A year or two ago at Kirkcudbright harbour I overheard a new resident giving a quick summary of Kirkcudbright’s history to a group of even newer residents. Having described the present harbour with reasonable accuracy he pointed downstream to the wooden pier, which he described as the old harbour where the sailing ships used to tie up. His lecture was given in ringing tones that do not invite interruption, so I kept silent. Now that the pier is reported to be about to disappear it is perhaps a good time to record its true story.
George Davidson, former coxswain of Kirkcudbright Lifeboat, had a brief but impressive career in the late 1960s in the stormy waters of local politics as a member of Kirkcudbright Town Council. Conscious of the large amount of revenue the town gained in harbour dues from coastal tanker operations he determined to use his influence to ensure that some of this money benefited harbour users. Having spent a large part of his life caked in River Dee glaur, George knew that a jetty or pier which would enable small boat users to pick up and set down passengers or crew, clean and dry, at times when tankers had priority at the quay wall, would be invaluable. He worked out a simple construction using second hand material, and in 1968, asked me to prepare a drawing of it, to illustrate the proposal to the town council. We were both aware that our combined effort had produced only a sketch which would ultimately need engineering input, and an analysis of its effect on the river flow and the glaur, before it could be seriously considered. Those were relatively carefree days however, and the town council decided to proceed forthwith, after minor amendment of constructional details by the burgh surveyor, the late Mr A L D Bowick.
A few months later, in response to an 8.00am knock at my front door, I found myself assisting William McKie in the setting out of the pier’s vital statistics. W. J. Haley of Dumfries had won the contract with a bid of approximately £3000, and William Mc Kie was given a pair of wellies, an oilskin jacket, a squad of men and left to get on with it. William’s squad comprised: Hugh Higgins, Doug Ferris, Peter Carmichael and Ian McRobert. Telegraph poles from all over the county were collected and deposited on the riverbank, upstream of the bridge, where they were stripped of metal fittings. They were subsequently towed downstream by Mr Stuart Gourlay in his boat Margaret Anne, six at a time to the site of the pier’s construction. Timbers for the longitudinal beams, and the original decking were yellow pine from an old warehouse building at Kingholm Quay, supplemented by floor joists from a mansion house near Dumfries.
Forming holes in the glaur, to take the ends of the uprights presented considerable problems, as anyone who has stood down there for more than a second or two will readily testify. Coxswain George sped to the rescue with a paneled door (minus one panel) and an auger which he designed and Willie Kerr of Mutehill manufactured. Using the door as a platform, a clean dry hole could be bored through the glaur and underlying clay, via the missing door panel, to a depth of six feet. By the use of ropes, a ladder, a small hand winch supplied by George, and the occasional oath, the poles were erected and slid into the holes, which they fitted so neatly that scarcely any adjustment or backfilling proved necessary. The level of the top decking was established by measuring from water level up to the top of the quay wall, adding one foot, and hurrying back to the pier, to measure the same distance up again from water level. The precise angle the pier makes with the catwalk was established by George Davidson, who laid markers to indicate the optimum line in relation to tidal and river flow. Construction work was awkward, dirty and dangerous and frequently had to be undertaken in the hours of darkness, to suit tidal conditions. In recognition of the hardships faced by William and his team, W J Haley sent them an old rowing boat, two oars and a few thoroughly disreputable looking lifejackets. In due course construction was complete and without ceremony the pier went into use.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the fishing industry prospered and Kirkcudbright’s fleet increased greatly. The new pier immediately began to fulfil an unforeseen function by providing berths for large numbers of fishing vessels of all shapes and sizes, displaced from the town quay by coastal tankers. The new pier’s designers and builders were more than a little concerned to see such vessels as the Solway Firth, Isle of Canna, Silver Fern II, and Radiance four abreast and leaning outwards, while a pick-up van was driven along the timber decking loaded with gear!
When the regional council took over as harbour authority, some reinforcing of the structure was carried out and to the relief of the original designers, a restriction on the size of vessel using it was imposed. Twenty-five years is not a bad lifespan for such a low-cost structure, subject to so many stresses, but better maintenance could have greatly increased it. In addition to meeting nautical needs the pier has provided an opportunity for landlubbers to enjoy a view of the town that was previously available only to mariners. It also acted as a wonderful grandstand from which to watch the comings and goings on the river, review the salmon fishing on the yair nets and feed the swans.
David R. Collin
This article was first published in the Galloway News in May 1993.
Photographs A.L.D. Bowick