The Geography and the Town
The history of Douglas has been dominated and dictated by the surrounding geography.
First of all the name of the town itself comes from the combination of the Gaidhlig words Dubh and Glass meaning ‘dark water’ or ‘black stream’ -the ancient name for the Douglas Water.
In Scottish surnames it is common for a person to be named after a geographical locale or landmark, hence the Douglas family. In England it is far more common for a location to be named after a person than it is in Scotland (this is a testament to the Anglo-Saxon takeover of Britthonic lands).
Determining what form of agriculture took place in the Douglasdale -and the surrounding agricultural hubs of Ayrshire, Dumfrieshire and Galloway- is another way in which the physical relief of the hills and dales made their mark upon the town.
The countless glens, rivers and woods which criss cross the region also made the area a convenient place to stage ambushes, campaigns of military resistance and rebellions. The Black Douglas’ guerilla tactics, the secret open-air conventicles of the Presbyterians who defied Charles II and the way in which hordes of covenanters were able to emerge from -and disappear back into- the landscape is testament to this. All of which shaped the history of Douglas and the surrounding area.
Another way in which the landscape has shaped the town is via it’s role in our ancestor’s decisions as to where the village and her key sites should be actually situated:-
Douglasdale, the Douglas Water’s valley, roughly runs East-West. But it loops North-South as it approaches the flatter land of Clydesdale.
It is here that the town of Douglas is situated, where it is sheltered from the prevailing Westerly wind by Hagshaw hill.
The town has mostly been situated above the Douglas Water on a brae -a Scots word for a steep bank or hill which usually slopes into a burn or river- to reduce the risk of flooding. On the summit of this hill it can still get really windy but there used to be a market garden there so the wind evidently looses much of it’s strength by the time it reaches the village.
The Douglas Castle, however, was placed closer to the river as it served both as a defensive barrier and as a source of water.
The Castle is itself perfectly situated: sandwiched between the Paigie Hill and the Hagshaw hill it guarded the village -and the the upper half of Douglasdale- from the lower laying plain of the River Clyde to the North and East.
Douglasdale is a navigable route through the Southern Uplands, connecting Ayrshire to Clydesdale, and so it was strategically important. It is small wonder therefore that there has been a fortification here for near a millennia -at least.
There are other paths by which one can travel from Ayrshire to Lanarkshire and beyond, but the Douglasdale route is by far the most direct.
Heading through Douglasdale from Ayr one arrives at a fork.
North East takes the traveller to Lanark and the Clyde valley from which they can turn North and West towards Greater Glasgow.
East will carry the traveller to Biggar and then either North East to Edinburgh via Penicuik or East through to Peebles and down into Tweedale and the Scottish Borders.
Or, Lastly, one can follow the Clyde upstream -South East- towards Abington -the site of a Roman fort- before they reach Moffat, Dumfrieshire and then Carlisle.
This latter route takes the traveller to the Southern tip of Clydesdale before crossing over a short rise into Annandale.
Annandale is one of only two routes which runs more-or-less directly North-South through the Southern Uplands; that great natural barrier which stands between Northern England and Scotland’s ‘central belt’.
The other route directly North from England -and Dumfries- is Nithdale, but that glen happens to spill out onto Ayrshire; meaning the traveller would have to cut East again or hug the coast until they reach the Clyde if they wanted to get to the ‘central belt’.
Therefore Annandale, the valley of the m74 motorway, was -and is- the most travelled route between central and Southern Scotland (and the North of England).
Nevertheless, Douglasdale, guarded by Douglas Castle, just so happens to connect the Nithdale and Annandale routes.
(This map shows a releif of Southern Scotland. From 12 o’clock, going clockwise, you can see the Clyde, the Tweed, The Annan, The Nith, and the Ayr Rivers: all shown in blue. In red you can see the path of the Douglas Water, running into the Clyde near Hyndford Bridge at Lanark.)
(This map shows the various paths through -and around- the Southern Uplands. Black show the North-South routes. Blue Shows the East-West routes. Note the location of Douglas -the Red dot- and Douglasdale -roughly this is the area within the red circle- in relation to the blue and black paths. In purple are the paths through Galloway’s uplands into Ayrshire. In White are the paths which cut through the Southern Uplands connecting Dumfrieshire with Tweedale. The Red routes are those which connect Glasgow and Edinburgh. The orange dots on the paths are notable settlements and pit-stops for the travelers of yesteryear. Note how Douglas dominates a central position.)
All this means that travelers going from Ayr to: Lanark; Clydesdale; Tweedale; The Borders; and/or Edinburgh had to either pass through or pass close by Douglas and her castle.
And Travelers from Dumfries, Carlisle and beyond who were headed for: Lanark; Clydesdale; Edinburgh; and/or Glasgow also had to pass by or close to Douglas and her castle.
It is because of this strategically important position on Scotland’s trade routes -and on the main military supply chain for an invading army- that the Douglas town, castle and family rose to prominence.
Even before people were speaking Gaidhlig in Scotland people lived in the Douglasdale area. A neolithic stone axe head has been found on the Paigie hill and ‘blasting’ evidence from stone-age furnaces has been recovered from Glentaggart which runs into Douglasdale from the South.
For centuries Douglas and the surrounding regions made their living out of agriculture (and the occasional war). Mining, forestry, quarrying and some factories which capitalised on the town’s location came later. Much of the employment in these sectors is gone now (some are missed more than others) and the maps of Douglasdale today shows villages which have all but disappeared. Douglas itself, now mine-less, train station-less, garrison-less, factory-less and castle-less save for a ruin, is a shadow of its former self.
But the history, preserved in this museum, is rich indeed.