MarySmith’sPlace – #Book launch #Successful

Keith Kirk and I enjoyed our launch party for A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History. I think the folk who turned out on a filthy wet miserable evening enjoyed it too.

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Our lovely, receptive audience

I was in my usual panic mode, convinced no one would turn up, especially as a trickle of ‘sorry, I can’t make it after all’ emails came in and the rain never stopped all day. The first thing we did when arriving at the venue was to haul chairs out and hide them in a store room so the place would not look too empty. Then, as people started arriving, we had to haul them back out again.

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Standing room only at the back

Keith’s granddaughters did a sterling job, meeting, greeting and directing people to the room then taking round the bowls of nibbles.

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The three lovely helpers in the front row (photo credit Keith Kirk)

We kept the introduction to the book fairly short – Keith talked a little about the photography aspect, I read out a few of my favourite entries in the book and we answered questions before urging everyone to enjoy some more Prosecco. And, of course, we pointed out A-Z of Dumfries is a wonderful Christmas gift and offered to sign books.

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Keith and I doing our stuff

Since then we have done a book-signing in the museum on Saturday morning and it was lovely to see people who couldn’t make the launch come to buy a book or two.

Next Saturday, December 07, we’ll do our final book signing, which will be in Waterstones – just perfectly timed for Christmas shoppers – as long as they don’t have to post them abroad. I took in some posters and fliers plus photos from the book so they could make a display in the shop – ousting Billy Connolly from his advertising spot!

If you are in Dumfries on Saturday, we’ll be in Waterstones from 11am to 1.00pm

After that, we are available to talk to groups and organisations about the writing and photography process that went into A-Z of Dumfries – a fine companion to Secret Dumfries.

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A few people have asked about book launches and whether it’s worth doing them so after our last book signing I’ll put something together with a more detailed account of what we did and how successful – or otherwise – it has been.

MarySmith’sPlace – #NewBook

Thrilled to announce the birth of a new book!

A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History by Mary Smith (yep, that’s me!) and Keith Kirk is now out.

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The town of Dumfries, in the south-west of Scotland, known as The Queen of the South, became a royal burgh in 1186 and grew into an important market town and port in the mediaeval period. During its often turbulent past, Dumfries played an important role in the Wars of Independence as the starting point of Robert the Bruce s campaign for the Scottish throne, and later hosted Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite army. The poet Robert Burns spent his last years in Dumfries and in the 18th and 19th centuries the port of Dumfries benefited from trade with the Americas, as well as being a major exporter of tweed. During the Second World War Dumfries was home to the Norwegian Army in exile and although the port has closed today it is the administrative centre for the Dumfries and Galloway region.

In A-Z of Dumfries we delve into the history of Dumfries, revealing interesting and significant moments in the story of the town. The book highlights well-known landmarks, famous residents and digs beneath the surface to uncover some of the lesser known facts about Dumfries and its hidden gems.

While I wrote the text, this fascinating A-Z tour of Dumfries’s history is fully illustrated with Keith’s fabulous photographs.

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Devorgilla Bridge, built in 1431 and the oldest surviving multi-spanned bridge in the country

Obviously some of the people and places in the book will be known to local people. Some Doonhamers may know Goldie Park is named after Jean Goldie who left a bequest for a park to be created in Maxwelltown. Few, however, will know it was Jean’s mother who gave Sir Walter Scott the plot for his Heart of Midlothian novel.

While most will be aware of Burns and Barrie’s associations with the town perhaps not so many know of James Hill, a Dumfries doctor who made enormous contributions to the 18th century treatment of cancer and head injuries.

We’re delighted the book has come out in time for Christmas – it’s the perfect gift for Doonhamers at home or abroad – and for anyone who is interested in Dumfries.

A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History (published on November 15 by Amberley Publishing) is available in bookshops and other outlets including Amazon.

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Young visitors at the Camera Obscura at Dumfries Museum

For those who live anywhere in the region, Keith and I would be delighted to see you at our celebratory party to welcome the book into the world with some fizz on Tuesday, 26 November at the Rutherford/McCowan Building on the Crichton Campus at 6.30pm. Let me know so we can make sure there’s enough of the fizzy stuff to go round.

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Wallace’s Loaning

Then, on Saturday, November 30 we’ll be at Dumfries Museum from 11am to 1pm to sign books and on Saturday, December 7 we’ll be doing another book signing in Waterstones from 11am to 1.00pm.

MarySmith’sPlace – Granny Black & the Old Bridge House

In a previous post about my summer as a museum attendant in the Old Bridge House, Dumfries, I showed our Victorian dentist’s surgery, which you can read here. This time, let me introduce you to Granny Black who was a resident for over forty years.

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Granny Black

In the early 1900s, the council divided the building into two, three-roomed flats. The three rooms consisted of a bedroom, kitchen and parlour. There was no electricity, running water or sanitation. The latter was probably dealt with by emptying the contents of chamber pots into the river. Fresh water was certainly being piped into the town by then so drinking water would have been available, possibly from a nearby standpipe or  a well.

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Dressing table in the downstairs flat

Annie Black (nee Lind) and her husband, John, moved into the first floor flat around 1910. Annie was illegitimate and worked as a farm hand before she married. They had six children, including one set of twin girls.

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We know very little about John Black. He’s been described as earning his living as a ‘jobbing painter’ – guessing this means painting houses rather than pictures. The only other things we know about him is that he liked to drink – his grandson James Murray said it was his greatest talent – and that he died after an accident when drunk. Outside the building are large sandstone ‘skite’ stones, put in place when the house was built to protect it from being struck by wagon wheels. John Black fell down drunk and cracked his head on the skite stone. This may be why the couple only had six children at a time when families of ten were not uncommon.

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Cradle and child’s high chair

Annie, or Granny Black as she became known, worked as the local midwife. She also laid out the dead. A number of visitors of the museum told us their grandmothers or great aunts did the same job, attending to both the beginning and end of life.

Granny Black and her downstairs neighbour went together every week to the public laundry where she always had the use of the best tub. She could also have a bath as above the laundry was the public bathhouse where people could pay for soap, towel and half an hour’s soak in a hot bath. She also liked to sit in the doorway to the flat and knit while watching the world go by – she would have known everyone and everything that went on in the area.

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The laundry and public baths on the right, sadly, demolished as is the swimming pool pictured on the left.

She died around 1955 at the age of eighty-six. After Annie passed away the council made the decision to turn the building into the museum it is today.

Her grandson, whose mother was one of Granny Black’s twin girls, James Murray remembers going to stay with his grandmother in the Old Bridge House. He is professor emeritus of applied mathematics at University of Washington and University of Oxford, known for his authoritative and extensive work entitled Mathematical Biology. What a leap in two generations. I am pretty sure Annie Black made sure her children did their homework!

MarySmith’sPlace – Visiting Neverland

Today a friend and I went to Neverland, that magical island which was home to Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. We were visiting Moat Brae in Dumfries the garden of which J M Barrie maintained was his inspiration for Neverland. As it was Doors Open this weekend, entrance to the house and garden was free and we were amongst hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors taking advantage of this. Normal entrance fees are £6.50 for adults, £5.00 for children aged five and over and £2.50 for toddlers.

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The exterior of Moat Brae

In 2009, owner of the historic building, Loreburn Housing Association planned to demolish it and build affordable housing on the site. An action group was formed to save and restore the building and garden and it has now opened as a visitor attraction and a National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling.

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The dining room can be hired for events

Moat Brae, which takes its name from the motte or earthwork castle which once stood on the site, was designed in 1823 by local architect Walter Newall for Robert Threshie, a local solicitor. He lived in Moat Brae with his family until 1841 when it was bought by Mrs Babbington, a minister’s widow followed by, on her death in 1863, by Henry Gordon. This is where the J M Barrie connection comes in for Henry Gordon’s two sons, Henry and Stewart, attended Dumfries Academy where they became friendly with James who was living with his older brother Alexander, a schools inspector.

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Peter Pan

The boys spent many hours playing in the gardens by the river. Barrie wrote later: “When shades of light began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles and crept up trees and down walls in an odyssey which would long after become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work.”

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The house passed out of private ownership and was for many years a private hospital and nursing home. In 1914 it was purchased by the Royal Scottish Nursing Institution and was given the title Moat Brae Nursing Home providing a private facility for surgery and medicine and also respite care for the elderly. Later, a businessman from Paisley bought it but was unable to secure the funding he needed to turn it into a themed hotel and sold it to Loreburn Housing Association.

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It is a beautiful house, possibly better appreciated when it is not full to overflowing with excited children and harassed parents. Plenty of activities are available for children in the various rooms including staging a play with scripts available, creative spaces, and lots of things to see and do. The garden is lovely but I have to admit I didn’t feel the magic. Children were obviously having a great time playing on the Jolly Roger. Part of me couldn’t help thinking (grumpy old woman coming to the fore) J M Barrie didn’t need a whacking great pirate ship to feed his imagination.

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Peter Pan flew round the room and also Tinker Bell, which I couldn’t capture. One little girl had a total melt down, floods of tears, every time Tinker Bell flashed by.


MarySmith’sPlace – O is for Old Bridge House #OpenWide

In A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History, each letter of the alphabet has its own chapter and O is for Old Bridge House in Dumfries, where I have been working as a seasonal museum attendant this summer.

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The kitchen – no sink as there was no running water when it was occupied.

Dating back to 1660, and built into the structure of the 15th century Devorgilla Bridge, it is the town’s oldest domestic building. James Birkmyre, a cooper (barrel maker) built the sandstone house as both his family home and workshop. The town council of the day, worried about his house blocking the bridge insisted the front of the house did not protrude beyond the line of the bridge parapet. He doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of such planning restrictions.

Seen from the bridge, the building looks as though it is only one storey but from the back it can be seen there are two and in fact, when it was built, there was a lower floor which is now beneath the level of the ground. Over the years the house has been an inn, possibly a secret meeting place for Covenanters (using the principle of hiding in plain sight?), a family house and two council flats (more about that in another post) before eventually being turned into a folk museum. Most of the six rooms are crammed with artefacts depicting every-day life from the last couple of centuries.

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Recognise items here?

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The school room/toy room

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The scariest doll ever!

One room is filled with Victorian dental equipment. I really hate going to the dentist. When I was five or six years old I was thrown out of the school dentist’s caravan because I wouldn’t stop screaming. The fear has remained ever since, exacerbated by being given gas before having teeth removed because the dentist said my jaw was too small to accommodate all my second teeth. I still remember the horrible smell of the gas and coming round thinking I still had to endure the ordeal, despite spitting blood everywhere.

You can imagine how I felt about having to show visitors the Victorian dentist’s surgery in the museum. All the equipment, including the dentist’s foot-operated drill, the stand for the gas canister, the cabinets full of false teeth, the pliers and the chair, were donated by the son of a dentist – Dr Dykes – who had a practice in Dumfries.

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Sorry about the reflection in this pic – those are teeth.

The smell of dentistry assails you as you enter the room. One visitor asked if we had a special spray to make it smell that way but, no, we don’t. The odour has seeped into the fabric of the red velvet chair – red velvet, I heard my colleague inform a tourist, disguised the blood stains.


Countless people have stood in that room over the summer telling me their personal horror stories of the dentist. School dentists in the 1950s have a lot to answer for with regard to the state of population’s (of a certain age) teeth. Jane was treated to the story of a woman who even remembered Dr Dykes. One Christmas Eve, aged twenty-one, pregnant and suffering from toothache she called on him. She remembers him putting the gas mask over her face and when she came round it was to find he had removed not only the troublesome one, but all her teeth. She said she went home and cried all night. He probably believed he was doing her a favour.

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The Chair

At one time, people were given the removal of all their teeth as a wedding gift or a twenty-first present. At one time, children were paid to have healthy teeth extracted. At one time, soldiers lying dead on the battlefield had their teeth extracted for use in dentures. We often shake our heads and mutter that the ‘progress’ we make in many areas of life does not always make things better but in dentistry things have definitely improved.

I still hate going to the dentist – have an appointment today for a check-up so didn’t sleep well last night and the horror stories I’ve heard over the summer are not helping. Does anyone else remember the school dentist coming round in his caravan? Or the smell of gas?

MarySmith’sPlace – How I’ve been spending my summer

The title sounds a bit like those essays we were set in school on ‘How I spent my summer holidays’ except this isn’t about holidays. I had to take a blogging break this summer to focus on writing a local history book for Amberley Publishing: A-Z of Dumfries- Places-People-History, in collaboration again with photographer Keith Kirk. Also, because I am once again working as a seasonal museum attendant, this time at the Old Bridge House museum.

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Old Bridge House Museum – the oldest house in Dumfries, built in 1660

The deadline for the book was August 01 and I’d really hoped to finish it before then as I started my museum job on July 01 and I didn’t want to be coming home from working one job to spend the evening working on another job. Of course, I didn’t succeed in finishing it early – but did make the publisher’s deadline.

Each letter of the alphabet has its own chapter and some letters have more than one entry. While most A–Z guides are designed as route finders, this one invites readers on an alphabetical tour of discovery of some of the places and people, past and present, which have contributed to creating the Queen of the South, the town of which Doonhamers are, rightly, so proud.

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The Caul (weir) on the River Nith

Many of the town’s streets were named after the topography; others were named in tribute to worthy citizens whose names probably mean little to younger people nowadays. Work on the book has been enlightening, on occasions frustrating – street names change for no apparent reason; Doonhamers have an endearing way of giving directions that take in landmarks long since knocked down such as the swimming pool (‘you know where the swimming pool was?’), or have been under a different name for many years – such as Young’s Corner (‘We always met at Young’s Corner’). It will be interesting to see if future generations continue with this practice or if one day the site of the old swimming pool will no longer be a referral point.

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The Globe Inn, favourite pub of Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns. Under new ownership it’s currently being refurbished but should be open soon.

Some letters provided an abundance of place names and names of famous people or landmarks (we could have filled the entire book with Bs and Cs) while others, X and Z were a bit thin on the ground. We think we’ve come up with really good entries for both of those!

As always, the research has been fascinating and we made some exciting finds – a medieval sandstone carving of a bagpipe playing pig above a fish and chip shop being the most exciting.

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The Piping Pig

Publishing date is November 15 – perfect for Christmas sales. It’s already on Amazon for pre-order even though the publisher hasn’t yet put up the cover. Keith and I think we know how it will look as he sent in some cracking images for it. I’ll provide more info nearer the time with some more sneak peeks into the book.

Credit for all photos in this post to Keith Kirk.

MarySmith’sPlace – At home with Rabbie Burns

Over the last couple of months I’ve had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of people from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Poland, Slovenia, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland – and two Russian speakers from Israel. I’ve probably missed a few nations from the list but it gives you a flavour of the international appeal of Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns. Robert_burns

All these people have been to the Robert Burns House museum in Dumfries, where I’ve been working as a temporary attendant this summer (the main reason for the lack of regular blog posts!). Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns lived here for the last three years of his life with his wife Jean Armour (who lived on in the house for a further thirty eight years after her husband’s death) and five children.

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Robert Burns House, Burns Street, Dumfries

Last year 15,000 people came through the door to explore his home with its four rooms full of exhibits from his life and work, both as a poet and exciseman. Sometimes, doing the introductory welcome I felt a bit like an estate agent describing the house’s ‘must see’ features: “This would have been the parlour, kept for entertaining, across the passage is the kitchen with original range and larder and upstairs are two bedrooms – the box bed was not Robert’s but it a period piece of the time – and a small study. Make sure you look at the window in the study to see where Robert scratched his name on the glass with his diamond ring.”

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The kitchen with origial range – and the flagged floor Jean Armour and swept




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In one of the two bedrooms.

After a summer of reading about, talking about, answering questions about Scotland’s Bard, I’m still not sure what I make of him. Definitely a complex character. Undoubtedly, a great poet, a man who loathed hypocrisy, especially that of the Church and a socialist who believed in equality. I don’t believe he was an alcoholic. He liked a drink – but he lived in hard drinking times (and the water was none too safe) – but I don’t believe anyone could be such a prolific writer if he spent most of his time drunk.

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The first edition of Burns’ poems: The Kilmarnock Edition

He was a womaniser, that’s for sure. His wife deserves a sainthood for what she put up with, even bringing up one of his illegitimate daughters as her own. And yet, she made a huge effort to ensure his name was kept alive, welcoming visitors such as Wordsworth and Coleridge to the home she’d shared with Rab.

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Bonnie Jean. Sadly the only portaits of Jean were in her later life so we don’t know how she looked when young.

It’s a museum, yes, but it’s clear it was a family home. There’s no suggestion of it being haunted but it has a lovely, homely atmosphere and a strong feeling of connection to Robert and Jean. That could be because we usually have Eddi Reader singing Burns songs on a loop. No one sings his songs like Eddi Reader. When sweeping the flagstone floor in the kitchen I often found myself thinking that Jean Armour swept this same floor all those years ago.

The Robert Burns House museum is a must-see if you are ever visiting Dumfries. Or, if you live in Dumfries and haven’t yet been to see it, do go along. Several people over the summer admitted they’d lived in the town all their lives but never visited. One visitor said she’d walked past it for over forty years before finally, this year, she decided to come inside. She says she’ll definitely be back.

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The Mausoleum where Burns is buried in St Michael’s Churchyard, Dumfries.



MarySmith’sPlace – 5 minutes on the telly

A couple of months ago when Keith Kirk and I were launching Secret Dumfries we were thrilled to be invited to be filmed on ITV’s popular programme Border Life.

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Of course, the programme could not be seen to advertise our book. There was a mention of a new book out but I don’t think they even gave its name.

Despite initial nerves (mine anyway, don’t know about Keith – he seemed very relaxed), we had a fabulous day. Presenter Lori Carnochan met us with cameraman Paul Robinson at Crichton Hall, formerly the Crichton Royal Lunatic Asylum. Here we explored the basement with its fantastic wine cellars where the wealthy patients kept their wine supplies. And debated the mystery of the ‘secret tunnels’.

Camaraman Paul, had me and Lori walking down the stairs umpteen times, and another umpteen times to walk along the corridor before he was satisfied he had the shot he wanted. It was fascinating to see how the filming is done – and to understand just how long it takes to get enough for a segment on the programme.

After we finished at the Crichton we went into town to walk along the Whitesands beside the River Nith and it was Keith’s turn in the spotlight. He talked about the finials along the railings. Dumfries and the river were looking wonderful. In the programme, his part comes first though it was filmed later. I’m so glad I didn’t have to edit it – must take days.

Anyway, here’s the link 

If you don’t want to watch the whole programme – though I suggest you do as it showcases a new whisky distillery and the new art gallery in Kirkcudbright – our section starts about fourteen minutes in.

Let me know what you think of it.

Secret Dumfries is available on Amazon.


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.