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 Schooners and Packets

Until the railway came the carriage of people and goods was almost entirely by sea. The main type of vessel involved was the topsail schooner, ubiquitous maid of all work that carried passengers one day, coal or other goods the next, or all together at the same time. They were the buses and lorries of their time and these traded for several centuries. A descendant of one of the schooner masters lived in the village until recently, and had the account books of his trading up and down the west coast of Scotland. It is interesting to see that one particular year’s trading resulted in a profit of £5! Of course at that time, towards the 1900’s, £5 was quite a lot of money.

One locally famous schooner was the Ellen and Mary and there is a picture of her in the window of the Steam Packet Inn on the harbour. Her Master, Captain McGuffie, skippered her from the day that she was built until the time that she was broken up and the remains of her timbers still lie outside the house that he occupied in Port William.

When she was dismantled, Captain McGuffie (or his descendants), gave her figurehead to the Seamen’s Mission in Ayr where it sat in the window for many years until it was lent or given to the Maritime Museum at Irvine. With the coming of steamships, a few schooners fitted with engines continued trading and the last of these, the Alpha, called at the Isle until the early days of the Second World War.

Another type of vessel that was a familiar sight in the Isle in the late 1800’s almost until the first World War was the oyster smack. These were large boats, 70-footers, which came up from Kent for the oyster fishing, but very few pictures of them seem to be in existence. A relic of those days can be found beyond the chalet development at Laigh Isle on the way up to Stein Head, where, in the first gully, there is a brick wall with holes in it which was the oyster keep. The smacks fished the oyster beds in both Wigtown and Luce Bays and landed their catch at the Isle of Whithorn.

At least one Master remained, Captain Weaver of the Windward, who bought more schooners and traded all around here, to the Isle of Man; Ireland, and regularly to Liverpool. The Liverpool connection was very strong and there are still people in the Isle who have relatives living in that area. In due course the oysters were fished out, and in the late 1970’s scallop dredgers came on the scene to fish the Queen scallop, or ‘queenie’. Originally these had been thrown over the side, but by this time markets had been found for them both in Britain and on the Continent.

The Countess of Galloway
The death knell of the schooners was the coming of the steam packets, in the form of the Countess of Galloway (Two such vessels carried this name). They took most of the trade away from the schooners, and in due course the railway came to Whithorn and took the trade away from the steam packets. The last Countess of Galloway was sold and briefly served on the short sea crossing to Northern Ireland.

The last schooner to visit the Isle in living memory was the Alpha which traded until World War II. A local resident remembers her coming into the harbour at the beginning of hostilities carrying a cargo of coal that was discharged into a warehouse, now demolished, down at the harbour.


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