The Leisure Port of Kirkcudbright

by © David R. Collin, Kirkcudbright, 2010.

The concept of pleasure craft is a relatively recent one in small Scottish working ports. Seafaring was and is predominately a serious business involving hardship and considerable risk to property and life. Pleasure was not however completely absent and regattas at Kirkcudbright were popular annual events from the 1830s onwards. These regattas generally involved the crews of gigs, longboats and ship’s boats of local trading and passenger craft competing in rowing races on the river, with substantial cash prizes and trophies for the winners.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, picture postcards of the harbour were being published illustrating smartly dressed young ladies rowing on the river. One or two such pictures were taken at half-tide, so the ladies concerned are presumed to have been both strong and experienced rowers to have coped with the strength of the tidal flow and the current of the river.

Yachts were rarely seen at Kirkcudbright harbour, although a few have been recorded in the early nineteenth century, such as the Earl of Selkirk’s fine schooner Salamander, which was registered at Dumfries in 1856. In the 1930s and early 1940s, several fine yachts were kept at Kirkcudbright, owned by the Mitchell family of Kirkcudbright and the Carr family of Carlisle, but sailing for pleasure was still the pursuit of a relatively wealthy and privileged minority. This changed in the early 1950s with the advent of low cost plywood sailing dinghy kits suitable for home construction. Many Kirkcudbright people who had no previous experience of the sea built their own boats and were taught to sail by a handful of experienced local mariners. The formation of Kirkcudbright Sailing Club in 1956, and the organisation of a regular programme of races and regattas on the River Dee marked the start of a new era in which people had leisure time, some money and a renewed interest in the pleasure of sailing and the charms of Kirkcudbright Bay.

By the late 1960s, the national boom in dinghy sailing had declined a little as owners aspired to travel further in a little more comfort. An ever growing fleet of small cruising yachts developed, some owned by local people but many more owned by visitors who sought to base their vessels at Kirkcudbright. Large numbers of drying-out moorings were laid on the mud-banks at Castledykes and a wooden pier was built to provide more convenient access to vessels. At this time, Kirkcudbright Sailing Club moved to a new site at the head of the wooden pier, which was more suited to the convenience and aspirations of boat owners. The Elton Boatbuilding Company was established at the Castledykes at the same time, and has been building a variety of traditional clinker larch-on-oak leisure and small commercial craft at Kirkcudbright ever since.

By 1995, demands for moorings had increased still further leading to the demolition of the ageing wooden pier and the construction of a linear pontoon system rising and falling with the tide, on driven steel piles. In 2002 this system was developed into a marina providing 40 berths for yachts and small commercial craft, enabling them to remain afloat at all stages of the tide.

Kirkcudbright marina is popular with both local people and visitors, so demand for both floating berths and drying out moorings is very heavy. The development of large new marinas at Maryport and Whitehaven in Cumbria, together with similar facilities in Peel and Douglas on the Isle of Man has meant that Kirkcudbright has become an extremely popular destination for the many hundreds of vessels based at these ports. As well as visitors from Irish Sea ports, there have been growing numbers of foreign vessels, the flags of Ireland, France, Australia, Germany and Norway having been seen on several occasions. The marina is also popular with non-sailing visitors and brings welcome business to hotels, restaurants and shops in the town.