For years visitors have come to the Isle to behold the picture postcard view that has made a fortune for film manufacturers and the holiday snap business. Designated an outstanding conservation area, the graceful crescent of shore and neat houses that make up the harbour presents perfect proportions in any camera viewfinder.
But ‘the Isle’, as it’s usually called in the Machars peninsula, is more than just a view. 1600 years ago this tiny community was undoubtedly already in existence at the very beginning of Scotland’s Christian history – when Ninian, Scotland’s first missionary and saint, founded his church at Whithorn – well over a century before the much celebrated St Columba.
The Isle has traditionally always looked to the Solway Firth – the port for the town of Whithorn and much of the surrounding country. In days gone by the sea was the high road into these parts. A haunt for smugglers, and a principal harbour for legitimate trade and transport – here you caught the Countess of Galloway, the steam packet which would take you to Liverpool and maybe a passage on an emigrant ship to the New World or Australia. Many of the necessities of life would be shipped in through the Isle – cargoes of coal, fertiliser, timber. Echoes of those times (still in the living memory of a few folk), are almost palpable down on the Harbour. This is still the main focal point of the village today – busy throughout the year with local boats fishing for crabs and lobsters, as well catches of scallops brought in by the visiting Manx fleet, most of which will then be headed for foreign markets. However, some of the best goes straight in through the doors of the award-winning Steam Packet Inn on the waterfront!
The Isle is a welcoming port for visiting leisure sailors too – a chance to moor, take on supplies and fuel if needed, and sample the peace and quiet of the place. It’s also where a casual angler can cast a line and hope for supper to turn up. If your timing’s right, and a fishing boat’s just come in to unload, then this is the place to be!
If you come to the Isle overland, the last miles present a vivid green canvas of Wigtownshire’s cattle country – dotted with prime, glossy animals which, thanks to the mild climate, spend a considerable part of each year out at grass. Arriving at the village, go past the Bowling Green (visitors always welcome), pay a visit to the Queens Arms Hotel (the ruins of the Isle’s old Mill can be seen at the rear) or get your icecreams and postcards from the tiny Post Office and shop, another focal point of the 300-strong community. Travel on down Main Street, catching a glimpse of the Castle, a small tower house and one of the earliest surviving buildings in the Isle. Further along, Captain’s Garden, the Wheel House, Neptune Cottage, and other evocatively named houses stand, rampart-like on the road to the Harbour. The Isle Church, a former Free Kirk, stands in defiance of the highest of tides. Many moons and countless tides ago, this street was actually a causeway – with the Harbour located on what was then the true Isle. Gradually this strip of land was built upon, and buildings and houses clustered around a thriving shipbuilding and repairing business. In later years this was where the famous timber, ship-like structure that was the McWilliam Brothers general store was located. Sadly, this unique piece of heritage was demolished in 2001.
Take a walk along the Harbour, where you might enquire about local sea-angling opportunities (for the real enthusiasts there is an annual Tope Festival held here every July), or the chance to learn to sail with RYA qualified instructors at the Wigtown Bay Sailing Club. At the end of the Harbour, follow the signs for St Ninian’s Chapel and shortly you’ll come to the Witness Cairn (a modern-day reminder of our great Christian heritage) situated in what was once the Isle’s lifeboat station. Just a short distance away, the 14th century ruin of St Ninian’s Chapel, once a place where pilgrims were welcomed and now in the care of Historic Scotland.
It’s an easy climb up the slope to the distinctive white tower – the Cairn – which has been a mariner’s landmark for close on two centuries. Once at the top you can behold the majestic expanse of the Solway and the Irish Sea – to the east, the broken coastline of Kirkcudbright; across the water lie the great peaks of Cumbria’s Lake District, while due south lies the mystical shape of Ellen Vannin – the Isle of Man, its nearest point just 18 miles away from us
A magnificent spectacle lies in wait, and whichever way you come, by land or by sea, you will discover a tranquil place that is much more than just a view. Welcome to the Isle!
Visit the official web site for Isle of Whithorn: