DAY four of my mid-March march across Galloway saw me wake rested but still tired — my legs weren’t as keen as the rest of me to get out and do some more walking. I cajoled them into compliance by means of tasty breakfast plus the promise today’s walk would be shorter than the previous ones.
I’m not sure they believed me but bacon silenced dissent.
Isle of Whithorn
Breakfast eaten, I prepared myself to once more step outdoors and see where the roads and paths would lead me (although I already knew that, I did have a map after all). Prior to heading downstairs for food, I had peered sleepily out of my window and beheld blue sky and sunshine blazing upon the village harbour.
Breakfast, it turned out, was just enough time for a bank of dull grey cloud to sneak up on Isle of Whithorn and hide that brilliant blue sky. I thus emerged from the inn slathered in unnecessary sunscreen and shivered in a brisk and icy wind. But I was prepared for Scotland’s weather and had been lugging a nice warm jumper around just in case.
St Ninian’s Chapel
Duly armoured against wind chill, I considered my literal next steps. The way onward involved going through the village and right round the harbour, passing by the opposite houses in the photo above. To do that I needed to turn right; I turned left. This was not due to confusion — although people shouting ‘no, you fool, the other left!’ is not entirely unknown to me — but done for deliberate reason.
The inn sits upon the old island from which Isle of Whithorn gets half its name. A number of other structures also sit upon the ex-island and I planned to see a couple before I left. Principal amongst these was St Ninian’s Chapel, built around 1300 on the site of a smaller, earlier one.
St Ninian was a fourth and fifth century apostle to the Southern Picts and was buried in nearby Whithorn (Old English hwit aern, ‘white house’). Allegedly. Like the lives of most early Christian missionaries in Britain, there is precious little evidence to back up the hagiographies. If he was genuinely associated with even half the sites in Scotland named for him, then St Ninian was a busy man indeed.
Near to the ruined chapel are the ruins of an old lifeboat station, which operated from 1869 to 1919, when it was superseded by a motor lifeboat at Kirkcudbright. Rather poignantly, a short step from the ruins of both lifeboat station and chapel, I found a memorial bench commemorating a vessel lost at sea.
In 2000 the scallop dredger Solway Harvester, whose home port was Kirkcudbright, sank in bad weather off the Isle of Man thanks in part to a litany of maintenance issues. Her crew of seven, who were all from Isle of Whithorn, died by drowning. Their names were listed on the bench and repeated on the nearby Cairn, a blocky, rather un-cairn-like structure that has served as a navigational mark for centuries. It looks like a really short tower.
I retraced my steps from the Cairn and set off through Isle of Whithorn down a street that was once a causeway linking the island to the mainland; a long terrace of painted houses faced onto the street. The day’s walk proper had begun.
Haystacks with Horns
I stocked up in the village shop and followed the road around the harbour until I took a country lane out of the village, heading southwest. It was quiet, not least because it wasn’t really going anywhere, and I ambled merrily along, listening to the delightful twitter of birdsong. After a while, I got the strangest feeling that I was being watched. I glanced aside towards the field I was passing but all it contained was a series of haystacks. Out of season haystacks. With horns.
I looked at the cattle, they looked at me. We both decided that we had better things to do. Continuing on down the road, I espied a small stone by the wayside with letters carved onto its face. This was too small to be a milestone and, as I got closer, I saw what it was.
WD actually stands for War Department, while the M-like shape between them is the broad arrow, which was long used to mark government equipment. I’m pretty sure BS stands for Boundary Stone. The War Department was the government ministry overseeing the British Army from 1794 to 1857, when it was renamed the War Office. In 1964 it was merged with the Admiralty and Air Ministry to create the Ministry of Defence. The boundary stone above has therefore been lying about for quite a while.
The road came to an end at Cutcloy Farm, where it snuck past the farmhouse and entered Burrow Head Holiday Park. It was too early in the season for most of the caravans to be occupied and the site’s shop showed every sign of being shut when its opening hours suggested it should be otherwise. Something else that was shut was the toilet block, which clearly needed the right key to access; there are arguments for and against a holiday site taking that approach to its toilets but it always seems mean-spirited to me.
I sat awhile on a bench on a cliff top, looking out to sea. I didn’t especially need the rest, it just seemed a shame not to take advantage of it while I could. Not far from my seat was the site of Castle Feather, a mediaeval castle built on top of (and largely obliterating) an ancient promontory fort. Just a few stubby bits of wall remain of it now.
From the edge of the holiday park, my route became a coastal ramble, following a well-signed path across broad grassy cliff tops with the occasional descent to cross a tiny stream. This was lovely and I was determined to enjoy it, being well aware that there was only about a mile and a half of it before I’d have to inland to the road.
Continuing towards Carghidown Castle
Grinning maniacally as I overdosed on cliff top merriment, I strode briskly along buffeted by a refreshing breeze. This grey cloud cover was now starting to disperse and patches of brilliant blue broke through overhead. I soon felt the familiar warm glow of the Terrible Burning Orb in the Sky attempting to give me its loving gift of sunburn; my sunscreen was not wasted after all!
I passed the mysterious site of Carghidown Castle — a promontory fort of which nothing remains and the history of which is largely unknown — and soon found myself looking down upon Port Castle Bay.
Port Castle Bay
This too had once been overlooked by an Iron Age promontory fort but its greater claim to fame lay hidden in shadow on the opposite cliff: St Ninian’s Cave.
St Ninian’s Cave
St Ninian is said to have sought solitude there, retreating into quiet contemplation. After his death, it became a site of pilgrimage and thousands would visit over the centuries, following a well-trodden trail — slightly ironic given that he went there precisely to get away from people.
From Port Castle Bay, a footpath led inland, also doubling as a farm track. A babbling brook flowed beside it, unnamed on my map but apparently Ersock Burn; it empties from Ersock Loch, a small lake about a mile inland.
The path ended at a farm, where its access road bridged the burn. There, I joined the road and set off further inland. I could have meandered about some tiny lanes between farm houses but I preferred at this point to pick up the main western road from Isle of Whithorn.
Not a Watch-Dog, Then
Fishing my phone from my pocket to check the time, I discovered that it was blank o’clock. As I’d wandered the cliffs my phone had repeatedly reached out across the Irish Sea to roam by itself on the Isle of Man and its batteries, aghast at this abandonment, had died of shame. This left me with little idea how well I was doing compared to my schedule, though the height of the sun suggested it was not long after noon. I spotted a young woman walking towards me, a large dog at her side. Did she perhaps have the time on her? No of course not. I presume the dog didn’t either.
About a mile and a half inland from Port Castle Bay, I reached the road from Isle of Whithorn. That village lay three and a half miles to my east though I’d actually walked about five. About a mile and a half dead ahead lay Whithorn itself: once the site of a priory and a key location for pilgrims on the trail of St Ninian, this once-significant village has diminished in importance over time.
Glasserton War Memorial
Turning left at the crossroads, I headed west. The road was fairly quiet for now, though it would get busier about a mile on, when it turned into the A747. This occurred at another crossroads at the edge of the hamlet of Glasserton, where another A-road led north to Whithorn and a small country lane led south. A war memorial stood by the crossroads and I sat down beside it for a rest.
Though I planned to continue west, I made a small detour southwards, following a lane that led to a church and a farm. Beside the church was a car park, where I once again encountered Miss Timeless Dog-Walker, revealing that taking the farm lanes would have taken the same time to walk as the main road. However much time that was. We nodded hello as she got into her car, while I paid a visit to Glasserton’s church.
Glasserton church is not ancient; it was built in 1732 to replace both an earlier building and the main church at nearby Kirkmaiden. Its tower and north aisle were added in 1836. For much of its existence, it served as an estate church to Glasserton House, built nearby in 1767 as the home of the sixth Earl of Galloway. The house was demolished in 1948 but its formal gardens, just the other side of the lane, remain in private hands.
I wasn’t visiting to see the church though, I was visiting the graveyard. Somewhere within it, probably, was my great-great grandfather, whose daughter married a Swedish sailor and moved to Liverpool. Like you do.
I spent about an hour mooching about the gravestones and though I found one with the right name on it, the dates didn’t match those I had. Basically I had two problems. The first was that many of the gravestones are almost illegible. To make a proper search of it, I’d need several hours and probably materials to take rubbings of the inscriptions as moss and other markings obscure much of the text. My second problem was my ancestor’s name, John Douglas. Douglas is hardly a rare name in southern Scotland — it is a widespread Lowland clan — so combined with John as a first name, well…
After what I judged to be an hour, I reluctantly admitted defeat and headed back to the crossroads, where I turned left into the heart of the hamlet of Glasserton.
The Heart of Glasserton
This comprised maybe half a dozen houses and I quickly discovered that that was the entirety of Glasserton.
I suspect that while Glasserton has never been a large village, today’s scattering of houses has a smaller population than it had in the past. The demise of Glasserton House would have seen a reduction in local employment and the hamlet’s diminution would also explain the numbers of the dead in both world wars. Still, it was nice to see where one strand of my heritage comes from, even if my perambulation quickly left it far behind.
The next few miles weren’t dull exactly — the A747 had good visibility of the surrounding countryside — but they weren’t all that inspiring either. The road was mostly straight and the next village, Monreith, was over four miles from Glasserton. I passed a number of farms on the way, plus some of Galloway’s laconic milestones (I was still 6 miles from P, informed one).
Point of Lag
About half a mile from Monreith, I found myself at a crossroads again. Here too, the southern arm of the cross was a lane that essentially went nowhere. ‘Nowhere’ in this case meant the Point of Lag, a headland that formed the eastern limit of the bay that Monreith overlooks. It is on that headland that the ruins of Kirkmaiden Church can be found, though I didn’t pass quite that far along.
One of my reasons for stopping where I did was that a short cliff path led off from there to Monreith. Another was that I was atop the high point of the headland and I didn’t particularly want to go all the way down the hill only to turn around and climb back up it again. The sun was now blazing from clear blue skies and it was too hot for uphill
The otter statue is a memorial to Scottish naturalist Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969), author of the book Ring of Bright Water and something of an otter enthusiast, who brought a smooth-coated otter from Iraq in 1956 and raised it on Scotland’s west coast. Maxwell was born near Port William and raised in the area, a descendant of the Maxwell baronets of Monreith. The Maxwells, like the Douglases, are a widespread Lowland clan.
Following the footpath past the otter, I rounded a hill and saw Monreith Bay laid out before me, and the village spread out along the road.
The path ambled round to reconnect with the road and I soon found myself in the village. It was larger and more obviously village-y than Glasserton, but that’s not saying very much; I saw neither shop nor pub as I passed through it, nor any people. It was dead quiet and deserted.
I escaped from strangely silent Monreith along the A747, which stuck with the theme by being mysteriously devoid of traffic until I was beyond the village limits. I presume the cars that passed by me must have driven through Monreith rather than simply sprung from thin air on its outskirts but I never witnessed them do it.
The A-road carried me westwards and off the edge of OS Landranger map 83, onto map 82. There I had the opportunity, if I so wished, to ascend a hill and visit an Iron Age fort. There is evidence of settlement at Barsalloch Point dating back to 6000 BC, making it the oldest dated settlement in Galloway. The question was, did I want to go and see it?
Approaching Port William
I stomped slowly past the old fort, feeling weary and footsore. It was now very clear that I should have built up my walking endurance again before attempting five days in a row. Still, for all that I was tired, I wasn’t beaten yet and I headed north along the A-road (it having turned a corner at the point). It wasn’t long before Port William — my destination for the day — came into view ahead. The sun was quite low in the sky by now and it felt like I’d timed things perfectly. Not that I knew what the time was.
A small fishing village, Port William was originally known as Killantrae, which means ‘the church on the beach’. It was radically redeveloped in the 1770s by Sir William Maxwell Bt of Monreith, who rebuilt the village, constructed a harbour and renamed the whole thing after himself. Because he could.
I wandered through Port William, keeping an eye out for the place where I was staying. It turned out, to my absolute lack of surprise, to be the very last building at the furthest end of the village. I was glad to sit down when I got there.
Later, I would head back to the village square for a truly excellent meal in a restaurant called The Clansman, which I thoroughly recommend. In the meantime however a nice cup of tea and a chat with my B&B landlord (who hailed from London) were in order.
Day Four Done
I had completed day four of my trip. On paper — and, if I’m honest, on the ground — it was a short one but I felt as though I’d done more than enough. This raised the question of how I’d feel on day five. I’d just have to wait and see…
This time: 13½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,415½ miles