Flint Bay, Kirkcudbright

Several of the place names of Galloway are known to be of great antiquity, often generating speculation about their origins, and prompting analysis of the various languages from which they may have been derived. Some of these names have been corrupted, mispronounced or otherwise adapted to suit changing spelling and diction over the centuries, a process which continues but is not always to our liking. A modern habit for example places emphasis on the first syllable of words, rather than on the second or last.  This is noticeable in names such as Dumfries, Stranraer, Auchencairn and Dundrennan. There are of course exceptions, Annan being a good example.  Visitors to the area frequently split Annan into two syllables of equal emphasis, eg Anne-Anne. Change is inevitable, but examples similar to those already mentioned make nonsense of many traditional songs and verses. Songs such as “The Road to Dundee” and “Bonnie Dundee” just do not work unless the emphasis is in the right place! Early maps, and particularly some of the Ordnance Survey maps of the late 19th Century are wonderful sources of information, providing very specific names for major and minor features of the landscape. Often the origins of these early names have been lost and they have fallen out of most people’s vocabulary. Many of these names related to individuals, occupations or incidents of local celebrity, fame or infamy and the names have simply died out with the people to whom they once meant so much. Flint Bay is the modern name of a very attractive indentation which occurs on the north side of Torrs Point on the eastern side of Kirkcudbright Bay, just at the place where the wooded shore gives way to steep and spectacular cliffs peaking at the headland. Almost everyone now uses the name “Flint Bay” and a few may wonder how it got its name and why its stony beach is comprised of such an abundance of flint. The mystery is compounded when study of the older Ordnance Survey maps referred to previously, reveals that the official name of Flint Bay is the Witchwife’s Haven.  Flint does not seem to my untutored eye to be a feature of local geology, though excavations in local caves at Torrs and Borness have yielded some flint artefacts. Were these introduced from elsewhere or is there a source of natural flint somewhere in the vicinity? Another possible explanation is that Flint Bay’s flinty shore may have resulted from a quantity of flintstone ballast either jettisoned from a ship, or cast up on shore following a shipwreck. Until recently however, no evidence has been found of any ships carrying flintstone ballast – ballast not being something that is likely to be specifically described in any shipping records. A few days ago however, I came across the following record of an early nineteenth century incident which could perhaps provide an answer: On 17th January 1816, the sloop Ellen and Agnes of Wigton under the command of Captain Hill was wrecked on the east side of Kirkcudbright Bay, close to Torrs Point. The sloop, her cargo of beef, hides, butter and flint and her three crew were all lost.

1816 is a long time ago! How long might it have taken for the Ellen and Agnes to break up and the cargo to wash ashore? When did the name Flint Bay first come into general use? How long will it be till the wonderful name Witchwife’s Haven disappears from the maps and is replaced by Flint Bay, and will we ever find out who the witchwife was? Next time you visit the bay, spare a thought for the unfortunate crew of the Ellen and Agnes, and another for the possibly even more unfortunate witchwife.

David R. Collin, March 2013