The Post Office, Sanquhar
|Council:||Dumfries and Galloway|
Sanquhar is notable for its tiny post office (established in 1712), claimed to be the oldest working post office in the world. It was also the place where the Covenanters, who opposed episcopalisation of the church, signed the Sanquhar Declaration renouncing their allegiance to the King, an event commemorated by a monument in the main street. The church of St Brides contains a memorial to James Crichton, a 16th-century polymath. The ruins of Sanquhar Castle stand nearby.
History of Sanquhar
The name “Sanquhar” is from an unspecified Celtic origin, believed to be San-caer or perhaps form the Irish Gaelic Seann Cathair, either one meaning "Old Fort". An ancient ruin of a castle that overlooks the town, but the name must predates even this. With its location in Nithsdale, Sanquhar has been a major crossroads for centuries. Artefacts have been found here from Neolithic times and several prehistoric forts can be found in the area, as well as traces of a Roman outpost.
A settlement by the Gall-Gael from Ireland is believed to have taken place in the 9th and 10th centuries. In the 12th century Nithsdale was brought within the feudal system.
During the mediæval wars, the English occupied the old castle at Sanquhar. The Lord of the Castle, Sir William Douglas, Lord of Douglas, learned of this and came up with a clever plot where one man sneaked into the castle and threw open the gates, allowing Lord Douglas to seize it. The English began a counter-attack, but William Wallace learned of the battle and came to the rescue. As the English army retreated Wallace chased them down and killed 500 of them. Wallace visited the castle on several occasions.
It is believed the Crichton family came to Britain from Hungary. During the reign of Robert the Bruce they obtained the lands round about Sanquhar and ruled over the area from the mid-14th until the mid-17th centuries. Mary, Queen of Scots came to Sanquhar in May 1568 after her defeat at the battle of Langside. Lord Crichton of Sanquhar was loyal to Mary, and harboured her until she escaped across the River Nith. For this he was punished after the Scots lairds besieged and captured Sanquhar castle once again.
The end of the Crichton family power in the area was the result of a lavish party. In July 1617 the King of Great Britain, James VI and I, travelled north to Glasgow, and on his way home stopped at the castle in Sanquhar. The Crichtons welcomed him with a display so huge that it bankrupted them. It is said that Lord Crichton escorted the king to bed carrying a lighted torch made from £30,000 in bond notes that the king owed Lord Crichton. By 1639 the Crichtons had moved to Ayrshire, and sold their holdings in Sanquhar to the Earl of Queensberry. Not every Crichton was admirable; a joke in the region is that many a young woman who worked for the Crichtons would "Go in the servants' entrance and come out the family way".
A new period of disruption came in the form of religious rebellion. King Charles I determined to maintain the position of bishops in the Kirk, to the fury of the Covenanters, who were dedicated to Presbyterian church government. They led Scotland into England’s civil wars of the period against King Charles (and later against the Parliamentarians). Throughout the 17th century, there was fighting and persecution by both sides.
Sanquhar was a hotbed of unrest during the Covenanting period. With its position as the only major town in a large area, and situated by the River Nith, it seemed that whenever any remarkable political movement was going on people would go to Sanquhar to proclaim their testimonies on the subject. It was here, in 1680, that Richard Cameron, with a band of armed supporters, posted on the town cross the first declaration of Sanquhar renouncing allegiance to Charles II. The year 1685 saw the second declaration, by James Renwick, who also took a large armed party into Sanquhar, frightening all the townspeople who thought a battle was coming. The Sanquhar Declarations was made here. Sanquhar’s location also led those who were hunted and persecuted to pass through or hide in the area.
Presbyterianism was finally established in the Kirk with the blessing of King William in 1692, and guaranteed by the Acts of Union in 1707. The Sanquhar covenanters had been defeated in battle, but Presbyterianism was triumphant.
The end of the Covenanting period in the early 18th century was not the last religious upheaval for the area. The Church of Scotland was torn by several disputes over the years. One of the major issues was whether the local populations or church headquarters could hire local ministers. In the 1830s many churches seceded and in 1843 a large number of churches broke away to form the Free Church of Scotland. The time was known as the “Great Disruption”. In Sanquhar the minister was leaning towards the new splinter groups, mostly at the urging of his wife. When she died he lost his nerve. The split came and he stayed behind, along with most of his parishioners. He kept his job and his church house, but lost the respect of the community. The creation of the Free Church in Sanquhar, and the wobbling of this minister, left many hard feelings in the town. There was hardly a family that wasn't torn apart by the disputes. At this point the parish records become a shambles, and hardly a birth or marriage was recorded until civil registration started in 1855.
Sanquhar was legally recognized by the crown as early as the 15th century and was made a royal burgh in 1598. Despite the political unrest in the area agriculture began to flourish in the early 18th century. Local industries came into their own, particularly coal mining. Coal had been dug in the area for hundreds of years, but more advanced methods helped the industry grow. Other industries that depended on coal, such as weaving, carpet making and forges began to appear.
In the 1780s the legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns was a frequent visitor to Sanquhar. When he was renovating a farm in 1788 he often passed through on the way back to his wife, Jean, in Ayrshire. Afterwards he became a well-known face because of his excise duties. Burns called the town “Black Joan” in his ballad “Five Carlins” in which he represented the local burghs as characters. He would stay overnight at the Queensberry Arms in the High Street, making friends with the owner and calling it “the only tolerable Inn in the place”.
The wool trade had been an important one in the coastal trading towns of Dumfriesshire and Kirkcudbright since mediæval times and by the 18th century Sanquhar had developed as an inland market centre. The Sanquhar Wool Fair, held in July, regulated the prices for the whole south of Scotland. A distinctive two-coloured pattern of knitting which is widely known as 'Sanquhar knitting' takes its name from this small parish. A traveller’s account early in the 18th century tells us: 'Gloves they make better and cheaper than in England, for they send great quantities thither.' Many a poor farm family supported themselves with extra income from these sought-after knitted garments. While knitting died out as an industry, the presentation of traditional Sanquhar gloves is an important part of local celebrations even today.
During the 18th century the life of a weaver was enviable. They earned good wages and worked at their looms indoors, often at their homes. They could work whatever hours they wanted, and could take time off in autumn to help farmers with their harvests. It was said that any time there was a noise in the streets all the weavers would be the first ones to drop their work, run out and begin gossiping about the matter. Towards the end of the century, however, advances in technology made the home shops less profitable, and many of Sanquhar’s weavers found themselves looking for other work.
Other work came in the form of a carpet factory, along the Crawick Water. At first it consisted of a few separate looms, but by the 1830s there was a large factory, boasting 54 looms at its height. The carpets made here were world-renowned for their durability and orders came from as far away as South America. A large proportion of their total production was shipped to Valparaíso in Chile.
The location along the Crawick River was also the home of John Rigg's forge. In the late 18th century he had been persuaded to move here from Dalston in Cumberland to supply tools for the coalfields. He made a damhead opposite the village of Crawick and used the water to power his factory. The water separated the parishes of Sanquhar and Kirkconnel, and although the forge was on the Kirkconnel side, Sanquhar always laid claim to it. The forge produced shovels and other tools into the 20th century.
The village of Crawick had once been known as a haven for witches. One story is that the parish minister's cows began making milk that would not churn. He sent one of his servants to tie a branch from a Rowan tree over the doorway of the witch’s house in Crawick, which ended the curse. For a long time a large Rowan tree flourished in the front yard of the church, perhaps partly to keep these evil spirits away. Life in Crawick was described beautifully by James Brown, in his History of Sanquhar:
“Crawick Mill was a clean tidy little hamlet pleasantly embosomed on the banks of the Crawick and sheltered from almost every wind that blew, and there was no happier colony of weavers to be found in any country district in Scotland. They were almost all natives, whose whole life associations were connected with the place. We have no pleasanter memory than that of the weavers playing quoits, of which they were very fond, on the summer evenings on the "Alley", a long strip of ground on the banks of the stream behind the Village, while their wives, with their clean "mutches" sat about or sauntered up and down chatting and gossiping, and the bairns were either scrambling along the wooded banks of the Crawick or "paidling" in its clear water, the pleasant babble of the stream as it rushed over the dam-head mingling with the voices of the men at their game and the joyous shouts and laughter of the children.”
Between 1885 and 1916, Crawick even had its own post office (known as Crawick Bridge); it also had gas-powered street lights two years before the rest of the town of Sanquhar. All of this came to a sad end when one of the owners of the factory died, and the others squabbled. By 1860 the factory was shut down. Many of the weavers moved to larger cities to keep their trade. The forge, and the nearby colliery, kept people employed until the 20th century. During the period just before Second World War many people moved away, and the little hamlet was all but deserted. Only a few homes stand there now, the occupants little aware of the industries that once thrived there.
Sanquhar more recently
Sanquhar itself prospered through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The decline of traditional industries in the middle of this century hurt the town, but now new manufacturers are moving in and there is a strong sense of community in the burgh. Sanquhar had a public school as early as 1793. William Adam designed the tollbooth in the centre of town, which is the only surviving building of this type designed by him. Built in 1731, much of the building materials for it were taken from the old castle in Sanquhar and it is currently used as the town museum, containing local artefacts and memorabilia. In 1800 the population of Sanquhar was 2,350. It grew to 3,268 by the year 1830, but by 1991 had collapsed again to 2,910. Today it stands at about 2,100.
The sport of curling runs in the blood of people from Sanquhar. The town has the world’s oldest curling society, formed in 1774 with sixty members. James Brown, who wrote an important history of the town, is also credited with writing the rules universally used for the sport. The witches of Crawick were known for casting hexes on other teams. There were tournaments where the prize was a sack of grain. The winning team would get the food and distribute it to the poor and needy in their home town.
In the arts, the Sanquhar Pantomime Group performs a traditional Christmas pantomime in aid of local charities. An annual occurrence during the 1990s, it now alternates with a production by the local primary School.
Every year, on the Saturday closest to 18 August, the Royal Burgh of Sanquhar holds its annual Riding of the Marches. This week-long event celebrates the Royal Burgh, through the selection of a "Queen" and her "Attendants" from fourth-year girls in the secondary school, and a parade of lorries and horses, to name but a few events. Many of the pubs are busy during this time, indeed it's been noted that some publicans begin to have delusions of grandeur during this period.
The railway line has remained open for freight and passenger traffic, however the station was closed and only re-opened in recent years.
Sanquhar sits in the Nith valley in close proximity to ranges of interesting hills on either side, the Carsphairn and Scaur range to the west and the Lowther hills to the south east. These hills offer excellent possibilities for the outdoor enthusiast. The Southern Upland Way passes through the town on its way from Portpatrick in Wigtownshire to Cockburnspath in Berwickshire.
- Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, ed Francis H Groome (1882 – 1885)
- Tom Wilson, Memorials of Sanquhar Kirkyard (pub Robert G. Mann, "Courier and Herald" Press. Sanquhar: J.M. Lang, 1912).
- Sherry Irvine, Your Scottish Ancestry (pub Ancestry Incorporated, 1997)
- James Brown, The History of Sanquhar (pub Dumfriesshire: J. Anderson & Son, Edinburgh and Glasgow: John Menzies & Co., 1891)
- "A History of Sanquhar Knitting", October 1999.
- Dumfriesshire & Galloway Council, Sanquhar, The Historic Walk (pub Upper Nithsdale Community Initiative Ltd., 1998)
- Dumfriesshire and Galloway Libraries, Information and Archives, Through the Lens, Glimpses of Old Sanquhar, Wanlockhead and District, (pub Dumfriesshire and Galloway Council, 1998)
- Bob McGavin & Duncan Close, Old Sanquhar (pub Stenlake Publishing, Ochiltree Sawmill, The Lade, 1998)
- Sanquhar is also the name given to a walking are in the royal burgh of [Forres].