Upper Nithsdale was first inhabited just after the last ice age cleared Scotland, around 10,000 years ago. Archaeological finds around Sanquhar include Neolithic tools, a crannog, a dugout canoe and evidence of Briton and Roman forts. The name Sanquhar actually derives from the Celtic words, saen caer, meaning "old fort" or "old town". In times long past, Sanquhar was on the main routes from east to west and from north to south and grew under the protection of the castle. In the late 1100s, King William I created a Burgh of Barony, giving Sanquhar the right to elect a town council and to trade. In 1598, James VI advanced Sanquhar to the status of Royal Burgh, the ultimate honour that could be bestowed on a Scottish town, conveying considerable powers and privileges. Sanquhar depended on farming and weaving until its industries began to develop in the late 18th century. The production of woollen and cotton goods, brick making, iron forging, carpet manufacturing and cheese making all provided employment. Coal mining, in the pits between Sanquhar and Kirkconnel, became the area's staple industry, employing over 1000 men, until the pits closed in the 1960s.

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