ABOUT a week into September I stumbled out into bright morning sunshine in the town of Annan. Surely this couldn’t be Scotland? Where was the rain and the snow? But a search of my pocket revealed unfamiliar banknotes for north of the border was indeed where I was.
Englishmen have been crossing the border to Annan for centuries. For several of those centuries the English typically came en masse in armies or raiding parties, intent on slaying Scots and wreaking havoc. This was doubtless horrific if you were on the receiving end of it and it can have provided little satisfaction as your house burnt down and your life’s blood seeped away that the Scots often did the exact same thing to the English. It was, if you like, equal opportunities border unrest.
Union of the Crowns
Fortunately, after the Union of the Crowns, the border unrest died away. Partly, because it made less sense for people to fight when both countries had the same king. But mostly because the king in question, James VI and I, wasn’t having any of it. That shit had to stop and he stopped it with force.
Up until then, the border clans had been largely independent, playing both countries against each other such that they could do what they liked. But with one person directing the might of both countries against them, their days were numbered. They either submitted or they forfeited everything and found themselves transported overseas; it was a very effective policy.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that since I was visiting some four centuries later, no plundering or murdering occurred. Which was nice.
Within sight of the war memorial, at the end of the street, was Annan’s imposing town hall. Part way up it a soldier from a much earlier period watched me carefully to make sure I wasn’t doing any plundering. This was Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, one of the most famous warriors of his generation.
Robert the Bruce
The future King Robert I was a scion of the De Brus family, the Lords of Annandale. Descended from Anglo-Norman and Gaelic nobility, his De Brus ancestors dwelt in Annan Castle.
Scots history is complex and usually involves the Scots in a life and death struggle with their bitterest enemies — other Scots — plus interminable wars against the English. Robert embodies all of this, having inherited his grandfather’s claim to the Crown of Scotland (one of fifteen competing claims during the Great Cause, a succession crisis following the death of Alexander III in 1286).
The Great Cause
As political wrangling turned into chaos, the fifteen claims mostly reduced to two main contenders — John Balliol, who had the strongest claim by far, and Robert the Bruce. As Scotland teetered on the edge of civil war, her nobles took the path of the lesser evil and invited the Welsh-conquering, Jew-persecuting maniac King of England, Edward I, to adjudicate their claims, which is a bit like calming a tavern brawl by releasing a tiger in the bar.
Edward agreed to play referee on the condition that he be recognised as Lord Paramount of Scotland, to whom the King of Scots owed homage, and it’s a measure of their desperation that the Scots sort-of acquiesced (there was some very careful phrasing, which Edward basically ignored). He therefore considered their claims.
By the law of primogeniture, as used in Scotland for at least two hundred years, John Balliol was obviously the King. Robert based his claim on having the closest degree of kinship to the late King. Or, at least, those were the legal arguments pertaining to the succession. Far more pertinent was that both had sizeable armies, while the real clincher was that John was more likely to play along with Edward’s overlordship thing. Edward chose John and the scene was set for a future of rebellions, coups and English invasions in support of John’s shaky throne.
Wars of Scottish Independence
During this period, Robert took part in Sir William Wallace’s doomed revolt against Edward’s occupation, got himself crowned as King of Scots in 1306 and then driven to exile the very same year. The following year he was back — legend claims he was inspired by the tenacity of a spider in a cave in which he was hiding — first storming to military victory and then eliminating his rivals. Edward I died of dysentery while marching north with fresh troops and Robert’s throne was secured. Or as secured as a throne ever gets, anyway.
He remains a popular hero of Scottish history, partly because of his cunning and tenacity but mostly because he beat the English.
Bonnie Prince Charlie
Annan is proud of its kingly scion though he’s not its only claim to fame. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed there overnight during his retreat from Derby as the Jacobite Rising raced to its destruction, pursued by the Duke of Cumberland.
Not that Annan was particularly well-disposed to the Prince at the time; Dumfriesshire was overwhelmingly Hanoverian in sympathy and its militia had raided his baggage train the first time he passed through (heading south).
The town also has a connection with the poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), who worked there as an exciseman in the 1790s. At that time the River Annan (Abhainn Anann in Gaelic) was more navigable and the town comprised a thriving river port.
In time, Silt and the railways would put pay to that source of prosperity. Today it is a quiet river, known mostly for its excellent fishing.
Annan’s name is derived from the river in both English and Scottish Gaelic (it is Inbhir Anainn in the latter, meaning ‘mouth of the River Annan’).
As languages go, Gaelic was actually a newcomer to the region; from 450 to 1093 the region was part of the Cumbric-speaking Kingdom of Strathclyde, where they would have said ‘aber’ rather than ‘inbhir’ as their language was a dialect of Old Welsh.
Crossing the Annan
The road to Dumfries crossed the Annan by means of a graceful stone bridge designed by Robert Stephenson — a famous builder of lighthouses — but I shunned this and took a footpath along the east bank and crossed further south via a footbridge. Once across, I followed a metalled cycle path as it passed beneath the railway and headed south to Newbie, at the actual mouth of the Annan.
Newbie wasn’t terribly exciting, comprising, as it did, some houses and a pharmaceutical plant. It did present me with a choice however: I could stay with the cycle path (NCN 7) or follow the last two miles of the Annandale Way to Newbiebarns.
A fifty-three mile footpath, the Annandale Way follows the course of the Annan from its source in the Moffat Hills to where it meets the Solway Firth at Barnkirk Point. The latter appealed and so off I went, passing on my way a man with a ridiculously friendly dog.
There was tail wagging. There was jumping up. There was general excited puppy-like bounding (although she was far from a puppy). Her slightly embarrassed owner felt the need to explain — they often met another local when the dog was being walked and he would often feed her treats. Therefore, in her mind, anyone met during walkies was a treat-dispensing new friend.
I felt vaguely guilty that I had nothing to offer, as though I’d somehow teased the daft animal. Fortunately, her attention span was fleeting and I was soon forgotten as a series of new things — an interesting smell, a passing bumblebee, her own wagging tail — became in turn the Most Interesting Thing Ever.
At Barnkirk Point, where the Annan spills into the Solway Firth, the path regained the shoreline and it was glorious.
To my left were the waters of the firth itself, with Cumbria just across them. The antennae of Anthorn Radio Station towered indistinctly through a haze. Ahead in the distance rose Criffel, a 569 m hill standing more-or-less in isolation.
I knew there was only a mile of this so I enjoyed it for all it was worth.
The path came to an end at Newbiebarns, a handful of buildings on the extreme edge of Newbie. I soon stood at a crossroads, busily consulting my map.
To my right was NCN 7 — had I stuck with the cycle path I would have come this way, covering in one boring quarter mile what I had just walked in two — straight ahead was also NCN 7 and a road leading to the B724. This was not particularly exciting either but it was the most obvious route on which to continue. To my left was a dead-end road to Newbie Mains — again just a handful of buildings — which my map suggested also contained the start of another shore footpath.
I quickly investigated the latter but was largely unconvinced. It looked as though the path on the map went through someone’s private property and I wasn’t sure if there was a path or just a route across a shingle beach. The road route won out.
Hitting the Road
As I plodded along, following the signage for NCN 7, I concluded that while the road wasn’t my ideal route, it could certainly have been a lot worse. I was just getting into a properly decent stride when a car pulled up beside me and I was asked if I needed a lift. I didn’t, of course, but this was a lovely gesture and added to my general contentment.
After just over a mile, the road ended at a junction with the B724, a proper full-width main road with light to moderate traffic. This was a little less fun but still not awful and I only needed to stay on it for a mile and a half, which was nothing. So far I’d walked about four miles. I had more than twenty left until I reached Dumfries.
Soon enough, I reached the turning that would take me down to Powfoot and back onto the Solway shore. The tide had gone out while I was inland and large stretches of sand were exposed. On the opposite shore, almost indistinct, were Skinburness and Silloth.
Powfoot is a small hamlet in the parish of Cummertrees, situated at the mouth (or foot) of a stream called the Pow Water. It is small and today is mostly focussed on tourism.
I rested there on a bench overlooking a beach that was mostly mud and marsh. From there, across the water, I could see the hills and mountains of Cumbria with the radio antennae of Anthorn rising between them.
The road out of Powfoot ran along the shoreline, first passing some old-looking white-painted cottages that formed the aptly named White Row. I passed a hotel and a multitude of cyclists and soon found myself passing through a holiday caravan site. There I was able to buy snacks and a drink, with an amusedly raised eyebrow from the staff.
‘That’s a healthy lunch,’ said a woman of my purchases, which admittedly were ginger beer, ice cream and chocolate. I laughed and countered that cocoa is clearly a vegetable but it didn’t mean she didn’t have a point. Besides, when the Scots — famous for their unhealthy diet of fried, well, everything —start criticising my food choices, perhaps it’s time to reconsider. Still, ice cream, chocolate and ginger beer. What’s not to love there?
In passing through the caravan site, I was still following NCN 7, which had approved of my diversion through Powfoot so much that it had decided to come with me. It now became a narrow metalled cycle path, which in turn met up with an almost as narrow road:
The road continued similarly for three miles, with a couple of right-angled turns just to keep me guessing. On my left, fields sloped gently down to marshland and the firth, while on my right were the woods of Priestside Flow, planted on what was once peatland. As I progressed, the trees pulled back, separated from the road by fields of cows, and I passed by Priestside itself, an isolated farmstead. Eventually, without getting in any way wider, the road suddenly sprouted speed limit signs (30 mph) and cottages on both sides. I had reached Ruthwell.
Dr Henry Duncan
Ruthwell is a small village straddling, as you have seen, a minor road. It is also home to a unique museum, which was sadly closed that afternoon.
Ruthwell was the home of one Dr Henry Duncan (1774-1846), a proper Georgian gentleman scholar and product of the Enlightenment. A minister of the Church of Scotland, he was also a geologist, antiquarian, philanthropist, artist, businessman, militia captain and author. And because, as an author, getting published is a challenge, he was a publisher as well.
Trustee Savings Bank
His most enduring legacy, however — and the main subject of the museum — was the creation of the Trustee Savings Bank in 1810, the first proper savings bank (i.e. a bank primarily focussed on storing individual’s savings and paying interest upon them). In the subsequent two hundred-odd years, the TSB has experienced a series of takeovers, mergers and divestments but, as of 2013, is once again a retail bank and high-street brand (now owned by Spain’s Banco Sabadell).
A plaque on the wall of the cottage notes that it took Dr Duncan ‘nearly ten years of devoted work and pecuniary sacrifice’ in order to achieve his banking innovation; the plaque was erected by his great grand-daughter in 1908.
The narrow lane continued out the far side of Ruthwell, crossing the stream of Thwaite Burn via a narrow stone bridge by Thwaite Farm. For a short while it was more of the same, with the fields and trees and Criffel looming in the distance…
Sadly, the narrow lane came to an end at a point just out of sight in the photo above. There it met the B725, which to be honest wasn’t all that much more major, and this carried me past Stanhope Farm to the tiny hamlet of Brow, which has just a handful of houses and a mineral well.
Brow Well is a chalybeate well, meaning that its waters are rich in iron salts. These have long been associated with health and healing and it is for this reason that Robert Burns — who was then living in Dumfries — visited Brow Well in 1796. He stayed for three weeks in Brow’s inn (demolished in 1863), taking the waters and bathing in the sea. Alas, it did not help him for he returned home on the 18th of July that year and was dead by the 21st.
Brow has diminished since those days, when it comprised twelve cottages and an inn and a sign at the well now warns the visiting public that Brow Well’s water is unsuitable for drinking.
From Cockpool to Stank
A long trek along the B725 now followed, with occasional trees providing a leafy respite from the blazing sunshine. While in no way unpleasant, the next four miles had little meriting comment as I plodded along by the roadside passing tracks to farms with names like Cockpool, Powhillon and Nether, Middle and Upper Locharwoods. Possibly the best such name was Stank.
The road ended by crossing the stream of Lochar Water and entering the village of Bankend, where it met another road by forming the tail of a T-junction. There, a right turn would take me direct to Dumfries, while a left turn would loop around the shoreline, conveying me to the same destination via a circuitous route.
The latter option was my plan and this brought both good things and bad. For the good, I would see more water and I could get refreshment at Glencaple. The not so good was the increase in distance — although I was taking that into account — and the fact that my plan was so brilliant that the B725 wanted in on it too.
And so, resigned to the fact that I would now be on the B752 all the way to Dumfries, I turned left and headed out of the village. For two miles the road curved around a low hillside (90 m at its highest point) and conveyed me back towards the marshes at the edge of Solway Firth. On its way it passed through the hamlet of Shearington and came within a stone’s throw of various ancient fortifications: a Roman temporary camp on the hill top, and an old Iron Age fort.
On the lowland side of the road stood Caerlaverock Castle, a thirteenth century moated, triangular castle, which was besieged by the English in the time of Robert the Bruce. Visually impressive and much-altered over the centuries, the castle was built by the Maxwell family, later Earls of Nithdale, who owned it until the Civil War.
In 1640, the Catholic Maxwells were defeated by a Protestant Covenanter army, which part-demolished the castle and drove the Maxwells out. They never returned.
I was sorely tempted to visit the castle and, if I’m honest, its café (I was feeling tired and wanted a cold drink). In the end, I was dissuaded by three things: Firstly, it stood a quarter-mile down a winding side-road, thus adding another half mile by the time I’d got there and back. Secondly, I didn’t have time; I only had just enough daylight as it was. Thirdly and decisively my special knack was in play — considering the time of day, the café was probably closed. I kept going.
At the point where the road rejoined the Solway, a car park and picnic area had been provided. Now, I had neither car nor picnic but what I did have was feet that wanted a rest. I thankfully sat on a viewing platform, looking out across the marshes of the Merse, much to the evident disgust of a bloke who had thought he had perfect solitude. It was pretty peaceful and relaxing.
The road now followed the shoreline of what rapidly ceased to be the Solway Firth and instead became the Nith Estuary and then the River Nith (Abhainn Nid). As I drew slowly closer, Criffel appeared to shrink.
The sandy flats of the estuary have long been home to a type of net fishing called haaf netting. Dating back to Viking times, the haaf is a net mounted on an 18’ × 5’ rectangular frame, which is supported by three legs. The fisherman stands behind the net, holding it upright across the current. As one might expect, the net fills out with water and fish, at which point the legs of the frame are allowed to float to the surface. This traps the fish, which is then struck with a wooden club. A rope is threaded through its gills, allowing it to be tied to the waist of the fisherman for the time being.
This ancient method, though almost dead, is kept alive this day by a dwindling number of dedicated fishermen who appear to be seen as the Devil incarnate by rod anglers. As with many such arguments, there appears to be a lot of emotion on both sides and little reliance on facts.
With the sun getting lower in the sky, I ambled along the road beside the Nith, grabbing a five minute sit down, whenever I espied a bench. This was my second day of mostly road walking and that’s often a recipe for sore feet. In this, as in many things, prevention is better than cure and multiple short rests to keep it at bay work better than a long one after the damage is done. In my experience, once the achiness starts then you’re stuck with it for the duration.
It started anyway; I was stuck with it.
About three miles upstream from the picnic area, I came to the village of Glencaple. Apparently it has a tea room run by two aristocratic ladies, one of whom used to be lady-in-waiting to Princess Alexandra (granddaughter of George V and thus the Queen’s cousin); the Princess formally opened it in 2012.
This sounded quirky and interesting but of course I exercised my special ability and arrived when the tea shop was closed. Fortunately, there was also a hotel with a public bar and while this was unexpectedly busy, it didn’t stop them selling me a much-needed cold drink.
After Glencaple, the river narrowed considerably, although it was not often visible from the road. I didn’t mind though. The road conveyed me past cottages, farms and fields of cows, which the late afternoon sun bathed in a warm yellow glow. There was a kind of relaxed stillness and, for all that my feet had had enough, I was feeling pretty content.
I soon passed the hamlet of Kelton, which meant I had just three miles left to go.
The B725 swung away from the river and, as the sun crept below the horizon, became busier with evening traffic. Just as I reached the last mile, street lighting and pedestrian footways began, which helped enormously.
There, I had a choice: stay on the B-road or turn off to the left with NCN 7 and follow it along the riverbank. Right up until this point, I had planned to do the latter but now, as twilight descended, I was reluctant to swap a lighted route for one that might not be. I therefore stayed on the B725, which led me directly into the heart of Dumfries.
My hotel was pretty central and, to make things really easy, had its name on the side in huge illuminated letters. I was so happy to sit down.
Dumfries is the administrative centre of the Dumfries and Galloway council area. It is also the ancient county town of Dumfriesshire, which county persists for purposes of lieutenancy and land registry. Its Gaelic name, Dún Phris, means ‘Fort of the thicket’.
The town was chartered in 1186 by King William I of Scotland (known as ‘the Lion’), which made it a Royal Burgh. Because of its position, it has witnessed numerous kings and armies marching in various directions such as Alexander III in 1264 or William Wallace, Edward Longshanks and Robert the Bruce at the turn of the fourteenth century. It was in the town that Robert slew one of his key rivals, John Comyn, in 1306, an act that got him excommunicated.
Like Annan, the town hosted Bonnie Prince Charlie during the Jacobite Rising, only to see him flee before the Duke of Cumberland. And poet Robert Burns lived there at the end of his life; he is buried in one of its churchyards.
High Street Fountain
In the morning, with a while to wait before my train, I was able to amble around the town centre. There I found a garish Victorian three-tiered fountain (erected in 1882) around which four determined-looking cherubs were grimly squeezing moisture out of crocodiles’ mouths. Because they could, most likely.
This time: 25 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,279½ miles