My second walk from the hamlet of Ruthwell was an altogether more pleasant experience. I made my way along the coast to the mouth of the River Nith which flows down from Dumfries to the Solway Firth. I followed country lanes past sunlit meadows full of buttercups, the grass a deep and vivid green. I noticed that the leaves were already beginning to turn, oak trees, bracken and beech hedges, leaves looking dry, beginning to crinkle and going brown at the edges. Soon it will be autumn: the world turning red and gold, the sun low over the sea, gathering dusk and misty twilights, foggy mornings, fallen leaves, ploughed fields and scented woodsmoke. But today is full of sunshine and a warm sea breeze. The whole landscape dotted with pink patches of rose bay willow herb.
From the sea I followed a riverside path through the marshes which ran directly along the river bank. I passed a man using a haaf net, a wooden frame some eighteen feet across on which a net is attached and the whole contraption then pushed through the water like a child’s prawning net. I watched and waited a while until he came ashore; he told me that people have been catching fish this way since Viking times, and that it was the Norsemen who introduced the haaf net to this country over a thousand years ago.
Walking up river to Dumfries there was no obvious point where the city began and the countryside ended but, as one always finds when entering a town on foot, there is a point where there is a perceptible change in the atmosphere. A heightened sense of urgency perhaps, a noticeable sense of purpose. Winding lanes becoming straighter and more direct, the arrangement of homes and buildings becoming less random and increasingly more planned and rectilinear. Where there had been fields and hedgerows one notices a municipal impress on lawns and flowerbeds, the world becoming more deliberate and organised. I followed the river passed parks and playgrounds where families were enjoying the late afternoon sunshine and all of a sudden found myself in the middle of Dumfries: the town on the east bank of the river illuminated like a stage set by long clear shafts of evening light.
Like Carlisle, Dumfries is a city of red sandstone but cast in a Scottish Baronial style, a mixture of Victorian Gothic and Baroque detailing. I walked up from the river through narrow streets, alleys winding, rambling, haphazard; a number of red stone churches, all with pointed conical spires; a statue of Robert Burns; the civic buildings on Buccleuch Street an eclectic mix of different architectural styles. There were lots of pubs, small like boxes, one requiring “No Football Colours to be Worn & No Children”, men outside smoking. I noticed Shakespeare Street and English Street. Small branches of high street stores: a micro Boots, a reduced Starbucks, a functional M&S. I rather liked Dumfries. I saw a man wearing a kilt with a sporran, and another man in a tartan trilby. In the late 13th century William Wallace had chased the remnants of an English army back to Dumfries, and at the beginning of the next century Robert the Bruce and the English King Edward I both captured and subsequently abandoned the city. I strolled along Whitesands, beside the river, where in 1659 ten women, accused of witchcraft, had been strangled at stakes and their bodies burnt.
I was due to stay in a guesthouse by the railway station, one half of which was a refuge for homeless people and the other half was a B&B mainly used to house construction workers building the town’s new hospital. As I walked in I met an enormous man, covered in tattoos with a shaved head; his gaze sliced right and left and came to rest on my face. “Orright My Man” he boomed, as he shouldered his way through the door. Within five minutes walk I found a Morrisons supermarket which set me in mind of their Morecambe Bay branch in Cumbria where the friendly ladies had invariably greeted me each morning: “Ello luv, y’arright?” It all seemed so long ago, and so far away.
Limitations of public transport and accommodation, combined with the presence of an M.O.D. firing range on the coast, persuaded me to take a loop inland to Castle Douglas and rejoin the coast at Kirkcudbright. So, early next morning I followed the Old Military Road out of Dumfries, and thoroughly enjoyed every mile of it. The Military Roads were built by the English all over Scotland in the 1700’s to facilitate troop movements. Either side of this particular Military Road, and well out of sight of it, two main roads take the bulk of the through traffic leaving the Old Military Road itself quietly rambling and secluded.
As I walked passed farms through unfrequented hamlets, everyone seemed to have time for a passing stranger. A family of four sitting in their garden drinking coffee waved and greeted me. I had been idly wondering how to pronounce Haigh of Urr since first seeing it on the map; on entering the village I saw a man standing at the roadside, “It’s pronounced Hoch” he announced. “I beg your pardon?” “Hoch”. “Hock?”. “No, Hoch” he rasped gutterally, “it means low lying meadow by the river”. Elsewhere I met a spritely grey haired lady sweeping up grass clippings, “You’re walking how far?” she said, and then “I trust you do yoga?”. When I admitted that in fact I do she said “Everyone from 8 to 80 should do yoga”. I asked her if she did yoga, “No” she replied, “I turned 80 last week! If my husband had done yoga he’d be sweeping up this grass!”. All the fields were bordered by immaculate drystone walls, and I noticed congeries of twittering swallows massing on barn roofs readying themselves for the long flight south.
From Castle Douglas I continued towards the coast on another minor road, uphill from the River Dee, and only saw three cars all afternoon. I followed the course of the river all the way down into Kirkcudbright (pronounced Kirk-coo-bree) and took the path on through the woods to the far end of St. Mary’s Isle where I had lunch on the furthermost point, looking out to sea, sitting on a flight of worn and venerable stone steps where the old lifeboat had once been moored.
Another day I pushed on in driving rain around the coast and up to the charming one street village of Gatehouse of Fleet. It poured with rain all night, clouds of mist rolling down from the surrounding hills, leaving Gatehouse of Fleet and its encircling forests feeling cut off and isolated from the outside world. As I left next morning the owner of the B&B wished me “Goodbye for the noo” which I thought made my cheery “See you later” seem rather lame!
I followed the coast up and round to Newton Stewart and from there walked down into the U-shaped peninsula called The Machars. Early one sunny morning I met a man walking with his dog beside Wigtown Sands and he told me the story of the Wigtown Martyrs. As Presbyterians who opposed Charles II’s attempts to reinstate Catholicism in Scotland, they were known as Covenanters, and three men and two women died here for their faith in 1685. The men were hanged, the women were tied to stakes out in the Bay and drowned by the incoming tide.
Today, Wigtown is famous for being Scotland’s National Book Town. I walked up the hill into town and then down the far side and carried on through The Machars to the southern shore, past the Isle of Whithorn. The sea turned a deep royal blue, no longer just coastal waters but swelling with an ocean’s plenitude. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was making such good progress that I walked beyond the end of my map and had to ask a kind couple of walkers from Leeds for directions to Port William.
Although Port William isn’t exactly at the end of the earth, for me it was imbued with a remoteness and a poignancy because I had never expected to walk so far today. Waiting for the bus to take me back to the area covered by my map I was quizzed by two young children. The girl wanted to know why, if I was not lost, I needed a map; the boy recommended I stay in the town’s hotel “because they have beer”. They told me that last winter they had no power for four days and had barbecued pizza outdoors in the snow.
My time was up. It was time to go home. From Port William the bus took me back to Wigtown; ten minutes later I was on a bus to Newton Stewart; in twelve minutes a bus arrived in Newton Stewart bound for Dumfries; in Dumfries I hurried from Buccleuch Street down to Whitesands where a bus was due to leave fifteen minutes later for Carlisle, where I walked back across town to the railway station and caught the southbound train.
© Nick Creagh-Osborne and manwalkstheworld.com 2015.