Take a journey through 10 key events in Dumfries and Galloway’s fascinating history…
Robert The Bruce, Titanic connections and a dreadful murder that led to the last public execution of a man in Scotland; to mark the February 2016 leap year, Mostly Ghostly have gathered a collection of ten historical anniversaries, all with key links to Dumfries and Galloway.
February 1st 1831 – Tragedy in Moffat
Two brave postmen are buried in Moffat Churchyard; John Goodfellow, mail coach driver and his colleague James McGeorge, mail coach guard, lost their lives in a blizzard back in 1831. Having set out from Dumfries to Edinburgh, their journey was gravely impeded by heavy snow and drifts, in spite of which, the men were determined to complete their duty. They took on more horses and passengers, hastening on until they could go no further.
Some passengers returned to Moffat with the aim of seeking help whereas others remained in the coach. Goodfellow and McGeorge made the decision to plough on with their horses and mailbags, but their journey would reach a tragic conclusion. A few miles on they succumbed to the inhospitable conditions. A lovely monument, which takes the form of an old post box, can be found near the spot they died. A poignant site to visit and contemplate the bravery of these two hardy and dedicated souls.
February 1st 1868 – The Annandale Murder
It was a grim Saturday in 1868 when little Thomasina Scott set out from Cummertrees to Annan with shopping errands from her mother, a journey she carried out regularly and without hesitancy. However, according to news reports, nine-year-old Thomasina displayed a hint of reluctance on that fateful day. Some believed it was a dark premonition of the horrifying events that would befall this lovely and innocent young girl
En route to Annan, Thomasina stopped off at her neighbour’s house to seek shelter. She was welcomed by Mrs Jane Crichton and inside the house, met nineteen-year-old farm labourer Robert Smith. When the rain passed, Smith offered to accompany here to Annan, but approaching the Croftshead Wood, events took a dreadful turn. Smith described later that “a more brutal feeling” overtook him. He raped and murdered the helpless child, abandoning her body in the woods where a search party would discover her later that evening.
Smith realised that Jane Crichton could implicate him in the crime and decided to take drastic measures; he returned to her home where a violent assault took place, it’s a miracle that Jane managed to survive her ordeal. These dark events led to Smith becoming the last person to suffer death by public execution in Scotland, his hanging took place at the old Dumfries Prison in Buccleuch Street.
February 2nd 1773 – Death of Dr. James Mounsey
Situated in tranquil Lochmaben Old Churchyard is a rather fine and imposing memorial obelisk which was erected for Dr James Mounsey of fine Georgian mansion, Rammerscales House. Dr Mounsey was a most intriguing character and is believed to have faked his own death as a means of evading capture by the Russian agents. Following his work as a physician for the Russian Royal family, he feared an attempt might be made on his life and actually made a point of building at least two exits into every room at Rammerscales to enable a quick escape in the event of trouble. He died for real in 1773, although his ghostly presence known as Old Jacobus, has been reported around Rammerscales over the years.
February 5th 1881 – Death of Thomas Carlyle
Born in Ecclefechan, Thomas Carlyle went on to study at Edinburgh University, becoming a maths teacher and then a private tutor. Carlyle wrote for various publications including the Edinburgh Review and gradually became immersed in German literature and philosophy. He was hugely influential during the Victorian Era. Carlyle married Jane Welsh in 1826 and the moved to London; they were known for entertaining all manner of notable people such as; Charles Dickens and Robert Browning. Carlyle turned down the offer of burial at Westminster Abbey to be laid to rest with his parents at Ecclefechan Churchyard. His house in Ecclefechan is maintained by the National Trust, and is well worth a visit.
February 6th 1829 – Riot in Dumfries!
The notorious West Port Murders in Edinburgh had reached a dark conclusion; William Burke had been hanged at the Grassmarket in front of a crowd of thousands and his villainous partner in crime, William Hare had managed to squirm his way out of a similar fate by having turned Kings Evidence. Whilst travelling back to Portpatrick where he would receive passage to Ireland, Hare stopped over at the Kings Arms Hotel in Dumfries (the site now occupied by Boots the Chemist). In response to this outrage, the townspeople rose up in venomous hordes. Word spread and the streets were throbbing with people, clamouring for a better view of the Kings Arms, throwing missiles and baying for Hare’s blood.
We’ve been fascinated by this gripping event in our town’s history since we began researching the Dumfries Ghost Walk in 2009 and have greatly enjoyed sharing it with guests in the streets where it occurred. Burke and Hare were often described as body-snatchers but there were in fact, murderers, who lured vulnerable people to their home, plying them with drink and ‘burking’ them, a method of murder where the nose was pinched and the mouth covered so as to leave no incriminating marks to be picked up by Edinburgh’s ‘ask no questions’ anatomists.
February 10th 1306 – Murder in Greyfriars!
On this date in 1306, dramatic events took place on the sacred site of Greyfriars Monastery, nothing of which remains. The Monastery, founded by Lady Devorgilla Balliol, witnessed the gruesome murder of John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, known as the Red Comyn by Robert the Bruce, who would become the next King of Scotland.
When Bruce doubted the effectiveness of his actions, Sir Roger de Kirkpatrick uttered these chilling and immortal words: “I’ll Mak Siccar!” He rushed inside the monastery,, taking grim measures to ensure Comyn would not survive. With Comyn and his uncle, Sir Robert out of the picture, the stage was set for a violent battle at Greyfriars before Bruce galloped off to Dumfries Castle.
An act of impulse or pre-meditated murder – no one truly knows. Comyn’s death however, undoubtedly ensured Bruce his on the throne of Scotland.
February 12th 1846 – Death of Dr. Henry Duncan, Founder of the Savings Bank
Dr. Henry Duncan is well known as being the founder of the one of the world’s first savings banks. He was a church minister, keen to help others and by establishing his savings bank, made opening an account accessible to ordinary folk. Henry Duncan was also the founder of the Dumfries and Galloway Courier and edited the newspaper for seven years. Dr. Duncan is responsible for restoring the stunning Ruthwell Cross which is thought have been created around 664AD. When the Reformed Church of Scotland decided to rid themselves of icons, it was taken down and left incomplete with parts of it buried in the grounds. Upon finding it, Dr. Duncan spent around twenty years restoring it – thanks to him, the cross can be found in Ruthwell Church where it attracts visitors to this day.
February 15th 1662 – Birth of James Renwick, Last of the Covenanting Martyrs
James Renwick was born in Moniaive village and went on to study at Edinburgh University at the tender age of 13. He became a church minister. This period in history was known as “The Killing Times” when Presbyterians were persecuted for their religious beliefs. If you were known as a Covenanter, who believed and upheld the principles of the 1638 National Covenant, you could be a target for Government troops. A follower of Richard Cameron, leader of a radical wing of Presbyterians, Renwick travelled to the Netherlands to complete further studies. Upon his return, Renwick gave his first service in a place called Cambusnethan, he preached all over Scotland but before long became a target for the Government. Following betrayal, Renwick was captured and refused to swear the Oath to King James VII and II. February also witnessed his execution by hanging in Edinburgh in 1688. The grim sight of Renwick’s head could be seen displayed at the city gates and so concludes the time of the Covenanting Martyrs.
February 20th 1777 – Site of First Dumfries Hospital
Take a walk around Dumfries and you’ll find all sorts of interesting features; plaques, statues, murals, sometimes appearing in the most unexpected places. There is a garden close to the town’s Burns Street, a lovely spot dotted with flowers, shrubs and various displays dedicated to the Bard himself – Robert Burns.
Amongst a row of bushes, hidden from view, is a ground plaque marking the site of the first hospital in Dumfries. It reads as follows: “The first hospital in Dumfries opened for inpatients in a rented house near here on 20th February 1777, having commenced as a clinic and dispensary on 22nd November 1776. This stone was erected two hundred years later on the 20th February 1977.”
February 28th 1873 – Birth of William McMaster Murdoch, First Officer on Titanic
Born at No. 3 Sunnyside, Dalbeattie in 1873, William McMaster Murdoch attended the old primary and high school, and was remembered as being an intelligent and dedicated young man. He eventually reached the dizzying heights of First Officer under Captain Smith on R. M. S. Titanic, which tragically hit an iceberg at 11:40pm on Sunday 14th April 1912.
Murdoch was a gentleman to the last and was witnessed by survivors loading lifeboats. It is believed that he fell into the icy waters whilst trying to free one of the collapsible lifeboats – his body was never found. Murdoch was well liked and respected in his home town and is remembered on a fine granite plaque that adorns the Dalbeattie Town Hall. Following his death, the Murdoch Memorial Prize was set up in his honour.