George W. Shirley


Obituary notes taken from the record of proceedings at the Society's Annual General Meeting on 12 April 1940.
See TDGNHAS, Series III, Vol. XXII, pp.135–142

With the passing of Mr G.W. Shirley this Society has lost one who may properly be described as its re-founder. Coming to the town in 1903 as the first Librarian of the Ewart Library, he was elected a member of the Society on 28th October, 1904. Two years later he gave us his first paper — The Old Public Libraries in Dumfries. At that period the Society was in low water. The subscription was only 5s, and for the most part the annual Transactions, though containing some valuable matter were definitely behind the times both in format and contents. New blood, fresh ideas, different methods, and, above all, youthful drive, were required, and were forthcoming. Mr Shirley was to provide all these essentials. First, he became our Acting Librarian, for in those days (1907) we had an Honorary Librarian as well. In 1909 he became Honorary Librarian, and that year contributed the first index to any of our volumes. We have never been without one since. Till then the Society had never recognised an official Editor of Transactions, that work being undertaken by Mr Samuel Arnott, the Secretary. But in 1910 he retired and the President also demitted office. The moment had arrived for youth and energy to revivify the Society. Mr Shirley became Honorary Secretary and Editor, whilst Mr H. S. Gladstone of Capenoch became President. It was partly to their happy co-operation, but mainly to the intense energy of Mr Shirley, that the Society was raised to its present status. At that time, though a member, I was in London and had no personal knowledge of the reorganisation and resurrection of the Society on which Mr Shirley was engaged, and so I have suggested to Mr Gladstone that he should deal with that period.

I [H.S.G.] have been asked by Mr R. C. Reid to write an appreciation of Mr Shirley's services as Secretary of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society.

On 20th October, 1909, I was honoured by being elected President of the Society, and Mr Samuel Arnott was Secretary: the demands on Mr Arnott's time were very great (he later became Provost of Maxwelltown), and it was with general acceptance, and great expectations, that Mr G. W.Shirley was elected Secretary on 21st October, 1910.

These expectations were not disappointed, and Mr Shirley signalised his appointment as Secretary and Editor of our Transactions not only by raising the standard of the material published, but also by producing the Transactions up to date and with indexes.

References to the Transactions of any Society which are without an index may be truly likened to looking for a needle in a haystack: it is due to the initiative of Mr Shirley that our Transactions have been indexed since 1910 and have therefore become a workable mine of information instead of a dump of heterogeneous subjects.


When Mr Shirley took over his Secretarial duties our Society numbered some two hundred members; at the celebration of its fiftieth anniversary (20th November, 1912) it was announced that the membership was upwards of four hundred and ninety. This remarkable increase may, of course, have been due, in part, to the importance of the occasion, but it was attributable, in the main, to the activities of the secretary.

Furthermore, a new format to our annual Transactions was adopted, and they became the tall and comely volumes that we have to-day.

Our Transactions, which hitherto had not enjoyed a wide circulation, now came to be regarded as readily informative; and students in the various subjects dealt with by our Society found that they had here volumes of carefully edited matter which — above all — were indexed in such a way as to make the details of their contents readily accessible.

In those days of the Society so great was the flow of contributions that we had to make it a rule — a self-denying ordinance — that we would only publish in extenso such papers as dealt specifically with purely local subjects.

Eminent Scientists (if that is the correct term) were tempted — if not anxious — to lecture to the Society, and no papers were contributed which were more erudite and painstaking than those of the Secretary himself.

From 1914 to 1918 Mr Shirley was absent on War Service, and it would not be fair to omit to say that his wife carried on the affairs of the Society in his absence. During this period she received the assistance of various other members — notably Mr R.C. Reid — but it is my duty to record the personal services of Mr Shirley, who would have been the first to belittle all that he did and to acknowledge his gratitude to those who helped him in maintaining the welfare of our Society.

On the cessation of hostilities and Mr Shirley's return to Dumfries, he resumed his duties. His zest for antiquarian research was unabated, and his duties both as Secretary and Editor were carried on with the ardour of an enthusiast.

Many of our members could testify to the assistance readily given — often at the cost of considerable research by Mr Shirley. I have reason personally to remember gratefully the help which he gave me in the preparation of all the papers which I contributed to our Transactions

Towards the end of his life he was struck down by severe illness, but — though incapacitated to a degree which would have daunted most men, and in spite of suffering intense pain at times — he carried on doggedly in his official capacity as Librarian to the County of Dumfries.

On 18th October, 1929, he resigned from the Secretaryship of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, a position which he had held for twenty years. No other Secretary had held office for so long a period: no other Secretary has ever done more for our Society.

These ten words aptly sum up my appreciation of Mr Shirley's services.

It is not necessary for me [R.C.R.] to add many words to that appreciation. Mr Shirley was a man of reserved personal habits who wielded a succinct pen with graphic power. Endowed with the spirit of disinterested service to others, he gave freely and generously of his help and experience to others, and many successful researches owe their completion to missing clues provided by his industry. It was largely owing to his example and encouragement that I have been able to undertake the work I have for this Society. Possessed of a catholicity of taste, the outstanding features of his personality were courage, integrity of mind, clear reasoning powers, and a fine humanity. His last public appearance was at our joint meeting in the Museum with the Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain, to which, in spite of illness, he was able to give a short address.

The high standard of our Transactions which he achieved and the scholarly quality and exactitude of his own contributions received unexpected recognition only the other day. The Scottish History Society was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in Edinburgh, and one of the speakers at the function, a Professor of London School of Economics, dwelling on the subject of the place of the local Society in Scottish history, said that he knew of no local Society in Scotland which maintained so high a standard as the Dumfriesshire and Galloway. I am glad to say I was able to convey this unsolicited appreciation from a stranger to Mr Shirley shortly before he passed away.

He has left a lot of papers, which, at the request of Mrs Shirley, I have been through prior to their lodgment at the Ewart Library. Much is fragmentary and incomplete, but some of the papers will surely appear in our future volumes. I have compiled an analysis of these MSS., as well as a Bibliography of his local Historical work.



  • Old Public Libraries in Dumfries D.& G., 1905–06, 39
  • Addendum to Old Public Libraries D. & G., 1906–7, 176
  • Some Incidents in Troqueer (1690–1710) D. & G., 1909–10, 138
  • The Market Cross of Dumfries D. & G., 1910–11, 201
  • The English Raids on Dumfries, 1570 D. & G., 1910–11, 217
  • Letters of Horning directed against the Armstrongs, 1582 D. & G., 1910–11, 298
  • On the name Dumfries D. & G., 1911–12, 231
  • The End of the Greyfriars' Convent of Dumfries D. & G., 1912–13, 303
  • The Raid of Dumfries on Lammas Even, 1508 D. & G., 1913–14, 78
  • A Unique Example of the National Covenant, 1638 D. & G., 1913–14, 111
  • Strathspey Fencibles at Dumfries, 1795 D. & G., 1914–15, 166
  • Notes on the Topography of Dumfries D. & G., 1914–15–166
  • Letters anent the Rebellion, 1745 D.& G., 1919–20, 179
  • Two Dumfriessians in London in the 14th Century D. & G., 1920–21, 58
  • Notes on the Arms of the Royal Burgh of Dumfries D. & G., 1923–24, 160
  • Carsluith Castle D. & G., 1925–26, 247
  • Two Pioneer Galloway Agriculturalists D. & G., 1925–26, 247
  • A Play and Revels in 16th Century Dumfries D. & G., 1928–29, 96
  • Durisdeer and Literary Men of 18th Century D. & G., 1928–29, 172
  • A Group of Burial Urns found at Palmerston D. & G., 1930–31, 79
  • Dumfries Printers in the 18th Century D. & G., 1931–33, 129
  • The Standing Stones of Torhouse D. & G., 1933–35, 153
  • Fragmentary Notices of the Burgh Schools of Dumfries D. & G., 1936–38, 105
  • Mr Peter Rae, Printer Glasgow Bibliographical Society Vol. I
  • Caerlaverock Berwickshire Naturalists' Club Vol. XXVII
  • The Family of Biggar J. Maxwell & Son Kirkbryde Gallovidian Annual,1926


  • June 1932, Presidential Address to Scottish Library Association
  • June 1933, Presidential Address to Scottish Library Association
  • June 1929, The Scottish Public Book Service, Address to the Scottish Library Association
  • [No date], An Advocates' or the Scottish National Library
  • December 1936, Our Public Book Service, Dumfries Rotary Club
  • 1910, 'John Hyslop, the Postman Poet' The Gallovidian
  • 1913, 'Gilbert Malcolm Sproat; a Canadian Pioneer', The Gallovidian
  • 1926, 'The Mairtyrs Crown'; a Covenanting Episode in one Act — (Reprinted from The Scots Magazine)
  • 1926, 'The Scotland of Robert Burns'; a Play
  • November 1925, 'The "45'''; a Chronicle Play — Dumfries Guild of Players



  • Gleanings from Dumfries Weekly Magazine;
    Robert Fergusson's Dumfries
    Fair Helen of Kirkconnell
    Low's '' Mary's Dream''
  • Prisoners of War in Scotland, 1811–14
  • Prince Charlie at Dumfries — a Play adapted for Broadcasting
  • Books as a Responsibility
  • Auchinleck and Boswell
  • The Scottish Ballads — an Introduction
  • The Royal Theatre, Dumfries
  • Socialist Books and Socialist Theories
  • Address to Guild of Players — undelivered
  • On Beautifying Dumfries
  • William Morris, 1834–96
  • Professional Obstructions — an Address prepared for the Scottish Library Association, and Letter thereanent from Edgar Parsons
  • Herr Rip von Winkle — a Topical Entertainment
  • The Gentlest Art
  • Making a Local Collection
  • Children's Rhymes and Singing Games
  • Ibsen's Social Dramas
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • The Place of the Public Library in the Community The Dramatic Movement in Scotland
  • The Function of Prose Criticism
  • Comrades of the Great War — Some Personal Reminiscences
  • The Power behind the Capitalist
  • Some Possible Effects of the War
  • The Ultimate aims of Socialism
  • Prose Fiction in Public Libraries


MSS sufficiently advanced to be practically ready for publication:

  • The Common Lands of Dumfries and an Early Rental
  • Notes on Auldgirth Bridge
  • Highways and Byways about Dumfries
  • Dumfriesshire Roads and Bridges
  • Life in Dumfries in 16th Century
  • Notes on the Placenames of Dumfries
  • Titles to Burgh Land in Troqueer
  • Memoranda on Right-of-Way on the Nith
  • Titles to Nith Fishings
  • Brownhall and Districts
  • Holywood — Historical Notes
  • Some Sidelights on Lagg
  • A Day in Dumfries

Extracts from Burgh Court Books re St. Michael's Church and Chapels of Dumfries.

  • Six Notebooks:
    • 1506–1537
    • 1521–1562
    • 1563–1572
    • 1572–1578
    • And two others
  • Notebook on Logan's Tenement
  • Burgh Court Book, 1506–1507–8.
    1516 –1519. Apparently a Transcript.
  • Folder containing odd Antiquarian Notes
  • Folder containing loose notes on Dumfries Schools
  • Bundle of notes and pedigree drafts on the Biggar Family
  • The Gracie Family — Correspondence notes and deeds
  • Corsane Memoranda in folio notebook
  • Volume of press cuttings of articles, etc., by Mr G.W. Shirley
  • Parcel of Prints of Early Dumfries

And Bound Volumes:

  • Miscellaneous
  • Presbytery Records, 1647–53 and 1687–92
  • Barjarg Records

R.C.R. & H.S.G.

Articles by this author