It would be easy for the traveller to miss the significance of Sorbie, even its speed limit, on the main Newton Stewart to Whithorn road. But, like Kirkinner, Sorbie is a mid-seventeenth century amalgamation of medieval parishes : of Sorbie, Kirkmadrine and Cruggleton, and it became the economic and social centre for a prosperous farming area. The earlier 13th century amalgamation of Great Sorby and Little Sorby had been achieved by the Hannays of Sorbie Tower and lasted until they sold their estate to the Earls of Galloway. In the 18th century, they enlarged and developed the village to accommodate a thiriving damask weaving industry, which prospered for over sixty years, winning the award for the best cloth in Scotland in 1834. The Old Parish Church, now in ruins, replaced former churches until it, in turn, was replaced in 1877 by the Parish Church at Millisle, near Garlieston. This move, however, prompted the building of a Free Church in Sorbie and a Congregational Church in Garlieston.
The hub of the economic services to the parish and a far wider area was the smithy. It became a large business, shoeing horses, making and repairing implements, gates and equipment, and farm carts, in conjunction with the joiner’s business opposite. Before and during the 20th century, it was owned by the Wood family, the last member, Tommy Wood, being a legend far and wide in ploughing circles, and locally for his unsparing services to the farming community. Twice an international ploughing competition was won by a Sorbie ploughman, with a Wood’s plough. Often in busy pre-War days, four anvils would be used and people of the village could recognise the distant ring of each. In the second half of the last century, as tractors replaced horses, farm machinery became more complicated, manufactured in factories and depending on spare parts for maintenance, the trade changed. There is now another business, as well as one at Creech , half a mile to the north and, with no joiner’s shop, the area is serviced by travelling tradesmen.
The village takes the form of a capital T, with the Newton Stewart to Whithorn road crossing the top. Located there are the smithy and public hall on one side, with the school, the Pheasant Hotel and the old Free Church opposite. Crossing the turn-off to Garlieston, one quickly passes the War Memorial and leaves the village with some detached houses to the West.
After the turn-off to Garlieston is the main street, or “Clachan” in the old days : a complete row of mainly single storey houses on the south side of the street, giving them a splendid view across fields to the Galloway Hills to the north. Unseen, behind the houses are most attractive small gardens, catching the maximum of sunshine. Most of the damask weavers lived here, producing excellent cloth from 1790 to 1850. A manager , Mr. Keppie from Fife, was brought to run the business which employed 91 people and used locally grown flax. The village was very much under the superiority of the Earl of Galloway. When he, or his factor, James Drew, approached, the villagers were commanded to have their children inside and doors shut.
Well down the main street is the village shop . Nearby the old Parish Church and graveyard, increasingly under ivy, gives a record of old family names and includes, inside the north wall, a granite memorial plaque giving the names of the Earls of Galloway and family buried in the family vault.
Close to the old churchyard is the bowling green and the old Manse, with St. John’s Croft opposite. This last, along with Balsier, on the Whithorn road, long called the “temple lands of Balsier” , suggest a strong connection with the Knights of St. John. It was also the scene of action by the Levellers, locally, when the lands were enclosed in 1723.
Sorbie has always had a remarkable community spirit. The school had a very early soup kitchen; in 1960 after a huge funding raising effort, the village hall was built, and in 1982 another huge effort, organised by Sam Watson JP, whose family had owned the village shop for two generations, resulted in a new bowling green. All the little villages of the area were social centres, and none was more active than Sorbie.
The coming of the railway in 1875 dramatically altered the access of the area to towns and markets, both for travellers and producers. In 1892, a creamery was built opposite the station, and until 1991 it was a thriving business producing the highest quality of cheddar cheese, winning the prize for the greatest percentage of Class I cheese on eight occasions. Two John Brydens, father and son, managed the creamery for a total of sixty-five years. A total of sixty-seven people were employed. The creamery closed in 1991 when all local cheese production was concentrated at Stranraer. At a siding near the station, a small slaughterhouse operated to send lamb as carcases for the Smithfield market. Meat or milk could be put on the train in the early evening to be in London, Liverpool, or Newcastle next morning. A morning train took passengers to Edinburgh and Glasgow without changing, with an overnight train “The Paddy”, direct from Newton Stewart to London. Sometime after the closure of Sorbie Creamery, a development in Newton Stewart meant that Galloway Granite was looking for new premises. In taking over the creamery building , it has established a highly technical factory for monumental sculptures. Nearby the steading of Creech farm and the railway station have been redeveloped for residential use.
About one mile from Sorbie, on the Garlieston Road, is the ruin of Sorbie Tower, recently upgraded by Clan Hannay, on a site open to the public. This tower begun in the late 14th century, on a mote situated on a firm site surrounded by marsh or loch ( the meaning of the word “Sorbie” refers to these “sour” lands) . It was then built in stone in 1542, was enlarged to an L-shape n 1590, rising to 60 feet. By that time, the Hannays were very powerful locally with five Provosts of Wigtown, and nationally in church, court , parliament and army; the whole area was known as the “Machars ahannay”. The Hannays’ origins appear to go back to the 9th century, with a connection to the de Veteriponts who were an Anglo-Saxon family prominent in the area at that time. A Patrick Hannay is mentioned in 1150 on a crusade with Richard, Coeur de Lion, and was knighted in the Holy Land. Late in the 14th century , their power grew with interests in Wigtown Burgh and Whithorn Priory. They not only provided Provosts for Wigtown, but bishops at Whithorn and Paisley, became soldiers, merchants, Members of Parliament ( 1581 ) and one was a writer , Patrick Hannay, who became General of Artillery in the army of the King of Bohemia and author of a number of books around the 1620’s. In about 1600 they picked a feud with their neighbours , Murrays of Broughton, which ruined them in two generations, and they sold the last of their lands to the Earl of Galloway in 1677. The present clan chief is Dr. David Hannay of Kirkdale, with whom Hannays worldwide keep in touch.
The Stewarts, who succeeded, and built Galloway House in Sorbie Parish, became very distinguished locally and nationally. Their period of power encompassed the enclosures and improvement of the land to create the farms of today, building harbours, roads, bridges, the railway, schools and churches. The 9th Earl and Countess were heavily involved, promoting education in the area. The 10th Earl played a major role in bringing the railway to Whithorn and on to Garlieston harbour. Both are buried at Sorbie.
There is often more to a small village than a flash of houses as you pass, with a speeding ticket as a memento!
by Tom McCreath