ON THE second day of my recent Galloway gallivant, I decided to consider my options carefully. I planned to walk from Gatehouse of Fleet to Newton Stewart and three possible routes presented themselves. I could stick to the coast and dodge lorries on the A75 for fourteen miles or I could head inland and follow one of two alternatives, namely National Cycle Network route 7 and an old military road. It was time to consult the self-imposed rules by which these walks are governed…
Choosing a Route
Rule 1 — There are no rules.
Rule 2 — This rule doesn’t exist either.
Rule 3 — See Rule 1.
While many who set out to walk around Great Britain set themselves rules such as ‘walk as close to the shore as is possible’ or ‘take no ferries, they’re cheating’ or ‘ferries are fine, take as many as you want’, I have made no such rules. I haven’t even set myself the goal of walking round Great Britain. My only objective at the start in 2010 was to try to reach and walk the South West Coast Path, and I completed the SWCP back in 2012. Since then, my aim, so far as it is one, is simply to keep going until I get bored.
And I’m not bored yet.
Evaluating the Options
Being so utterly unfettered by rules, I knew I could choose to avoid the roaring lorries of the A75 with good cheer and clear conscience. The alternative route of NCN 7 followed an inland course that resembled the A75’s mirror image, detouring north round a cluster of hills between the rivers Fleet and Cree. This was a perfectly reasonable route but I barely gave it a glance. If I’m honest, my mind had been quite made up the moment I saw the ‘Old Military Road’ snaking its way through the middle. I would tread where men in red coats and tricorns trod before me…
Old Military Roads
Scotland has a number of old military roads, most of them named exactly that. Many are in the Highlands, where they served to move troops to suppress the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. The road I planned to walk was not one of those although it was a near contemporary, built in the early 1760s to facilitate moving troops to Ireland.
This particular road ran from Bridge of Sark (near Gretna) to Portpatrick, from where the troops sailed. Much of it now lies under the lorry-infested A75 because when you’ve got a perfectly good route you reuse it, except where modern traffic needs a straighter or more level course. Between Gatehouse of Fleet and Newton Stewart is one such diversion, with the A75 avoiding the hills by clinging resolutely to the coast. This, funnily enough, was a route rejected by Major William Rickson, the Deputy Quartermaster-General of Scotland who supervised the building of the Old Military Road. He went straight across them, more or less, rebuilding an older trail to suit his needs.
With my route decided, all I had to do now was get to the road. My starting point was the centre of Gatehouse of Fleet.
Gatehouse of Fleet
Turning about, I strolled down the High Street, pausing only to stock up with food and water. I knew that I could pick up the Old Military Road at the tiny hamlet of Anwoth but the road to Anwoth described two sides of a triangle, which seemed like unnecessary effort. On the map, a footpath led directly to Anwoth and I decided with some trepidation — footpaths in Scotland are sometimes more conceptual than actual — to give it a go.
At the end of the High Street a bridge crossed the Water of Fleet, which was still broad and shallow at this point. Beyond it the road turned into Fleet Street, which I took as a sign to press on.
The path, I’m pleased to say, turned out to be both real and clear if a little muddy in places. It climbed a hill and weaved between gorse bushes eventually coming to a fork. To my left a path led up to Trusty’s Hill, the site of a Dark Age hill fort.
Puzzlingly, the Trusty’s Hill site is known for some characteristically Pictish carvings, which is odd because the Picts lived in north-eastern Scotland, whereas Galloway was inhabited by Britons. I considered paying it a visit but the fort was a little out of my way and mostly one hill fort looks much like another. I thus took the right-hand fork, passing through a gate and along an increasingly muddy path until I reached another junction.
This time the path tried a new distraction to my left in the form of the Rutherford Monument. This is a pillar commemorating the Reverend Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), the minister of Anwoth Kirk, who later became Professor of Divinity at the University St Andrews and was one of four commissioners representing Scotland at the Westminster Assembly of Divines — a theological council that met from 1643 to 1653 to reform the church.
The path towards the monument began as a quagmire of particularly squelchy-looking bogginess and I quickly decided that I was quite happy to regard the monument from afar.
Onwards to Anwoth
The path very much approved of my new walking boots (or at least I assume so based on the manner in which it initially tried to hold onto them).
Fortunately, it soon dried out and I strode merrily along, keeping an eye out for my first glimpse of Anwoth. The hamlet did its best to hide amongst the background.
The hiding was pointless however as all I had to do was stay on the path. This carried me into one last field which yielded an extra generous helping of sticky, semi-liquid mud. A small footbridge carried me over a burn and then I was standing in Anwoth.
Anwoth Old Kirk
Anwoth is tiny, there’s almost nothing there.
The ruin is Anwoth Old Kirk, where Samuel Rutherford once gave his sermons until his blatant nonconformity got him banished to Aberdeen. There he would linger, writing sermons, until the Church of Scotland did away with bishops and became Presbyterian in 1638. This transformed Rutherford from a disruptive element to a poster boy for the church’s new ethos and landed him his professorship at St Andrews. His old kirk continued under other ministers until 1825, when a newer one opened down the road. Both are now disused and the old kirk, as you can see, lies in ruin.
Old Military Road
A Miscellany of Majors
Having reached Anwoth and its tiny handful of houses, I could now join the Old Military Road. This particular section was constructed in 1763, Major Rickson having despatched work parties to four points along the route with instructions to build in both directions until they joined up. This sounds like a potential recipe for disaster but the Major knew his business and — just in case he didn’t — another major, William Caulfeild (sic), provided oversight in his capacity as Inspector of Roads for North Britain. The sections joined up as intended.
Major Rickson had been appointed to his post by the Duke of Cumberland, the youngest son of George II. It was Cumberland who defeated the Jacobite rebels at Culloden in 1746 but that would be his sole moment of glory and even that was tainted by his refusal to show quarter. Indeed, when Cumberland realised that a wounded soldier lying at his feet was actually a Jacobite he ordered a nearby officer to shoot him. The officer — Major James Wolfe — refused the order and Cumberland had a private do the deed.
Wolfe, who was a close friend of Major Rickson, went on to be a famous general in his own right, defeating the French at the cost of his own life in Canada in 1759. On the way, Wolfe’s vigour, restlessness and success earned him the envy of others. This led in turn to one of my favourite historical quotes: A courtier snarked to George II that James Wolfe was ‘mad’ to which the King beautifully responded—
‘“Mad,” is he? Then I hope he will bite some other of my generals.’
James Wolfe died a famous hero, the conqueror of Quebec, his passing immortalised in the painting The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West. His good friend William Rickson died almost unknown, with even his road often attributed to Major Caulfeild. But…
I think Major Rickson is to some extent commemorated by the continued existence of that road, which endures by and large to this day. That is no small achievement. It is over two hundred and fifty years since he built his Military Road and significant stretches of it remain in use as part of the modern road network. Cars and lorries pass over those sections with ease, the drivers taking them for granted.
Roaming the Road
The Old Military Road started well enough, being mostly firm underfoot though wet — a small stream had broken onto the road and was using it as a new course. But I had only gone a quarter of mile when things started to deteriorate.
The road turned a sharp left-hand corner, which I navigated under the watchful gaze of a lone cow. The rest of her herd had clearly trodden the path before me and the long, thin strip of churned and cratered mud that it had become put me in mind of a scale model of the Somme in WW1. This part was awful to walk on. Or walk in or through; either preposition is more accurate.
As I squelched my way down the road, I passed first a tractor and then the herd whose hooves had so destroyed the road. At this point the road wasn’t sure if it was earth or water or just one giant linear cowpat and it tested the waterproofness of my boots rather more than I’d planned for. Dozens of uncertain bovine eyes watched me skid and windmill my way along the slippery path. I tried to ignore them, keeping my attention on my footing. If the smell assailing my nose was any indication, this would not be a good place to faceplant.
For Battle not Cattle
When Major Rickson completed his work on this stretch in 1763, the War Department at first restricted its usage, barring local farmers from using it to move cattle. I can see why — one wrong step on the march to Ireland and the troops would be browncoats not redcoats. More seriously though, the damage that hooves do en masse to an un-surfaced road is quite significant.
Onwards and Upwards
Once I had passed the cows’ field, the road became firmer though it stayed pretty muddy for at least the next mile and a half. As I went, views opened up of hills in the distance and my walk once again became a pleasant affair.
The Old Military Road was climbing steadily as I continued, rising about 100 m between Anwoth and Ardwall Hill, atop which I paused to eat elevenses like an overgrown hobbit and generally enjoy the view. Directly ahead of me loomed Kenlum Hill, which at 305 m was over twice as high as where I sat.
Passing through a gate, I started to descend and the road became muddier again. I still had a good view of distant hills and, because I was looking at them, I very nearly trod on this poor chap:
Toad in the Road
The common toad (Bufo bufo) hunts at night and hides during the day in a lair under foliage or a suitable stone. This one, which I think was a young male, had clearly not been reading the textbooks as he was out and about in broad daylight. Possibly he was heading for his spawning pond, his tiny mind full of visions of young lady toads showing off their sexy lumps.
The two parallel ridges behind his eyes are parotoid glands, which secrete the alkaloid poison bufotoxin. Were you to eat him, you’d suffer a range of symptoms including irritation to your mouth and throat, vomiting, respiratory problems, paralysis, seizures, hallucinations and heart problems, not to mention a good chance of death. Plus, people would point and say ‘ugh, you ate a toad!’ It would not be a great way to go; there would be precious little dignity. Just say no to eating toads.
I didn’t eat the toad.
Crossing a Crossroads
At the bottom of the hill was a crossroads. While the muddy track of the Old Military Road was behind me, to the north and south was a proper modern road. Northwards this led to Kings Laggan farmhouse while southwards, through a gate, it led to an old mill at Lagganmullan and, beyond that, the coast. I however was headed west and fully prepared for more mud.
The mud had hitherto slowed progress quite considerably but I soon recovered the lost time, striding along this far firmer surface. The road became a rougher track past the farmhouse of Lauchentyre but was still about a billion times better than the stretch from Anwoth to the crossroads.
I said before that I was headed west but northwest would be more accurate; the road was aiming for a bridge over Skyre Burn. This was because Major Rickson had followed the course of a far older road — he knew that the burn needed crossing and elected to use an existing bridge, adapting it as required. Soon enough, I too reached Skyre Burn and likewise crossed by the bridge.
The Road Gets Hard
A little further on from Skyre Burn was a staggered junction where another north-south road met and crossed the Old Military Road. But this time it brought the modern road network with it and from here on in the Old Military Road had a proper asphalt surface.
Corse of Slakes Road
The hill dead ahead in the photo is Stronach Hill and the road, having passed over a cattle grid, curved around its flank as it ascended to 273 m. This was again an ancient route and went by the name of ‘Corse of Slakes Road’. ‘Corse’ is old Scots for a crossing and ‘slake’ is a local Galloway word basically meaning a pass. There may have once been a Roman road on this route so the Major was in good company when he adapted it to military use.
The wind picked up as the road ascended and I dug my coat out from my bag. The sky was still blue and the sun was blazing but the wind chill stripped its heat away in seconds. The road rose for about a mile and a half and for much of that time I looked over a valley as the Glen Burn ran below the road to my right. Nearer to the top, the woods on Glenquicken Moor became visible while beyond them stood the highest of the Solway Hills — Cairnsmore of Fleet.
Cambret Hill, onto whose flanks I now passed, is less than half that height at 351 m. But that still towered 78 m above the road. Cambret had aspirations to be taller, however, and had resorted to artificial means.
In passing the TV, radio and telecommunications masts on Cambret Hill, I was also passing the literal high point of my day’s journey. From here to Creetown, on the banks of the River Cree, I would constantly be heading downhill.
The massed conifers of a Forestry Comission plantation now flanked the road to my right, this being the southern edge of the woods on Glenquicken Moor. The road descended slowly, passing over Englishman’s Burn, which sounds like some sort of torture. (I’m not sure whether it’s the Scot or the Englishman that’s torturing the other in this scenario.) It then skirted around Knockean’s Hill and soon gained woods on both sides. A stream, the Balloch Burn, joined it to the left and an alternative to following the road into Creetown unexpectedly presented itself.
In 2004 (as I learned from a handy engraved rock), the Balloch Woods Community Project was opened. This comprised a series of paths through the woodland, some of which more or less parallel the course of the road. I had enjoyed the road so far, with the possible exception of the cattle dung quagmire, but leafy woodland paths are one of my favourite things. I consulted my map. I consulted their map. The first path I would need to take was called the Ponds Trail, on account of some ponds along the course of the Balloch Burn.
The Ponds Trail was a tad muddy in places but mercifully free of bovine bum-soil. It was also well-used and I passed three groups of people, one of which was a family with a madly excited dog. These were the first people I’d set eyes on since Anwoth, where a farmhand had been sitting in the tractor on the road. Compared to the solitude of the day so far, three sets of others felt like a crowd but it was really nothing of the sort. I still had the woodland mostly to myself and it was glorious
The Burnside Trail
The road would have connected to the northern end of Creetown but the Burnside Trail, onto which I had now transferred, would drop me at the southern end instead. First though, it gave me a glimpse of the village.
Creetown was originally known as Ferrytown of Cree for reasons that should be perfectly obvious from the name. The ferry conveyed pilgrims across the Cree to Wigtown, from which they could make their way to Whithorn and the shrine of St Ninian.
The village grew during the eighteenth century, thanks largely to the illicit proceeds of smuggling, before experiencing a major makeover and its new alias in 1785. The local laird, James McCullogh of Barholm, redeveloped it as a planned village with the north-south St John Street as its main street, while the nominal High Street was little more than a small eastward spur from St John Street’s northern end.
A lead mine, operational from 1763 to 1890, gave Creetown some legitimate industry and even lurched briefly back into life for the duration of WW1 (when lead was needed for bullets). In 1831, a granite quarry opened, providing stone for the construction of Liverpool Docks. These were completed by 1848 but custom begets custom and the quarry remained open, exporting stone all over the place. It finally closed sometime in the 1990s, leaving Creetown as yet another post-industrial settlement.
The clock tower stands at the northern end of St John Street, at the corner of the village square. This includes a rather grimly modern stage, which is used for Creetown’s annual Country and Western Music Festival, and a large granite sphere, carved with relevant scenes by Japanese-born sculptor Hideo Furuta (1949-2008), who lived in the town. The engravings on the sphere aren’t actually that distinct so it just looks like a 2.5 m diameter ball from a distance. Hopefully the people of Creetown like it; I sadly didn’t.
In addition to Creetown’s variations on the theme of monumental granite, it also possessed something for which I had been hoping: a shop where I could buy more food and water. I sat and consumed these by the clock tower and enjoyed a bit of a rest before continuing.
The way onwards was basically NCN 7, Creetown being the point where my three possible routes had all converged. I crossed Moneypool Burn at the top of the village and then followed the main road north. The A75 was running parallel to this road on land reclaimed from the Cree’s marshy banks. I knew the road would merge with it soon but, fortunately, the cycle route would make a bid for freedom before that happened.
Meanwhile, I traipsed along by the fairly dull and busy road. Along the way I passed what I take to have been an old horse trough. The main clue was an appropriate quote from the Bible borne on a plaque just above it:
The righteous man regardeth the life of his beast (Proverbs 12:10)
Avoiding the A-road
As anticipated, the cycle route escaped from the impending A75 (upon which cyclists would simply be lorry-fodder), shortly before the junction of the roads. It achieved this by commandeering a farm track and using it to access the long-disused alignment of the Portpatrick Railway.
Authorised by Parliament in 1857, the Portpatrick Railway was opened in 1862 and operated for just over a hundred years before falling victim to the Beeching Axe in 1965. This was doubtless a blow for the locals and I tend to find any closed railway a shame but I was also thankful of the lorry-free safety it provided.
As is typical of old railway alignments, visibility of the surrounding scenery varied depending on whether a particular section was in a cutting or on an embankment. The cutting sections were shady with water trickling down mossy rock walls into the path-side ditches. Embankment sections offered views like this:
An Almost-Vanished Viaduct
The path stayed on the railway alignment for about the next two miles, saving one point where it had to divert around a now-missing bridge. It was also a missing bridge that brought the end of it, with the cycle route joining a country lane that passed under a long-dismantled viaduct. Two isolated spans of the viaduct survived, having been taken over by a neighbouring house to store things at the end of the garden.
Approaching Newton Stewart
Old Military Road (Part II)
The next couple of miles were basically one long stroll down country lanes, passing through the hamlet of Stronord. I later realised that the lane that formed much of this route was in fact Major Rickson’s Old Military Road, the A75 having taken a new route that bypassed Stronord. At a hamlet named Blackcraig — once a major lead-mining centre — the Old Military Road and A75 merged again and NCN 7 briefly ran alongside the latter on an adjacent cycle path. It soon broke free again though, fleeing along the B7079 into Minnigaff.
Minnigaff is a village that has, in practical terms, long formed a contiguous settlement with Newton Stewart, Minnigaff being on the east bank of the Cree and Newton Stewart on the west. They remained formally distinct however as the Cree was the boundary between the two counties of Wigtownshire and Kircudbrightshire.
Today, though the counties persist for land registry purposes, both settlements fall within Dumfries & Galloway and any distinction between them is basically a matter of tradition.
Bridge of Cree
The bridge that links Minigaff and Newton Stewart was built in 1813 and designed by the prolific civil engineer John Rennie (1761-1821). Rennie made his name building canals before moving on to design bridges and other structures; his works include Lancaster Canal, Plymouth Breakwater and the original Waterloo Bridge.
Rennie’s was the second bridge across the Cree at Newton Stewart, the first having been swept away by flooding in 1806. Prior to 1745, when the first bridge was built, the River Cree had to be forded. It was crossed in this manner by Robert the Bruce in 1329 as he made his way on a pilgrimage to Whithorn in the desperate hope that a show of piety and the intercession of St Ninian might make his crippling leprosy less imminently fatal than it appeared to be (it didn’t and he died the same year).
Crossing the Cree
I crossed the bridge into Newton Stewart (i.e. ‘New Town of Stewart’), named for its seventeenth century founder, William Stewart, youngest son of the Earl of Galloway. The sun had set and twilight was fading by the time I located my hotel.
There, food, drink and a lazy evening assisted in recharging my batteries; another walk awaited me in the morning…
This time: 16 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,378 miles