The following collection of five essays appeared in the Galloway News between August and November 1951. They give a valuable and fascinating account of the shipping and the sailors of Old Kirkcudbright.
Memories of Kirkcudbright – The Old Harbour.
by John Graham.
A little over a year ago the formation of a company with the impressive title “Solway Coasters Ltd.” raised the hopes of everyone interested in the welfare of the Royal and Ancient Burgh of Kirkcudbright as it was thought that the harbour would once again be put in order and made available for the entry of vessels.
The aim of the company was to resuscitate the maritime trade of the Solway Ports, and a Shipping Office was prepared in Castle Street, Kirkcudbright. Unfortunately, nothing nothing has yet developed, and the harbour remains silted up. Lately, however, the berths in the harbour have been surveyed by an oil company with a view to the unloading of cargoes of oil which it is intended to pipe to tanks to be erected in the vicinity of the present coup. The cleaning of the harbour should not prove a difficult task, and when completed, we will have one of the best ports on the Solway. It is, of course, too much to expect the scenes of bustle and noise we were wont to witness in the days of our youth, when it was nothing unusual to see four or five vessels loading and unloading cargo simultaneously; we will indeed be content with a medium of activity so long as the harbour is serving some useful purpose.
Each time I cross the Harbour Square, walking over the site of the old “Dock,” I recall to mind pictures of bygone days, faces of men who have passed away and outlines of ships that are no more.
No one appears to know when first there was a harbour here, but there is little doubt that the numerous creeks filled by the flowing tide were the first anchorages, and it was into such creeks that the builders launched their newly made craft. It is hardly possible to visualise the lay-out of the town in early times even after the granting of the Charter in 1455, but in work of research on this subject one is continually coming across records which shed a little light, however dim. For example, we are told that towards the end of the 18th century a sloop was built at the creek leading from the Snuff Mill Well, that she was named “Isabella” and that she was the finest sloop in the port, being identified by a white stripe round the hull. The creek referred to must have run from the mouth of the burn – long known as the Mill Race – across the ground now occupied by the railway and into the ravine leading to Glendroit. The Snuff Mill Well can still be traced. Incidentally, the “Milnburn” was then known as a “primitive disconnected suburb of Kirkcudbright” being beyond the Meikle Yett in High Street, the only street in the Burgh at that time.
I have just looked at a photograph of the old paddle steamer “Countess of Galloway” lying in that creek, which later became the harbour. This picture must have been taken many years ago and shows the old vessel’s paddle wheel and old-fashioned funnel very clearly, her bows lying well un the beach. This creek is said to have run up to and beyond the present houses in St Cuthbert Street abutting the Parish Church grounds.
The dock, as we knew it fifty years ago, was well built of stone on the west side while the east and south sides were of timber. At the east side of the entrance there was a wooden jetty, and there are still in existence a number of photographs of the harbour as it was in the early days of this century. One of these pictures kindly loaned to me, by a friend, is most interesting showing the dock full of ships – steam and sail. One recognises the old steamer “Starling” and the schooners “Venus,” “James Williamson,” and “Daisy” all occupying the harbour at one and the same time.
It is now 40 years since the new harbour was constructed and the old Dock filled in. The fading-out of this old landmark was lamented by many, who thought that a more economical way out of the difficulty would have been to repair the Dock. It is doubtful whether the expenditure on the new harbour was justified, especially at a time when sail was on the decline and motor transport on the way in.
From information obtained fro Jamie McMillan, the shipping agent, the last steamers to anchor in the harbour brought cement to be used in the construction of the Galloway Water Power Company’s dams and 80,000 tons, in all, of cement were brought ashore during the progress of the scheme.
The Shipping Agents were the important men at the harbour. I can recall two in my time – Antonio Treché and Bob McMillan, father of Jamie, mentioned before. Bob, I remember vividly. He was a coal agent, and also acted as shipping agent for the Liverpool firm Henry Tyrer & Co., from 1904 onwards. On the death of Antonio Treché, he took over the agency for the Glasgow steamers, and was also agent for Lloyds.
Bob McMillan was a kenspeckle figure – clean shaven, fresh complexion, bustling and excitable. He chewed much tobacco and had the gift of being able to adorn the most common-place tale, holding the listener in much the same way as the Ancient Mariner detained the wedding guest. In the “toughs” whom he employed to empty the hold of ships, he had a big handful and many scenes, complete with dialogue and out-of-the-way words, have been enacted round the old Dock walls, on the decks of the vessels and in the very holds thereof. The names of some of these men who were regular hands at the unloading of vessels, come readily to mind – Boozey Alex., The Drydens, Jock and Bobby (known as the “Wolf”), Patton Dryden and Peter Donnelly, all characters in their own way and each deserving of an article to himself. The greatest aim in the life of Boosey Alex was to score off Bob McMillan by extracting from him sufficient “Sub” to “wat his thrapple” under promise of work to be carried out. Thereafter, having partially quenched his thirst (it was never completely quenched with several pints of yill – it was cheap in those days) he would loll on the Moat Brae, making rude remarks and gestures in answer to the exhortations of Bob, whose patience soon became exhausted. Shortly, a wordy battle would be in progress providing the listeners with much entertainment.
Bob McMillan served his native town well in other spheres of activity – he was a member of the Town Council for may years, and rose to the position of Bailie. On the bowling green he was an active member and his voice could be heard above the others, when he was skipping. His name will long be remembered in Kirkcudbright.
I have already mentioned the other shipping agent – Antonio Treché, who arrived in Kirkcudbright in the Eighties. His is an interesting story. Born in Trieste in 1846, he considered himself an Austrian by birth and nothing annoyed him more than being called an Italian. He was acting as Shipping Agent at Maryport when he met the woman who was eventually to entice him to Kirkcudbright and marry him – Elizabeth Stitt. Miss Stitt had for some time been managing the vessels of her uncle, William Hart – assisted by her father – Francis Stitt – and used to go to Maryport to arrange for cargoes of coal. Soon after Mr Treché removed to Kirkcudbright and assisted Miss Stitt in her business. They were married in 1889 and until his death in 1913, Antonio Treché acted as Shipping Agent for the Glasgow Steamers (Binnie’s) and also as Lloyd’s agent. Mrs Treché’s uncle, William Hart, owned the schooners “Duchess” and “Importer”; the former being wrecked off the Isle Point and the latter at Kirkandrews. It might be interesting to note here that the Hart Family owned the property in the close named after them in the High Street.
Treché was a small dark man with a beard, his head a mass of curly hair. He never became a fluent English speaker, but was proficient enough to be able to carry out his duties and with the help of his wife, made a success of the business of coal agent. As might be expected of one born close to the Mediterranean Shores, he was excitable and easily exasperated, and in such moods he was wont to misplace his works with amusing results. His common swear words were “devil dam,” and in the process of unloading, he has been heard to accuse certain clumsy fellows of “breaking all de bags and tearing all de boxes.” Nevertheless Antonio Treché was a “straight” man from what I have heard of him. He was only 67 when he died. His widow survived him for a further 13 years.
No skipper – with the exception of turn of the river – would venture to bring his vessel upstream without the aid of a pilot and this task was undertaken by the fishermen who were acquainted with every hole and shoal of the seven mile stretch of tidal water. Basil MacKenzie, uncle of Ex-Provost MacKenzie, was in his day considered the official pilot of the river and many a time have I met this silent, serious looking man on the Sandside Road, making his way to the “Look-out,” spyglass under his arm, to ascertain whether any vessel was lying in the Ross Roads awaiting a pilot. In most cases, of course, he knew through the Shipping Agents when a vessel was due to arrive at the mouth of the river. Amongst others who acted as pilots in their turn, were Tam Beattie, Adam Leckie, Matha Parkhill, John Poland and latterly Will Stitt, George Parkhill and John Poland, jnr. (better known as “Hubby”) who, by the way, is still with us, and only recently resigned the position as coxswain of the lifeboat, having reached the age limit. May he long be able to frequent the beach, catch a “labster,” and spin a yarn! There was much rivalry among those pilots, and sometimes, I fear, undercutting in the pilotage charges, doubtless due to economic needs, but resulting in scenes over which a veil had better be drawn. Sad to relate, the Dee they had known so well and sailed upon so often, claimed two of the pilots I have named, Tam Beattie and Matha Parkhill.
I can well remember my first sight of a ship in full sail. It was a summer day, and I was standing in a field of buttercups listening to an old woman crooning the well-known roundelay , “Glide along my bonnie, bonnie boat.” She pointed to the river as she sang, and told me that the ship was a schooner and was heading for “the toon.” The tide was full and the sea shimmered in the sunlight. Together we watched the vessel’s progress until she had rounded the Isle Point and disappeared from view. The river, from that Point to the harbour was a closed book to me then. As time went on the passage of sailing ships and steamers up and down the river was a common sight, hardly a day passing without the arrival or departure of a vessel of some description.
In addition to the schooners and other small craft owned locally, there were bean boats from Morocco, and ships from Hamburg and other continental ports, laden with oilcake, Kainit, guano, etc., with crews who knew no English. Strange figureheads would fascinate us, and every action of individual members of the crew would be noted and remarked upon. Those men were from another world – that was our insular outlook of course.
At regular intervals steamers would arrive with funnels of different shapes, and colours, carrying in their holds miscellaneous cargoes destined for the provision merchants and others in the district. The familiar steamers were the “Merlin” and “Starling” from Glasgow, and the “Fullwood” and “Duchess” from Liverpool, and many other coasting steamers and puffers visited the harbour from time to time.
Naturally, the liveliest interest was taken in the schooners which were sailed by the local men we all knew. These little ships traded for the most part between the Solway Ports as well as the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland.
It may be of interest to readers to be reminded once again about these old-timers, and here are a few notes regarding them, set down at random :-
1) “Daisy” – a schooner of 60 tons, built in Whitehaven and owned and sailed by Captain James Hughan, a quiet, cautious man. She was in the coal trade. Later, Captain Hughan’s son took her to the Isle of Man, sailing her there until she was broken up. She was a spick and span little vessel. James Hughan jnr. was later appointed Harbour Master at Douglas, Isle of Man, and is now retired there.
2) Schooner “Margaret Ann” (70 tons) built in Beaumaris in 1868. Bought by Captain Alex Stitt in Chester River and sailed by him. In 1903, Mrs Stitt died in this vessel at Kingholm, Dumfries. The vessel was sold in 1904 to Wilson, Dalbeattie, and Captain Edgar, The Scaur, sailed her in the Liverpool trade. Thereafter she was sold into Ireland and was wrecked at Milford Haven during the 1914-18 War. An excellent article, dealing with the “Margaret Ann,” written by Mr J Copland, has already appeared in the Dumfries and Galloway Review.
3) Schooner “Venus” (76 tons) built at Preston and owned by Williamson and Stitt. Sailed by Alex Stitt jnr. and his brother William. Went ashore at Sawmill in July 1905 with one member of crew on board : refloated and continued to sail for Robson, Carsethorn, (coal trade) : finally sold by him for a large sum. Her ultimate fate is unknown here.
4) Schooner “Countess of Selkirk” (about 60 tons) owned by J & T Willimson, grain merchants, Kirkcudbright : built at Garlieston – hull always painted green. Sailed by Captain James M’Dowall, and afterwards by Captain Tommy Connelly ; wrecked in Ross Bay through water gaining access to cargo of lime. Up to a few years ago a small part of her hull was visible.
5) Brigantine “Utopia” (136 tons) built in New Brunswick in 1856 and bought by Captain Stitt, probably in Ireland. Sailed by him and carried general cargo – granite etc. This vessel was sunk in the Manxman’s Lake. Captain Kissock towed her from the Isle Point to the Lake, when her cargo was transferred to two schooners, and conveyed to its destination. Later the “Utopia” was salvaged and sold into Liverpool. Does anyone know this vessel’s ultimate fate? She was a pretty sight with her square-rigged foremast, and would be fast. This type of vessel was used in the old days by pirates because if its speed. I have a photograph of the “Utopia” and “Daisy” lying in the old harbour at Kirkcudbright. The Utopia’s flag is at present in the hands of Mr George Milroy, who hangs it across the High Street on festive occasions and there it was at the recent Riding of the Marches and Pageant celebrations. Strangers, seeing the flag and being unaware of its origin, are apt to think they have reached the perfect land!
Other boats that made the harbour in the old days included the ketch “Windward” (90 tons) built on the Clyde, belonging to Weaver, Isle of Whithorn, and was engaged in routine coastal trade. Later she came into the possession of Roger Walker, timber merchant, Gatehouse and was sailed by Captain Jamie M’Dowall (known locally as Do’all), a stout bearded man with a big heart. Jamie died suddenly on his ship at Gatehouse – the melancholy event being commemorated in verse by his son-in-law. His son, Jamie, took charge of the “Windward” for a time. This vessel was lost at Ross laden with coal. Jamie M’Dowall Jnr. and his brother Tom (both now deceased) were for many years in the Mersey Pilot Service.
Ketch “Martin” (73 tons) built in Wales in 1848 and owned by Williamson and Stitt: first sailed by Captain Stitt and later by Captain George Watson, still hale and hearty and residing in Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde. Captain Watson had charge of the “Martin” for the long period of 16 years and was a familiar figure in Kirkcudbright where he lived and reared his family. The “Martin” traded in coal, lime, etc. She foundered while crossing the English Channel to France in 1916. Other ships in which George Watson sailed were the “Iquique” of Liverpool (full-rigged ship), master – Samuel Murdoch of Dalbeattie; “Elizabeth Hyam” of Preston (fore and aft schooner); “Oak” of Liverpool (brigantine); “Rambler” of Lancaster (topsail schooner); S.S. “Gascony” of Liverpool (French trade). He also served in various ships during the 1914-18 War.
The schooner “Charles” of Gatehouse (60 tons) (built in Wales) was owned by W Belford of that town, and for a time she was in the care of William M’Kie who hailed from Kirkandrews, Borgue. Although over 70 years of age, “Jing” as he is affectionately known, is still at work in Kirkcudbright. For many years he sailed in schooners owned by Stitt and Williamson, and was married to Captain Stitt’s eldest daughter. For a time he acted as Harbour Master at Kirkcudbright.
Schooner “Lady Helen” built at Garlieston. Her skipper for some time was John Gourlay, son of a Kirkcudbright plumber. John Gourlay was in the schooners “Utopia” and “Bengullion” and afterwards sailed the seven seas on various ships acting as quartermaster. He ended his days ashore and worked as a rigger in Scott’s shipbuilding yard in Greenock. He died recently at age of 70. It is interesting to note in passing that Mr Brown, who was manager of Scott’s yard, was the son of the famous shortbread maker in Kirkcudbright. The “Lady Helen” was wrecked east of the Abbey Burn when her windlass broke down.
Schooner “Maggie Kelso” (about 55 tons) owner by Wilson, Dalbeattie, and sailed by Captain Edgar, Kippford. This vessel was afterwards sold to Harry Johnstone, Grain Merchants, Kirkcudbright, and John Pearson was the skipper.
The “Enigma” a schooner of 66 tons was built of teak at Calcutta in 1845 and was stated to have been in the slave trade. In 1875 she was re-built at Port St. Mary, Isle of Man, and her managing owner was James Beattie of Whitehaven. She then became the property of S. Wilson, Dalbeattie, and was sailed by Captain Duke, Kippford. Her last owner was Mr Harry Johnstone, Grain Merchant, Kirkcudbright, and for some years Captain John Pearson was in charge. The little vessel traded in coal between the Cumberland ports and the Solway ports, and was often to be seen in the old harbour of Kirkcudbright, Captain Pearson’s home town. The “Enigma” was lost with all hands while crossing the Solway from Whitehaven on a stormy night in December 1922. The news that this little schooner had foundered with loss of life, cast a deep gloom on the town. Strange to say, during an interesting conversation recently with Captain Watson’s son, Gordon, it transpired that he had left the ship in the Isle of Man just before the fatal voyage, and thus had a fortunate escape.
I have already mentioned George Watson and William M’Kie as being still alive and kicking, but there is a third old salt who is worthy of mention as he sailed in and out of Kirkcudbright for many years – I refer to “Sanny” Stitt who now lives in retirement in Barnbarroch Village. “Sanny,” as well as his brother “Will,” sailed in their father’s schooners and were familiar figures on the “quayheid” here. Before his retirement “Sanny” acted as harbour master at Palnackie, and it was in that little village I encountered him one day some ten years ago. He regaled me with some episodes in his adventurous career, punctuating his stories with many humorous sallies.
It might not be out of place here to mention a few ships – sailing and steam – that visited Kirkcudbright harbour around 1906-10. There were the vessels carrying in cement – “Maud” (two masted topsail schooner) from Chester; “British Queen” (also a two masted schooner) with iron hull and registered at Fowey; “Cadwallader Jones” registered Port Madoc. The last named is said to have crossed the Atlantic 32 times in the slate and fish trade, Newfoundland to Spain.
The bean boats were the 3 masted iron Barquentine, “Sophie” (this was the ship being piloted down the river when Matha Parkhill was drowned); “Nora” said to have had a shark’s tail on her bowsprit; “Marie,” “Phillipe” and “Irene” – all 3-masted barquentines with wooden hulls. The “Sophie” and “Nora” were Scandinavian and the other three ships hailed from Denmark. Another visitor was the Dutch ketch-rigged ocean going barge “Nizarte” with iron hull.
Steamers from Liverpool, in addition to the “Fullwood” were the “Agnes Ellen,” “Mona,” and “J.J. Monks,” all belonging to J.J. Monks Ltd, Liverpool.
In the early years of the present century it was customary for the traders of the Burgh to band themselves together and charter a steamer for a pleasure cruise to the Isle of Man. I can well recall the “Fairy Queen” and afterwards the “Phinella” passing down the river laden with passengers, whose singing, laughter and chatter floated inshore on the breeze. It has been said that, beyond the Ross Roads, the happy look on many faces gave place to one of sadness and wistfulness, as the effects of seasickness began to be felt, but requests by passengers to be allowed to quit the ship and walk home had just to be ignored !
The “quay-heid” was the scene of much liveliness, wit and laughter in those spacious days prior to 1914 – days when sail was fighting a losing battle against steam, and road transport was unheard of. The thrilling sight of a ship in full sail rounding the Point and straining to reach the refuge of the old harbour of Kirkcudbright is now but a memory. As a minor poetess has put it –
“I loved them all these children of the sea;
The liner with her vast and gleaming decks,
The squat and pompous tug, the ancient ketch;
The sombre mystery of forgotten wrecks.”