Dumfries and the River Nith
Dumfries and the River Nith

The historic town of Dumfries is the largest settlement in south-western Scotland and the county town of Dumfries-shire. This attractive town grew up around an important crossing on the River Nith.

The location on a major transport route helped the settlement grow and prosper, but its proximity to the Scottish border with England made Dumfries an easy target for the armies of both countries.

History

Dumfries was an important centre before the Roman invasion of Britain in the 1st century AD. After the withdrawal of the Romans in the early 5th century Dumfries became part of the Kingdom of Rheged, but by the 8th century it was ruled by the Kingdom of Northumbria. Still later the Kingdom of Galloway developed to the west of the River Nith, but this, in turn, yielded to the power of the Scots in the early 11th century.

The town of Dumfries developed in the form we see it today during this early period of Scottish rule. The first record of a town here comes in a charter dated 1180, by which time Dumfries boasted a church and castle (the castle was pulled down in the 14th century).

In 1186 King William the Lion made Dumfries a Royal Burgh, a mark of the town's importance, and in 1395 Robert III granted Dumfries a charter, confirming its rights as a market centre.

The ancient Devorgilla Bridge
The ancient Devorgilla Bridge

In 1296 Edward I of England invaded southern Scotland and attacked Dumfries. Over the next few hundred years of border conflict the town was attacked and occupied another 5 times by the English.

One of the most important events in Scottish history took place in 1306 when the two major Scottish contenders for the throne, Robert Bruce of Carrick and John 'the Red' Comyn met in the church of Greyfriars in Dumfries.

The two men argued and Bruce drew a hidden dagger and stabbed his foe to death before the altar. Though the act of killing a man in a holy place shocked many, it also removed the only serious Scottish rival to Bruce, who had himself crowned king five weeks later.

The friary church is long gone, though in 1868 a new Greyfriars Church was built on the opposite side of Castle Street. The location of the original Greyfriars Church is marked by a plaque.

But it is not Robert Bruce that brings most visitors to Dumfries, it is another famous Scot, poet Robert Burns. Scotland's National Poet spent the last few years of his life in Dumfries, first in a house on Bank Street and then in the house that bears his name on what is now Burns Street. You can learn about Burns and his life in Dumfries at the Burns Centre, see the house where he lived, and visit his ornate mausoleum in St Michael's Churchyard.

Old Bridge House Museum, c. 1660
Old Bridge House Museum, c. 1660

Another literary figure linked to Dumfries is JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan. Barrie studied here at Dumfries Academy, and later lived and worked in the town.

There is so much history to see in and around Dumfries. And the riverside location makes it an extremely attractive place to visit. If you fancy something longer than a visit, it is worth noting that the town was voted the best place to live in Britain in a 1997 poll. It is no wonder that Dumfries was given the popular nickname 'the Queen of the South' (the south of Scotland).

What to See

Old Bridge House Museum

Built onto the southern end of Devorgilla Bridge is the oldest house in Dumfries, erected in 1660. Bridge House is literally part of the bridge structure. Robert Burns visited the house in the late 18th-century when it was an inn. Now it has been transformed into a fascinating museum of local history.

See a recreated Victorian nursery, a dentist's surgery, and two kitchens depicting life in 1850 and in the 20th century. Bridge House Museum shows what life was like in Dumfries over the centuries. Though the museum is small, it packs a lot of nostalgia into a few rooms.

Robert Burns Centre
Robert Burns Centre

Robert Burns Centre

In a lovely riverside setting a short stroll from the Old Bridge House Museum is the Robert Burns Centre, housed in a historic 18th-century water mill. The Centre is devoted to poet Robert Burns and his time in Dumfries. The Centre is home to several original manuscripts and personal mementoes of the poet and his family.

More than just focus on Burns' life and death, the Centre looks at what Dumfries was like during Burns' lifetime. One of the highlights is a scale model of Dumfries as it was in the 1790s. See a plaster cast of Burns' skull and a charter granting him the rights of a Burgess of Dumfries.

Robert Burns House

Located on Burns Street is the unobtrusive sandstone house where poet Robert Burns spent the last 3 years of his life, from 1793-1796. It was here on 21 July 1796 that Burns breathed his last.

The house is now a museum dedicated to Scotland's National Poet and boasts a wealth of personal items and documents related to Burns, his family, and his writing career. Other interesting objects include copies of the Kilmarnock and Edinburgh editions of 'Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect' and the chair and desk where Burns wrote some of his final works.

Across the street is a rose garden commemorating Burns and some of his most popular poems, while at the top of Burns Street is a statue of his wife Jean Armour.

Robert Burns House
Robert Burns House

Burns Mausoleum

A very short stroll from Burns House is St Michael's Church. In the churchyard is the original site where Burns was buried beneath a plain stone slab. His friend John Syme believed that such a plain memorial was inadequate to remember a man of Burns' talents, so in 1813 he launched a public appeal to erect a mausoleum.

One of the contributors was the Prince of Wales (later to become King George IV). The mausoleum was finished in 1817. The Dumfries Burns Club began a custom of laying a wreath at the mausoleum on the poet's birthday. The Burns Mausoleum is well signposted and is easy to find if you simply head for the south-east corner of the churchyard.

Also in the churchyard are several graves of Covenenters as well as the Martyr's Monument, a pyramidal memorial to Covenanters in general. The Monument was erected by public subscription to recall those who suffered persecution for their conscience, including the men who were sentenced to death in Dumfries for their role in the 1666 Pentland Rising.

Robert Burns Mausoleum
Robert Burns Mausoleum

Burns Monument

In 1877 the town council of Dumfries decided to mark the town's strong links to poet Robert Burns by erecting a statue of Burns on Church Place, at the junction of three major shopping streets (t has been moved several times since then to accommodated road widening).

A striking statue of Carrara marble was carved by Italian sculptors working to a design by Amelia Hill. The statue was unveiled by the Earl of Roseberry in 1882. The result is a beautiful piece of art showing Burns seated, a dog resting at his foot.

Robert Burns Monument
Robert Burns Monument

Dumfries Museum & Camera Obscura

This delightful local museum stands on a hill overlooking the River Nith and is housed in an 18th-century windmill. Inside the historic building are displays covering geology, archaeology, early Christian carved stones and local life over the centuries.

Look for the Stidriggs Hoard, a collection of 10th-century iron tools. There are several items associated with King Robert Bruce, including a plaster cast of his skull and pieces of the king's leg and foot bones.

At the top of the windmill is the oldest camera obscura in the world, installed in 1836. The camera obscura allows visitors to see a 360-degree panoramic view over the town and the surrounding hills.

Dumfries Museum & Camera Obscura
Dumfries Museum & Camera Obscura

Lincluden Collegiate Church

On the northern outskirts of Dumfries stands the ruins of a church built in 1389 by Archibald the Grim, Earl of Douglas, on the site of a 12th-century monastery. The Earl's heir, also named Archibald, added a superb chancel and within it erected an ornate tomb to his wife Margaret, the daughter of King Robert III.

Most of the church ruins date to the 15th century, with the addition of a 16th-century provost's house. Lincluden supported a college of priests whose sole task was to pray for the souls of the founder, his family and heirs. Though the church is ruinous it boasts a superb collection of late-medieval carvings.

Lincluden Collegiate Church
Lincluden Collegiate Church

OTHER

Devorgilla Bridge

Around 1270 Lady Devorgilla of Galloway built a bridge across the River Nith at Dumfries. That first bridge was probably made of timber but was rebuilt in stone several times over the following centuries. The bridge was given to the convent of Greyfriars, also established by Lady Devorgilla, and the friars had the right to exact a toll on anyone using the bridge.

The bridge we see today was erected in 1621 when an earlier 15th-century bridge was damaged by floods. Parts of the medieval structure are incorporated into the 17th-century bridge. Old Bridge House, the oldest house in Dumfries, is built into the south end of the bridge structure.

If you walk north from the end of Devorgilla Bridge, up Friars Vennel, you come to the site of the Greyfriars monastery established by Lady Devorgilla of Galloway. The alignment of buildings on Friars Vennel follows roughly the monastery wall of Greyfriars. Nothing remains of the medieval friary, but it is worth noting the location, for the friary was the setting for one of the turning points in Scottish history.

It was in the friary church here that rival claimants to the Scottish throne Robert Bruce and John Comyn met in 1306. The meeting was ostensibly an attempt to reach a compromise, but neither man was willing to give way.

Whether by plan or in a fit of rage, Robert Bruce pulled a hidden knife and killed Comyn. The murder of Comyn opened the way for Bruce to take the throne for himself, though only after 8 years of warfare with the English.

Site of Greyfriars Church
Site of Greyfriars Church in Friars Vennel

Globe Inn

On the High Street is a Dumfries landmark, the Globe Inn. The inn is one of the oldest hostelries in Scotland, established in 1610. It is forever linked to Robert Burns, who was a frequent visitor. You can sit in the chair where Burns sat, but if you do then you have to buy a round for the house and recite one of Burns' verses.

Look for verses to Polly Stewart etched by Burns on a window pane, and handwritten letters by the poet. Keep an eye out for the inn's resident ghost, said to be the spirit of a late-18th-century servant girl.

Burns was a heavy drinker, and he had more than one favourite watering hole Further along High Street from the Globe Inn is the Hole in the Wa', another of Burns' haunts.

Globe Inn, Dumfries
Globe Inn, Robert Burns' watering hole

Midsteeple

Near both the Globe and the Hole in the Wa' is Midsteeple, where Burns' body lay in state after his death. The poet's body was carried in procession from Midsteeple to St Michael's Kirk for burial. Midsteeple was erected in 1707 and served as a courthouse and gaol. Look for the 'ell' carved on the building's exterior. The ell was a standardised length often used to measure cloth.

Midsteeple
Midsteeple

Queensberry Monument

The statue of Robert Burns is not the only striking historical monument in the old town centre of Dumfries. On Queensberry Square stands a memorial column erected to the memory of Charles Douglas, the 3rd Duke of Queensberry (1698-1778).

The ashlar column was erected two years after the duke's death in 1780. It was designed by Robert Adam, one of the foremost British architects of the day. It has had a chequered history; the column was taken down in 1934 and re-erected in 1990.

Queensberry Monument
Queensberry Monument

Sanghoose o'Scotland

Burns House was not the Burns family's first home in Dumfries. In 1791-1793 the family lived at 11 Bank Street, now known as the Sanghoose o'Scotland'. This short period was one of the most productive in Burns' life.

Here in the Sanghoose he wrote over 60 songs, including 'Duncan Grey', 'Ae Fond Kiss', 'Bonnie wee Things', and 'The Deil's Awa wi' the Exciseman'. The building is a private dwelling but there is a large plaque on the exterior commemorating Burns' time there.

Sanghoose O'Scotland
Sanghoose O'Scotland, Robert Burns' first house in dumfries

Theatre Royal

One of the most interesting historical attractions in Dumfries is the Theatre Royal, thought to be the oldest working theatre in Scotland. In 1790 an actor-manager named George Sutherland mooted the idea of a purpose-built theatre in Dumfries. One supporter of the idea was Rober Burns, then still a resident at Ellisland Farm, north of the town.

Sutherland raised ?800 by subscription and the theatre opened in 1792. The design was based on the Theatre Royal in Bristol and the building seated 500-600 patrons. The theatre went through stages as a cinema and a roller skating rink, but has been fully restored and now hosts regular theatrical performances, opera, ballet, music and Christmas pantomimes.

Theatre Royal
Theatre Royal

Further Afield

Ellisland Farm

Just a few miles north of Dumfries is Ellisland Farm, where Robert Burns built a family home and tried unsuccessfully to launch a career as a gentleman farmer. In 1788 Burns built a large farmhouse, described as a 'modest mansion', beside the River Nith. Here at Ellisland Burns wrote some of his most famous works, including Tam O'Shanter and the song Auld Lang Syne.

Burns' descendants consider Ellisland the family's spiritual home to this day. See the desk and chair where Burns wrote, the kitchen he installed for his wife Jean Armour, and the riverside walk he enjoyed. Ellisland boasts one of the finest collections of Burns' personal items and documents in the world.

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About Dumfries
Address: Dumfries, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
Attraction Type: Town
Location: On the A75 20 miles north-west of Carlisle
Website: Dumfries
Location map
OS: NX933808
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express

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HERITAGE

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NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS

Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest

Ellisland Farm - 1.9 miles (Historic Building) Heritage Rating

Lincluden Collegiate Church - 2.7 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Old Bridge House Museum - 3.7 miles (Museum) Heritage Rating

Robert Burns Centre - 3.7 miles (Museum) Heritage Rating

Solway Coastal Drive - 3.9 miles (Countryside) Heritage Rating

Dumfries Museum & Camera Obscura - 3.9 miles (Museum) Heritage Rating

Robert Burns House - 4 miles (Museum) Heritage Rating

Robert Burns Mausoleum - 4.1 miles (Historic Building) Heritage Rating



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