Solway as a Means of Transport
To describe the Solway, it is useful to start at the lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway, because from this point, 100 km ENE to the outlets of the Esk and Eden, and 70 km ESE to Bees Head is one interconnected system of sea, sand, rock and river called the larger Solway Basin as shown in the header image above.
But this opened up to a world beyond. From the lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway on a clear day, to the north you look towards the highlands and islands of Scotland, to the west you can see Northern Ireland, to the south the Isle of Man is clearly visible, and if you travelled due west you would arrive in Penrith, passing over Skiddaw on the way. Liverpool is south east. Dublin south west, Due south is Falmouth.
All this connected by sea passages going back millenia. Recent history would have seen highlanders removed in the clearances in the 18th century who would travel through this area from Annan waterfront to America around the same time that travellers and thinkers from France forged links and then divisions between the French and The Scottish Enlightenment. The Vikings came south into this maritime passageway, and the Romans came north. A legend with a grain of truth asserts that the Geodelic Celts came through this water from Scythia via Spain and the Fir Bolg from Greece.
Closer to home, the bit where the Esk and The Eden meet, between England and Scotland there are stories of ancient pathways of their own which give rise to it’s name. In ‘Crossing the Solway’ the writer Blindedbydazzle writes ‘Sol is common to Anglo-Saxon and Norse tongues. It means mud. The Anglo-Saxon woeth or Norse vad (or vath) … is ford. The Sulewad or Sulwath is as it was then, a way of mud.’
So before a bridge was built at the aptly named Metal Bridge, the Solway was a muddy passage way for travellers going between Scotland and England. The Wath’s across the Solway shown below are from Solway Shore-walker, another site worth a visit. The full story of the Waths is available here and a story of an actual crossing by the author is to be found here.
Where are all the people ?
Either speeding up the M6/A74 or driving more slowly round the minor roads, the Solway switches between being invisible, behind hedges and walls, or appearing spectacularly into view with an ever changing mixture of cloud, sun, water and land or vast areas which appear to be all of the above. However it is best experienced on foot. But as stated elsewhere, it is one of Europes biggest unindustrialised estuaries, and as such it is vast. The drive from Carlisle to the Lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway is over 2 and half hours, the same as to Manchester. There are an almost unending number of places to walk.
The terrain is varied with mountains and bays and sandbanks. The tides mean coastal walking varies by the hour. The flatness of the estuary also messes with your sense of distance. My partner and I walked on the estuary below Criffell and could see ‘something’ out over the sand as the tide ebbed. We went to see what it was and after a 20 minute walk, all we found was a plastic fish crate. But when we turned round we realised we were a mile from the beach. As we walked the sky moved under us reflected in the water in the sand ripples. It gives an impression of either indifference to human presence, or when the tides and weather change, a distinct sense of malevolence.
There are other wild and remote places in the borders that do this too. An article in the magazine ‘Live for the Outdoors’ puts the spot in England most remote form a tarmac road in Kielder Forest GR NY 58000 85879, under 30km NW of the Solway. The article is here. It is a land unused to people.
My wife and I went to the nearby Cristianbury Crags and found a large snakeskin and over half a dozen racing pigeon leg tags, presumed to be from the dinner table of the native Peregrines. It was an atmospheric place and after a while we both agreed it was time to go. In the car on the way home we confided with each other that we independently felt like the crags wanted us to go, at more or less the same time. This is weirdly reinforced in a 16m YouTube video of the crags below.
At the 15m mark, on departure from the place, the videographer describes what I think we felt. He says earlier that the mist seems to have followed them about and then says “The whole place is really mysterious with the clag coming through it, really eerie, like another world.” Just a few miles south there was another world, going from the head of the Solway up into the hills to the south of Christianbury.
The Debatable Land
The sparcity of population is a norm for this wild borderland. Between England and Scotland there was one a place called ‘The Debatable Lands’. Where it is popularly portrayed it is as the lawless breeding ground for the murderous Reivers. A 2020 BBC article here gives part of the story reinforcing this with the lurid reference to a decree ’..in the mid-16th Century, some 300 years into the Debatable Lands’ story: (stating) “All Englishmen and Scottishmen are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy, all and every such person and persons, their bodies, property, goods and livestock… without any redress to be made for same.” While this decree was made into law, it was more of a legal “out” for England and Scotland. Neither side wanted the responsibility of dealing with the Debatable Lands; and as they could not agree on who owned it or how it was divided, neither could be held responsible for it, either.’ See a map here.
The article points out this deadly decree is 300 years into the story. In ‘The Debatable Land’ by Graham Robb, he writes about how it was originally ‘…a defined area in which no permanent building had been allowed. Animals could be pastured there but only between sunrise and sunset, and the soil was not to be ploughed or ‘opened’ in any way…. ‘Batable’ comes from the obsolete verb ‘batten’. Batable land was rich, fertile land on which livestock could be pastured and fattened up (or ‘battened’). By the 1800s, the word had fallen out of use.”1 As a teen, in Derby in the 70’s you took your food to work in your Bait Box. I thought it was a carry over from the fisherman’s bait box, but they just have the same root. The box for fodder, for the fish or the fishermen.
Ecologically this is exactly how this land should be used. It is in equitable balance with the human population. The Solway is the same. The biggest town, Annan has a population of, say 10k people. Dumfries has maybe 150k, and is connected to the Solway by the Nith, but is not on the shore. Malthus’s idea of a territory having a carrying capacity is seen as superseded in some quarters or resurgent in others. The Solway and the Debatable Lands have a low population density. Neither ids wilderness, both have a history of human interaction. I you can at least see everywhere on earth through Google Earth, or at least 98%, then there is no real, unseen by human eye, wilderness left. We all live somewhere on the urban fringe.
But part of what makes the Solway and the Debatable lands interesting to me is that to a large extent, the native population is not human. In the borders their are hotspots. Hadrians Wall runs a few miles from my house and ends at Bowness-on-Solway, the site of a Sulewath, and in the summer it is (by Cumbrian standards) heaving. But at Walton Moss (another of my stomping grounds), in the 6 years I have been going there, apart from a single busy day of hound racing, I have seen no more than 5 people, all at a distance. So who, apart from the few humans, who does live there.
Natural England has a number of descriptive documents of National Character Areas. It’s summary of the Solway is extensive, available here and describes it thus…
‘The Solway Basin is a low-lying area of gently undulating low hills that grade into the coastal plain and estuarine landscape of the Solway Firth. To the east and south and across the lowlands of the Dumfries coast to the north, the lowland landscape is framed by the uplands of the Lake District, the North Pennines and southern Scotland. The area has a long history as border country, originally divided by the Roman frontier of Hadrian’s Wall, which has World Heritage Site designation, and through succeeding centuries it has been a part of the disputed lands of the English–Scottish border. The area is dominated by pastoral agriculture in rectilinear fields bounded by hedges but with increasing arable farming on the low hills. The coastal zone is characterised by a more open, wind-swept, dynamic and tidal landscape of salt marshes, beaches, sand dunes and intertidal flats along the margins of the Solway Firth and the Irish Sea.’
In previous posts the relationship between images and words and experience of place has been explored. But in terms of who lives on the Solway the Solway Coast Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty website has some great publications with images of birds, sea-life, plants, human habitation and industrial history available by clicking here.
The Solway Firth Partnership has a YouTube Channel here and two videos below which show the range of habitats from cliffs to moorland to estuary.
And as for the people who live on the Solway, the Annan Haaf Netters know the place better than anyone. This great film from 2019 shows the Solway in it’s many moods and the fishermen catching salmon. What is to anybody else, is just a bit of sea and sand, is to the local people an intimately understood place with names and a personality.
- Excerpt From: Graham Robb. “The Debatable Land.” ↩︎