Industrial Mills on
of the Urr Valley
The Port of
The domination of the port, the mills and the granite quarries, was a key economic factor in the development of Dalbeattie, however, it has hosted other businesses, some successful, some flashes in the pan of history. Few now remember that a works in Dalbeattie actually produced six cars. It also has had a cattle-market, a century of brick and tile manufacture, three creameries, a cheese factory, a railway station and various garages and shops. The town developed its own reservoir and sewer system to deal with epidemics of cholera. Its fledgeling tourist industry depended on local municipal pride as much as private investment, the town having had to develop a spirit of self-reliance.
Short notes on the histories of buildings housing some key businesses are included in their entries on the Dalbeattie Business Index. Visitors are invited to investigate this for themselves. Other businesses are dealt with here in some detail.
The flood plain of the Urr has excellent deposits of blue clay, which were quarried for brickmaking once imported coal ensured a good fuel-supply. It seems strange that Dalbeattie should make bricks, but the labour cost of working granite is considerable. Many of the so-called granite houses actually have brick in the rear of the structure, indicating a need to cut costs as well as to keep up appearances. It was not until the 1920s and the 1930s that brick became a major part of local building, the town even now preferring the appearance of rendering and granolithic Fyfestone to brickwork. As against that, the writer has to concede that blockwork and rendering are definitely warmer to live in than is granite.
On the corner of Haugh Road and Craignair Street there is a small recent development of bungalows. This is sited on what was successively a brick works and then the town's waterworks. Across the road, a granite-built house stands in the depression that was once a claypit at a later stage of the brickworks. Gradual infilling since the 1860s has almost removed these first two signs of the brick industry.
This first claypit north of the Craignair Street line was in use until the early 1850s. It may have been run by a member of the McEwan family, who later expanded into a larger area south of the road. McEwan and Shaw started their Munches Brick and Tile Works in the early 1850s, maps showing it to still be there in 1908. However, in 1906 the firm opened the 'New Tile Works' further south of Port Street, their works remaining in being until the 1950s. All has now gone, the only sign of the 1850s works being the former manager's house near the entrance to Port Mill from Port Road. The 1906 works' claypits are also nearly filled in, but can just be made out from the bypass to Kippford.
Dalbeattie has one ghost story, a desperately sad tale of the brick kiln that stood near the bottom end of Port Street. It appears that a young girl who was about four or five, wandered into the kiln whilst it was being stacked for the first firing. Firing had begun before the frantic mother, - living further up Port Street, - thought to come down and to ask if the 'wean' had slipped into the works. When the kiln was opened and unloaded, the intense heat had apparently left very little of the girl or her doll. The wind across the top of the chimney made a wailing sound, so ever after the locals would shun the area after nightfall. The 'wailing ghost' vanished after the kiln was demolished in the 1950s. The writer has not so far been able to verify this story by any burial record or newspaper account.
This was a vital public 'business', made the more necessary by a succession of dysentery and cholera epidemics in 1840 - 1850 traced back to untreated water. The newly established Burgh Council decided in 1879 to provide a clean supply gravity-fed from a reservoir above Buittle. This had valve houses in its pipeline, crossed the Urr at Craignair Bridge, and had sand filter-beds in the old brickyard at the Haugh Road junction with Craignair Street. The necessary sewers were provided soon afterwards, discharging initially into the Urr below the Port's New Quay, until the sewage farm was constructed.
The old problem of epidemics of water-borne disease almost vanished, the town having the then remarkably healthy mortality-rate of 15 per 1,000 inhabvitants.
In the 1960s, the supply was taken from Lochinver, much further away, the old reservoir becoming the fishing waters of Dalbeattie Angling Club. In 1974, the Dumfries and Galloway Council was formed, taking over all the utility works of the Burgh, which lapsed. Recently the West of Scotland Water Authority replaced the Water and Sewerage Department, marking its takeover by a relining of the cast iron water mains and replacement of asbestos cement pipes on the old Dalbeattie Reservoir mains by Buittle.
Urr Parish was predominantly a cattle, sheep and grain area until the late 1700s, a position that changed slightly with industrial development. Flax was cultivated and retted for the lint (linen spinning and weaving) mills, but was chiefly for local consumption. Wool from sheep grazed upon the uplands was a far more profitable textile; Dalbeattie sent most elsewhere for weaving and spinning.
From 1770 to 1850 there was considerable land improvement and the intake of common and waste lands for farming. Enclosures were to provide most of the miles of stone wallas, despite protests by 'Levellers', the land also being drained, limed and fertilised. 'High farming' - mixed farming using crop rotation, - was always faced by heavy rainfall leaching out nutrients, particularly from ploughed lands. Grain was definitely exported to Greenock (Glasgow) and Whitehaven (Cumbria) by sea between 1799 and 1810, indicating some farming success. The Statistical Accounts showed that oats, barley and wheat were cultivated, - mainly as animal fodder, - beef cattle, sheep and pigs, being fattened for export to England. Turnips and potatoes both added new crops and improved the land.
James Biggar not only started his superphosphating mill in 1840, he also experimented with developing high-yielding ryegrasses (L. perenne) as an improved fodder-crop. James Carswell's feed mill produced milled oats and barley for animal-feed. Individual farmers' first mechanisation was generally in the form of barn mills (horse or water-powered) that became a common feature of the area. Milling grains improved their palatability and digestive value to livestock.
The meat and dairy industry depended on the railway, so is discussed with it.
The present agricultural use of land around Dalbeattie is as grazing, with the growth of grass for hay and silage. The cattle industry, - although locally unaffected by the BSE virus, - has been decimated and will take years to recover. That has left many sheep in the fields, but their meat and wool is very cheap to buy and little profit is being made. Those farmers who have diversified into golf-courses, poultry-farming and alternative crops have survived, but the effects have been very serious. Fertiliser, cattle slurry, herbicides and more organic practices, are maintaining fertility, but much land is being lost to gorse and bracken. The Stewartry lies mostly within a conservation area, so some payments are being made to farmers simply to maintain the character of the area for tourism. Other farmers have sold land for forestry or have applied for planning permission to develop outbuildings as tourist accommodation.
The Dumfries & Castle Douglas Railway opened in 1859 and as 'The Paddy' gave the area a reliable transport route eventually across from Stranraer to Carlisle. Local people from Dalbeattie could rely on its admittedly-slow local service to go to Dumfries and the rest of Britain. In 1912, a letter from William Murdoch to his sister 'Peg' (Margaret) shows that, despite delays, she could get from Liverpool to Dalbeattie within the day. Freight was the main consideration, the 'Paddy' bringing in coal and lime from Sanquhar and Langholm, milk and other produce (including crushed granite, milk and other produce) going eastwards. The train also made it possible for workers, shoppers and schoolchildren, to commute to Dumfries. It was the main route into the region for tourists in the area's fledgeling tourist industry.
Dalbeattie once had a thriving cattle-market in Islesteps, the yard surviving as parking and outbuildings in front of Impact Weather Services' offices and across the road in the yard of Johnsons the Builders. Cattle used to be driven from the yard along Maxwell Street and Station Road to the station for loading on the cattle-trains.
Dairying was to become important once the railways proved able to deliver fresh milk to the towns; from the 1870s, Dalbeattie had an extensive dairy industry, which vanished in the 1970s with the railways it depended upon. There were creameries at Islesteps and Mill Isle in 1900. A slaughterhouse was established at the Dumfries entrance to the town, but was later converted to a dairy. In 1940, a creamery and cheeseworks were started at a site just north of the railway station; an interesting touch is that there was a piggery nearby, to take advantage of the waste whey and skimmed milk. However, the closure of the railway had lead by 1980 to the closure of all these businesses, which tended to be centralised at Dumfries and Castle Douglas.
Firewood in South West Scotland has always been in short supply; well over 70% of surviving pre-plantation woodland shows signs of having been coppiced or pollarded for firewood. Gorse and hawthorn were widely cut and bound with bramble or string as faggots for the fireplace or the cooking-oven. Oak, ash and beech make excellent charcoal, some areas still having the remains of the old 'pitsteads' used by charcoal burners.
The Dalbeattie area first saw the impact of modern forestry as early as 1766. The acute shortage of domestic fuel led Copland of Colliston to plant '60 acres of heathland' with Scotch Fir (Scots Pine) and other trees. From 1788 to 1802, his successors were able to sell £ 150 of Fir as firewood. It is not clear where the plantings were, probably at Barr Hill or Aucheninnes Plantation. Such plantations also included slow-maturing hardwood trees such as oak and ash, for use in shipbuilding and housing timber. 1853 maps show that Rounal, Barr Hill and Aucheninnes Plantations were already much the same size as they are now. However, by the 1880s a combination of quarrying and casual abstraction by local people had left little more than brushwood.
The demand for timber from Norway and Canada lead to the formation in Britain of the Forestry Commission, dedicated to providing the country with a strategic reserve of timber. Old grouse-moors and poor grazing-land was bought up by thousands of acres, from 1920 onwards, for a time it seeming as if rural unemployment was a thing of the past. Mechanisation and 'industrial forestry' unfortunately reduced forestry employment very rapidly, so that it is only now, at the year 2000, that there are many cutters and planters in the area. Forestry has taken over from thirty to forty percent of Dumfries and Galloway, chiefly as commercial plantations of Sitka Spruce, Hybrid Larch, Scots Pine and Norway Spruce. Whilst growth has been excellent, there has been pressure to break up the Forestry Commission and sell off its holdings commercially.
Forests of all kinds, - even plantations, - attract wildlife and tourists, so there has been popular pressure to encourage both. The Forestry Commission woodlands in Dumfries and Galloway are remarkably fine in their public access, the same not being true of the plantations held by commercial firms. Tourists spend their money and time visiting the region for both its seacoast and its woodlands.
Dalbeattie Wood was made into 'Dalbeattie Town Wood' in 1994, partly in recognition of its amenity value, but also because the soil was too unstable for commercial growth. The subsoil is both wet and full of quarry debris, so fan-rooted spruces and larches are very vulnerable to windblow. Slower growing native trees such as Beech, Ash, Oak, Scots Pine and Birch, have long taproots and present less of a windblow hazard. The tourist facilities at the main Town Wood car park off the coast road are shortly to have toilets and a childrens' adventure playground.
Sawmills have been part of the town since the 1800s, but the only one now working in the Dalbeattie area is the Moss Road works of Dunlop's. This, too, has been affected by recession, but it has the most modern facilities for cutting building timber to size and pressure-kilns for seasoning and impregnating timber with anti-rot compounds.
No town ever survives for long without its service industries, particularly in the distributive and professional services. The village of 200 inhabitants recorded in 1793, had grown closer to 600 by 1797. Robert Heron reported, in his 'Journey Through Scotland' that there was a small town with tailors, shoemakers, butchers and bakers, associated with the development of the mills. Isolated from most imported manufactured goods, the hinterland of the town had to develop its own sources. Even the early years of the railway served rather to boost the town than cause a decline.
In the illustrations [to be added to this site] there can be seen a wide variety of trades. Ironmongers such as Blyth's, 'Grieve's Wholesale Ironmongers and Printing Establishment', various grocers, 'Cowan's drapers and clothiers', 'Shennan druggist' and so on. The Dalbeattie Business Index shows that there have been considerable changes in the trades and professions.
Dalbeattie Glove Factory was a 1945 development, built for £ 75,000 and employed from 30 to 130 people, with outworkers in the town who added the fingers to the gloves. The works eventually changed names and became the Kastix clothing factory, a still-successful part of Dalbeattie town life.
It is fascinating to note that few of the public houses have changed position although a few have changed name. The Maxwell Arms public house and hotel is unchanged, though skirts are shorter than they were in the 1890s. The Commercial Hotel catered for the travelling commercial salesmen who sold retail or wholesale for their companies, in the days before mass-broadcasting and the Internet. It is now the Pheasant Hotel. The King's Arms is still in the centre of the town, as is Allsorts, although this is now the 'Cum ye Inn'.
The Maxwell Arms can claim to be the first Town Hall of Dalbeattie, as it was where the first Police Committee met on the 7th April 1858. They were a group of local worthies concerned at the crime and drunkenness in the town, with the nearest police in Dumdfries or Kirkcudbright. A Police Station was built in Station Road, still identifiable from the cells at its back and the World War II siren base in the centre of its roof. The canny Sergeant on one occasion watched a riot, took notes of the chief offenders, then went round with his men and arrested the miscreant whilst they were hungover the following morning. This went a good way to establishing a sense of behaviour, although Dalbeattie still has a drink problem amongst some of its population.
Schooling has long been seen in Scotland as a way of social and economic advancement, reflected in the high standard of its schools and college graduates. The town had several 'dame schools' by 1828, when the Kirk erected its first Parochial School near the end of the High Street; the site of the playground is now the 'Ship Inn', the schoolhouse being a private house. The Catholic Church had already started its own small school (St. Peter's) that still survives. In 1876, the School Board opened the High School at the junction of Alpine Street and Southwick Road, the extended building now serving as the town's Primary School. A new High School was opened in 1965 at Haugh Road; it too has been considerably extended but has the advantage of extensive playing fields.
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Site commenced 29th December 1997,
last updated 10th November 1999.