Commitment to faith
The sixteen or so miles from Barrhill to Glenluce present perhaps the single most challenging section of the Whithorn Way, both in terms of the length of the walk and the isolation: there simply isn’t anything but moorland and countryside and few cars use this country road.
Leaving Barrhill by this road the route heads uphill towards the railway station, the last point accessible by rail on the Whithorn Way. A useful and short detour (which informs the rest of this section) is to the Covenanter Memorial.
This fairly plain monument stands about fifty yards to the left of the road near the Cross Water. Recent tree felling in the immediate vicinity of the memorial has left the area looking rather scalped, like a schoolboy after a visit to the barber at the end of the summer holidays.
It’s simplicity and rough-looking location perhaps serve better to underline its purpose. Originally built in 1787, and rebuilt in its present form in 1825, the memorial encloses the graves of John Murchie and Daniel MacIlwrick. In 1685 they were Covenanters, those Scots who refused to accept the reimposition of bishops by King James VI/I on the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Covenanter devotion was particularly strong in south-west Scotland, inspired by preaching from the likes of the Reverend Alexander Peden, Minister at New Luce from 1659 who spent much of his life in hiding, preaching secretly where he was able. He would have been active in farms and gatherings of the Covenanter faithful all across this barren landscape.
Murchie and MacIlwrick were, it seems, victims of devotion and chance. While their Covenanting allegiances and activities may have been known to the authorities, it appears the government soldiers led by Lt Gen William Drummond came upon the boys. They were found to be carrying Bibles and, as they ran off, they were summarily shot in the back, their bodies left by the roadside until later that evening. Two women, probably with Covenanter sympathies, recovered them and arranged for their burial.
There is some irony in the boys’ deaths being promoted by their possessing Bibles: nearly seventy-five years earlier, in 1611, the new translation of the Bible authorised by the same King James had been published. That Authorised Version has, over four centuries, shaped society, church and individuals across Scotland and the world.
In the bright day’s sunshine it was hard to imagine walking across this moorland in rain and driving wind, with the fear of being spotted by government troops never far from one’s mind. Glasgow Cathedral’s memorial to the Covenanters records one kind of dedication to the Covenant expression of Christian faith. Here, the wildness of the hills speaks of a different, though no less significant, commitment to the same expression of Christianity.
Parts of this section are so remote that there is no mobile phone signal, either. There were few cars on the day I walked it. The challenge faced by the Covenanters, not only from government troops but from the harsh environment, heightens the sense of devotion they displayed. They would have walked the paths across the moors by night, watching for troops but careful, too, not to lose their footing on the rough ground.
This is a beautiful but bleak part of the Whithorn Way. Travelling the length of Glenwhilly, the remoteness of the countryside is punctuated only by the odd farmhouse, and newer wind farms. There are no amenities for the twelve or so miles from Barrhill to New Luce and so it is important to be prepared with water, food and appropriate clothing.
In less than a hundred miles the Pilgrim Way has travelled from modern, well-connected urban Glasgow to the almost unsettling isolation of the western fringes of the Galloway forest.
Yet it is not entirely cut off, for the railway from Glasgow to Stranraer (formerly the Girvan to Portpatrick Railway) runs through and, in the past, stopped at the former Glenwhilly Station. It was demolished in the 1970s though a signal box, siding and loop remain and can be seen in the far distance from the route. The signalman must drive over the moor to arrive at work, a lovely commute on a sunny summer’s day – but much more challenging in winter.
The road is easy to follow (though there is a longer, more winding, path through forested areas generally to the east of the road) and enters New Luce from the north.
The charming village is set in a conservation area and nestles in the Moors of Wigtownshire. The surrounding area has been inhabited for thousands of years and considerable archaeological investigation was carried out by Rev George Wilson, Free Church Minister at New Luce for the whole of the second half of the nineteenth century. His findings, and those of others encouraged by his reports, mean that it is possible to visit neolithic cairns and burial sites across the south of the New Luce area; these are, though, off the Whithorn Way route.
New Luce has been distinguished from Glenluce, the larger village to the south, since the mid-1600s. In 1846, it was reported that ‘[t]he village contains three good inns, and several shops well stored with various kinds of wares for the supply of the neighbourhood…’ Shops are in short supply, though it is possible to obtain basics for the walk. There is at least one remaining inn, though its present quality is unverified.
The flower-covered stone cottages, some of which are brightly painted, adds to the delight of the village. The road crosses the Cross Water of Luce (which joins the Main Water of Luce shortly thereafter) and continues south towards Glenluce Abbey through a forested valley and intersects with the Southern Upland Way, a long walk coast to coast for another time!
Some four miles south of New Luce is Glenluce Abbey, the final point on this section. Construction, by the Cistercian Order – to be distinguished from the Cluniac Paisley and Crossraguel Abbeys, or Tironesian Kilwinning Abbey – began around 1192. It is interesting to think on the international connections with Cluny, the Tiron or, as here, the region around Burgundy. It is too easy to think that the Moors of Wigtownshire are remote and therefore isolated; eight centuries ago, there were regular international communications.
The Abbey here was involved in active religious service for around four centuries, populated by around fifteen monks who lived in sparse conditions above the chapter house, and supported by lay people who lived in houses nearby. The Reformation in Scotland in 1560 saw the end of official monastic life in Scotland, but, as with Crossraguel, those monks living there at that time were permitted to remain until death. Therefore, the Abbey remained until the turn of the 1600s, though part of the site continued to be used for ecclesiastical purposes when it was turned into a Manse for the new (Reformed) Minister in 1619.
The chapter house and part of the cloister have been renovated to give an impression of life in these public parts of the abbey when active. Although little remains of the Abbey Church, the most important part of the complex, it is still possible to make out other buildings including the brew house and even the system of sewerage with running water. It is good to know that beer and toilets were seen as priorities, along with worship, in the twelfth century.
The return walk, by the same route, was arduous. The steep climb north of New Luce is followed immediately by a long trek over exposed moorland. Most of the time this is likely to be windy and wet; on the day I walked, the temperature was over 30 C in the bright sunshine, and there was no shade.
About six miles south of Barrhill the blisters, which had been gently brewing over the previous day and a half, burst. Given the remoteness of the area there was no alternative but to continue (though, if a service bus had passed, I might have been sorely tempted. This is, sadly, no bus route). I made it back to Barrhill and estimate that I had, in these two days, covered something around 62 miles, or 100 kilometres. That is probably too much to walk: the old wisdom that a day’s walk extends to twenty-four miles, waking for eight hours at three miles per hour, is wise advice.
Having said that, walking long sections on these two days meant that the entire route could be completed in a further two days of sizeable, but not unmanageable, treks. I would need to stay overnight again to complete this, but felt by now that the challenge was within touching distance.