A Port Without Trade

Kirkcudbright, (or ‘Kirkubree’) is a very picturesque, small fishing town on the South Coast of Galloway in Scotland. Daniel Defoe, when visiting this area in 1778, described it as:

… a pleasant situation, and yet nothing pleasant to be seen. Here is a harbour without ships, a port without trade, a fishery without nets, a people without business

Daniel Defoe, A Tour through the whole of Great Britain, Volume 3, 1778

Defoe’s point was that, where there is profound poverty, there is a lack of investment in business and infrastructure, so poverty is likely to proliferate. The sad fact is that the poverty that this, and other small fishing towns are currently experiencing, is entirely of our own making. There was a decided lull over the quay when I visited last summer. I watched the crews of a couple of fishing boats clean and prepare their vessels but none put to sea. A brief moment of collective madness, has ensured that poverty will proliferate once more. The fish may be happier, but the people are not.

Broughton House, Kirkcudbright

Kirkcudbright is a quaint little town: ice-cream vans, tea shops and antiques around the quay and a large castle looking down on it all. Drift down the high street and little art galleries proliferate. There is even quite a large public collection here, and Mrs. P and I spent a happy hour looking around it. I left Mrs. P bargain hunting after that and went off to explore the town. I was looking for Broughton house, the home of the artist, EA Hornel. EA grew up in Kirkcudbright and studied in Glasgow, though he was actually Australian. His art is influenced by pre-raphaelitism, and features waif-like red headed children in ancient British scenes. His home is of particular interest to us as he was a Burns collector. In fact, he had the largest collection of Robert Burns in private hands. The house was closed today but the garden is well worth a visit. It is heavily influenced by Japanese gardening and the two styles sit side-by-side, the gardeners having blended them seamlessly together.

“I recommend the pies”

After a pleasant stroll around the garden we set off to explore the coast to the south-west. We bought some pies at a nice little bakery near the harbour and drove off to find a beach on which to eat them. Navigation is quite difficult around here: roads suddenly dart inland to avoid river estuaries and headlands and journeys take longer than expected, but we eventually found a pleasant spot on a rocky estuary, where we sat on a boulder and ate while looking for shells and interesting stones. We also attempted to rescue an injured bird by feeding it small pieces of pie crust and, I’m happy to say, he had certainly perked considerably when u we went to check on his progress.

Just north of Kirkudbright, in Gatehouse of Fleet, are two literary pubs, neither of which, I’m sorry to say, we had a chance to visit today. Burns stayed at the Murray Arms Hotel in 1793. It was during this visit that he wrote ‘Scot’s Wha Hae” his anthem to Scottish courage and resilience. Away down the high street, past the Kirk and over the bridge is the Ship Inn. This Inn as was the base for some of the cast and crew of the original 1973 Wicker Man film and, in an earlier age, had Dorothy L Sayers as a guest. Her novel, ‘Five Red Herrings’ was written here.

We pressed on to Wigtown. This is a designated book town: an area in which second-hand bookshops proliferate. The International Organisation of Book Towns was started as an offshoot of the Hay festival. There are book towns throughout the world, linked by a desire to spread the love of the written word and promote literary tourism. In Wigtown, there are several second-hand book shops and an annual literary festival.

This number of bookshops in a small town is very dangerous for me: there are bookshops everywhere, I counted about eight, (apparently there are 12). ‘The Open Book’, ‘The Good Book’, ‘The Old Bookshop’, ‘Well Read Books’. Turn around any corner in Wigtown and there’s another one. I had to exercise a huge amount of self-restraint and I wandered around them and only bought 2 or 3 books the whole afternoon.

An ornate pillar outside one of Wigtown’s many bookshops

There is a certain distinctive smell to an old bookshop: a musty, leathery, papery smell. New books are great, but they don’t offer the same sort of experience as a volume that has passed through many hands on its journey to you. If you are very lucky, there will be an inscription inside “To Margaret, Christmas 1921” it may say, in beautiful handwriting. Every book has its own story to tell.

Try it just once and you’ll be destined to forever search backstreets and cold alleyways in cities and small towns alike, searching for your next hit. Scanning your eyes along shelves crowded with authors long since forgotten, until a likely volume jumps out at you. You have to have it. You try to resist but you are powerless. Trembling, you take it to the till, salivating at the weight of it in your hand and thinking forward to when you will first open the fragile cover and inhale the scent of its old pages. You watch the shop assistant’s every movement intently, and try to make polite conversation as it is slid into a fresh paper bag and passed into your eager and grateful hands. She smiles at you as you take it. She knows.

There was a lovely little café I went into to review my purchases. The Beltie is named after the Belted Galloway cattle, prevalent in these parts and is a very pleasant little tea shop, with a good selection of second-hand books for sale, of course. I enjoyed a very nice smoked mackerel paté with oatcakes, as I had my tea and read my books and waited for Mrs. P to join me. It was still relatively early afternoon by the time we’d finished our tea, so we pressed on further, across the peninsula to a village called Monreith.

An Otter statue to commemorate Gavin Maxwell

There is very little out here, in Monreith. A collection of houses and a nearby golf course, that’s about all. Gavin Maxwell’s family came from Monreith, though he was born in Elrig, a slightly larger collection of houses a couple of miles north. Gavin Maxwell was a travel writer and naturalist, author of Ring of Bright Water, the story his discovery of an otter, Mij, in Iraq and bringing it back to Scotland. You may know it from the film starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. It’s terribly sad.

High on the cliff top above the St. Medan golf course, is one of the nicest memorials to an author I’ve ever seen. A statue of Mij in bronze looks out to sea. It is in a lovely spot and we spent a while here, taking it all in. Mrs. P amused herself by taking photographs of the otter in whatever headgear she could fashion from what we had with us.

Mij sporting headgear fashioned by Mrs. P of Cambridge

We drove down to the golf course, where I could leave the car and explore. Mrs. P loves beach combing I love exploring. I found an ornate little church, containing the graves of some French sailors, killed in battle in the nearby seas, most of their memorials becoming too faded to read. Mrs. P wandered along the lonely little beach collecting stones and shells for the garden. The beach was lovely, elegantly curved with grey sand and crystal clear, icy blue water. There was no one here. We saw a couple of golfers and a seal (at least, I think it was a seal but its lasting inactivity leads me to believe it may have been a rock}.

We stayed on the beach until the sun lowered in the west and was finally lost in the haze. Pseudo-seals and gulls aside, we saw not another living thing.

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