A Brief History of the Solway through Landscape
The Solway in prehistory
The raised beaches of western Galloway contain early evidence of human activity along the Solway. People hunted, fished and gathered shellfish along the shores and river valleys from well before 7500 BC. In the centuries before 4000 BC small groups of incomers also farmed in the woodlands. They built first small and then larger chambered tombs, the most striking of which is Cairnholy, and had strong contacts with Ireland. The silts of the Solway may conceal the remains of their boats. Larger ceremonial sites developed from around 3000 BC, such as at Dunragit, and in the latter half of the millennium, copper smithing and then bronze working were taken up. In the following centuries villages of round houses, and small burial enclosures became more common. ‘Burnt mounds’ or cooking sites are frequent survivors from this period of activity. With the onset of a deterioration in climate around 1200 BC, many upland areas were abandoned. New sophisticated fortifications began to be built from around 750 BC, though by the arrival of the Romans the British tribes around the Solway were again living mostly in undefended settlements.
The Solway in Roman Times
The Romans left a strong military imprint on the area in the form of Hadrian’s Wall, one of the most significant complexes of archaeological remains in the world. The wall and associated ditches extended westwards to Bowness on Solway, the westernmost wath or fording point across the Firth. Beyond, a series of towers and milefortlets extended southwards, linking more substantial forts at Beckfoot, Maryport, Workington and Moresby. Visible remains include Milefortlet 21 at Crosscanonby and sections of ditch. North of the Solway a road ran westwards connecting camps and forts such as Gatehouse of Fleet, and to the south the earlier Stanegate frontier ran from Carlisle to Kirkbride. Many Roman artefacts are now housed in museums at Carlisle and Maryport.
The coming of Christianity
Carlisle was an important garrison town, and centre for British Christianity during the late Roman times. Missionaries ventured northwards, and St Ninian established a church at Whithorn around 450 AD which remained a pilgrim centre for many centuries.
Britons held the eastern Solway until the early eighth century and the arrival of the Northumbrian Angles. The Angles established a monastery at Hoddom and carved the nearby Ruthwell Cross which carries the oldest surviving example of written English. Viking raids were then followed by Irish Scandinavian settlements in the west, and in the early tenth century St Bega established a Benedictine monastery at St Bees. Each community left its mark, with Scandinavian and Gaelic place names in the west and Anglian in the east (‘Solway’ derives from the Norse name for the ford across the Esk). The kingdom of Strathclyde then expanded to encompass Nithsdale and Cumbria, and was later absorbed into a Scottish kingdom. The eastern Solway alternated between English and Scottish rule through to the end of the twelfth century, coming under the feudalising influence of the Normans. Meanwhile in the west the Gaelic speaking community of Irish origin was ruled by the Lords of Galloway. The area remained a semi-independent principality until the 13th Century.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Cistercian Abbeys were established at Dundrennan, New Abbey, Glenluce and Holm Cultram, with extensive landholdings on both sides of the Solway. These communities had strong links with the continent, bringing both trade and agricultural improvement. Marshes were drained, sea defences constructed and sheep grazing introduced to areas which had previously been largely wilderness.
The end of the thirteenth century and the Wars of Independence heralded a fresh period of instability especially in the east, with invasions, counter invasions and raids across the waths of the Solway, and the ‘Debatable Land’ between the Esk and Sark claimed by both countries. Caerlaverock, besieged by Edward I, and other great castles such as Threave and Carlisle, together with the Scots Dyke reflect the turbulent nature of politics for several centuries. The King Edward I Monument on Burgh Marsh marks the peat wath crossed frequently by both nation’s armies. The continued need for defence is evidenced by later tower houses such as Carsluith Castle and pele towers as at Harby Brow. At Newton Arlosh and Burgh by Sands churches were fortified to protect the community.
The raids of the Border Reivers continued after the union of the crowns in 1603, and the religious disputes of the seventeenth century were another source of turbulence. In Wigtown the Martyrs Stake records the place where two Covenanters (Margaret Wilson and Margaret Maclauchlan) were tied to stakes and left to drown in the incoming tide for their adherence to Scottish Presbyterianism.
The stability which slowly emerged in the course of the seventeenth century was accompanied by the establishment of large estates around country houses, such as at Arbigland, Garlieston and Ardwell, with the creation of gardens and woodlands around the houses and the enclosure of agricultural land. The building of New Abbey corn mill reflects the take-over of church lands by the great estates following the Reformation. Two distinctive forms of field boundary, the Galloway-dyke and Galloway-dyke and hedge influenced the form of enclosures elsewhere. Meanwhile the southern shore of the Solway remained in the control of smaller landowners leading to a pattern of scattered farms and villages.
The more recent military heritage and activity of the Solway still evident today, even with much military activity has ceased over time. The quiet, rural surroundings coupled with access from ports such as Stranraer, Cairnryan and Silloth made the Solway coast a perfect location for munitions factories in both world wars, RAF airfields, flying boat bases and bombing target bases. For more information on current defence activity around the Solway see the Defence section of the Solway Review.
The Solway offered invaluable contributions to World War II (WW2). Sites in and around Garlieston can be seen, with features such as the Mulberry Harbour Beetle pontoons (remains at Eggerness and Rigg Bay are now protected national monuments), as well as some standing and collapsed buildings. The Beetles, which are found in and near Cairnhead Bay add to the modern history of the seascape/landscape. They also add to the variability off the Solway coast, with the ‘beetle’, invisible and covered at high tide but exposed as a large concrete structure at low tide. Much of the physical evidence of WW2 history around Loch Ryan has been dismantled and dispersed. However there are a few publicly accessible sites that still show structures from that period such as the lookout post and flying boat slip ways at the Wig. Solway Firth Partnership have a publicly available leaflet dedicated to Loch Ryan WW2, providing more information of sites to visit, and tourist trails exploring the Solway’s military heritage are available through the Solway Military Trail.
The Industrial Revolution
Industry was another shaping force, causing the expansion of various towns around the Solway. By far the most dramatic changes occurred on the west Cumbrian coast. This sparsely populated area was transformed into a booming mining and manufacturing complex, based on the easily won coal resources. Lowther began the development of Whitehaven in the seventeenth century, exporting coal and importing tobacco until the town was one of the leading ports in the whole country, playing its part in the slave trade. To the north, the Senhouse family lead the expansion of Maryport, based on coal, shipbuilding and cattle. Workington was to see its major growth in the Victorian era, when exploitation of the local iron ore stimulated the beginnings of the steel industry. The trade of these three towns spanned the world and reflected the colonial strength of Britain, and Whitehaven attracted the last expedition by a foreign power on the shores of the English mainland, led by Solway born John Paul Jones, the ‘founder of the American Navy’.
North of the Solway, local textile industries developed, as for example the cotton milling of Gatehouse of Fleet, but on a smaller scale, and the landscape retained its predominantly rural character. Dumfries shipped out wool and cloth, and Annan built tea-clippers and exported cattle across the Bowness wath. As well as legal trade, smuggling formed an important part of the eighteenth century economy of the Solway. Scotland’s Bard, Robbie Burns, was involved as an exciseman in the boarding of the Rosalind on the sands of Gretna. Fishing and wildfowling also played their part, particularly in the nineteenth century, with large fishing fleets at Kirkcudbright, Maryport and Whitehaven, as well as traditional haaf netting in the tidal channels. Dumfries served as the main port for southern Scotland in the wave of emigration in the mid nineteenth century. This maritime heritage is reflected in the series of lighthouses, and the many wrecks which litter the coastline.
Smuggling, and the advent of the railway, slowly reduced shipping. The Solway Viaduct from Dornock to Bowness opened in 1869 allowing the railway to carry iron ore from West Cumberland to the steelworks of Lanarkshire, and the remains on either shore can still be seen today. The decline of the railways, including the loss of the ‘Paddy Line’ to Stranraer, has since left the area with weakened long distance connections.