The Commercial Port of Kirkcudbright

by © David R. Collin, Kirkcudbright, 2010.

Kirkcudbright can proudly boast about 800 years of varied but continuous activity as a commercial port. Past and present activities have included warfare, piracy, smuggling, emigration, transportation, coastal trade, international trade, passenger services and excursions. Other ports on the north Irish Sea, such as Wigtown, and those on the Solway Firth such as Dumfries and Dalbeattie have at times handled more cargo than Kirkcudbright, but have now sadly fallen into disuse. Kirkcudbright not only survives, but also prospers.

Between 1788 and 1858 over 60 commercial sailing ships are known to have been built in Kirkcudbright, the largest being the 295 ton Rory O’ More, one of two three-masted barques built in the town’s two ship building yards. Some Kirkcudbright-built ships were commissioned for the coasting trade, but others were revenue cutters, whalers in the Antarctic, fruit carriers, and merchantmen trading to France, Spain, Italy, the Baltic, North America, Canada, the West Indies, South America, Australia and India.

All had a considerable reputation for both speed and durability. The schooner Prince of Denmark, built in 1789 was still whaling in the south Pacific when she was lost in 1863, her 74th year. Small lobster fishing vessels and launches are still built in Kirkcudbright by the Elton Boatbuilding Company at their Castledykes yard.

In the early part of the twentieth century, there was considerable activity at the harbour, brought about by the import of beans from Morocco, fertilisers and cattle cake from Germany, and cement for the construction of the Galloway Hydro Electric Scheme. Two World Wars took their toll however, and that coupled with the effect of the railway on coastal trade meant that by the late 1940s and early 1950s the harbour was in decline, silted up and neglected.

In 1956, Scottish Oils and Shell-Mex re-opened the harbour for use by coastal tankers, which necessitated dredging adjacent to the quay wall and buoying of the channel. Buoys and perches were lit in 1971 to permit tankers of up to 248 feet in length to arrive and depart in the hours of darkness. No mean undertaking! Fuel was discharged into a pipeline which led from the harbour to a new depot with steel storage tanks located on Dee Walk, upstream from the present bridge.

Tankers ceased to use the port in 1982 and although their departure and the loss of the income they provided was regretted, their right to priority use of the main berth space would have become a serious problem for the growing number of other vessels using the port. Most of these other vessels were fishing craft, but merchant vessels carrying cargoes such as timber and rock salt still used the harbour. The last large vessel to visit Kirkcudbright was the 222 ft. Panama registered Ala, which called in 2002 with a cargo of timber for James Smith & Co. of Tongland.

Although tankers have probably gone forever, the harbourmaster still receives occasional enquiries from the operators of sizeable merchant vessels, and there is now a greater number of visits than ever before from small tugs, survey vessels and naval patrol boats.

The harbour is of enormous importance to the town and is of great significance to its image, attractiveness, reputation and future prosperity. A bustling harbour is not only a direct generator of employment and wealth, but is also a cradle of opportunity, an inspiration for entrepreneurs and a powerful magnet for tourism, one of Galloway’s major industries.