Articles - Dumfries & Galloway
In that dozy time between sleep and wakefulness, the squawking of a seagull was more effective than an alarm clock. The harsh cry prompted me to leave the warmth of a hotel bed, pull back the thick curtains and open the window to smell the salty air. Across the road an incoming tide was filling the harbour. Stretching up on tiptoes, I fancied I could make out the coast of Ireland, some 22 miles away.
I was in Portpatrick. The village is stacked in a cleft of the cliffs on the west coast of the Rhinns of Galloway. Behind, there’s a valley leading inland that allows easy access to the hills beyond, to Stranraer, Galloway, and the rest of Scotland.
Historically, it was this ease of access, helped by the construction of military roads, which made Portpatrick strategically important. Its position was a factor when troops were being rushed to quell insurrections in Ireland. The soldiers however, must have discovered many times that this shortest of sea routes between Britain and Ireland was not necessarily the quickest. That was all of three and four hundred years ago, yet Colonel Street and Barrack Street are still faint reminders of these times.
Later, Portpatrick was the port of entry for huge numbers of Irish cattle and their handlers making the journey to markets in Scotland and England. In more recent times, it has been a terminal for the mail boats to and from Ireland and a landing place for catches from a once great herring fishing fleet.
Though huge amounts of material and effort went into making the harbour safe, it never really worked as a haven for passenger ferries. Regular poundings by the forces of nature couldn’t be mastered. In stormy weather travellers might have to wait a long time until calmer conditions allowed them to get clear of the harbour. Even then, they could still face a crossing lasting hours, or days in some extreme instances, when the sea was being whipped into a fury.
“Gone with the wind, my romance has flown away,” is a line from a once popular song. When the village was the Gretna Green for Ireland perhaps wild weather was the cause of some relationships faltering. In those days, proclamations were made in the church immediately upon a couple’s arrival. If they required a hurried or a secret wedding the ceremony was completed without delay as long as they could convince the minister there was no legal objection. In 1826 the Church Courts suppressed the practice.
Another old custom had ended a few years earlier. For years, infirm persons including children suffering from rickets were brought to a cave north of Portpatrick on the first night of May. It was believed they might be cured if they could be washed in the spring water flowing from the cave.
Today, walkers heading in the same direction go past the north end of the harbour, putting green, tennis courts and children’s play park before finding the first signpost for the start of the Southern Upland Way. This is Scotland’s only coast-to-coast long distance footpath. For the start at this western end a zigzag of wide steps lead up the cliff face.
At the top, vast views over Portpatrick, southwards down the coast and out to sea are worth the effort. Carved into one of the first steps, is the information that there is only another 212 miles to go (minus the fifty yards you’ve just done), to complete The Way at Cockburnspath on Scotland’s east coast.
The path here passes the golf course where, I can imagine golfers fuming as they compete against the wind. On a flat calm day, our route led back down to sea level, across pebble beaches, round fierce, fanglike towers of rock, then up more steps built into the cliff face. Here though, some aid is provided. On the seaward side there are lengths of strong chain to pull on that also act as a fence of sorts. Easy walking follows on grass slopes where sheep wander at will.
The Way leads past Killantringan Lighthouse which shines a warning to ships to steer clear of the dangerous promontory known as Black Head. The name aptly fits this treacherous headland. Other names including Hairyhorroch, Slouchnawen Bay and Cubbies Hole seen on maps of this coastline may need a bit more explanation.
Portpatrick derives its name from that great apostle of Ireland, St. Patrick, who according to legend crossed the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland in a single stride and left a deep footprint on a rock. Unfortunately, that rock was later removed during the construction of the harbour.
Near the south end of the harbour another scenic walk also starts with steps leading to a narrow path passing Dunskey Castle. On the seaward side, waves foam and gurgle far below filling inlets between great thrusts of rock. On the landward side there’s a deep canyon that must have taken huge amounts of dynamite and digging. Its floor carried the rail track to the harbour from the station at the top of Portpatrick’s Main Street. Unfortunately, right from the start, this line suffered from competition from the Stranraer to Larne Ferry. The last train left Portpatrick on 6th February 1950.
From records it would appear Dunskey Castle became a ruin early in the 17th century. Standing on a bleak site, its rocky base slopes quickly away on the seaward sides. In front, on the landward side, a moat would have added extra protection.
One story goes that in association with a castle in Ireland, Dunskey controlled the seas here and levied dues on passing ships. Galleys were kept in readiness for this nefarious purpose. The castle has featured in a few films. Its very bleakness was the attraction for filmmakers.
You may have seen other Portpatrick locations that have also appeared on cinema screens. Fans of the television series, 2000 Acres of Sky, might recognise the boat, Solstice, at anchor in the harbour. For that series, Port Logan, further down the coast, became an island, the mythical Ronansay.
Lots of people have reasons to be grateful for another boat berthed in Portpatrick harbour - that’s the lifeboat. Nowadays, around the country, volunteers from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution are called out as often as 5000 times a year. Some 1500 lives are saved and hundreds more helped out from potentially dangerous situations.
On the lifeboat station information board I read that 540 services (until then) had taken place from there since 1877. The most recent happened just a few days before my visit.
Time: 6.00 a.m.
Weather conditions: slight.
Type of casualty: yacht.
Rescued: 3 men
Details of service: The yacht ran ashore on rocks at south side. Boat towed off next morning but sank within two minutes.
In the middle of Portpatrick, by the round tower of an early parish church, gravestones commemorate sea captains, crew and ship’s passengers who weren’t so lucky.
There have been many shipwrecks on this beautiful but, at times, savage coast. We all know the sea can be cruel but thankfully storms can also offer lighter moments as I learned from the following tale.
The width of the roadway separating Portpatrick’s houses from the harbour doesn’t always keep the sea at bay. During severe gales, spray from waves has been known to splatter on the house roofs. This once benefited a local fisherman. One stormy morning he was wondering what he would be able to get for his breakfast, “then surprise, surprise, a fine cod came down the chimney with a swirl of water.”
Portpatrick stands in a quiet, beautiful part of Galloway in south west Scotland. The whole area is well worth visiting.
The road from Kilmarnock to Dumfries is often busy with trucks, coaches, caravans and cars. Yet, if you turn down a side road, some six miles west of Dumfries, where a signpost points to Ellisland Farm, you can leave the traffic and most of the rackety 21st century behind, for a while at least.
In the quiet, you might even be tempted to try your hand at writing poetry. Robert Burns did. He had travelled the same route a few times, on horseback, from the family farm of Mossgiel, near Mauchline, in Ayrshire, before taking up the tenancy of Ellisland Farm in 1788.
When he finally flitted, he took the best part of four days. Burns could only travel at the speed of his few cows. With a horse pulling a cart stuffed with farm implements, household goods and cooped chickens, he might even have walked much of the way.
The actual farmhouse we see today wasn’t yet ready for him, so he had to stay with the outgoing tenant couple about half a mile away. It seems Robert wasn’t impressed.
‘This hovel that I shelter in is pervious to every blast that blows, and every shower that falls, and I am only preserved from being chilled to death by being suffocated with smoke,’ he wrote.
Eventually he moved into the single story L- shaped farmhouse. Many of his possessions are still there. Adding to the ambience, ‘smoked hams’ hang from the meat hooks fixed in the ceiling above the kitchen range where Robert’s wife, Jean Armour would have cooked numerous meals.
From his front door, Robbie need walk only a few steps to be on the banks of the River Nith. Thickly tree-lined and sweet-smelling with wild flowers, he found its nearness and beauty inspiring. This was the poet’s reason for choosing this particular farm and not either of the others on offer. Let’s stroll there in Rabbie’s footsteps.
The caretaker of Ellisland has created a grass pathway now named Tam O’ Shanter Walk. It runs parallel to the river alongside an old, stone wall. The story goes that hereabouts, Jean Armour Burns heard her husband talking excitedly to himself as he made his way homewards of an evening. It seems he was absorbed in the process of composing his famous narrative poem, Tam O’ Shanter, a tale of drink being taken, ghosts, a certain ‘winsome wench’ and advice ignored.
“O Tam, had’st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum…”
At the end of the path, a barred gate allows wide views down the River Nith and across the field where the poet was moved to compose his famous poem, ‘On seeing a wounded hare limp by which a fellow had just shot.’ Here’s the last verse,
“Oft as by winding Nith I musing, wait
The sober eve, or hail the cheerful dawn,
I’ll miss thee sporting o’er the dewy lawn,
And curse the ruffian’s aim, and mourn thy hapless fate”.
Robert Burns struggled here as a farmer, sold up, and moved with his family to a rented, first floor flat in a tenement in Bank Street, Dumfries. They were still close to the River Nith but their surroundings were far less picturesque. The cow that was brought along with their other possessions from Ellisland Farm had to be sold since there was nowhere for the beast to graze.
A plaque high up on the wall of the building states, ‘here in the Sanghoose o’ Scotland between November 1791 and May 1793, Robert Burns completed over sixty songs including, Ae fond Kiss, Bonnie Wee Thing, The Lea Rig, Duncan Gray and The Dei’ls Awa Wi’ the Excise Man.’
I wonder what he would have made of the present day businesses at street level that make use of his name - a café, a newsagents and a barber shop.
It’s no distance to Burns’ favourite howff, The Globe Inn, up a narrow alley off the High Street. Farmers would gather there for refreshment, but also to do business, so it was natural for Burns to call in on market days from his farm at Ellisland. His move into Dumfries, to a job as an exciseman, meant even more opportunities for convivial nights.
The hitching posts for visitors’ horses are long gone and other properties have since been built round about, yet the Globe Inn, a three-storey building, is still pretty much as it was in Burns’ day. The ‘howff’ proper, the room the poet mostly frequented, is a little snuggery on the ground floor. Let’s go in through the dining room. The poet’s favourite chair is still there. Could you resist a chance to sit in it? Well, be warned. Should you get comfortably settled and be unable to recite a Burns’ poem or sing one of his songs when asked, you’ll be expected to pay for a round of drinks for the company.
Upstairs, visitors can look around a small bedroom with a fireplace and writing desk. On two of the window - panes there are poems Burns scratched on the glass using a diamond tipped pen, not a diamond ring as is sometimes thought. One of the poems – no surprise there - praises a young lady.
‘O lovely Polly Stewart
O charming Polly Stewart
There’s not a flower that blooms in May
That’s half so fair as thou art.’
Like locals and visiting Burns enthusiasts from all over the world, I felt it would be remiss to leave The Globe without sampling haggis, praised by the poet, as the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin-race’. With neeps and tatties, the dish was well worthy, as the great man said, ‘of a grace as lang’s my arm.’
In May 1793, Burns flitted for the last time to Millbrae Vennel. He would still recognise the house today. In one of the upstairs rooms you can see his writing desk. The box bed looks very small.
An opening at the side of the house leads to the entrance of an adult learning centre. There is a small garden off to the side. This would have been Mrs Jean Armour Burns’s plot. Seemingly she grew all sorts of unusual plants. Not far away, the River Nith flows past Dock Park, so-called since the time when sailing ships reached there to tie up. Jean Armour would walk down to the riverside to meet returning sailors who brought her plant seeds from distant lands.
A few years ago a statue was erected to her about midway between the Burns’ house and St Michael’s Church where the family came to worship. Some people think this commemoration to Jean Armour Burns was long overdue after her trials and tribulations of life with Robert.
In the south – east corner of the cemetery in St. Michael’s churchyard stands the elaborate Burns mausoleum, erected by public subscription 18 years after the poet’s death. His remains were taken from the original grave in another corner of the graveyard and re-interred in the mausoleum with great ceremony. The inscription on the gravestone from his first grave reads, “In memory of Robert Burns, who died the 21st July, 1796 in the 37th year of his age.”
Scotland’s National Bard is remembered throughout the world as a man of exceptional abilities as well as everyday human failings. He penned works of genius, but I also like to think of him deliberating over another of his verses,
‘To make a happy fireside clime
To weans and wife
That’s the true pathos and sublime
of human life’. First published in The People’s Friend
Each time I visit Durisdeer, the pretty hamlet makes me think of a mythical Brigadoon.
The approach road is narrow. Only occasional, well-spaced passing places allow for two cars meeting, or a tractor and a car, before easing past each other.
You’re nearly there before you actually see the substantial church. It appears to be watching over its surrounding huddle of a few houses.
In front, in the middle of what may have been a small village green in bygone days, stands a war memorial. The slab of granite has a carved outline of a soldier. Inscribed on the commemorative plaque is a list of war dead, local surnames. Why so many, you might wonder? You may also ponder on the size of the church. Was there ever enough of a congregation to justify this considerable building?
Part of the answer lies a short distance away. Two minutes will take you out of Durisdeer, through a gate and onto a rough path. Go just a few steps along the path then a little way up Durisdeer Rig - the big hill on your right.
Looking back, most of Durisdeer is already hidden behind trees. Far ahead, you’ll see the path cut into the slope of the hillside.
For much of the way, this path is bordered on the low side by a head - high, dry stane dyke. The quarrying, carting, lifting and careful placing of each differently shaped lump of rock must have been physically demanding. Constructing this wall would have been the work of a very large squad of men. Could it be that at the end of a long working week, Durisdeer Church being nearby could then take care of the workers’ spiritual needs?
From late summer ‘til late autumn this heathery hillside is clothed in deepest purple. When the blossom fades and eventually dies back the bees are left with little to eat. That’s when they become a little tetchy. As a beekeeper I met on the hill explained, while warning me not to get too close, his bees will need feeding in their hives through late autumn and winter. He’ll keep this regime going except when the weather turns really cold. If that happens, the bees will bunch together in an attempt to keep warm and hibernate.
From where we’ve stopped on Durisdeer Rig we can look across the path, over the dyke and the valley below, to the range of hills opposite.
Durisdeer now lies to our left at the foot of Castlehill. As the name suggests, there was a castle here at one time. Though no trace of it now remains, its early existence may have been the reason why the aristocratic residents had such an impressive church built nearby.
Seemingly, little consideration was given to the rest of the faithful of this widespread rural parish who could only get to the church with some difficulty.
Back on the path, we’ll go a short way before crossing the wall by climbing a wooden stile.
Our track now leads us along the valley bottom. It rises gently to a grassy hillock. There’s not a lot to see here, apart from some dips and bumps, but these outlines are what remain of a Roman Fortlet.
The garrison would have been protected by a wooden palisade. Since the immediate surrounding land falls away steeply, this would have been an easy position to defend - even from attack from the hills on either side.
These same hill tops also offered the Romans suitable sites for their flaming beacons. Their signals could then be seen at other distant encampments
After all this stravaiging, let’s get back on the path. We could keep heading north - west, further into the Southern Uplands, along what was the old Roman Road. But for now, let’s head back down for a wander round Durisdeer churchyard.
Many of the stones are weathered and moss covered. The oldest discernible is 1540 but doubtless some are of even more ancient date.
In a room behind the church, a tomb contains the remains of James and Mary, Duke and Duchess of Queensbury and Dover. The tomb lies beneath their two highly ornate effigies. Commonly known as the ‘Durisdeer marbles’, they are still brilliant white. It is believed they were the work of an Italian artist named Roubilliac, one of the most distinguished sculptors of the time.
Unfortunately, he never saw his works in place. According to an old legend, he was thrown overboard and drowned while sailing from Italy to deliver the goods. The work was never paid for!
Now here’s a real treat. For a few years now, throughout the summer months, the ladies of the parish have been offering Sunday afternoon teas (until the end of September) in a room of the church building. Part of the proceeds goes towards the running costs of the church and a local youth club. The remainder goes to charity. What’s more - you don’t have to scramble to the top of any of the hills behind Durisdeer before enjoying this splendid home baking.
Further Information: Durisdeer nestles in the Lowther Hills in Dumfries and Galloway about 1 mile off the A702 - 11 miles south of Elvanfoot and 3 miles north of Carronbridge on the A76.