While the industrial revolution took its toll in the landscapes and townscapes of the Central Belt of Scotland, Galloway never developed large-scale industry. It benefited early from improvements in agricultural practices (the lands south of Wigtown at Baldoon were some of the first to be enclosed and ‘improved’ in the country) and, thanks to its mild winters and good grass production, became a beef-rearing area; by the end of the nineteenth century, the railways and the influx of Ayrshire farmers meant a change from beef to dairying, with newly accessible markets for milk in the cities. The creameries provided much employment for about eighty years, and remains of creamery buildings can be seen at Whithorn, just north of the town convenient to the now-vanished railway, at Sorbie (now occupied by Galloway Granite) and at Bladnoch, near Wigtown. The railway reached Whithorn in 1877, and its line may just be traced through overgrown briars and whin-bushes to the north of the town; the last passenger service was in 1950 and the last train pulled away in 1964. The bend in the road as you approach Whithorn is at the point of the old level crossing. There was a branch line to Garlieston harbour and other stretches of embankment can be seen between Garlieston and Sorbie, at Whauphill, and at various points on the A 714 road to Newton Stewart.
The coastal trade and the steam packets plying from the Machars to Liverpool and the Cumbrian coast were affected by the advent of the railway, but these had previously kept the ports at Garlieston , the Isle of Whithorn and Port William busy with the transport of livestock and feedstuffs.
Various industrial enterprises were attempted in the early years after the industrial revolution, including tanning in Whithorn, a cotton mill, damask weaving in Sorbie, and local milling of oats using both water and wind-power – at Whithorn (now demolished), Portyerrock on the east near the Isle, and at Bysbie Mill in the Isle village, and at the still existing buildings in the middle of Port William. Pigot and Slater’s Directory produced throughout the nineteenth century and republished by Dumfries and Galloway Libraries, provides a fascinating glimpse of the trades which once made these small Machars settlements virtually self-sufficient well into the twentieth century : drapers, shoemakers, candlemakers, saddlers, blacksmiths, tide-waiters, and even actors are listed amongst the traders and shopkeepers of Whithorn, Port William, the Isle and Garlieston.
Today, agriculture is still a significant industry, but with the advent of more powerful machinery, no longer provides the large-scale employment it gave up until the Second World War. The construction industry and the Army provide some opportunities for school-leavers, and many work in shops and services throughout the Machars, or commute to larger centres such as Stranraer. Whithorn has managed to maintain a remarkably large selection of shops for its size, and continues to act as a service centre for the surrounding countryside. There is also a high concentration of self-employed businesses, particularly in the traditionally skilled trades such as joinery, plumbing, building, and tourism, through accommodation and food providers, is a growing sector. It continues to be a struggle, however, to increase employment opportunities for the young, without any large-scale industrial enterprises.