Sands and yachting harbours along the shore of the Solway Firth
Narrow inlets along the shore of the Solway Firth where smugglers once landed contraband wines and tobacco now provide sheltered anchorages for yachtsmen and fishermen. Eastwards from Port o’Warren stretch miles of sands, but the Solway’s fast-flowing tides require caution on the part of bathers, anglers and walkers. The salt-marshes east of the Nith are the haven of countless sea-birds, on one of Britain’s most remarkable bird reserves.
A 13th-century chapter house and some Norman stonework beside the Abbey Burn are the remains of a Cistercian Abbey founded in 1142. The ruins are open daily, and there are many fine sculptures, including a larger-than-life-size group depicting a murdered abbot and his assassin.
It was at Dundrennan Abbey that Mary, Queen of Scots is believed to have spent her last night on Scottish soil, on May 5, 1568, after being forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son James VI. The next day she sailed from the little inlet now known as Port Mary, 1 mile to the south, and crossed the Solway Firth in an open boat to seek refuge in England. However, on Queen Elizabeth’s orders she was imprisoned – a fate that was to culminate in her execution 19 years later.
Clustered behind the pebble beaches of Auchencairn Bay are the whitewashed cottages and farms of Auchencairn village, an old smuggling centre. The bay dries out at low water, leaving acres of sand and exposed pebbles.
Balcary House, now a hotel with a fine outlook over the bay to Hestan Island, was built in the 18th century by one of the most successful smuggling concerns as a headquarters and secret store for its contraband wines and tobacco.
At Balcary Fishery, salmon are caught, in stake-nets set out across the sands. Bass are also caught and boat trips operate from
Balcary Bay. The invigorating walk to Balcary Point gives an opportunity to observe the sea-birds which gather around it.
Orchardton Tower, 2 ½ miles north of Auchencairn village, dates from the 15th century. A narrow spiral staircase rising inside its double walls leads to a circular parapet wall.
A tiny, silted-up harbour which dries out at low tide gives Palnackie a maritime atmosphere, even though it is 1 mile upstream from the estuary of Urr Water. Several of the houses in the village were built with two storeys to provide lodgings for sailors on the trading sloops that used to ply along this coast.
The estuary offers good fishing for flatfish, and every year on a Saturday in late July or early August Palnackie is host to the World Flounder-Tramping Championships. The contest is held on the mud-flats off the peninsula of Glen Isle; competitors must use only their bare feet and a three-pronged spear, and prizes are awarded for the heaviest and lightest catches.
The main channel of Urr Water passes close to the village of Kippford, and its safe high-tide anchorage is the base of the Solway Yacht Club, Kippford is also an attractive small resort, with a pebble beach overlooked by stone houses built on a hillside. When the tide goes out across Rough Firth, wide mud- flats are exposed. It is then possible to walk out along a shingle spit known as the Rack to Rough Island, a bird sanctuary maintained by the National Trust for Scotland where waders, scaups, shelduck and mergansers can be seen.
The National Trust also maintains the high-level Jubilee Path which joins Kippford to the neighbouring resort of Rockcliffe, 1 mile south-east. There are magnificent views from the path over bays and headlands to the distant mountains of Galloway. The path also passes close to the hilltop Mote of Mark, a vitrified fort inhabited by a Celtic community from around the 6th century AD. Brooches, pottery and glass produced by Celtic craftsmen have been found there.
Rockcliffe developed as a seaside resort in Victorian times. It has a sandy beach, sheltered by Rough Island and broken up by ribs of rock. Beyond Rockcliffe the coastal path continues southwards for 1 mile to Castlehill Point, then turns east to run for a further 3 miles above Port o’Warren Bay and Portling Bay to Sandyhills.
A disused lighthouse stands sentinel on the headland of Southerness, facing across the Solway Firth to Cumbria. The wide sands around it have given rise to a holiday hamlet just inland from the lighthouse, with cottages, chalets and a caravan site, and there is a golf course to the west.
The lighthouse was built in 1748 to guide schooners sailing out of Dumfries bound for the American colonies. Another link with the New World is commemorated in the name of the nearby hotel, the Paul Jones. The boy who was born John Paul in 1747, the son of a gardener on the nearby Arbigland Estate, was to become famous as Paul Jones, a hero of the American navy.
The cottage in which John Paul was born and the Arbigland gardens, spread round a quiet bay, where he and his father worked, are open to the public on certain days every week in summer. They are reached by a turning off the road to Powillimount Farm; beyond Powillimount, the road ends at another sandv beach.
AMERICA’S MAN OF WAR
John Paul Jones, the son of a Kirkbean gardener, became an American naval hero in 1778 when he sailed into the harbour at Whitehaven, on the Cumbrian coast, captured a small fort and attempted to burn three British ships. The raid, during the American War of Independence, was followed a year later by a victory over British ships in the Baltic. Jones was decorated on his return to America, where he came to be regarded as the American navy’s first commander.
Westwards from Southerness are the Mersehead Sands, the most extensive on the Solway coast, stretching for 6 miles to Port o’Warren. They are safe near the shore, but walkers venturing further out must take extreme care, since the tide sweeps in at faster than walking pace and the channels, shallow at low tide, soon become deep rushing rivers.
Southerness was originally Salters’ Ness -the name given to the headland in the 12th century when the sands around it were an important centre for salt-panning.
The well-kept village with its bright gardens spreads out from an unusual domed parish church. In front of the church is a sundial, built in 1826, showing the time not only at Kirkbean, but also at places such as Madras, Calcutta and Gibraltar, where local men took up careers in Victorian times. Inside the church is a baptismal font presented in 1945 by officers and men of the United States Navy to honour Paul Jones, who was baptised there, as the navy’s ‘First Commander’.
A minor road from Kirkbean leads to the coastal village of Carsethorn, which looks eastwards across the estuary of the Nith. Many of its houses were built for coastguards in the middle of the 19th century, but they are all now in private hands. Stake-nets for salmon are set out across the tidal sands.
The greystone village of New Abbey is set among woods on the banks of the New Abbey Pow and is dominated by the soft red-sandstone ruins of the romantic Sweetheart Abbey.
The abbey was founded in 1273 by Devor-gilla, thewidowofJohnBalliol, whose heartshe built into the abbey walls. Balliol owned large estates in Scotland, England and France, and endowed the students’ hostel at Oxford which eventually became Balliol College.
Set into the wall of a nearby cottage is a stone carving said to commemorate three women who crewed the boat that brought sandstone blocks for the abbey from a quarry on the opposite side of the estuary of the Nith. South-west of the village, near West Glen, is a 60 ft high monument to local men who fell at Waterloo.
Shambellie House, a Victorian mansion set among pinewoods just north of New Abbey, houses a museum of costume which is open on most days in summer. At Burnfoot, 2 miles south-east, there is a parking area close to the sands. Bathers must be careful of the fast-flowing tides sweeping in from the Solway Firth.
The 1,868 ft granite summit of Criffel looms over the village to the south. The best approach to the summit is from Ardwall, reached by a track turning off the main road 2 miles south of New Abbey, from where a path runs uphill beside a stream.
Situated on the east bank of the tidal channel of the Nith, Glencaple was once a satellite harbour for the port of Dumfries, handling emigrant ships and coastal vessels. Now, because of the tides, not much sailing is done there, but Glencaple is popular with powerboat enthusiasts and windsurfers.
CAERLAVEROCK NATURE RESERVE
More than 13,000 acres of merse, or salt-marsh and foreshore, comprise the Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve. Barnacle geese from Spitzbergen and large flocks of pink-footed geese and greylag geese feeding on the saltings in autumn and winter are among the species which make Caerlaverock one of the most notable bird sanctuaries in Britain.
A car park on the road south from Glencaple gives access to the western end of the Merse, though walking is hazardous because of deep channels among the saltings, and occasional quicksands.
The Wildfowl Trust controls a refuge area at.East Park Farm, with carefully sited hides and observation towers; it is open to the public from September to May.
Overlooking the Merse from a wooded mound are the striking red-sandstone ruins of Caerlaverock Castle. Built towards the end of the 13th century, the castle was besieged many times during the border wars between Scotland and England, and finally reduced to ruins in 1640.
The secluded village of Ruthwell lies east of the mouth of Lochar Water, at the foot of hills that rise gently to the north.
In the parish church, a specially designed apse houses the Ruthwell Cross, one of the most impressive examples of 7th-century stone carving in Europe. It is inscribed with verses from the oldest-known English poem, The Dream of the Rood. After years of neglect, the cross was rediscovered by the parish minister, Dr Henry Duncan, a man of immense energy and wide-ranging interests. In 1810 he founded the world’s first savings bank, and a cottage alongside the original bank is now the Duncan Savings Bank Museum.
This village at the mouth of the little Pow Water was created towards the end of the 18th century as a sea-bathing resort. Set above a sandy beach, with grassy parking areas, it provides a fine view across the Solway to the Lake District hills.
The resort is noted for its golf course, where several open tournaments are held, and the beach is used by sand yachts. Swimmers should not venture far out into the fast-moving tides and shifting channels.
Kinmount Gardens, 2 miles north of Powfoot, contain a variety of flowers and shrubs. A flock of Canada geese are among the resident wildfowl, and the many laid-out walks include two that circle the lakes in front of Kinmount House. The gardens are open daily in summer.
FISHING NORWEGIAN STYLE IN THE RIVER NITH
From February to September, fishermen can be seen fishing in the Nith with haaf-nets – the word haaf comes from the Norwegian for ‘heave’. This form of fishing requires good balance and strong muscles. The fishermen xoade out into the channel with nets fixed to a long wooden spar; when a salmon or sea trout swims into a net the fisherman flicks the net over the spar to trap the fish,
This Victorian red-stone town stands on the eastern bank of the River Annan and is the ‘capital’ of the Annandaie and Eskdale District. The river is popular with anglers, who fish for salmon, sea trout and brown trout, and there are pleasant walks along both banks to Brydekirk. On the coast, commercial fishing is done by haaf-nets and stake-nets. Sailing can be hazardous.
An overgrown embankment 1 mile east of the mouth of the River Annan once led on to a railway bridge across the Solway Firth to the Cumbrian shore. It was dismantled in 1935.
The borderlands south of Gretna are mostly made up of marshland and mud-flats flanking the estuaries of the Sark and Esk rivers. Overlooking the estuary of Kirtle Water is the 7 ft high Lochmaben Stone, which probably formed part of a prehistoric stone circle.
Gretna’s history goes back to Roman times, but during the 14th-century border wars between the Scots and the English the town was completely destroyed.
The Old Blacksmith’s Shop in the village of Gretna Green, just to the north, is noted for its long tradition of anvil weddings. An English law of 1754 prevented young lovers from marrying without parental consent. The law did not apply in Scotland, however, where all the couple had to do was to declare in front of witnesses that they wished to be man and wife; and so Gretna Green, the first settlement across the border, established a trade in runaway marriages. The last ‘anvil priest’, Mr Richard Rennison, conducted more than 5,000 weddings between 1905 and 1940, when anvil weddings were made illegal by Act of Parliament. One of the old marriage registers is on display in the hotel.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Thomas Carlyle’s Birthplace (NTS), Ecclefechan, miles N of Annan. Contains collection of relics and letters. Weekdays in summer,
Dumfries- Burns’ House Museum, Burns Street, house where Robert Burns died in 1796, daily, except Sun. and Mon. in winter; Dumfries Museum, with 1836 Camera Obscura, Windmill Tower, summer Old Bridge House Museum, 17th-century house and furnishing, daily in summer.
Rammerscales, 10 miles NW of Annan. Georgian house and grounds; Jacobite relics and links with Flora MacDonald, Some afternoons in summer.
Threave Gardens (NTS), near Castle Douglas. Daffodils; flowering trees; rock, woodland and heather gardens. Daily.