Dalbeattie is a busy town lying on the east side of the Urr Water close to its highest navigable point some 15 miles south-west of Dumfries and 5 miles south-east of Castle Douglas. It occupies a focal position in the road network serving the coastal communities along the north side of the Solway Firth, and provides a useful base from which to explore this fascinating area.
The origins of the town you see today largely date back to 1781 when two local landowners, George Maxwell of Munches and Alexander Copland of Kingsgrange, leased out land on ether side of the Dalbeattie Burn for development. What emerged was a planned double settlement, differently aligned on the two sides of the burn, but given a harmonious appearance by the widespread use, even in the most humble buildings, of an attractive light grey granite.
Look a little further afield, however, and there are signs of a much longer history of settlement in the area. The remains of a number of bronze and iron age hillforts have been found on the high ground flanking the valley of the Urr Water.
There are also indications that the Romans built a fort in the shelter of Buittle Hill, on the west side of the Urr Water opposite the site of Dalbeattie. This probably served to defend a port on the Urr Water which the Romans used to supply their military excursions into Scotland.
Some say that the Roman fort here was the location in AD82 or AD83 of a mutiny by an auxiliary cohort recruited from the Usipi tribe whose homeland lay on the banks of the River Rhine in what is today Germany. The Usipi auxiliaries killed their Roman officers and a force of Roman legionaries who were helping with their training. They then captured three Roman ships and set sail for home, having to round the north of Scotland en route. The story of the mutiny of the Usipi is told by the Roman author Tacitus in his book "The life and character of Julius Agricola". According to him, some of the mutineers survived their long and difficult voyage, though only by resorting to cannibalism. On eventually landing in what is today the Netherlands, the survivors were captured by the local tribes and sold into slavery.
Move forward in time to the 1700s, and the potential of the Urr Valley was beginning to be exploited. Three factors came together to convince the local lairds to cooperate in the development of Dalbeattie. One was the presence of the fast-flowing Dalbeattie Burn, which since the 1600s had been used to drive mills of various types. And the second was the site's easy access to harbour facilities on the Urr Water, which were also well established by the late 1600s.
But the third factor in the growth of Dalbeattie was by far the most important. Glacial erosion in the last Ice Age carved out the valley of the Urr Water, exposing on both sides large outcrops of high quality granite. The clue to the growth of Dalbeattie lies, literally, in its buildings, in the light grey granite from which virtually the whole town was constructed, from the town hall down to the humble rows of quarrymen's cottages.
Granite found on the surface had long been used for agricultural building in the area, but in the 1780s a quarry was opened not far from Dalbeattie to produce millstones, a business that was to continue until 1903, when the price of a pair of millstones was £3. Other quarries rapidly followed, the largest starting work in 1810 at Craignair Hill, on the opposite side of the Urr Water from Dalbeattie.
At the height of the industry, in the first decade of the 1900s, Dalbeattie's two largest quarries were between them producing and shipping out 70,000 tons of granite each year. In the 1820s, large quantities of Dalbeattie granite were used in the development of Liverpool Docks. Other notable destinations for local granite included the Thames Embankment in London and a number of lighthouses including the Eddystone Lighthouse and the lighthouse marking the southern tip of Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, many of the streets of London, Liverpool and Manchester were paved with cobbles made from Dalbeattie granite. Today only one granite quarry remains in use, largely producing material for roadbuilding: but evidence of the industry - in the form of its grey granite buildings - remains on view wherever you look in Dalbeattie.