In Their Footsteps

Meeting date

Morag Williams

Presidential Address


Meeting report

The opening, illustrated talk of the new season of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society (DGNHAS) was given by the retiring President, Morag Williams. The topic was In their Footsteps which featured three local personages, in whose footsteps she had followed in some way.

Mrs Elizabeth Crichton (1779–1862) was her first and obvious choice, as Morag had worked as Health Board archivist on the Crichton site for 26 years. Elizabeth, nee Grierson, spent her early years in Mouswald Parish at Rockhall until her marriage, while Morag lived in Mouswald Village, also until she married. Both had strong connections with Mouswald Church. The Grierson family, as landed gentry, merited privileged seating there and the family's burial enclosure is located on the south-west side of the church.

Morag's admiration for Mrs Crichton is based on the remarkable legacy to psychiatry that she bestowed in the form of Crichton Royal Hospital by means of trusteeship of the fortune of her husband, Dr James Crichton. She remains the greatest benefactress to the mentally ill that this country has known. The fact that her original desire, the establishment of a university in Dumfries, was realised 170 years later proves that dreams do come true, even if posthumously.

The second subject is less well known but he is also a very worthy individual. His name was James Gilchrist (1813–1885). During his early years in the parish of Torthorwald he and his mother faced great poverty and hardship after the death of his father and young sister from T.B. Nevertheless, by dint of perseverance and intensive evening study he progressed from Dumfries Academy (reached on foot daily) eventually to Edinburgh University (institutions attended by Morag, too), from which he graduated in medicine at the age of 37.

He served two periods on the staff at Crichton Royal, firstly as medical assistant 1850–1853 and as physician superintendent 1857–1879. He continued the enlightened caring regime desired by Mrs Crichton from the outset. During this time the hospital buildings expanded and the first farm, Brownhall, was purchased. He was often seen guiding the convalescent patients on geological and botanical field trips. Concerts, some held in his own residence, were a feature of his years of service.

He was a founder member of DGNHAS and served the society as president 1874–78. He contributed 24 papers to the Transactions, its journal.

Dr Gilchrist was twice married and had two high-achieving sons by his first wife.

The Gilchrist Conference Room within Easterbrook Hall was, on Morag's recommendation, named after him.

The third choice of study was Robert Corsane Reid (1882–1963), whose forebears held illustrious positions nationally and internationally: his grandfather was Sir James Reid, a member of the Supreme Court of Justice in the Ionian Islands; his father was an advocate and Queen's Remembrancer for Scotland; and his uncle was Robert Threshie Reid Q.C. and M.P. for Dumfries Burghs, known as Earl Loreburn of Dumfries.

R.C. Reid was educated at Cheltenham and Trinity College, Cambridge, after which he was called to the Bar. His promising career on the national scene was cut short because of a youthful injury to one leg and the onset of problems with his eyesight.

He was another personage with strong Mouswald connections. He inherited the family estate at Mouswald Place, encompassing the farms of Mouswald Banks and Cleughbrae.

He returned with his wife Helen to live at Cleughbrae in 1920. Mouswald Place was sold in 1925. He gave sterling service in local government as county councillor for Mouswald and Torthorwald 1929–1958. The honorary degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred on him by Glasgow University in 1958.

Dr Reid recommended the young Alfie Truckell as curator for Dumfries Museum. Despite great opposition, he was the power behind the establishment of Gracefield Arts Centre, another wise move on his part. In recognition of the fact a bronze head of Dr Reid by the highly talented sculptor, Benno Schotz, is lodged at Gracefield.

His contribution to DGNHAS was unequalled. He had a passion for archaeology, archival research, history and genealogy. He served as secretary, editor of the Transactions (to which he contributed 140 papers in all) and President (1933–1944.) The Ewart Library holds 196 volumes of his self-indexed manuscripts. He penned a publication, entitled Mouswald Kirk, to mark the rededication of the church in October 1929. It was in that church that a memorial service for him was held in April 1963.

As president of DGNHAS, Morag has for the last three years been involved in vetting applications for funding for archaeological research projects to the Mouswald Trust, set up by Dr Reid. In his presidential address he recommended membership of the Society: "Antiquarians are not old fogies and both history and pre-history should make some appeal to a secondary-school teacher! It has always been surprising to me that so few of the teachers in our secondary schools have shown an interest in our activities."

The full text of the President's Address is available as an Adobe pdf file.