WITH autumn racing past apace, I thought I’d better get some more walking in before short days and bad weather complicate things too badly. With this in mind, the second half of October saw me return to Scotland, ready for three day’s walking in the approximate vicinity of the Kirkcudbrightshire coast.
According to the Met Office, I had three clear days before the rain swept in so that would work out nicely. If they were right.
The Met Office is always right; sometimes the weather is wrong. On day one it was something of a compromise, with low cloud bringing dull grey skies that threatened rain but failed to act, as if meteorologically shouting ‘I really mean it this time, I’ll do it! Just you see!’
It may have looked dismal but actually it was quite pleasant, as the thick band of cloud kept things on the ground fairly warm. While having a coat handy was clearly a necessity I was, for the moment, enjoying t-shirt temperatures without the least possibility of sunburn. This was perfect.
Robert Burns Statue
Actually, while Scotland’s most famous poet is not to everyone’s taste, I have no objection to his style, the popularity of which has varied over the years. His extensive use of Scots — an English dialect derived from the Old English of Northumbria — initially aroused both passionate support and contemptuous dismissal depending on the sympathies of the audience.
In the century after his death, Robert Burns became a favourite of misty-eyed Victorian sentimentalists and, while still remaining a favourite of Scots nationalists, his appeal broadened in Scotland and elsewhere — he is surprisingly popular in Russia, for instance — to the extent that he is now considered the national poet of Scotland and was even voted ‘the greatest Scot of all time’ in a 2009 television poll run by STV.
His statue in Dumfries, where he lived at the end of his life, was erected in 1882, some 86 years after his death.
Behind Burns’s statue stood the Greyfriars Kirk, an 1868 Victorian Gothic building, which takes both name and site from a Franciscan monastery founded in the thirteenth century by important local figure Lady Devorgilla.
It was before the altar of the original church that Robert the Bruce slew his rival John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch — known as the Red Comyn — in 1306, rekindling Scotland’s succession strife. This act, which got Robert excommunicated by the Pope, would have profound consequences, leading ultimately to Robert becoming King of Scots and England’s King Edward I dying of dysentery while on campaign against him.
The Lady Devorgilla who founded Greyfriars monastery was the murdered Red Comyn’s grandmother. The daughter of Alan, Lord of Galloway, and great niece to King William the Lion, Devorgilla was born in Buittle Castle near Dalbeattie.
Devorgilla — her name is a Latinisation of the Gaelic name Dearbhorghil — married John Balliol of Castle Barnard and two of their family would be key rivals to Robert the Bruce: the aforementioned Red Comyn, son of their daughter Eleanor, and their son (also John), who became King of Scots in 1292, supported by England’s Edward I.
John and Devorgilla owned land in England, Scotland and France and were avid patrons of the church and of education, founding Balliol College, Oxford in 1263. When her husband died in 1269, Devorgilla had his heart embalmed and carried it around in a casket of silver-bound ivory for the remainder of her life. He was laid to rest in the grounds of a new abbey that she founded nearby to commemorate him.
In 1290, she joined him in death, being laid beside him in what became known as Sweetheart Abbey. But before that, in the last decade of her life, she had a further gift to bestow upon Dumfries, commissioning a timber bridge to replace the ford across the River Nith:
The current Devorgilla Bridge was built on the foundations of its predecessors and is the oldest multi-spanned bridge in Scotland. It was built in the 1620s, replacing a fifteenth century version, also in stone.
From 1426, tolls were charged for crossing, the proceeds going to the coffers of the Greyfriars monastery, who held that right until 1569, when it reverted to the Crown. James VI awarded the toll proceeds to the burgh, along with the responsibility of maintaining it. This proved a smart move as it was partly demolished by flooding in 1621, leading to construction of the bridge that stands today.
Truncation and Supersession
The new bridge had nine arches (including the one still standing from its predecessor) and was 200 ft long. Later, in the early nineteenth century, the river was narrowed and land reclaimed, leading to the removal of the easternmost three arches. This left the bridge terminating above ground level, so steps were added, precluding wheeled traffic. By then however a New Bridge further upstream had been built, relegating Devorgilla Bridge to a pedestrian way.
I was a pedestrian, so I used it. It seemed rude not to. And it served its purpose admirably, conveying me across the Nith. Thank you, Lady Devorgilla.
At the western end of the bridge stands Bridge House, built in 1660. After three and a half centuries of change and development, this is now the oldest house in Dumfries and serves as a museum of everyday life in the town. Open from April to September, I had missed it by roughly three weeks.
Having crossed the Nith, I now wandered downstream along its western bank through the suburbs of Maxwelltown and Troqueer. These were historically part of Kircudbrightshire (pronounced ker-koo-bree-sher), also known as the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, which formed the eastern half of Galloway.
While the county still exists for certain legal purposes — such as lieutenancy and land registration — today it forms part of the council area of Dumfries and Galloway, along with Dumfriesshire and Wigtownshire.
In the past, the area was dominated by Norse-Gaels — the Gaelic-speaking descendants of Vikings — who maintained Galloway as a semi-independent kingdom until 1234, when Alan of Galloway — Lady Devorgilla’s father — died with no legitimate sons and Alexander III of Scotland invaded, bringing the area to heel.
As my own heels trod Galloway underfoot, I found my route along the Nith to be a pleasant urban riverside path, well-used by dog-walkers, cyclists and pedestrians. Seagulls wheeled in the air and I spotted a heron hopping about on the muddy riverbank, hunting a tasty breakfast of fish. All in all, this was a pretty good start to the days walk.
According to my map, the path I was on would continue until the confluence of Cargen Pow with the Nith, at which point I would have to head inland to join the road network. This turned out to be massively optimistic as to what comprised a footpath, as the path I was on headed inland about halfway there.
What continued along the riverbank might have legally been a footpath but there was no real sign of it on the ground as it headed through ever marshier ground across unbridged, muddy channels. I decided to follow the example of the metalled path, and turned in to meet the A710 a little earlier than planned.
I had, I must admit, been a little worried about joining the A710, what with it being an A-road and all. I was expecting something wide and busy. It turned out not to be particularly either. The road headed south, turning a corner at the farmstead of Nethertown, and crossed Cargen Pow at the hamlet of Islesteps.
Islesteps is small and its bridge, which is listed, dates from the mid-nineteenth century. The hamlet’s name strongly suggests that prior to the bridge the stream was crossed by means of stepping stones, which are something I both love and fear (my sense of balance being poor).
At Islesteps, the A710 took another abrupt corner, returning it to its southerly course. The map reveals an older story, with a footpath heading westwards that would once, in the days when all roads were tracks, have made Islesteps a T-junction. The footpath heads to Mabie Forest, passing an earthwork and St Queran’s Well (dedicated to a ninth century saint and long held to have healing properties). Sadly, this was entirely the wrong direction, so I ignored the footpath’s temptations and stuck resolutely with the road.
I followed the A710 for about two miles, dodging the occasional car, lorry and bus. Eventually I came to the turn-off for Kirconnell House.
The two miles of country lane that conveyed me from the A710 to Kirkconnell House were quiet, tree-lined and generally lovely.
Just as I reached the gates of Kirkconnell House, the rain (which you will recall, was not due for three days) began lightly to fall. Had there been a café, I might have taken refuge there but the house is private property, not a tourist attraction.
The first brick-built house in Scotland, it was constructed in 1750 for the Jacobite Maxwell family as an extension to their fourteenth century tower house. After almost six centuries of Maxwell ownership, the house was sold in 2001 to cover mounting debts; Francis Maxwell, the last of the family to own it, was understandably distressed.
At the gates of Kirkconnell House, the road took a sharp turn right, heading back to rejoin the A710. I however turned left, following a rough access track that curved around to pass behind the house and along the banks of the Nith Estuary. There, I could stare out across the marshes of Kirconnel Merse towards the mist-shrouded banks of the far side, slightly downstream from Glencaple. It had a strange ethereal beauty.
The path continued downstream for about a mile and a half, ending at a wire mesh gate at Airds Point. Behind it were effluent storage tanks belonging to Scottish Water. The tanks are tidal, receiving trade effluent drainage and discharging it at high tide. Lovely.
The only way onwards from Airds Point was to edge around the chain-link fence. If nothing else this gave a good view across the estuary and — as I moved round the perimeter — out into the Irish Sea. The shore was soft and marshy and land, sea and air all seemed to be trying to outdo each other in moistness.
New Abbey Pow
Fortunately I had no need to squelch my way around the shore as a narrow foot trail led inland from Aird’s Point, more or less following the bank of a small stream (New Abbey Pow). Leafy woodland and open fields alternated as the path drew slowly closer to New Abbey. Most of the woodland in Galloway is pine plantations, densely packed and dark, but this was different. This was birch wood:
As it turned out, the rain stopped anyway, while I ambled through the wood. The leafy loveliness ended at a footbridge over Drummillan Pow, a narrow but muddy tributary of New Abbey Pow.
Once over the footbridge, I was directed by waymarks along the edge of a field and onto a farm track. This then led to another narrow lane and a footbridge over New Abbey Pow. A short walk along another farm track led me to the edge of New Abbey village.
As I approached, I could see some magnificent sandstone ruins peeking from behind some trees. Then suddenly I was striding through a graveyard and before me stood what’s left of Sweetheart Abbey. Beneath it lie John Balliol and Devorgilla.
As grand, romantic gestures go, building an abbey just to bury her husband is certainly both grand and romantic. And so is keeping his heart, in a gruesomely obstinate, not-letting-go sort of way. Still, no one could say she was heartless.
The Abbey was formally founded in 1273, about four years after John’s death. A religious house of the Cistercian Order, it was daughter to Dundrennan Abbey (founded in 1142 by Fergus of Galloway, Devorgilla’s great-great-grandfather).
As was usual of Cistercian houses, the abbey involved itself heavily in local affairs, with a strong interest in farming and commerce. Somehow, in its three and a half centuries of existence, it avoided being looted and destroyed by English armies despite being occupied by Edward I in 1300, after he had sacked Caerlaverock Castle (just across the Nith).
Edward was apparently somewhat enamoured of the abbey, allegedly remarking at the time that ‘If this is Scotland, I want more of it.’ But, before the decade was over, Edward would lie dead, his grip on Scotland ended, and the abbey would keep on going strong.
Amazingly, it even managed to survive the Scottish Reformation: in 1560 Lord Robert Maxwell was instructed by the Lords of the Congregation to destroy it. He flatly refused, claiming an emotional attachment to ‘quhair he was maist part brocht up in his youth.’
The final abbot, Gilbert Broun — who lived in the grounds of Kirkconnell House — was unabashedly Catholic in an increasingly intolerantly Protestant Scotland and was repeatedly denounced for ‘papistrie’. His days, and those of the abbey, were numbered.
He was arrested in 1605 and exiled (he went to Paris) and the other monks were expelled from the abbey in 1608. The Abbey was closed and plundered for its stonework, slowly falling into ruin.
Even after the abbey’s closure as a place of worship, its graveyard continued to be used. Amongst the many people buried there is William Paterson (1658-1798), a Scottish merchant who, while living in London, devised the plan to create the Bank of England in order to finance an ongoing war against France.
His next cunning plan was the Darien Scheme, a clever but sadly flawed plan that prefigured the general idea of the Panama Canal. What if, he thought, we established a new colony in Panama and established overland cargo transfer so that ships don’t need to sail around Cape Horn?
Selling the Scheme
He initially tried to convince the English to go for it, but they foresaw a few issues, not least of which was that Panama was already claimed by the Spanish and Spain was (unusually) at that time an ally in the war against France. The Netherlands was another ally and the one to whom he took the Darien Scheme next. They, like the English said ‘no’.
Finally, he moved to Edinburgh and ran the idea by the government of his own nation. Seeing a chance to leap on the New World colonies bandwagon and get rich into the bargain, they leapt at it. This dismayed King William II, who was simultaneously William III of England and Stadtholder of five of the seven United Provinces of the Netherlands. Scotland was also meant to be an ally in the war but its Parliament had spoken and it wilfully now attempted to wrest bits of Panama from Spain.
The Scheme in Action
It was a total disaster. The terrain was mountainous, with dense fever-ridden jungle and populated with hostile natives who had long been fighting the Spanish and didn’t see the Scots as any different. Add in armed hostility from the Spanish colonists and the withholding of assistance by England and the Netherlands (Scotland was, after all, attempting to become a global trade rival) and the scheme quickly collapsed.
This would have been bad enough in itself but Scotland was badly oversubscribed — excited Scots had sunk a full fifth of the nation’s wealth into Darien. Now Scotland teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and its Parliament seized with both hands a lifeline now offered by England: England would bail out Scotland but at the cost of her independence — the two countries had to unite.
This was massively unpopular with many of the people but seen as a Really Good Thing by parliamentarians, who stood to become personally rich (they were basically bribed to vote yes). William Paterson championed the idea of Union, although I guess he had to; it was his scheme that destroyed his nation’s economy. He lived out his last years in Westminster but was buried in Sweetheart Abbey. England and Scotland were united in 1707.
New Abbey Village
Just across the road from Sweetheart Abbey was a café, which made me very happy indeed. I rested there for a while, sipping tea and devouring beef sandwiches, not to mention some lemon cheesecake that was utterly awesome. I may have just sat there, savouring the latter, making occasional ‘mmmm’ noises. It was good.
It tried to rain again while I was in the café but as it couldn’t touch me, I didn’t really care. By the time I emerged into New Abbey’s high street, the rain had gone off in a huff and I ambled along, enjoying its absence. I also enjoyed the name of the village, seeing as how it’s almost seven and a half centuries since the abbey was new and it’s over four centuries since it closed, which arguably makes it an ‘old’ abbey or possibly not an abbey at all. Still, I guess it was either that or ‘Sweetheart’.
Leaving New Abbey
It was at about this point that I derailed from my plan. I had intended to leave New Abbey by walking along the A710 but this was rapidly superseded.
I had read an information sign showing various circular walks that started and ended at New Abbey. Amongst these were some routes around the sides of Criffel, the 569 m hill that I had been seeing in the distance since Maryport. Looking at the map on the sign, I could take one of these and run parallel to the A710, rejoining it later. This would add a little distance but would also mean passing through pine forest and along Forestry Commission tracks rather than an A-road. Yes, this is what I would do.
There were two possible routes onto Criffel from New Abbey and I took the first one, confident from what I had seen on the sign, that I could cross to the other by a footpath. And so, I found myself heading down a grassy track towards the wooded flanks of Criffel or, more accurately, Knockendoch, which was the hill’s nearer, lower summit. ‘Lower’ in this case means about 450 m, which was still high enough to be completely obscured by low cloud.
I strode off into the forest in high spirits, thoroughly enjoying another woodland path. There did however seem to be a lack of connecting paths as shown on the information board and my OS map was no help in this regard. When a side path did show up, I took it but this quickly diminished into a small trail that began to climb next to a wall.
Very quickly, the compact surface of a forestry commission road had become a kind of inclined quagmire and it remains a mystery to me how mud that runny can hold a gradient instead of simply flowing. This was a bit of a problem on account of an event the day before that I’ve not yet related:
As I was pulling on my boots to leave my flat and catch my train, I discovered the heel was tearing away on one boot. It was unwearable and I didn’t have time to replace it. I was therefore wearing other footwear, specifically trainers. These would have been fine — indeed better than boots — on firm tarmac. In ankle-deep mud they were somewhat less effective.
The path climbed into the cloud. My foot sank in mud to my shin. I recognised that I was on the wrong path, one not on my map, and that it was clearly going to the top. I should, I knew, turn around. Anything else would be stubbornness. On the other hand, I knew that a path led down from Criffel’s summit to where I wanted to rejoin the A710. I didn’t know, at that moment, precisely where on Criffel I was. I kept going.
The path passed through a gate and turned ninety degrees, ascending straight up the hillside instead of along it. It now became a series of muddy informal steps, made by the feet of those who had preceded me. Behind me was probably a long way down with an excellent view but for now the cloud kept it hidden.
It was hard going, with care needed with regard to footing and the climb was exhausting but it wasn’t particularly dangerous. Had I slipped I’d have just slid down a bit and got covered head to toe with mud. The worst thing I might have done is twist something. That said, I was glad when I got to the top of Knockendoch. I sat heavily down beside a cairn and waited for my legs and lungs to stop competing as to which hurt the most. The cloud, as if offering a reward, parted for less than a minute, revealing the coastline below.
Continuing up Criffel
I was glad I wasn’t heading in the opposite direction as the path I had come up wasn’t too obvious from the summit. A broader and more blatant path led down the far side. This wasn’t on my map either but it was pretty clear that it was heading straight for the summit of Criffel. This suited me fine; it was where I wanted to go. So, where then was Criffel?
This path was initially less muddy, which helped. It dropped about twenty metres before climbing another hundred and forty up to the top of Criffel. On the way, both mud and cloud intensified. By the time I reached the summit the cloud was varying in density, one moment allowing glimpses of the distant objects, the next almost hiding the floor. It was like it was playing peek-a-boo with landmarks and I took a lot of care to know which way I was facing.
At the top of Criffel stands Douglas’s Cairn with a trig point a little to its west. The path runs down from the latter but it was the former I reached first. In theory the views were awesome but I couldn’t see them at all.
It was particularly boggy on the top and I squelched across to the trig point and then squelched back, apparently I’d walked up the downward path to get to it.
The only path I could see was the one I’d come up on but I was pretty sure it had branched on the way. And so, keeping on its eastwards edge, I followed the path back down. It did indeed branch. It also got muddier. My feet slipped four times but mercifully I managed not to dive into the mud.
Eventually, this mudslide of doom conveyed me to a gate, in front of which was a pool of mud so runny as to just be earthy liquid. I laboriously climbed around it, clinging to a fence, before stepping through the gate onto a proper path. Time for a massive sigh of relief, the mud had stopped being fun.
Simple Plan Man
I was interrupted mid-sigh by a chap coming up the path, walking poles in his hands.
‘Bit muddy is it?’ he asked me; he sounded English.
We chatted a bit about hills and mud and he politely marvelled at the distance I had walked — his plan was a simple straight up, straight down job. ‘It’s easy down from here,’ he said. And it was.
Back on the Level
When I got to the bottom, I glanced back up at Criffel and found it had pulled the same trick as Yr Eifl last year. Namely being covered in cloud when I’m on the summit but being cloud-free when I get back to sea-level.
To my left was Loch Kindar, a freshwater lake with a crannog (an ancient artificial island dwelling) in it. Had I been on the path around Criffel that I expected, I’d have passed through the trees on the slope above it.
From the farm of Ardwall at Criffel’s base, I followed an access road back to the A710 half a mile away. There I consulted my map and the time.
My messing about on Criffel had taken three hours. I now had six miles to go until I reached my hotel at Southerness. I also had about half an hour until sunset. So, everything would be fine so long as I walked at twelve miles an hour. Well, clearly that wasn’t happening.
In many ways this actually helped; had it been possible but difficult to make it there by daylight, I’d have felt compelled to try. But now the pressure was off. I ambled at a leisurely pace along the A710, dodging the few cars still on it. Sure, I’d be finishing the walk in the dark but for now I’d enjoy my evening stroll.
A mile down the road was the hamlet of Drumburn. The hamlet straddles the Drum Burn, which flows down Criffel’s flank. I reached it shortly before sunset.
Just south of Drumburn was a viewing spot, with a panoramic view of Drum Bay and the Solway Firth. I rested there for five minutes, letting the sun set below the horizon and watching the waves to the accompaniment of some nearby cows chewing really noisily.
I was just about to leave when a car pulled in, driven by a young man with a female passenger. They stopped, parked, spotted me and immediately started to reverse away.
‘Hehe,’ I thought, ‘you thought you’d got this place to yourselves. We all know what you’re up to…’
I left them to it. Good luck to them.
Strolling at Sunset
Daylight turned into twilight, which turned into darkness as I made my way south down the A710, passing isolated farmhouses and the tiny village of Kirkbean. This small settlement gave the world two seafarers who went on to find great success in North America.
John Paul Jones
The more famous of the two is John Paul Jones (1747-1792), a hero of the Continental Navy during the American War of Independence.
A successful merchant mariner who fled to America after killing one of his crewmen, from a British perspective he was simply a fugitive and traitor. Jones brought the fight to Britain, with a failed raid on Whitehaven and some more successful privateering.
A difficult man, who quarrelled with his superior officers, his career repeatedly stalled as he mishandled the associated politics. After America, he joined the Russian Navy and ended his days in retirement in France.
The other mariner produced by Kirkbean was John Campbell (1720-1790), who served in the Seven Years War and later became Governor of Newfoundland.
About a mile further down the A710 from Kirkbean, walking by torchlight in total darkness, I came to the turn-off I needed for Southerness. Two more miles on country lanes followed, via the hamlets of East Preston and Loaningfoot.
The village of Southerness itself lay at the end of a coastal road, the only road in and out. The few cottages were outnumbered by its tourist facilities, which included a caravan park and a golf course. In the middle of the village sat the Paul Jones Hotel, in which I was staying the night. I arrived, as I’d hoped, while the kitchen was still open and was able to eat and relax with a drink before retiring to my room.
In the morning, after breakfast, I’d be on my way again.
This time: 21½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,301 miles