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.