History of Castle Douglas.
Castle Douglas and the sourounding area has been peopled since ancient times. Traces of prehistoric crannogs can still be seen in Carlingwark Loch at the southern end of the town and a bronze cauldron and other Iron Age metalwork was discovered some years ago. Castle Douglas itself, however, is relatively modern and its development is down to the vision of one man.
Not many men born to such a lowly situation in life as a packman’s son can rise to a position from which to buy up estates, both here and further west, build a town and name it after himself. Yet, that is what Sir William Douglas achieved in the 18th century.
Born in 1745, William accompanied some of his brothers to America where he amassed a fortune through unspecified, possibly unethical, means. On returning to his homeland he bought land which included the village of Carlingwark situated by the side of the loch from the Gordon family.
The Gordons, discovering the loch contained deposits of marl, which could be used as a fertilizer, had built a canal from the loch to the River Dee and had the loch partly drained to expose the marl. Workers came to dig out the marl and transport it to farms along the Dee and up Loch Ken to the Glenkens. Unfortunately too much marl on the land proved to be counter-productive and a further blow to the family was the collapse of the Bank of Ayr in which Alexander Gordon was a co-partner. In 1791, William Douglas helped solve some of the Gordon’s financial problems by buying land for the sum of £14,000. The population of Carlingwark was then about 700 people.
The town William Douglas built was grid-planned following the example of Edinburgh’s New Town. In 1791, a Burgh of Barony was granted which allowed the new town of Castle Douglas to be governed by a town council. As for the ‘castle’ in the name of the town, Sir William may have meant nearby Threave Castle, built in the 14th century by the Black Douglases to whom he claimed kinship. Or, perhaps it was for the mansion house or ‘castle’ he intended to build for himself three miles away near Gelston village.
Sir William was knighted in 1801. He chose as the Castle Douglas burgh’s coat of arms a winged heart surmounted by a crown with the motto Forward. This relates to the story of how Sir James Douglas of Threave carried the heart of Robert the Bruce into battle during the Crusades. When attacked he threw the casket forward saying, “Forward dear heart, as thou would want tae dae. Douglas will follow thee.”
While his own mansion, to be named Gelston Castle was under construction, Sir William stayed at the Douglas Arms, a coaching inn which even predates his new town. There is no doubt, Sir William chose the site of his town shrewdly as it was already strategically placed on a main road network including the Old Military Road, built to allow the rapid movement of troops, which joined King Street, the main thoroughfare of Castle Douglas.
Sir William established a cotton-spinning industry – hence the name Cotton Street – but it was not a success. Lacking water power for production and canal transport for raw materials and finished products, Castle Douglas could not compete with industrialised cotton spinning with huge water-powered mills like those already established elsewhere. Despite this setback, the town thrived and prospered. Sir William would have been pleased to read the historian, Heron’s words on Castle Douglas: “This village every day becomes more thriving and more respectable; flax-dressers, weavers, tanners, sadlers, cotton-spinners, masons and carpenters are now established here” – all this even before the advent of the cattle market and the railway.
A small, thriving industrial estate at the north end of Castle Douglas, knowns as Station Yard was home to the railway station’s goods yards until the Beeching axe forced the closure of the line in 1965. The railway line from Dumfries to Castle Douglas opened in 1859 operated by Glasgow and South-Western. An onward line to Stranraer was opened by the Portpatrick Railway in 1861 and the following year the line continued to Portpatrick. Another branch line, to Kirkcudbright, opened in 1864. Dorothy L Sayer’s famous novel The Five Red Herrings featuring Lord Peter Wimsey (written, incidentally in The Ship Inn at Gatehouse a few miles away and based on the artists’ colony in Kirkcudbright) depends very heavily on local train times. It is astonishing to read of how frequently – and punctually – trains used those railway lines in the early part of the 20th century.
When Thomas Wallett sold a few Galloway cattle and some sheep on open ground at the Market Hill around 1856 he probably never imagined it was the start of what was to become the premier livestock sales centre in south west Scotland. Joined by his brother, the business flourished. By 1888 the striking octagonal auction ring had been built along with pens and byres which could hold 2,000 cattle and 30,000 sheep. Modernisation and growth have continued over the years and it is the official auctioneers to the Luing Cattle Society, Galloway Cattle Society, Belted Galloway Cattle Society, Salers Cattle Society and the Bluefaced Leicester Sheep Association.