Dumfries is first mentioned in historical records in the 1150s. The town was made a Royal Burgh by William the Lion, King of Scotland, in 1186. The mediaeval town sat on a high ridge overlooking the River Nith. Marshland and streams provided natural defences on three sides of the town and the river protected the fourth.
The town grew up to meet the needs of the royal castle at Castledykes, a few hundred metres downstream, and was able to flourish under its protection. This was a Norman motte and bailey castle, typical of royal castles of the time which guarded the main land route from England into Scotland. In the 1100s the castle belonged to the King of Scotland, even although it was situated inside the independent Kingdom of Galloway. It was rebuilt in stone in the 1260s and was a royal stronghold throughout the struggles for power of the 12th and 13th centuries. Scottish, English and Norman troops were stationed there at different times.
In the 1200s three other mottes, or earth mounds topped by wooded towers, guarded the town, at Troqueer, Townhead and Lincluden.
In the 1300s the royal castle at Castledykes was abandoned and gradually demolished as it was used as building stone for the town. By the 1440s a huge tower house had been built in the very centre of the town to replace it. This was the New Wark, used as barracks for troops and as a prison. It resembled Threave Castle at Castle Douglas.
St Michael became the town’s patron saint and a church dedicated to him was built on a mound overlooking the river at the southern end of the town.
The High Street was the main street of the town in mediaeval times. It ran along the ridge above the river from St Michael’s Church to the monastery of the Greyfriars. There were closes or alleys leading off it on either side where the people of the town lived. Their houses were entered by wooden stairs which led off the closes. They has thatched roofs and earth floors. Families grew their own food in yards and pigs, geese and chickens ran around freely.
Water came from wells or was drawn straight from the river. In these crowded conditions disease, including plague, was a constant threat.
The burgh mill where grain was ground into flour for the townspeople was driven by the waters of the Mill Burn in Nith Place. There was a mill there up until the 1800s. There were no shops so all trade took place at markets which the town, as a royal burgh, had the right to hold at its market cross in the High Street.
Dumfries was the first safe crossing point of the Nith above the mudflats of its estuary and this ford was used by pilgrims travelling to the early Christian shrine of St Ninian at Whithorn.
A wooden bridge was built in the 1260s by Lady Devorgilla Balliol. She was born in 1210, the daughter of Alan, Lord of Galloway. She married John Balliol and became one of the largest landowners in Europe. With her husband she founded Balliol College, Oxford, but she is most remembered for the building of Sweetheart Abbey at New Abbey, south west of Dumfries. Sweetheart Abbey was built in memory of her husband and she carried his embalmed heart with her wherever she went until she was buried in the abbey with it placed on her own.
Dumfries’ wooden bridge was replaced by a sandstone bridge in 1432. It still stands today and is known as Devorgilla’s Bridge.
To the north of the town was the monastery of the Greyfriars. It was built in 1262 by an order of Franciscan monks on land given to them by Lady Devorgilla Balliol. This was a beautiful site, within a bend in the river with gardens and orchards leading down to the riverside.
It was in the church of the monastery of the Greyfriars that one of the most important events in Scotland’s history took place. In 1306, Robert the Bruce stabbed Sir John Comyn in front of the altar there during a quarrel over their rival claims to be King of Scotland. Bruce rushed out of the church exclaiming, “I doubt I’ve slain the Comyn”, to his supporters. One of them, Sir Roger Kirkpatrick, replied, “You doubt? Then I’ll mak siccar (make sure)”. He then dashed back into the church to finish off the dying man.
Later that day Bruce captured the royal castle at Castledykes from the English troops that were holding it and began his campaign for the throne of Scotland. Other Scottish noblemen joined him and he was crowned King of Scotland in March of that same year as Robert I of Scotland he fought for Scotland’s independence from England, defeating the English army at Bannockburn, outside Stirling, in 1314.