Dumfries and Maxwelltown (surveyed in 1893)


The historic and ancient border town of Dumfries has been a royal burgh since 1186, and is the county town of Dumfries-shire (now part of Dumfries and Galloway). It is situated on the banks of the River Nith in south west Scotland, approximately 60 miles south east of Ayr. The town grew around a fort, which originally stood at the north end of the High Street, and its name is derived from the Gaelic Dùn Phris, meaning 'hill fort among shrubs'. It was in existence as a village or incipient town certainly as early as the eighth century.

A smart and beautiful place, Dumfries has long been referred to as the 'Queen of the South' on account of the attractiveness of both its buildings and its rural situation. Robert Burns, who spent the final years of his life there, famously referred to Dumfries as, 'Maggie by the banks o' Nith, a dame wi' pride enough'. This gentle mocking of the proud nature of the town arose from the fact that in Burns's time, and on into the nineteenth century, the residents of Dumfries comprised mainly those from the more genteel, upper reaches of society. These people, justifiably, carried a fair amount of civic pride in the place.

Maxwelltown is a suburb of Dumfries, and is situated on the right bank of the Nith. To all intents and purposes it is part of Dumfries, although it is not part of the royal burgh. At the time of this survey, two stone bridges and an iron bridge linked it with Dumfries proper. The middle bridge is Devorgilla's Bridge, which was begun in 1415. The uppermost bridge is New Bridge at the end of Buccleuch Street, which was built in 1794. The New Bridge was widened in 1893, the year of this survey, to allow carriages to pass. The iron suspension bridge, for pedestrians, was opened in 1875. It cost nearly £1,500, which would be around £70,000 today.

Town Planning

Dumfries, like most Scottish market towns, has a long high street, or main street which was a major focal point in the life of the town, and where its weekly markets were held. In the middle of the High Street is a strange cluster of buildings surmounted by the Mid Steeple. A landmark which can be seen for miles around, the Mid Steeple was built in 1707 and was initially used as a court.

Various streets lead the High Street. The most substantial at this time, both in terms of size and importance, was Buccleuch Street. The impressive Scottish Baronial county buildings were built in 1863-6, and stand on the south side of the lower part of Buccleuch Street. At the bottom of the street lies the riverbank, which comprises, on the Dumfries side, New Bridge Street and The Sands. Here the houses on either side of the river face each other, giving it an open, pleasing aspect. Wilson reported that the wide thoroughfare of The Sands was used, 'variously for business and for promenading'. He was also very complimentary about the town's general appearance and maintenance, saying, 'All the streets are well-paved, clean, and lighted up at night with gas; some of the smaller ones are remarkably elegant; and the great thorough-fares present an array of large and brilliant shops which almost bear comparison with those of the proud metropolis.'


Dumfries' importance as a port of trade and commerce peaked in the 1840s, especially hosiery manufacture and the wool trade. In 1840 the River Nith was deepened and straightened, and further down the Nith at Carsethorn a wooden pier was built for the Liverpool ferry. Altogether five quays were built on the Nith and from them a thriving international trade grew, much of it with America. At the time of this survey the principal imports were timber, slate, iron, coal, wine, hemp and tallow. The main exports were wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, wool, freestone and livestock.

Unfortunately for the sea merchants, the unpredictable nature of the Nith's tidal patterns and the arrival of the railways in the 1850s and 60s combined to bring about the end of Dumfries as a commercial port.

The Ordnance Survey had done another, earlier survey of Dumfries between 1847 and 1851. At that time the town's other main industries included hat-making, shoe- and clog-making, brewing, tanning and basket-making. By the time of this survey, the town had acquired a large foundry and machine shop. Its output included steam engines, boilers, large steam and hand cranes, plant for railway companies and iron for bridges. The manufacture of hosiery was also a boom industry at the time.

Fairs and Markets

Dumfries was a thriving market town and used its border position to full advantage, maintaining for centuries its position at the forefront of Anglo-Scottish trade. Each Wednesday a large market was held, which Wilson (1857) said was 'more resembling of an annual fair than a matter of hebdomadal occurrence'. Cattle and pigs were sold on the Sands, and pork meat - and as many as 700 carcasses were sold in a day. Also, there were great annual fairs at Whitsunday and Martinmas for black cattle, and large horse fairs were held every October and February. The chief market was the annual fair in September where around 6,000 cattle were sold. Not all animals were sold at market however, and cattle drovers did a considerable trade during the rest of the year. Wilson (1857) reported that at one point that 'no fewer than 20,000 head of cattle which had not been exposed in market' passed the bridge toll on the way to England. The tolls frequently generated over £700 a year, which would be over £33,000 today.

Religious Life

Like any large Scottish town of the time, Dumfries had a fair number of churches. Its principal Established church was St Michael's. In 1727 a second Established church, called the New Church, was built. In 1745 the old St Michael's was pulled down and a new red sandstone building erected. In 1838 a third Established church, St Mary's, was built. Together, these churches had sittings for around 6,000 people. There was also a Reformed Presbyterian church, an Episcopalian chapel, an Independent chapel, a Wesleyan Methodist chapel, a Roman Catholic Chapel, a Baptist hall and three United Presbyterian churches.


Dumfries Academy comprised four endowed schools, and was under the patronage of the magistrates, town council and ministers. It taught Greek, Latin, French, English, maths, arithmetic, bookkeeping, writing, drawing and geography. Several other charitable schools operated in the town, and there were also a significant number of privately run day schools.

The county jail and bridewell was on Buccleuch Street, conveniently opposite the courthouse (sheet 4). The town also had a lunatic asylum, the Crichton Royal Institution, which is now a museum.

There were three hospitals in the town at this time, the Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, which was founded in 1776, and a hospital for the poor, founded in 1733. The Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary was a more recent addition, erected in 1869-71.

Robert Burns

Dumfries has always been proud of its status as the final resting-place of Robert Burns, and he certainly left his mark on the town. In 1850, as today, the town attracted a significant number of Burns-related visitors. He is remembered fondly everywhere from the fine mausoleum in St Michael's churchyard, erected in 1815, to the house he died in, to the inscription Burns made with his diamond ring on the bedroom window of his favourite inn, the Globe, in the High Street.

Culture and Society

As the most important town in southern Scotland, Dumfries was also a cultural centre for the region. At the time of this survey it boasted a small, elegant theatre, a fine public library and three mobile libraries, and three local newspapers. For those more interested in sport, there was a regatta club and an annual horse-racing meeting. Dumfries also hosted an annual fine art exhibition.

Among the many clubs and societies popular at the time, Dumfries had Bible and missionary societies, a Liberian society for 'assisting the free negroes on the African coast', a Samaritan society, a friendly society for the support of widows, an association for 'resisting the encroachments of infidelity', an astronomical association, a horticultural society and a mechanics' institution. The local newspapers of the time included the Conservative Dumfries Courier and the Liberal Dumfries and Galloway Standard.

A View from 1893

The Ordnance Gazetteer for Scotland, (1893) says, 'Dumfries itself, in architectural structure, relative position, social character, marketing importance, and general influence, holds a high rank among the towns of the kingdom.'