The talk I have written for the launch of Castle Douglas -Portrait of a Forward Town
by Allan Wright and Alistair Livingston.
30 June 2016 at The Workshop Gallery 183 King Street, Castle Douglas
The area around Castle Douglas was once described as a ‘paramount centre of power and wealth’. This may seem a slight exaggeration, but the author was actually a historian describing the situation 2000 years ago when the Romans decided to build the first of several forts and marching camps at Glenlochar two miles to the north of the future town. The wealth and power of the area then is symbolised by the beautiful bronze Pony Cap found on Torrs farm 200 years ago and now in the National Museum of Scotland.
The suggestion is that one of the key tribal territories of the
Novantae as the Romans called the local people, lay along the Dee/ Ken river system with a religious and political centre in the Castle Douglas area. The political centre, the chieftan’s residence might have been the large Iron Age roundhouse built on Meiklewood Hill between the Dee and the Blackpark marshes. The crannog on Carlingwark Loch, near which the Carlingwark Cauldron was fished up in 1868, might have been the religious centre.
What happened next is a mystery, because 600 years later the ‘paramount centres of power and wealth’ in the Stewartry were the Mote of Mark above the Urr estuary and Trusty’s Hill above the Fleet estuary. We have to move forwards nearly 800 years before the Castle Douglas area becomes important again.
This time the focus of power and wealth was Threave Island on the Dee. It was here that Archibald the Grim, the new Lord of Galloway decided to built his castle. The island had probably been fortified by the indigenous lords of Galloway previously, but unfortunately, the construction of Archibald’s castle has obscured evidence of earlier buildings on the island.
Like the Romans before him, Archibald chose the location for its strategic importance since from it he could control both north/ south and east/west routes through the central Stewartry. The route to the north lies through the Glenkens and into Ayrshire.
The east/west route is less obvious but south of Glenlochar down to Gelston and across to what is now the Dalbeattie road there are still areas of marshland as well as Carlingwark Loch. Before the nineteenth century these marshes were even more extensive. The only dry route through this wetland area lay over Carlingwark Hill.
As well as controlling long-distance travel through the Stewartry, Threave castle was also a bridgehead for a major cultural change. Archibald and his successors were Scots speakers but in Galloway Gaelic was still the language of the people and their leaders. The lands around Threave castle were grange lands, growing oats and barley to feed the occupants of the castle. Carlingwark, Blackpark and Whitepark were named by Scots speakers planted around Threave by Archibald and the Douglas lords of Galloway.
We can still see a boundary between Scots and Gaelic. Whitepark is one of the Scots farms but the neighbouring farm of Cuil was named by Gaelic speakers. In 1325. King Robert granted the Barony of Buittle to his good friend James Douglas and the charter defines the boundary. Part of the boundary lay between Torrs farm in Kelton and Breoch in Buittle. Neither Whitepark nor Cuil are mentioned but by 1455 Whitepark had been created out of part of the Torrs lands and Cuil out of part of Breoch.
One of the meanings of Cuil in Gaelic is ‘corner’ and it lies right in a corner of Buittle as defined by the 1325 charter. 600 years ago then, the stream which flows down from Torrs to the Cuckoo Bridge and into the Gelston burn was marked a boundary between Scots and Gaelic speakers.
Where the Roman power lasted long enough, villages grew up around their forts and some eventually became towns and cities. In the Middle Ages, a similar process occurred as settlements grew up around castles.
With Castle Douglas though, it was the Plantation of Ulster which created the nucleus for its later development. As early as 1635, in inn owned by Thomas Hutton on Carlingwark Hill was recommended to travellers from England using the Gretna to Portpatrick route. Thomas Hutton’s son-in-law had a blacksmiths forge at Carlingwark which provided an other useful service for travellers. This Portpatrick route then became a mail route. By 1765 the rough tracks along the route had been upgraded to create a military road.
The new road inspired Alexander Murray of Cally to start planning what was to become Gatehouse of Fleet. With better transport links the potential for agricultural improvement encouraged Sir Alexander Gordon of Greenlaw to have short section of canal cut between Carlingwark Hill and the Dee. This was used by barges carrying shell-marl from Carlingwark Loch to farms up the Dee/ Ken river system.
This shell-marl was whiteish clay built up in Carlingwark loch over thousands of years from the shells of fresh water snails and the bones of fish and was a substitute for lime as a fertiliser. It was dug up from the edge of the loch and also dredged up by boats using bag and spoon dredgers. The technique had been invented by the Dutch for their canals and used a large canvas bag attached to an iron ring which was hauled along the bottom of the loch and then dumped in the boat. It must have been a very messy job.
To make it easier to get at the marl, a cut was then made through Carlingwark Hill into the loch. This partially drained the loch and ensured a good supply of water for the canal. I used to think that the barges were loaded with marl in the loch, but early maps show an extension of Marl Street leading down towards the canal across the Carlingwark meadows. Where this reaches the canal there is the faint trace of what looks like a loading bay.
Alexander Gordon built houses for the marl workers and hoped to turn the new settlement into a small town. Unfortunately, he was an investor in the Ayr bank which failed in 1772. This scuppered his plans and he eventually sold Carlingwark to William Douglas for £14 000 in 1789. Gordon had also proposed a more ambitious canal project which would have run from Kirkcudbright parallel with the Dee to Threave Island and then, he hoped, extend north from Loch Ken towards Loch Doon and the Dalmellington coal field. A Glenkenns Canal Act was passed in 1803 but never taken forward apart from a couple of locks which were built at Culvennan to by-pass a shallow section of the Dee.
The Carlingwark canal was still in use in the 1790s when the Old Statistical Account of Scotland was being written. By the time the New Statistical Account was being composed in the early 1840s it had fallen out of use. This was probably because by then a whole set of new turnpike road had been built, including one from Castle Douglas to Palnackie so that it became much easier to import and distribute lime.
The most important of the new roads was what was to become the A 75 and which replaced parts of the Old Military Road. It can be seen marked as a dotted line on John Ainslie’s 1797 map of the Stewartry running from the Old Bridge of Dee to Auchenreoch Loch and then on to Dumfries.
Gatehouse of Fleet was also on the new road. With its cotton mills and other industries the new town of Gatehouse looked set to become the new town of Castle Douglas’ main rival. Castle Douglas had an interest in the cotton industry, but it was probably no more than a building where several hand-loom weavers were based rather than a spinning mill. By 1831, the shift to power looms had made hand looms redundant so only the name Cotton Street survives from this early stage of the town’s development.
For the rest of the story about how Castle Douglas overtook Gatehouse to become the most successful of Dumfries and Galloway’s 86 planned towns and villages you will have to buy the book.
But since there were a few interesting points I had to cut short in the book, I will mention them now.
One of these is that if Thomas Telford had had his way, Castle Douglas might have remained a small village. In 1809, soon after the Union with Ireland, Telford was commissioned to survey the route of the shortest possible road from Carlisle to Portpatrick. Telford did so and came up with a road which cut straight across country from Auchenreoch Loch to the Boat of Rhone at Parton, then by Lochs Stroan and Skerrow through the hills towards the Cree above Creetown. After crossing the Cree the road headed for Glenluce and then from Glenluce straight across the head of Luce Bay to Portpatrick. Telford reckoned this route would be 15 miles shorter than by existing roads.
Luckily for the new town of Castle Douglas, this road was never built since it would have missed out on the advantages of being on a major transport route.
At this point I was going talk about the Portpatrick Railway, but the I remembered that, earlier this year my friend Sandy Rogerson set up a Facebook page ’Reopen the Dumfries-Stranraer Railway’. The page has now had 1782 likes. This has encouraged Sandy. Last week he visited Castle Douglas Community Centre to check the cost of hiring a room- £12.50 an hour. The next step will be to make a booking and hold a meeting. I have offered to give a talk on the history of the local railways. If there is enough support at the meeting we will form a Railway Committee and start campaigning… so watch this space.
To finish up I will start with a quote from Allan’s Introduction to the book.
I have savoured numerous views offered from the surrounding gentle hills & gaps between trees & buildings that surround the town. Taken delight also in how on the outskirts, both the agricultural lands and the wilder habitats merge into the dwelling spaces in a respectful way, I reckon kids growing up here are most fortunate to have real countryside to grow up in.
As a kid who grew up here, I have to agree. For a few years after it closed, the most exiting way to reach the wilder countryside was by walking out along the Kirkcudbright railway the past the golf course, the sewage works and the ever smouldering cowp until we reached the Blackpark marshes and the Carlingwark Canal. This was long before the Castle Douglas By-pass was built in 1987, so the area seemed a remote wilderness and we could image ourselves as explorers discovering an unknown landscape filled with the eerie piping calls of lapwings..
Over time it became very difficult to make the same journey but luckily in 2003 the Castle Douglas Community Initiative were looking for ideas which would benefit the town. After discussions with my brothers Ian and Kenneth, we suggested making a path from the town out to Threave Estate along the old railway line.
It took three years, but in August 2006 it was opened from Blackpark Road to Threave. In 2013 the Abercromby Road to Blackpark Road section was opened so it became possible to walk all the way from Burghfield Park to Lamb Island on the Dee or out to Threave Castle. Then last New Year’s eve floods washed away the footbridge over the Carlingwark Canal.
Thankfully, Dumfries and Galloway Countryside Rangers have been able to get the bridge replaced by a new one and upgrade the path which is now open again.
The idea behind the path was to physically connect Castle Douglas with the surrounding countryside and with the past as represented by Threave Castle. Allan’s photographs provide a visual counterpart to this idea, helping to connect town and country, often blurring the distinction between the two environments.
The railway path plan was loosely linked to an earlier idea. In in June 2000, I wrote a letter to the Galloway News. A row was brewing about a plan to re-open the Castle Douglas abattoir. I suggested re-locating it on the Abercromby Road Industrial site and encouraging other food businesses to move there as well. The site could then be called the Castle Douglas Food Park while the town could be promoted as Castle Douglas Food Town.
Within a couple of months a steering group had been formed with myself as secretary. Thinking about how to promote Castle Douglas as a Food Town and after much discussion with Ian and Kenneth and others, the idea that emerged was of the Food Town as the shop front for the promotion of regionally produced food.
We knew that Castle Douglas was already a place people came to shop from across Dumfries and Galloway. We also knew that the town drew in visitors and shoppers from the north of England and the south of Scotland. If we could work with Wigtown as the Book Town and Kirkcudbright as the Artists Town it would create a cluster of visitor attractions.
But at the time , the region’s tourist economy and the food economy were seen separate spheres, so the challenge would be to break that division down. The hope was that farmers would start to see visitors as their customers and visitors, worried about BSE and other food scares, could be reassured that locally produced food was not only safe to eat but good to eat- because it they could see the food growing or gambolling about in a beautiful landscape. The marketing message would be ‘They say you can’t eat the scenery. In Castle Douglas you can.’
I must have been in touch with Allan at the time, since I have found a letter he sent me saying he would be glad to help with what was then still just a ‘publicity project’. Unfortunately next year, 2001, was the year of Foot and Mouth so everything was put on hold. When the Food Town was finally launched in 2002 it was a less ambitious and more King Street level event.
Coming back to the future, while I am sure visitors will buy it, I hope that Allan’s book will also become an essential purchase for people living and working in Castle Douglas. A familiar place, however fascinating it might seem to others, can easily be taken for granted by those who live there. Allan’s photographs let us see Castle Douglas and its surroundings with fresh eyes.
At the same time, as I explain in my part of the book, Castle Douglas is a small, rural, market town which has survived and prospered by continually reinventing itself. Marl and cotton, foundries and feed mills, stage coaches and steam trains have all come and gone. Each time the familiar and traditional has passed over into history, Castle Douglas has managed to adapt to the changes and move forward.
Since last week the challenge posed by the future has grown immensely. Will Castle Douglas be able to reinvent itself yet again to survive in this brave new world which has opened up before us?
That is a very difficult question to answer tonight.
But what I do know, if we include the two standing stones on Ernespie Hill, is that 4000 years of history tells us that the Castle Douglas area is a strategic location at the heart of the Stewartry surrounded by good quality farm land. Those advantages sustained countless generations before Castle Douglas existed and have sustained the town and its people for the past 224 years. As one of life’s optimists, I am sure they will continue to do so.