Slow britain

Ch.2 Nithsdale Bonus Content


The Tolbooth

Built 1731-35 to replace an older building, the stone came from the ruins of Sanquhar Castle. At ground level the central passageway was used as the exercise yard during the years that the Tolbooth housed the local jail. On the outside of the building at street level can be seen the ‘jougs’, iron collars which were fixed around the neck of those who had committed minor crimes. The culprits would be left to stand in the street for hours at a time while those who wished could hurl at them insults, abuse, bad eggs and anything else that came to hand. They were last used in the 1820s.


James Crichton (1560–82) is one of several notable figures who are commemorated in the museum. Born at nearby Eliock House, so prolific were his talents that he spawned the term ‘The Admirable Crichton’ (not to be confused with the J M Barrie play of the same name).


Sanquhar Curiosities

On the right-hand side of the street, look out for the slightly curious barometer, enclosed within the wall behind glass, dating from 1863 and given to the town by the first Baron Glendyne of Sanquhar, Robert Nivison, who was born the son of a local colliery manager and, after joining the local branch of the British Linen Bank at the age of 15, went on to enjoy a stellar career in finance in London. There’s nothing to record his interest in the matters barometric, but at least you’ll always be able to get a weather forecast in Sanquhar.


Continuing along the street, keep an eye open on the right-hand side for a couple of oddities, within a short distance of each other. Both are paving slabs, the first showing a mix of what we take to be peat-cutting utensils (on Castle Street, near the traffic lights at Deerpark Avenue) and the second, just a little further along, showing a selection of fleas, midges and flies. Quirky and not unattractive, we have no idea why these are here and haven’t been able to find out, so if anyone can shed any light please let us know!


Sanquhar Castle

It was home first to the Edgars then the Rosses, cadets of the ancient Earls of Ross, Lords of the Isles of Scotland, before passing into the Crichton family by marriage.



The mines here were started in the 18th century by the London Quaker Company and workers enjoyed better conditions thanks to humanitarian Quaker principles than workers elsewhere in the country. One result was the opening of the miner’s library, the second oldest subscription library in the country (the oldest is at nearby Leadhills), though this one has the distinction of being opened by the miners themselves and, instituted in November 1756, also being the first to admit ladies – of whom there was one!


The author’s mother tells a tale of a cycling holiday in 1954, from Kinross north of the Forth to Peebles in the Scottish Borders and then over to Wanlockhead, on a bike with just three gears (her friend’s didn’t have any!) with a girlfriend that saw them battle their way up to Wanlockhead in thick mists, strong winds and torrential rain. No doubt you will be driving there, so spare them a thought on their ‘sit up and begs’ with barely a gear between them to assist with the climb.

The museum has a mix of changing and permanent displays, the latter including an explanation – and display samples of – gold in Scotland.



For a bit of light relief, the Thornhill shopping experience may not be extensive but it does offer a certain quality. In addition to a second-hand shop, butchers, fabric shop and local beauty salon, the Buccleuch and Queensberry has its own interiors outlet immediately opposite the hotel offering an enticing and individual range, while just around the corner on East Morton Street the haughtily named Thomas Tosh has a great selection of books, cards and gifts, as well as a popular café. In the opposite direction and easily missed if you don’t know it’s there, Zitan on Townhead Street offers an impressive range of Chinese furniture, gifts and antiques.


Looking at the wrong end of a horse

There is a story which we have heard from several different sources about how the residents of Thornhill took their revenge on the Duke of Queensberry. One year, at some time in the late 1800s, obviously feeling the pinch, the duke raised the rents on his properties. At around the same time, the statue of Pegasus was to be moved and re-erected in its current position. The local labour force was duly drafted in for the job and Pegasus was moved to its new home. The only snag was that somehow in the process, the ducal emblem was turned around so no longer was the fiery steed’s head looking in the direction of Drumlanrig, but instead it was presenting its rear end. And that’s the way it has stayed ever since.


Portrack House

Known as ‘The Garden of Cosmic Speculation’, the garden covers thirty acres and, according to Jencks, ‘uses nature to celebrate nature, both intellectually and through the senses, including the sense of humour.’ This is a garden with a difference and anyone who has visited the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, where Jencks designed the landform at the front, will recognise the terraced swirls that make up part of the garden here. The whole thing encompasses forty major areas, including bridges, sculptures and architectural works, as well as a water cascade that tells the story of the universe and a terrace showing the distortion of space and time caused by a black hole! Jencks hails originally from Maryland and New England but moved to the UK in the mid-1960s. He married Maggie Keswick and with her founded the Maggie’s Cancer Centres before her death from cancer in 1995.





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