Meeting Report: Woods and wood in Dumfries and Galloway around 1700 with special reference to the Midsteeple, Dumfries

Date: 
3 February 2012
Speaker(s): 
Archie McConnell (McConnell Wood Products)

Archie McConnell of Penpont Sawmill addressed a large audience of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society on the subject of Woods and wood in Dumfries and Galloway around 1700 with special reference to the Midsteeple, Dumfries. Intrigued, the members wondered where a sandstone building fitted into a talk about wood!

Early in the 18th century an unexpected windfall of 20,000 merks came into Dumfries Burgh coffers. At a meeting on 30th April 1703 it was decided to build a new town house with an imposing steeple. A committee was appointed to oversee the construction work.

A Liverpool architect, John Moffat, was employed to draw up a design. He and James Johnston were empowered to pay a study visit to Glasgow. The financial records state: "To Mr Moffat, architect, and Dean Johnston £24 Scots to bear their expenses to visit Glasgow steeple." An entry for 10th April 1704 shows that Mr Moffat was paid £104 Scots for his drawing. Mr Moffat withdrew from the commitment and a Tobias Bachup was engaged to complete the scheme according to Moffat's plan, but with modifications.

Archie has made an intensive study of the reports and visits by the Committee responsible for the Midsteeple. In 1703 attempts to procure wood of a satisfactory nature for the inner framework were the cause of many headaches for the committee.

Tower houses and the Midsteeple tower itself all display the familiar square box shape of similar dimensions. Archie made the interesting observation that it hinged on the fact that the timbers available were generally about 22 feet in length and taken from trees about 200 years old. The Midsteeple with added stonework is 24 feet across.

Timber in those times was often brought from Scandinavia. This possibility was explored but "there can be none gotten at a easy rate."

They were then forced to explore Scottish sources. Visits by Moffat, the architect, and James Johnston to Stepford, Steilston and Birkbush were made because of the availability of water transport by the Cairn, Cluden and Nith. The timber at Steilston fitted the bill but a deal with the owner would have involved purchase of the whole wood. Further visits were made to Loch Ken, Airds, Shirmers and Dalry without success.

The dignitaries were then advised to inspect the wood at Garlies on the Earl of Galloway's estate, where the oaks were grown up and down the hillsides and farmed for better purposes. A deal was struck with Alex Thomsone, who had a 7-year lease to manage the wood at Cardochan on that estate. The Committee decided "to appoint James Johnston the morrow morning early to repair to the wood to procure the timber with all imaginable dispatch." This was achieved even though it was not a good time for harvesting timber as the sap was still rising.

Horses were used to bring the wood from its inland site to the Dee. It was loaded when the water level was low enough to permit the heavy timbers to roll down on to the waiting vessel. At Kelton, the nearest suitable point to Dumfries, it was unloaded at high tide to enable the timbers to be rolled off with ease. Transportation by horse power again brought the consignment into Dumfries.

The wood, already stripped of its bark and having been stored in a Dumfries barn till 1705, would be properly seasoned by the time it came to be used. Archie, being primarily interested in wood, terminated his study at this point. The actual building of Midsteeple took place 1705–1707.

A lively question-and-answer session followed. In the course of the evening the audience became aware that Dumfries and Galloway has a nationally-recognised expert in the area because Archie has supplied wood for the building of the finer aspects of the Scottish Parliament and for the recent refurbishment of Stirling Castle.