Dalbeattie Town - The Port of Dalbeattie

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Dalbeattie Town
General History

Industrial Mills on
Dalbeattie Burn

Granite Quarries
of the Urr Valley

Murdoch of
the 'Titanic'

The Port of Dalbeattie :

Physical Characteristics :

The River Urr has been used for navigation long before its recorded history. Gradual uplift of the land after the Ice Age, together with silting-up of the valley bottom, has changed the tidal reaches even in recorded time. There is good reason to believe that the river was tidal as far as the ford near the Haugh of Urr, four miles north of the current maximum reach of the tide at Craignair Bridge. Silting and uplift have together contributed to the decline of what was once a key coastal port on the Solway Firth.

Galloway was very hard to cross by land before roadbuilding started in the 1750s. Tracts of bogland - the Mosses, - and thorny heathland, made it hard even for packhorses. Most travellers and most goods-traffic went by sea, much as had to be done on the coast of Norway. The Ordnance Survey maps frequently puzzle visitors with names such as 'Port o' Warren' and 'Portling', when all that is visible is a sandy (often stony) beach. The truth is that coastal sailing vessels were often little more than 10 to 15 tonnes burthen, had flat bottoms and were run up at mid-tide to be beached. They then used a spar-mounted crane (a topping lift) to sway cargo out of their holds onto carts brought onto the sands. Passengers would scramble aboard with the help of a short ladder. A sand or fine shingle 'hard' had the advantages of easy drainage and the ship would not be stuck to the bottom as happened in mud. There was some choice in this; Sandyhills Bay does have both sand and mud, but it also has underground springs which make the surface 'quick', too soft in some parts to carry carts or beached boats. Portling, just around the headland, offered areas of flat sand with excellent 'hards'.

The Port of Dalbeattie genuinely was a 'port' in the modern sense of a place where ships could unload or load whilst afloat and secured to a quayside. It began as the 'Dub o'Hass', literally 'The Hole in the Bank', a point at which the Dalbeattie Burn entered the River Urr. There, the scour of Burn and River had kept an open basin where ships could turn around. However, the Port actually extended all the way south to the Bar of the Urr, a line between Castle Point and White Horse Bay. This meant that it included wharves at Old Lands, Kirkennan, Garden Creek, Palnackie, Shennan Creek and Kippford, as well as sand-bottomed hards at Rockcliffe. Both Dalbeattie and Palnackie had tidal basins, although these are greatly reduced.

The Hollands Trade :

The northern coast of the Solway Firth was perfect smugglers' country; the sandy beaches had secret paths up ravines and through the heath and mosses to inland distribution points. The ports of Ramsey and Douglas in the Isle of Man were home ports to ostensible fishing and coastal vessels that were actually in the 'Hollands Trade'. Cargoes of Dutch gin, French brandy and Brussels lace, were run in at night and unloaded from the beaches. Pitched battles might be fought with the 'Revenooers' or 'Gaugers' when they found smuggling-gangs at work. Sir Walter Scott's 'Guy Mannering' gives a flavour of the time. The great poet Robert Burns served as a Customs Officer, his cutlass having more than ceremonial use in time of need.

The writer was highly amused to hear of the activities of one of the Blackett family, who was a notorious smuggler and yet managed to gain position as a Customs Officer. He promptly 'peached' on all his rivals in the trade, but they as promptly denounced him for remaining a smuggler. His smuggling account-books apparently broke off at that point.

There is one pitiful memorial to this trade. One John Nelson of Ramsey took up smuggling for a short time to gather enough money to marry his sweetheart. His ship was wrecked at the mouth of Rockcliffe harbour and he was buried nearby. His swweetheart commissioned a memorial to her lost love, which can still be seen on the walk from Rockcliffe to Castle Point.

Basins, Quays, Wharves and Hards in the Port of Dalbeattie :

These will be examined from the Dub o'Hass southwards towards the mouth of the River Urr. Please note that this section is under constant revision as information is still being assembled.

Dub o'Hass harbour basin may be shown on the 1647 Timothy Pont map, but it is not clear what was there at that time, other than the basin or 'Pool of Dalbeattie'. The basin was 'improved' at some stage by constructing a stone pier braced and fendered with timbers at some stage before the 1740s. This well-meant measure split the basin in half and removed the tidal scour that had kept the basin clear of silt. The old pier is now silted up on its Urr River side to the top, although clear enough on the Dalbeattie Burn side. By 1745, matters were so bad that a granite-faced 'New Quay' was erected, just upstream of the present sewage farm and about two hundred yards south of the Dub o'Hass. This quay may have had a timber staging out into the Urr River. Massive cut granite bollards set into the river bank, the old pier, and the banks of the Burn, may be a later addition. A 19th-century warehouse still stands, used now as a barn, with the foundations of the harbour-master's house and office. The pier itself once had a crane driven by a hand-cranked winch, but of this nothing remains. Sadly, the pier may soon collapse into the Urr and be completely lost, whilst fill and rubble from the Port Mill are rapidly burying the remains of the Basin.

Ships and barges of up to 60 tons could be poled, sailed, or towed up by horse teams from near Palnackie. Dalbeattie Port imported lime and coal from Whitehaven, cattle feed, timber from the Baltic and general cargo from various sources, also rags for paper-making and fertiliser materials (including bonemeal) from the 1790s and 1840s. It exported grain, hides, granite setts and kerbstones (from the 1800s), tiles and bricks (from the 1850s), reaching its zenith in the late 1800s. Thereafter, more goods went through Palnackie and Kippford, but bargeloads of fertiliser and feed were reaching the harbour as late as the 1960s.

Old Land and Steadstone Quays are about a mile south of Dalbeattie at the side of the Urr. Opened up in the 1860s to load granite from the quarries of the same name and in use until the 1950s. Remains still survive of the loading gantry, railway, weighbridge and wharfside, but the Steadstone section is badly eroded.

Kirkclaugh Quay was sited at the end of a wagon-road that ran almost straight to Craignair Quarry. Opened sometime in the early 1800s, it fell into disuse after the introduction of the railways. The remains or the wharf, - once as impressive as at Dalbeattie Port pier, - are now rubble on the bed of the Urr. The name 'Wagon Wood' marks a small wood alongside which the quarry-wagons ran.

Vessels of up to 280 tons burthen could reach both Steadstone and Kirkclaugh Quays. They would import coal and lime, then leave with cargoes of granite ballast, cut granite setts for roadmaking and kerbstones. Some of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board granite may have been loaded at Kirkennan.

Garden Creek Quay is a now almost-forgotten Y-shaped creek beside the Urr, about a quarter of a mile north of Palnackie. Very little survives of the timbering that supported the wharves. Tidal, able only to take small vessels, it was for hundreds of years the main port into Buittle Parish. Its small size lead to the decision to open Palnackie Basin.

Palnackie Basin in 1932

Palnackie (Barlochan) Basin is now the only commercially-operating part of the Port of Dalbeattie. Efforts were made in the 1800s to excavate the present basin where the mouth of a stream entered the Urr, at a point where the Urr River might be expected to scour out the basin. Vessels of 350 tons could load and unload cargo, although silting up has significantly reduced the depth available at present. During the 1940s and 1950s, ammunition barges would unload at Palnackie to send their cargoes by road to Edingham Depot for storage. As late as 1965, the Port Mill unloaded fertiliser there, but a proposed increase in port tolls in 1965 lead them to switch to rail and then to road transport. Since then, cockling and fishing vessels have called at Palnackie, with occasional pleasure craft.

In the winter of 1998 there were serious proposals to licence the cockle-fishery in the Solway and to open a cockle-preparation factory either in Palnackie or in Dalbeattie. Time will tell whether this happens, but it would make use of Palnackie Basin to a far greater extent.

Shennan Creek : There is a small wharf near the mouth of Shennan Creek beside the Urr, with a track to Orchard Knowes farm. This is thought to be a quarrying loading-point for Barnbarroch Quarry, but may also have unloaded rags for a short-lived paper mill in the area.

Kippford Pier and Slipway are all that remain of a once-thriving coastal port. The original fishing village expanded in the 1800s to accommodate a passenger and freight trade, ships of 350 to 400 tons routinely visiting the port. In the 1860s, the Caledonian Quarry Company built the present pier to load crushed granite into large vessels in the main channel. The pier survives, modified to a yacht marina. It is unclear whether timber jetties ever were used to assist other ships to load and unload, but the steamers and sailing packet ships on the Solway must have had some kind of jetty or boat tender to load passengers and freight. Any smaller vessels beached on the hard beside the river between tides.

To give some idea of the traffic through the Port of Dalbeattie as a whole, at its zenith in 1907 the various ports and quays were visited by 106 sailing vessels and 23 steamers, which unloaded 8,985 tons of cargo and took on 12,764 tons.

Ship Construction and Repair :

There was definitely a ship-building and repair business for sailing vessels just north of the Dub o'Hass, but it finished in the 1880s. A more successful venture at Kippford ran from 1820 to 1900, but further details on this and other Kippford history are given elsewhere in this site.

The noted historian Mr. Ernest Robinson will be publishing a book on the ships and seamen of the Urr estuary in the next year; visitors to this site will be kept informed of its availability.

Forwards to ;-
[Granite Quarries of the Urr Valley] [Industrial Mills on Dalbeattie Burn] [History of Kippford]

Dalbeattie Internet's owl Designed and managed for pleasure and profit by
Richard Edkins.
Site commenced 29th December 1997,
last updated 10th November 1999.