Solway Sailing Vessels

Solway Sailing Vessels
by James Copland, Castlebank, Dumfries.

Extracted from 2 issues of the magazine “Sea Breezes” published in 1930 and held by The National Trust for Scotland, Hornel Library, Kirkcudbright

As the story of the Maryport and Whitehaven vessels has already been well told in Sea Breezes, I shall confine this article to describing some of the hardy little schooners that used to trade too and fro between Liverpool and the rivers Nith, Annan, Urr and Dee, on the Scottish side of the Solway Firth.

From time immemorial, prior to the advent of railways into Galloway, a considerable trade in general commodities appears to have been done to the ports of Dumfries, Annan, Dalbeattie and Kirkcudbright, mainly from Liverpool and the Cumberland coast towns of Whitehaven, Maryport and Silloth, while during the latter years of the eighteenth century a rather less illegitimate trade developed from the Isle of Man in what was known as the free trade, or, more plainly, smuggling.

Many vessels, both lugger and brig rigged, were engaged in this risky game, and several mansions in Kirkcudbrightshire owe their origin to Manx smugglers, who built them as repositories.

The contraband articles were chiefly salt and brandy, on both of which heavy taxes rested at that period in this country, while the Isle of Man enjoyed freedom from taxation owing to its independent state.

Among the few names of the vessels engaged in the free trade that have come down to us from these distant times are those of the Black Prince, Flora, and Ann, the two former being under the command of the redoubtable hero Captain Yawkins, who figures in many a story of these times. Only one man’s name is known out of the crew of the Ann, one Joseph Nelson, whose body was washed ashore and buried on the cliffs close to where his brig was wrecked at the mouth of the River Urr.

Coming to more recent times we find that a large number of sailing vessels, mainly brigs, two-masted topsail schooners and sloops, were locally owned towards the middle of the last century. Some of the larger vessels went far afield, even to Canada for timber and salt fish during the summer months, and laid up at Glencaple or Kippford during the winter.

New ships were continually being built at the villages of Glencaple and Kelton on the Nith, and at Palnackie and Kippford on the Urr. The hulls only were completed at these places in some cases, and I believe that vessels were masted and rigged at Irvine, in Ayrshire, quite frequently, after being towed round the coast.

As the shipyard at Kippford was one of the most important of these centres, and survived until the Great War, I shall endeavour to give a few details concerning its history.

The family associated from its early days with this old industry were the Cummings of Kippford, and through the enterprise of two brothers, James and John, who served their apprenticeships at Whitehaven, the building and repairing of sailing vessels was commenced on quite a brisk scale which they took over in the centre of the village. This would be about 1860.

Among the notable craft which they turned out were two fine schooners, the Try Again and the Balcary Lass, both of which would be well over 150 tons.

There existed at that time none of the modern ship-launching appliances, and the propulsion of the ships into their natural element was often fraught with no little difficulty, and sometimes danger. This had to be accomplished over greased logs and with the aid of screw jacks.

However, at a later stage in their career Messrs Cumming had a railway slipway laid down from their yard into the bed of the river, and a cradle for the ships to rest on, which ran on wheels up and down the iron rails. This was extremely handy for the repair of vessels as they could be allowed to float on to this cradle and hauled up high and dry at full tide. A capstan was employed to work the haulage, and horses and men alike were set to at the capstan bars to get the work accomplished.

As soon as they had been brought to the desired position, shores were put in against the vessel’s sides and the repairs commenced. The ship carpenters were, and still are, an energetic body of men (some of them still survive) who took pains with their work, and no shoddy job ever left the yard.

A quaint custom which was religiously upheld by the carpenters was their daily visit to the hotel as soon as the sun got over the yard arm for refreshment. They each had an allowance of whisky twice a day and, of course, took advantage of it.

Many who have a knowledge of the locality will recall the old slip, the steaming box, sawpit and tar kettle, which were for so long a feature of the beach at the Scaur, to give the village its more intimate name. Alas, all these are now relegated to the shades.

Ship launching day was always a red-letter day for the Scauronians, and the village was generally well beflagged and the whole place in a festive mood. Sometimes the carpenters would allow strangers to stay on the schooner while she was going down into the water, but got their own back by the curious custom of making a chalk ring round the feet of the stranger as he or she stepped aboard, and then making them pay their footing.

After being carried on briskly by the Cumming family for about 50 years, the shipyard, on the death of Mr. John Cumming, was acquired by Mr. Collins of Birkenhead, who ran it for several years until the outbreak of the war in 1914.

Some good work was done in his term of occupancy, but no vessels were built. Among his big jobs was the installation of a motor engine into one of the local schooners, the North Barrule, during the summer of 1909. This schooner is now running between Connahs Quay and Belfast.

As steam began to take the place of sail and the schooners were sold, the work at the slip slackened considerably, and in 1915, it was disposed of for scrap. A little work in ship repairing is still carried on by local carpenters when occasion demands on the beach, but gone is the glory of the past, when three or four schooners were often lying awaiting their turn for the slip.

Dealing with the ordinary commerce of the four rivers we find that usually about thirty schooners were regularly engaged in the traffic to and from the English ports. In some cases two or more vessels would belong to one owner; the crews, for the most part being locally born, could be trusted to steer their barques with caution across the treacherous Solway Firth, whose sandbanks are the resting place of countless ships of the past.

In the case of the Urr, the larger vessels got no further up than Palnackie, the smaller fry being enabled to reach Dalbeattie itself by the aid of horses only. The bends in the river are so sharp that check ropes were usually employed to help the vessels round, and the ship’s boy, who usually got the job of taking the ropes ashore, was kept busy all the time. When winds were unfavourably disposed to outward-bound vessels it was the custom for these to lie at anchor at the “pawls” in front of the “Scaur”, or further down in the shelter of Gibb’s Hole. Then when the breeze shifted into the right quarter, the clink clank of the windlass pawls would be heard. Weather-stained sails would flutter out on the tall masts of perhaps a dozen vessels, and as the foam gathered on their bows and the bent to the breeze it was a sight of beauty and grace that few will ever forget.

Some very smart passages were made at various times to and from Liverpool, and even further afield to London and the ports of the English Channel. Practically all the exports from the River Urr were, and still are, granite from the extensive quarries at Dalbeattie, a considerable quantity of timer from Palnackie for the mines of Cumberland and Lancashire, with occasional cargoes of oats. The imports, as formerly, consist of all classes of feeding stuffs, coal and chemical manures the latter constituting quite a trade by itself, and of which, before the advent of steamers, the carriers were those fine Welsh and West Country schooners, among whose names I can recall the following:- The Cymric, of Beaumaris, Irish Minstrel, of Beaumaris, Jenny Jones, of Carnarvon, the W.D.Potts, of Carnarvon, the Robert Morris of Carnarvon, The W.M.L., of Bideford, the Welsh Belle, of Falmouth, Cadwalader Jones, of Bideford, Ensign of Plymouth, Katie Cluett, of Fowey, Elisabeth Bennett, of Liverpool, and Cordelia, of Carnarvon.

They mostly all loaded at Hamburg for the Urr, and I recall an incident in connection with one of them, the Robert Morris, which happened two or three days after the war commenced.

Two German sailors had joined her in Hamburg, when she left that port, about the beginning of July, and, of course, knew absolutely nothing about the war, until their arrival at Palnackie. Great indeed was their dismay on being arrested promptly and being hurried away to an internment camp for the duration of the war.

Foremost among the old-time skippers belonging to the district was Captain Samuel Wilson, of the schooner Elbe. During a heavy south-west gale in the month of December 1866 his vessel was driven ashore near the mouth of the river, and the crew of seven were able to jump to a rock before she sank into deep water. A monument of stone commemorates the incident to this day.

Dealing with the older types of vessel belonging to the Solway ports such names as the John and James, Gallovidian, Jessie Maxwell, Mochrum Lass, Importer, Mary, Good Intent, Earl Gray, North Star, Glasgow, Resolution and Tom Green were all famous in their day among seafaring men round the coast and are now almost forgotten by the present generation.

A few timbers of the North Star are still to be seen near Kippford, where she was laid up by her owner, Mr. Bell, after passing through many vicissitudes during a long career of usefulness first as a lightship on the Mersey and after as a trader to the Newfoundland Banks for salt fish.

The Gallovidian, which belonged to Captain Cumming, also traded extensively, and was often engaged carrying salt cargoes to the fishing stations round the North-West of Scotland. She was a well-built schooner carrying a topgallant yard. Captain Cumming eventually sold her, and she was towed over to Maryport, where she unfortunately caught fire and was burnt to the water’s edge.

The Mary, of Dumfries, met her end on the Robinrigg Sandbank during a severe gale. Her skipper, Captain R. Edgar, belonging to Kippford, perished with the vessel. She was a two-masted schooner, and belonged to Messrs John Charlton & Sons, Dumfries.

The old Earl Gray, a sloop of small tonnage, was principally employed bringing coal and lime across from Cumberland for the farmers in the neighbourhood, and was eventually sold to be broken up for firewood a few years before the war. She ended her days on the beach at Kippford.

The John and James was an able schooner, carrying about 100 tons, and was commanded for a lengthy period by Captain John Tait, who still lives in his home at Kippford, although well advanced in years. She was lost going to Whitehaven, June 1897, to seek shelter while on a passage from Liverpool to Kippford.

The Jessie Maxwell, a small vessel, also ended its days on Kippford Beach.

The Mochrum Lass was a two-masted schooner of about 90 tons capacity and reckoned to be pretty fast. She once made the run from Kippford to Liverpool, a distance of close on 100 miles, in 12 hours. This schooner was built on the Wigtown side, and Captain Bryson commanded her for many a year. Messrs Wilson, Dalbeattie, were her owners.

In regard to the vessels belonging formerly to the River Nith, we have several names worth mentioning, including the following:-

Diana – Brig, belonging to a Mr. Walker of Dumfries; used to trade to Canadian Ports for timber. Generally made two voyages in the year. Wintered at Glencaple.

John Wilson – Brig, owned by Mr. Thompson of Dumfries. Also carried timber from across the Atlantic to the Nith and laid up at Glencaple for the winter.

Jane Thompson – Two-masted schooner built at Palnackie by Samuel Wilson. She traded chiefly from Liverpool to Dumfries, carrying flour and feeding stuffs generally for her owner, Mr. Thompson, Dumfries.

Isabella – Two-masted schooner. Also a Liverpool trader, owned and commanded by W. Stitt.

Mary Ellen – Two-masted schooner, owned by Mr. Dunkeld, miller, of Dumfries. Lost in the Solway.

John – Sloop, Master, J. Blair. Engaged in the coal and lime trade, mainly from Cumberland ports to the Nith.

John and Grace – Smack. Owner and master, J. Dalrymple. Engaged in same trade as above.

Maggie Lauder – Wherry. Owner and master, Martin, Glencaple. Also coal and lime trader.

In addition to those mentioned above, some fine schooners were built in the river at the Kelton Yard and at the extensive premises of Messrs G. and R. Thompson, of Glencaple.

An outstanding vessel, the Kelton, was launched at the former place by Mr. J. Lotimer, for Messrs Sloan Brothers of Dumfries, somewhere about the year 1860. She was reckoned by all to be one of the finest schooners of her time, and was three-masted. Captain R. Beattie commanded her.

Three of the schooners built at Glencaple were the William Thompson, the Kirkconnel, and the Conheath, all of which were able vessels at sea and proved worthy of their builders’ skill.

Messrs Thompson had a considerable repair trade among sailing vessels and possessed a patent slip alongside the ordinary stocks, where they built the schooners. At the height of their fame they employed fifty men and apprentices in their yard. Shortly after the year 1860, however, trade began to fall away from the place, and the yard had to be closed up for a time. Many of the ship builders were forced to go as far as Liverpool to find employment, and other, including my informant, Mr. James Clark of Conheath, who worked as an apprentice at Messrs Thompson’s yard, were able to get started at the Kippford yard of Messrs Cumming, who were beginning to open up their trade at that time considerably.

Since then there has been scarcely and constructional work done at all on the Nith, and only just a very little repair work. The latest vessel to be built would be, I think, the Morton Castle (1877), brigantine, 122 tons.

As regards the River Annan, which I have not touched on so far, several good-sized ships were constructed there during the last half of the 19th Century, including the schooner Wilson, 83 tons (1866), Elisabeth Nicholson, barque 867 tons (1863), Hawk, brigantine 59 tone (1841), and Parton, schooner 93 tone (1866).

The vessels built at Kirkcudbright on the Dee must have been of first class material and construction, as I have been able to trace one old-timer, the Prince of Denmark, built actually in the year 1789, which was still afloat and owned out in Sydney, New South Wales, in 1913; surely this must be almost a record. Incidentally, this schooner was only of 69 tons register.

Some good vessels were turned out at Garlieston, a little way round the coast from Kirkcudbright, among them being the Helen Marshall, brigantine (1864), of 99 tons, Jane, schooner (1883), of 59 tons, Countess of Selkirk, schooner (1861), of 38 tons, and Ellen and Mary, schooner (1868), 38 tons.

Both the Jane and Ellen and Mary are still going strong and doing useful work.

Some Notable Vessels belonging to Solwayside Harbours.

Bengullion, of Dumfries – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 66, built by Paul Rodger & Co., Carrickfergus, in 1877. Clipper built. Owned and commanded by Captain Jas. Ewart, of Colvend. Sold a few years before the war to Annalong, Co. Down. Lost with all hands in a gale last winter in the Irish Sea.

Dolphin, of Dumfries – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 65, built at Liverpool in 1867. Owned by Messrs Carswell & Sons, millers, Dalbeattie. Was commanded by Captain Sharp, who was killed by the fid falling on him from the foretop. Afterwards commanded by Captain D. Dukes. During the war the vessel was sold to the Channel Islands.

Margaret Ann, of Dumfries – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 67, built at Barrow-in-Furnace, 1868. Owned by Mr. A. Wilson, Dalbeattie, commanded by Captain R. Edgar for many years. Sold during the war and was lost near Milford Haven about 1921.

Mary Grace, of Dumfries – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 58, built at Irvine, Ayrshire, 1871. Owner by Messrs Geo. Halliday & Sons, Palnackie. Commander by Captain McMaster. Sold to Ireland and then to Orkney, where she was lost about the beginning of last year.

Sweetheart Abbey, of Dumfries – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 23, built at New Abbey, on the Pow, a small tributary of the Nith, 1850. Owners Messrs Geo. Halliday & Sons, Palnackie. Chiefly engaged in the coal and timber-carrying trade between the Cumberland ports and the ports on the Scottish side of the Firth. She was sold out of the district about the year 1916, and was lost a short time afterwards on a passage from Stranraer to Campbelltown. While she was owned locally, her commander was Captain Stewart.

North Barrule, of Dumfries – Two-masted schooner at one time carrying square sails but now fore and aft rigged. Reg. tonnage 52, built at Ramsay, I.o.M., 1880. Belonged to Messrs Carswell & Sons, Dalbeattie. Was commanded at various times by Captains Tait and Greenway. This vessel had a 28 h.p. aux. engine fitted at Kippford in 1909. She was sold to Cannahs Quay two or three years ago and still continues to ply between there and Belfast.

Diamond, of Stranraer – Two-masted schooner, reg. tonnage 25, built at Burscough Bridge, Lancs., 1832. Owner, Mrs. Heron, Gatehouse of Fleet. This vessel was noteworthy for being one of the very earliest sailing ships to be fitted with an auxiliary engine, this being put in as far back as 1898. When the schooner entered Liverpool for the first time afterwards she was the cause of much head scratching by the Customs officials who could not make up their minds as to whether she aught to be rated as a sailing vessel or a steamer for the dues. There was a considerable delay before the point was finally settled to the mutual satisfaction of both the skipper and the authorities. Captain Twentyman commanded the vessel for many a day. There used to be an amusing yarn related in connection with Captain Twentyman. When hailed by passing vessels, or on going into harbour, as to what crew he had on his little schooner, his invariable reply would be “Twentymen and a boy.” This vessel has lain for long as a hulk below the town of Gatehouse of Fleet, and only last week was filled with combustible materials and set alight as a bonfire to celebrate the coming of age of some celebrity. A sad end for such an historic old craft.

Margaret and Helen – Two-masted topsail schooner carrying about 60 tons. She was bought from Messrs Shaw of Garlieston by Captain Herries and afterwards Captains Stitt and McNoe ran her for a good many years in the coal trade from the Cumberland ports to Glencaple. She was eventually laid up on the beach at Glencaple and broken up about 1913.

Scotia, of Campbelltown – Two-masted topsail schooner of about 40 tons register. Owner by Captain W. Robson, of Carsethorn. She traded chiefly across to Cumberland for coal, which she discharged on Carsethorn beach. The vessel was broken up a few years prior to the war.

Venus, of Preston – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 60. Built at Freckleton, Lancs., 1867. Owner formerly at Kirkcudbright by Messrs Stitt and latterly by Captain Robson, Carsethorn. She was in the coal trade principally. Sold out of the district during the early part of the war.

Petrel, of Dumfries – Two-masted topsail schooner, 18 tons register. Built at Bangor, North Wales, 1866. Formerly owned at Auchencairn, and afterwards by Captain Robson, Carsethorn. She is now being broken up.

Heligoland, of Plymouth – Brigantine, reg. tonnage 182, built at Martenshoek in 1895. Owners, Messrs Wilson, Dalbeattie. Commanded by Captain Kelso. She was once dismasted off the Bull, Cow and Calf Rocks and towed into Milford Haven. During the late war this vessel was utilised by the Admiralty as a mystery ship. Her end came at Cloughey Bay near Stangford Lough, where she was driven ashore about 1923-24.

Warsash, of Dumfries – Two-masted topsail schooner of reg. tonnage 58. Built at Ulverston, 1869. Owners, Messrs Wilson, Dalbeattie. Captains Taylor and Walker commanded her at various periods. She was sold to Glasgow and was burned to bits at the disastrous fire at the Kingston Dock, which occurred in 1914.

Haldon, of Exeter – Ketch, of reg. tonnage 96, built at Plymouth 1893. Owners Messrs Wilson, Dalbeattie. Commanded by Captain Jas. Clachrie, whose experience as a deep sea skipper made him a much respected figure in the locality. She was a very smart vessel, and frequently made some good trips round from the Thames to Dalbeattie with granite. One of her best runs recorded was made in 1900 from Kippford to Gravesend in five days. After being sold out of the district she went up to Orkney, and I believe is still afloat.

The schooner Petrel, of Dumfries.

Ocean Gem, of Dumfries – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 52, built at Castletown in 1864 and afterwards rebuilt at the same place, presumably by Messrs Qualtrough, in 1882. Owned locally by Messrs John Wright & Co., and afterwards by John Milligan, both firms of Dumfries. She was commanded at various times by Captains Watson, Jack Richardson and Vernon. Captain Vernon, who bought her during the war, did quite well out of her, running coal across to the Isle of Man during the time when tonnage was scarce and freights were getting stiff. Latterly, she was sold to Newport, Mon., and I understand she is still in commission round that side.

Annie Heron, of Wigtown – Two-masted schooner, fore and aft rigged, reg. tonnage 33, built Port William, Wigtownshire, 1855. Owned by Bie family, Rockcliffe, and commanded latterly by Captain John Bie. She was a coal trader between Cumberland and the River Urr. The vessel afterwards went to North Wales, a Mr. Roberts being the purchaser.

Maggie Kelso of Dumfries – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 59, built at Ardrossan, 1876. Owned by Messrs Wilson, Dalbeattie, and afterwards Mr H. Johnstone, Kirkcudbright. Captain R. Edgar commanded this vessel for a while ; she was sold out of the district during the war.

Return, of Greenock – Two-masted topsail schooner, built of iron, reg. tonnage 100, carried about 180 tons. Owners Messrs Wilson, Dalbeattie. She was commanded by Captain Dan. Kelso, one of the best known coasting skippers of the last generation. This schooner often went across the Atlantic and frequently to Morocco. On one occasion Captain Kelso had a very singular experience when coming home from North Africa. A member of the crew got washed over the side and after the ship’s boat was put out to pick him up a dense fog came down completely blocking out all vision from the vessel. The skipper being left with very few hands managed with utmost difficulty to hold the vessel in pretty much the same position for many hours, until after a weary wait the fog at last lifted and the small boat was seen to be only a few miles off. The Return was a particularly fast vessel, and often made some fine record passages from Kippford to the Thames and other South Coast ports. She was lost in 1911 near Berwick-on-Tweed.

Ulverston, of Lancaster – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 46, built at Ulverston, Lancs., 1862. The owner and skipper was Captain W. Nelson of Annan. She traded generally from Liverpool to Dumfries and other ports along the Solway. In a heavy gale, while in Luce Bay, she was dismasted and brought into Drummore Harbour, where she lies still, as a hulk, serving the useful purpose of a breakwater.

Enigma, of Castletown – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 66, built at Calcutta in 1845, rebuilt at Castletown, 1875. This old vessel was strongly built of teak and had fine lines. She was bought into the Urr at the end of the war by Messrs Wilson and Dukes, and run by them for a year or two, afterwards being sold to Whitehaven. During a passage across the Solway to Garlieston she foundered, and all hands were lost, including Captain Pearson, her skipper. The Enigma had a historical past, and was believed to have been engaged in the slave-running business and smuggling enterprises when out east.

General Havelock, of Dumfries – Two masted schooner, first square-rigged and latterly fore and aft, reg. tonnage 40. She was built at Conway, North Wales (1858) and brought to the Solway in the first place by Captain Harris. She afterwards passed into the hands of Mr. Kingan, of New Abbey, and his firm still continue to run her. There have been several skippers, and at present Captain D. Dukes is in charge of the vessel. A predecessor of his, Captain John Richardson, met his death on board her while running across the Firth. He was down in the engine-room seeing to something when he collapsed, and his mate, Mr. T. Stewart, was left to manage the vessel single-handed and to get the captain’s body on deck with a view to trying to revive him in the fresh air. He managed, after a severe struggle, to get the body up through the narrow companion hatch, and steering the schooner for Maryport, in which town the affair caused a painful sensation, as both the skipper and mate were well known to most of the townspeople there. Captain W. Nelson also commanded the schooner for upwards of fifteen years.

Annie B. Smith, of Ardrossan – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 51, built at Ardrossan, 1868. Owned by Captain J. Bie, of Rockcliffe, Colvend, who also skippered her. This vessel ran for several years between Maryport and Kippford in the coal trade. She was lost during the war off the Welsh Coast.

Twin Sisters, of Stranraer – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 55, built at Rothesay, 1862. Owned formerly by Messrs Marshall, Drummore, and now by Messrs Wyllie & Sons, Dumfries. Engaged in the feeding stuff carrying trade.

New Importer, of Dumfries. Two-masted topsail schooner, carrying 60 to 70 tons. Owned at different times by Mr. Turner, Dumfries, Messrs John Wright & Co., Dumfries, and Messrs Carswell & Sons, Dalbeattie. Commanded for many years by Captain D Murdoch. Lost in the Solway Firth, loaded with Indian corn.

Marten, or Runcorn – Ketch, reg. tonnage 55. Owned by Mr. Hastings, grain merchant, Kirkcudbright, and latterly by Messrs Williamson, merchants, of the same town. Built at Runcorn, 1878. Captain Watson commanded this vessel when she was owned locally. She was lost about the year after the war started.

Charles, of Dumfries – Two-masted topsail schooner, reg. tonnage 38. Build at Almwch, 1871. Owned by Mr. John Belford, Gatehouse of Fleet. Captain Oliver commanded the vessel, which was engaged in the coal trade, between Cumberland and Gatehouse of Fleet.

Taken in the 1960’s this ship has just left Palnackie Harbour