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Wigtown

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.

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Wigtown or Wigton, a town and a parish on the E border of Wigtownshire, and on the W shore of Wigtown Bay. The name is derived either from wic, `a village,' and ton, `a hill;' or from wic, `a bay,' and ton, 'a town ' - derivations which are both supported by the actual position of the town. The form Wigtown is generally used so as to distinguish the Scottish burgh from the Cumberland town of Wigton.

The town is a royal and parliamentary burgh, a seaport and seat of trade, and ranks as the county town of Wigtownshire. It is situated on a tabular bill of about 200 acres in area, rising to a height of over 100 feet above sea-level, and commanding an extensive view. It has a station on the Wigtownshire railway, and stands about 3 furlongs NNW of the mouth of the Bladenoch, 7 ¼ miles S by E of Newton-Stewart, 11 N of Whithorn, 26 E of Stranraer, and by road 129 SSW of Edinburgh. As seen from a distance the town presents a very picturesque appearance; and its neatness, cleanliness, and general air of comfort and good taste favourably impress those who enter it. The houses are built in a great diversity of styles, which lends an air of quaint variety to the principal streets; while some of the more recent edifices attain a very considerable degree of elegance. The principal locality in the town is the central rectangle, about 250 yards long, and covering fully an acre of ground. The centre of this space is occupied by a public bowling-green, surrounded by gravelled walks, shaded by trees and shrubs, the whole being divided by a railing from the roadway, which runs all round. The site of this public square, which adds very much to the beauty of the town, was in the old days used as a common dunghill; and it is one of the stories of the town that on one occasion during an election, a public banquet was given on a temporary platform of boards, hastily erected on this unsavoury site. The other main thoroughfares of the town are more or less directly connected with this central square. Within its bounds stand the old and new burgh cross. The former consists of a column 10 feet high, and 18 inches in diameter, resting on a square base, and crowned by a square stone on which dials are sculptured. The new cross was erected to commemorate the battle of Waterloo, although it bears the date 1816, the year after that event. It is an elegantly sculptured stone monument, on an octagonal base, and is about 20 feet high. It is surrounded by a railing. The town-hall stands at the lower extremity of the square, on the site of an older building of the same nature, erected about 1756. The present fine Tudor edifice was built in 1862-63, and has a lofty tower. It contains a court-room and the various county offices, besides a large assembly-room. On the two sides of the entrance are carved the burgh arms of Stranraer and Whithorn; and above the arched windows, the initial letters of the names of the principal places in the county. The burgh arms of Wigtown appear on the tower, near a slab bearing the royal arms, which was taken from the former court-house, and is now placed over the side-entrance. A bell, weighing over 7 cwt., was presented by Provost Murray in 1881, in place of one dated 1633. The prison for the Lower District of the county was legalised in 1848, but was closed in 1878. Other noteworthy buildings, besides the churches, are the board school and the bank offices. The ancient church of Wigtown stood on a retired spot about 100 yards from the E end of the town, and was dedicated to St Machute, who died in 554. Given by Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert, to the monks of Whithorn, it became afterwards a free rectory under the patronage of the crown; though about 1650 the patronage was acquired by the Earl of Galloway. The original church was rebuilt in 1730, repaired in 1770, and re-roofed in 1831, but is now in a state of ruin. The present parochial church, erected in 1853, adjoins the ruin. It is an ornamental structure with a handsome spire, and contains 660 sittings. The Free church is in the Quay Road, in the SW of the town, and contains 400 sittings. The U.P. church, built in 1845, with 700 sittings, is an unpretentious building near the townhead. The only other church in Wigtown is the Roman Catholic church of the Sacred Heart, built in 1879 to hold 250. It has a school connected with it with an average of 60 pupils. The other schools in the town are the burgh and parochial board school, the Normal school, and the Charity school. The accommodation, average attendance, and government grant for these in 1883-84 were respectively 165, 156, £154; 116, 48, £24; 154, 48, £38. The cemetery surrounds the parochial church; and contains the tombstones of the Martyrs of Wigtown, whose fate is described below. That of Margaret Wilson is a horizontal slab supported by four short pillars, and bears the following inscription in addition to her name:

'Let earth and stone still witness beare,
Their lys a virgine martyr here,
Murther'd for owning Christ supreame
Head of His Church, and no more crime,
But not abjuring Presbytury,
And her not ouning Prelacy.
They her coudem'd by unjust law
Of Heaven nor Hell they stood no aw;
Within the sea ty'd to a stake,
She suffered for christ Jesus sake.
The actors of this cruel crime
Was Lagg. Strachan. winram. and Grhame.
Neither young years nor yet old age
Could stop the fury of there rage.'

A small upright stone commemorates her fellow sufferer, Margaret MacLachlan; and a plain upright-slab records that

'Here lyse William Johnston
John Milroy George walker who was with
out sentence of law hanged by Major
Winram for their adherence to Scot
lands Reformation covenants nation
al and solam leagwe
1685.

Wigtown has a post office with money order, savings' bank, and telegraph departments, branches of the British Linen, Clydesdale, and National Banks, and 18 insurance agencies. The chief hotels are the Galloway Arms and the Commercial Inn. Among the other institutions are a mechanics' institute, the Wigtownshire agricultural society, a gas company, a masonic lodge, the Wigtownshire railway company (incorporated 1872), and various religions and benevolent associations. A cattle market is held on the fourth Friday of every month; but various other periodical markets have been given up. The old harbour of Wigtown was a creek at the mouth of the Bladenoch, but became blocked about 1818 in consequence of a change in the river's current. The new harbour, about ¼ mile S of the town, was formed at a considerable cost by the corporation; and has quays and a breast-work. Ships of 300 tons burden can approach the quay. The little trade that is carried on consists in the export of agricultural produce and the import of coal, lime, and manures. The tonnage belonging to the port in the annual average of 1845-49 was 3892; in 1856, 2080 in 54 vessels; in 1875, 1931 in 40 vessels; and in 1884, 1466 tons in 35 vessels, none of them steamers. There entered in 1m83 vessels of an aggregate tonnage of 5736; and cleared vessels of an aggregate tonnage of 5412. Wigtown is the seat of a custom house which comprehends in its district the creeks of Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbright, from the Mull of Galloway to the mouth of the river Fleet.

Wigtown, described on its seal as an `antiquissimum burguim,' has been asserted to have been a royal burgh from the reign of David II. But the original grants having been lost or destroyed, James II. granted a new charter in 1457, which was confirmed by the Scottish parliament in 1661. In 1662 Charles II. confirmed and extended the burghal rights in a new charter. The burgh is governed by a provost, 2 bailies, a treasurer, and 15 councillors. The municipal revenue in 1884-85 was £577; and the financial affairs were florishing. Landed property of the burgh at one time extended to 1200 acres, but has been much diminished by alienation; but it is still considerable, and includes the farms of Maidland and Kirklandhill. The municipal constituency in 1885 was 285, of whom 63 were females. Wigtown unites with Whithorn (230), Stranraer (788), and New Galloway (60) in sending a member to parliament, and is the returning burgh; but under the Redistribution Bill of 1885 it is proposed to merge it in the county. In the beginning of 1885 its parliamentary constituency was 219. Sheriff, ordinary, and commissary courts, and a sheriff small debt court are held every Tuesday during session; a justice of peace court is held on the first Friday of every month; and quarter sessions on the first Tuesday of March and May, and the last Tuesday of October. Valuation (1875) £5479, (1885) £5573, plus £156 for railway. Pop. of parliamentary burgh (1841) 1870, (1861) 2027, (1871) 1780, (1881) 1722, of whom 967 were females. Houses (1881) inhabited 395, vacant 23.

History and Antiquities.—A grassy mound between the town and the harbour marks the site of Wigtown Castle, which stood on the banks of the former course of the Bladenoch. Although the outline of the structure was traced in 1830, the materials had long previously been removed for building purposes. Whether or not it was originally founded by early Saxon invaders, it appears to have existed in the time of Edward I. of England, for whom it was held by Walter de Currie in 1291, and by Richard Siward in 1292. Sir William Wallace is said to have captured it in 1297, and to have entrusted it to Adam Gordon. Subsequently it was delivered to John Baliol, as King of Scotland, and served for a time as a royal residence. Its place in history is insignificant, and its progress through gradual decay to eventual destruction has not been traced. A Dominican priory was founded near the castle in 1267 by Devorgille, mother of John Baliol, and though never very important, received privileges from various kings. Alexander III. granted to the monks a large share of the rents of the town of Wigtown, and they also held royal grants of fisheries on both sides of the river. James IV. used to lodge within its walls on occasion of his frequent pilgrimages to St Ninian's shrine at Whithorn, and repaid its hospitality by various gifts and grants. The priory was surrounded by an extensive cemetery; but it never attained much eminence, and passed into ruin before 1684. Though a portion of its walls was to be seen in 1818, they cannot now be traced. Wigtown gave the title of Earl from 1606 till 1747 to the family of Fleming. See Biggar.

The most striking incident in the history of the burgh is the execution of the ` Drowned Women of Wigtown,' whose graves are mentioned above. Margaret Wilson, a girl of eighteen years, and Margaret MacLachlan, aged sixty-three, together with Agnes Wilson, a younger sister of the first-named, arrested on a charge of nonconformity to Episcopal Church-government, rebellion, and presence at field conventicles, were brought before the judges whose names appear in the epitaph already quoted. All three refused the Abjuration Oath when it was put to them, and all were brought in guilty. The sentence was at once pronounced, that the three should be tied to stakes fixed within the flood-mark in the Water of Bladenoch, where the sea flowed at high water, so that they should be drowned by the incoming tide. Agnes Wilson was got out by her father (who had conformed) upon a bond of £100, which was duly exacted on her non-appearance, but on the other two the sentence was performed 11 May 1685. ` The two women,' writes Wodrow, `were brought from Wigtown, with a numerous crowd of spectators, to so extraordinary an execution. Major Windram, with some soldiers, guarded them to the place of execution. The old woman's stake was a good way in beyond the other, and she was the first despatched, in order to terrify the other to a compliance with such oaths and conditions as they required. But in vain, for she adhered to her principles with an unshaken steadfastness.' After the water had covered Margaret Wilson, but before she was quite dead, she was pulled up; and when she had recovered, another chance of taking the Abjuration Oath was given to her. `Most deliberately,' continues the account, `she refused, and said, "I will not; I am one of Christ's children; let me go!" Upon which she was thrust down again into the water, where she finished her course with joy.' Efforts have been made to prove that the sentence was never really executed, but that a recommendation to pardon, made by the Lords of the Privy Council, which appears in the Council registers, was carried into effect. Abundant evidence has, however, been brought to prove the fatal issue of events-probably before the notice of remission had time to be conveyed from Edinburgh to Wigtown. The Bladenoch has altered its course since that tragic event, but its former channel is still to be traced, a little to the N of its present course. On Windy Hill, which is the highest point of the eminence on which the town stands, a monumental obelisk has been raised, at a cost of £200, to the memory of the martyrs. See Mark Napier's Case for the Crown (1863), and the Rev. Dr Arch. Stewart's History Vindicated(2d ed. 1869). The parish of Wigtown is bounded on the N and W by Penninghame, S by Kirkinner, and E by Wigtown Bay. Its greatest length, from E to W, is 4 ½ miles; its greatest breadth is nearly 4 miles; and its area is 9633 acres, of which 1793 ½ are foreshore and 34 ¾ water. The northern boundary is traced for 3 ¼ miles by the exceedingly zig-zag course of the Bishop Burn, and the Bladenoch winds 6 3/8 miles east-by-southward along all the Kirkinner boundary. The E frontier of the parish is fringed by a broad expanse of flat sand and salt marsh, 2 ½ miles long by 2 broad, covered by the sea at high tide, but dry at low water, across which the streams force their way, to fall into the estuary of the Cree. The surface of the parish in no place much exceeds 200 feet above sea-level. Wood Fell, in the NE, attains that height, together with several points close by, as does also a height in the W at Balmeg on Torhousemoor. The S district is tumulated and hillocky, but nowhere attains a much higher level than 100 feet. A district to the NE, about 2 ½ miles by 1 ½ mile in extent, and forming the S extremity of the Mosses of Cree, which stretch into Penninghame, is an almost uninterrupted level, bearing evidence of having been at successive epochs covered by the sea, by forest, and by bogs. Though much of it has been reclaimed for the plough, Barrow or Burgh Moss and Carsegown Moss still cover a considerable part of its snrface. The centre and SW of the parish- are occupied partly by Claughrie and Torhouse Moors. The soil of the parish is chiefly a dry light hazel mould, lying on till or gravel. The prevailing rocks are greywacke or greywacke slate. Besides the streams on the boundaries, the only other is the Barrowmoss Burn, which flows from the skirts of Wood Fell E through the centre of the parish to the estuary of the Cree.

Besides the royal burgh of Wigtown, the parish contains the village of Bladenoch. The S is traversed by the high road to Portpatrick, and the E by two roads to Newton-Stewart. The Wigtownshire railway runs from N to S through the E of the parish for about 4 miles. The chief mansion in the parish is Torhouse. The chief industry is agriculture. There are some small manufactures in Wigtown, and there is a distillery at Bladenoch. The parish is the seat of a presbytery in the synod of Galloway; the living is worth £455. The parochial church and the schools have already been noted above. The Free Church also has a presbytery of Wigtown. Valuation of parish (1884-85) £6305, 13s. 9d. Pop. (1755) 1032, (1801) 1475, (1831) 2337, (1861) 2637, (1871) 2306, (1881) 2198, of whom only 395 were landward. Houses (1881) inhabited 481, vacant 25. The chief antiquities are the Standing Stones of Torhouse, and Torhouskie Fort or Cairn. The former are of unpolished granite, from 2 to 5 feet long, from 4 to 9 in girth, and from 5 to 12 asunder. They form a circle of 218 feet, and number 19 on the circumference and 3 in the centre. Some antiquaries regard them as Druidical remains; others, among whom are Sibbald, Timothy Pont, and Symson, prefer to regard them as monuments to the Scottish King Galdus, who conquered the province from the Romans. Torhousekie Fort is situated on a rising-ground in the W, and shows remains of two circular stone walls. There is a well dedicated to St Ninian near the intersection of Barrowmoss Burn and the Newton-Stewart road.—Ord. Sur., sh. 4, 1857.

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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