CXLIII – Newton Stewart to Isle of Whithorn

Hasteful MammalMOST times, if I go walking, I do two or three days at a time.  Thus, I usually know, if it’s day three, that it is the last day of the trip. Not so on my last adventure, where it was the middle day of five. It was also the longest day’s walk of the trip and, coming as it did after the fatigue of two previous days of walking (which came, in turn, after five months without walks), it threatened to be a challenge.

Newton Stewart

An Early Start

I left my hotel in Newton Stewart not long after dawn, completely failing as I did so to retrieve a packed lunch that the kitchen had kindly made up for me. Well, it’s not like food is important when you’re walking twenty-four miles.  Or sleep for that matter, of which I’d had less than I wanted on account of the early start.  I mean, if either of those two things mattered, then my day would have just got more difficult.  And it would be entirely my own fault. And that would be foolish.

And so this merry fool ambled back through the streets of Newton Stewart in what was exactly the opposite direction to that I had originally planned. I knew I needed to be on the River Cree’s west bank, which I was, and that I needed to (initially) head south.  Instead I walked north, towards the bridge, with the firm but contrary intention to cross back to the east bank instead. 

This was of course quite ridiculous — clearly the fatigue and the hunger were already befuddling my thoughts. And I’d only been up for fifteen minutes.  The town hall (erected in 1800) duly mocked me with its clocks.

Newton Stewart Town Hall
Feeble mammal, you’ve been on your feet for fifteen minutes. I’ve stood here for 216 years.
Earl of Galloway

I had to concede to Newton Stewart’s town hall that it certainly had me beaten on longevity.  Even Randolph Stewart, the ninth Earl of Galloway, whose memorial I found nearby and who, like the town hall, came into this world in 1800, must have taken a few years before he could stand.  He clearly took to standing like a pro though, since he decided to stand for Parliament and got himself elected as an MP. 

Later, when he inherited his father’s title, he sat in the House of Lords. As both peer and politician his politics were Tory (he was a friend to the Duke of Wellington’s government, for instance) although his support of Catholic and Jewish emancipation — non-Protestants laboured under various restrictions at the time — might be considered ‘liberal” today and he voted for the Reform Bill of his nominal opponent, the Whig prime minister, the Earl Grey.

The Earl’s Memorial

As an aside, I feel a bit sorry for Lord Grey.  He was a tremendous reformer of his age, dedicated to much-needed electoral reform and opposed to the horror of slavery, and what he achieved was significant.  Yet today we remember him only for his favourite blend of tea.

Lord Galloway meanwhile, is commemorated by a monument in Newton Stewart, erected in 1875 (two years after his death) at a cost of £1000.  Granted, he was a significant local landowner, Lord Lieutenant of both Wigtownshire and Kirkudbrightshire and a political figure but I can’t find any particular achievement of his that deserves monumental recognition.  Maybe he was just well-known and liked at the time.

Earl of Galloway's Memorial
Most people — even earls — just get an inscription in a graveyard.
Cycle Route Shenanigans

Having returned to the bridge, I crossed the Cree once more and returned to Minigaff, the smaller settlement on the east bank.  There, I confirmed what I thought I had seen the previous evening: a cycle route (NCN 73), too new to appear on my Ordnance Survey map, signed as heading to Wigtown by heading down the east bank of the Cree.  This must, I figured, cross by another bridge further down.  And, as a cycle route, it promised to be more agreeable than following the A714. I decided to take it.

And so I marched off along the banks of the Cree, a song in my heart and a bounce in my step.  This lasted for all of five minutes, as NCN 73 brought me to a footbridge which had been sealed and closed, presumably for repairs.  The cycle route continued on the other side.

Not having got very far from the main bridge I retraced my steps and passed again beneath the mocking clocks of the town hall, which I now fancied were laughing at me for time wasted.  I then headed down the river’s west bank until I reached the footbridge and picked up the cycle route again.  This soon carried me out of Newton Stewart and into the Cree’s wide valley, where NCN 73 followed its own metalled path between the river and the A-road. 

Cree Valley

Dazzling Delights

It was glorious so far as I could tell through my squinting eyes — the morning sun was low in the sky and southerly, such that to look ahead was to be blinded by its rays. Dazzling as this was, it was a billion times more pleasant than pouring rain so I counted my blessings and smiled.

When I’d planned my walk, I’d never expected a handy cycle path in the first place, so I wasn’t crushingly disappointed when it inevitably climbed the valley’s slope and joined the A714 some way south of Newton Stewart. 

As A-roads went, it wasn’t bad for walking — I had a broad pedestrian pavement, flanked by a dry stone wall. Traffic was light and the main sound I could hear was a murder of crows in a tree. Looking ahead, I could see only blinding sunshine but turning around, I could see back up the valley whence I’d come.

Cree Valley
It’s quite pretty when you can actually see it.
Moss of Cree

A short distance further on, a side road branched off to my left, a row of cottages facing onto it.  Ahead, the A714 would go straight to Wigtown, while the side road would loop closer to the river, talking longer to reach the same destination. I had always planned to take this side road and it seemed that NCN 73 agreed with my decision. 

It was a good decision, even if over the next five and a half miles, I did question it a few times.  The road passed by a number of isolated farms and past a Forestry Commission plantation on the Moss of Cree.  In times past, the latter, which is now coniferous woodland, would have been tidal marshland lying between the Cree and Bishop Burn

It was Moss of Cree to which the old ferry from Creetown would take you, leaving you to navigate the marsh road to Wigtown without sinking to your death.  I was pleased to find that the modern road was reassuringly firm asphalt although it still possessed dangers to those who would walk it.

The Tractor Factor

The dangers to which I refer were those of farm machinery. Specifically tractors towing tanks of what I assume was stuff to be sprayed on fields.  There were a lot of these tractors, passing at irregular intervals, and each of them took up almost the width of the road.

Eventually, I passed the one farm that appeared to be spawning most of the tractors and the road became a lot quieter to walk. 

A short while later, I rested outside another farm, perching on the edge of an old trough, and was immediately hailed by a young man who spotted me looking at my map.  Was I lost, he wanted to know, did I need directions?  I wasn’t and I didn’t — it’s hard to go wrong on a road with no actual junctions — and he was quite happy for me to sit outside as long as I wanted.  I sat long enough to drink all the water I had on me and then set off again along the road. 

Things Beginning with ‘B’

This carried me over the Bishop Burn — little more than a large ditch — and then over the even smaller Borrowmoss Burn before climbing up onto a bridge over no burn at all.  At least it looked like a bridge from on top; the arch underneath was filled with earth.  A broad path stretched off on one side and I knew this could only be one thing.

Disused railway alignment near Wigtown
I recognise your handiwork, Dr Beeching.
Pre-Worboys Road Sign

The road, which had been curving to the right for miles, now curved sharply to the left. I was approaching Wigtown, as indicated by this sign at a turnoff to the A714.

Pre-Worboys road sign pointing to Wigtown and Newton Stewart
Apparently Wigtown’s in that field.

The sign is old, a relic from the previous system of road signage.  In the mid 1960s, when Dr Richard Beeching was closing down the railways and motorways were the future (and, by incredible coincidence, the Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples, just happened to own 80% of the road-building company Marples Ridgway) the government set up a committee to review Britain’s road signage.

In 1964, the Worboys Committee (named for its chairman Sir Walter Worboys) came up with a whole new system of signage better aligned to the continental model, along with a new typeface.  The Worboys system is still used today whereas its predecessor is meant to have been completely replaced. A few surviving signs remain where the local authority never got round to replacing them, like the one above.

Approaching Wogtown
Ah no, there’s Wigtown up there.

Wigtown

Trade and Industry

Wigtown (Baile na h-Ùige) is a former royal burgh (i.e. a chartered town) and was, rather obviously given the name, the county town of Wigtownshire. 

It is the main settlement of the Machars Peninsula, which juts out from Scotland to the south of it.  It was once an important market town and trading port with a fierce rivalry with Kirkcudbright and resisted industrialisation until the end of the eighteenth century when the textile industries established a foothold.

A creamery and a distillery (the latter in neighbouring Bladnoch) followed but today only the distillery remains and even that has not had an uninterrupted existence.  Wigtown today is a town full of bookshops, which is at once delightful and yet also a cynical, deliberate decision to attempt to emulate Wales’s Hay-on-Wye.  Normally, such tourism-driven cynicism would repel me or at the least make me roll my eyes. But when the result is more bookshops, well, how could I possibly object?

Wigtown War Memorial
Wigtown war memorial
Brave men fought and died that you may purchase books.

If I sound like I’m being glib and disrespectful with regard to the war memorial (erected in 1922) , then think again. Well, okay, maybe I am a bit. But those whose names were added to it in 1945 fought against a foreign regime that regularly burnt book books that they didn’t agree with. 

Old Parish Kirk

The memorial stands close to the old parish kirk at the top of the road from Moss of Cree.  This church was dedicated to St Machutus, one of the seven founding saints of Brittany, which serves as a reminder that Galloway was inhabited by Britons as part of Rheged long before the Scots arrived from Ireland

The old mediaeval church — no one knows quite how old it was — was replaced on the same site with a new one in 1730.  It lasted just over a century.

Ruins of the 1730 Wigtown parish church
Apparently they do build things like they used to. Shoddy workmanship is nothing new.

An even newer church was built next door in 1850 and this time they clearly took care as it was still standing when I got there.  It and its predecessor essentially share the same churchyard, in which I found the graves of the Wigtown Martyrs: two women put to death for religious reasons in 1685.

The Killing Times

Just as in England the period following the Protestant Reformation had been a turbulent one, so it was in Scotland.  Of course, Scotland didn’t have Henry VIII and his religiously-opposed daughters but it did have challenges of its own. 

The Reformation had brought opposing views on how the new Protestant church should be run and some were extremely convinced that bishops and their Episcopalian hierarchy were ‘Papism’ to be discarded. James VI concocted an uneasy compromise that left Scotland with a hybrid Calvinist-Episcopalian church. This was not stable and his successors would struggle to maintain their influence.  By the time the English executed Charles I in their civil war, the Scots were willing to make Presbyterianism a condition of accepting his son, Charles II.

Charles readily agreed, only to renege when finally restored to both kingdoms. This lead to a power struggle between the King, who wanted to appoint bishops, and the Covenanters, who wanted Presbyterian rule for their church (i.e. each church governed by its elders).  The struggle grew violent at times as Charles and later his brother James VII, who was Catholic, attempted to maintain control.  This period is now known as the Killing Times. You can probably guess why.

The Wigtown Martyrs

In Wigtown in 1685 (the same year James VII acceded to the throne), two women — Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan — were arrested as Covenanters, opposed to James VII’s imposition of bishops. 

Having refused to swear the Oath of Abjuration — refusal of which incurred execution without trial — they were sentenced to drown and tied to stakes below the high water line at the mouth of the River Bladnoch.  For good measure, they were also accused (and found guilty) of being present at battles against the King’s forces, a charge which their respective ages made ludicrous: The 18-year-old Margaret Wilson would have been a child when the battles took place, while Margaret McLachlan, aged 63, made for an unlikely combatant. 

It was apparently hoped that the teenager would recant when she saw the sexagenarian drown but she didn’t and both women died.  A pardon issued eleven days earlier for both of them had somehow mysteriously disappeared.

Grave of the Wigtown Martyrs
Their execution went swimmingly.

Later that year three more Covenanters — William Johnstone, John Milroy and George Walker — were hanged in Wigtown.  I can’t decide which I find more abhorrent: that others were willing to kill them for their religion or that they were willing to die for it.

Tea, Cake and Conspiracy

Shaking my head sadly, I went in search of a café, where I enjoyed a cup of tea and a slice of cake and found myself talking to both a fellow customer and the proprietor.  The conversation was interesting if uncomfortable. 

The proprietor was clearly a devout Protestant who expressed his admiration of the Covenanters and their refusal to bow to the King in matters of religion. He was also an equally devout Scots Nationalist and my arrival had interrupted him mid-rant in which he was explaining to his other customer how every single unpopular decision of the Scottish Government was forced upon them by a malicious Westminster conspiracy. And I’m not exaggerating, that was his actual opinion. 

Warning Flags

The proprietor was well-versed in local history and we discoursed politely on that subject, which was helpful, and a much safer topic than one raised by the other customer, namely that one of his neighbours was flying the Cross of St George.  I believe he was flying other flags too but that was irrelevant to Mr Nationalist Café Proprietor, who was outraged. 

He posited the idea of flying the Irish tricolour in response, a concept that quickly led him to clarify his position on Irish Catholic nationalism and Scottish sectarianism.  He was most definitely Protestant, he asserted, but opposed to sectarian bigotry. In fact he was opposed to all bigotry. He appeared not to recognise his rampant anglophobia as also falling under that label.

One of the Good Ones

I realised as I talked to him, and he handed me helpful historical leaflets relating to Wigtown, that I was seeing a familiar type of bigotry of the sort that my grandmother used to espouse.  Namely the sort where a stated ‘them’ are reviled en masse but actual specific individuals of the ‘them’ are given some sort of pass.

In much the same way as my grandmother could be dismayed by Indian immigration while praising ‘that nice Dr Patel’, the café proprietor could hate the English in general while politely ignoring my Englishness (and my Home Counties accent leaves little doubt as to my origin).

To be honest, I was rather relieved when I finished my tea and cake and left.

Wigtown Main Street
I paused in the centre of town for a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Bladnoch

I took the A746 out of Wigtown, following it south for a mile until I reached Bladnoch.  This was a village that grew up around a ford across the river of the same name. A bridge was built in 1728 and replaced by a second bridge in 1867.  The old bridge remained beside it, disused, until 1875 when its stones were used to construct a viaduct for the Wigtown Railway (whose ghost alignment I had earlier crossed on the Moss of Cree road).

River Bladnoch
The River Bladnoch — a pretty enough stream in which to drown dissenters

As previously mentioned, Bladnoch has a whisky distillery. Originally founded in 1817, it produced its lowland single malt until 1949, when it closed. In 1957, it was back in business under various owners, culminating in United Distillers Group, who mothballed it in 1993. It was bought from them in 1994 and, after extensive renovation, reopened 2000-2009 before its new owners went bust in 2015.  The following year it opened again, now owned by Australian businessman David Prior.

Assuming it stays open until next year, the distillery, which is Scotland’s most southerly working distillery, will celebrate its 200th birthday, give or take a few gaps. I wish it well, though I’m probably going to stick with Islay malts for preference.

Kirkinner

Yesterday’s Hills

I continued south along the A746, which was pleasantly quiet for an A-road. Far off on my left, across the fields and Wigtown Bay, I could see the hills I had encountered the previous day.

Knockeans Hill and Cambret Hill.
That’s Knockeans Hill on the left and Cambret Hill with the transmitters.

The B7085 branched off to the right, taking with it a local cycle route that I had been semi-following. I stuck with the A746, which now veered southeast and carried me into Kirkinner

Andrew Symson

I didn’t know much about Kirkinner as I entered it, which is slightly ironic given that its minister from 1663 to 1686, the Revd Andrew Symson, wrote a guide to the wider area titled A Large Description of Galloway

Having since looked up what he had to say about Kirkinner, I’m not actually that much the wiser. He noted that the Laird of Barnbarroch and the Sub-Dean of the Chapel-Royal both claimed patronage over the parish while denying that of the other. He also made reference to a nearby monument (this part of Scotland is dotted with hill forts and standing stones) and went on at length about a park at Baldoon

Baldoon

I’d essentially bypassed the farm of Baldoon Mains, located about a half mile east of the A746. The remains of Baldoon Castle, home to Sir David Dunbar in the Reverend’s time, stand beside it; it was he who owned the aforementioned park. 

A little research reveals that in 1686 Sir David made a complaint against an officer of dragoons, Major George Wigram, alleging that the Major had illegally quartered his troops on his grounds and enclosed them (his complaint was upheld).  What makes this more interesting is that Major Wigram is held to be the officer that hanged the three Covenanter men at Wigtown in 1685 and was involved in the drowning of the two women.

Today, Sir David’s castle lies in ruins and a large part of his land lies under an airfield built in 1941 as RAF Wigtown. The airfield, now in private hands, also lies mostly in ruin. A number of its airmen never left Kirkinner, lying in a Commonwealth War Grave in the village.  I didn’t go to see their graves but I did pass a Great War memorial on my way into the village:

Kirkinner War Memorial
Kirkinner War Memorial
he war was so great they had another one.

Actually, Kirkinner’s war memorial is slightly unusual in that it only commemorates those who fell in the Great War, whereas most such memorials across the UK were added to in 1945. A separate plaque in Kirkinner’s church commemorates the dead of WW2.

Those airmen at RAF Wigtown would often have seen this memorial, reminding them of the losses their parent’s generation suffered in the previous war.  Would that have had resonance I wonder, or was there so much death in their present that they barely gave it a thought?

Measuring the Miles

As I made my way through Kirkinner I spotted a milestone on the far side of the road.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, when the roads were administered by Turnpike Trusts, the erection of milestones was a legal requirement.  This one was particularly laconic though:

A milestone showing 3 miles to 'W' and 8 miles to 'Wh'.
I’ve walked three miles since W but Wh’s still 8 miles away.

As it happened, I wasn’t actually going to ‘Wh’, which was Whithorn. An ancient site of pilgrimage closely associated with St Ninian, Whithorn had already had more than its fair share of visitors over the centuries.  I was heading for Isle of Whithorn, the coastal village that had served as its port.  This necessitated my parting company with the A746 and taking the B7004, which branched off to the east.

Making a Bee Line

The B-road was, as one might expect, even quieter than the A-road though some of the traffic that it did have comprised tractors and trailers that took up a lot of the road.  That aside, the road was easy going and straight and I have to admit that I found it dull after a while.

A long, straight road (the B7004 to Garlieston)
The road goes ever on and on and on. And on and on.  Seriously, when will it end?

The road was actually about four miles long, which takes an hour to walk at even a brisk pace and my pace was no longer brisk. I plodded determinedly down it and was not displeased when it finally ended outside Garlieston.

Garlieston

Faded Glory

Garlieston is a coastal village that seems a bit faded today but was reputedly the richest village in Galloway during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Its wealth came from its status as a merchant port and is reflected in its layout: its streets describe two Georgian terraced crescents

The modern village was laid down in the 1760s by the seventh Earl of Galloway, whose seat — Galloway House — is about half a mile to the south. 

Harbour and Quayside

Today, Garlieston has long lost both trade and wealth but it did at least have a shop where I could by food and water. I perched on the wall of the seafront and consumed these, grateful for the rest. Across the harbour stood the old quayside and harbour pier, constructed in 1838.  Its warehouses and granaries are now mostly flats (one lies derelict) and yachts and dinghies are the only vessels calling into port.

Garlieston Harbour
Like many of its residents, Garlieston’s harbour has retired.

Garlieston may be quiet now but during WW2 it was a hive of activity. The floating concrete Mulberry Harbours that would prove vital to D-Day were tested in Garlieston Bay.  A nearby plaque reminded me of this as I wolfed down my sandwich. 

Food devoured, I sat upon the wall and watched the others enjoying Garlieston’s pebbly beach: A woman was out walking her dog but looked like she’d rather be doing anything else. A small boy was showing his granddad every single pebble on the beach — ‘Look! Look at this one! Look, Granddad! Look!’ — and a family of four were trying to amble in different directions.  And, just like that, I felt refreshed and ready to do some more walking. 

View back across Garlieston Harbour
This is the reciprocal view from the harbour to where I was sitting.
Cruggleton Bay

I followed a road along the shore that quickly became a mere path.  The flats had given way to woodland and the beach had become mostly stones. Distant headlands told of cliff tops to come while lazy waves lapped against the shore.

Path to Cruggleton Bay, between a wood and a stony beach.
8/10. Great path; would walk again.

After a while, the path veered into the woods and, as it passed Galloway House, turned into many paths. I followed one through the trees to the shores of Cruggleton Bay, where I sat on a bench to take a drink — I’d been bombing along at a merry pace and now my throat was quite dry.  As I sat there I became aware of movement down by my side. I was not alone on the bench; I had a little companion:

A robin, sitting beside me on a bench
Doesn’t this make me Batman?
Robin Redbreast

The robin (Erithacus rubecula) has no great fear of people. In fact it has little fear at all and the highly territorial males will attack not only rivals but other small birds who just happen to be in the wrong place.  Though small, it is one of Britain’s most beloved birds, and regularly features on Christmas cards every year. 

It is particularly well-known to gardeners, whom it sees as the source of an easy meal — a devourer of insects and other invertebrates, overturned earth is its banquet.  My grandfather had a vegetable patch at the end of his garden and would often be out working on it.  The moment he stopped for a cup of tea a robin would appear as if from nowhere and perch on the handle of his spade, looking out for insects revealed by his digging. 

Robins appeal to us because they’re small and cute and seem friendly to us and thus it’s a joy to see them.  If we were their size it’d be a different matter and we’d see them for the murderous, brutal, sex-crazed little monsters that they are.

But I’m not the size of a robin, so awwww.

Cruggleton Point

The robin and I went our separate ways as I followed the path through the woods.  It soon emerged into open fields and climbed atop the cliffs that I’d seen earlier. Somewhere ahead, on Cruggleton Point, stood the remains of a castle.  I knew the path led there and it was well-signed.  What I didn’t know for sure was whether it would continue past that point.

Approaching Cruggleton Castle
Is this the end of the road?
Cruggleton Castle

Cruggleton Castle also goes by the rather awesome name of the Black Rock of Cree. It was built in the twelfth century by the Earl of Galloway, occupying an Iron Age site. 

In the 1290s, it came into the possession of John Comyn, Earl of Buchan — a staunch opponent of Robert the Bruce and cousin to the Red Comyn (whom Robert murdered in 1306). As King Robert I, the Bruce later confiscated the castle from Lord Buchan’s brother-in-law and it spent some time belonging to Clan Kennedy before eventually being gifted to Whithorn Priory in 1424. 

The priory lost it again during the Protestant Reformation, when Lord Robert Stewart quickly nabbed it and ensconced himself in its walls. He was immediately besieged by Lord Fleming who had planned to seize it himself but had been a bit too slow.  It was abandoned within a hundred years and by 1684 the castle was said to be ‘wholly demolished and ruinous.’

Cruggleton Castle
Can’t really argue with that description.
The Cliff Path Continues

I was pleased to discover that the footpath did continue and that it would convey me all the way to Isle of Whithorn.  It skirted fields and climbed hills for roughly three miles, keeping mostly to the cliff top as it went. I thoroughly enjoyed this bit and fairly raced along for all that my feet were tired.  This was perhaps a bit silly as cliff top paths are not the best places to stumble.

An old WW2 lookout post
Lookout!

Whithorn

Portyerrock

Duly warned by the old WW2 lookout, I slowed my pace and plodded more sedately, taking the time to enjoy my surroundings.  I had just about enough daylight to get where I was going so had no reason to rush.  Soon enough, with the sun low in the sky, the cliff path came to an end at the hamlet of Portyerrock.  There, cows mooed at me as I passed them, joining the B7063 for the final two miles.

Portyerrock
‘Get a moooOOooove on,’ said the cows of Portyerrock.
Isle of Whithorn

The B-road was quiet — I only saw one car — and even at my much-reduced pace it didn’t take all that long. Even so, the sun set as I approached Isle of Whithorn and I reached its harbour by twilight. 

Isle of Whithorn seafront in terrible light
I’d do a little ‘I made it’ dance but I fear my feet will fall off.

Isle of Whithorn is a delightful little village but one thing it isn’t is an island. There used to be an island but a causeway was built in 1790 and subsequently built on as the village expanded.  I was staying in the village’s only inn, which was located at the far end of the harbour on the old island itself.

I was pretty tired when I finally sat down but a drink and some food — which was excellent — soon helped me feel human again.  That night I slept pretty soundly. Come morning, I would be off again…


Distance Summary

Hasteful MammalThis time: 24 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,402 miles

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