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.