Physical characteristics

Throughout published information from outside sources and the Solway Review, there is a distinction made between the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ Solway. A line drawn between Southerness on the Scottish side and Dubmill Point on the English side, across the Solway will have the ‘inner’ Solway to the east, and the ‘outer’ Solway to the west. Based on physical features, there is a distinctive character difference between the inner and outer Solway.


Inner Firth

The inner Solway is made up of intertidal mudflats, sandbanks, and saltmarsh. This area is constantly moving with the tides as sediment is shifted. Looking between Scotland and England in the inner Solway provides a sense that the two areas are closely linked. It appears that someone could easily walk between the two sides of the Firth at low tide, though crossing the Solway is in fact a dangerous feat. The Solway viaduct crossing which once physically linked the two countries between Annan and Bowness-on-Solway no longer stands. Rolling lowland is typical for the land on either side of the Solway coast.


Outer Firth

The outer Solway has relatively shallow waters with depths rarely reaching over 50 metres. However, this is significantly deeper than the inner Solway and it provides habitat for a variety of larger species than those which inhabit the wetlands and shallow waters of the inner Solway. The outer Solway becomes deeper and with a steeper gradient west of the Rhins of Galloway, between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Beaufort’s Dyke is located here, where depths can reach 300m. Due to the depth, and proximity to ports, this natural trench was used for dumped munitions in the past. There have been reported incidents of washed up munitions originating from this site and the surrounding area where some munitions were dumped before reaching the Dyke.

The sense of proximity to the opposite side of the Firth is maintained in the outer Solway, especially with Criffel visible from much of the English side of the Firth. Robin Rigg Wind Farm is also located in the outer Solway, midway between Scotland and England, and visible from both coasts.

Cliffs are characteristic of both the English and Scottish sides of the outer Firth, both St Bees Head and Mull of Galloway providing steep cliff faces. St Bees Head features red sandstone cliffs whereas the Mull of Galloway cliffs are composed of greywacke, yet both are towering edges to the Solway Firth and are important sites for bird species. Both of these cliff sites host Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reserves, and have a variety of additional designations to protect and conserve the habitats and species found in there.


Image; Blitterlees. © Solway Firth Partnership

Physical characteristics

Geology and landscape

Landscape character derives from a combination of physical factors including geology, topography and soils, changing climates and native plant communities, plus cultural factors such as settlement patterns, building styles, land uses, and literary and artistic perceptions.

The over-riding impression of the character of the Solway is of a vast and remote landscape, with wide seascapes bounded by distant coastlines and over-swept by huge sides. Views change constantly with the tides and weather. In fine weather views extend many miles, taking in the hills and mountains of the opposite coastline and reaching out across the open sea to the Isle of Man. On clear days the buildings and structures along the opposite coast stand out in the sunlight, and the intricate folds and textures of the uplands are clearly discernible, each coast offering more dramatic views of the opposite mountains than its own. Distant clouds and rainstorms chase in along the Solway creating contrasting patterns of light, shade and opacity (see Landscape-Seascape).

The two shores of the Solway differ broadly in character reflecting their differing geology, with older harder rocks on the Scottish side creating a more rugged coastline than the softer sandstone and coal measures of the southern shore (see seabed and coastal geology). In the north the contrasts between these harder rocks and younger weaker sandstone, plus the north/south drainage pattern, have created a series of peninsulas divided by estuaries, with granite intrusions creating rugged uplands rising directly from the coast. In the south, softer sediments have been eroded to form a wide coastal plain, backed by the more resistant rocks of the Lake District Fells. The lowlands on both coasts have been covered by glacial drift material, creating an undulating landscape of glacial deposition features. Changes in land and sea levels have left behind raised beaches and submerged forests, and coastal processes have created the sand spit peninsula at Grune Point, as well as extensive sand dunes and estuarine creeks and sand flats. Further south along the Cumbrian coast, the relatively more resistant sandstone is exposed to create St Bees Head.

At low tide huge expanses of mud flats are exposed on the inner Solway above Balcary Point and Dubmill Point, and within the bays and estuaries of the northern coast.

Physical characteristics

Estuaries and rivers

The Solway itself is the third largest estuary in the UK, but there are several estuaries, rivers along with many smaller gills, becks and burns, which flow into the Firth, contributing to the character and physical features of the area.

The Scottish side of the Solway Firth features six major estuaries within its boundaries. These estuaries are indentations formed from the expansion of the firth, and therefore are semi-enclosed, and open to the salt water of the Solway while also being supplied with fresh water from rivers.

Site Grid Ref Type Total Area (ha) Inter-
Area (ha)
Shoreline Length (km)
42,056 27,550 213.6
Firth &
Fjard 1,290 1,289 44.4
Fjard 1,144 825 28.6
Fjard 790 790 19.9
Fjard 4,728 3,340 24.3
Linear Shore 1,228 1,196 27.5

Table Source; Original Solway Review


In addition to estuaries there are several rivers which flow into the Solway on both sides, detailed in the table below.

Site Scotland/England (both listed east to west)
Kirtle Water Scotland
River Annan Scotland
Channel of Lochar Water Scotland
River Nith Scotland
Urr Water Scotland
River Dee Scotland
Water Of Fleet Scotland
River Cree Scotland
River Bladnoch Scotland
Water of Luce Scotland
Piltanton Burn Scotland
River Sark Scotland/England
Channel of River Esk England
River Eden England
Channel of River Whampool England
Channel of River Waver England
River Ellen England
River Derwent England


Image; River Locations map from the original Solway Review. © Solway Firth Partnership.

Physical characteristics

Solway Islands

The Solway Firth includes several small islands, often uninhabited, none with more than a single dwelling, but some also having lighthouses and/or archaeological interests. These islands are home to wonderful wildlife and provide stunning views across the Solway Firth.

Hestan, Rough, Barlocco, and Ardwall islands are accessible under very specific tidal conditions. None are accessible other than at low, or very low tide. The accessibility is variable at each island so before visiting any of these islands visitors must research including, but not limited to, type of terrain for access, island ownership and designations, conditions, tide times, and weather. They must also be extremely cautious of incoming tides, quicksand and other potentially dangerous conditions.

The Scares/ Scare Rocks/ The Scars/ Scar Rocks – these are rock islands located at the mouth of Luce Bay. The largest rock is known as ‘Big Scare’. They are leased to the RSPB as part of the Mull of Galloway RSPB reserve and are located within the Luce Bay and Sands Special Area of Conservation. The islands are inaccessible which helps minimise disturbance of the colony of Gannets which nest on the islands.

Islands Of Fleet
Murray Isles – These islands were gifted to the National Trust for Scotland. They are located in Wigtown Bay and are important for birds, hosting a colony of cormorants and breeding gulls
Ardwall Island – This is the largest of the ‘Islands of Fleet’ and is of archaeological interest, with remains of a chapel, burial grounds, and a medieval hall house. Read more about the site on Canmore – the National Record of the Historic Environment.
Barlocco Island – This is the island closest to shore of the Islands of Fleet group.

Little Ross Island – Located at the mouth of Kirkcudbright Bay just off the coast from Ross. The island is 29 acres and is privately owned. The lighthouse which is on Little Ross was not part of the sale of the island, most recently sold in 2017, but the sale included the former keepers cottages which now form one home. The island is also known for a murder in 1960 when a relief lighthouse keeper was killed by the assistant keeper.

Hestan Island – This island is located in the mouth of Auchencairn Bay and has a lighthouse. There is a cottage which is privately let. There are also remains of a Manor House completed in 1342, built by Edward Balliol.

Rough Island – Located within the Rough Firth, Rough Island is south west from Rockcliffe. The island is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is a bird sanctuary and therefore visiting is not permitted during breeding season, May-July. Oystercatchers and ringer plovers breed on the island with many more wildfowl and waders in the area.


Image; Rough Island. © N. Coombey/ Solway Firth Partnership.

Physical characteristics

Physical Features and Heritage

The sense of place, history, and folklore surrounding the Solway is often based in physical features of the firth and coast. Due to the physical location of the Solway, as the estuary both divides and links Scotland and England, the area has been the centre of many stories of power struggles between these two countries.

Some sites around the Firth which have been the location of battles, historic and heritage points of interest, and inspired stories and folklore linked to the Solway are listed below.



  • Edward the I monument, Brugh By Sands
  • Battle of the Solway Mosses, Burgh Marsh
  • Hadrian’s Wall, starts at Bowness on Solway
  • Bell Raid, between Annan and Bowness on Solway
  • Robert Burns, Annan
  • Roman Forts, e.g Bowness on Solway, Brugh By Sands
  • Fortlets, e.g. Milefortlet 21 (North of Maryport)
  • Castles, e.g. Dunskey Castle, Portpatrick
  • Salt pans, Crosscanonby, Southerness




Image; Devil’s Stone. © Solway Firth Partnership.