Situated on the wide banks
of the River Nith a short distance inland from the Solway Firth,
DUMFRIES is by far the largest town in southwest Scotland, with a population of more than
thirty thousand. Long known as the "Queen of the South"
(as is its football club), the town flourished as a medieval
seaport and trading centre, its success attracting the attention
of many English armies. The invaders managed to polish off most
of the early settlement in 1448, 1536 and again in 1570, but
Dumfries survived to prosper with its light industries and port
supplying the agricultural hinterland. The town planners of the
1960s badly damaged the town, but enough remains of the warm
red sandstone buildings that distinguish Dumfries from other
towns in the southwest, to make it worth at least a brief stop.
It also acts as a convenient base for exploring the Solway coast,
to the east and west, and is second only to Ayr for its associations
with Robbie Burns, who spent the last five years of his life
here employed as an exciseman.
Dumfries is characterized
by its red sandstone buildings, which survive in sufficient quantity
to distinguish it from other towns in the southwest. Orientation
is easy, with the railway to the east, and the river to the north
and west. The pedestrianized High Street runs roughly parallel
to the Nith; at its northern end, presiding over a floral roundabout,
is the Burns Statue , a sentimental piece of Victorian frippery
in white Carrara marble, featuring the great man holding a posy
in one hand while the other clutches at his heart. His faithful
hound, Luath, lies curled around his feet - though it doesn't
look much like a Scots collie (as Luath was). Further down the
High Street, Burns' body lay in state at the town's most singular
building, the Midsteeple , an appealingly wonky hotchpotch of
a building, built in 1707 to fulfil the multiple functions of
town prison, clocktower, courthouse and arsenal.
If you're on Burns' trail,
make sure you duck down the alleyway to the whitewashed Globe
Inn , a little further down the High Street, which was Burns'
most famous "howff" (pub). Southeast of the High Street,
in Burns Street, stands Burns' House (April-Sept Mon-Sat 10am-5pm,
Sun 2-5pm; Oct-March Tues-Sat 10am-1pm & 2-5pm; free), a
simple sandstone building where the poet died of rheumatic heart
disease in 1796, a few days before the birth of his last son,
Maxwell. Inside, along with the usual collection of Burns memorabilia,
one of the bedroom windows bears his signature, scratched with
his diamond ring. As a member of the Dumfries Volunteers, Burns
was given a military funeral, before being buried nearby in a
simple grave by St Michael's Church (Mon-Fri 10am-4pm; free),
a large red sandstone church, built in 1745. In 1815, Burns was
dug up and moved across the graveyard to a purpose-built Mausoleum
, a bright white Neoclassical eyesore, which houses a slightly
ludicrous statue of Burns being accosted by the Poetic Muse.
From the church, head down
to the shallow and fast-running Nith, and cross the pedestrian-only
Devorgilla Bridge , a little further upstream, built in 1431
and one of the oldest bridges in Scotland. Attached to its southwestern
end is the town's oldest house, built in 1660, now housing the
Bridge House Museum
(April-Sept Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 2-5pm; free), stuffed full
of Victorian domestic bric-a-brac, including a teeth-chattering
range of Victorian dental gear. Downstream from the Old Bridge
House, an old water mill has been converted into the Robert Burns
Centre , or RBC (April-Sept Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 2-5pm; Oct-March
Tues-Sat 10am-1pm & 2-5pm; free), with an optional twenty-minute
slide show (£1.50) and a simple exhibition on the poet's
years in Dumfries upstairs.
On the hill above the RBC
stands the Dumfries
Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 2-5pm; Oct-March Tues-Sat 10am-1pm &
2-5pm; free), from which there are great views over the town.
The museum is housed partly in an eighteenth-century windmill,
which was converted into the town's observatory in the 1830s,
and features a camera obscura on its top floor (April-Sept; £1.50),
well worth a visit on a clear day.
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