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Dumfries Bridge

Full Summary 

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Dumfries had been a Royal Burgh since 1186, a status granted by William the Lion.   A ford over the Nith would have been important for Whithorn pilgrims and was located a little south of today’s town centre. The river was navigable up to this point.    The first bridge was built around 1270 by the Lady Devorgilla of Galloway, a deeply religious and very influential noblewoman who was the great niece of William the Lion and of Malcolm IV. Her son, John Balliol, became  King of Scotland in 1292.  She is best known for the foundation of  Balliol College, Oxford, but in addition she built the Cistercian Sweetheart  Abbey, near Dumfries, where in due course she was buried. She also built the convent of Greyfriars in Dumfries, the site of the confrontation between the Red Comyn and Robert the Bruce.  

The 13thcentury bridge was possibly  wooden but the name ‘Devorgilla Bridge’ has been attributed to all successive stone bridges on that site.  This is the only real confirmation of her role in the early construction, although there is a little additional circumstantial evidence:   it is known that Devorgilla built Greyfriars, and from around the time of her death through the subsequent centuries until the Reformation, the convent also held the feu of the bridge. Douglas family charters reveal that in 1425 the Countess of Douglas confirmed the rights to this bridge feu, held by the Friars. 

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A second bridge replaced it around the middle of the 15th century. A papal indulgence of 1432 recorded the Pope's approval for a call for subscribers to pay for the completion of a bridge, followed by annual  ‘Pro Const.’ payments in the Exchequer Rolls made for Dumfries Bridge between 1456 and 1465.   This was a new replacement and the sequence matches the time it would take to build a masonry bridge of that size.   It seems that the feu continued to be held by Greyfriars until 1557. Then,  in a typical Reformation transition, a royal charter transferred the right of exaction (tolls) from away the friars. The right was awarded  to a certain John Johnstone. In 1616 his heirs transferred it to the Provost, Baillies, Council and community of the town. Although the feu was awarded to the  Burgh,  there was included an obligation that it should be required to maintain the bridge.   

In 1621 there were major floods in the south of Scotland and the Devorgilla  Bridge suffered severe damage.   It is recorded that the eastern part was swept away. The ‘Brig Petition’ was made to James VI for help with reconstruction. A complete rebuild was soon started and this is the bridge that remains today.  The single Gothic arch at the western end appears to have been retained but the new arches were semicircular.   This new construction had nine arches and was 200ft long.  Maintenance tolls were imposed in 1681. Chalmers tells us that these could be levied on all goods or livestock crossings in the vicinity of the bridge thereby capturing those trying to bypass. The parapets were rebuilt in 1725 and a tollgate house at the single central refuge was demolished in 1769 to reduce weight.   The military road to Portpatrick (and Ireland) was built in 1763, incorporating the bridge as a key crossing. 

In the early 19th century, over a period of thirty years,  three of the arches were removed from the eastern end as the river was narrowed and land reclaimed.   Access to that end of the bridge was now by a series of steps. Wheeled traffic was precluded, which no longer mattered because the New Bridge at Buccleuch St. had now been completed, 100 yards upstream (1794. Chalmers)). The old bridge had now become a pedestrian way.  

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Today the Devorgilla Bridge is of squared, coursed red sandstone rubble which in parts has been dressed with horizontal drove lines; elsewhere there is stugging. The voussoirs are similar but have chamfered edges. The mainly semicircular arches are un-ribbed.    The bridge is well worn with masonry from many periods. The spandrels are sagging in many areas. Parapets appear to be of 18th century random hammer faced grey rubble with a solid squared coping in some parts- coursed squared rubble in others.  The western arch, alone, is pointed, with some sagging on the spandrels and some ashlar repairs.  There are huge cutwaters, some also repaired in ashlar,  and in the centre these rise up to shelter the refuges.   This bridge has some retained masonry features which makes it one of the oldest existing bridges in Scotland: in particular, the arches are uniformly 30 ft wide – a very small span, even for 1430.  London’s 12th century bridge had similar spans,  as did Rochester and Elvet bridges from the 13th century.  The flow-width of the rivers was almost halved by these low squat arches,  and Dumfries Bridge is no different.  Almost certainly, the single pointed arch at the western end is a legacy from the 15th century; equally, the foundations and piers may be from a very early period.  This is one of only eight bridges in Scotland with a Gothic arch.

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The bridge appears on Roy’s map (1750), Adair’s map (1680s), Blaeu’s Atlas (1640) and  Pont’s map 35 (1600).

 

Dec. 2012                                      Site last updated  Feb 2019