I AWOKE in Southerness to find blue skies and warm sunshine. It was almost as if the weather had forgotten that this was October in Scotland. Still, I was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially if it was pulling the chariot of the sun.
After breakfast, I wandered through Southerness and onto the beach, where stands the second oldest lighthouse in Scotland. First erected in 1748 and improved by Robert Stevenson (a noted lighthouse engineer) in 1805, the light was discontinued in 1936. It is a simple, brutal-looking structure: practical but not exactly lovely.
As I stood there, looking at it in as touristy a manner as you could hope for, I was greeted by an elderly woman walking a small dog. She warmly wished me a good morning and the morning was indeed good. Spooky powers, that.
The Coastal Path
Something else that happened as I stood there is that I noticed footpath signs pointing each way along the beach. According to them, I could have reached Southerness along the shore from Drumburn (although I’d still have been doing that in the dark). I could also continue along the shore if I wanted, following its line for four and a half miles before meeting up with the road. This was very tempting, even if the beach was mud and shingle; the alternative involved heading back up the only road in, and then heading for the A710 and following it westward.
In the end, the road plan won out as there was something en route that I wanted to see. I thus turned my back on the beach and walked back through Southerness village.
As I tramped up the sole road in and out of Southerness I realised that I was already uncomfortably warm. I reduced my layers to a decent minimum and paused to look at Criffel rising lumpily in the distance. There was little hint of the blanket of low cloud that had hidden its summit the day before.
The road carried me to Loamingfoot, a hamlet of three or four houses, where I took a side-lane heading north-west. This carried me past fields in which the principle crop appeared to be geese and past a farm named West Preston. Ahead, the road took a sharp right-hand turn and right by that turn was the reason that I had shunned the beach route: Wreaths Tower.
Little of the tower stands today, just its southeast corner and the remains of a turnpike stair; it was built for James Douglas, fourth Earl of Morton (1516-1581).
The Earl of Morton
A ruthlessly ambitious man and committed Protestant, the Earl became Scotland’s Lord Chancellor and was instrumental in firstly persuading Mary, Queen of Scots, to renounce her throne and then in defeating her army at the Battle of Langside when she attempted to recover it.
As one of the four regents who governed during James VI’s minority, he must have thought he’d got it made. But he found himself implicated in the murder of Lord Darnley (James’s father) and he was executed with the Scottish Maiden — a type of guillotine, which he himself had introduced when the sword used for official beheadings wore out from use.
Having turned the corner beside Wreaths Tower, it was but a short walk to where the road met a larger one in the form of the A710. Between Southerness and the A-road, I had climbed about 30 m and this was just enough to give a broad view across the fields stretching down to Preston Merse and Mersehead Sands beyond.
Colvend & Southwick
Traffic was sparse on the A710, which suited me just fine as I ambled along it and through the village of Mainsriddle, which comprised a number of cottages strung out along one side of that road.
I then followed the road for about a mile and a half, keeping my eyes peeled for some standing stones along the way (they successfully hid from me) and an old motte.
Soon, I came to Caulkerbush, a small village sitting on the Caulkerbush Burn, at the junction of the A710 and B793. A signpost at the junction indicated that both ways forward would take me to Dalbeattie but that the distances were different: seven or twelve miles, depending on direction. Naturally, my route — continuing along the A710 — was the twelve mile version.
After Caulkerbush, the road, which had climbed a few more metres, slowly dropped back down to sea level. This section was lined by trees, forming a green, leafy tunnel. For the next couple of miles, I seldom got to see the sea despite the road now running right next to the shoreline. When occasional glimpses were possible, I made sure to make the most of them.
Shortly after taking the photo above, I passed some isolated cottages, which had an elderly couple sat outside enjoying the unseasonal sun and looking out upon a view through a gap in the trees. They greeted me and asked how far I was walking and then proceeded to take great interest in my perambulatory endeavours.
I stood and chatted for probably quarter of an hour, treating it as an unscheduled rest; such moments of unexpected social pleasantry add to the experience, I find. We discussed my adventure on Criffel the previous day and they mentioned Screel, a similar hill that lay ahead. They also talked about footpaths and routes, all of which was extremely useful information.
A Red Squirrel
A Small Moment
When I eventually tore myself away from the talkative couple — perhaps the isolation of their cottage had its drawbacks — I had another unexpected encounter that put a smile on my face. A small, fluffy-tailed shape hurtled across the road in front of me and ran straight up a tree trunk.
‘Squirrel,’ I said to myself, correctly. Noting its small size my brain decided to refine the description. ‘Young squirrel,’ it decided. ‘Young, red squirrel… no, not young, just red.’
The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is Great Britain’s native squirrel but has been displaced across much of the island by its larger transatlantic cousin, the grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Red squirrels are hanging on in various fringes of the UK, particularly islands like Anglesey and the Isle of Wight, but I had never actually seen one.
Survival of the Quickest
There are a number of factors behind the success of the grey squirrel, including its greater size, certain squirrel diseases and the lack of a natural predator in the UK environment. Except that last one has a significant exception in north-west Scotland: the pine marten.
A cat-sized arboreal mustelid — an ‘enormous tree weasel’ if you like — the marten is pretty adept at catching red squirrels, and they have evolved suitable speed and caution to try to avoid it. Not so the grey squirrels, which don’t expect weasels to be up there in the trees with them. They’re like sitting ducks, only furrier and less feathery. Fat and easy: junk food for martens.
I, of course, was in south-west Scotland where pine martens are rarely seen (not that the shy and elusive marten is commonly seen even in the north). But having finally seen a red squirrel, I had a ridiculous grin on my face. I was also very glad the traffic was so light. Had I watched it get run over, that would have been tragic. And also deeply ironic: the squirrel had shown absolutely no knowledge of road safety, despite Tufty Fluffytail — an anthropomorphic red squirrel — being the face of road safety campaigns from the 1950s through to the ’80s. You hypocrite, Tufty!
I was still grinning when I found myself emerging from the shelter of the trees to be presented with the sight of Sandyhills Bay, where I would be leaving the road.
There is a sizeable holiday park at Sandyhills and I took advantage of its shop to grab some brunch and sit, looking out to sea over the flat beach.
Although I could have stayed on the A710, from here on in a better alternative presented itself in the form of a proper cliff path. When I had rested, eaten and applied sunscreen, I was ready to set off. So set off I did.
The Cliff Path
The photo above was taken at a high point on the path, near the top of a 90 m hill called The Torrs. From there the path descended to the tiny hamlet of Portling, which looks onto Portling Bay.
Port o’ Warren Bay
Immediately beyond Portling Bay was a jutting headland, separating it from Port o’ Warren Bay and the equally tiny hamlet of Port o’ Warren. The route between these two settlements involved a brief diversion inland by road but I was soon back on the coast path.
The path climbed over the flanks of White Hill (143 m), which overlooks Port o’ Warren, and then gradually descended again. At one point, it crossed a field that presented something of a boggy obstacle, necessitating careful hopping across stepping stones while clutching a nearby fence for balance.
The rest of the route was dry underfoot and carried me above a perfect smuggler’s cove, with a narrow entrance and a hidden beach behind. This is not necessarily a flight of romantic fancy: the Solway Coast was an infamous haunt of smugglers.
A little further on I encountered the ruins of an old house, which also had a reminder of the smuggling past: one of the sea-facing windows was filled in, a measure often taken to prevent coastal dwellers from surreptitiously signalling to smugglers. Of course, the residents could still go outside and signal, but that’s far harder to explain if caught than a lamp on the windowsill.
Just before the old house, which I believe was called Glenstocking, a monument sat upon the low cliff. I neglected to descend to it as that mostly involved wading through gorse but I could look back and see what I’d missed. It commemorates the schooner Elbe, which struck the rocks here in 1866.
A plaque on the monument names Elbe’s captain as Samuel Wilson, a local man and also her owner. On that day she was actually commanded by his second son, George Wilson, and Samuel was enjoying the status of passenger on his own vessel. She was laden with cargo to the value of £500, which was sadly uninsured.
How it Happened
A gale blew her aground in her anchorage of Balcary Bay on the 6th of December, smashing her rudder and rendering her next to impossible to steer. Worse, she was holed and taking on water. Desperately steering by sail alone, her crew tried to take her into nearby Rough Firth and the estuary of the River Urr. They missed. Not by much, but by enough, and Elbe smashed into the rocks above.
The waves repeatedly drove her forward onto the rocks, then pulled her back and each time she went forward two of the crew leapt onto the rocks and safety. Samuel Wilson and mate Robert Clachrie — the last men aboard — had just made their escape when waves backed Elbe off the rocks entirely and she drifted away and sank. There had thankfully been no loss of life. The financial costs however, would be considerable.
Having been descending for a while, the path now ascended steeply, climbing the flank of Barcloy Hill and then dropping to the rocky promontory of Castlehill Point. The latter, as its name gives away, was the site of an Iron Age hill fort and settlement.
From atop it I could look inland up Rough Firth, which forms the estuary of the Urr. In it sits Rough Island, an uninhabited isle connected to the mainland by a natural tidal causeway. Between me and the causeway, I could see the village of Rockcliffe. My destination — Dalbeattie — was about six miles upstream.
A liitle further along I found this:
Joseph Nelson’s Grave
The grave is that of Joseph Nelson, a sailor aboard a smuggler called Ann, which was lost with all hands in January 1791. His body didn’t wash up ashore until mid summer, by which time it must have been in a sickening state. Whether because of that, or because he was a smuggler, the decision was made to bury him where he was found. His widow later erected a gravestone of pale Whitehaven sandstone; its inscription is now practically illegible but once read:
‘In memory of Joseph Nelson who was lost on his passage from Whitehaven 2nd Jan 1791 and was buried here July 20 following. Aged 59 years. This stone is erected by his widow Ann Nelson in Whitehaven’
The path now dropped down onto the beach. It was well waymarked although even if it hadn’t been, I could still have found my way upstream into Rockcliffe. As I went, I glanced back towards the sea to see Hestan Island standing guard at the entrance to the bay.
Hestan Island is also tidal, with a causeway exposed at low tide. Today it is uninhabited, though the remains of manor house show that this was not always so. The house was built for Edward Balliol (1283-1367), son of John Balliol and, like his father, King of Scots in a backed-by-the-English, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of way.
Some five centuries after the building of the manor house, the island was a veritable hub of smuggling activity and its caves were used to store smuggled goods. To my mind though, its best feature is the name of a series of ledges at its southern tip: Daft Ann’s Steps.
Daft Ann’s Steps
According to local legend Daft Ann was a girl who was none-too-bright and attempted to cross the waters to nearby Balcary Point by laying a path of stepping stones. This was obviously not successful and the young woman drowned. It is a great name though.
Unlike the nearby hill fort sites, Rockcliffe is not ancient. A couple of buildings date back to the early 1800s or before but most of it is less than a century old. It is a small village with its focus on tourism, despite which it has few facilities for the visitor.
Those it has include a tea room, which was closing as I passed it, and some public toilets, which were indeed convenient. There was also an ice cream van, which I am told is there in all weathers. Its proprietor furnished me with both fluids and ice cream — I was at the seaside and it was still sunny!
Well, sunny-ish. Cloud cover had actually been developing over the last couple of hours but I wasn’t going to let that get in the way of an ice cream. Oh no, indeed!
About a mile north of Rockcliffe was Kippford, previously also known as Scaur, a village popular for sailing. There was no direct road link between them, both being at the end of their own dead-end spurs from the A710. A direct road link was planned at one point but any plans to compulsorily purchase the land were scuppered when the landowner donated it to the National Trust. Instead, the only direct link are footpaths, such as the Jubilee Path, cleared and surfaced by public subscription in 1901.
The Mote of Mark
Lurking amid the woodland was the Mote of Mark, a rocky knoll housing a sixth century hill fort believed to have been occupied by one of the princes of Rheged (the Cumbric-speaking post-Roman kingdom that covered this area). It appears to have been destroyed by fire in the seventh century: the extreme heat even vitrified the stones of the outer wall.
Its name refers to King Mark of Dumnonia, who features in the legend of Tristan and Isolde. In the legend, Tristran, a Cornish knight, goes to Ireland to convey the beautiful Isolde to his uncle, King Mark, whom she is to marry. However they fall in love, either with or without the influence of a love potion, and a doomed love triangle ensues.
While Mark is certainly of the right period, any association with the Mote seems fanciful, given that it’s in a different kingdom at the other end of the island.
The path meandered delightfully amid the trees before depositing me onto a seaside road. This was dotted with all manner of strange creations as one of the locals likes to fashion stones, shells and driftwood into weird creatures. I entirely applauded the sentiment but was underwhelmed by the execution and decided not to take any photos. Instead I hurried along the road into Kippford.
Modern Kippford makes its living almost entirely from sailing and tourism, related industries that are seasonal in nature. Historically, it was more diverse, with two quarries and a paper mill nearby plus the shipbuilding industry. The latter thrived between the early 1800s and WW1 but was thereafter reduced to small boat repairs and finally ceased in the 1920s.
The village is absent from a map of 1654, and appears to have come into existence in the eighteenth century. It was originally called the Scaur after jutting granite crag that forced carts onto a tidal route along the beach. One of the crags was called Kipp Brae and this leant itself to the village’s new, more genteel name, when a post office was opened in 1870.
I ambled past Kippford’s marina and then up the mile or so of road that led me back to the A710.
I regained the A-road at Barnbarroch, a tiny hamlet — a mere handful of houses — that predates Kippford. Here, my original plan had been to follow the A710 but, thanks to my chat that morning with the elderly couple near Sandyhills, that plan was history.
The information that they had provided was that since my map was printed, a signposted cycle route had been established on the Forestry Commission tracks through Dalbeattie Forest. This began at Barnbarroch and would, in a slightly meandering manner, take me all the way to Dalbeattie without risking life and limb on the A-road. This was good because while traffic was light and most of the drivers were considerate, there are always some who seem to resent all other road-users (and especially those that aren’t cars) and who seem to want to own the whole A-road. I think of those people as ‘A-wholes’.
The track rose above Barnbarroch Farm and climbed the flanks of Moyle hill, a 150 m high hill whose bare top housed yet another hill fort. I noted that the hill’s name either betrayed the Cumbric-speaking history of this region or was remarkably coincidental: the Welsh word moel means ‘bare hill’.
I paused for a while at a viewpoint, looking out over the valley of the Urr. The air was still and peaceful, give or take the odd midge. Fortunately — for I swear Scottish midges are more the size of fridges — I appeared not to be to their taste. I could have sat there for ages but part of the reason that the air was still and the midges were busy was because it was evening and I had limited daylight left in which to get to Dalbeattie.
I trotted along at a merry pace, following the signposted trail through the forest. The sun set and the twilight dwindled and was just thinking that I was going to need a torch when I emerged into a car park at the point where Dalbeattie’s main north-south street met the A710. This meant I was walked beside the A-road for all of about thirty seconds before I entered Dalbeattie and went in search of my hotel.
Dalbeattie’s name comes from the Gaelic Dail Bhaeithe, meaning ‘valley of birch’.
As a settlement it dates from the 17th century but largely developed from 1781 when the landowners feued their property. This was a system of Scottish feudal land tenure, in which landowners divided land into tenancies. Thus, Dalbeattie expanded and the landowners gained a new income.
A bridge across the Urr followed in 1797 and the granite industry took off, with the quarries greatly enriching the town. Today, it is mostly a dormitory town for Dumfries although it also relies on the tourist industry (good news for me, as it meant I could find a decent hotel).
William McMaster Murdoch
As I wandered through the town, I passed a small museum, which I was later told is curated by a highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic man. In addition to industrial history, the museum focuses on one of Dalbeattie’s native sons: William McMaster Murdoch (1873-1912), first officer of the ill-fated RMS Titanic.
Murdoch was the officer of the watch on the night of the sinking. In the brief window (less than a minute) between the iceberg being spotted and the collision he gave orders to attempt to manoeuvre around it, which were partly successful but sadly not enough. He then oversaw the starboard evacuation, launching ten lifeboats that held almost three quarters of those saved.
It is uncertain whether he was the officer who was seen to shoot two men trying to climb aboard an already fully-laden lifeboat and who then shot himself before Titanic went under.
Sadly, I arrived in Dalbeattie after the museum had closed and would leave the next morning before it was open. For I would be up bright and early in order to continue on my way…
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,318 miles