Historical description of Wigtownshire, Scotland

WIGTOWNSHIRE, a maritime county, in the south-west of SCOTLAND, bounded on the north by Ayrshire; on the east by the stewartry or county of Kirkcudbright and by Wigtown bay; and on the south and west by the Irish Sea. It lies between 54° 38' and 56° 5' (N. Lat.) and 4° 16' and 5° 7' (W. Long.), and is about 32 miles in length and 29 miles in extreme breadth; comprising an area of nearly 480 square miles, or 305,000 acres; 7711 houses, of which 7440 are inhabited; and containing a population of 39,195, of whom 18,290 are males and 20,905 females. This county, which forms the western portion of the ancient district of Galloway, appears to have derived its name from the situation of its chief, or perhaps at that time its only, town, on an eminence whose base was washed by the sea. At the period of the Roman invasion of Britain, it was inhabited by the Celtic tribe of the Novantes, who seem to have in a great measure maintained their independence against the attempts of the Romans to reduce them to subjection. On the departure of the Romans, the province became part of the territories of the Northumbrian kings, under whose government it remained till the commencement of the ninth century, when it fell into the power of the Picts, who continued, for a considerable time after the union of the two kingdoms by Kenneth II., to exercise a kind of sovereign authority in this part of Scotland. But amid all these changes, the original Celtic inhabitants retained their ancient customs, and preserved that natural impetuosity of character and indomitable spirit which caused them to be known as the "wild Scots of Galloway". From their heroic valour, they obtained from the Scottish monarchs the privilege of forming the van in every engagement at which they might be present; and under their own independent lord, who was killed in the conflict, they highly distinguished themselves at the battle of the Standard in the reign of David I. The last of the lords of Galloway was Allan, whose grandson, John Baliol, succeeded to the Scottish throne on the death of Alexander III. After the decease of Robert Bruce, the county of Wigtown, with the title of Earl, was conferred by David II. on Sir Malcolm Fleming, from whose family the lands passed to the Douglases, by whom they were held till their forfeiture in 1453, after which they were divided among various families, the Agnews being created heritable sheriffs.

Previously to the abolition of episcopacy, the county was included in the diocese of Galloway; it is now in the synod of Galloway, and comprises the presbyteries of Wigtown and Stranraer, and seventeen parishes. For civil purposes the county is under the jurisdiction of a sheriff-depute, by whom a sheriff-substitute is appointed, who resides at Wigtown, the county-town, where quarter-sessions are held in March, May, and October, and the sheriff's court every Tuesday. A court of quarter-session is held at Glenluce on the first Tuesday in August; and sheriffs courts for small debts are holden at Stranraer every alternate month, and at Newton-Stewart and Whithorn every three months. The county contains the three royal burghs of Wigtown, Stranraer, and Whithorn; the burghs-of-barony of Newton-Stewart, Garliestown, Glenluce, and Portpatrick; and several small ports and thriving villages. Under the act of the 2nd of William IV., the shire returns one member to the imperial parliament.

The SURFACE, though generally level, is diversified with numerous hills, some few of which attain a considerable degree of elevation. The coast is deeply indented with bays. That of Wigtown, on the south-east, partly separates the county from the stewartry of Kirkcudbright; and the bay of Luce on the south, and Loch Ryan on the north-west, divide the western portion of it into the two peninsulas called the Rhynns of Galloway. Of the several rivers, the principal is the Cree, which has its rise on the confines of Ayrshire, and taking a south-eastern course, partly separates the county from the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, and falls into Wigtown bay; it abounds with salmon, and is navigable for several miles. The river Bladnoch rises in the district of Carrick, in the south of Ayrshire, and after a southern course of several miles through the county of Wigtown, falls into Wigtown bay. The small river Poltanton, or Piltanton, after a short course flows into Luce bay. There are various less important streams; and of the numerous inland lakes, which are generally of but small extent, the most interesting, from the beauty of the surrounding scenery, are those of Castle-Kennedy and Soulseat, in the parish of Inch. The woods, with which the county appears to have formerly abounded, have almost entirely disappeared; but of late years, the deficiency has been supplied by plantations, which succeed well. Scotch fir and oak thrive with care, and also spruce and silver firs under the protection of the pinaster introduced by the Earl of Galloway; but the most luxuriant trees are the beech, ash, elm, sycamore, birch, alder, plane, and larch, for which the land seems peculiarly favourable.

The SOIL is generally a shallow hazel loam resting on a gravelly bottom, with large tracts of moss and moor occurring in several places, and considerable portions of fine pasture; the richest land is near the coasts. On the shores of Wigtown and Luce bays are extensive breadths of sands, at low water. Agriculture has been gradually improving, and the rotation plan is prevalent; the chief crops are oats, barley, turnips, and potatoes. The farms mostly vary from 300 to 700 acres, but some few are nearly 1500 acres in extent: the farm-buildings, formerly of very inferior character, have been much improved. The principal manures are lime, marl, seashell, and sea-weed, of which last abundance is found on the coast. In many parts the lands have been drained and inclosed, on the sheep-farms principally with stone dykes, and on the arable lands with hedges of thorn; and under the auspices of the Earl of Galloway and others, the various agricultural improvements that originated in the county of Dumfries, have been adopted almost to their full extent in this part of the country. Considerable attention is paid to the rearing of live-stock. The cattle are of the native breed, hardy, compact, and well-proportioned; and great numbers of them, both fat and lean, are sent to the southern markets. In general the sheep are of the black-faced breed; but a small kind of the white-faced, supposed to be of Spanish origin, is reared, and also some of the Linton, Teeswater, and Northumberland breeds: large numbers of sheep are pastured on the moorlands, in flocks of from 10,000 to 15,000. The horses, being of the true Galloway breed, are much esteemed; and large numbers of swine are fed, forming not only a profitable stock for home consumption, but also for exportation, not less than from 15,000 to 20,000 being annually shipped.

The principal rocks are schistus whinstone, sandstone, clay-slate, and, in some places, greenstone, porphyry, and the basaltic formation. Iron-ore is understood to be abundant, but from the want of coal it is unavailable; and there are indications of copper-ore in the vicinity of Whithorn. The seats within the county are Galloway House, Craighlaw, Dunskey, Ardwell House, Dunragget, Balgreggan, Kildrochet, Glasserton, Monreith, Lothnaw Castle, Barnbarroch House, Penninghame House, Merton Hall, Corswall House, Physgill, Corsbie, and Logan, with various others. From the scarcity of fuel, the manufactures are very inconsiderable. The principal public works are distilleries. Flax-spinning for domestic use, and weaving by hand-looms for the supply of the district, are carried on to a moderate extent; and a portion of the females are employed in embroidering muslin. The chief trade consists in the fisheries off the coast, which are very extensive, and for which the numerous bays afford ample accommodation; and in the exportation of grain and other agricultural produce, black-cattle, sheep, swine, and wool, in the conveyance of which a considerable number of vessels are employed. Facility of communication throughout the interior is maintained by good roads in various directions; and of the steam-boats that frequent the ports, one plies between Portpatrick and Donaghadee on the opposite coast of Ireland. The annual value of real property in the county is £135,407, of which £124,807 are returned for lands, £10,062 for houses, £507 for fisheries, and £31 for quarries. Among the antiquities are, some Druidical remains at Torhouse, where is a circle of nineteen stones of unhewn granite; similar relics at Glentarra; numerous ruins of castles, of which those of Sorbie are beautifully picturesque; cairns, tumuli, encampments, and relics of Roman antiquity; the remains of the abbey of Luce, of which the chapter-house is still entire; and the ruins of ancient chapels and some other religious houses.

Transcribed from Samuel Lewis' A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851