with which to pay off such debts as were most pressing. The report, after being slightly altered, was adopted by the Council ; and a committee of the creditors having approved of the proposal for the appointment of trustees, Bailie Barker, his son Mr. John Barker, and Mr. John Fergusson, ex-convener of the Trades, were named as such, with Messrs. Thomson, Johnston, and Miller as a committee of advice from the Council; and Mr. William Gordon, senior agent for the treasurer of the kirk-session, the preses of the Humane Society, and any other claimants to the extent of 500 who chose to attend, as a committee of the creditors. [Town Council Minutes.] On the death of Mr. Fergusson, in 1820, Mr. Adam Rankine and Mr. James Locke were appointed trustees in his stead. For nearly seven years, the public purse was out of the Council's hands; but at the close of 1824, they recovered hold of it, in virtue of an arrangement with Mr. Robert Taylor of Broomlands, whereby he gave them a loan of 20,000 at 3 per cent., with which they liquidated nearly all the debt, and relieved the trustees of their onerous duties. [Ibid.] As we shall soon see, the incubus thus rolled away soon returned, like the stone of Sisyphus, with redoubled violence, and made wasting havoc of the town's inheritance. As security for the large sum thus advanced, Mr. Taylor received a bond over the property and income of the Burgh; it being part of the bargain, that unless the principal were paid up in five years, he would become entitled to the rate of interest then current. In the deeds was embodied a very comprehensive and detailed statement of the town's income and expenditure, which enables us to understand precisely its financial position at the time. We subjoin the substance of the document:


1. The farm of Kingholm, about a mile below the Burgh, extending to sixty or sixty-one Scots acres: rent, 150 a year. The property, from its situation on the Nith, and "the intrinsic goodness of the soil," cannot be worth less than 5,500.

2. The lands of Milldamhead, lying on both sides of the great turnpike road from Dumfries to Carlisle, twenty acres in extent: rent, 55; valued at 1,700.

3. The grazing called Dock and Dock Park, containing six acres: let at 55. This property lies on the Nith, immediately below the town, and is "the richest grazing ground in the south of Scotland; but its value must depend not on that, but on its local situation for warehouses or trade, as it forms the harbour of the town during spring tides. The beauty of the scenery also renders the property valuable for villas, on a part of it at least. Though the Burgh would not incline to dispose of it unless under particular circumstances, for the improvement of the place, yet, in the view of the estimate proposed," if offered for sale it would not be worth less than 2,000.

4. Garden and houses at Dock Park : rent, 6 10s.; value, 400.

5. Millgreen, on the opposite side of the river: rent, 22; value, 650.

6. Garden at the mills: rent, 2 2s.; value, 100.


These are secured on the properties, and amount annually to 119, with teind duties to the extent of 4 7s. 4d. In general the owners of the houses built on these feus would be glad to relieve their property from the burden, and to them they are worth at least twenty times the yearly rental; but they may be entered as valued at 1,800.


1. Cellar and granary at Meal Market: rent, 12; value 200.

2. The warehouse and shops in the Mid-Steeple buildings: rent, 47 5s.; value, 1,400.

3. Stable-yard at Sands: rent 2; as for the benefit of the public street the yard ought to be removed, no value is put upon it.

4. Shop and school-room in Bank Street, formerly occupied as a salt market: rent, 20; value, 350.

5. Timber yards on the river: rent, 16 15s. These ought to be removed to afford more accommodation for the cattle market, and therefore they are left unvalued.


1. Flour mill: rent, 220.
2. Barley mill: rent, 60.
3. Oat mill: rent, 171.
4. Waulk and frieze mill: rent, 31 10s.; value of the whole, 7,215.
5. Granaries attached to the mills, with ground behind: rent, 57 5s. 3d.; value, 855.


1. Pontage or bridge dues: rent, 434.
2. Fees levied on goods brought into the markets: let at 47 10s.
3. Fees levied on grain brought into the markets : let at 47 10s.
4. Fees at Flesh Market: let at 21.
5. Fees at weighing-machine: let at 40 10s.

With regard to the first article, it is explained that the right of the Burgh to uplift fees from all black cattle going southwards from Galloway, the lower parts of Ayrshire, and the north of Ireland, extends for twenty miles along the river, and therefore commands the whole of such cattle. It is added that the right applies to all horses, sheep, merchandise, &c., and produces a steady rent which must improve with any improvement of the country at large. The value, therefore, cannot be estimated at less than twenty times such rent, namely, 11,800.


Average annual amount, 104. Deducting ten per cent. for expense of collection, 94 is left; and the value of the tax, at fifteen times the sum, is 1,400.


Annual average, 89. "This is a permanent fee, and, according to increased population, must necessarily increase." At fifteen times the present average, the value is 1,335.


In two Established Churches, 300; which, fifteen times multiplied, amounts to 4,500.


1. The building occupied as the Council Chamber and town clerk's offices, which is proposed to be sold whenever the lease of the old Court-house expires: value, 500.

2. Green-sands, and other vacant grounds, worth at least 525. Total amount of the town's annual rent in 1824, 2,142 4s. 7d. Total value of the town's property and income, 42,230.



1. Communion elements, 30; stipend to minister of St. Michael's Church, 11 14s. 7d.; ditto to minister of Troqueer, 1 19s. 6d.; fees to Convention of Burghs and Exchequer, .13.


Stated or occasional, amounting in all to X528 16s., including 53 6s. 8d, to magistrates and conveners for burgess tickets; 4 18s., "trades' dollars and wines, according to custom of the Burgh;" and 15 15s, for annual entertainment at election of magistrates.

Total annual expenditure, 579 10s. 1d.

From the foregoing statement, very cheering but somewhat fallacious deductions were drawn by the authorities. As the debt, which was upwards of 23,000 in 1817, had now been diminished to 20,000, they fancied that they would be able to go on reducing it at even a greater rate. There was an annual revenue of 2,142 4s. 7d.; the difference between that sum and the annual expenditure as given above was no less a sum than 1,542 14s. 6d. Deducting from that the interest of Mr. Taylor's loan (20,000) at 32 per. cent., left 862 14s. 6d.; and diminishing that still further by allowing 362 14s. 6d. for new works and repairs, there would still be available 500 a year of surplus, which scrupulously reserved as a sinking fund would be sufficient in forty years or so to sweep away the entire debt, if such should be deemed expedient; and at all events the Council would be thereby enabled to pay off all pressing creditors without having to part with a single rood of land. [Town Council Minutes]

That the retrenchment resolved upon was scrupulously carried out, may be inferred from the following Council minute, dated 3rd July, 1827:- "The said day Mr. Barker reported that yesterday he had paid to Mr. Taylor 1,000 in part of his debt, being two years' saving fund from the revenues of the town:' But it unfortunately so happened that the gentleman who had opportunely come to the relief of the town in 1824, now intimated that he wished to have the loan repaid in 1830, as he needed the money. [Ibid.] This demand seems to have thoroughly perplexed and disheartened the Council. Possessed of the loan, they had difficulties enough with which to contend; deprived of it, they would be overwhelmed with embarrassments, unless they escaped from them by repeating the humiliating expedient --adopted too often by their predecessors-of selling another portion of the Burgh's landed property, which it had possessed for ages. They saw no possibility of obtaining a second loan at a moderate rate of interest, to enable them to pay off the existing one; retrenchment had been carried to the farthest limit; they could not hope for any such increase of revenue as would afford any sensible relief. "We must therefore," said the Council, "submit to dire necessity, and dispose of the patrimonial acres, as the only means within our reach for removing our difficulties and maintaining the public credit."

Accordingly, the sale of certain subjects was resolved upon; and Mr. Brand of Mountainhall and Mr. Pagan of Curriestanes, on being appointed to value them, reported to the following effect:-The lands of Kingholm, 7,160, if divided into six lots as they suggested; or if offered whole, the upset sum to be 6,300. Dock Park or Kennedy's Garden, if sold for building lots, 1,120; gardener's house and offices, 380; but if the whole were put up at one lot, the upset might be 1,200. The lands of Milldamhead, worth 100 an acre-in all, 1,925; but as they were burdened with a high stipend of 5 12s., it was suggested that 600 should be the upset price of the portion north of the English road, and 1,120 of the part lying on the other side. The two-story house in Bank Street, built for a salt store, was valued at 200. [Town Council Minutes.] On the 19th of July, 1827, the two estates were sold by public auction: Kingholm being bought by Mr. John Hannah of Hannahfield, for 6,300; [As showing the value of the same property in 1712, we quote the following Town Council minute, dated on the 26th of September that year:-" The land enclosed in the Kingholm, consisting of forty-two acres of plowable ground or thereby, lately enclosed, together with the house thereon, was by public roup let to John M'Nish, deacon of the weavers, for three years after Martinmas, for twinty-two pounds sterling yearly."] the north half of Milldamhead, by Mr. James Black, for 800; and the south half by Mr. John Richardson, for 1,120. For the other lots there were no offers; and fortunately, on this account, the Dock Park remains till this day the property of the town. Some years later, the house in Bank Street was sold for 300. [Town Council Minutes] About the same period, the six acres of land, with the fens, on which the village of Glencaple is built, passed into private hands, all except a small strip which was sold about four years ago to Mr. James Gordon, solicitor, for 50.

It is a matter of lasting regret that the sacrifice of Kingholm and Milldamhead was rendered unavoidable by sheer thriftlessness. Since the date of the sale their market value has been more than doubled; and were the rents yielded by them poured into the public treasury, the Council would be able to embark in many useful schemes, which, under existing circumstances, they dare not think of. But this lament is vain; and some consolation arises from the fact that the lavish outlay long indulged in secured not a few lasting improvements, which a timorous financial policy would have left undone. By means of the 8,220 obtained in the above way, the payment in whole or part of the sum owing by the ex-chamberlain, and other sums borrowed on the remaining property and on the revenue, the Council paid their principal creditor, and got the town out of the troubled waters in which it was nearly wrecked.

Notwithstanding all the sacrifices of this nature that have been made since the reign of James V., when they are supposed to have commenced, till the present day, Dumfries still possesses no inconsiderable amount of landed property. Most of it is disponed in feu, or is held by parties who have acquired possession on titles originally bad, but which are legalized through prescription, although it is believed there are some who hold Burgh land without any title whatever, and whose claims therefore are susceptible of being challenged. A piece of moss at Stoop, about twelve acres in extent, was sold on the 7th of February, 1863, for 52, to the holder of a right of pasturage over it, he being desirous of rendering it by culture more productive. Altogether, about 985 acres are held from the town by charter, including not only what was feued as moss, but what was known as the common lands of the Burgh. Most of it is under cultivation of some kind, not more than 101 acres being left in. its primitive mossy or boggy condition. Besides the chartered and moss lands, there are-(1) The Green-sands (formerly called the Upper Sandbeds), including Pudding-Hat, near Albany Place; (2) the Academy grounds; (3) the Dock and Dock-yard; (4) a portion of the Dock Park, south of Hamilton's feu ;(5) land at mills and Mill-green ; and (6) land at the gunpowder magazine below Kingholm quay. The revenue yielded by these six subjects varies. For the year ended 15th September, 1866, it amounted to E65 15s.; from the chartered lands the same year, the sum of 247 19s. 11d. was exigible: in all, 313 14s. HUM. The revenue under the second head included 7 10s. 5d. for properties in the town, but exclusive of the feus that lie southward of the Infirmary (these being included in the landward part), and exclusive of what is known as small feus ; and one fen of 2s. in the Burgh roods, not entered in the chamberlain's books. [It is supposed by many that the ancient ceremony of Riding the Marches was designed to show that all the land within the boundary thus described belonged absolutely to the Burgh; but this extreme view admits of question. We think it probable that when the town was royally chartered all the lands within the royalty not in the lawful possession of any one would be granted by the Crown to the Burgh; but the Crown would scarcely prejudice the rights of other superiors, and consequently private parties might have held lands within the marches perambulated; just as, on the other hand, the Burgh held land outside these marches-in Troqueer for instance, where at present some parties hold their lands and possessions as vassals of Dumfries. The Riding of the Marches was, we are inclined to think, originated and continued for the purpose of keeping in remembrance the extent and situation of the territory over which the magistrates had jurisdiction, civil and criminal; and it may have taken the place of an older practice mentioned by Lord Stair-that of whipping boys at march stones, in order to make them remember the boundary line for life. Institutes of the Law of Scotland, third edition, 1759, pp. 716-17.]

Frequent mention has been made of the money bequeathed to the Burgh for educational and charitable purposes. It is usually spoken of as a debt, which it undoubtedly is-only, like the National Debt, the money cannot be called up, but remains in perpetual trust. As a sequel in some degree to the monetary operations just described, the whole of this mortified money, amounting to 4,205 14s. 1d., was in 1832 formally made over by the magistrates and Council in a bond and disposition to themselves. From this deed [mbodied in the Minutes of Council, 1832.] we take the following statement of the bequests:-

1. Robert Johnston, of the parish of St. Ann, Blackfriars', London, by his will dated 30th of September, 1639, left 600 "to be employed in stock or wadsett of lands, for the perpetual yearly maintenance of the aged, blind, lame, and impotent people" of Dumfries.
2. John Raining, of the city of Norwich, bequeathed, on the 28th of March, 1722, 500, to be let out at interest or laid out in the purchase of lands, for the maintenance of six poor widows of the town, sixty years of age or upwards, at the rate of 12s. to each, quarterly; and the surplus to be applied in paying a good capable schoolmaster to teach poor fatherless boys English, Latin, and arithmetic.
3. Mrs. Marion Archibald, relict of Dr. George Archibald, physician in Dumfries, left, on 20th September, 1733, 60, to be laid out on good security, for the better maintenance of two poor widows, not under sixty years of age, and relicts of burgesses and inhabitants of the Burgh.
4. James and William Moorhead left for the erection of an hospital as already fully set forth in this work.
5. Charles, Duke of Queensberry gave, on the 11th of October, 1742, 300 for behoof of the said hospital.
6. Mrs. Ann Dalzell or Hopkins, relict of Robert Hopkins, left, on the 30th of December, 1768, 100 for the same purpose.
7. James Brand of Drumclyre left, on the 29th of December, 1790, .100 for the same purpose.
8. Miss Lilias Simpson, on the 29th of December, 1790, bequeathed 10 for a like purpose.
9. William Johnston, of Madeira, left 100 for relief of the poor in the Parish, as recorded in a Council minute of 30th March, 1801.
10. Mrs. Janet Hay or Gillespie left 10 for behoof of the hospital (date not recorded).
11. Samuel Donaldson, of London, left 200, minus legacy duty; one half for the poor, and the other half for the benefit of a schoolmaster, as recorded in a Council minute of 13th October, 1813.
12. Provost George Bell of Conheath left 100; the interest to be paid to the schoolmaster authorized by the magistrates and Council to teach English, by way of addition to his salary.
All these sums, amounting to 2,38Z 2s., are solely vested in the magistrates and Council; and those subjoined are intrusted to them in conjunction with other bodies.
13. John Paterson left, on the 22nd of February, 1717, 400 merks Scots, or 22 4s. 5d. sterling, the ordinary interest of 8000 merks, for maintaining a well-qualified schoolmaster within the Burgh "to the end of the world," to teach children in a free school, without receiving from them any fee or reward, in the Latin rudiments, grammar, rhetoric, classic authors, and Greek New Testament. Then, by another later deed, Mr. Paterson left 200 merks, or 11 2s. 2d. sterling, the interest of 4000 merks, for maintaining a well-qualified schoolmaster to teach within the Burgh, "to the end of the world," the children of burgesses, indwellers, and burden-bearers, and eight children of the poorer sort of merchant burgesses and burden-bearers of the Burgh, in writing, arithmetic, book-keeping, and navigation. An additional sum of 3000 merks was bequeathed by Mr. Paterson to enable the magistrates and Council of Dumfries, and ministers of the Parish, in whom the principal sums were vested, to uplift the same, as secured by bond on certain lands, and invest them in some other way if deemed advisable.
14. The before-named George Bell bequeathed n0 to the magistrates, Council, and Kirk-Session, for behoof of the Hospital.
15. Various legacies, accumulated to 906 10s., were vested in the magistrates, Council, Parish ministers, and Kirk-Session, for behoof of the poor in the town and Parish.
16. By a resolution of the directors of the Hospital, dated 7th March, 1831, 35 17s. 3d. was set apart from the ordinary funds of that charity.

So much for the mortified money which figures so prominently in the ledger of the Burgh, and gives life to some of its chief educational and charitable institutions.

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