WAY back in the distant dawn of time, known to some as ‘last October’, I plodded step by step from Dalbeattie to Kirkcudbright, fitting in my last walk of the year before the days got too short. As it turned out, they already had, which goes some way to explain why I was up and about in Dalbeattie before it was properly light.
Dalbeattie at Dawn
Fortunately, there were other mad souls braving the morning twilight and some of them were opening shops, which enabled me to buy water and snacks for the road. There was going to be quite a lot of road, so naturally that demanded quite a lot of snacks.
For some reason, no matter how much walking I do, I never lose weight. It’s very mysterious.
Murdoch Memorial Tablet
As I headed westwards out of Dalbeattie, I passed a tablet commemorating William McMaster Murdoch, first officer of the Titanic:
I followed the A711 out of Dalbeattie for the half mile or so that it took to reach Buittle Bridge, which crosses Urr Water. On the far side of the river the A745 headed north to Castle Douglas, while the A711 continued south to Auchencairn according to the signs. This duality was a mere fiction of route-numbering for physically they were the same road, which my bit of the A711 had just met at right angles.
An impressive crop of toadstools flanked the junction and, as I turned south, these quickly gave way to autumnal trees and low hedgerows, which lined the route of the A711 for the next couple of miles. It was lovely.
About a mile and a half on from Buittle Bridge, I passed Kirkennan House and its estate. Built in the seventeenth century for the locally important Maxwell family, today the estate survives as holiday accommodation, with its walled garden and 12 acre wood on hand for the enjoyment of its guests. Not being amongst their number, I continued south along the A711 for about another mile.
The road continued straight-ish, give or take the odd wobble, in stark contrast to Urr Water, which meandered with verve and panache.
Both road and river were going the same overall direction, namely to the village of Palnackie.
A small village on the tidal Urr Water, Palnackie was a successful outport for Dalbeattie and Castle Douglas until 1965 when increasing port tolls killed most of its business. Even so, Palnackie’s Barlochan Basin is the only part of the Port of Dalbeattie still in commercial operation.
The basin was excavated in the nineteenth century though subsequent silting has reduced its depth and made it tidal. While the decline of the port was bad news for some, it was good news for others and the long-distance road-haulage firm TP Niven — established in 1926 to transport cargo to the quayside — is now the village’s largest employer.
Palnackie cruelly taunted me by having a tearoom that wasn’t yet open, which immediately made me want a cup of tea. My usual trick is to reach a café just after it has shut, so this strange temporal reversal was perplexing and confusing.
Palnackie Millennium Park
A map in the village showed footpaths not on my own map, as well as some that were. I had already planned to leave the A711 there and head down the western side of Rough Firth but this new information allowed me to slightly alter my route. And thus with high spirits (but also acute tea deficiency) I set off along a country lane. Partway along it was a gate to a millennium park, which turned out to be a small green area with benches and views across the valley. It seemed rude not to sit there for a while.
When I had exhausted the potential of sitting and looking at the view, I decided to explore the potential of actual exhaustion as brought on by walking long distances. The lane led me past a glassworks and into Tornat Wood. Here a russet carpet of leaves was developing, the autumnal tones contrasting with the lush green moss that covered the dry stone walls.
According to my map, another road, lane or possibly track branched off to the right, this being the route I had originally planned to take. It was as well that I had changed my plan because I didn’t see it as I headed down through Tornat Wood and out the other side.
I was now opposite Kippford, which mocked me gently from across the other side of water.
Directly ahead of me was Glen Isle, which is actually a rocky peninsula covered in trees and a handful of houses.
Now, according to the sign in Palnackie, a footpath led along the shoreline round to the woodland on the right of the photo above. Like hell it did. I suppose it’s possible there’s a shore route that had been covered by the tide but so far as I could see the only way to head west from Glen Isle involved either wading through salt marsh or swimming. I didn’t fancy either of those much.
Still, no problem, I just needed to head back up the lane to find that turn-off I missed. It was gated apparently, so I looked for the gate. And yes, there was a gate. It led into a field with a pony in it. There was no obvious track in the field although part of it looked like it might have been, before it got overgrown. I spent maybe ten minutes in that field, much to the puzzlement of the pony. The only way onwards I located was a stile over a fence into a wood. The path beyond the stile was… well, it wasn’t one.
I counted the number of machetes I was carrying. None. I counted them again just to be certain. And then, with the nagging doubt that I’d probably missed a really obvious exit, I admitted defeat and retraced my steps to Palnackie. I would now have to take the other lane out of the village and my amble to Glen Isle had basically just cost me time. I knew now, even though it was only mid-morning, that I would be completing my day’s walking in the dark.
Onwards to Old Orchardton
Back in Palnackie the tearoom had opened and the brilliant glare from this silver lining blinded me to the cloud. A nice cup of tea and a sandwich made the world better again, as it always does. And so, with a spring in my step and a song in my heart, I set off down another narrow country lane.
This too was a route that was taking me slightly out of the way, insofar as I would do two sides of a triangle before I rejoined the A711. But along this road was something I wanted to walk past, namely Orchardton Tower.
While there are many tower houses in Scotland, Orchardton is the only round one (round towers are more common in Ireland). It was built by John Cairns — the scion of a prominent local family — after he acquired the land in 1456 as a reward for supporting King James II against the Earls of Douglas. The tower remained in his family for the next three generations before being sold to Robert Maxwell, a member of the powerful Maxwell family.
Slightly tapered, the tower is 11 m high and 9 m in diameter with the main hall and entrance on the first floor and storage space on the ground floor. Various other buildings were clustered around it, including a feasting hall and kitchen, bakehouse and brewhouse. Sadly the wooden floors have long since collapsed, as has the roof, leaving the tower a ruin open to the sky.
I had a short rest at Orchardton Tower for the duration of which the clouds parted, revealing blue sky and sun. But the cloud rolled back over as I set off down the road, heading for the A711.
The low summit of Screel (344 m) lurked to the west of the A-road. I had been told that the hill has awesome views over Rough Firth but, even if I’d had time to climb it, the clouds rolling in would soon have hidden that view. Besides, I had no great desire to traverse more hillside bog whilst wearing trainers on my feet.
About three miles south of where I rejoined the A711 was the village of Auchencairn, which I came to in good time. The village sits on Hass Burn, which turns into Auchencairn Lane as it flows out into Auchencairn Bay. The bay is an expanse of mud and sand at low tide but fully submerged at high tide, when the tidal Hestan Island is cut off. I could see the island and bay from the A-road as I reached the outskirts of the village.
Auchencairn dates back to at least 1305 when (as ‘Aghencarne’) it is mentioned among lands pertaining to the Abbey of Dundrennan. Its name comes from Gaelic achadh an càirn meaning ‘the field of the cairn’.
A corn mill brought growth in the seventeenth century, while the 1750s brought extensive smuggling, after which the village pub is named — the Smugglers Inn. I didn’t make it too far into the village, pausing to rest in the Millennium Gardens that sit beside the bridge over the burn.
Next to both was the village’s war memorial, surmounted by an unusual Victoria Cross finial. So far as I can tell, none of those commemorated were awarded a VC; it just seems to have been a cheeky design choice by Messrs William Kirkpatrick Ltd of Manchester, who designed and built it using seven tons of Aberdeen granite.
Tower Gate Lodge
Immediately across the bridge, the A711 continued through the centre of Auchencairn but I took a side road to the left, which conveyed me down the side of Auchencairn Bay. As I went the cloud darkened, bringing a light drizzle and much of the land on the bay’s far side was soon mistily obscured. The sky was grey, the sea was grey. And so was this house:
The distinctive Tower Gate Lodge is a Victorian take on the tower house concept and you’ll notice that unlike Orchardton it is not round. It was built in the 1860s as a gatehouse to Auchencairn House, itself built around 1797. Today the gatehouse is holiday accommodation on the grounds of a family livestock farm.
I followed the road past the gatehouse and eventually it came to an end beside Balcary Bay. Here there was another tower, a little more colourful than the last. Like the gatehouse, it was an 1860 addition to the estate of Auchencairn House, which at that time had just been acquired by a new owner, Colonel Johnstone. Balcary Tower was built specifically to house his French governess; it is on-site accommodation with style:
The road may have ended at Balcary Bay but the way onward did not. I was pleased to find that the section of cliff path I was looking for did exist and was not just a cartographer’s daydream. Soon I was striding up a slightly muddy footpath, peering through the drizzle at the grey waves down below. I was in my element, if my element was water.
Sure, it was damp and cold and the path was getting squelchy here and there. But it was also healthy and bracing and various other adjectives that Britons like to use when doing something healthy outdoors in ‘ideally indoors’ conditions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had the cliffs to myself.
It couldn’t last of course. Something had to bring me down. And that something was the path itself which descended from the cliffs to the rocky shores of Rascarrel Bay.
The path soon brought me to some new-looking holiday chalets either side of Rascarrel Burn and a large, empty car-park like space that I took to be some sort of post-industrial site. It had that grim, disused look about it. Turns out that it is new and purpose built.
Until about 2011, there was a tiny car park, capable of holding six cars, and a wooded, undeveloped shore barring a collection of summer huts that had stood there since the 1930s. Then, Rascarrel Farm passed by marriage from the Hendry family to the MacTaggarts and everything changed.
In 2007, after a three year legal battle, Tommy MacTaggart evicted all the hutters and applied for planning permission to build the holiday chalets. This did not accord with local planning policy and was strongly resisted by Auchencairn Community Council. The decision actually rested with Dumfries & Galloway Council and they were of like mind with their local counterparts. It was rejected. A second planning application was also rejected. And a third. This latter application was appealed however and the Scottish Government upheld the appeal, overruling local objections and allowing the scheme to go ahead.
While the chalets themselves are not unpleasant, their construction has entailed the bulldozing of land and destruction of woodland and has created a space that I assumed on seeing it must be a cleared factory site. It was pretty grim.
A long trek up Rascarrel’s access road followed, flanked on one side by the woodland of Rascarrel Moss. This is Forestry Commission land and they had clearly been busy felling trees for the logs were piled high. Eventually, in worsening rain, I regained the A711. I had walked about six miles since leaving Auchencairn and yet I was just half a mile further down the A-road.
The traffic was heavier at this time of day — meaning that there actually was some — and each passing vehicle kicked up spray from the wet tarmac. After about a mile and a half I came to the lay-by near Over Hazelfield, where a viewpoint looks down towards the sea.
A metal plaque indicated places of interest in various directions, while informing me that ‘Auchencairn has been described as “a bright, rose-bowered, garden circled, seaside village” enjoying superb views across the bay and of the surrounding countryside.’ That sounds lovely.
Having feasted my eyes upon this vista, I splashed and stomped my way onwards towards the village of Dundrennan. With the world closing into claustrophobic greyness, this quickly turned into a dull plod with little to particularly commend it. And then something terrifying loomed out of the mist.
Yes, that really is a wicker man. And yes, it will — amazingly given the climate — eventually get set on fire. Since the summer of 2001, East Kirkcarswell Farm has played host to the Wickerman Festival, an annual music festival that ends with fireworks and the immolation of the wicker man (a different pose/design every year).
Apart from being an iconic signature item, the use of the wicker man is a knowing nod to the 1973 film The Wicker Man, which — although set in the Hebrides — was filmed in the area around Kirkcudbright.
From the wicker man it was a fairly short walk to Dundrennan (Gaelic: Dun Droighnein), site of the twelfth century Cistercian monastery, Dundrennan Abbey. Founded in 1142, it became — as was typical with abbeys — a prominent landowner and local power.
In 1568, Mary, Queen of Scots, spent her final night in Scotland there after losing the Battle of Langside. The next day she crossed the Solway Firth to Workington and captivity in England (England’s Queen Elizabeth I didn’t want her causing trouble).
In 1587, the Scottish Reformation saw the abbey dissolved and its land passed to the Crown. Used to house livestock, the site fell into ruin but still looks fairly impressive. I can’t show you it though, for three reasons. Reasons one and two are the poor visibility and the fact that I’d run out of daylight. Reason number three is probably the deciding factor though. I didn’t make it through Dundrennan to the abbey; instead I turned off the A711 and took to the narrow, winding back roads.
Taking the Back Roads
My reasoning was this: Much as I’d have loved to visit the abbey ruins and follow the A711 round until it reached Kircudbright Bay, I wasn’t actually going to see anything. The weather alone had reduced visibility to tens of metres but now sunset had happened and twilight was failing too. Walking in the rain, in the dark, it hardly mattered what I was passing.
Distance-wise there was little in it, whichever route I took, but I could be assured that the back roads would have much less traffic. Not only did this mean that I stood less chance of being run over, but it also meant I could use my eyeball-meltingly bright LED torch at full power without blinding motorists. So, back roads it was.
They were narrow and winding and, as hoped, almost traffic-free. I passed a handful of isolated farms but mostly it was me, the trees and the occasional dazzled cow. It seemed to take an age though — it’s hard to gauge progress when you can’t really see anything — and I was just starting to wonder if I’d gone astray when I eventually reached the bridge over Buckland Burn. This meant I had just a mile and half to go. And soon enough I emerged onto the B727, which carried me into Kirkcudbright.
Kirkcudbright is not pronounced how it looks, being said something like ‘ker-koo-bree’. The name comes from the Gaelic Cille Chuithbeirt meaning ‘chapel of Cuthbert’.
The Cuthbert in question is St Cuthbert (634-687), a Northumbrian bishop of Lindisfarne whose remains were taken with the monks when they fled Viking raids in 875. They spent seven years wandering about before settling in Chester-le-Street and one of the places they stopped in was Kirkcudbright.
I was in a much better state to enjoy my stay than St Cuthbert, said enjoyment being aided by a gin and tonic after I had found my hotel. The hotelier was fairly chatty (the hotel was almost empty) and I learned that it is almost impossible to exchange Scottish banknotes for Euros in France and that, having lived for a while in the Highlands, she had mixed feelings on living ‘so far south’.
In the morning, I had some time to spare before catching a bus back to Dumfries (Kircudbright’s railway was axed in 1965) so I wandered about to see some of it in daylight. Some of it watched me back.
The dramatic-looking war memorial was designed by George Henry Paulin in 1919. The building behind it — MacLellan’s Castle — is a touch older, having been built around 1582 on the site of a demolished monastery. It was the home of the MacLellans until 1752, when they sold it to Sir Robert Maxwell. He sold it on some thirty years later and from 1782 to 1912 it was held by the Earls of Selkirk. Since then, it has been in public ownership and is now maintained by Historic Scotland.
The bus stop was not far from the castle, near a small working quayside, where a handful of fishing boats were moored. As the bus time drew closer, so did the limits of my wandering.
A bridge crossed the River Dee nearby but I had neither time nor reason to cross it, so kept myself to the nearside.
The bridge was built in 1926 but retains the cast-iron lamp standards from an earlier, similar wrought-iron bridge constructed in 1868. Prior to 1868, the river was crossed by a ferry.
As I was looking at the bridge, a little old lady arrived at the bus stop and proceeded to quiz me on the secrets of the bus timetable despite my clearly being far from local. Still, I can read, and was gratified when the bus turned up when I’d said it would. Thus began my long journey home, ending my last walking trip of 2015. But I fully intended to be back…
This time: 24½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,342½ miles