THIS year has been shaping up to be my least perambulatory year since I set off from Gravesend, with less mileage achieved than even the year that I injured my knee and couldn’t physically walk. Partly this is because of bad weather earlier in the year and partly because of distractions. The logistics of actually getting up to Galloway have also presented some challenges but at the start of August I was able to do so and get in a couple more walks. This was an opportunity I grasped with both hands — with my hand-eye coordination, I’d only have dropped it otherwise.
I returned to Portpatrick on a warm but cloudy evening and whiled away the remaining daylight ambling aimlessly round the village. A fair amount of time was spent just chilling beside the village harbour, which was built by John Smeaton around 1770. Situated at the end of a military road (built by Major William Rickson in 1765), Portpatrick was the main port for sending mail, passengers, troops and cattle to Ireland for the next sixty years. Today the harbour is quiet.
I also took the opportunity to nip back out to the ruins of Dunskey Castle for a closer look than I had hitherto managed.
Having satisfied my curiosity re Dunskey Castle, I retired to my hotel room for a good night’s rest and awoke next morning to the familiar pitter-patter of rain. I peered optimistically up at the grim, grey skies, hoping against hope that the forecast was right and that it would clear early on. The clouds showed not the slightest hint of co-operating but I resolved to ignore them in the hope that they would go away. And it worked. With their watery attention-seeking going unrewarded, they did in fact give up as I ate breakfast. And while they sullenly continued to hang about for hours, they kept their precipitation to themselves.
My walk began beside the harbour, from where I witnessed the Scottish Baronial splendour of the Portpatrick Hotel, which was bigger, grander-looking and altogether more fully-booked than the hotel that I had actually stayed in.
I was unfazed by the hotel’s majesty as I was still full of the excellent breakfast that one of its competitors had fed me, while memories of last night’s superlative meal further bolstered my confidence in my choice. Besides, I was all set to leave Portpatrick and had no further need of a hotel there.
Southern Upland Way
Completism versus Convenience
The means of my leaving would be the Southern Upland Way, a long-distance path that heads north for a couple of miles before turning inland at Black Head. There, while the footpath headed inland across Scotland, the coast of the Rhins of Galloway would continue north for another thirteen miles before rounding Milleur Point and curving to become the shore of Loch Ryan. This meant that I would have choices:
I could keep following the coast along its pathless, difficult shoreline. Or I could take the back lanes and farm tracks and piece together an approximation of the same. Or, if I felt like sticking two fingers up at the concept of coastal completism, I could let the Southern Upland Way lead me inland at least as far as Stranraer. The latter option would however mean cutting out a sizeable chunk of peninsula; it would hardly be following the spirit of the rules…
…except, of course, I don’t have any rules. Well, maybe one: it’s meant to be fun. And on that basis I could take whichever choice I wanted.
Having resolved to cut across country on the Southern Upland Way like a cheaty thing cheatingly cheating at cheating, it was now time to begin. And thus I took my first step onto that path. Many more quickly followed.
Atop the cliff, I paused for breath and gently admonished Portpatrick.
If the cliff path began with an inauspicious start, it quickly elaborated by following the steps with a boarded-up building that had once housed a British Telecom radio station. It then compounded the error of its ways by throwing a golf course into the mix as though it were trying to annoy me. But I wasn’t annoyed; I was having too much fun striding along the cliff-top path. I espied a distant coastline upon the hazy horizon and realised that it must be Northern Ireland. This raised my spirits further and I quickly left the golf course behind, heading north to the small bay of Port Mora where a fairly feeble waterfall splashed onto the beach beside a cave.
The beach itself was small and sandy and accessible only on foot. It must, I thought, make a good picnic spot on account of being close enough to Portpatrick to get there quite easily, yet far enough that the Never-More-Than-Fifty-Metres-From-My-Car brigade would never witness its charms.
The path out of Port Mora was rather short, dropping me almost immediately into the neighbouring bay of Port Kale. This beach was altogether stonier, as was the unhelpful silence emanating from its closed, locked and shuttered information centre.
Why does an otherwise insignificant, pebbly cove need an information centre? Because communication was once its thing. And because the hut was already standing so might as well be made use of. Or — as seemed to be the case — not made use of. In either case, it wasn’t originally built for the tourist trade but for the telecoms industry; Port Kale was where the first telegraph cable between Britain and Ireland came ashore in 1852.
One half of the hut was the cable house, connecting it to the national network. The other half was added in 1893 when an additional cable was added. The hut remained in use a further ninety years, surviving the transition from telegraphy to telephony, until finally decommissioned in 1983. A red and white striped telephone pole, situated beside the two huts, survived until quite recently (it was still standing in 2011).
The route out of Port Kale was a staircase cut into the rock. Irregular and uneven, these steps were to those in Portpatrick as a rabid dingo is to a toy poodle. They were different heights and different widths and positioned at different angles and the chain handrail provided beside them was not just there for show. In fits and starts and glad of my walking poles, I clambered laboriously up to the top, where I found the far more level and easy-going terrain of Ouchtriemakain Moor.
As soon as I had recovered my breath I strode contentedly forwards, feeling quite pleased with the pace that I was maintaining. More fool me. No sooner had I allowed myself a mental pat on the back as I also received a light tap on my shoulder, just enough to tell me to step aside as an intrepid fell runner — barely even breaking a sweat — charged past me and swept up the hill ahead. My thunder was well and truly stolen. Not only that, but it had been fenced for a fraction of its value and sold to the gullible public as goods fallen off the back of a lorry. Pfft, whatever. It was a slow kind of thunder.
Pressing on, my enthusiasm unextinguished, I soon approached Black Head and Killantringan Lighthouse. This was built in 1900 by David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938), whose family were all about the lighthouses. His father (David), brother (Charles), uncles (Alan and Thomas) and grandfather (Robert) were also lighthouse engineers though his cousin Robert Louis bucked the trend and took to writing stories for a living.
Killantringan Lighthouse is named for the next bay along although it actually overlooks the smaller Portamaggie Bay. There, in 1982, the skipper of MV Craigantlet, a German-owned, Cyprus-registered container ship, managed the toe-curlingly embarrassing stunt of wrecking his ship right below the lighthouse. I mean, you’d hope that the big white tower with a lamp on top was a clue to maybe stay away. Still, he was lucky it wasn’t six years later (by which time the lighthouse had been automated) as it still had a keeper to raise the alarm and Craigantlet‘s crew were lifted off by helicopter. The cargo containers—many holding hazardous chemicals—were quickly recovered and removed.
In 2007, the lighthouse was decommissioned and sold as a private dwelling but it still looms over the remains of the Craigantlet, though today just a part of the bow can be seen, projecting from the waters at low tide.
Black Head was where the Southern Upland Way turned inland, following the lighthouse’s access road. This conveyed me past Killantringan Farm to the almost entirely deserted B738.
Knock & Maize
I spent very little time on this so-called main road, taking the very next lane to the north. This passed within sight of a rather shy standing stone that somehow conspired to make every photo that I took of it go out of focus; never argue with a prehistoric megalith, that’s my sudden and unexpected motto. The stone was standing in a field belonging to a farm called Knock & Maize. This delightfully quirky looking name is probably just another example of the ‘what can I see?’ school of toponymy. ‘Knock’ is from Gaelic cnoc, meaning ‘hill’, while ‘maize’ is uncertain but could be cognate with Welsh maes, which means field or plain.
A plane of a different kind altogether featured on a rather optimistic notice that I saw shortly before I ran out of road. The sign spoke of a missing radio-controlled plane last seen in the vicinity of the turbines of North Rhins Wind Farm, situated on Craigenlee Fell. As the road gave way to a path onto the moor, I mused on the likely fate of an RC plane in collision with a spinning turbine blade and decided that I didn’t give much for its chances. And even if it landed intact, the moor would take a lot of searching.
I didn’t spot the downed plane on the moor but I did find two women out walking who had been on my train the day before. They were actually walking the Southern Upland Way and were duly encumbered with huge rucksacks. We conversed briefly at the limit of their English.
I never actually asked where they came from but I thought they sounded Danish; I know no Danish at all so their broken English still put my language skills deep in the shade. We managed to establish our relative destinations and the fact that it wasn’t raining and that while we kept catching glimpses of Knockquhassen Reservoir, our view of it was not nearly as clear as we’d like.
Since they were slow-moving, I left them staring at the reservoir and ploughed on across the moor on a somewhat squelchy path. Before too long, I emerged from amid the gorse and marsh grass to find myself on a road by a gate, through which a car had just come.
The Man from the Committee
The gate gave access to the reservoir shore and I realised that I could get as close a view as I wanted from there. The only complication was the car driver, who let me walk almost the distance from gate to shore before calling me back again to ask if I planned to fish. He belonged, he said, to ‘the Committee’ and reeled off a tale of woe concerning a party of partying strangers, fishing without permits while drugged up to the eyeballs.
I did my best to assure him that fishing, partying and consuming Class A drugs were not on my plan for the day. Having got a proper look at my walking poles, which don’t look that much like fishing rods at all when close-to, he decided he probably believed me.
Knockquhassen Reservoir Dam
The reservoir also looked different in close up as I found myself sitting beside its earth embankment dam. It wasn’t in any way unpleasant but it did have less lacustrine beauty than I had been hoping for. Even so, I spent a placid ten minutes or so just sitting and looking at the water and giving my feet a well-earned rest before I set off again.
The road rounded the flank of Crailoch Hill at a height of about 140 m before beginning a slow descent towards the shores of Loch Ryan (Loch Rìoghaine), a sea loch and natural harbour that separates the northern part of the Rhins of Galloway peninsula from the Galloway mainland.
The Bruce’s Brothers
Today Loch Ryan’s shores are disturbed only by the wash of the Irish Sea ferries but back in 1307 they witnessed an altogether bloodier disturbance. Then, Robert the Bruce landed an invasion force with the intent of taking back control of Galloway and his ancestral lands in Annandale. Robert had been crowned King Robert I the previous year but then defeated in battle and driven out of Scotland by the forces of England’s King Edward I; accordingly, he was now determined to win what would later be known as Scotland’s First War of Independence.
The wider situation was one of politicking, backstabbing, warfare and chaos that had arisen out of the death of Alexander III in 1286 without a clear line of succession. Dozens of claimants had reduced themselves to two, at which point the Scots made the awful, awful decision to ask Edward— former crusader, military expansionist and recent conqueror of Wales —to adjudicate the matter. It went about as well as might be expected.
And so, three decades after Alexander’s death, Robert sent two forces into Scotland from his place of exile. One landed in Carrick (further up the coast), led by Robert himself, the other on the shores of Loch Ryan, led by his brothers Alexander and Thomas. The brothers were met by an opposing force under local noble Duncan MacDowell (Dungal MacDouall), who had supported Robert’s enemies — John Balliol and the Comyns — and now allied with the English.
The Bloody Result
MacDowell won hands down. The Bruce’s brothers were sent to Carlisle, where the English later had them executed, while the force’s other leaders were simply slain.
Unfortunately for Duncan MacDowell, while he was defeating Robert’s forces in the south, Robert the Bruce was winning in the north. Scots flocked to the latter’s banner and MacDowell would find himself defeated the following year. The wars would drag for another twenty years though, culminating in Robert’s victory and the 1328 Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton the basic gist of which is this: ‘Okay, okay, Scotland is a country after all.’
1307 is either the long ago year of a battle or very definitely lunchtime. Looking at my phone, I found that it was long past both, which explained why my stomach was rumbling. Delicious foods awaited me (I hoped) in the nearby town of Stranraer and I headed on down the road towards them.
On my way, near Greenfield Farm, I crossed the tiny Piltanton Burn and thought nothing of it. The name seemed familiar though and I rechecked my map, finding that it is one of two streams that empties out across Luce Sands; I’d crossed it once already (three walks ago).
The road then led me down to the outskirts of Stranraer, where I bid goodbye to the Southern Upland Way as it continued eastwards towards Castle Kennedy. I, on the other hand, was heading north.
In the photo above we see part of Stranraer laid out below us as we descend the hill into town. We also see a large white shape on the opposite shore of Loch Ryan. That shape is a P&O ferry to Larne and it was moored at the village of Cairnryan, which was my destination for the day.
The Fat Nose
Stranraer (An t-Sròn Reamhar — the ‘fat nose’ i.e. broad headland) grew out of an amalgamation of small fishing villages that made a living off the herring-rich Loch Ryan. In 1595, it became a burgh of barony, which was a type of chartered town subject to a feudal landlord who held his land directly from the King. There were a lot of burghs of barony and many failed to develop into proper market towns. Not so Stranraer, which was thriving by 1600 under the patronage of Ninian Adair, who lived at Portpatrick’s Dunskey Castle.
Growth & Prosperity
In 1617, Stranraer became a Royal burgh and went on to become the largest town in Wigtownshire, easily outstripping Wigtown, and the second largest in modern Dumfries & Galloway (after Dumfries, of course).
A harbour was constructed in the mid-eighteenth century and by the mid-nineteenth it had replaced Portpatrick as the principal link to Northern Ireland: The tonnage of vessels making the crossing had increased significantly in the meantime and larger ships are more at risk of storm damage when moored. A harbour opening onto Loch Ryan could offer far more shelter than Portpatrick’s, which faced the Irish Sea.
1861 brought the arrival of the railway and 1862 an official regular ferry to Belfast. Stranraer’s prosperity was assured…
…But not forever. For various reasons pertaining to economics, crossing times and ferry speeds, Stena Line closed the Stranraer ferry terminal in 2011, transferring to a new one built at Cairnryan on Loch Ryan’s opposite shore. This has dealt, as one might expect, a bit of a hammer blow to Stranraer’s economy.
Stranraer has undergone some recent EU-funded redevelopment, and its plethora of hotels and surprisingly good restaurants mean that it commands a fair chunk of the holiday trade but it is still very much a town set up to service a ferry trade it no longer has. It is not unaware of its predicament.
I have come to quite like Stranraer and I very much hope it manages to find a new direction for itself. In the meantime, it is a town ridiculously well-served for its size with places to eat. I ensconced myself in one such place and enjoyed a refreshing cup of tea and a cheese and ham sandwich. I also enjoyed the sit down that accompanied it, having just walked about eight miles.
Rested and refuelled, I headed east along the southern shore of Loch Ryan. This sounds tranquil and peaceful but the reality wasn’t quite so serene: the shoreline is also the route of the busy A77 and much of its traffic comprises lorries heading for the ferries at Cairnryan.
The roar of road haulage may have detracted somewhat from the route’s idyllic qualities but a view down the lock in what was now glorious sunshine went a long way to make up for it.
Walking beside a busy A-road along which lorries sped was not the only hazard as a number of signs pointed out. Some were quite wordy, warning that waves from the wakes of the ferries could arrive up to half an hour after the ferries had passed. Other signs resorted to pictures.
Loch Ryan Coastal Path
An Inauspicious Start
After a while, I was offered the chance to walk on the Loch Ryan Coastal Path instead of the A77’s pavement. I took this option and quickly discovered that the LRCP isn’t really much of a path. There was sort of a trail, though not well enough trodden to be anything but a vegetative tripping hazard. It was also right next to the A77 and its aforementioned footway. I suspect I know where anyone passing that way actually walks.
I persevered and path, road and shoreline all slowly curved around until I was no longer heading east but was now very much heading north. Soon the road veered inland to avoid a low hill, while the path chose to go right over it. I merrily embraced the latter, finding myself in a series of fields above a low loch-side cliff. One of the fields already had residents and we eyed each other warily, sizing each other up.
Not far from the hill was the former site of Innermessan, once the most significant town for miles but now gone with barely a trace. The demise of Innermessan was not due to plague or other natural disaster, nor even a sudden attack by loch monsters. Simple economics was its doom.
Innermessan was the largest town in the Rhins of Galloway and a centre for boatbuilding and, though developed by the Agnews (the hill was their old castle motte), had been largely under the control of the Kennedy family since the Reformation. Stranraer, which had grown up to rival it was in the possession of the Adairs, which sounds like a case of dynastic rivalry about to kick off. But Ninian Adair was the son of Helen Kennedy, daughter of Gilbert Kennedy, Earl of Cassilis.
On Ninian’s death, his heir became the earl’s ward and the Adair and Kennedy lands fell into the hands of one person. The main Adair line then left Scotland, returning to Ireland from where they had originally come, leaving the Kennedies firmly in control. It was this unification that doomed Innermessan for they saw greater potential in Stranraer and didn’t need to also promote its rival. And so an act of economic rationalisation saw Innermessan dwindle and die more effectively than cut-throat rivalry could ever have achieved.
Cairnryan Military Railway
As well as Innermessan, other more recent developments have occupied the loch’s eastern shore and then disappeared almost without trace. During WW2, it became the site of the Cairnryan Military Railway (CMR), linking Cairnryan to the railway mainline. In addition to six miles of branch line, there was also a massive marshalling yard, capable of storing up to two thousand wagons.
As to why a tiny village might need such good connections? The government feared air raid damage to Glasgow and Liverpool and so had selected it as the site for an emergency back-up with the uncompromising name of No. 2 Military Port. Channels were dredged and quaysides built, just in case they might be needed. All of which helps to explain why a village of maybe a hundred and fifty people now hosts two bustling ferry terminals.
The path descended from the hill but stayed separate from the A77, instead following the track bed once used by the CMR. Before long, I could see signs ahead that I was approaching Cairnryan.
P&O Ferries sail to Larne and have been doing so since 1987 when P&O bought Townsend Thoresen, who had been operating ferries out of No. 2 Military Port’s old lighterage wharf since 1972.
Cairnryan is strung out along the A77 between the P&O and Stena ferry terminals. The latter was built as a new investment at a site called Old House Point. Between them lies a fenced-off derelict pier, the sole survivor of No. 2 Military Port’s three wartime piers.
The village itself dates back only to 1701, established for workers on the Lochryan Estate. Placed as it was, it became a useful staging point for coaches to Ayr though the area also became infamous for highwaymen. The railways killed much of that traffic and Cairnryan slumbered until WW2 brought the military port. After the war, the military railway and port was largely dismantled, leaving Cainryan to revert to rural obscurity until Townsend Thoresen began their ferry service.
Today, with two ferry companies (one of which — Stena — having made a considerable long-term investment) one might assume that the village is set to grow and prosper. Oddly the reverse appears to be true. Its church was demolished in 1990 and its post office and petrol station both closed in the early 2000s. The Loch Ryan Hotel — a listed building constructed as Loch Ryan House in 1760 — is now closed and empty.
The village still has a few B&Bs, one of which I stayed in (and found to be disappointing) but it looks as though while Cairnryan has the ferries, Stranraer has still cornered the market on everything related to their trade.
This time: 15 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,491½ miles