I RETURNED to walking after a five month gap, the delay having come about on account of being a bit under the weather. Not me, you understand, but south west Scotland, which had spent much of the winter assailed by flooding and storms. Since I planned to go walking, not wading, I patiently waited this out until the first signs of impending spring brought calmer, warmer and — most importantly — drier weather. And then I got sunburnt. In Scotland. In March. It’s like my special super-power.
After a two-bus journey from Dumfries, I arrived bright and early in the heart of Kirkcudbright, which is pronounced ‘ker-koo-bree’ on account of some of the consonant sounds having washed away in the floods. Despite having taken some considerable effort to get there, I remained in Kirkcudbright for less than ten minutes before setting off across the River Dee.
Since I had no desire to go wading, I used the bridge that had helpfully been provided. Most of the bridge dated from 1926, the exception being a series of lamps that lined its sides, these being survivors from an earlier 1868 bridge. The lamps were kept no doubt, because they provided an elegant way to illuminate passage over the river.
Before the building of the 1868 bridge, the Dee was crossed by a ferry service, which was widely held to be unreliable and dangerous. Its end was pretty much guaranteed when the ferryman upset the Provost of Kirkcudbright (the head of the local council) by making him wait for a second passenger before he would row across from west to east. Upon arrival on the eastern side, the Provost (whom the ferryman had hitherto not recognised) had him arrested, agreeing to release him only when he had a second prisoner. This was, of course, an abuse of power with no legal justification but it also marked the start of Kirkcudbright’s bridge-building plan. The bridge, when completed, cost £10k (a significant sum) but could at least be relied on in all weathers and at all hours.
On the western bank of the river, I quickly left the few houses behind and headed south along the B727. Traffic at this hour was virtually non-existent and the low sun gave the Dee an almost ethereal quality. I bounced along with a spring in my step, only some of which was down to a new pair of boots. It was joyous.
St Mary’s Isle
As I headed south, the river widened considerably and I passed St Mary’s Isle, a peninsula attached to the eastern bank. The ‘isle’ was home to a twelfth century priory and later a mansion house. This latter was raided in 1778 by American revolutionary John Paul Jones.
Jones’s reputation as a founding light of the US Navy rests largely upon his operations in British home waters, which were certainly daring and a cheeky tweak of the Royal Navy’s nose. What they weren’t, by and large, is successful. The raid on St Mary’s Isle, for instance, was for the purpose of kidnapping the Earl of Selkirk, who lived there. Lord Selkirk was not at home however, so Jones’s landing party had to satisfy itself with stealing his silver plate instead — an act of simple theft rather than of war. Jones himself presumably felt the distinction keenly as later, after hostilities had ceased and the US had come into being, he bought the silver from his crew and returned it to Lord Selkirk.
Nun Mill Bay
Just south of St Mary’s Isle, the western bank of the Dee experienced an embayment named Nun Mill Bay. There, the road curved around a small, rocky beach and I sat and looked at the rippling waves for a while; behind me was a holiday park and the site of an old nunnery.
From this point, the B727 turned due west and struck inland but I headed south into a cul-de-sac where a small estate of houses formed the hamlet of Mill Hall. My reason for heading down this dead-end road was that it was not a dead end on foot, but instead turned into a muddy, leafy path through Senwick Wood, which clung to the banks of the Dee for the next couple of miles. I love a leafy woodland path. I mean, who doesn’t?
Old Senwick Churchyard
I merrily stepped over gurgling streams, climbed small hillocks and dodged fallen trees for about a mile and half, until the path brought me to Old Senwick Churchyard. This stands in splendid, churchless isolation, hidden by trees and a low stone wall.
There was a church there once, of course, serving the parish of Senwick (Sanaigh) although the parish was little more than a scattering of dwellings with nothing you’d call an actual village. The parish was united with its neighbour in the seventeenth century and the church fell into ruin, its stones being reused for other purposes. Local burials continued in the old churchyard however, some more impressive than others.
The building above is the mausoleum of the Blair family of Dunrod. Upon its side a prominent engraving declares that ‘This monument is erected to the memory of Hwgh Blair of Dunrod esq by his mournful widow’. It was erected in 1771, by which time Senwick Church had been disused for over a century. There are a lot of Blair graves in the graveyard, and also a great many Sproats. A scattered handful of other names fill out the remainder of the plots.
Judging from the relative ease of passage, most people who make their way to Senwick graveyard then take the shortest possible route to the nearest road. I took a different path, forcing my way down a path part-overgrown with gorse bushes, towards Ross Bay to the south. There I would meet up with the very same road — I’d even have to pass where the shorter route emerged — but not before I’d enjoyed the view over Ross Bay.
The patch of water closest to the camera is Ross Bay, a small, marshy-banked embayment near the tip of the Machars Peninsula. Immediately beyond it is the hill of Meikle Ross and beyond that a strait with the simple and uncompromising name of ‘the Sound’. This separates the island of Little Ross, which is dominated by its lighthouse, from the Machars Peninsula.
Little Ross Lighthouse
Built in built in 1863, the lighthouse was automated in 1961, which was just as well as its keepers had been actively thinning their own numbers. The year before, while the principal keeper was on holiday, one of the two remaining keepers murdered the other and went on the run, leaving the lighthouse unattended. The body was found by a local RNLI man out for a walk with his son and a national manhunt ensued. The fugitive, Robert Dickson, was apprehended in Yorkshire (having fled south into England) and was tried for the murder of his colleague. Found guilty, he was sentenced to hang but was later reprieved, with his sentence being commuted to one of imprisonment. Two years later he killed himself in prison.
Logically, any place where people who might not otherwise choose each other’s company are forced to live in each other’s pockets is a potential murder site. But gazing over the bay towards Little Ross, the scene felt so tranquil that it was hard to imagine anything of the sort.
Ross and Routes Onward
From my vantage pont, the path led me down and round to the hamlet of Ross, which was little more than a handful of houses strung out along the road beyond Ross Bay
So far as I knew there was no way onwards along the coast around Meikle Ross. There may have been a footpath unmarked on my map but I elected not to go looking for one, lest it simply peter out and force me to retrace more steps than I already expected. Behind Ross rose another hill, named Mull of Ross, atop which stood a stone cairn. I wondered if perhaps I could cross straight over this, since where I next wanted to go lay beyond its far side. There was certainly a path leading up it but I had no confidence that I could descend the other side without having to cross ditches, fences and walls. I mulled the Mull over in my mind and came to the conclusion that I’d not cross it from Ross.
Thus, I headed north along the road, running parallel to the woodland path that upon which I had arrived.
The Ross Road
As I plodded along my progress was watched by wary rabbits. They were big for wild bunnies and not about to interrupt their enthusiastic eating until I got within a couple of metres. Then, quick as a flash of white tail, they were gone.
The road snaked north past occasional farmhouses and then veered west where it joined another. I turned left and walked southwards towards Brighouse Bay, another embayment near the tip of the Machars Peninsula. Judging by the lines on my map, this was slightly more major road than the one I’d just left.
Brighouse Bay was narrow, projecting into the Machars Peninsula like a finger poked into a nose. On its eastern side loomed the Mull of Ross while its western shore was wooded. I left the road at the head of the bay and followed a footpath between the woods and the rocky beach.
The path started off low lying but briefly climbed atop some craggy cliffs before dropping back down closer to sea level. I paused at Dunrod Point to take in the view across the bay.
The path was pretty easy going, give or take the odd patch of squelchy, saturated mud or the occasional thicket of gorse bushes. The woods gave way to open fields and I knew that at some point I’d have to turn inland and regain the road but for now it looked as though I could simply follow the coast forever.
I ignored one path heading inland, reassured by a sign that pointed ahead indicating a coast route to Kirkandrews, some miles further down the coast. This delighted me no end as I’d expected to have to do two sides of a triangle, following the road inland from Borness and then heading west to Kirkandrews.
With a skip in my step, I set off apace only to have any skippiness quickly shown up for a truly feeble effort. My showers-up were a couple of deer who had been hiding beside the beach in a clump of gorse. I had no idea they were there until I got too close for their comfort, at which point they leapt out of hiding and bounced away on legs clearly made out of springs. They didn’t go far though — just to the next nearest gorse thicket into which they promptly vanished.
While I’d hoped to see some deer at some point, I hadn’t expected to see them right by the beach, so I was in a pretty good mood when the path appeared to come to an end and head inland after all. In retrospect, I suspect that I could have continued by the water but the inland route was the only one signed so I followed it.
The footpath led me through gates and across fields alongside a small stream or burn. It climbed slowly as it headed inland and the fields soon spread out behind me. The ground in places was firmer than in others and it was after one particularly squelchy, boot-sucking field that I passed through a gate and onto a road. The question now was which road? Where the hell was I?
The path I had followed was not on my map so I had lost track of distance. Fortunately, a simple solution was at hand in the form of a nearby farmhouse. All I had to do was find out its name and locate it on my map. Simple.
And it was simple, if slightly dismaying — for I was on the road leading inland from Borness, on the route that I’d not taken earlier. My continuation along the coast had achieved nothing and I would still be doing both sides of that triangle. Except I hadn’t achieved nothing of course; I’d had a lovely time and seen some deer. This kept me in fairly buoyant spirits as I followed the long, straight road north.
After about a mile and a half, the road conveyed me to a junction with a larger road that doubled as National Cycle Network route 7. It was this road that I would now be taking westward to Kirkandrews.
Directly to my east, within sight of the junction, sat a village and I contemplated venturing into it in search of food and drink. Admittedly, it was in entirely the wrong direction but it was close by and I was hungry. I quickly came to a decision…
Actually Star Trek puns couldn’t be less appropriate: In times past Borgue (pronounced ‘borg’) was noted for its particular insularity and reluctance to assimilate outsiders, such that people of the surrounding area would attribute weird appearance or behaviour to ‘Borgue bodies’.
Local laird Hugh Blair (not the Hugh Blair in Old Senwick churchyard but doubtless a relative) can hardly have helped; exhibiting compulsive behaviour such as collecting twigs and feathers and always wearing the same clothes. He carried rocks and pieces of wood from one place to another without apparent purpose, attended every local funeral, whether he knew the deceased or not, and carried out various repetitive actions. He was also oblivious to social cues. In short, Hugh lay somewhere on the autistic spectrum, something not at all understood in the 17th century.
Closed Encounters of the Thirst Kind
Borgue’s isolationism is a thing of the past and I wasn’t run out of town by a pitchfork-wielding mob. Not that they’d have needed one in any case; I stayed for less than five minutes.
It turned out that Borgue remained a small village and disappointingly lacked a shop. It did have a hotel with a public bar but the bar was closed during the afternoon so its existence merely teased me. With a sigh of resignation, I put Borgue behind me and went west.
More road-walking followed. Quite a lot of it in fact. Some walkers will tell you that this is the worst thing ever. And I would agree that it’s not quite as much fun as a path by the sea but not all roads are equal. An A-road roaring with traffic is certainly an ordeal and a country lane with high hedges gets dull when you can’t see the view. On this occasion, I’m glad to say, neither problem was in evidence.
A half mile west of Borgue was the hamlet of Chapelton Row, where the road gave me choices of heading west or north. I continued westward past Ingleston to Kirkandrews and the road narrowed as I went.
The tiny village of Kirkandrews actually occupied a spur off this road so I more or less walked straight past it.
Way back in 1334, when the Scots were at war with their mortal enemies, the Scots, Edward Balliol was making a bid to unseat King David II. His initial bid had failed and he turned to the English for assistance, a frequent policy for Scottish rebels that always had a similar result: they won — for a bit — but Scotland wasn’t having any of it (if there’s one thing a Scottish pretender hates more than a rival, it’s a rival put in place by the Sassenachs).
In payment for his fleetingly temporary victory, Edward was forced to hand over most of Dumfriesshire and Galloway to Edward III of England. This included almost all of Kirkcudbrightshire except Kirkandrews and a handful of other places, which Edward III specifically excluded from the transfer. Kirkandrews instituted an annual fair to celebrate being one of the few bits of that area that Edward III didn’t want.
Following the example of my country’s former monarch, I allowed my feet to carry my English body straight past Kirkandrews and onwards to the distinctive, if bizarre, architecture of Corseyard Farm.
Corseyard — the name means ‘cross-yard’ — was built in 1916 to house 12 cows belonging to landowner James Brown, a wealthy Manchester draper. The locals, with admirable mockery and disdain, took to calling it the ‘Coo (i.e. cow) Palace’. Its tower is a grain store.
After Corseyard Farm the road curved north, up the eastern side of Wigtown Bay.
I passed the tidal islet of Barlocco Isle, upon which a 400 ton steamer, Truda, was wrecked in 1903. Truda had been attempting to make for Kirkcudbright Bay when strong winds drove her onto the rocks, Those same winds prevented assistance from the Kirkcudbright lifeboat, while that from Whithorn was turned back by the heavy seas. Five of her crew were rescued by a fishing vessel that was able to use the lee of the island but four were drowned and buried at Kirkandrews.
Further on up the road divided with the main highway heading northeast and inland. I took the lesser, north-western path and this conveyed me past the grounds of Knockbrex Castle.
Knockbrex Castle was built around 1900, as the garage block for nearby Knockbrex House. And if you’re wondering why anyone would go to so much trouble to house some cars? Well, firstly, they were newfangled and expensive devices and secondly, it was the same man who went a bit mad on his cowshed. James Brown bought Knockbrex House in 1895 and proceeded to build all manner of eccentric buildings across the estate until his death in 1920.
Today, the castle is holiday accommodation and a wedding venue and would very much like us to use ‘Knockbrex Castle’ as its name. I doubt that that holds much sway with the locals, who initially christened this shrine to Victorian romantic tweeness as ‘the Toy Fort’. One wonders if he later built his cowshed just to spite them, as if to say ‘well in that case, how about this?’
I continued past
Knockbrex Castle the Toy Fort and along a road that quickly began to deteriorate into more of a pot-holed track. On the way I passed another tidal islet, Ardwall Isle, once the location of a small chapel, now ruined. Its name comes from the Gaelic ard bhaile, meaning ‘high town’. Had it been low tide I could have crossed the sands to Ardwall Isle but the tide was still in.
I continued along the narrow road until I passed a parked car, the owner of which had clearly just been for a stroll. He greeted me as if he knew me and commented that I had come a long way. This perplexed me at first — I’m not great with names and faces and was all set to implode into a paroxysm of social embarrassment — but he rescued me from my discomfort by adding that he’d seen me earlier in Borgue. That had been about 3½ miles earlier and in an age where people seldom stray far from their cars that is indeed a long way in many people’s estimation. I took the opportunity to pause and rest while we amiably chatted before we went our separate ways.
Water of Fleet
The road now carried me to Carrick, a small settlement whose name means ‘rock’. Carrick is pretty isolated and while the pot-holed road does pass right through it, through traffic is not permitted. Carrick marks the southern end of Fleet Bay, an embayment within the larger Wigtown Bay. Fleet Bay is more properly the estuary of a river called the Water of Fleet.
The road north from Carrick was initially no better than that heading in but it quickly improved before joining a slightly better one at a T-junction. A solitary farmhouse nestled in a corner of the junction.
I had a choice of heading north along the road to my destination (Gatehouse of Fleet) or I could take a more westerly road that would end at a caravan park at Sandgreen. I took the latter and, half an hour later, I found myself wandering amid the static caravans, most of which were empty on account of it being so far out of season.
I got a little lost at one point but I knew my route onwards led off from the site’s northern edge so finding it could only be so hard. Eventually, when I’d got there and was just double-checking on my map, a couple enjoying an out of season holiday approached to ask if I was lost (not any more, I wasn’t, no). We chatted briefly about sunshine and scenery and sightings of deer and then I put the caravans behind me.
I was now following an old metalled track towards the Forestry Commission plantation of Deer Park (where I would not see any deer). I was tired and footsore, having got out of practice, and was fairly sure my face had gone bright sunburn pink (it had). Still, my day’s walk was almost at an end; I had just three miles to go. Somewhere amid the trees, the drumming of woodpeckers cheered me on. Much as I was looking forward to a nice sit down, I was having a great time.
The path became muddier once it entered Deer Park and the single of row of path-side trees expanded into a small woodland. Beneath the twiggy canopies of the trees a white carpet of snowdrops spread into the distance.
The path threaded northward through Deer Park and then through the farmstead of Cally Mains, located at the far-flung fringe of Cally Park. There the track became a surfaced road which was soon rejoined by the cycle route NCN 7 (which I had abandoned way back by
Knockbrex Castle the Toy Fort). I passed under the busy A75 — a roaring, moving wall of lorries — and soon emerged into open parkland housing a golf course and a magnificent hotel.
Cally Palace Hotel
The Cally Palace Hotel, for such it was called, has a neoclassical exterior that is almost brutal in its execution. It was built in 1763 (as Cally House) for James Murray of Broughton, the grandson of two earls (Galloway and Eglinton). In the late 19th century it was let out to tenants, the last of whom was the Maharaja of Jind, before becoming a hotel in 1934.
For all that I had just a mile to go, the chance to sit down and drink something cold was too great a temptation by far. I sat and relaxed in the hotel bar. I dallied there for as long as I dared, given the imminence of sunset, before climbing to my fatigued feet for one last push towards the hotel that I was staying in.
I stuck to NCN 7 for this last stretch, using the route’s signage to navigate. This carried me along the western edge of Fleet Forest and finally dropped me in Gatehouse of Fleet.
Gatehouse of Fleet
Gatehouse of Fleet is a wonderful name for a town but it has little to do with actual gates. Its name comes from Galloway’s main east-west route, upon which it sits, which was known a gata in Old Norse (York has names like Castlegate and Coppergate for much the same reason). The Murray family (of which James of Cally House was a scion) built a stone inn beside the then-wooden bridge, this being the ‘gait-house’ or roadhouse.
Glasgow of the South
By 1700, it was the site of a cattle market and in 1730 a stone bridge replaced the old wooden one (washed away by a flood in 1721).
The mid-18th century brought massive development as James Murray laid out a whole new town and the military connected Gatehouse of Fleet to its system of new roads. By the end of that century the town was a local powerhouse, with cotton mills, a brass foundry, a brewery, a brickworks, a soap factory and tanneries and double its twenty-first century population. In fact it was so industrious it was known as ‘the Glasgow of the South’. Sadly for Gatehouse of Fleet, this is no longer the case.
I plodded wearily into the much-diminished Gatehouse of Fleet, which remains an attractive small town with more hotels than one might expect for its size. The sun was setting and my timing was perfect, as shown by the free-standing clock tower (built in 1871 and designed by local artist and architect John Faed).
I found my hotel without difficulty and was soon relaxing in comfort, full of food and a gin and tonic or two. That night I slept like a log, which was good. The following day I would be out walking again…
This time: 19½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,362 miles