MarySmith’sPlace – Secret Dumfries

Secret Dumfries has now hit the book shelves – well, it’s certainly on Amazon because I checked earlier and they’d already sold all but one copy. 51zyoVlFK0L

Photographer Keith Kirk and I have really enjoyed working on this book. It’s a book Doonhamers will love. A Doonhamer is a person born and bred in Dumfries, south west Scotland. The expression came about when people from Dumfries worked in the factories in Strathclyde during the war. At the weekend they would say they were going ‘doon hame’ (down home) and the name stuck.

Doonhamers – wherever they might now live – love their town and its history and the people who made it. Much has been written about Dumfries, its history, trades and markets and about the famous people – Robert Burns, J M Barrie for example – connected to the town. We wanted to unearth some of the lesser known aspects of the town’s history and shine a spotlight on some of the almost-forgotten people who should be remembered.

One of my favourites is Miss Jessie McKie, the first and, so far, only woman to be given the Freedom of the Burgh. The daughter of a wealthy businessman, she used her inheritance to build public baths, a washhouse (a steamie), carry out the widening of the bridge on the main road into the town and was even proprietor of the Theatre Royal in Dumfries, Scotland’s oldest working theatre.

057 (Custom)

Miss McKie’s silver Burgess casket

Many Doonhamers have never heard of Miss McKie, nor of Blin Tam, the bell-ringer who, despite having lost his sight as a child when he contracted smallpox, was the chief bell-ringer at the town’s Midsteeple for about 65 years. Although Patrick Miller was not technically a Doonhamer – more of an in-comer – he made a lasting contribution to the estate and village of Dalswinton near Dumfries. He may (or may not) have been responsible for introducing the swede to Scotland, courtesy of a gift of seeds from King Gustav 111 of Sweden. And he wanted to develop the first paddle boat powered by steam, a wish he achieved on 14 October, 1788 on Dalswinton Loch with, reputedly, Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns on board.

058 (Custom)

Replica of Patrick Miller’s steamboat

We were determined not to focus on Burns as he is most definitely not a secret. However, we did give him a mention because not everyone knows how often the poor man was dug up and re-interred.

Keith is a wildlife photographer so he is used to working at distances from his subjects using long lenses, so he used this technique with many of the photographs in the book. Some of these photos are of things people may well walk past on a daily basis without realising they’re there. People spend so much time these days on their phones as they walk the streets and seldom look up at the splendour and intrigue of the buildings around Dumfries. For this reason, we have included a chapter called Remember to look up!, which includes photos of three heads looking down on pedestrians and a rare fire mark indicating the building was insured against fire.

066 (Custom)

The rare fire mark indicating the building was insured. It was no unknown for firemen to ignore the uninsured building on fire next door!

We’ve thrown in some witches and public hangings (Dumfries was the last place in Scotland to hang a woman in public, an event which probably helped lead to the eventual repeal of capital punishment) and a visit from William Hare of the infamous Burke and Hare partnership.

And we’ve included the Dumfries rhinoceros with baby on top of a pretend bus shelter because, you know, every town should have one.090 (Custom)

Although we’re sure Doonhamers, both at home and abroad, will love Secret Dumfries it has much of interest to anyone interested in history and people. It is available on Amberely Publishing website, on Amazon as well as in bookshops in south west Scotland.


No More Mulberries with Mary Smith

I was intrigued when Mary Smith asked me if she could present an extract about Afghan food.  Always keen to learn more about food and other cultures, I invited Mary to present an extract from No More Mulberries. The feast of food is a treat for the senses. This extract from No More Mulberries comes … Continue reading “No More Mulberries with Mary Smith”

Source: No More Mulberries with Mary Smith

MarySmith’sPlace – Canadian birthday bash

I’m just back from my first ever trip to Canada with souvenirs, photos, lots of memories – and about 20 new family members I’d never met before. Obviously, I didn’t bring them home with the souvenirs, but I hope they will visit me in Scotland so I can repay some of the hospitality they showed me.

Grandmas 90th-0058 (Small)

I won’t name them all, but this is a huge chunk of my newly met Canadian family.

My Aunt May’s 90th birthday was the catalyst for making the trip. My dad’s sister, she went to Canada before I was born but we met whenever she came ‘home’. She usually came over on her own and I never met my cousins. When they did visit Scotland I was away from home.

My aunt kept in touch, usually by phone, and when she had a stroke my cousin, Grace emailed to let me know and she and I continued to correspond. As my aunt recovered, she resumed her phone calls. Once, I was asking questions about family and she said: “You’d better come over here so we can talk properly!” Then, my cousin reminded me it was her mum’s 90th birthday and so I booked my flight.

I was to be the big surprise at my aunt’s birthday party. Grace had been planning a dinner at home but when she realised how many were coming wisely decided to book a room in a restaurant. I admit I was feeling pretty nervous as we drove there. My cousin Grace and I had been blethering like old friends since I arrived – but would meeting everyone else be the same?

Grandmas 90th-0007 (Small)

I think the big reveal was a big success

Grandmas 90th-0009 (Small)


Grandmas 90th-0040 (Small)

Happy birthday, Aunt May

I’ll do some more Canadian pics next time – this post is just for me and Aunt May!

MarySmith’sPlace – National day of the bunion

As a journalist I receive a lot of press releases, most of which are of little interest to me or the publications for which I write.

One came in yesterday, announcing that it was National Bunion Day. Now, why would a PR person send a press release on the actual day? If it’s to be taken up by the media it needs to be on our desks a little bit more in advance. And what is it about these random National Days?  I’m all for days or weeks in which camapigners try to raise awareness of serious issues – Alzheimers, cancer, MND.

Looking at April’s national days I see there’s been one for deep dish pizza, caramel popcorn day, walk around things day, national teflon day and buried in the midst of this was SAAM Day of action (SAAM being sexual assault awareness month) which is worth knowing about.

Anyway, National Bunion Day was on the 26th June. You can mark it in your diaries now though I don’t know if there will be another one next year. The press release was to advertise a shoe company (solebliss) which makes comfy, stylish shoes for women with bunions. I’m not sure where men with bunions can find comfy shoes, but it seems out of the 14 million people in the UK with bunions, 10 million of those are women. Still leaves quite a few men in agony.

  1. The greatest risk factor for developing bunions is genetic. If a member of your family has bunions, then you are more likely to suffer too.
  2. Shoes don’t cause bunions, but tight fitting pointy shoes can make them worse.
  3. Over a third of women over 30 suffer with bunions.
  4. Gel pads worn over the boney prominence and available from pharmacists can help cushion the bunion and reduce the pain.
  5. Once a bunion is formed, it can only be corrected by surgery.
  6. You can also buy splints from the pharmacist to keep the big toe in the correct position overnight.
  7. There are several different surgical treatments available. It is not just one simple operation.
  8. Bunion surgery is a bigger deal than people expect. Depending on the operation, you can expect to be unable to drive for up to 6 weeks and it can take 12 weeks or more for a full recovery.
  9. Up to 1 in 4 bunions can recur after surgery. The greater the angle of the bunion at the time of surgery, the greater the risk.

Now you know. And just take a look at this lovely line up of women who have bunions.

megan bunion

Quoting straight from the press release: “With a huge range of A-List celebrities including Meghan Markle, Victoria Beckham, Naomi Campbell, Jennifer Lopez and Amal Clooney having bunions, it can be difficult to understand why the condition is still hugely embarrassing and has so much a stigma for many women across the world.”

I wonder if they are going to have them surgically removed – or just seek out comfy shoes.

Do you feel stigmatised by your bunion?

Mary Smith’s Place: Twitter stranger danger?

twitter-logo-600pxWe warn our kids not to do it. Never to get involved in private chat to total strangers on social media. Not ever. You don’t know who or what they might be – sex pest, serial killer, stalker … And now – now I’ve gone and broken the rule. What can I say? He’s a man in a kilt. And, it turns out, a sex worker. Well, a male escort – but let’s not allow semantics to get in the way of a good story.

When I saw the notification of a new follower I did what I usually do – carried out a few checks. He wasn’t an American Army General and he wasn’t a lover of ‘my country, Trump and God’; the ones I automatically block. So far so good. His bio was inoffensive: climbing and walking in the Scottish Highlands. Nothing about being a sex worker. I saw we had a number of mutual followers (quite a few are writers; some are even followers of this blog!). Besides, who can resist a man in a kilt? I followed back.

He sent a DM saying thanks for the follow, then a merry Christmas wish a few days later – and a picture of the drum kit from his sister – and then we were talking about Hogmanay celebrations. I was going to a party for oldies and he was joining the Edinburgh New Year’s party – in his kilt. He’s young.

Well, I say he’s young but how would I know? He could, as I pointed out to him, be fat, bald and fifty (or sixty or seventy). He tells me he works in a gym and also has a personal fitness trainer. Sends me photographic evidence of bulging muscles, which, of course, I immediately delete – but, hey, it could be a photo of anyone, couldn’t it?


Okay, I fibbed – I ‘forgot’ to delete this one

On social media how do we know? How can I tell if this person is a fantasist, a pervert or actually quite a nice guy? And why would a fit young guy want to keep chatting to a decidedly unfit woman twice his age? Brigitte Macron, I am not! Although if Emmanuel came knocking on the door…

Occasionally, he would be a bit flirty, making suggestive remarks I didn’t like. I told him once he came across like a sleazy Donald Trump. He apologised and promised not to cross that line again. Just in case he turned out to be a stalker, I made a point of telling everyone about his existence, including the DH. When, a few weeks ago he suggested we meet to walk together I actually found myself thinking about – ‘til I woke in the morning with a vision of a newspaper headline in my head – ‘Body of 64-year-old woman found on Highland mountain.’

When he told me he worked for five years for a male escort agency I was a bit taken aback. Before then (or maybe at the same time) he played rugby until an injury put paid to that career option and left him with recurring back problems, which require visits to the physio and chiropractor, especially after a weekend of escort duties. I’m guessing those duties don’t only consist of wining and dining or attending business functions – which is what the articles about male escort agencies I’ve read would have us believe. He’s freelance now.

When I said I was going to a fancy ‘ladies who lunch’ fundraising event he suggested sending me some business cards to distribute. “I’d never be invited again,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sure you would be,” he replied. Did I mention he’s very sure of himself? Totally up himself to an overwhelming degree.

“Besides, wouldn’t that make me your pimp?”  My son has since informed me that if the business cards are only advertising escort services then it wouldn’t be pimping (note to self: how does my son come to be so well informed about such things?). Of course, by now I’m fascinated. I’m a writer, I’ve never met a male sex worker before; how could I not be?

I say met but, of course, we haven’t met. I vetoed the walk on the mountain. If we ever meet it will be in public, surrounded by lots of people. He was going to come to my next book launch – but before you all clamour for an invitation, he’s not going to be there. A change of date meant it clashed with a family celebration for his sister’s birthday. That made me think he quite possibly is a nice guy. And sometimes he makes me laugh.

Oh, if you aren’t already following him on Twitter let me introduce you to PeaSea:


The man in a kilt




MarySmith’sPlace – Turtle watching

“Come quietly,” hissed the man with the flashlight. It was one o’clock on a moonless night and as we stumbled after him in the dark our feet sank in soft sand.

The sight of the huge creature provoked various reactions. Three-year-old-child already over-excited by being out of bed and on the beach so late, let out a piercing shriek of terror as the monster from the deep moved towards him. Abdul Ali, a refugee from landlocked Afghanistan, where the most exotic aquatic creature to be seen is a fresh water crab, launched into a wild jig, whooping enthusiastically. The guide, forgetting, in his fury, to whisper, yelled at us to be quiet.


Green turtle

It takes at least an hour for a turtle, using her strong front flippers, to dig a thirty centimetre deep, circular pit. Sitting in this depression she then, with her back flippers, creates a cylindrical shaft, with sides so smooth it is difficult to believe a precision engineering tool was not used. While engaged in this digging work, however, turtles are easily distracted. Our particular turtle, alarmed by the sudden cacophony of noise turned around and trundled off back to the sea. In the gleam of the torchlight as she turned away I imagined I saw an expression of quiet resignation on her wrinkled leathery face.Consumed with guilt at having interrupted an ancient ritual – pre-dating the extinction of the dinosaurs – we returned to the vehicle to gag child and admonish a sulky Abdul Ali. Our guide, Hamid, after giving us a short, pointed lecture on the need for silence, disappeared on reconnaissance.

Once the egg laying begins, nothing – neither screaming children, nor flashing lights – will disturb the turtle or stop the process. I’d even heard of people standing on a turtle’s enormous hard-shelled back (the creatures can weigh up to 180 kilos while the carapace can measure three and a half feet in length) while she laboured to lay over a hundred, ping pong ball-shaped eggs.  After covering the clutch with sand, she makes a dummy depression next to it to confuse predators.

All the while, silent ‘tears’ trickle down her wrinkled, pre-historic face. They are not, of course, real tears but a design of nature which allows sand to be washed from her eyes. Despite this scientific, rather prosaic explanation, however, there seems to be something ineffably sad about the whole business for, after all her efforts, the mother turtle returns to the ocean – never to see her off-spring.


Back in the 1970s the Green Turtles and the smaller Olive Ridley species were on the verge of extinction. Sindh’s Wildlife Management Board established a project to protect the Karachi turtles and their eggs in 1979. Gangs of students can now no longer find the buried eggs – stealing them for their supposed aphrodisiac properties – by following the tell-tale, five foot wide ‘caterpillar’ tracks on the sand. The Wildlife Board employs local people to dig up and re-bury eggs in protected hatching grounds. Karachi bakeries can no longer use turtle eggs as a cheap substitute for poultry eggs and the export of turtle meat to Southeast Asia, particularly Japan, has also been stopped.

Despite the intervention of the turtle conservation project the survival odds are not great. Crabs, crows and stray dogs forage for eggs on the shore, the hatchlings get picked off on their way to the ocean and once there fish and other sea creatures find them tasty. Then there is the danger of fishing nets. The mother swims thousands of miles, digs for hours, pops out 100 ping pong balls – only one of which might survive to become a grown up turtle – a bit more digging then back to the sea for thousands more miles of swimming. Perhaps they are real tears, after all.

As we waited for another turtle to choose a quiet spot I wondered if this, my second attempt to see the egg-laying was also doomed. The first occasion was when friend Firasat obtained his company’s beach hut for a day. A dozen of us, including children, squashed ourselves into a Suzuki van. Wedged in beside us and under our feet were water coolers and thermoses, pots and pans and mysterious cloth-wrapped bundles from which wafted appetising aromas of biryani, chicken korma and still-warm nan bread. There’s none of your cling-film wrapped, soggy tomato sandwiches and a packet of crisps when a Karachi family goes on a picnic.

IMG_0001 (Small)

Sunset at the beach, Karachi

In the evening, we dined in style by candlelight, which was when the trouble started. Attracted by our candles hundreds of moths – some very big – came swooping out of the dark. Firasat’s sister flapped at them with a towel but when a huge, black, unidentified winged creature whirred past her head she let out a piercing shriek. We blew out the candles. The beach was full of strange night sounds which, despite Firasat’s assurances, unsettled his sister further. “When will the turtles come?” she quavered.

Her school teacher sister, Ferzana, sighed. “Oh, for goodness sake, Shabanna, be patient.  They don’t appear before midnight.”

Shabanna checked her watch. “It’s only nine o’clock, now,” she moaned. She suddenly clutched my arm making pitiful squeaking sounds of fright. “Oh, my God, what’s that?”

“Well, hey,” I muttered as I peered in the direction she was staring, “I’m the foreigner here, no good asking me.” Something very large and very tall was loping silently along the beach. Definitely not a turtle.

Firasat soothed her. “It’s only a camel.”

Twenty minutes later, as yet another huge flying beetle sort of thing dive bombed her – deliberately, she maintained – Shabanna, we led her back to the safety of the van and abandoned our turtle watch.

Now, it was looking as if my second attempt to see a turtle was not going to be any more successful. Habib returned. He’d found another turtle further along the beach and was prepared to take us in pairs to see her digging her nest but then, so we would not disturb her – a glare in Abdul Ali’s direction – we should remain in the van until she began to lay the eggs. This might be after one, maybe two hours.

Child, finding himself being led away from the safety of other humans towards the great, dark unknown became almost as hysterical as Shabanna had been with the beetles. Sadly, we decided to give up.

Hamid, though clearly relieved by the decision, took pity on our disappointment. He disappeared again returning after half an hour carrying two buckets from the turtle nursing centre. They contained hundreds of hatchlings, each the size of a ten pence piece. Excitedly, we crowded round. It was clearly the closest we were going to get to the famed, giant turtles on this occasion. Sadly, an exhausted child and fed up Abdul Ali missed them – both were sound asleep.



Mary Smith’s Place – Double celebrations

No more tweaking, no more juggling text to fit the pictures or moving pics to fit the text: we hit send on Friday. As the publishers have the weekend and Easter Monday off it means I can totally forget about Secret Dumfries for a few days. A couple of large g&ts were consumed on Friday night.

The other celebration is because the female osprey has returned, one week after the male. Last year they arrived on the same day.

The male, Black 80, first found his way to Threave estate ten years ago. He was originally from Wales, which is quite fitting as the name Threave possibly comes from the Old Welsh word y tref meaning settlement or homestead.

Osprey 03

Courtesy of photographer Keith Kirk

Since last Friday Black 80 has been keeping himself busy bringing sticks to the nest. He’s not very good at arranging them, though, just piling them ever upwards. The nest grew about a foot in height.


Black 80 brings another stick to add to the nest. Another of Keith Kirk’s pics

The female will have a lot of rearranging and organising of the living space to do. He has attracted some unwelcome interest from red kites and had to do a fair bit of ducking and diving while carrying a stick to the nest. A cheeky crow took to chasing after him for a while and a buzzard showed some unwelcome interest but he persevered.

Then, on Good Friday, after I hit send, I went to see if the female had arrived. I’ve been watching the ospreys for several years but have never witnessed the courtship ritual of the sky dance. I’ve seen it here on YouTube and it looks pretty amazing:

As soon as I saw the nest, I knew she was back, had a quick look through my binoculars and hurried on to the viewing platform, which is about 350-400 yards across the river from the nest. The National Trust for Scotland volunteers are there every day while the ospreys are here. They have a powerful telescope set up so visitors can view the nest and watch the activities of the ospreys and the chicks.

Now, I know we should not anthropomorphise. These magnificent creatures are not human, not in any way but… Oh my goodness. That poor female had flown all the way from West Africa; she must have come through rain because the volunteer said she was wet when she arrived at the nest. Five minutes later, Black 80 jumped on her. I mean, really? No courtship ritual, no sky dance, no cup of tea and a ‘rest your wings’ just a ‘let’s be having you, girl. Been here a week on my own, you know.’

Osprey 04

NTS Threave Ospreys and Estate The happy homecoming

Not only had he been on his own at the nest for a week, the pair hadn’t seen each other since she flew off in September last year. The female leaves the nest first, leaving the male to make sure the fledged chicks are capable of fishing for their own food. While it is astonishing to think they fly all the way to Africa and all the way back to find each at the nest, what I find even more astonishing is that the chicks head off on a flight they’ve never made before.

After the fifth or sixth time of mating, Black 80 flew off. We wondered if he had gone to catch a fish for his mate. He came back with a stick. I think it’s fortunate they don’t have speakers set up in the nest. I have a feeling she might have used a few choice words. But then, what do I know? Perhaps a stick is a totally acceptable gift to an osprey which has flown all the way from Africa. I think she’d have preferred a fish.

I’m not a dedicated bird watcher but there is something so special about the ospreys, I have to visit on an almost daily basis to what’s happening. If I can’t make it during the day when the volunteers are there with the telescope and up to date info I go down in the evening and meet the regular walkers and osprey watchers. It’s like a social club.

The Dumfries & Galloway osprey population is increasing and hopefully, this year we will see more chicks arriving at Threave and in other sites around the region.

MarySmith’sPlace – Secret Dumfries – a wee taster

I thought I’d be fully back in the blogosphere by now. Last week I’d written up all the chapters for Secret Dumfries and most of the ‘Did you know…?’ boxes leaving only the acknowledgements and bibliography to finish. The sun was shining so I went off for a stroll round the Osprey walk feeling ridiculously happy with life. Big mistake!

I sent off an email query to the publishers to check how much leeway they give on the word count. The guidelines say between 20-25,000 words and mine was likely to be a little bit over by the time picture captions were added in. Even at the ‘no more than 10 words per caption’ that adds another 1,000 words. Back came the reply to say the maximum text allowed is 20,000 words. I say but the guidelines states 20-25,000. They say, ‘Please check your contract.’ Oops! Much cutting and chopping and grinding of teeth followed. They did give me an extra couple of thousand words so as long as each caption is under – well under – ten words each, I’ll do it.

I thought I’d share one of my favourite ‘secrets’ from the book.

‘Around Dumfries the land is littered with prehistoric sites from Bronze-Age burial sites to cup and ring markings. The Twelve Apostles, the largest stone circle in mainland Scotland, is only a couple of miles from the town.

One Druid circle, however, is not what it seems. Half a mile from Friar’s Carse Hotel, a few miles from Dumfries, on a hilltop is a stone circle. Although the trees make it difficult to see it in its entirety, the circle is about 31 metres in diameter with some thirty-three stones ranging in height from 1 to 1.5 metres with a 1.8 metre pillar in the exact centre. Outside the circle is a rectangular cist.

Druids Circlenear Friars Carse090320184-HDR (Small)

The circle is a folly created by Captain Robert Riddell (or Riddel), an enthusiastic antiquarian, when he owned Friar’s Carse in the eighteenth century. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was an obsession with building follies: from towers to classical ruins.

The authenticity of the circle, though, has fooled people over the years – and possibly still does. Alexander Thom, famous for his studies of Stonehenge and other megalithic sites, surveyed the circle in 1939. He said: ‘This is reputed to be a fake but we believe it to have been an original megalithic site. The workmen who re-erected it could not have determined the azimuth of the small cist within 0.2 degrees of due east.’ In 1948, naturalist W. Balfour-Browne said: ‘it is now so weathered as to take in anyone. It should be a warning to all antiquaries.’

Even though the stone circle is a fake it has been built on top of a genuine iron-age fort with moat banks and ditches and although the circle only appeared in the 1780s its stones are ancient. No one, however, knows from where Captain Riddell took them. Similarly, a medieval cross standing outside the hotel is another mystery – a genuine cross but, again, not belonging to Friar’s Carse.’

We are nearly there. Photographer Keith Kirk is taking some last minute photos and then all (!) we have to do is match the images to the text.

I’m taking time out tomorrow because the osprey is back! He has circled the nest a few times so I’m going to go and see what he’s up to tomorrow.

MarySmith’sPlace – Still writing

I thought I’d take a wee break from my self-imposed blogging and social media embargo to let everyone know I’m still here. I’ve really missed reading posts and being on Facebook, but have to admit it has freed up a lot of time for Secret Dumfries.

I’ve   still a lot to do so after this it’ll be head down and crack on. The finishing line is in sight – has to be as the deadline is fixed.

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few little snippets from the chapters I’ve been writing. One chapter called ‘Hidden in plain sight’ is about the Whitesands along the River Night which runs through Dumfries.

Walking on from the kinetic hangings and the curved railings beyond the Devorgilla Bridge, we come to Matt Baker’s granite sculpture of Lady Devorgilla. Many people must walk past without realising a sculpture is on the river side of the wall beside a flight of steps. She is set into the sandstone wall, looking across the river. The figure was inspired by Lady Devorgilla Baillol who reputedly had the first wooden bridge across the bridge built in the thirteenth century.

Matt Baker’s sculpture of Lady Devorgilla looking across the River Nith, Dumfries

She was the daughter of Alan, Lord of Galloway and married John Balliol when she was only 13. In her own right she was a wealthy and powerful woman. Although her husband founded Balliol College, Oxford (for poor scholars) she made a permanent endowment to the college to secure its future. She also founded Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries. On the death of her husband she established a Cistercian Monastery at New Abbey, a few miles from Dumfries. She had his heart embalmed and carried it with her in an ivory casket. When she died she was buried at the abbey church she had founded, with her husband’s heart beside her. Is this a romantic tale, or is carrying your dead husband’s heart around a bit weird? The monks clearly decided on romantic, calling the abbey Dulce Cor, meaning sweet heart.

Lady Devorgilla frozen in time

Now, carved in granite from salvaged harbour kerbs, Devorgilla stands gazing serenely across the caul. When the River Nith floods, which it does frequently, the sculpture is partially submerged and becomes part of the river in a powerful way.

Originally, a second part of Matt Baker’s installation was situated on the other side of the river. It was a translucent etching of a woman about to cross the river, laminated in glass with an oak frame. She was there for nine years before being destroyed, in 2007, by spring floods.

I heard the story of William Peck while on a tour of St Michael’s Churchyard – you meet such interesting characters in graveyards – I knew we had to use it in the book. The tour was conducted by the Mostly Ghostly team, best described as a combination of ghostbusters and local history guides.

St Michael’s Church built between 1741 and 1746. Pillars supporting the roof are from an earlier church and date back to around 1500. Poet Robert Burns worshipped here and is buried in a Mausoleum in the churchyard.

William Peck was not a native of Dumfries but he died in the town and is buried in St Michael’s churchyard, in the military corner to the left of the entrance. The words on his flat gravestone are scarcely legible now and don’t give much hint of the incredible story behind them. It reads: ‘In memory of William Peck, Esquire, late Surgeon of the King’s Own or 4th Regiment of Foot, a man of amiable character and good dispositions, eminent and useful in his profession. He deceas’d at Dumfries the 11th day of January 1769, in the 52nd year of his age. This monument is erected by Robert Riddick, Esq. of Corbeton, as a testimony of friendship, and in gratitude for valuable professional services.’Robert Riddick had good reason to feel gratitude for William Peck’s professional services. Mrs Riddick had a serious problem with her leg, described as a ‘dangerous malady’ which none of the physicians she consulted was able to alleviate. One night she dreamed that someone saved her life by amputating her leg. In the morning she told her husband of her dream and described the man who had carried out the surgery. Some weeks after this, the King’s Own Regiment or 4th Regiment of the Foot came to Dumfries and crowds lined the street to watch them march through. Amongst the crowd were Mr and Mrs Riddick and she recognised William Peck as the man who had appeared in her dream. Her husband approached the surgeon who agreed to examine Mrs Riddick’s leg.

As in her dream, the only solution was to amputate. She must have been in agonising pain to undergo such treatment. This was in the 18th century, before anaesthetic was available and when the risk of dying from infection following any surgical procedure was extremely high. The surgery was successfully carried out; Mrs Riddick survived and went home restored to health.

Some years later, Mr Peck, still serving with the regiment, took ill and, hoping a change of air would aid his recovery, returned to Dumfries to visit his friends the Riddicks. Here he died and was buried in St Michael’s under the monument erected by a grateful Mr Riddick.

Secret Dumfries will be published in mid-June.  Better get back to it.