Dalbeattie Town - General History

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Dalbeattie Town
History Index

Industrial Mills on Dalbeattie Burn

Granite Quarries
of the Urr Valley

The Port of

Murdoch of the 'Titanic'

A General History of Dalbeattie :

Early History of the Urr Valley :

Written records of pre-1780 Dalbeattie are very limited, although there is quite a lot about the Parishes of Urr, Buittle and Kippford. Urr Parish was centred around the small village of the Haugh of Urr, Buittle covered the west side of the valley down to the river mouth at Auchencairn, and the Kippford and Southwick parishes ran east and south from the Urr Valley to the neighbouring Nith estuary.

Prehistoric and Early Settlement :

Dumfries and Kirkcudbright Museums each have some relics of the lower Urr valley, bordering which there are a number of Bronze to Iron Age hillforts. The most intriguing is probably the dun at Castle Point, where some stonework is still visible. Later developments in the post-Roman period include the 'Motte of Mark' between Kippford and Rockcliffe, - a small fortified farm on a rocky knoll overlooking a hard where boats could be beached, and with some fields inland.

Roman Dalbeattie

The most intriguing possibility is that there was a Roman trading centre at or near the site of Buittle Tower across the Urr from Dalbeattie. The Tower stands at the highest point of tidal navigation and near the lowest all-tide fording and bridging-point. In the Roman era, the river would have been tidal up as far as the Haugh of Urr, some miles north up the valley, so the sheltered anchorage would have been an excellent port. Recent traces of fortifications, a few miles away, may be the site of a large fort able to house several cohorts (2,000 - 3,000 men). The Buittle site may have been the port to this. Excavations at Buittle Tower are continuing so the writer will attempt to update this history as this is notified.

There is one sad and rather grim little tale from the Roman era. During the reign of Emperor Domitian (end of 1st century A.D.) the Roman Army had recruited a cohort (c. 1,000 men) from the Usipi tribe in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands. They were brought north, - by sea and by overland marching, - to south western Scotland for training. Apparently realising that they would never see their homes again, they mutinied, killed the Centurion and Legion instructors in charge of them, seized three ships and tried to sail home. They tried to sail around the north of Scotland and suffered badly; the ships carried too little food, so those aboard drew lots and resorted to cannibalism. The crews not being familiar with the North Sea, the ships were swept eastwards onto the Frisian Islands along the north German coast. The locals took them prisoner as pirates and sold them as slaves. Some survived to reach their homeland, becoming notorious from the tale they had to tell.

Post-Roman Developments :

In the so-called 'Dark Ages', a pilgrim route ran along the north shore of the Solway from the Carlisle area to the shrine of St. Ninian at Whithorn. Also known about were some late Iron Age coastal duns, - Castle Point near Rockcliffe, and the Motte of Mark between Rockcliffe and Kippford. They may have been major local strongholds of the Romano-Celtic kingdom of Rheged, whose Galloway remnant was finally to disappear in the 1400s.

Buittle Tower now stands above the site of the castle where the ancient MacFergus family held sway. Fergus of Galloway claimed royal authority as 'King of Galloway', and King David 1 of Scotland counted him as an ally rather than a subject. In fact, the MacFergus family were so wealthy that they founded no fewer than three Abbeys in Galloway, - Dundrennan Abbey in 1146, Glenluce (Valle Lucis) in 1189 and Sweetheart Abbey in the 1200s. Dundrennan and Sweetheart are within fourteen miles of Dalbeattie.

The MacFergus's most famous members are undoubtedly Princess Devorguilla, last of the MacFergus royal line, and her son John Balliol II, referred to in Scottish history as 'Twm Tabard'. Devorguilla established Sweetheart Abbey as burial place for the heart of her husband John Balliol I, and was herself laid to rest beside him. Sweetheart Abbey was in 1611 the last Scottish Abbey to have a Catholic Abbot. After a lot of trouble with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Gilbert Brown was exiled to France, dying at the Douai seminary of the Jesuit Order. There is still a strong catholic presence in New Abbey, beside Sweetheart Abbey, and Roman Catholic St.Peter's is the oldest of the Dalbeattie churches.

For one brief, shining moment, Buittle Castle became the home of the King of Scotland, when Edward I of England advised the Scots nobles that the Baliol man would do. John Balliol seems to have tried to distance himself from Edward, but could not obtain enough support from the other Scottish nobles. Edward ordered John stripped of crown, sceptre and royal robes, so the unfortunate ex-King was called 'John Twm Tabard' - 'John Without a Coat' - for the remainder of his life. His grandson Edward Balliol made a brief try for the throne in the days of David II of Scotland, who was captive of Edward III of England. When he came home, the infuriated King of Scots sacked Buittle and drove Edward to a little manor on the offshore Hestan Island. From there, Edward Balliol was to go to England, to be English Edward's pensioner, whilst the now Earldom of Galloway passed to the Black Douglas clan, based at Threave Castle near Castle Douglas.

The First Records of Dalbeattie :

The 1627 Statistical Account of Urr Parish refers to the farms of 'Mekle Dalbetie' and Litle Dalbetie', and to the village of 'Cunningham' or 'Conynghame'. Cunningham was sited at the top of Barr Hill, near where the Dalbeattie Burn rapids descend to the valley floor, and beside the sites of the first of the mills. The area was later to have a terrace of cottages named 'Sunnyside', in one of which William Murdoch was born. There also appears to have been a tiny hamlet, - which may have been called 'Dalbetie', - near the point where the High Street bridge crosses Dalbeattie Burn.

The major landholders north of Dalbeattie Burn were the Maxwell family, and the 'Maxwell Arms' is probably the oldest public house in the town. South of the Burn, the majority of the later town's site was owned by the Copland or Copeland family. Both families had their main houses in the Haugh of Urr area, and both were to have a key influence over the development of Dalbeattie.

The 1647 map of Timothy Pont and the 1789 map of John Ainslie contain a large number of inaccuracies, not least being that Meikle Dalbeattie Farm is shown to the south of the Burn, and Little Dalbeattie Farm to the north. In fact, the names are the other way around. Little Dalbeattie Farm was to change its name to 'Waterside', 'Nether Place' and 'Glenshalloch', before it and its remaining lands finally were built over in the 1940s. However, the most interesting features are the presence of woodlands east of the town site where Dalbeattie Forest is today, and the existence of water-mills up at Cunningham and downstream of the position of the High Street bridge. The lower of the two mill-sites is probably at Mill Isle, where the old mill impoundment is now a filled-in car park. The Ainslie map also shows the presence of the 'Dub o' Hass' - literally, the 'Hole in the Bank' - where the Burn enters the River Urr. Across the Urr at the foor of Craignair Hill was a watermill, possibly where a small stream flows down from higher ground.

Court records of 1658 and 1747 refer to people living 'in Dalbeattie', probably the hamlet near the High Street bridge. The bridge was not to be built for many years, and stepping-stones were placed in the water at 'Islesteps', now replaced by a footbridge across the Burn beside the Town Hall car park. The Court records, sadly, refer to the attempts of the Kirk to stop local Catholic servants practising their religion, by trying to put pressure on landowners who employed them.

The Feus and the growth of the Burgh :

The town's formal history begins late in the 1780s, when George Maxwell of Munches and Alexander Copland of Kingsgrange both gave feus (long-term land tenancies) on both sides of the Burn. The buildings north of the Burn have an east-west orientation parallel to the main road, probably because the land slopes fairly steeply. South of the Burn, the Coplands laid out a grid-iron pattern of streets, - William, Copland, and High, - again on the slope parallel to the edge of the woods, but with Alpine Street and Southwick Road leading up to a new bridge at Barr Hill. Whilst the Maxwells had a part to play, it is fair to say that the Coplands were the real 'parents of Dalbeattie'.

The most valuable concession to feu-holders was the right to cut turf (peats) for fuel, from the Aucheninnes Moss above Barr Hill. Galloway was pitifully short of fuel, despite attempts to grow hawthorn hedges and coppice most local woodlands for fuel. The writer suspects that this was a shrewd Copland concession, but it accounted for a rapid growth in the town. The Old Statistical Account compiled by the local Kirk Minister was to report 200 inhabitants there by 1793.

By 1797, the traveller Robert Heron reported in his 'Journey Through Scotland' that there was a track to a fine new bridge across the Urr at Craignair Hill, with cottages, a dyeing-house and the Buittle cornmill. Dalbeattie itself was a small but thriving villages, relying for its sucess on service trades (tailors, shoemakers, butchers, bakers, etc.) and, - most significantly, - on the local water-powered mills.

Later Statistical Accounts were to show that development was impeded by agricultural poverty until the development of the quarrying industry and the diversification of the mills. Between 1840 and 1850, the town suffered from epidemics of cholera, dysentery, typhoid and smallpox. These are evidence of polluted water supplies, probably caused by untreated sewage seeping into wells from cess-pits. The misery was made worse by a poor diet; in the poorest tenements, families lived on nothing but potatoes. It is hardly surprising that many turned to the bottle to drown their sorrows, and the Kirk Sessions recorded that the poor (many of them Irish) were subject to drunkenness, petty theft and disorderly conduct.

Schooling has always been seen as important in Scotland, and the first Parochial School had been set up in 1828. There were also several small 'dame schools' or private seminaries, although these were only able to offer a very limited education. The writer suspects that the 'dame schools' were not far removed from nursery schools, with childcare being rather more significant than education. St. Peter's Catholic Church had run its own seminary for some time, and the Catholic Primary School that succeeded it is still doing well.

The Burgh Council

By the 1858 census, the town had 1,600 inhabitants, and the problem of disorder could not be dealt with by calling in constable from elsewhere. On the 7th April 1858, a meeting of local businessmen at the Maxwell Arms Hotel had decided to form a Police Commission 'to administer the Burgh'. The first Police station was opened almost opposite the Maxwell Arms, but was later replaced by a Police house in Station Road. This, long replaced by the Police Station in Craignair Street, still has bars on the outhouses that were the cells, and a false chimney-stack that used to support an air-raid siren in the 1940s.

Gradually, the Police Commission evolved into a Town Council, and worked with local landowners to improve the amenities and utilities of Dalbeattie. The High Street bridge across the Burn was enlarged and improved in 1860, the first of three such improvements so far. In 1864, the town gained its civic independence from Urr Parish as the 'Quoad Sacra' Parish of Dalbeattie, and built a small Town Hall as a combination of public meeting hall and council offices. The current Town Hall was built in the 1890s, and is in active use for public events and for local administrative services.

In 1876, aware of the need to provide more advanced schooling, the recently-formed School Board opened the Dalbeattie Public (or High) School in Southwick Road. This supplemented the Parochial School which was for a time the Primary School. The Southwick Road site was extended over the years, but was eventually replaced in the 1960s by the current Dalbeattie High School in Haugh Road. The Parochial School was closed at that time, and the old High School converted to a Primary School.

Water supply had become critical, so by 1879 the Town Council had decided to install a gravity-fed piped water supply from a small reservoir in the dammed valley of Buittle stream, about a mile and a half away across the Urr. The valve-houses of the old pipeline still exist. The one nearest the town, by the junction of Haugh Road and Craignair Street, has beside it a cluster of bungalows, built on the site of the old gravity sand-filter beds of the Dalbeattie waterworks. Supplies now come from Loch Inver, further up in the Galloway Hills, and the old Dalbeattie reservoir is now used by an angling club.Sewerage had been as important as a piped supply, and the town ultimately installed sewers leading to an outfall south of the Dub o' Hass. There is a sewage works there now, dealing with a far higher capacity of effluent. It may sound strange to include this in a history, but clean water and a sewer system reduced the local death-rate by water-borne diseases to the then unusual figure of 15 per 1,000 inhabitants. It encouraged further growth of the town during a boom period for the granite industry in the 1880s, economic growth from quarrying, mills and agriculture, leading to a level of 3,865 residents. Economic recession forced a drop in population, the old level only being regained in the 1920s, when new industries had become important.

Perhaps the high point of Dalbeattie was the Jubilee celebration in 1901; the town was quite diverse, of increasing wealth, and had partially got over the quarrying recession. The yearly Civic Week has been carried on during most years since that time, though since 1998 it has been referred to as Festival Week.

Twentieth Century Dalbeattie :

The town has had some landmark dates between 1900 and 2000 A.D., one of the earliest being the setting up of the memorial to Lieutenant William McMaster Murdoch R.N.R. on the Town Hall beside its main door. This was the result of public subscription and popular pressure; though in later years his name has been mis-presented, the real man was a good seaman and a very gallant officer.

In common with many Scottish towns and villages, Dalbeattie lost heavily during the First World War (1914-1919). The War Memorial in Colliston Park has a sad list of the men who never came home again. Similar losses are recorded at Dundrennan, Auchencairn, Kippford, Colvend, Southwick and the Haugh of Urr. Many were seamen, - following the trade that so many landless men adopted, - others were soldiers in Scottish regiments. To the east, at Gretna, a major ammunition works provided wartime employment; the works has long gone, but Army ammunition depots are still at Longtown and Eastriggs.

The War Memorial was unveiled by one William Duncan Alexander, blinded during the First World War. He nevertheless lived until 1985. His grandson and namesake Mr. Duncan Alexander contacted the writer to ask that this piece of history be recorded. According to Tom Henderson, the Museum Trust President, old Mr. Alexander was well respected and a well known character. His blindness is typical of the very personal losses suffered by men and women in both World Wars; freedom is not won or kept lightly.

The Depression hit South West Scotland very hard, but in the 1920s many men, - some from as far as Glasgow, - lived in labour camps in the Dee Valley, building the dams and hydroelectric plants of the massive Loch Ken scheme. A third of the Region's electricity needs, - 112 Megawatts, - is still provided by this farsighted venture. The reservoirs have blended into the landscape and are a source of tourist revenue from sailing enthusiasts, anglers and birdwatchers. However, it was during this period that many of Dalbeattie's industries began to fail; 'rationalisation', centralising production near large city consumers, destroyed many small firms with a transport problem.

For a time, it appeared as if labour-intensive schemes for strategic timber production by the Forestry Commission would provide employment. This failed to materialise due to mechanisation, only recently from the 1960s has there been a growth in largely self-employed 'cutters'. Mechanisation in forestry harvesting is having an impact on all but the very steepest slopes, Dalbeattie now hosting on of the foremost forestry firms in Britain. With a still-growing demand for pulp and chip products, the demand for timber from Dumfries and Galloway remains set to increase. Although almost 40% of the Region is under mainly-plantation woodlands, pulp mills at Irvine near Ayr are still having to import from Ireland. A downturn in the building trade has affected demand for sawn timber, but a great deal still goes through the sawmills near Dalbeattie and New Abbey.

The Second World War and Edingham Depot :

At the onset of the Second World War (1939-1945), the British Government decided to site a new ammunition works just outside Dalbeattie, chiefly to make explosives and fill shells and cartridge-cases for the Royal Navy. Acids, glycerine, fibre and cases, were brought in by rail. The works eventually covered some three and a half square miles, its remains still being visible. The land of five farms was requisitioned, one farmer providing the horses and carts to transport the ammunition to stores dug into the clay soil. As a safety precaution, the works were duplicated north and south of the railway.

Fascinating tales abound as to the events at the Depot. It was constructed by gangs of Irish labourers, who were lodged in timber barracks just outside the town; their camp was later taken over to hold German prisoners of war. The 100-person air-raid shelter of this camp can still be seen in a field on the approach from the east (Dumfries) side, as can the pillboxes defending the site from attack and the volcano-like nitration houses used to prepare batches of nitro-glycerine for making dynamite and cordite. In case of an explosion, both the nitration houses and the storehouses were designed to blast off their roofs and vent the explosive force upwards, so protecting the site and town from the worst effects.

Returning to the Irishmen. They were paid on a Friday night, but could not drink at public houses in Dalbeattie since the law forbade serving alcohol to any but residents and travellers. As travellers had to make a journey of several miles, the intelligent Irishmen walked from their camp up the roads to the Haugh of Urr, to give their custom to the 'Laurie Arms'. Locals still say that on Saturday the roads back to the camp from the Haugh of Urr would be littered with Irishmen lying like the dead as they slept off their night's entertainment. All went happily enough until one of the Irish tried to make free with the landlady, there was a brawl, and she stabbed him with a knife. The outcome is not spoken about.

The depot gradually declined from production to storage, which ended in 1965 with the decision to stop bringing bargeloads of munitions to Palnackie Basin, and thence by road to Dalbeattie. A proposed increase in port dues was rumoured to be the cause. The works was partially sold off to the farmer who had provided the horses and carts, Edingham Farm controlling most of the grazing. Parts of the works are used for Army exercises and demolitions-practice, but most of the remaining structures were scheduled as a Historic Monument by Historic Scotland, - one of the strangest run by that organisation. The Department of the Environment turned the remainder into a Trading Estate for industrial regeneration; their one major success, Stelrad (now, Caradon Stelrad) will close in mid-1999, due to market recession and over-specialisation.

Dalbeattie from 1946-2000 :

The area began to decline with the rundown of military depots between Carlisle and Stranraer, most notably the naval bases on Loch Ryan at Cairnryan and Stranraer. Forestry and agriculture were still fairly strong, tourism was being increased from its limited pre-war capacity, but there was a problem for development and investment, as elsewhere in Britain. The paper mill started by the Coplands in 1793 finally closed in 1953, with most of the water-powered mills such as the bobbin mills and granite polishing works.

The final blow appeared to be when the British Railways were instructed in the Beeching Report of 1963 to close 'The Paddy' railway between Dumfries and Stranraer, a loop up through Kilmarnock and down past Girvan being preferred. This spelled disaster for many businesses in Newton Stewart, Creetown (notably its quarry), Gatehouse-of-Fleet, Kirkcudbright, Castle Douglas and Dalbeattie. By 1970, Dalbeattie lost its cattle-market, cheese factory, dairy, two quarries and a brickworks, by 1996, both of the feed mills. The opening of Stelrad's works in 1983 was a real benefit, but was only achieved with government grant support.

Commuters and retired newcomers have both brought in new money; the town has three small supermarkets and extensive new developments in Glenshalloch (1950-1960s), Hestan Park (1980 onwards) Gala and Rounal (1980 onwards). There has also been tourism, with a change from the domestic British city tourist to the European and North American seeking Scotland's colorful past. As indicated, forestry has seen some development, but many young people from Dalbeattie are still having to leave if they want to get gainful employment. There is a constant need to show high-value qualifications to obtain work at even a basic wage. The seasonal nature of tourism has itself created a seasonal employment surge in summer casual work, with relative poverty in the winter.

Dalbeattie : An Uncertain Future :

Since the 1990s, there has been an inflow of businesses running information-related businesses. Dalbeattie Internet was the first (1997) of four businesses that have set up here, each covering different aspects of new information technology. However, the loss of Caradon Stelrad was a serious blow to the town; it is still too early to predict the future of the town in the next ten years, let alone the next twenty.

Dalbeattie Internet's owl Designed and managed for pleasure and profit by
Richard Edkins.
Site commenced 29th December 1997,
last updated 10th November 1999.