Castle Douglas has a rich and plentiful history. Though the town itself is relatively modern the area has been peopled for centuries. Traces of this history can still be appreciated today, from the prehistoric crannogs (ancient loch dwellings) by Carlingwark Loch at the southern end of the town to Wallace Mart, the premier livestock sales centre in South-West Scotland which started in 1856 with a few Galloway Cattle and sheep.
Castle Douglas’ journey to becoming the town we recognise today and its development, however, was down to the vision of one man: Sir William Douglas. Born in 1745, Sir William Douglas bought the land that would become Castle Douglas with the fortune he had amassed in America, possibly through unethical means.
Douglas bought the land which includes the village of Carlingwark situated by the side of the loch for the sum of £14000, today this is estimated at being well over 2 million pounds. Following the example of Edinburgh’s New, Town Douglas built a grid-planned town, for which a Burgh Barony was granted in 1791 allows Castle Douglas to be governed by a Town Council. The town’s location is thought to be strategically chosen by Douglas, as it was already strategically placed on the 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.
In 1801 Douglas was knighted, choosing the Castle Douglas burgh 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 that predates his new town. Still standing today the Douglas Arms has housed many guests over the years and is currently being restored for community development.
There is no doubt, Sir William chose the site of his town shrewdly as it was already strategically placed on the 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, saddlers, cotton-spinners, masons and carpenters are now established here” – all this even before the advent of the cattle market and the railway.