Galloping to Gretna
Who’d have thought so much could happen in a week. Milestones, Nelson’s grave, Remembrance, a drowned piper, a savings bank museum, the ‘Devil’s Porridge’, a flypast and an embalmed heart. Standby for an extended read!
A large military training area pushed me onto roads after Kirkcudbright and although not ideal, I was regularly distracted by the beauty of autumn colours. The scent of nearby England also taunted me; shortly before walking into Auchencairn village I stopped at a compass viewing point and got my first real view of a grey looking Solway Firth. The viewing-point plaque advised me that St Bee’s Head in Cumbria was a mere 24 miles away. Alas, without wings I know it will be slightly more for my poor feet!
Shortly afterwards I began my first of two detours inland to Dalbeattie, to avoid the wide delta of three bays and Urr Water flowing into Rough Firth. It gave me a chance to see parts of Dalbeattie’s beautiful forest before dropping back down to Kippford on the other side of the Firth, from where I joined a proper cliff path at Castle Point. It was here that I found Nelson’s grave. In 1791, The Ann was shipwrecked with the loss of all hands, including Joseph Nelson from Whitehaven. Buried where he was found, his wife later had an inscribed stone placed upon his grave.
The cliff walk was all too short. I was soon on my second detour heading towards Dumfries through a wide, extremely flat river Nith valley. Bounded by acres of sand and mud which house large nature reserves, it was hard to see beyond the fields bordering the roads. Poor weather didn’t help visibility either - for much of this week I’ve been clad in full waterproofs. It seemed endless, but an important milestone was reached on the way – I clocked 3,500 miles.
We’d two overnight stops on the Nith river, with our first being at New Abbey village on the long hike up to Dumfries. Parked by the impressive remains of the 13th century ‘Sweetheart Abbey’, I learned how it had acquired its unusual name and its connections with one of Oxford University’s oldest colleges, Balliol. In 1269 the college’s founder, John de Balloil, died leaving his grieving widow Dervorguilla heartbroken. She had his heart embalmed and always kept it with her in a specially made casket – her ‘sweet silent companion’. Four years later she founded the Abbey where husband John was buried. Later in 1289 when Dervorguilla died she too was buried in the Abbey with the casket ‘clasped to her bosom’. The Cistercian monks named the abbey in her memory - Dulce Cor - Sweetheart Abbey.
Entering Dumfries it’s very evident that this university town is proud of its links with Robert Burns, the ‘Ploughman Poet’. Buried in Dumfries, ‘Rabbie’ spent his last years here with his long-suffering wife, Jean Armour, who bore him nine children, though only three survived. There is now an extensive Heritage Trail which guides Burns enthusiasts to significant places in Ayrshire and Dumfries & Galloway.
Tramping in heavy rain down the Nith’s eastern bank, large notices regularly appeared warning people of ‘Fast flowing tides and quicksands’. Maybe, if these signs had been there on 21 March 1859 I would not have encountered a simple circular memorial to Angus MacKay, a former piper of ten years to Queen Victoria, who drowned in the river’s dangerous waters.
Further downstream in fading light and rain, I witnessed an incredible sight of thousands of flying geese following the opposite riverbank. For as far as I could see in the gloom, this huge black ‘train’ of birds flapped and honked its way down river. I stood mesmerised for many minutes watching and waiting to see the end of this ‘train’.
At the estuary mouth I again ran parallel, though some distance from, the Solway Firth. Farm land, nature reserves and numerous drainage channels kept me on minor roads away from the shoreline. During this section I passed the flooded Brow Well where Rabbie Burns came to take its waters and sea bathe in the Solway shortly before his early death. The chalybeate spring with its natural iron-salt rich water was believed to have special healing qualities
It’s often said that Scots are canny with their finances and perhaps I now understand why. I walked into Ruthwell, a tiny village, where I discovered the Savings Bank Museum. It was in the Museum’s single storey dwelling in 1810 that the Rev. Henry Duncan founded Ruthwell Parish Bank; this bank is considered to be the first self-sustaining savings bank in the world. I enjoyed my thirty minutes there and particularly liked the display of piggy-banks!
Back on track I skirted an industrial-looking area, which I later learned formed part of a complex explosives production area for WWII at Powfoot. Moving on, I walked into Eastriggs which describes itself as ‘the Commonwealth Village’. All its streets have Commonwealth names such as Delhi, Canberra, Halifax and Hobart. The reason later became clear when I visited the ‘Devil’s Porridge’ Museum.
This part of the Solway coast had been crucial to both World Wars in the production of explosives. Lack of ammunition in 1915 set a requirement for increased production. Within a year, two new townships at Gretna and Eastriggs were built, new production facilities constructed, and a workforce (of which a high proportion were women) was increased to 30,000. This was further supplemented by workers from Commonwealth countries.
In all, the explosive production and storage area stretched over 9 miles from Dornock, through Eastriggs and Gretna, out to Longtown. Known as HM Factory Gretna, these sites produced cordite propellant which fired the soldiers’ bullets and shells. Different parts of production took place at the separate sites. The initial chemical process of mixing acid with waste cotton in huge circular stoneware basins produced a crude paste, nicknamed ‘the Devil’s Porridge’ – hence the Museum’s strange name.
Shortly before I visited the museum, I’d walked through Annan with its town square. Here I’d seen some Army cadets cleaning the town’s war memorial in preparation for the Remembrance event the following morning. Next day when attending a Remembrance Service myself, I reflected on the immense effort made to produce explosives, the damage suffered by all nations involved, and how each would have mourned their losses. The worldwide Armistice theme of reconciliation seemed very apt.
Leaving the Museum I’d barely five miles to walk into Gretna. I wasn’t interested in the Old Blacksmith’s Shop anvil where eloping couples had previously married, but in the tiny River Sark that marks the border between Scotland and England. Since crossing into Scotland at the end of April, I’d walked 2,183 miles around Scotland and was finally eloping myself - back into England! You won’t be surprised to learn that it was raining again – but I didn’t care. Just as I reached the border I looked up to see hundreds of geese doing a fly-past in my honour. Who needs the Red Arrows?!
See Photo Album No 54 – BFBS radio interview with Hal Stewart;
See Photo Album Numbers 55
- Armistice Centenary
- Galloping to Gretna
- Scottish Flypast
- Crossing the Border
- Farewell Scotland – a collection of memories