A saint’s retreat on a coast of estuaries and rocky coves
With its sheltered harbours, wide marshy estuaries and rocky coves, this coastline was once a haven for smugglers. The town at the head of each estuary once supported a large fishing fleet, but since the decline of fishing these towns have become centres for farming and for tourism. The religious conflicts of the 17th century brought the notorious ‘Killing Times’ to the area; but today quiet elegance is its keynote.
At the northern end of this sandy bay is the beautiful hamlet of Auchenmalg. Catches of flatfish, bass and mullet can be taken from the shore, and boats can be hired for good offshore sea-angling for dogfish, tope, rays and conger. A much longer beach extends to the south, from the roadside parking area at Craignarget’s bay.
On the Mull of Sinniness, just to the west of Auchenmalg Bay, a private house still retains the name of Sinniness Barracks. The barracks were built in the 1820s for a company of 50 revenue men, sent to stamp out the Solway smuggling trade.
The 18th-century harbour at Stair Haven, 2 miles north of Auchenmalg Bay, is all but derelict. Lobster fishermen still sail out of Stair Haven’s bay, and a picnic site has been laid out above the rocky shore.
Built along a pebble beach at the foot of low hills, this bright village is a holiday and sailing centre, and a base for shark fishing in Luce Bay. Skate and rays are also caught -boats can be hired – and good catches of cod and bass have been made from the shore. The curving harbour is left dry at low tide.
The coast road along the rocky shore to the north leads, after 5 miles, to the remains of the 10th-century Chapel Finian, built near a landing place used by Irish pilgrims on the way to St Ninian’s Kirk at Whithorn.
The long sandy bay below the village of Monreith curves round to the Point of Lag, one of the most attractive miniature landscapes on the Solway coast. The point separates the safe sandy beaches of Front Bay and Back Bay, and a sheltered picnic area is reached by a road behind Back Bay dunes. The St Medan golf course occupies the middle hills.
Looking down on Front Bay is the ruin of Kirkmaiden church; the wind-sculptured trees that tower above it show the force of the prevailing south-westerly winds.
ST NINIAN’S CAVE
The first Christian missionary to Scotland, preceding St Columba by some 150 years, was St Ninian, who founded a church at Whithorn in about AD 397 after returning from a pilgrimage to Rome. A cave among the shoreline cliffs which was his place of retreat is reached from a car park at Kidsdale, by a pathway down the wooded Physgill Glen. Christian crosses have been carved into the rock of the cave. An annual church service is held there, but although the cave may be approached, it is sometimes closed to visitors.
ISLE OF WHITHORN
Originally the port for the inland burgh of Whithorn, the village of Isle of Whithorn continues to be a busy though unspoiled sailing resort in summer. The safe harbour is the base of Wigtown Bay Sailing Club, and there is a coastguard station. Boats may be hired for sea-angling, and the rocky inlets are good for shore fishing. At low water there is a foreshore of mud and shingle.
A causeway links the village to the grassy peninsula of what was once a genuine ‘Isle’ and is now a public park. On it stands the ruin of a 13th-century chapel traditionally associated with St Ninian.
Before the causeway was built, the shallow tidal channel between island and mainland was once the scene of a masterstroke of sailing. A smuggler pursued by a revenue cutter raced his ship into the channel at high tide. To the amazement of the customs men he escaped through an apparent dead end. Later, at low tide, the gouge-marks of his keel could be traced in the sand.
Above the sand and shingle on the west side of Garlieston Bay is a trim village of colourwashed houses. The main street behind the sea-wall forms two shallow crescents, allowing just enough space for one of Scotland’s narrowest bowling greens. Small boats use the sheltered harbour, and boats can be hired for sea-angling for mackerel, cod and flatfish.
Behind the village to the south is the
Georgian mansion of Galloway House, designed by John Douglas and Lord Garlies in 1740. Its walled gardens, containing rhododendrons and fine trees, are open daily.
Saltings, marshland and an extensive area of tidal sands cover the estuary at the head of Wigtown Bay. The harbour, long disused, has been renovated, with parking and picnic areas beside the winding tidal channel of the River Bladnoch.
The salt-marshes of Wigtown Bay are a wintering place for greylag geese. However, the bay has a more sombre side to its history: in 1685 two women Covenanters aged 18 and 65 were tied to stakes and drowned by the rising tide because they refused to change their religious allegiance. A memorial stone, reached by a pathway, marks the traditional site of their martyrdom.
With a distillery on one side of the river and a creamery on the other, Wigtown is centred on a wide and airy square. Colourful gardens and a bowling green occupy the centre, and at one side of the square are the handsome County Buildings of 1863, housing a tiny museum where relics of the ancient burgh are displayed.
Set on the marshy estuary of the River Cree, Creetown is an 18th-century ‘planned’ village that became a thriving 19th-century port, whose main export was granite. The harbour is now used only by private craft, but the centre of the village still bears witness to this bygone age: a clock-tower, built to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, is made of the same sturdy granite used in the construction of the Thames Embankment and the Mersey Docks in Liverpool.
In the old school on the Rusko road, high up in the village, is the Gem Rock Museum. Its collection of rose quartz, amethyst, jasper, cornelian and other gems from around the world, open daily, is one of the finest in the country.
The ruined 15th-century Carsluith Castle stands back from the roadside 3 ½ miles south of Creetown. A side road up the wooded glen of the Kirkdale Burn, where deer are sometimes seen among the plantations, leads to the Neolithic tombs of Cairn Holy, built around 4,000 years ago.
TRIBUTE TO AN AUTHOR
On a headland above Monreith a bronze otter has been set up in memory of Gavin Maxwell, the naturalist and author of Ring of Bright Water which told the story of the author’s pet otters. Maxwell spent his childhood at House of Elrig, near Port William, when his family owned the Monreith estate. Later he moved to Sandaig about 9 miles south of Kyle of Lochalsh, to a house he called Camus-fearna, where he kept his otters and wrote about them.
GATEHOUSE OF FLEET
The Water of Fleet divides this elegant 18th-century town in two. Gatehouse owes its present form to James Murray of Cally, the landowner who in 1790 began to develop it as a cotton manufacturing centre. A brewery, tannery, soap factory and brickworks were also established, and the channel of the Water of Fleet was dredged to createa harbour beside the town. Industry flourished for 70 years, leaving Gatehouse a happy hunting-ground for industrial archaeologists.
At the Murray Arms Hotel in the town centre in 1793, Robert Burns wrote Robert Brace’s March to Bannockbum, which begins ‘Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled’. The grounds of Cally House Hotel, south of the town, now belong to the Forestry Commission, which has waymarked several forest walks.
The writer Thomas Cariyle once told Queen Victoria that he believed the coast road between Gatehouse and Creetown to be the finest in her kingdom. On a striking hilltop site above the A75 main road 1 mile south-west of Gatehouse stands the 15th-century Cardoness Castle, one of the best-Dreserved castles of its period in Scotland and notable for its elaborate fireplaces.
The water at the sandy mouth of the Skyre Burn, beyond Cardoness, looks tempting, but bathers must take care, for high tides hide the deep channel. There are safer beaches among the rocky outcrops of Mossyard Bay.
A series of sandy bays separated by grassy headlands stretches southwards down the coast opposite the Islands of Fleet. Sand-green is the most popular of these bays, while from Carrick’s bay it is possible at low tide to walk across to the biggest of the islands, Ardwall.
For almost 50 years Ardwall was inhabited by a family called Higgins, who kept open house for smugglers. The island was honeycombed with hiding places, and trains of packhorses used to move to and from it at night, loaded with contraband.
Its long years as county town have given Kirkcudbright some elegant buildings. The 16th-century McLellan’s Castle, in the town centre, is partially restored and open to the public, while the Georgian Broughton House in the High Street was bequeathed to the town by its last private owner, the artist Edward Hornel, several of whose paintings are on show there. Painters, weavers, sculptors and potters have created an artists’ colony at Kirkcudbright, and some of their work is exhibited in a gallery beside the harbour. The town’s name, pronounced ‘Kirkcoobrie’, probably derives from St Cuthbert who converted much of southern Scotland to Christianity.
The water level of the harbour drops spectacularly at low tide, and can be controlled at other times according to the outflow from Tongland Electricity Power Station, a hydro-electric scheme 2 miles up-river which can be visited by arrangement.
Sailing is possible at suitable tides, but the coast around Kirkcudbright is too rugged for easy small-boat or dinghy fishing. Sea-angling excursions usually go to the open coast, about 3 miles away, where excellent catches of tope are taken. The lifeboat station is ou tside the town on the east shore of a bay called ‘Manxman’s Lake’, a legacy of its smuggling connections with the Isle of Man. There is a picnic area by the sands near Gull Craig, on the western side of Kirkcudbright Bay.
A iarge stretch of farmland between the Kirkcudbright-Dundrennan road and the sea was taken over for tank testing in 1942, and the area is still a military zone. Roads through it may be closed when exercises are in progress, and the rumble of gunfire is often heard in the town.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Drumtroddan Stones, 2 mites NE of Port William. Bronze Age cup and ring markings. Daily.
Galloway Forest Park, Forestry Commission land covering 240 square miles.
Stones of Torhouse, 3 miles W of Wigtown A circle of 19 Bronze Age standing stones. Daily.