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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter LVI


As may easily be supposed, the trade of the town was injured for years by this visitation. The Highland occupation occasioned directly and indirectly a loss of at least E5,000; but probably four times that amount would not cover the expenditure and loss arising from the cholera. Yet, appalling and exhaustive though the epidemic was, it did good in one respect, by originating a great sanitary movement, having for its main objects street sewerage and improved water supply: the former was partially obtained; for the latter the town had unfortunately to wait nearly twenty years. It was very near securing the boon. One of the town clerks, Mr. James Broom, a gentleman of great talent, energy, and public spirit, whose memory is held dear in Dumfries, was one of its principal advocates. Provost Corson, Mr. James Swan, and other members of the Town Council, were anxious for it, but somehow or other the efforts put forth by them failed; and a scheme prepared by Mr. Jardine, civil engineer, in 1833, [Town Council Minutes.] for introducing the water of Nunland springs, from the neighbouring Galloway hills, figured on paper, but went no farther. It may be a mere fancy on our part, that the desire for municipal freedom was also stimulated by the disease; but we incline to the opinion that the inhabitants became more anxious to acquire the right of self-government, from a belief that they would thereby be able so to improve the town, as to render it less likely to be ravaged by epidemics in future.

Certain it is that they exhibited much zeal in the matter; and that their rulers, self-elected though they were, manifested a praiseworthy desire to get rid of the old close system. On the 5th of April, 1833, the Council discussed the Burgh Reform Bill, that had been brought into Parliament by the Lord Advocate. It was generally approved of; and the Provost was commissioned to attend a special meeting of the Convention of Royal Burghs, for the purpose of expressing the Council's views on the subject. These were extremely Liberal-Radical almost, as shown by the instructions given to Mr. Corson. On the motion of Mr. Allan Anderson, seconded by Mr. David M'Gill, the commissioner was enjoined to move, "That in regard to the qualification clause for voting for Council and magistrates, the whole shall be vested in the resident householders of a certain rent; and the right proposed to be conferred on freemen, and guilders or burgesses, merely as such, shall not form a part of the bill." [Town Council Minutes] This blow at monopoly was followed by another heavier one at class-privilege - Mr. William Nicholson (afterwards provost) moving that the commissioner be also instructed to propose, "That in regard to this Burgh, and burghs of a similar right and population, the rent qualifying a voter be five pounds"-a motion which, like the first one, was unanimously agreed to.

Whilst the Council called on the legislative Hercules to help the municipal waggon out of the mire, they set their own shoulders manfully to the wheel. Without waiting for Parliamentary action, they, on the 12th of the same month, at the instance of the Provost, resolved with one accord to lay open the privileges of the town to all and sundry. [Ibid.] Since the days of Robert Bruce, if not before, no one could begin business as a merchant or as a tradesman in the town, without first being made a burgess or freeman, at considerable expense. If the applicant was the son or son-in-law of a burgess or freeman, he was required to pay a smaller "composition" sum; but in other cases the "fine," as it was called, was often a serious affair, amounting latterly to 13 6s. 8d.-a heavy tax on young shopkeepers and craftsmen, and hindering many altogether from commencing business in the Burgh. A few days afterwards, at a crowded meeting of the inhabitants, a vote of thanks to the Council was passed, and petitions to Parliament were adopted, praying for the abolition of burgh incorporations in Scotland; the petitioners setting forth that these had outlived their time; "that the prosperity of towns where no such incorporations exist, and the decay of towns where they do exist, sufficiently prove that they are equally unprofitable to their members as to the public; and that from its local circumstances this truth has been specially exemplified in the case of the town of Dumfries." The chief speech on the occasion was made by the deacon of the shoemakers, "Orator Wilson," a fluent tribune of the people, who did good service in the agitation for Reform. He proclaimed himself to be a Radical politician, eager to lay the symbolic axe at the root of all abuses. He held up to ridicule the idea of people, before they could open shop in the Burgh, having to pay down 13 6s. 8d. for a paltry piece of "sheepskin;" and he asked how they could petition Parliament to give up the East India monopoly if the Seven Trades' monopoly was maintained unbroken. But the Trades themselves would be as honest as they were brave, and co-operate with the Council in breaking down the exclusive system. As for the magistrates and Council of Dumfries, " they will live in the hearts of their townsmen for the noble concession they have made, and fame will carry their names and actions to distant posterity. Their fame," continued the speaker, rising with his subject-"their fame, I say, will be as lasting as the pyramids of Egypt. Time will never shake it, and imperishable laurels will deck their brow." [Dumfries Courier. ]

Some little laughter mingled with the applause which greeted this peroration; but the soaring eloquence of the worthy deacon did not go a bit too high for the majority of his hearers. It was a time of vast expectations, as well as of much excitement; and big words-what the Americans term "bunkum," or "tall talk" - were much in vogue.

The Scotch Burgh Reform Bill received the royal assent in September, 1833, and took effect on the first Tuesday of the following November. Greatly to the disappointment of the Dumfries Town Council and community, the qualification for voters was fixed at double the figure they had proposed. Instead of a five-pound rent, one of ten pounds was adopted. The new mode of election was, however, such a vast improvement on the delegate system, that it was warmly welcomed in the Burgh; and the proceedings on the 6th of November, when it was put in force, excited great interest. Numerous candidates were started, in all the four wards into which the town had been divided by a royal commission. We append the names of the gentlemen who received the honour of being the first councillors of the Burgh chosen by popular suffrage. First ward: Robert Murray, writer, 72 votes; Thomas Hairstens, tanner, 57; Captain M'Dowall, 47; Thomas Milligan, plumber, deacon of the smiths, 45; George Dunbar, cabinet-maker, deacon of the squaremen, 45; Samuel Blaind, jun., draper, 38. Second ward: William Gordon, writer, 72; John Barker, banker, 71; Robert Thomson, merchant, 71; James Walker, wine merchant, 53; James Dinwiddie, painter, 50; John Anderson, bookseller, 49; Thomas Lonsdale, ironmonger, 32. Third ward: Robert M`Harg, merchant, 68; Robert Scott, hosier, 57; William Nicholson, chair-maker, 46; Joseph Beck, coach-builder, 42; Christopher Smyth, writer, 40; George Kerr, cabinet-maker, 35. Fourth ward: Robert Kemp, writer, 56; Thomas Harkness, writer, 47; Thomas Kennedy, seedsman, 46; Alexander Lookup, skinner, 45; Benjamin Oney, clothier, 41; Robert Kerr, tanner, 40. As the burgess fine, though condemned, was still exacted, Captain M`Dowall declined on principle to qualify for his seat by paying it. A new election for the vacancy was therefore ordered, which resulted in the return of Mr. George Montgomery, draper. The Council being now quite made up, elected Mr. Murray, writer, a gentleman of great ability and moral worth, as the first Reform Provost of Dumfries; Messrs. Kemp, M'Harg, and Harkness were elected bailies; Mr. Walker was appointed dean of guild; and Mr. Barker treasurer and chamberlain. A banquet in the Commercial Hotel appropriately crowned the inauguration of the new municipal system in the Burgh. [Town Council Minutes, and local newspapers.]

By an Act of Parliament passed in 1846, the chief of the exclusive privileges possessed by the Dumfries Trades, and all similar incorporations, were abolished ; and long before that year the Seven Trades had become virtually defunct-a fragment of the body remaining, but all its original spirit gone. The few remaining members continued to hold the property of the Trades, till, in March, 1852, they adopted a unanimous resolution to sell the movable portion of it, except the Silver Gun, which was handed over to the Town Council for preservation. Against this resolution, so far as the convener's gold chain was affected, Mr. Adam Rankine, as a subscriber for the badge, applied for an interdict. The case thus raised excited much interest. The sheriff-substitute, Mr. Trotter, decided it in favour of the pursuer: Sheriff Napier, on appeal, reversed the decision; and his interlocutor, on being advocated, was sustained by the Lord Ordinary Rutherford. Accordingly, the chain and the other articles were disposed of by public auction, in the Trades' Hall, on the 8th of April, 1854. Altogether, a melancholy sight it must have been-one that is rather depressing to reflect upon, though it was but the natural sequence of the wise reform that had been effected. Think of these historical relics being knocked down like vulgar chattels! Even the venerable quarto Bible which the syndic of the craftsmen used at church, passed into other hands, and that for the paltry sum of seventeen shillings. The little silver seal with which the documents of the brotherhood had been stamped for nearly two centuries, was, for a sorry equivalent of ten shillings, deprived of its official caste, so to speak, in spite of its lion, fierce, crowned, and rampant, and its motto, " God save the King and the Craft!" A sword once owned, according to tradition, by the Red Comyn, and seemingly old enough to have been worn by him on the day of his fatal rencontre with Bruce, brought .0 3s. The great Grainger punch-bowl, first brimmed with rum toddy in 1806, under the merry conditions we have previously related, and which so often afterwards replenished glasses that were drained in drinking the toast it bears, "Success to the Incorporations!" lapsed into the moderate seclusion of private life for 2; [The punch-bowl is now in the possession of Mr. David Duubar, Dumfries.] the accompanying silver divider being separated from it, and sold for fifteen shillings. The wonderful snuff-mull presented by Captain M'Dowall, brought to an unexpected pinch, drew 3 3s. For the ebony staff of office, now that the convener's occupation was gone, 2 18s. was realized; and the gold chain of that once powerful, but now impotent, chief of the Trades, became metaphorically dim on this mournful day, though it fell into the hands of a worthy townsman, Mr. Samuel Milligan, merchant, for the sum of 35.

The proceeds of the entire sale amounted only to 54 2s. 6d.; and it is certainly to be regretted that the principal effects were not purchased for preservation, instead of being scattered to the four winds. In course of time, the Trades' Hall, and the pews in St. Michael's Church belonging to the Incorporations, were also disposed of; ["It was a curious circumstance," says Mr. John Anderson in his manuscript account of Dumfries, "that Selkirk was the name of the deacon of the trade who led the van in the sale of the Kirk seats."] Mr. Francis Nicholson, merchant, becoming the purchaser of the Hall, in 1847, for 650, but 630 had previously been borrowed on the building.

One of the first fruits of the Reformed Parliament was a General Police Act for such burghs as chose to avail themselves of it. The chief provisions of the measure were adopted at a public meeting held in Dumfries on the 17th of January, 1834; and in accordance with it, a rate of one shilling in the pound was imposed, divided as follows:-Paving, independent of road money, Id. per pound, 75; watching, 3d. per pound, 225; lighting, 3d. per pound, 262 10s.; cleansing) Id. per pound, 75; miscellaneous, d. per pound, 37 10s. ; interest and sinking fund, 3d. per pound, 225: total, 900. In allocating these sums, it was assumed that the rental assessable would be 18,000.

The mode of supporting the poor of the Burgh and Parish by church-door collections, and the alms-giving of the benevolent, had long been looked upon as unsatisfactory; and so greatly had they been increased in number by the cholera visitation, that the adoption of some new plan was felt to be imperative. An endeavour to raise funds by a voluntary assessment having been tried without success, a resolution was adopted by the Town Council and police commissioners, in May, to impose a legal rate, for the relief of the poor. From the statistics on which they proceeded, we learn that the valued rent of the Burgh was set down at 18,772 8s.; of the Burgh roods, 4,450 13s.; and of the landward part of the Parish, 7,441 15s.: in all, 30,664 16s. So fearfully, however, had the epidemic scourge of 1832 depopulated the town, and injured its trade, that a deduction of 670 10s. had to be made from the valuation, for shops and houses that were standing unlet. The rate was fixed at a maximum of one shilling in the pound, leviable half-yearly: the computation being that, with the rural part of the Parish concurring, the first assessment of six pence would yield 1767; which, if carefully husbanded, would, it was believed, suffice for more than six months, and reduce the second instalment to four pence or less.

During this summer (1834) a movement was commenced for obtaining improved market accommodation. From a distant, if not immemorial period, the country damsels from the neighbouring district exposed their butter, eggs, and poultry for sale on a part of High Street adjoining the Mid-Steeple. There they stood every Wednesday, alike in winter as in summer, exposed to the elements, with no shelter or adequate accommodation for their wares, and-however ungallant the phrase may seem - forming a serious obstruction to the traffic of the principal thoroughfare. For their convenience, as well as that of their burghal customers, a proposal was mooted for flitting the fair rural merchants to the building in the east of the town that had been assigned to the corporation of fleshers, in 1768, for the sale of meat, and which had latterly been almost deserted by them for shops in the Vennel and in Maxwelltown, where no dues were exacted. Whilst this scheme was warmly advocated by some members of the Council, others opposed it, chiefly on the plea that the site was far from being a central one. The inhabitants were also greatly divided in opinion on the subject the pros and cons were keenly debated; and it was only when the objectors were unable to point out a better place obtainable at a moderate expense, that their opposition was withdrawn, and the scheme finally adopted. Its chief promoters were: the Provost, Mr. Kemp, elected on the death of Provost Murray, after only six months of service; Bailies Harkness, M'Harg, and Dinwiddie; and Councillors Smythe, Beck, and Oney. The building, which belonged to the town, was adapted to its new destination at an expense of less than 500 - the builder's contract being 406 10s It was duly opened for the sale of rural produce in 1835 ; and though rather remote from the centre of the Burgh, the New Markets are a decided acquisition. One of the local newspapers, the Times, fairly traced their establishment to the operation of Municipal Reform, and proposed that a name should be given to them commemorative of the fact-a suggestion, however, which was not acted upon. In further accordance with the reforming spirit of the day, the ale-duty, worth 60 to 70 annually, was allowed to lapse; and the Council, on the motion of Mr. William Gordon, seconded by Bailie Harkness, resolved, by a majority of twelve to six, to abolish a lot of vexatious little dues called the Trone and ThreePort Customs, levied at the entrances of the town, on butter, eggs, cheese, and such like articles, and on grain transmitted through the Burgh, and which averaged about 45 a year. [Town Council Minutes.]

At the date of 1780 we gave such a review of past events as might have been taken by an aged Dumfriesian. Now that nearly two other generations have come and gone, a similar retrospect may be given; and who so fit to furnish it as the senior town clerk, Mr. Francis Shortt of Courance" a venerable gentleman," says M`Diarmid, writing in 1832, "who retains all his faculties, and a vast fund of local information; at the advanced age of seventy-eight." We cannot now obtain his reminiscences in a literal sense, but we can fancy some of the many changes which he saw during his protracted pilgrimage of more than eighty years. We can suppose this intelligent octogenarian entertaining his more youthful contemporaries with his recollections of how the factious Pyets and Crows ruffled each other's plumage in the famous magisterial contest of 1759; of what mutinous mobs he had witnessed such as the meal riots in 1796, and, a generation afterwards, the popular hydra-headed Nemesis that dogged the heels of the murderer Hare, and the popular tempests which preceded, the birth and cradled the infancy of Reform; of the high Conservatism cherished when Robert Burns, poet and Radical, burst like a meteor on the town, and the ultra Liberalism that came afterwards, and would have made him a demi-god had he not long before prematurely passed away; of how the bard looked when he was gauging barrels, or handling his arms as a loyal volunteer, or electrifying a social party with his conversational eloquence, or "crooning" some newly-born lyric that was to live for ever-or how, sadly changed, his haggard visage and wasted frame told full surely, in the spring of 1796, that Dumfries was about to lose its most illustrious son-the world, "the greatest poet that ever sprang from the bosom of the people." The aged town clerk would be able to tell, too, of the building of the New Bridge, the Theatre, the County prison, the Courthouse, the Academy, the Assembly Rooms, the New Markets, of the entire new town lying north-east of Friars' Vennel, and of such alterations in the shop-architecture of the old town as amounted to a revolution. Of days of darkness and adversity he would also be competent to speak: how a valuable part of the landed inheritance of the town had to be sacrificed to keep its head above the waters of bankruptcy; and how, when the haven of prosperity was reached, a horrible tempest, in the shape of pestilence, overtook and devastated and well-nigh wrecked the devoted Burgh. Great as were the historical incidents and material mutations he had seen in his boyhood and prime, the moral revolution effected during his later years was greater and more important. The Dumfries of his childhood had changed before his eyes externally, socially, and politically: it still retained many of its ancient characteristics-the old Old Bridge, the venerable Mid-Steeple, Friars' Vennel (little altered since Burns used to pass down it on his way to Ryedale or Lincluden College), the closes (more's the pity!) of the same pattern as at the date of King James's visit; and the town was still watered by the classic Nith, still overlooked by the "bonnie hills of Galloway," but nevertheless much expanded and modernized. The relics of the Greyfriars' Monastery, of the Castle, and of the New Wark - all of which the old man had gazed upon-had disappeared, with numerous other memorials of mediaeval times, and so also had the manners, customs, ideas, and modes of government with which he was long familiar. In the days of his early manhood, the close, irresponsible system seemed to be also still in its prime; and to talk of Parliamentary or Municipal Reform, savoured of treason: now, in his old age, Reform is popular, fashionable, and has already shown its power by sending to the right-about all self-elected or clique-appointed burgh rulers or senatorial representatives.

Of such important incidents and striking changes, occurring within the limits of a life-time, such a faithful witness and "honest chronicler" as we have named could have given, and, we have been assured, often did give, a graphic narrative to his friends. Would that some Boswell had committed the spoken record to paper, or that the local journalists had by other ways and means made their annals more comprehensive and minute. Had this latter course been generally pursued, our labour throughout a portion of this work would have been greatly lessened, and the results been rendered more satisfactory. It is but right, however, to add, that, thanks to the newspapers of the town, minute details of the great Reform agitation, and of the dread visit of the epidemic, have been preserved; and by drawing largely on their columns, we have been enabled to give a copious, and, we trust, an acceptable history of both.

We now, at the close of the old municipal system, stop the general narrative for a little, in order to complete what we have to say respecting the religious denominations, trade, literature, and distinguished men of the Burgh.

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