Notes on the Bridge of Nith

By: Mr J Carlyle Aitken (Abridged)

From: Transactions and Journal of Proceedings, Issues 3-5  By Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society

The date of the Old Bridge of Dumfries is usually given as 1275, and that it has been assumed by some old ecclesiastics that Christian, sister of Devorgilla, was associated with her in the work, but as she died in 1246, and as the Bridge was probably built in her lifetime, it is possible that the structure was earlier than the date usually given. In the course o£ the ages prior to this artistic structure, the stone bridge of the 13th century, there evidently must have been some practical link of communication connecting the town and religious communities with their Troqueer lands on the opposite shore of the Nith, and the inhabitants of Galloway generally speaking. We think it probable that some I’udely constructed bridge of wood may have preceded this stone structure. This supposition is rendered the more probable, seeing that in 1609 a petition to the Privy Council anent “the brig of Drumfries, which the saidis Lordis knawis is a verrie large brig of mony bowis,” the petitioners further allege and explain as to the then threatened hindrance ” of the ordinar passage over the wattir of Nith, sein na boat dar ga upon that wattar but in calme and fair wedder in respect it has so swift and violent a course.” From the earliest ages we find the Dumfriesians have cherished an amiable predilection in favour of this their “Auld Brig” of Dum- fries and of Nith, a predilection the depth of which, in the reign of King James the Sixth, manifests itself in the fervidly amiable language and prayer of their petition anent its threatened ruin, as we may by and bye see in detail. The ancient King’s town of Dumfries, as the great seat of the courts of law, of oldest time held within the Castle of Dumfries, with its monastery, mills, commerce, and shipping, must in a very real sense have been the natural central capital town of the shire, as well as of a much wider superficial area of a land in which towns were as few as far between in the undeveloped ages of the history of Dumfries and Galloway. As the shipping of the port of Dumfries on the Nith is in some sort allied with the history of the Bridge of Nith, we here add what may to some extent be considered as one of the foundation vouchers of its descriptive limits and history, as they were understood to have been in the first year of the reign of Henrie and Marie, King and Queen of Scots. We the more willingly do so seeing that the preparatory narrative of the cause itself contains some interesting summary of the constitutional history of the ancient Burghs Royal of Dumfries and Kirkcud- bright, which although otherwise not unknown here receives positive and ofiicial confirmation. We need hardly say that so far as the Burgh of Kirkcudbright is concerned no older surname oan tliere well have been there than that of the Maclelland of Bombie, which is associated with the narrative of their Burghal Charter, dated Perth, 26th October, 1455, wherein the reigning Provost or Alderman of ” Kirkcudbrith ” is named “Willm Macleland de Bomby.”

We here add the outline of the petition, which is dated 22d March, 1565, and seems to us almost unique of its kind : —

Henrie and Marie be the grace of God King and Queine of Scotti,s to our lovittis William Cunynghame, our Sheriffs in that part conjunctly and severallie, specially constitute, greeting: Foralsmekill as it is humblie meant and shewin to us be our lovittis the provest, baillies, counsall, and communitie of our Burght of Dumfries : That quhair our Burgh is infeft and erectit of auld in free Burght Royal, with all Privilegis, Freedoms, and siklike Liberties as ony ither burgh within our realme, as the saide com pleinaris infeftment thairof mair fully purportis, Be virtew of the quhilk thair predecossoris & thai has been in possesioun of cris sing lading and coquetting of alle Sehippis & Boittis resorting and arruing betuix our said Burght k the Bume fute of our Abbay of Dundranane, but interruptioun in alle tymes byegane past memory of man : Nochtheless, Thomas Makclellane of Bombie alleging him to haie in tack & assedatioun all and haill the Custowmis of our Burght of Kirkcudbright within all the parts and boundis thairof betuixt the Wattir of Nyth & the Wattir of Cree, as hes beene usit in tymes bigane and that William Killaw, maister; James Simson, owner; Arrold Davencurtiss, servand to Peter Purot, merchand in Burdeaux, hes laitlie brocht in ane schip callit ‘The Grace of God’ within the freedom of our saide Burght of Kirkcudbright, browken bulk and sauld the saime to the foirsaidis compleinaris, and will nocht pay the custowmis thairof to the said Thomas & quhilk is nocht of verity, has obteinit our uthir Lettres be deliverance of the Lordis of our Counsale , & therewith gart chairge the saidis compleinaris and the saidis maister and ownar to content and pay to him as allegit takkisman foirsaid that foirnamit customes of the guidis customabill being in the said schip and als chairgihg alle our liegis & strangeris arryving within the freedom of our said Burght of Kirkcudbright, that nane of thaim sell, dispone, or put away the guidis and merchandise customabill to be brocht be thaim within the said freedom, &c., &c.   Quhilkis utheris Lettres are wrangouslie and sinisterlie purchaset without cognitioun in the cause, &c.   .   .   .   And the said schip arrivit within the freedom of our Ladie burght of Drumfries, three myles be west the Wattir of Urr, as sal be clearlie proven, &c.    Our will is heirfore, and we charge you that ye lauchfullie summon, wairn, and chairge the said Thomas Makclellane, allegit takkisman foirsaid, and the Alderman and Baillies of our said burgh of Kirkcudbright, personallie or at their dwelling place, to compeir, &c.    The said otheris Lettres wrongously purchased are hereby suspended, &c.    Given under our signet at Edinr., the 22nd of March, and of our reigns the first and twenty-fourth years, 1565.
“Ex Delib. Dom. Concilii.”

Our real chartered history of the Bridge begins in the reign of King James the First, and the first quarter of the 1 5th century. This is, of course, the period when the family of Douglas were
already far advanced in their reign of one hundred years over the Lordship of Galloway. King James the First, in 1424, had completed his nineteen years of captivity in England. Between the years 1275 and the chartered year 1425 we learn little or nothing concerning the Bridge in any shape. In the course of tlie first half of the 1 5th century there are a charter and a confirmation charter of the Bridge Toll or Custom. The first of these is the still extant charter by the Lady ” Margaret, Duchess of Touraine, Countess of Douglas, and Lady of Galloway and Annandale ” (as she therein styles and describes herself), wherein she grants to the Friars Minors of Dumfries her own vested rights in the Bridge of Dumfries, as described in the charter, which is dated, “At the  Trief, the 16th of January, 1425.” On the back, in an almost contemporary hand, is the following endorsation : ” Domine Galwidie de Ponte, 16th January, 1425.” The next document we still have is the confirmatory and renewal charter, dated 4th of January, 1452, whereby “James, Earl of Douglas and of Avondale, Lord of Galloway, etc.” (as he is there styled), confirms to the said Friars Minors tlie previous chai-ter of tlie Lady Margaret in Anno 1425, in this instance the soui’ce and nature of the toll or custom being more fully described as pertaining “ad pontis de Nyth de Drumfres;” wliile the relative endorsation of the time is “Carta de Douglas de Custuma Pontis.” The real intrinsic position and relativ^e significance of the noble family of Douglas generally within the realm of Scotland is best understood by reproducing from “The Douglas Book” the following summary and exposition of the learned editoi-, Dr William Eraser, C.B., wherein it may be observed that even the wide domain and loi’dship of Galloway formed but a small item in the catalogue of the Douglas family possessions within the realm of Scotland, as in this rare and valuable work fully set forth. Incidentally treating of the great power and authority of the family of Douglas, Dr Fraser says : — ” Thus by rapid strides the family of Douglas rose within one generation from the good Sir James to be owners and rulers of the greater part of the South of Scotland, as well as of considerable estates in the North. They bore undisputed sway over a large portion of the shires of Lanark, Peebles, Selkirk, Roxburgh, parts of Berwickshire, and Dumfries- shire, with the whole of Galloway. To this territory was added for a time the earldom of Mar and lordship of Garioch. When it is further considered that either nominally on behalf of the King or in their own right the lords of Douglas possessed or garrisoned the strong castles of Kildrummy in Mar, Jedburgh in Teviotdale, the Hermitage in Liddesdale, the Thrieve in Galloway, Tantallon in East Lothian, Lochmaben in Annandale, as well as their native fortress of Douglasdale, it will be more easily understood how the members of this one family were able to maintain a more than royal state, and their power became dan- gerous to the throne itself. Of ancient Galloway under the Lords and Earls of the Douglas family there are many details of much local interest. Notable among such is the chartered history of the Douglas possession of the barony of the Balliols of old time, the barony of Botle, which also appears to have been the first landed possession of the Douglases in Galloway. In the year 1325 it appears King Robert the Bruce granted a charter of the lands of Botle, totam terrain nostrum de Botle, in Gcdwidia, cum suis 2)erti)ienciis, &c., to the good Sir James. In the year 1342 Hugh Douglas, the brother of Sir James Douglas, resigned the same lands. Further, in or about the year 1348 a.d. William, Lord of Douglas (afterwards the lirst Earl), granted to his god- father, William Douglas, the Knight of Liddesdale, the lands of Knokys, Sevenkii-ks, Kenmore, Logan, and Colennauch, in the barony of Botle in Galloway.” — (Reg. Hon. de Morton, ii., 10.) During nearly the whole of the 1 6th century the records give but few details touching the Bridge. However, you incidentally learn the existence of a fund, then known familiarly as ” TJie Brig Werk,” to which all freemen and burgesses had from use and wont been accustomed to subscribe as one of the known penalties of their elevation and future existence as duly constituted freemen. From the great diametrical change which has since that time taken place in the purchasing power of money, to even form an approximate estimate of the extent of such fund might be very dithcult. On the other hand, the following stray reference seems to stand alone in the record, although it serves to remind us of the liabilities to w^hich tlie Bridge, the Mill, the great grange, or ” Barnsbuith,” and their surroundings of ” the Brigend of Dum- fries,” were constantly exposed in the nature of things : —

At Drumfries the 28th of May, 1521.
” The Alderman, Baillies, and Community of Drumfries has set to Thom Cunynghame in heritage ane Mylshed with ane Watergang distrinzeand fra the Moit to the Barnsbuith of the Sandbeddis, payand thairfore zeirly 20s. If the Myll-stob does ony skaith to the Sandbeddies, or to the Willies, the said Mill (of the Sandbed) sail be distrenzit (for the damage).”

As we understand this entry, we suppose the place-name of the ” Staikfuird ” had been descriptive of some ford of stakes or mill-dam barrier of the river Nith in that locality. The Staik- fuird Mill, as one of the Mills of the College and Barony of Lincluden, must once have been of no small importance. Of old the eastern foreshore and bank of the river Nith, from the march of the College lands of Nunholm downwai’ds to the Bridge of Nith, seem to have been in general described, in whole or in part, as the ancient ecclesiastical lands of Dumfries : the haughs of the vicinity of the river-bed and as far as the Staikfuird and Green- sands being comprehended within the limits of ” the Moitlands ” and “the Over-Haughs” as descriptive of such pasture grounds. To the haughs there succeeded a general eastern foreshore of sand and gravel levels of river bank, reaching beyond the bridge and mill. This flat region, in virtue of its nature, was collectively known as ” The Sandbeds,” which were singled out again dis- tinctively as the Upper and Lower Sandbeds ; or, later, as the Green and the White Sands. Between the Friervennel and “the Moit,” and beyond, riverwards, there seems to have been little else than orchards, fields, and open spaces, with occasional granges, or barns. At or about the northern verge of the Green- sandbeds, and by the Staikfuird ford, the ” water-gang ” of the ” Old Sandbed Mill ” had its origin in the Nith, flowing onward through the said sandbeds until it supplied the mill and tanneries, regaining the Nith somewhere beyond ” the Newtown ” quarter of the burgh. Beyond the Brigend the mill-stream, or ” water- gang,” intersected the great high road to Galloway as it crossed the Lower or Wliitesandbeds, and was then familiarly known as ” the Galloway -gait.” It seems to us that the Dock Park was formerly designed, generally speaking, as “The Willies.” As the safest guide for tlie natural level of old times we presume the Nith and its course are the true standard, amid so much modern improvement and artificial increase in bulk. In the year 1681 the Bi’idge of Dumfries the town, in their legal defence, then officially describe as ” one of the best and largest Bridges in the Kingdom, and at this time now consists of Nine several Arches.” Two years afterwards the ravages of winter had been more than usually serious, the masses of floating ice adhering to the but- tresses, collecting until the accumulation, or ” gadds of ice,” as the record explains, required to be relieved and broken by great stones thrown upon it from above. ” The Brig Petition ” to King James the Sixth on the part of the town of Dumfries, lias, in the Privy Council records and other publications, been in part reproduced. But nowhere have we seen a true literal copy, such as is here presented from a certified and signed duplicate of tlie original of the day and time of presentation. The petition as a curious sample of an address to his ” Sacred Majesty King James the Sixth,” in his own rounded and sublimely classic style, as to ” the soverane fontane and livelie spring quhairwith the politic bodie of this estait and everie particular member thairof is cherished and nurished,” inherently possesses an historical, literary, and antiquarian interest as a work of art. The bridge had, it seems, been its own tomb, resolving to itself in its fall the whole results of the Royal gift, of the temporalities of tlie Friars Minors, and the whole patrimony of the toune, &c. ” The Brig Petition ” to King James the Sixth, as copied from the signed and formal duplicate of the original itself, in the liolograph of Albert Cunynghame, clerk, as certified therein by himself in his own hand, circa 1620 :—

” Most gracious and sacred Soverane, — The greate calamitie and wrak which befell to Your Maties. ancient Burgh of Drumfreis in the monetli of (1620) by the overthrow of the bridge thairof through the force and violence of Wattir of Nitli, being on our behalf regretted unto Your Mie. by the lordis of your hienesse privy counsell. And your Mie. oute of your moste excellente wisdome apprehending that a voluntarie contributione amongis your M.’s good subjectis would prove the most sure and readdie way for preventing of the wrak and overthrow of the said Burgh, wherewith it was threatnit by the falling of the said bridge. Your Mie. for this effecte was graciouslie pleasit to give directioune that the mater sould be recommendit to the charit. able consideratione of your Mies, good subjectis to burgh and land, throughout the whole kingdom. Of whose benevolence towardis this so necessar and common a wark your Male, reposed with great assurance. Lykeas we embracing this your great overtures as a solid ground whereupon we builded our hopes of a timous and liberal supplie, we made some trial tliairof amongis the barronis and gentlemen adjacent to our burgh, who in regard of their vicinity with us have their own conduct interest in the mater ; but finding their charity to be cold, and their disposi- tionis most averse from contributionis of this kynde, we left oflf all prosequteing of that efibrt, being loth to lay upon you our new and necessarie burdens wherein help nor relieff was to be expected. And so being lefte to our selfiss without alle hope of help that way, we resolved to interpryse and begin the wark our selffis, quhairin eftir long stryving and in end overcoming alle difficulties with continuall turmoyle, trouble, and labour both day and night (wlierefrom none within the said burgh were exempt neither in their personis nor pursis) we brocht the wark to a gude and happie conclusioune. And in one year we accomplished and performed the samen in a inore substantious and statelie maner nor it was befoir. And we may truly affirme withoute ostentatione idyle or vain show that it was tlie greateste warke that wes evir dune in Scotland in sa shorte a spaice be ane handful! of poor personis without the help or assistance of utheris, wherein as we have striven againis our oune weaknesse and againe all appearans or likleyhood of ane guid success to have followed. And in that has gone verrie far beyond the expectioune of all personis, quho mesuring the greatnesse of the wark with our inhabilitie did apprehend that we did stryve againe the streame, and that our power was not answerabil to such a greate and chargeable work. In doing whereof we ha^e exhausted the whole common rent and patrimony of that toune, and has not lefte so much as ane pennie thairof free. And by continuall and dayly contributione most freely and willingly advancit amongis ourselffis oure purses are so emptied and tliairby disabilled from undertak- ing anie uther chairge either for the weill of the said toune, or commonweill of the kingdome, that we are forced to yield to necessitie and to sink under the heavie burden which we have so long supported and which in end hes now our maisterit us. So that the estate of that toune is no longer habile to subsist in that rak and rewine, wherein it formerlie stude aniongis. But as ane decayit and faylit member will fall off f ra the reste of the bodie, unless your Matie. out of your accustomit princelie commissera- tione of the distresse of everie particular member of the common- weil, put to your helping hand. The consideratione quhairof hes movit us in most submissive and humble reverence to prostrate ourselffis befoir your hienesse (as the soverane fontane and livelie spring quhairwith tlie politic bodie of this estait and everie par- ticular member thairof is cherished and nourished) thir our wantis and necessitie. Beseeching your Mie. to consider the neces- sitie whereunto we are driven be this occasions of the Bridge, and accordingly to extend such proportione of your benevolence and favour towards us as your Mie. shall think meit for the redemptioune and relieff of our common rentis engagit by us for the performing of the said work. We are sure that in thingis of so many greate and princelie affairs quhairwith your Mie. is overburdened that we should empesche your Hienesse, but the importance of our comforting ourselves without intermission, or wearying to send up our humble and uncessant prayers unto God for your Mties. long and blessed reign. We reste (at the most respectful distance of the very bottom of the big sheet),

” Your Maties. mo. humble and obedt. subjectis,
” John Corsane, Provost.
” J. Douglas.
” James Macgoun, bailye.”

Holograph of ” Albert Cunnyngharae, clerk of Drumf reise, in name of tlie haill Counsell thairof.”


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