A death in the family, and other commitments mean various shuttlings between London and the County Armagh: that’s as near as Malcolm will go for an apology for his recent absence from blogging duties.
One good thing came out of it.
This is the promontory poking out beside the hammer-head of the Rhinn of Galloway. Malcolm guesses most Brits — let alone anyone else — couldn’t finger the locality on a map, even with that starter.
It represents a crucial marker in our history. So here’s a further help:
We’ll come back to the Steam Packet Inn, Isle of Whithorn later in this post. Meanwhile:
- Be patient.
- Accept no substitutes.
You will not be disappointed.
First, let Malcolm explore the local significance.
The Western sea-ways
There are more authoritative and erudite (and expensive) tomes, but let Alistair Moffat explain, in the good, clean, manly prose of a Borderer:
The Irish Sea could equally have been called the Holy Sea. Described by some historians as obscure, a man came to Galloway at the end of the fourth century to do something of absolute clarity. St Ninian founded a church, arguably the oldest Christian site in Britain still in continuous use. At Whithorn he chose a place to build situated very close to Wigtown Bay — on a fertile peninsula and at the hub of a busy sea-borne trading area. Within sight of the Galloway coast, across the tides of the Solway Firth, lies Cumbria. Such sources as there are suggest that the area around Carlisle retained a strong link of the Roman past long after the last legionaries left in 410. Some time in the early fifth century Sucat, a young boy from Cumbria, was captured by a raiding party and sold in Ireland as a slave, but after escaping to Gaul he took the name Patrick on being received into the church and sailed back to Ireland to begin a mission of conversion in the north. Further south, on the Pembroke peninsula of Wales, St David established a monastery close to the sea and a cult founded on his exemplary life began to attract pilgrims, many of whom arrived in ships and small boats. Ninian, Patrick and David are only the most famous, but there are many early mentions of hundreds of Celtic saints criss-crossing the Irish Sea and creating a network of coastal monasteries where the light of God burned brightly. In much of eastern and inland Britain, the light burned not at all and the Celtic saints of the west made many voyages to rekindle it.
Moffat is fully aware that those commuting saints could only go where fishermen, traders and raiding pirates had gone before. Long before Christianity, there were well established sea-routes, looping up the coast from Iberia to Brittany to Cornwall, to Wales and Ireland, to Scotland. That was how the Phoenicians got their tin, Whithorn its saint and Glastonbury its legend.
Back to the Isle of Whithorn
You’ll find yourself in one of those small fishing harbours that should not exist outside a Compton Mackenzie novel, or a nostalgic Britpic. In point of fact Burrow Head, the location for the climactic moment of The Wicker Man , is right by. If not Compton Mackenzie, at least Dorothy L Sayers left a literary mark just down the road: The Five Red Herrings is dedicated to the proprietor of the Anwoth Hotel (now the Ship Inn), Gatehouse of Fleet.
Despite that Amazon.co.uk hot-link in that preceding sentence, Malcolm will, later in this post, suggest an alternative source for the seventh Lord Peter Wimsey novel.
Anyway, it’s ten o’clock, but still clear daylight this far north and west, on a warm summer’s evening. Following Malcolm’s example last week — you are sitting on the benches outside Mr Scoular’s Steam Packet Inn, with a pint of Sulwath Criffel at your elbow. You are dined, wined and watered from the restaurant. The tide is just past the flood: you are going to be amazed by the tidal range here — some twenty feet. The lads off the Isle of Man fishing boat just came past, with a basket; delivered fresh supply for the kitchen; then headed down to the harbour-master’s for a shower and change. In a moment they’ll be back to prop up the bar.
There’s a detailed, on-line guide to the village.
Idylls are there for the finding.
Saint Ninian seems to have got here around the end of the fourth century AD. That makes it the oldest Christian site in northern Britain, earlier than Iona, two centuries before St Augustine arrived in Canterbury. On the headland, through the children’s playground, is the ruin of a medieval chapel. This marks the start of the pilgrim way to Whithorn itself, and the Priory and site of Ninian’s Candida Casa or (in Old English) Hwit Ærne.
Idylls and reality
Put aside the shady curtains of religious tradition, and you may perceive something else. The pilgrim way and the “Steam Packet Inn” should remind us of the forgotten truth that Alistair Moffat and others seek to remind us. We arrived by the A75 (in Malcolm’s case, also via Stena Line’s HSS Voyager and the A747 coast road). That is the legacy of two Ayrshire men: the road surface courtesy of John Loudon McAdam and the pneumatic tyre of John Boyd Dunlop. Before efficient road transport, there was the western seaway.
And the sea takes its toll.
Immediately opposite St Ninian’s Chapel, on that headland overlooking both the Isle of Man (whence came the fishing boat that delivered your evening dinner) and the peaceful harbour of the Isle of Whithorn, there is a memorial tablet. Again let Alistair Moffat, 235 pages on, explain:
The sea is different. Inscrutable, pitiless, silent and elemental, it leaves no trace, no memory of the people who crossed it, fished it and fought on it. It stands at the centre of the Sea Kingdoms, is ever present but never less than mysterious. No-one I met, at least no-one with any sense, claimed to know the sea intimately or even to have much affinity with it. On the day I drove down to the Isle of Whithorn, I blundered into the funeral of the young seamen of the Solway Harvester, lost off the Isle of Man in 2000… The funeral dwarfed the village, the grief was silent and palpable, and even the tabloid photographers and journalists were kept back at a respectful distance by it. Beyond the rooftops, beyond the breakwater, stretching further than can be imagined, was the ceaseless, mighty surge of the sea.
Malcolm, born by another sea and cognisant of a similar tragedy, admits that he had forgotten the Solway Harvester before he encountered two memorial stones on the way to the headland. In themselves, they are worth the effort of the walk.
He would be surprised if the first you encounter is not the more emotive (see right). Apart from listing the crew members (and, poignantly, their ages) there is a line added.
It is conflated from a lesser — but competent — poet, John Masefield, and his poem Sea Fever. The omission, and the context, adds tear-jerking power:
And all I ask is a [merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And] quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
Time to move on
When you do so, it’s evens that you’ll be heading up the A746 from Whithorn to Wigtown. If so, you have another small delight ahead, and not to be missed.
Wigtown was once, until 1975, an eponymous county town (though the administrative centre was at Stranraer). It once again has regained (apologies for the term) “unitary status”. A royal borough since 1341, it has its red-brick “County Buildings” and its grammar school (from at least 1712). The bastardly bean-counters took away the railway, the “Port Road”, in 1950.
Thirsty radicals alike with long-standing Country Life readers (if they remember the pseudonym “Ian Niall”) should reture to the Ploughman Hotel, named after John McNeillie‘s novel which dug out the realities of Scottish rural life a century or so ago.
More to the point, Wigtown (population barely into four figures) has a surplus of second-hand book-shops. The biggest (claiming 65,000 texts on the premises) is a day’s work in itself (see left: enjoy the jokey pillars each side of the door). As Malcolm promised above, this is where you should be seeking your souvenir copy of Dorothy L Sayers, preferably in one of those iconic Gollancz wrappers (see right), just like the one on Malcolm’s shelf.
This one comes with the Seal of Approval from the Lady in Malcolm’s Life. No accolade is higher: “When you open the door, you can smell the books inside.” And carry a small selection home with you.
The time in Wigtown and its Book Shop prompted a Malcolmian thought (promise: it’s the last for this post).
Predictably, inevitably, Malcolm found himself confronting a complete set of the Waverley Novels. He found himself wondering what went wrong with his education. He could not remember anything beyond Ivanhoe (and that, he feared, mainly from the Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine 1952 movie. The he realised: in forty years he had never been required to teach a Scott novel. And yet … Scott had been the pre-eminent novelist, until Dickens also claim a place at the top table.
Back home, Malcolm disappeared to his garret shelves. Twenty shelves, each holding as a rough average some three-and-a-half dozen novels, plus the odds-and-sods around the house, under the bed, in the cupboards, wherever. Not much short of a thousand texts? Yet, how many Scotts? One. As predicted: Ivanhoe, in a Dent’s Classics edition, and still with the remains of its original dust-cover.
The directest link between Scott and this locality, though, is The Bride of Lammermuir (now, too, culturally subsumed into Donizetti’s opera). The story of Lucy Ashton (“Lucia di Lammmermuir”) is allegedly derived from Janet Dalrymple of Carscreugh Castle, near Glenluce: Scott transferred the setting to Fast Castle, near Cockburnspath on the east coast.