Kirkcudbright in 1853

Extracted from "The Topographical, Statistical, and Historical Gazetteer of Scotland" published in 1853, includes many items of historical interest.

Kirkcudbright in 1853.

KIRKCUDBRIGHT, a sea-port, a royal burgh, and the county-town of Kirkcudbrightshire, is pleasantly seated on the left bank of the Dee; 6 miles north of the point where the river becomes lost in the sea; 21 miles from New Galloway; 28 from Dumfries ; 33 from Newton-Stewart; 60 from Portpatrick; and 101 from Edinburgh. It is encinctured on the one side by the river, and on the other by the wooded portion of the parish,—sylvan slopes coming umbrageously down from the gentle heights on the back ground, or stretching southward in a broad belt of luxuriance till they become identified, at a mile's distance, with the almost isleted peninsula of St. Mary's Isle, sending out an invasion of forest-scenery on the bosom of the estuary. Seen from a little distance, the town seems gay and almost grand, more resembling a small but proud city, than an inconsiderable and thinly populated town. In the interior, it is regular, neat, clean, and contains a larger proportion of recently built houses than almost any other town in Scotland. A society of rather singular character, consisting of a large number of inhabitants, who build by subscription of all the members a given number of houses annually, and dispose of each among the subscribers by a sort of lottery, has achieved great things, not only in modernizing the town, but in throwing over it an air of taste and pretension which is nearly without a parallel, or even a tolerable imitation among Scottish towns of its size. Capitalists, too, who have enough to live like gentlemen, but not sufficient to purchase estates, and a numerous staff of legal functionaries who possess an easy competency in connexion with the civil business of the county, have adopted the town, either from choice or from convenience, as their place of residence, and contributed not a little to give it features of elegance or polish. So long ago as 1764, it became supplied with excellent spring-water by conveyance through leaden pipes; it has not failed, of course, to provide itself with the modern luxury of gas-light; and as to other appliances of convenience and comfort, it has them in a style of keeping with these.

The western and southern sides of the town are formed by two streets, at right angles with each other, both of which, very absurdly, bear the name of High-street. From a point on the bank of the Dee, 200 yards west of a sudden debouch of the river from a southerly to a westerly course, High-street runs due south over a distance of 275 yards; and it then, while sending a slight elongation westward, runs due east over a distance of 400 yards. At a distance of about 130 yards from the southward line of High-street, Castle-street runs parallel with it and to the east of it, from nearly the river side to the eastward line of High-street. Union-street connects the parallel thoroughfares nearly at their middle, in the manner of the connecting stroke between the limbs of the letter H. Going off from the north end of Castle-street, at an obtuse angle of about 55 or 60 degrees, Cuthbert-street runs in a direction north-east by east over a distance of 400 yards. Intersecting this street obliquely, about two-thirds way from its commencement at Castle-street, St. Mary's-street stretches a brief space northward, leading the way to Tongueland-bridge, and sends off an unedificed thoroughfare southward to intersect the eastern High-street, and afterwards fork into roads respectively to St. Mary's Isle and to Dundrennan. Somewhat parallel with this line to the east of it, but bending in the form of a small segment of a circle, runs Millburn-street, extending from the eastern termination of High-street, to a point 650 yards to the north, where, near the entrance of a small brook into the Dee, are a mill and a tannery. All the streets, with the exception of the last and of High-street, possess more or less regularity of aspect, and consist simply of continuous lines of edifices. But Millburn-street has a sort of suburban or village character, and is sometimes spoken of, though incorrectly, as if it were not compact with the town. High-street, on the other hand, wants a strictly modern character, and is winged all the way along both sides of both its lines with "closses," or narrow brief alleys. Yet, in front, it has many good houses, some handsome shops, and several public buildings; and in the rear it has little gardens, encompassed with neat walls, and sending occasionally up an ornamental tree; so that, altogether, it produces a pleasing effect.

Sixty or seventy yards south of the angle made by the two lines of High-street stands the burgh academy, a capacious and elegant structure, containing, in addition to its proper accommodations, a large loom occupied by a public subscription-library. At the west end of the east and west High-street, looking down the north and south High-street, are the old jail and a spire,—the latter a conspicuous object, and the former both a large and a carious one. In front of the old jail stands the market-cross, purporting, from an inscription on it, to have been erected in 1504. On the opposite side of the same line of High-street, but 70 or 80 yards to the east, are the new jail and the county-hall, edifices erected in 1816, and of very creditable appearance. Directly opposite them is — what becomes noticeable in a place like Kirkcudbright—a brewery.

On the bank of the river, at the north end of Castle-street, and looking along that thoroughfare, stands the neat and capacious parish-church. In High-street is the meeting-house belonging to the United Secession,—a building of agreeable aspect.

A little west of the town, very near the river, are some mounds surrounded by a deep fosse, the remains of a very ancient fortified castle. The tide probably flowed round it in former times, and filled the fosse with water. The castle—now vulgarly called Castledykes, but known in ancient writings as Castlemains—belonged originally to the Lords of Galloway, when they ruled the province as a regality separate from Scotland; and seems to have been built to command the entrance of the harbour. Coming into the possession of John Baliol as successor to the Lords of Galloway, it was, for some time, during the war of 1300, the residence of Edward I. and his queen and court; and passing into the hands of the Douglases, on the forfeiture of Edward Baliol, it remained with them till 1455, when their crimes drew down upon them summary castigation, and in that year was visited by James II. when on his march to crush their malign power. Becoming now the property of the Crown, it offered, in 1461, a retreat to Henry VI. after his defeat at Towton, and was his place of residence while his queen Margaret visited the Scottish queen at Edinburgh. In 1508, it was the temporary residence of James IV., who, while occupying it, was hospitably entertained by the burgh; and, next year, by a charter, dated at Edinburgh, it was gifted, along with some attached lands, to the magistrates for the common good of the inhabitants. The land, though alienated, at some period, by the corporation, and though not within the burgh previous to the grant, continues to be subject to burgage tenure—Not very many paces west of the parish-church, or between the northern terminations of Castle-street and High-street, stands the ruinous but venerable form of the castle of Kirkcudbright, built in the year 1582 by Thomas Maclellan of Bombie, the ancestor of the Lords Kirkcudbright. It is a strong, massive, Gothic building, lifting its upper work so boldly into view as to give, conjointly with the towers of the jail, distinctiveness and markedness of feature to the burghal landscape; and, at the time when it was reared, it must have been a splendid, as it is still a spacious edifice.—At comparatively very recent date, broad vestiges existed of town fortification. At a time when the town consisted chiefly of a single street running up from the harbour, it appears to have been surrounded by a wall and a deep ditch, the latter filled from the flowing tide; and it had at its two ends, strong gates, which, little more than 50 years ago, were pulled down to make way for new houses. An English party who marched against the town in 1547, in the stupid warfare about the marriage-treaty between Mary and Edward VI., narrate that as they approached "Kirkobrie, they who saw us coming barred their gates, and kept their dikes, for the town is diked on both sides, with a gate to the waterward, and a gate on the over end to the fellward,"—and that, in consequence, English force was repelled by Scotch precaution.

Kirkcudbright has never been the seat of any considerable manufacture or trade. Hector Boece, indeed, describes it as, in his day, "ane rich town, full of merchandise;" but he seems either to have been totally misinformed, or to have, amid the actionless penury of his age, reckoned that "riches" and "merchandise" which, in the present stirring and productive era, would be esteemed only the snug competency and the village trade of a homely huckster. During the disturbed and semi-anarchical period when the Dick Hatteraiks of the contraband trade infested the coasts of the Solway frith, the inhabitants had such a connexion with the desperadoes as comported ill with the prosperity of the town, and exerted a malign influence upon the habits of their posterity at the moment when other parts of Scotland were starting in the career of modern productive industry. By a strange infatuation, too, the town, when proposed to be the adopted site of the first and very promising attempt to introduce the cotton manufacture to Galloway, superciliously rejected the offered advantage, and sent away the gentlemen who would have done it a service to build their factories at Gatehouse-of-Fleet. Hardly were the erections on the Fleet completed, when Kirkcudbright saw the suicidal tendency of its conductor, and made a hasty attempt to retrieve its error. Mules and jennies were erected; weavers were brought from a distance to work with the fly-shuttle; and a woollen manufactory was commenced. But so poor has been the result, that, after the lapse of half-a-century, the only monuments of these seemingly promising exertions are 60 looms, all plain, and all tor cotton fabrics. A brewery, a tannery, a grinding-mill— all already incidentally noticed—a few stocking-frames, the means in two building yards of occasionally building one or two coasting vessels, even of as large burden as 250 tons, and the appliances of the requisite number of the various classes of artificers for local service, complete the list of the town's establishments and tools of manufacture. Nor is its commerce on a much larger scale. The aggregate tonnage of all the vessels belonging both to the port and to the district within the range of its custom-house establishment—exclusive of a steamer which maintains a communication with Whitehaven and Liverpool—is probably short of 2,000. Considerable quantities of oats, barley, and potatoes are exported to the Clyde, but chiefly to England. The merchants are obliged to make coal their principal import; yet they occasionally send a small vessel across the Atlantic for West Indian produce, and bring wine and other luxuries from England. Yet the harbour is much the best on the south coast of Scotland; though, owing to the almost complete recess of the peculiar tide of the Solway, it is fully suitable for such vessels only as can take the ground. It is naturally safe, has good anchorage, affords shelter from all winds, and extends from the mouth of the river to the town about 6 miles. An islet called the Little Ross lies across its entrance, allowing a channel on the east 1½ mile wide, safe and bold on both sides, and having behind it a road, with 16 feet at low water, and 40 feet at high water, where vessels may ride at safety in gales from any point round three-fourths of the compass. Above Little Ross are Balmangan bay, a considerable inlet on the west, and Manxman's lake, a large bay running up the east side of St. Mary's Isle. On the Isle a bar runs so far across the channel as to impose on vessels the choice of sailing over, in about 20 feet water at ordinary spring tides, or steering along a narrow waterway close in with the rocks. On the shore at the town is a fine shelving beach, offering to vessels the alternative of lying dry on its sands, or of riding at anchor in the channel, with a depth of water 8 feet in the ebb and 28 in the flood. The rise of the tide being 20 feet, vessels of 200 tons have facility for sailing 2 miles beyond the town to Tongueland, where a natural barrier terminates the navigation. A natural harbour so expansive, so variform, so advantageous, and, amid the impetuous and menacing tides of the south coast of Scotland, so peculiarly sheltered, ought, one would, think, to have long ago rendered Kirkcudbright, not only the entrepot for most of Galloway and Dumfries-shire, but the seat of an extensive general commerce maintained by local manufacture. Nature, however, long remained here almost wholly unthanked by art, and even yet has been acknowledged only to the extent of expending about £1,620 in the excavation of the harbour, and the erection of new piers. "The harbour,"summarily report the burgh-commissioners, "has great depth of water ; but there is no trade or manufacture worth mentioning; and the town appears stationary." Not even the obvious and highly advantageous facility of a bridge across the Dee, with a drawbridge for the transit of vessels, either exists or seems to have been contemplated. A ferry, by means of a curious sort of boat, or Tongueland bridge 2 miles up the river, serve the town's people, and all the country on the south-east, as a succedaneum. Too little intercourse even is maintained with the interior, either for bringing to the domestic market a choice supply of articles of consumpt from the farmer and the grazier, or for prosecuting a retail trade proportioned in magnitude to the advantageousness of the town's position.
Nearly all the importance of Kirkcudbright arises from its being the adopted home of small capitalists, and the county-town of the stewartry. The seat of the sheriff-court and of the practitioners of the law, it draws from the circumjacent country no inconsiderable annual sums as expenses of lawsuits. The genteel or monied inhabitants do not, as in most places, straggle in the outskirts in suburban villas; but they take up their place firmly and unequivocally as citizens,—form proportionately a very large portion of the population, and so decidedly give the place its tone that, among even the lowest classes, an unusually high degree of liberal intelligence prevails. The richer burghers, too, instead of exhibiting those habits which generally characterize the opulent inhabitants of great manufacturing cities, seem rather to take the tone of their manners from the county gentlemen, and—greatly to their credit—are nearly utter strangers to the fashionable follies and vanity and dissipation which are connected with the flaunting promenade, the ball-room, and the theatre. The town, as a whole, displays a relish rather for the calm enjoyments of mind, than for the tumultuous and chiefly animal pleasures elsewhere in vogue.

Kirkcudbright has a branch-office of the Bank of Scotland; some good inns, the principal of which is the Commercial; a news-room; a Masonic-lodge; a billiard-room; a regatta-club; and some benevolent and patriotic institutions. Anciently it was a burgh-of-regality, and held of the Douglases, lords of Galloway, as superiors. It was erected into a royal burgh, in 1455, by charter from James II; and, in 1633, it received another charter from Charles I. The town is governed by a provost, 2 bailies, a treasurer, and 13 ordinary councillors. The burgh property is very considerable, and yields the whole, except about £26 of a revenue, which, in 1832, amounted to £936 9s. 10d. The expenditure for the same year was £864 14s. 4d.; and the debt then due by the burgh £4,343 2s. The magistrates exercise jurisdiction over only the old royalty, and in 1833 had only 6 civil causes; and they have little patronage, except the appointing of the town officers, and of the teachers of the burgh school. The jail is in a fair condition. Burgess' fees are, for a merchant and trader, £3 6s. 6d.; for a master tradesman, £2; for a labourer, £1. Burgesses, in 1832, 90. The incorporated trades with their respective numbers, and the entry-money which they respectively exact from a stranger, are, squaremen, 36, £3 10s.; tailors, 12, £5; clothiers, 20, 10s.; hammermen and glovers, 13, £3 5s.; shoemakers, 17, £6; weavers, 22, £3. Kirkcudbright unites with Dumfries, Annan, Sanquhar, and Lochmaben in sending a member to parliament. Enrolled constituency, in 1832, 111; but available constituency, 151. A weekly market is held on Friday; and annual fairs are held on the last Friday of March and September, and on the Friday preceding Castle-Douglas, or Kelton-hill, mid-summer fair. Population, in 1831, 2,690.

Kirkcudbright gave the title of Baron, in the Scottish peerage, to the family of Maclellan of Bombie. This family, once very powerful, the proprietors of several castles, and wielding not a little influence in Galloway, has already been incidentally noticed. Sir Patrick Maclellan, proprietor of the barony of Bombie, situated in the parish, incurred forfeiture in consequence of marauding depredations on the lands of the Douglases, lords of Galloway. Sir William, his son—incited by a proclamation of James II. offering the forfeited barony to any person who should disperse a menacing band of gypsies who infested the country, and capture the body of their leader, dead or alive, in evidence of success—rushed boldly in search of the proscribed marauders, and earned back his patrimony, by carrying to the King the head of their captain on the point of his sword. To commemorate the manner in which he regained the barony, he adopted as his crest an erect right arm, the hand grasping a dagger, on the point of which was a Moor's head couped, proper; with the motto, ' Think on,'—intimating the steadiness of purpose with which he contemplated his enterprise. Sir Robert, the 4th in descent from Sir William, acted as gentleman of the bedchamber to James VI. and Charles I.; and, in 1633, was created by the latter a baron, with the title of Lord Kirkcudbright. John, the 3rd Lord, was an eccentric, addle-headed being, who, with all the impetuosity of a roused bull, and with an amount of imprudence which brought down his reason to a level with its instinct, ran right forward in a pell-mell career along the path which first offered, ready to be hooted or scared round into a sideward or reverse career of similar character, to the detriment of all who had followed him in the chase. He commenced by being a fierce opponent of Cromwell and the Independents; and being, at the time, the proprietor of greater part of the parish, he compelled his vassals to take arms in the cause of the King, occasioned the ruin of the villages of Dunrod and Galtway, by levying nearly all their male population, sent off his recruits to fatten the soil of Ireland with their carcasses, and incurred such enormous expenses as nearly ruined his estates. But at the Restoration, just when any royalist but himself thought everything gained, and ran fleetly to the King in hope of compensation and honours, he shied suddenly round, opposed the royal government,— sanctioned the riot, slightly mentioned in our parochial notice, for preventing the induction of an Episcopalian minister,—and, at the time when the women were lent to the pillory, was captured, along with some other influential persons, sent a prisoner to Edinburgh, and driven to utter temporal ruin. His successors never afterwards regained so much as an acre of their patrimonial property; and, for a considerable period, were conceded their baronial title only by courtesy, and, when they appeared at the election of the representative peers of Scotland, suffered the indignity of having to vote under protest. One of them was the 'Lord Kilcoubrie,' whom Goldsmith, in his sneers at the poverty of the Scottish nobility, mentions as keeping a glove-shop in Edinburgh. In the reign of George III. they were at last formally and legally reinstated in their honours ; but, in 1832, at the death of the 9th Lord, the title—alternately a coronet and a football, now glittering on the head, and now tossed in the mire by the foot of every wayfarer—sank quietly into extinction.

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