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Solway Firth

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2018.

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Solway Firth (the Itunæ. Aestuarium of Ptolemy), a projection of the Irish Sea north - eastward between Scotland and England. Its entrance on the English side is obviously at St Bees Head in Cumberland; but, on the Scottish side, is far from being distinctly marked, and has been very variously stated. Burrow Head, at the southern extremity of the district of Machars in Wigtownshire, is the furthest and the most commonly assigned entrance; yet between that headland and Balmae Head or even Balcarry Point, respectively 15¾ and 25 miles in a straight line east-north-eastward, the whole Scottish coast directly confronts the entire expanse of the Irish Sea. Starting from Burrow Head, the firth measures 32½ miles across the entrance, and 49 miles in length; but measured from Balcarry Point, it is only 22 miles across the entrance, and 36½ miles in length. From Balcarry Point to the mouth of Pow Water in Cummertrees, it extends nearly due north-eastward, and gradually contracting in width, though with occasional expansions, has a maximum breadth of 18¼ miles, a minimum breadth of 7, and a mean breadth of 13. From the mouth of Pow Water to its head-a distance of 13½ miles-it extends in an easterly direction, and has a varying breadth of from 1 1/3 mile to 8½ miles-the maximum being at Morecambe Bay, and the minimum near the Solway Viaduct. The streams, bays, and coasts of the firth on the English side do not come within our scope. The Sark, Kirtle Water, and some smaller streams enter it on the Dumfriesshire coast, without forming estuaries; the Annan, Pow Water, and Lochar Water enter it on the same coast through estuaries of but small extent; and the Nith, before entering it, forms along and gradually expanding estuary between Dumfriesshire and Galloway. The chief streams which enter it in Galloway, calculating to the extreme point of Burrow Head, are Southwick Water, Urr Water, the Dee, the Fleet, the Cree, and the Bladenoch; and its principal marine expansions within the same range of seaboard are the estuary of the Urr, Auchencairn Bay, Kirkcudbright Bay, Fleet Bay, and, chief of all, Wigtown Bay. The coast along Dumfriesshire is low and sandy, and ascends by an exceedingly low gradient from the line of high-water mark; but along the greater part of Galloway it is bold and rocky, and exhibits cliffs, caverns, pinnacles, isolated rocks, and a variegated rampart in such frequent and curious combinations as to produce abundance of picturesque scenery. The Solway, as to the depth of its water, the character of its beach, and especially the phenomena of its tides, differs widely from every other firth in Scotland, or even from every other marine indentation in the world. Over a distance of about 20 miles from its head, the whole of its bed, excepting the narrow and canal-like channels of the Nith and the confluent waters which enter near the eastern extremity, is alternately a surgy brown sea, tinctured with silt, and oscillating with the tide, and a naked, flat, unrelieved expanse of sand, a wilderness of desolation, a miniature Sahara, strangely interposing its dark dreary projection between the blooming slopes of Cumberland and the fertile lands of Scotland. Much of its beach, or rather of its bed, even in its broader and more seaward parts, is of the same character; so very much, indeed, that were the firth estimated only by the space it covers at low water, it would figure in comparative insignificance. All its tides are rapid, and constitute rather a rush or careering race than a flow or a current of waters. A spring tide, but especially a tide which runs before a stiff breeze from the S or the SW, careers along at the rate of from 8 to 10 miles an hour. It is heard by the people along the shore more than 20 miles before it reaches them, and approaches with a hoarse loud roar, with a tumult far more sublime than if the wide sandy waste were scoured by the fleetest host of invading cavalry. Before the first wave can be descried from the shore, a long cloud of spray is seen, as if whirling on an axis, zoned with mimic rainbows, sweeping onward with the speed of a strong steady breeze; then follows a long curved white and flowing surf; and then suddenly appears the majestic van of the tide, a deeply dimpled body of waters, from 3 to 6 feet high, rolling impetuously forward, and bringing closely in its rear a tumbling mass of sea, glittering and gorgeous all over with the most fitful play of the prismatic colours. Accidents occasionally occur with ships, and have been very frequent-though much less so of late years than before- with persons venturing within high-water mark. The rivers which traverse the bed of the firth being easily fordable, strong inducement is offered by the shortness of the path to cross the sands to England during the recess of the tide. But Scotchmen, even when wellmounted, have, in numerous instances-sometimes to an amount to constitute a literal catastrophe -been overtaken and drowned, while returning from the Cumberland fairs. Even persons best acquainted with the locality are liable to mistake in their calculations of the time when the tide will approach; and, when they are halfway across, may hear the appalling sound of the watery invasion so near and menacing, that a clear atmosphere, a good steed, much self-collectedness, and a steady remembrance of the direction of the path, may all be necessary for their preservation. Dense fogs frequently arise, and so bewilder experienced guides, that they can proceed in safety only with the aid of the compass; and quicksands are occasionally formed, and fitfully shift their localities, to the imminent peril of every intruder who has not watched the impressions made upon the ground by almost every successive tide.

The fisheries of the Solway are extensive and various. Some curious particulars respecting their former condition are furnished in Scott's novel of Redgauntlet. The mode of fishing is principally by stake'nets, which are wholly submerged by the tide, and which, when the tide is out, contribute their lank proportions to the prevailing dreariness of the landscape. Salmon, herling, sea-trout, flounders, and codlings are taken in large quantities; turbot and soles occur, but are not plentiful; herrings, at a former period, were in some seasons caught and cured in great abundance, but of late they appear but occasionally, and not in large numbers; and mussels and cockles are gathered along the shores by poor persons, and carried weekly to the markets of Dumfries and Carlisle. The fishings usually commence early in March, and close before the end of September. The Solway, in spite of the singular character of its tides, and in spite of the opening of railways, is still of value to Dumfriesshire and Kirkcudbrightshire for its navigation; much more so, in proportion, than it is to Cumberland. Not only the seaboard, but most of the interior of the counties, is far distant from Scottish coal of any sort, and especially from coal of good quality, so is largely dependent on Workington, Whitehaven, and other places near the mouth of the English side of the Solway, for supplies of fuel. The amount of tonnage in vessels employed in importing coals is, in consequence, aggregately great. The export trade, too, of the two counties, or the outlet for the produce of their arable farms, their grazing-grounds, their sheep-walks, their dairies, and their poultry yards, is mainly with Liverpool and other English towns on the western coast, and is largely carried on by the navigation of the Solway. Ordinary tides rise about 10 or 12 feet, and spring tides about 20; and they bring enough of water up to the very head of the firth to let vessels of 120 tons move up the channel of the stream to the foot of the river Sark. The Solway has long been gradually receding from the land; it once filled the large area now occupied by Lochar Moss, and covered less than a century ago lauds which are now verdant or arable 1 mile distant from its present high-water mark. The Solway Railway Viaduct, described under Annan, has been reconstructed, and was reopened to traffic in 1884.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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