The History of Dumfries
The long history of Dumfries isn’t all murder and bloodshed, wars and treachery. There were hangings, witch trials and fiery executions too.
Situated on the pleasant banks of the River Nith in the somnambulant countryside of south-west Scotland, Dumfries is a picturesque little market town with many a dark secret that belies its contemporary bonhomie. The town’s beginnings go way back to the 1st Century AD. Druids and the Roman Empire took up residence by the Nith. To this day, all manner of Roman litter has been ensconced beneath the top soil: weapons, pots, coins; like many settlements in Northern Britain, the area in and around Dumfries is strewn with artifacts from sandal-wearing centurions and their men, charged with keeping tribal Britain at bay. The area in and around Dumfries is alive with legends, of half-truths, rumour and conjecture. Even King Arthur was chronicled by some to have drawn his blade by Dumfries.
What we do know is that once the Romans had tired of the constant struggle with the untamed Picts to the north of Scotland, Dumfries had a more migratory population of warring tribes: Picts, Saxons , Scots and the Danes all tussled for control in the 7th to 9th Centuries. Like many Scottish towns of that era, Dumfries has a strong monastic history. The nearby Lincluden Abbey was built in the 1160s, and with papal authority became Lincluden Collegiate Church in 1389 under Archibald The Grim, 3rd Earl Of Douglas. Like so many churches in the aftermath of a ferocious Scottish Reformation, Lincluden now lies in ruins, the tomb of Princess Margaret, daughter of King Robert III of Scotland, is still in reasonable shape, with many of the ornamental arches intact.
Dumfries’ importance as a market town, reliant on trade, is in many ways similar to that of Glasgow’s. While Glasgow grew into a real behemoth and Dumfries remained petite and demure, they were both granted Royal Burgh status in the latter 12th Century; Dumfries being bestowed the status by King William I in 1186. Back then, the town was still known as Dumfres. The ensuring War Of Scottish Independence made sure the 13th Century drew to a bloody close. Indeed, much of the Border lowlands saw plenty of action as Scotland endeavoured to repel the English. Dumfries staged one triumphant vignette of Scottish resistance when men under the outlaw/hero/saviour of the Scots chased an English army through the town and to the coast of the Solway Firth .
But Wallace ’s derring-do and chest-beating freedom fighter schtick didn’t buy Dumfries an abundance of latitude during the centuries that followed. England popped over the border and regularly visited with sword in hand. King Edward I saw in the 14th Century in possession of the town. Only the Pope could bargain on behalf of Dumfries for Edward’s mercy. Great, a little clemency for the town. Though the most defining moment in Dumfries’ history brings us back to bloodshed. Not only that, all of Scotland at once pivoted on Dumfries’ Greyfriars Church, when the future of the nation was decided by the flash of the blood in front of the altar. As historical set-pieces go, this one’s a real beauty.
Take two rivals for the Scottish throne: Robert The Bruce and the Red Comyn. The latter, John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch and the post-William Wallace Guardian Of Scotland, was stabbed to death on the 10th February 1306 by Scotland’s future king. Bruce’s cousin Roger de Kirkpatrick was not immediately shocked by the murder of a man invited to a meeting in such a holy safe-heaven: he went and and made sure the Red Comyn was dead. Bruce was excommunicated. His name was mud in some quarters – the Balliols were a powerful family of noblemen; the English used it as primary evidence of Bruce’s dubious morality. Blood on the altar kicked off a real civil conflict in Scotland. Reprisals carried on at pace, with Bruce’s brother-in-law, Christopher Seton. Against a backdrop of English expansionism, the murder brought about chaos to the whole of Scotland. New Greyfriars was constructed in 1868, adjacent to the most notorious murder in Scottish history.
Perhaps Dumfries’ bloody past has a positive legacy. The town’s crime rate is nothing to worry the faint-hearted. The nine women burned to death for witchcraft in 1659, a spiteful era of Reformation and Puritanism , was bad enough. And the last public execution , that of Robert Smith, took place outside of Dumfries prison. Though Smith’s death by hanging was in public it was not for public consumption; the 1868 Amendment to the Capital Punishment Act stopped public executions. Moving away from the bloodshed, the medieval struggles for Scottish independence and whatnot, it is important that Dumfries’ more recent history has a more philanthropical bent. And artistic legacy, left in no small part to its most famous resident, Robert Burns .
Burns was an Ayrshire man, but in 1791 he moved to Dumfries where he spent his last days, dying on the 21st July 1796. His last home in Dumfries was on Mill Street , and has now been preserved as a museum, while is body lies at Saint Michael’s Church. Dumfries’ more contemporary history has followed a more sedate pattern. Minor earthquakes in 1979 and 2006 the only breach of the peace, and not even enough to contend with the excitement caused by Perth’s 17th Century tremor . Dumfries, the Queen Of The South, hides its bloody past well.