Peace lies softly on the hillsides where the most disturbing noise is the sea pounding the cliffs of the Mull of Galloway or the yapping cries of winter-weathering barnacle geese from Spitsbergen.
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It wasn’t always so. Scotland’s Solway coast in Dumfries and Galloway was a place of turmoil from the 13th-16th centuries when arson, robbery and murder were commonplace occurrences in the borderlands. A plethora of defensive fortifications from Caerlaverock and Carsluith to Threave and Orchardton punctuates the landscape giving but a pale hint of this stormy period. The market town of Annan, like a number of others villages in the area, remembers the past each year with the Riding of the Marches, a commemoration of the times when mounted militia fought the border reivers.
The Solway heritage coastal trail honours the rich history of the area. Starting at Annan in the east and ending at the Mull of Galloway, the trail is marked by road signs emblazoned with a Celtic cross. Set off by the tide-washed estuary of the Solway Firth, the sea-hugged caves, sun-washed harbours, and secret coves are a delight to the eye.
Let us begin our journey at Ruthwell where the parish church is home to the historic 18 foot high Ruthwell cross. Dating from AD 680, it is inscribed with both Latin and Anglo-Saxon runes, and includes portions of the poem, The Dream of the Rood. Classified as one of two major monuments of Dark Age Europe (the other is at Bewcastle in Cumbria), this ‘idolatrous monument’ (Celtic carvings were inscribed along with Christian ones) was pulled down as ordered by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1643. It is now much reconstructed.
West of Ruthwell the wetlands of the Nith estuary beckon bird lovers. Here mud flats lie exposed, glinting in the sun, and the marshland teems with thousands of birds. Triangular shaped Caerlaverock castle stands guard over it all as it has done since the 13th century. Besieged by Edward I of England in 1300, the double-moated castle was attacked again by the Scots in 1312 and the English in 1357.
Past Caerlaverock, the road turns inward through agricultural land to Dumfries, originally known as Dum Fres, the 'fort of the Frisians'. It was here that Robert Bruce struck the blow for Scottish independence in 1306 when he killed Sir John Comyn, representative of the king, on the high altar of the monastery of Greyfriars.
Here, too, are reminders of Robert Burns. On Mill Road the Robert Burns Centre tells the story of his life. His favourite pub, the Globe, still pulls a pint. The poet and his family are interred in a mausoleum behind St Michael’s church. From 1788 to 1791 Burns lived five miles north of Dumfries at Ellisland farm, where he wrote two of his famous poems, 'Tam O'Shanter' and 'Auld Lang Syne'. The house holds a collection of letters and manuscripts of the poet.
Travelling south once again into the Nith estuary leads to the village of New Abbey with its 19th century corn mill, considered one of the best of its kind in Scotland. But the village is best known for Sweetheart abbey. Seen on a sunny day, the massive ruins of the red sandstone church backed by blue sky and the intense green colour of the grass on which it sits make for a picture postcard view.
Founded in the 13th century, its romantic name derives from the fact that Lady Dervorguilla, wife of John Balliol (his son became king of Scotland in 1292), carried his embalmed heart around for 22 years after he died, then had it buried with her at the high altar in 1289. The abbey features in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Abbot.
Following on, we come to the 19th century estate village of Kirkbean, birthplace of the pirate John Paul Jones, the founding father of the American navy. A museum in the grounds of the Arbigland estate tells the story of his adventures. Clifftop walks, an RSPB nature reserve, and large sandy beaches characterise the countryside around the villages of Sandyhills and Rockcliffe. The white washed cottages of Kippford once played host to smugglers.
A diversion inland to the village of Castle Douglas brings us to Threave castle. Sitting on an islet in the river Dee, the massive 14th century four-storey tower, a former Black Douglas stronghold, is reached by boat and a long walk to the property. It has the most complete medieval riverside harbour in Scotland. South of the town, Threave garden, under the care of the National Trust for Scotland, is of special note for its spring display of 200 varieties of daffodils.
The stretch of coastline from Dalbeattie to Kirkcudbright was known as the Scottish Riviera during the Victorian heyday of sea bathing. Running up from the Solway Firth is the long, marshy inlet of the river Dee on which sits the harbour of Kirkcudbright (Kircoobrie) with its 17th and 18th century merchants’ houses. MacLellans castle, a tower house complete except for its roof, was built in the 1570s and dominates the harbour. It makes for a perfect example of the medieval melding of castle, river and town.
An important port and one time pirate den (John Paul Jones sailed from here—see the story in the Stewartry Museum), the harbour is now home to pleasure craft. Over the years a number of artists—including E A Hornel, Jessie King and Charles Oppenheimer—have taken advantage of the beauty of Kirkcudbright. The town still plays host to an artists' colony whose work is on show at the 17th century Tolbooth Centre.
Overlooking Fleet Bay near the small village of Gatehouse of Fleet is Cardoness Castle, a well-preserved ruin of a 15th century tower house. Climb to the top of this home of the McCulloch clan for views over the countryside. Once known as the ‘Glasgow of the south’, the village with its wide streets and brightly painted houses was heavily involved in the cotton trade in the late 18th century. Visit the restored Mill on the Fleet with its exhibition on the history of this important industry. Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson were visitors to Gatehouse. Robert Burns wrote the poem 'Scots Wha Ha'e Wi' Wallace Bled' while staying here.
Beyond the town of Newton Stewart, we encounter the Machars peninsula protruding into the outer Solway. This green pastureland is home to the distinctive black and white belted Galloway cattle. In the 5th century St Ninian established the first Christian church in Scotland at Whithorn earning it the name the ‘cradle of Christianity’. It developed into a place of pilgrimage when Regus of Galloway built a cathedral priory church in 1128 by the ruins of St Ninian’s church. There is much to see at the priory ruin, visitor centre, and archaeological dig. A collection of early Christian crosses includes the Latinus stone, dated AD 450.
The main coastal road from Whithorn heading north toward Glenluce sits precariously at water’s edge and offers views over Luce Bay. At the top of the Machars, set in a tranquil valley, Glenluce abbey is an impressive ruined Cistercian monastery, founded c1190. The 1470 chapter house survives with part of the original tiled floor and water pipes still in place. A strange tale relates that a 13th century wizard, Michael Scott, lured the plague to the abbey and shut it in a vault. We do know the abbey was visited by Robert the Bruce, James IV, and Mary Queen of Scots.
At this point we end our journey along the Solway heritage trail—a coastal landscape of gentle hills, pastureland and quiet byways. When the mist from the marshes steals in, embracing ruined castles, lingering in tiny coves, and marching through seaside settlements, it’s easy to imagine the sound of pirates scrabbling in the night or the thunder of hoofbeats in the turbulent times of the past.
South of Dumfries on the B725
Tel. 01387 770244
1mile south-west of Gatehouse of Fleet on the A75
3.5 miles south of Creetown on the A75
Robert Burns Centre
Tel. 01387 264808
Tel. 01387 255297
Graveyard at St Michael’s Kirk
Two miles north-west of Glenluce village, signposted off A75
Tel. 01581 300541
John Paul Jones Cottage
Tel. 01387 880613
Tel. 01557 331856
Mill on the Fleet
Gatehouse of Fleet
Parking in town centre
Tel. 01557 814099
New Abbey Cornmill
In New Abbey village, 7 miles south of Dumfries on A710
Tel. 01387 850260
6 miles south-east of Castle Douglas on the A711
St Mary St
Tel. 01557 331643
In New Abbey village, 7 miles south of Dumfries on A710
Tel. 01387 850397
Three miles west of Castle Douglas on the A75
Tel. 0831 168512
At the ferry landing, ring for custodian with boat to the island
Tel. 01557 331556
Whithorn Priory and Museum
Tel. 01988 500508
Historic Scotland website: Historic Scotland
Photos (and text) © by Barbara Ballard except others by permission as follows:
Photos of Kippford, Rockcliffe, Newton Stewart, and Mull cliffs by Lakeland cam; Robert Burns monument by Calverton cam; St Niniam chapel by Andy Wallace