THE TOWN of Sanquhar in Dumfriesshire is like many small towns dotted around Scotland. It is old - in this case dating back to the 8th century - and is long past its heyday. It has a wealth of history, including a striking castle ruin, and lies amid exquisite scenery. A quiet and unremarkable little place nowadays, its glory lies in the past.
Unremarkable, that is, unless you take the time to explore. Try looking beyond Sanquhar's pretty town centre with its shops, tearoom and cash machines to a building on the town's High Street. It can boast something truly remarkable. For if you send a postcard from Sanquhar Post Office you will have sent it from the oldest post office in the world.
It is one of those little-known facts that makes you stop and wonder - why here? Of all the millions of post offices in towns and villages throughout the world, why is the oldest in a quiet picturesque town nestling in Scotland's Nith Valley? There is no true answer, it wasn’t planned and like so many odd facts and figures, just happened that way. It does, however, owe its existence to a long-gone society, in which the local aristocracy held enormous influence and the strategic location of towns like Sanquhar (pronounced SANK-er) was a matter of great importance.
Sanquhar people are proud of their town's history. The post office has been operating continuously since 1712, eight years longer than its closest rival, in the Swedish capital Stockholm. The third oldest, in Santiago, Chile, opened a full 60 years after the office in Sanquhar.
The Sanquhar post office had long been accepted as the oldest in Britain and was thought to date from 1763, but research carried out around 15 years ago by postal historian James Mackay revealed it has been operating since 1712 - making it the oldest in the world.
Ken Thompson, who has owned and operated the post office for the last 16 years, says: "We are looking at a different history, a different perspective on life, one that does not exist today."
At the time the post office started, the Crowns of England and Scotland had not long been united. There was considerable activity in the border areas of both lands and one of the most important and influential families of the day was the Crichton family, who owned Sanquhar Castle.
In 1712 a service known as the Nithsdale cross-post was established with mail-runners on horseback delivering messages among the landed gentry on both sides of the Scottish-English border. According to Thomson, it was effectively a "spy network", and where better for its hub to be located than in Sanquhar, home of the influential Crichtons and handily placed between the larger towns of Dumfries and Cumnock.
"It was the earliest form of post and it was confined to the aristocracy," says Thompson. "This house was originally a place where coaches halted and fresh horses were available and it was set up to receive mail. It belonged to the Crichton family and was nothing like we imagine a post office today. Nor was it the first of its kind but it’s the oldest one to have survived. We have stayed the course, we have been here from the beginning."
The Crichtons fell out of favour in the late 18th century and the dominant landowners in the area became the Buccleuch family of Thornhill. By that time, however, a postal service was becoming an established part of life and, as Thompson says: "No-one paid much notice to this building but as one of its lives as a post office was waning and dying, its other life as a post office was growing."
When Scotland's national bard Robert Burns was alive in the latter part of the 18th century he was great friends with the owner of Sanquhar post office, and the fireplace in the living room of the building was constructed from elm trees grown by Burns at his farm at Ellisland Farm, near Dumfries.
Sanquhar post office's historical importance is recognised by the Royal Mail. Thompson is the only postmaster in Britain allowed to stamp a date when a letter is posted or a card sent. The frank reads "Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire 1712".
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