The Solway Coast - Gretna to Dumfries.

Singular advice to anyone exploring the Dumfries and Galloway region for the first time is to do some homework on what there is to see and enjoy. The certainty is that you will be amazed at the variety of places and scenes, and time to see it all will suddenly grow very short. And an extra roll of film in your pocket will not be amiss. It is perhaps these factors that cause many to return. 

It is well worth visiting the web site of the Dumfries and Galloway Family History Society who are at  www.dgfhs.org.uk . Also  enjoy the photography of Sandy Pittendreigh which covers  a wide range of places and views of the region to visit - available at   http://homepages.rootsweb.com/~dfsgal/. The use of some of Sandy`s photographs and the following map in my articles is gratefully acknowledged. Also visit Ian McClumpha`s site for good guidance on researching your ancestry in Dumfries and Galloway - at www.imchad.freeola.com

D&G map

The Solway Firth on the west coast of Britain is the boundary between England and Scotland. Cutting into the land mass for some eighty miles it has long been a place of mystery and intrigue and a landing place for all kinds of visitors over the centuries. Across the Firth lies Cumbria, and the Isle of Man  is not far off in the Irish Sea, while Ireland itself is just over 20 miles from the Mull of Galloway.  The ancient region of Galloway has an association with all three that goes back into the Dark Ages.  

Solway-sunshineThe name Solway is thought to come from the Norse `Sol` meaning mud and  `vad` or `vath` meaning a ford. The earliest mention is the Sulewade Patent Rolls of 1218. Solway Sands came to mean the extreme east end of the area and in 1300 Caerlaverock Castle  was regarded as looking out over the Irish Sea. In the seventeenth century the Firth was extended  gradually to include the whole area and The Salmon Fisheries (Scotland) Act 1868 fixed the limit as a straight line drawn from the Mull of Galloway to Hodbarrow Point, at Millom in Cumberland.

It is also a region which is slightly off the beaten track for tourists, yet those who have been there are certain to return. It might be as well to explain that there are three shires in the south west of Scotland - Wigtown, Kirkcudbright and Dumfries. The ancient region of Galloway was made up of Wigtownshire  and Kirkcudbrightshire (more properly known as the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright - being the lands of the  Douglases which were forfeit and subsequently managed by the King`s Steward) and is joined today in region termed Dumfries and Galloway.

Travelling from England the route is to Carlisle, just beyond which is Gretna Green and the main road (A75) to Stranraer. Literally withinOld Gretna Green yards of the turning is the `old smithy` to which young lovers once eloped to get married. Today the smithy is highly commercialised with a modern hotel adjacent and still used for weddings, with local ministers officiating.  Marriages there, accompanied by a piper in full dress to lead the bride and groom from the wedding room, is very popular with young Japanese couples. From Gretna Green it is possible to travel on the coast roads ( B721, B724, B725) that run almost parallel with the main route to Dumfries, and enables the traveller to take in the peace and quiet as well as the scenery of the Solway coast.

On the way lies the small village of Ruthwell which has an ancient Anglo Saxon Runic cross from about the 8th century installed in the local church.ruthwell4.jpg (35695 bytes) Saved from destruction by ministers of the kirk who buried it in the 17th century to save it being broken up, and recovered by later generations, the 18 foot cross has been installed in its own well in an extension of the church. Much  credit for saving the cross is given to the Rev. Henry Duncan (1774-1846) who is also responsible for fathering the Savings Bank movement in 1810. Among his other interests was geology and he was the first to identify fossil footprints in Britain - at Corncockle Quarry, Lochmaben. A museum about the savings bank and the Rev Duncan is in the village and well worth a visit.

From Ruthwell swing down onto the B725 which road will take you to the wild fowl trust at Blackshaw and the ancient castle at Caerlaverock CastleCaerlaverock. The castle`s design and situation is unique with a triangular layout surrounded by a water filled moat within an earthen rampart. Built in the 13th century from red sandstone the castle can take on a pinky glow in the right light. It had a Scots garrison in 1300 and was later besieged by Edward I of England. Variously stormed and rebuilt in later years it was restored by the Maxwell family in the 16th century. In 1640 it was a royalist stronghold during the Bishops Wars and was besieged for 13 weeks before Robert Maxwell, 1st Lord Nithsdale, finally surrendered to the Scottish army.

From Ruthwell the road leads north along the side of the Nith Estuary and into Dumfries at the head of Nithsdale. This ancient town has much to see and enjoy, not least are its connections with the Middle Ages and a fording place for pilgrims making their way to Whithorn. There was probably a church here since about 1180 and the tolbooth was first mentioned in 1481 with shops on the ground floor and the council room above. Next door a prison was built in 1579. The Greyfriars established a monastery here in 1262. A centre piece is  Lady Dervorgilla`s bridge the oldest spanned bridge in Scotland. Tradition has it that a wooden bridge was first built about 1260, although records are only from 1426 and show that charges for passing over it were given to the Greyfriars monastery.

Devorgilla was the daughter of Allan, Lord of Galloway (sometimes called King of Galloway) and the last Constable of Scotland. She married John de Balliol founder of the college at Oxford. When he died in 1264 the disconsolate widow  had his heart embalmed and took it everywhere with her in a casket. The original bridge across the River Nith in Dumfries was also in his memory. Devorgilla  founded the abbey south of Dumfries that was first called the New Abbey, but on her death she and her casket were buried under the high altar. It has since been called the `Sweetheart Abbey.` Although now a ruin, it is still worth a visit to see what must have been a stupendous building in its day.

Robert Burns House, Dumfries.Robert Burns was a resident of Dumfries in his later years and there is an extensive visitors centre. Also worth a visit is the house he occupied in the last three years of his life and  in which he died in 1796, aged thirty seven. The house has been converted into a museum and contains many mementoes and relics of the bard. These include the gun he carried as an Exciseman, and original letters as well as copies of his Kilmarnock and Edinburgh editions of his works. His mausoleum in St Michael`s Churchyard is worth visiting and for the Burns devotees the graves of several of the bards associates are also marked out. Within the churchyard there areKirko.jpg (25726 bytes) also several monuments to Covenanters who gave their lives for their faith including John Kirko who has a commemorative cairn marking the spot at which he was shot on the Whitesands, beside the river.

There is much to see and experience in Dumfries and it is difficult to decide what to refer to. Perhaps lastly, a novel experience is to visit the Camera Obscura which is mounted within an old mill. The building was adapted as an observatory and the instrument installed in 1836 and gives panoramic views of Dumfries. On a clear day it allows views for many miles. Adjacent to the observatory is a glass enclosed original statue of `Old Mortality` and his faithful steed. Robert Paterson is buried at Caerlaverock but was born in Balmaclellan ca 1713 and spent his life engraving  and maintaining gravestones, especially those of the Covenanters. He gained fame through the pen of Sir Walter Scott who met him when he was renovating stones at Dunnottar. Other statues of him are to be found at the Newton Stewart museum.

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