Paul Kirkwood traces the origins of the bicycle in Dumfriesshire.
The principal defies logic but is the basis of my favourite invention: it’s easier to balance on two wheels if you’re moving along than it is standing still. I no more believed it to be so when I was being pushed around the garden on my first bike by my father than my children believe me now when I’m the one providing reassurance amidst the wobbling.
Since those days I’ve learned to love the bike. I’ve cycled to schools, colleges and jobs and on expeditions to all corners of the British Isles. Now I was cycling to the place where it all began. I suppose you could call it a pilgrimage of sorts – to the home in Dumfriesshire of Kirkpatrick Macmillan, the man that invented the pedal-powered bicycle in 1840.
I began in Dumfries by cycling from the station towards the River Nith via Shakespeare Street. For a town so strongly associated with Robbie Burns and close to the border such a street name seems magnanimous to the English to say the least.
I was bound for the start of the Kirkpatrick Macmillan Trail. The route initially weaves its way along traffic-free cycle paths beside the river, over the main roads and through suburbia then, suddenly, you’re among the rolling hills.
My previous ride was in Perthshire at Easter when everything was brown and wild. In contrast, Dumfriesshire in late spring was gentle and bushy green. The landscape looks like Wales and often sounds like England (many of the locals are from round the corner in Cumbria) but is, of course, a corner of Scotland – and an undiscovered one at that. Most people blast up the A74 bound for Glasgow and on to the Highlands but a trip out west is a treat. Scotland for softies, I call it.
I stopped for my first rest in the sunshine outside the village stores in Dunscore. The postman had a conversation with someone in an upstairs window as I read an account in the local paper of a visit to The Stewartry (as the region is known) by Prince Charles and Camilla. I had been in Castle Douglas – one of the towns they had visited – at the same time but, unknowingly, was queuing in the Post Office while the walkabout took place literally 100 yards away. The only royalty I saw was the Queen’s head on the stamps I bought. Ah, well. Still ruing the missed opportunity I pressed onwards.
I next passed the ruins of Lag Tower which was home to the Grierson clan from the early 16th century. The tower was burnt down by a fire in the 18th century and never lived in again. The only beings that pass through it today are the sheep from the neighbouring farmyard.
The Trail follows the bottom of a valley and then edges out into the open again towards Keir Mill, my main objective. Just outside the village is the Courthill Smithy, home to Kirkpatrick Macmillan. As it happens, he was living and working in Glasgow at the time of his invention but he learnt his trade here and at nearby Drumlanrig Castle. Two plaques on the gable ends of the smithy record his achievements. One says “He builded better than he knew”, referring to the fact that Macmillan didn’t seek any commercial gain from his invention and it wasn’t even fully developed and marketed by anyone until some 60 years later.
The smithy is private and unassuming, a museum waiting to happen. For now, though, bicycle historians can find out more by travelling a few miles further north to the Scottish Cycling Museum within the grounds of Drumlanrig Castle. On the final approach sheep scuttled along in the road in front of me, their dirty bottoms bobbing ever more vigorously up and down as I sped up.
The museum houses a collection of bicycles through the ages including a reproduction of Macmillan’s prototype. The feet of cyclists didn’t rotate as they pedalled but went from side to side on treadles hanging from the front which were connected by steel rods to the rear wheel which drove the contraption. Another exhibit is a Swedish bike from the eighties made entirely from plastic. The unusual material was supposed to help with maintenance but it also made the bike unrigid and the concept never caught on.
Set within acres of gardens, nature trails and mountain bike routes, the castle is home to the ninth Duke of Baccleugh and eleventh of Queensbury, the largest private land owner in Europe. Built in 1690, it contains paintings by Holstein, Gainsborough and Rembrandt. There’s also the bedroom where Bonnie Prince Charlie and Neil Armstrong spent the night – more than 200 years apart, I hasten to add. The astronaut had been researching his family history in the area and stayed at Drumlanrig as a guest of the Duke. Prince Margaret was another former guest.
Soon after setting off from Drumlanrig the views open up and the Lowther Hills, one of the ranges that put the ‘up’ in Southern Uplands, come into view. A golf ball-shaped crown that encloses a Civil Aviation Authority radar station appears pimple-like at the end of a ridge. In a field in the foreground of the scene I spotted my first Galloway cow or “Beltie” as the breed is nicknamed. The name comes from the white belt that wraps around the girth of their otherwise black bodies. While indigenous to the region, they are found as far afield as Alaska and Australia.
The road then threads its way along a wooded valley shared by the River Nith, main road and railway until it reaches Sanquhar (pronounced ‘Sank-er’ and meaning ‘old fort’). Isolated and surrounded by bare, smooth hills with neatly delineated forests, the town from a distance looks like something from a railway set.
It’s notable for three features: its castle, the oldest post office in the world and the Tolbooth Museum. The latter’s grandeur reflects the breadth of its role – which was much more than just collecting tolls. Originally it served as council chamber, library, public meeting room, school room and records office. The museum it houses today includes samples of the geometrical patterns that characterised the town’s knitting industry in the 18th century. Knitters made the patterns complex to make them hard to copy and protect their livelihood. One of the most popular was named ‘The Duke’ after the town’s castle-owning neighbour.
Macmillan regularly used to cycle to Dumfries. I’d enjoyed following in his tread marks in the other direction as well as the extension to Sanquhar but, as I dismounted at the station, a train seat back to where I started was suddenly more appealing than a saddle. Even for me.
Distance: The Kirkpatrick Macmillan Trail is 24 miles from Dumfries to Drumlanrig. The extension from Drumlanrig to Sandquhar is 12 miles.
Directions: Pick up a leaflet on the Kirkpatrick Macmillan Trail from any Tourist Information Centre such as the Centre at the start of the Trail located by the main bridge over the River Nith. From Drumlanrig you can either return the same way or continue north to Sanquhar and catch the train back. For this option, leave the Drumlanrig via the main drive and turn left signed ‘Baccleugh Estates Works Department’. At first t-junction turn right at a home-made sign to Sanquhar. Twice the minor road approaches the A76 but on each occasion turn left to continue in same direction and on the left side of the river. At t-junction on outskirts of Sanquhar turn right over bridge and right again for town centre or sign to station.
Bike hire: Grierson & Graham Cycle Centre, Dumfries, 01387 259483. Nithsdale Cycling Centre, Dumfries, tel 01387 254870.