One of the oldest standing bridges in Scotland crosses the River Nith in Dumfries. Devorgilla Bridge is also sometimes known as Devorgilla's Bridge or the Old Bridge and is named after Devorgilla, Lady of Galloway, the mother of King John Balliol.
All the land to the west of the River Nith traditionally formed part of Galloway, which only truly became part of Scotland during Alexander II's reign in the 1230s. Dumfries was therefore a frontier town for much of its early history and had grown up on the east side of a ford that provided the lowest crossing point of the River Nith. By 1186 the town was sufficiently well established to be made a Royal Burgh.
According to some sources the first bridge was built across the River Nith at Dumfries during the 1260s by Devorgilla, Lady of Galloway. No trace of this bridge has ever been found, and if it existed at all it seems very likely that it was made of wood.
There is rather more evidence for the immediate predecessor of the bridge you see today. Construction began on a stone bridge in about 1430, and a papal indulgence of 1432 recorded the Pope's approval for a call for subscribers to pay for the completion of the bridge. This bridge survived for a little under two centuries before being partially destroyed in a major flood in 1620 or 1621. Once more accounts differ, but it seems that the east half of the bridge was swept away and what was left might well have been severely damaged.
Work soon began on what amounted to either major repairs of what was left of the earlier bridge or its complete rebuilding from scratch. The result was a nine arch bridge which spanned a distance of over 200ft. There is a stone on the north side of the bridge carrying an inscribed date of 1610, but this appears to have been inserted in the late 1800s after being taken from a derelict house, and as a result is completely misleading about the date of the bridge itself.
Devorgilla Bridge is made of the same red stone which is found in so many Dumfries buildings. The arches are semi-circular and perhaps the most striking features of the bridge are the massive triangular cutwaters on both its upstream and downstream sides. Clearly after the loss the earlier bridge the designers of its replacement wanted to be sure it could stand up to anything that the temperamental River Nith could throw at it. Built into the south side of the west end of the bridge is Old Bridge House, now a museum.
In 1794 reclamation work on the eastern side of the river resulted in its narrowing and in the creation of what is now Whitesands. The eastern three arches of Devorgilla Bridge were deemed no longer necessary and removed, leaving access from that end via a flight of 12 steps, and a bridge that now spanned a distance of 163ft. This was possible because 1794 also saw the building of the New Bridge or Buccleuch Bridge a little to the north of Devorgilla Bridge, which removed the need for the old bridge to carry wheeled traffic. Devorgilla Bridge continued to carry pedestrian traffic, and still does so today.
Since 1925 Dumfries has also had a second road bridge, St Michael's Bridge, over the Nith a little under half a mile south east of Devorgilla Bridge, while a second pedestrian bridge, the rather fine Nith Suspension Bridge, was erected in 1875. Given the propensity of the River Nith for frequent and sometimes violent flooding, the main surprise is that the bridges that cross it at Dumfries have survived so well.
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