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Dumfries, Harbour

Harbour (18th Century)

Site Name Dumfries, Harbour

Classification Harbour (18th Century)

Alternative Name(s) River Nith; Dock Park; Dock-head; Castledykes Quay; Dockfoot Park; Whitesands; Sandy Entry; The Stank; Dockfoot Quay; Dock Foot

Canmore ID 65521

Site Number NX97NE 125

NGR NX 973 756

NGR Description Centred NX 973 756

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Dumfries And Galloway
  • Parish Dumfries
  • Former Region Dumfries And Galloway
  • Former District Nithsdale
  • Former County Dumfries-shire

Archaeology Notes

NX97NE 125 centred 973 756

Extends onto map sheet NX97SE.

For weir ('caul') at NX 96957 75988, see NX97NE 122.

For Kingholm Quay (centred NX 97472 73568), see NX97SE 33.

For Castledykes Quay (centred NX 9770 7491), see NX97SE 63.

The OS note the place-names 'Dock-head' at NX 973 757 and 'Dockfoot' at NX 976 749.

(Undated) information in NMRS.

Dumfries Harbour extends from the Caul (NX97NE 122) downstream for about half a mile to Dockfoot or Dock Park (NX 975 752); Castledykes Quay which is situated immediately downstream again, forms a continuation, but is often considered separately.

A Graham and A E Truckell 1977.

(Location cited as NX 97 75). Dumfries harbour consists of the town's frontage on the River Nth, and extends downstream from the Caul (NX97NE 122), a weir just below the Old Bridge (NX97NE 26.00), to Dockfoot [Dock Foot: NX 9770 7495], a distance of about half a mile. Castledykes Quay (NX97SE 63), immediately downstream again, is its southward continuation for practical purposes, but is often mentioned individually. In its present condition, the frontage bears the general appearance of a riverside walk flanking a wide street; but in fact the facing-wall that rises from the water is that of the former quay, and bollards of stone or iron, of which only a few now survive, were in place throughout its length in quite recent years.

Little seems to be known about the harbour in its earliest phases, but the proximity of a motte (NX97NE 33) to what must have been a good landing-beach close to the head of navigation suggests a long history. The area now occupied by Dockfoot Park figures in the Burgh records from 1506, but is first referred to as 'the Dock' at the beginning of the 18th century, when a tenant complained that the use of his land was being interefered with by, among other things, the unloading of ships. In the 1520's, the records of the Burgh Court mention claims for cloth and barrels of herring washed away by a flood from the White Sands [Whitesands], with the implication that cargo was then being landed on the Sands from grounded ships. In February 1539-40, Carruther's Protocol Book records the building of a ship 'within the town', no doubt somewhere on the adjoining foreshore. In 1600, the town was permitted to levy an impost for a period of five years, but the proceeds were almost certainly to be spent on the bridge, and not on the harbour. From 1710 onwards, the Burgh Treasurer's accounts record blasting and stone-clearance in the riverbed, and in 1710-20 the preparation of a chart of the approaches and the provision of marker-posts and buoys in the channel. By 1727, at any rate, a quay of some sort was certainly in existence, as Defoe writes that 'ships of burthen come close to the key'; but no other evidence of structural improvement is forthcoming even as late as about 1810, when ships could still be figured as tied up to the the riverbank in the White Sands [Whitesands] area. It must be remembered, in any consideration of the harbour's history, that although Dumfries had been carrying on a coastwise and overseas trade since at least the 16th century, and by Defoe's time employed a 'considerable number of ships', the navigational dangers of the Nith estuary were serious, especially for larger vessels. Tucker, for example, reports in 1655 that 'the badnesse of the comeing into the river' hindered the town's overseas commerce, while in 1793 the waterway was only suitable for craft of up to 30 or 40 tons, and that at springs. Eight or ten coasting vessels were then owned in the town, two or three being engaged in the Baltic or wine trades, the latter expression no doubt referring to the Spanish and Biscay ports.

At this time and earlier, the port was managed by the Town Council, whose minutes and accounts record the clearing and opening of the channel from about 1790 onwards. In 1812, there was established the Nith Navigation Commission, which aimed at making the river navigable for large ships as far up as Dockfoot. The work included the straightening and deepening of the channel, the blasting of a transverse rock-ridge below Castledykes [Castledykes Pool: NX 9762 7478] and the building of embankments [training walls] further downstream. By 1823, a spring-tide depth of 10ft [3m] had been secured at Dockfoot, and one of 8ft [2.4m] at Dockhead [name: NX 9730 7570]. The harbour wall at Dockhead followed, and from about 1850 the ground behind it was raised and cobbled, so that the 'sandy' character of White Sands was ended and the space fronting on the river was gradually brought to something like its present condition. By 1833, after more than £18,500 has been spent on improvements and repairs to the channel as a whole, ships could discharge their cargoes conveniently close to the town, and quays had been built at Kingholm [NX97SE 33] and Glencaple [NX96NE 39]. In 1847, Dumfries possessed 470 linear yards [430m] of wharfage, less 233 yds [213m] which had been improperly built, and were to be reconstructed, while Castledykes (NX97SE 63) had a further 115 yds [105m]. In 182334, 84 ships were owned in the port, which included Annan (NY16NE 29), administered as one of its 'creeks'; and in addition some 12 to 18 foreign ships normally traded there. The last vessel to use the harbour docked at Dockfoot in 1916.

The walling of the harbour frontage is formed, in general, of red-sandstone blocks, varying in size and quality; in places, at the lowermost levels, they tend to be smaller and less well than higher up. The report of 1847 gave their average size as 8 cu ft [0.2264 cu m] with a maximum of 16 cu ft [0.4528 cu m], and noted that no frontal fenders of timber were used. In the muddy bottom the river, in front of the quay-face, massive pitching can be seen from place to place. Other remains of harbour works exist at several points. Just below the Caul (NX97NE 122), a recess called the Sandy Entry [not located from available map evidence], into which their descends a ramp on its N side, breaks the line of the quay-face; its purpose was to allow rafts of timber to be hauled up from the water at a point convenient for their delivery to the timber yards, which occupied the site of the existing Auction Marts [not located from available map evidence]. Another rather similar ramp exists about 100yds [91m] upstream from the Suspension Bridge (NX97NE 108); this gave access to a ford on the line of a mediaeval route to the W, a continuation of which is to be seen in a lane mounting the opposite bank [not located from available map evidence]. Until obliterated by recent building, the parched trace of this road used to show up regularly, in dry weather, in a field beside Rotchell Park Road. Two flights of steps lead down to the water's edge, one above and one below St Michael's Bridge (NX97NE 111). Further downstream, the quay-face returns [at NX 9738 7556] to form the right-angled nook known as The Stank [name: NX 9737 7553], downstream from which the bank of Dockfoot Park is revetted and represents the former Dockfoot Quay. Further downstream again was Castledykes Quay. This has suffered rather heavily through the formation of a riverside path and a car park, while much of the frontage is obscured by bushes and small trees. Where visible, however, the work is of well-squared sandstone blocks, but shows signs of fairly recent repointing and improvement, concrete steps and a vertical ladder of blocks being obvious insertions. A range of bollards still remains in place - six of these, including a turfed-over stump are of granite, while a seventh, partially broken and thus showing its hollow construction, is of cast iron. The footpath between the river and the Kingsholm [Kingholm] Road [name centred NX 9770 7510] was formerly a cart-track leading to the quay.

A Graham and A E Truckell 1977 (visited 1975).


Publication Account (1986)

Although Dumfries had enjoyed the benefits of coastal and foreign trade since the Middle Ages, the volume of that trade, including links with the Baltic and the North American colonies, began to increase dramatically from the later 17th century onwards. However, the Nith, aptly described by Ian Donnachie as 'the most fickle of all rivers', remained the main channel of the town's commerce. Navigation for large vessels was hmdered by the vagalies of tides, treacherous sandbanks and the shifting course of the river, particularly at its estuary, and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the merchant burgesses of Dumfries made valiant efforts to overcome these difficulties. The Nith Navigation Commission, which was formed in 1811, straightened, deepened, and embanked the river channel in accordance with a scheme proposed by James Hollinsworth, engineer, but the labour of further improvement was required in 1836-40. Trade reached a peak in the mid-1840s, repaying the effort but not all the debts. The arrival of the railway in Dumfries in 1850 signalled the beginning of the long demise of the port, although there was a brief revival of seaborne trade in the two decades before 1914.

As a registration authority, the port of Dumfries extended eastwards as far as the Sark, including Annan and five main quays on the Nith: Dockfoot (Dumfries), Castledykes, Kingholm, Laghall and Glencaple. At Carsethorn (NX 994598) there was a wooden pier built in about 1840 for the passenger steamship service to Liverpool. The quay at Dumfries now survives as the frontage of a riverside walk extending about 1km downstream from the weir below the old bridge (no. 4) to Dockfoot Park and Castledykes (NX 9775). The major surviving harbour-works, however, are those at Kingholm (NX 974736) and at Glencaple (NX 994687). Both had quays that were built in 1746 and reconstructed in the early 19th century, Kingholm having a large boat dock scoured by a pair of conduits.

The most impressive testimony to the early efforts of the Dumfries traders is undoubtedly the square, rubble-built lighthouse-tower on the foreshore at Southerness (NX 977542), one of the earliest lighthouses in Scotland. It was intended to serve as a guide to ships in the exceedingly difficult waters of the Nith estuary and the inner Solway Firth. Originally built as a 9.1m high beacon by Dumfries Town Council in 1748-9, it was heightened and altered in the 1780s and again in 1842-3. Lack of finance obliged the Nith Navigation Commission to extinguish the light in 1867. With a temporary revival of trade it was restored in 1894, and, raised to almost twice its original height, continued in active use until about 1936. The lightchamber and red sandstone upperworks date from this last restoration, and the brass frame of an 1894 lantern is mounted on the ruins of an old limekiln nearby. The interior, which is not normally accessible, contains no original features.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Dumfries and Galloway’, (1986).


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