Scotland’s Oldest Bridges.
A map-based catalogue of the oldest masonry bridges in Scotland.
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 Dervorgilla 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. Carlyle Aiken (Ref) notes that ancient sources claim that Dervorgilla’s sister, Christian, assisted in the planning the Nith Bridge; Christian died in 1246 which implies the bridge was a little older than presumed. The name ‘Devorgilla Bridge’ has been attributed to all successive stone bridges on that site. Nothing was recorded of the bridge through the 15th century. However, this was a period when the Earls of Douglas became the prominent landowners in Southern Scotland; their lands expanded to include all of Galloway including the Barony of the Balliols. Douglas family charters reveal that in 1425 Margaret, Countess of Douglas, confirmed the rights to the bridge feu held by the Friars Minors of Dumfries a sect based at Greyfriars, who had held the feu since the time of the Dervorgilla.
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. In the meantime, in 1452, the rights of the Friars were reconfirmed and fully specified as "ad pontis de Nyth de Dumfries…” and endorsed by "Carta de Douglas de Custuma Pontis.” It seems that the feu continued to be held by Greyfriars until 1557. In the later 16th century, we know that a local fund was in operation known as ‘The Bridge Werk'. Freemen and Burgesses were expected to contribute. 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.
Carlyle Aitken (Ref) further tells us that in 1621 there were major floods in the south of Scotland and the Devorgilla Bridge was badly damaged. The eastern part was swept away. A ‘Brig Petition’ was made to James VI for help with reconstruction. This eloquent document describes how the townsfolk had tried and failed to attract funds from the barons and gentlemen of the area, so they had set about the work themselves. Now they were overwhelmed, and " whereof we have exhausted the whole common rent and patrimony of that toun and has not lefte so much as ane pennie thereof free.” With the King’s help, 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(Ref) 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 (‘in 1794’. Chalmers). The old bridge had now become a pedestrian way.
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 six mainly semicircular arches are un-ribbed. The bridge is well worn with masonry from many periods. The spandrels are sagging in several areas. Parapets appear to be of 18th century random hammer faced grey rubble in some parts- coursed squared rubble in others. There is a solid, squared coping. The western arch alone is pointed with some sagging on the spandrels and some ashlar repairs. The width is 14ft. There are huge cutwaters of which some are 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.
The bridge is on Pont’s maps (1600), Blaeu’s Atlas (1640) and Roy’s map (1750).
Page last updated Oct.2020