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Rooflines and facades, Kirkcudbright - - 34792.jpg
Flag of Kirkcudbrightshire
[Interactive map]
Area: 899 square miles
Population: 47,546
County town: Kirkcudbright
County flower: Bog-rosemary [2]

The County and Stewartry of Kirkcudbright (pronounced Ker-coo-bree), otherwise known as East Galloway is a shire on the north coast of the Solway Firth. With neighbouring Wigtownshire it forms the region of Galloway.

Kirkcudbrightshire is bounded on the west by Wigtownshire, a border marked by the River Cree and on the east and north-east by Dumfriesshire. To the north and north-west across the hills is Ayrshire, while the Irish Sea and the Solway Firth wash its coast at the south. To Kirkcudbrightshire belong the wee islands too of Hestan and Little Ross.


In 1372, Archibald the Grim, a bastard son of Sir James Douglas "the Good", became Lord of Galloway and received in perpetual fee the Crown lands between the Nith and the Cree.

Archibald appointed a steward to collect his revenues and administer justice, and there thus arose the designation of the "Stewartry of Kirkcudbright". The county is still called The Stewartry by its inhabitants.




The north-western part of the county is rugged, wild and desolate. Here are found Merrick, the county top and indeed the highest hill in the south of Scotland, and the group of the Rhinns of Kells.

The principal mountains in north-wester Kirkcudbrightshire are:

Towards the south-west are:

In the south-east the only imposing height is Criffel (1,868 feet). In the north rises the majestic hill of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn (2,614 feet), and close to the Ayrshire border is the Windy Standard (2,290 feet). The southern section of the shire is mostly level or undulating, but characterised by picturesque scenery.


The Black Water of Dee
By Loch Ken

The shore is generally bold and rocky, indented by numerous estuaries forming natural harbours, which however are of little use for commerce owing to the shallowness of the sea. Large stretches of sand are exposed in the Solway at low water and the rapid flow of the tide has often occasioned loss of life.

The number of burns and rivers is remarkable, but their length seldom exceeds 7 or 8 miles. Among the longer rivers are:

  • The Cree: which rises in Loch Moan and flows 30 miles to reach the sea near Creetown. It first forms the border with Ayrshire and then of Wigtownshire.
  • The Dee or Black Water of Dee (so named from the peat by which it is coloured), which rises in Loch Dee and after a course of 36 miles enters the sea at St Mary's Isle below Kirkcudbright.
  • The Urr Water: of 27 miles which rises in Loch Urr on the Dumfriesshire border and falls into the sea a few miles south of Dalbeattie.
  • The Water of Ken: of 24 miles, which rises near the Ayrshire border and flows down to join the Dee at the southern end of Loch Ken.
  • The Water of Deugh: which, rising on the northern flank of the Windy Standard, pursues an extraordinarily winding course of 20 miles before reaching the Ken.
  • The Nith meets Kirkcudbrightshire only in its the last few miles from just above Maxwelltown and Dumfries, whence it forms the border with Dumfriesshire, to which latter county it almost wholly belongs.

The Water of Ken in particular is loved for the beautiful scenery along its course

The lochs and mountain tarns are many and well-distributed; but except for Loch Ken, which is about 6 miles long by half a mile wide, few of them are of any great size.


The dales of Kirkcudbrightshire which sweep down to the sea are more modest than the famous dales of neighbouring Dumfriesshire but of a special beauty. The Urr Water cuts it way to the Solway below Dalbeattie, the Dee and Ken Water to Kirkcudbright, where the waters open out into the great inlet of Kirkcudbright Bay. The Cree Water further west is a boundary river opening into the broad bay of Wigtown.

There are several passes in the hill regions, but the only well-known valley is Glen Trool, not far from the district of Carrick in Ayrshire, the fame of which rests partly on the romantic character of its scenery, which is very wild around Loch Trool, and more especially on its associations with Robert the Bruce. It was here that when most closely beset by his enemies, who had tracked him to his fastness by sleuth hounds, Bruce with the aid of a few faithful followers won a surprise victory over the English in 1307, which proved the turning-point of his fortunes.


Silurian and Ordovician rocks are the most important in this county; they are thrown into oft-repeated folds with their axes lying in a north-east to south-west direction. The Ordovician rocks are graptolitic black shales and grits of Llandeilo and Caradoc age. They occupy all the northern part of the county north-west of a line which runs some three miles north of New Galloway and just south of the Rinns of Kells. South-east of this line graptolitic Silurian shales of Llandovery age prevail; they are found around Dalry, Creetown, New Galloway, Castle Douglas and Kirkcudbright.

Overlying the Llandovery beds on the south coast are strips of Wenlock rocks; they extend from Bridgehouse Bay to Auchinleck and are well exposed in Kirkcudbright Bay, and they can be traced farther round the coast between the granite and the younger rocks. Carboniferous rocks appear in small faulted tracts, unconformable on the Silurian, on the shores of the Solway Firth. They are best developed about Kirkbean, where they include a basal red breccia followed by conglomerates, grits and cement stones of Calciferous Sandstone age.

Brick-red sandstones of Permian age just come within the county on the W. side of the Nith at Dumfries. Volcanic necks occur in the Permian and basalt dikes penetrate the Silurian at Borgue, Kirkandrews, etc.

Most of the highest ground is formed by the masses of granite which have been intruded into the Ordovician and Silurian rocks; the Criffel mass lies about Dalbeattie and Bengairn, another mass extends east and west between the Cairnsmore of Fleet and Loch Ken, another lies north-west and south-east between Loch Doon and Loch Dee and a small mass forms the Cairnsmore of Carsphairn.

Glacial deposits occupy much of the low ground; the ice, having travelled in a southerly or south-easterly direction, has left abundant striae on the higher ground to indicate its course. Radiation of the ice streams took place from the heights of Merrick, Kells, etc.; local moraines are found near Carsphairn and in the Deagh and Minnoch valleys. Glacial drumlins of boulder clay lie in the vales of the Dee, Cree and Urr.


The Motte of Urr

Hereabouts the Romans found dwelling the Novantae tribe, and though Agricola's invasion in AD 79 subdued all this area, there is little evidence of there ever having been a prolonged effective Roman occupation in Kirkcudbrightshire.

After the retreat of the Romans the fate of the Novantae is unknown but by the 6th century Galloway was part of the Brythonic kingdom of Rheged. By the 7th century, much of Galloway became part of the English kingdom of Northumbria.

After the Norsemen conquered southern Northumbria the fate of the rest of the kingdom is unclear. It is likely that Galloway became part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. In later centuries there was significant immigration into Galloway from Ireland by the Hiberno-Norse Gallgaidhel, or "stranger Gaels", the Welsh equivalent for which, Galiwyddel, gave rise to the name of "Galloway", which still denotes the counties of Kirkcudbright and Wigtown. The Gallgaidhel founded a kingdom here and from the greatest of the chiefs, Fergus, descended the line of the Kings of Galloway. It has been argued, though inconclusively, that the Gallgaidhael were only a warrior aristocracy on top of an existing Anglo-Saxon / Welsh population.[1]

When the Kingdom of the Scots was consolidated under Kenneth MacAlpine (crowned in 844), Galloway did not form part of the kingdom; but in return for the services rendered to him at this crisis Kenneth gave his daughter in marriage to the Galloway chief, Olaf the White, and also conferred upon the men of Galloway the privilege of marching in the van of the Scottish armies, a right exercised and recognised for several centuries.

During the next two hundred years the country had no rest from Danish and Saxon incursions and the continual lawlessness of the Scandinavian rovers. When Malcolm Canmore defeated and slew Macbeth in 1057, he married the dead king's relative Ingibiorg, an event which marked the beginning of the decay of Norse influence. The Galloway chiefs hesitated for a time whether to throw in their lot with the English or with Malcolm, but the situation of their country at length induced them to become lieges of the Scottish king.

By the close of the 11th century, the boundary between England and Scotland was roughly delimited on what became permanent lines, leaving Galloway under Scotland. The Galloway chiefs resisted the growth of feudalism to the last, but ultimately the feudal system destroyed their power. Several of the lords or kings of Galloway asserted in vain their independence of the Scottish crown but in 1234 the line of Fergus became extinct in the male branch on the death of Fergus's great-grandson Alan.

Sweetheart Abbey

One of Alan's daughters, Dervorguilla, married John, 5th feudal Lord Balliol and their son was King John I of Scotland (1292–1296). After Lord Baliol's death, Dervorguilla went into deep mourning and had his heart embalmed and kept in a casket of ivory bound with silver which went with her all her days, until at last she was buried with her husband in a monastery of her foundation in Kirkcudbrightshire, known as Sweetheart Abbey. For love of Dervorguilla and the House of Balliol, the people of Galloway were no more than lukewarm in support of Robert I ("the Bruce"). In 1308 the district was cleared of the English and brought under allegiance to the king, when the lordship of Galloway was given to Edward Bruce. Later in the 14th century Galloway espoused the cause of Edward Baliol, who surrendered several counties, including Kirkcudbrightshire, to Edward III of England.

In 1372 Archibald the Grim, a bastard son of Sir James Douglas "the Good", became Lord of Galloway and received in perpetual fee the Crown lands between the Nith and the Cree. He appointed a steward to collect his revenues and administer justice, and there thus arose the designation of the "Stewartry of Kirkcudbright".

Threave Castle

The high-handed rule of the Douglases created general discontent, and when their treason became apparent their territory was overrun by the king's men in 1455; Douglas was attainted, and his honours and estates were forfeited. In that year the great stronghold of Threave Castle in Kirkcudbrightshire, the most important fortress in Galloway, which Archibald the Grim had built on the Dee immediately to the west of the modern town of Castle Douglas, was reduced and converted into a royal keep. (It was dismantled in 1640 by order of the Estates in consequence of the hostility of its keeper, Lord Nithsdale, to the Solemn League and Covenant.) The famous cannon Mons Meg, now in Edinburgh Castle, is said, apparently on limited evidence, to have been constructed in order to aid James III in this siege.

As the Douglases went down the Maxwells rose, and the debatable land on the south-east of Dumfriesshire was for generations the scene of strife and raid, not only between the two nations but also among the leading families, of whom the Maxwells, Johnstones and Armstrongs were always conspicuous. After the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542, the shires of Kirkcudbright and Dumfries fell under English rule for a short period. The treaty of Norham (24 March 1550) established a truce between the nations for ten years, and two years later the border between Cumberland and Dumfriesshire was settled at last.

At the Reformation, Kirkcudbrightshire became fervent in its Protestantism. Nevertheless, it was to Galloway that Mary, Queen of Scots, owed her warmest adherents, through the influence of the great landowners and the attachment of the people to them. It was from the coast of Kirkcudbright that she made her luckless voyage to England.

The crowns of Scotland and England were united in 1603 and the reivers put down. Henceforth the trouble in these lands was over the form of the Kirk and the position of bishops within it. Kirkcudbrightshire was strongly for the Covenant, which demanded an end to bishops, and nowhere were the Covenanters more cruelly persecuted than in Galloway.

The bishops were finally done away with at the Glorious Revolution in 1689 and the Union settled in 1707, bringing peace. Growing commercial prosperity was marked oddly by the extent of smuggling on the Galloway coast, for no coast could serve the "free traders" better than the shores of Kirkcudbright, and the contraband trade flourished until the 19th century. The Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 elicited little sympathy from the inhabitants of the shire.

Smuggling was put down by the nineteenth century, reduced by the annexation to the Crown of the Isle of Man in 1765, the union with Ireland in 1800 and the reduction in punitive customs duties, though many a "Smuggler's Inn" graces the towns of Kirkcudbrightshire's shores today. The railways came in the Victorian period, though the indented coast and unforgiving hills limited their penetration of Kirkcudbrightshire largely to branch lines.

Towns and villages

A police station in Kirkcudbright

The main towns and larger villages of Kirkcudbrightshire are:

Other noteworthy villages include:


Things to see in Kirkcudbrightshire

Cardoness Castle
Cathedral/Abbey/Priory Cathedral/Abbey/Priory
Accessible open space Accessible open space
Amusement/Theme Park Amusement/Theme Park
Castle Castle
Country Park Country Park
Historic Scotland Historic Scotland
Forestry Commission Forestry Commission
Heritage railway Heritage railway
Historic house Historic House
Museum (free)
Museum (not free)
Museum (free/not free)
National Trust for Scotland National Trust for Scotland
Zoo Zoo


  1. [1] Report by Alistair Livingston to the Scottish Parliament on the Gaelic Language Bill


  • Maxwell, Sir Herbert: History of Dumfries and Galloway (Edinburgh, 1896)
  • Symson, The Rev Andrew A Large Description of Galloway (1684; new ed., 1823)
  • Murray, Thomas: The Literary History of Galloway (1822)
  • Mackenzie, The Rev. William: History of Galloway (1841)
  • McKerlie, P H: History of the Lands and their Owners in Galloway (Edinburgh, 1870–1879)
  • Galloway Ancient and Modern (Edinburgh, 1891)
  • Murray, J A H: Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland (London, 1873)
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