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Midsteeple, Dumfries 2010.JPG
Dumfries town centre
Grid reference: NX976762
Location: 55°4’12"N, 3°36’11"W
Population: 43,009  (2001)
Post town: Dumfries
Postcode: DG1/2
Dialling code: 01387
Local Government
Council: Dumfries and Galloway
Dumfries and Galloway

Dumfries is the county town of Dumfriesshire. It stands near the mouth of the River Nith where it empties its waters into the Solway Firth. Dumfries is nicknamed Queen of the South.[1]

Name of the town

There are several theories as to the origin of the town's name. One is that Dumfries is the town named by Nennius as Caer Peris, which by a variant, Dun Peris, gave us today's name. Others suggest that it refers to Friesians, whether auxiliaries in the Roman period or more likely those who came as part of the Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain in the early Middle Ages.[2] Others derive the name from the Gaelic Dun Phreas ("Fort of the Thicket") or Dron Phreas ("Ridge of the Thicket"), and if so this is presumably from the Irish Gall-Gaidel. Others suggest that the name is a corruption of two words which mean the Friars’ Hill, perhaps suggesting a religious house near what is now the Friars’ Vennel. The first surviving written reference to the town is in a charter of the Mid-twelfth century as "Dronfres".,[3] but Dunfres appears in 1189.

The town

Devorgilla Bridge with Old Bridge House Museum at the end of the furthest span from the camera
The 'Caul' and Devorgilla Bridge
Whitesands, from Buccleuch Street

The heart of the town is found around Queensberry Square and High Street and here are found many of the historical, social and commercial enterprises of the town. Here too the main events of the town take place. During the 1990s, these areas enjoyed various aesthetic recognitions from organisations including Britain in Bloom.

Dumfries lies at the edge of the Southern Uplands. The River Nith carves Nithsdale through these hills for 71 miles from its source and becomes tidal here as it prepares to enter the Solway Firth. It splits the town in two, but also between two counties; the suburbs on the west bank, Maxwelltown and its surrounds, are within Kirkcudbrightshire. Several bridges cross the river within the town. Between the Old Bridge (also called the Devorgilla Bridge) and the suspension bridge is a weir colloquially known as 'The Caul'. In wetter months of the year the Nith can rise and flood the surrounding streets.


Located on the east side of the lowest crossing point of the River Nith, no positive information has been obtained of the era and circumstances in which the town of Dumfries was founded.[4]

Some writers hold that Dumfries flourished as a place of distinction during the Roman occupation of Northern Britain. The Selgovae inhabited Nithsdale but whetehrt they had a settlement at today's Dumfries is unknown. The district around Dumfries was for several centuries ruled over and deemed of much importance by the invading Romans. Many traces of Roman presence in Dumfriesshire are still to be found; coins, weapons, sepulchral remains, military earthworks, and roads being among the relics left by their lengthened sojourn hereabouts.

According to one theory, the town's name is a corruption of two words which mean the Friars’ Hill; those who favour this idea alleging that St Ninian, by planting a religious house near the head of what is now the Friars’ Vennel, at the close of the fourth century, became the virtual founder of the Burgh; however Ninian, so far as is known, did not originate any monastic establishments anywhere and was simply a missionary. In the list of British towns given by the ancient historian Nennius, the name Caer Peris occurs, which some modern antiquarians suppose to have been transmuted, by a change of dialect, into Dumfries.

Twelve of King Arthur's battles were recorded by Nennius in Historia Brittonum. The Battle of Tribruit (the 10th battle), has been suggested as having possibly been near Dumfries or near the mouth of the River Avon near Bo'ness.

When, in 1069, Malcolm III (Malcolm Canmore) and William the Conqueror held a conference respecting the claims of Edward Atheling to the English Crown, they met at Abernithi – a term which in the old British tongue means a port at the mouth of the Nith. It has been argued, the town thus characterized must have been Dumfries; and therefore it must have existed as a port in the Kingdom of Strathclyde, if not in the Roman days. However, against this argument is that the town is actually eight to nine miles from the open sea.

Although at the time a mile upstream and on the opposite bank of the Nith from Dumfries, Lincluden Abbey was founded circa 1160. The abbey ruins are on the site of the Bailey of the very early Lincluden Castle, as are those of the later Lincluden Tower. This religious house was used for various purposes, until its abandonment around 1700. Lincluden Abbey and its grounds are now within the Dumfries urban conurbation boundary.

King William I (William the Lion) granted the charter to raise Dumfries to the rank of a Royal Burgh in 1186. Dumfries was very much on the frontier during its first 50 years as a burgh and it grew rapidly as a market town and port.[5] The land west of the Nith, Galloway, only securely became part of Scotland during Alexander II's reign in 1234:

Alexander III visited Dumfries in 1264 to plan an expedition against the Isle of Man, which was subject by the crown of Norway. Identified with the conquest of Man, Dumfries shared in the well being of Scotland for the next 22 years until Alexander's accidental death brought an Augustan era in the town's history to an abrupt finish.

A royal castle, which no longer exists, was built in the 13th century on the site of the present Castledykes Park. In the latter part of the century William Wallace chased a fleeing English force southward through the Nith valley. The English fugitives met the gates of Dumfries Castle that remained firmly closed in their presence. With a body of the town's people joining Wallace and his fellow pursuers when they arrived, the fleeing English met their end at Cockpool on the Solway Coast. After resting at Caerlaverock Castle a few miles away from the bloodletting, Wallace again passed through Dumfries the day after as he returned north to Sanquhar.

Dumfries suffered from the ravages of war during its first 500 years. English armies variously sacked, plundered or occupied the town in 1300, 1448, 1536, 1542, 1547, 1570 and it suffered when counter-occupied too. It was to suffer again during the strife of the 1640s in the Bishops' war and the Civil War. In the invasion of 1300, Edward I lodged for a few days in June with the Minorite Friars of the Vennel, before at the head of the then greatest invasion force to attack Scotland he laid siege to Caerlaverock Castle. After Caerlaverock eventually succumbed, Edward passed through Dumfries again as he crossed the Nith to take his invasion into Galloway. Edward held court in Dumfries at which he grudgingly agreed to an armistice. On 30 October, the truce solicited by Pope Boniface was signed by Edward at Dumfries. Letters from Edward, dated at Dumfries, were sent to his subordinates throughout Scotland, ordering them to give effect to the treaty. The peace was to last till Whitsunday in the following year.

Before becoming King of Scots, Robert the Bruce slew his rival the Red Comyn at Greyfriars Kirk in the town on 10 February 1306. His uncertainty about the fatality of his stabbing caused one of his followers, Roger de Kirkpatrick, to utter the famous, "I mak siccar" ("I make sure") and finish the Comyn off. Bruce was subsequently excommunicated as a result, less for the murder than for its location. Regardless, for Bruce the die was cast at the moment in Greyfriars and so began his campaign by force for the independence of Scotland. Swords were drawn by supporters of both sides, the burial ground of the Monastery becoming the theatre of battle. Bruce and his party then attacked Dumfries Castle. The English garrison surrendered and for the third time in the day Bruce and his supporters were victorious. He was crowned King of Scots barely seven weeks after. Bruce later triumphed at the Battle of Bannockburn and led Scotland to freedom. Today's Greyfriars Church was built in 1868, overlooking the site of the murder on the opposite side of Castle Street, marked by a plaque on a shop wall.

Once Edward received word of the rebellion that had started in Dumfries, he again raised an army and entered Scotland. Sir Christopher Seton (Bruce's brother in law) who had been captured at Loch Doon was hurried to Dumfries to be tried for treason and for being present at Comyn's killing, and was executed.

The first bridge over the Nith, Devorgilla Bridge, named after the mother of King John Balliol, was built here in 1432. Rebuilt more than once and shortened from the east in the 19th century, this is still used by pedestrians and is one of Scotland's oldest standing bridges.

Burns statue and Greyfriars Church

In 1659, ten women were accused of diverse acts of witchcraft by Dumfries Kirk Session although the minutes of the Kirk Session itself record nine witches. The Court of Justiciary found them guilty of the several articles of witchcraft and on the 13th April between 2pm and 4pm in the afternoon they were taken to the Whitesands, strangled at stakes and their bodies burnt to ashes.[6]

Opposite the fountain in Dumfries High Street, adjacent to the present Marks and Spencer, was the Commercial and later the County Hotel. Although the latter was demolished in the 1980s, the original facade of the building was retained and incorporated into new retail premises. Room No. 6 of the hotel was known as Bonnie Prince Charlie's Room and appropriately carpeted in the Royal Stuart tartan. The Young Pretender had his headquarters here during a 3-day sojourn in Dumfries towards the end of 1745. £2,000 was demanded by the Prince, together with 1,000 pairs of brogues for his Jacobite rebel army, which was camping in a field not one hundred yards distant. A rumour that the Duke of Cumberland was approaching, made Charles decide to leave with his army, with only £1,000 and 255 pairs of shoes having been handed over.[7]

Robert Burns moved to Dumfriesshire in 1788 and Dumfries itself in 1791. When he died the town honoured him with public ceremony, belying the later myth that he passed forgotten in his own time.

After working with Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, inventor William Symington intended to carry out a trial in order to show than an engine would work on a boat without the boat's catching fire. The trial finally took place on Dalswinton Loch near Dumfries on October 14, 1788. The experiment demonstrated that a steam engine would work on a boat. Symington went on to become the builder of the first practical steamboat.

In 1868, Dumfries was the site of Scotland's last public hanging.

In Second World War the bulk of the Norwegian Army during the years in exile in Britain consisted of a Brigade in Dumfries. When the army High Command took over, there were 70 officers and about 760 Private (rank)|privates in the camp. The camp was established in June 1940 and named Norwegian Reception Camp, consisting of some 500 men and women, mainly foreign-Norwegian who had volunteered for war duty in Norway during the Nazi occupation in early 1940. Through the summer the number was built up to around 1,500 under the command of General Carl Gustav Fleischer. This was not however the first time that Norwegian warriors had trod this soil, for within a few miles of Dumfries are the villages of Tinwald, Torthorwald Castle and Mouswald all of which bear Norse names, dating from the Viking Age.

Riding the Marches

Dumfries has been a Royal Burgh since 1186; its charter was granted by King William the Lion. To this day the ceremony of Riding the Marches maintains the tradition of an occasion that was, in its day, of great importance.

With the River Nith on two sides and the Lochar Moss on another, Dumfries was a town with good natural defences. Consequently, it was never completely walled. A careful eye still had to be kept on the clearly defined boundaries of the burgh, a task that had to be taken each year by the Provost, Baillies, Burgesses and others within the town. Neighbouring landowners might try to encroach on the town boundaries, or the Marches as they were known, moving them back 100 yards or so to their own benefit. It had to be made clear to anyone thinking of or trying to encroach that they dare not do so.

Robert Burns in Dumfries

Dumfries was the hometown of Robert Burns from 1791 until his death on 21 July 1796. He moved to Dumfriesshire in 1788 and to Dumfries itself in 1791. Today's Greyfriars Church overlooks a statue of Burns, which was designed by Amelia Paton Hill, sculpted in Carrara, Italy in 1882, and which was unveiled by future Prime Minister, Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery on 6 April 1882.[8]

The statue is just one of a series of associations with Scotland's most famous poet to be found in the town. Heading south past the Mid Steeple on the High Street, once the town tolbooth and prison, you come to a tiny vennel leading to the Globe Inn, his favourite drinking place. There is also Robert Burns' house at 24 Burns Street, South of the High Street, and his mausoleum in St Michael's Churchyard. On the west side of the River Nith is the Robert Burns Centre, housed in what was once the Dumfries Mill. In the suburb of the majority of streets are named with Burns connotations.


Dumfries has a long history as a county town and as the market town of a surrounding rural hinterland. Dumfries is a relatively prosperous community but the town centre has been exposed to the centrifugal forces that have seen retail, business, educational, residential and other uses gravitate towards the town's urban fringe.[9] In a bid to stimulate development in Dumfries town centre, both economically and in a social context, several strategies have been proposed by the controlling authorities.[10]


Dumfries got its nickname 'Queen of the South' from David Dunbar, a local poet,[11] who in 1857 stood in the general election. In one of his addresses he called Dumfries "Queen of the South" and this became synonymous with the town.[12]

People from Dumfries are nicknamed Doonhamers, ("Down-homers"). The Doonhamers is also the nickname of Queen of the South FC, representing Dumfries and the surrounding area in the Scottish Football League.

Dumfries Museum and camera obscura

Dumfries Museum stands on top of a small hill, centred around the 18th century windmill which stands above the town. Included are fossil footprints left by prehistoric reptiles, the wildlife of the Solway marshes, tools and weapons of the earliest peoples of the region and stone carvings of Scotland's first Christians. It contains a good collection of early Anglo-Saxon sculpture. On the top floor of the museum is a camera obscura.

Based in the control tower of RAF Tinwald Downs, the aviation museum has an extensive indoor display of memorabilia which strives to preserve aviation heritage, much of which has come via various recovery activities. During the Second World War, aerial navigation was taught at Dumfries also at Wigtown and nearby Annan was a fighter training unit. RAF Dumfries doubled as an important maintenance unit and aircraft storage unit. The museum is run by the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Group. The restored control tower of the former Second World War airfield is now a listed building. The museum is run by volunteers and houses a large and ever expanding aircraft collection, aero engines and a display of artefacts and personal histories relating to aviation, past and present. Both civil aviation and military aviation are represented.[13]

The Theatre Royal in Dumfries was built in 1792 and is the oldest working theatre in Scotland.[14]

The theatre is owned by the Guild of Players who bought it in 1959, thereby saving it from demolition, and is run on a voluntary basis by the members of the Guild of Players. It is funded entirely by Guild membership subscriptions, and by box office receipts. It does not currently receive any grant aid towards running costs.

In recent years the theatre has been re-roofed and the outside refurbished. It is the venue for the Guild of Players' own productions and for performances from visiting companies.

There are two cinemas in Dumfries. The Odeon shows typically mainstream films. The Robert Burns Centre shows mainstream productions and also independent films.

A collection of over 400 Scottish paintings, Gracefield Arts Centre hosts a changing programme of exhibitions featuring regional, national and international artists and craft-makers.[15]

The Burns Howff Club was formed in the Globe Inn, Dumfries, South West Scotland in 1889, and meets on 25 January each year to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns in 1759 with a Burns Supper. The Club takes its name from a reference by Robert Burns to the Globe Inn being his favourite "Howff", an old Scottish term for a meeting place. The Howff Club has an extensive library of Burns works and the works of other Scottish poets and literary figures.

There are a number of festivals which take place throughout the year, mostly based on traditional values.

Good Neighbours (Guid Nychburris in Middle Scots) is the main festival of the year, a ceremony which is largely based on the theme of a positive community spirit.

The ceremony on Guid Nychburris Day, follows a route and sequence of events laid down in the mists of time. Formal proceedings start at 7.30am with the gathering of up to 250 horses waiting for the courier to arrive and announce that the Pursuivant is on his way, and at 8.00am leave the Midsteeple and ride out to meet the Pursuivant. They then proceed to Ride the Marches and Stob and Nog (mark the boundary with posts and flags) before returning to the Midsteeple at 12.15pm to meet the Provost and then the Charter is proclaimed to the towns people of Dumfries. This is then followed by the crowning of the Queen of the South.[16]


The most significant of the parks in Dumfries are all within walking distance of the town centre:-

  • Dock Park - located on the East bank of the Nith just to the South of St Michael's Bridge
  • Castledykes Park - as the name suggests on the site of a former castle
  • Mill Green (also known as deer park, although the deer formerly accommodated there have since been relocated) - on the West bank of the Nith opposite Whitesands

Surrounding places of interest

As the largest settlement in Southern Scotland, Dumfries is recognised as a centre for visiting surrounding points of interest.[17] The following are all within easy reach:

  • Museum (free) John Paul Jones Birthplace Museum - The traditional Scottish cottage in which John Paul Jones was born in 1747.[18]
  • Solway Coast
  • Cathedral/Abbey/PrioryHistoric Scotland Sweetheart Abbey in the village of New Abbey, Kirkcudbrightshire
  • Museum (free) New Abbey Corn Mill Museum
  • Criffel - a hill on the Solway Coast popular with hill walkers for its magnificent views of the Southern Scottish coastline and across the Solway Firth to the Lake District of Cumberland
  • Threave Castle in Castle Douglas, home to the Clan Douglas
  • Moniaive conservation village
  • Moffat and the views nearby of The Devil's Beef Tub, The Grey Mare's Tail waterfall and the A708 from Moffat past the Grey Mare's Tail to St Mary's Loch.
  • Mabie Forest
  • Ae and forest
  • Lochmaben with its lochs popular with boaters and also its history with Robert the Bruce
  • Wanlockhead - Britain's highest village measured at 1,531 feet above sea level and the Lead Mining Museum
  • Castle Historic Scotland Caerlaverock Castle
  • Historic house Drumlanrig Castle
  • Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle's birthplace "The Arched House" is a tourist attraction and has been maintained by the National Trust for Scotland since 1936
  • Burnswark near Ecclefechan; a large Roman Fort, which dominates the horizon with its flat top
  • At Twynholm the David Coulthard Museum
  • Gretna Green and the Old Blacksmith's Shop famous for runaway marriages


Outside links