The Isle of Whithorn Maritime History

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An old photograph of the Isle of Whithorn Harbour
The Isle of Whithorn

The Isle of Whithorn

The Harbour


The Harbour, Isle of Whithorn The earliest sign of habitation is the Iron Age fort where what we call the cairn is now. Was it built there because of the shelter given by the bay? In those days water transport was probably by raft and coracle which were most likely used mainly for fishing, as there was not the need then to travel long distances - that came later.

We know that the Vikings came here, and their settlement in Whithorn by the Abbey shows that they stayed for a long time. The Isle’s bay would certainly have attracted them. St. Ninian came over from Cumbria and it is doubtful that he walked here, he almost certainly came by sea, and pilgrims landed here on their way to the religious community at Whithorn,.St. Ninians Chapel on the cairn was built some time in the 13th century or even before. The Harbour, Isle of Whithorn At that time Whithorn Priory owned all of the land around here and the fish yard where the monks kept the fish for their Friday meal can still be seen. After the Reformation most of the land and property belonging to the Priory was given to Whithorn Town Council and in 1663 the Scottish Parliament approved a Charter of Confirmation granting the village the status of a Royal Burgh. The Charter confirms that the Isle was a harbour at that time and also that it was considered to be part of Whithorn.

The relevant part of the Charter states: “... together with the shore or seaport of the same called the Isle of Whithorn which they have possessed beyond all memory of man in a free Burgh Royal, free harbour and shore within all the bounds of use and custom and is given....etc.”

During the 19th century Whithorn Town Council went bankrupt and ownership of the harbour was transferred to a Harbour Trust owned by some local farmers and other worthies and later still the County Council took over the harbour from the Trust. Very little is known about when the pier was constructed but it is shown on the first ever chart of the Isle published in 1793. At that time the cairn area was an island called, not surprisingly, the Isle of Whithorn, the rest of the village being called Whithorn. The Harbour, Isle of Whithorn In 1793 the Isle was a base for King’s Ships and revenue cutters, and it was proposed to extend the pier to give added protection and to cut secondary exits out of the bay. These were not feasible because in a southerly wind the ships could not beat out of the bay, they had to warp themselves out using rings fitted into rocks on either side. The same situation would exist for these secondary exits. In bad weather a south easterly blows right into the harbour, and the bay becomes untenable for anchored vessels which would have had to come into the harbour for protection.

To quote from the proposal, which was costed at £7,864: “These two objections to all piers and harbours without a roadstead to windward of them and under which class Whithorn comes makes piers of very little use to Revenue cruisers who always wish to lie afloat for the above reasons and who I believe are enjoined by their orders to go into harbours as little as possible. The Harbour, Isle of Whithorn Of course Whithorn, although it may be an excellent pier harbour, yet for want of a roadstead and because it is bad if not impossible to get out of it sometimes for three weeks altogether is, in my opinion, not so proper a place to station Revenue cutters as at Garlieston, where they proposed to be built a pier there when bad weather forces them from their anchors in the road, for at such times only are piers useful or expedient to King’s vessels looking for smugglers, and for such vessels I apprehend the pier at Whithorn is intended”


 

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