The Banks O' Fleet

 by “Daffin Doon”

This article originally appeared in two halves in the Galloway News on 6th and 20th August 1938.

At the foot of Catherine Street a steep lane leads to the river bank and you turn right, into the Sawpit field. This field is so named because the Sawpit house stands on the steep sloped edge of it. The circular saw has, long ago, superseded this old and laborious method of the sawyer.

A broad depression runs parallel with the Fleet, the whole length of this field. This was the Mill Lade down which the Fleet was run to drive the wheel of the river-side cotton mill and in my boyhood days there were still “quaken qua" places in it. Since there is hardly any 'drop' it would be an undershot wheel but the amount of water available would compensate for the lack of drop.

Now that is how the situation reads to me but the Statistical Account of Scotland states that there were two wheels and the water power was derived from Loch Whinyeon and that the tunnel driven though the hill to tap the lochs cost £1100. The loch water was collected in the two big reservoirs at the eastern entrance of the town. These two 'dams' supplied a continuous head of water, during working hours, to drive a big over=shot wheel about 30 feet in diameter for mill number two. This wheel continued, until a few years ago, to supply the power for the now defunct bobbin mill.

I am well aware that a portion of the loch water supply could be diverted at Barwhill saw mill, down past the old school, through a small glen to the top of the Sawpit Lade. This is a very small water course and has no dam to give it a head of water while it is plainly evident, even today, that the Sawpit Lade was constructed to carry a copious flow of water and I always looked on this small water course as an auxiliary to it when the Fleet was wee. By utilising the escarpment of the Sawpit Field even this small stream could have been brought round from the old school and, with a length of trowse, delivered at the mill with a drop of 30 feet. It does not seem sound engineering to me, to take water from Loch Whinyeon - 700 feet altitude - and deliver it at the mill at what is practically "high water mark of ordinary spring tides."

On the other hand there is no evidence today of a weir or a trowse to control and turn the Fleet into Sawpit Lade and the writer of 100 years ago is not to be lightly set aside, but my critical faculty demands a supply of water to fill the broad Sawmill Lade and to drive an under-shot wheel with sufficient power to be of some use to the three-storied cotton mill and the Fleet is there convenient.

The river-side mill, which I suspect was the first, is of stone and lime and the walls are still intact. The other, a few yards to the east, shows the English influence of mill owners, Birtwhistle and Sons, Yorkshire - for it was built of brick, at least the top stories, which are now demolished were brick. Birtwhistle St. shows the same influence for it is built entirely of brick and to a uniform plan and is quite different from the ordinary small town street where everyone built, generally in stone and lime, as they fancied, or to go one better than their neighbour.

The cotton mills were among the first of their kind in Scotland and were an ambitious enterprise, for two such three and four storied factories would be more than noteworthy if erected in any small country town  today, let alone 150 years ago. The centralisation of the cotton trade in Lancashire, after a long struggle at length finished them.

Continuing our walk, the escarpment skirting the Sawpit field now becomes the riverbank. It is glacial deposit and is at the steep ‘angle of repose’ for loose earth for the Fleet has washed away as much of the bank as it could. There used to be a nice and picturesque path cut along the foot of the slope, to which we shall refer further on.

Just where the river has begun to undermine this steep slope, a big knuckle of rock juts out from the bank and runs half way across the river, this is what has protected the big bank from further ravages. The thwarted current thus turns back upon itself and digs a deep pool on the upstream side of the rock. At the rock it is 10 feet or so in depth and it is 60 yards or more before it tapers out. This big semi-circular pool is known as the Craig and is the recognized ‘swimming pool’ for young Gatehouse. In spite of the depth and the temptation to venture in I can, at the moment, recall no fatal bathing accident here which says much for the protective care of the older swimmers. The highest tides just manage to get their waters in the Craig and no further.

The river bank continues, northward in a sweeping circle, well fringed with trees on the Anwoth side, making a perfect pastoral picture with, in every direction except the south, the everlasting hills as background. The stiles over the hedges and broad planks over the ditches are very serviceable and soon you reach Standing Stone par.

Despite its dead level surface, the river discovers for us that the Standing Stone field is a boulder clay deposit to a depth of at least 50 feet, in fact a flat-topped drumlin. Boulder clay is so named because the boulders, irrespective of their size and weight, are mixed throughout it like currants and raisins within a cake. The powerful ice-sheet as it moved the mass along was able to do this. Water deposited material is always sorted out according to the strength of the current.

Now this big gash in the river bank that we have reached is one of nature’s show pieces. If we consider it aesthetically, then the rugged grandeur of this big horse-shoe cliff-bank, with the Fleet swirling past 50 feet below is very impressive; but to view it in spate is to see the spectacular. The river then rushes headlong, a foaming cataract, straight at the big boulder clay bank, attacking and attacking remorselessly as it has done throughout the thousands of years. It is very deftly turned around two-thirds of a circle, and quickly ushered out at the lower-end of the big loop as it hurries to the sea.

For a mechanical consideration, from the deepest part of the curve on the top of the cliff-bank, we are at once convinced that all the material within the loop formed by the river, has been excavated away right back to where we stand. A dyke, a good 300 yards away, runs across from the top end of the loop to the other end, and this marks approximately the original course of the river. As a stream eats its way into one of its banks it swirls up gravel  on the inside of the curve, and as it shifts is bed forward leaves behind it a low, level area which is but little higher than the stream. Now the whole of that level meadow, from the dyke, marks plainly the amount of shift of the river bed. The amount of soil carried away and deposited on the Callymains fields (before the canal was cut) can be estimated if you have a hobby for figures. The gravel bar on the Anwoth side shows what happens to most of the stones though some will be rolled downstream.

I can just remember a Mr. Coltart, who retired from Gatehouse from Lancashire. I have the impression that he had connection with Gatehouse in his youth. His favourite walk was up the banks o’ Fleet and as a hobby he made paths. The steep bank below the Craig was easy going but the Stannin’ Stane Loop with its landslides was a different problem. He cut down trees (and was never interfered with) drove in piles and shored up the worst places and the scenic pathway he constructed was a sheer delight.

All this is now altered – I could fain right spoiled. A breast-work battery of loose stones has been laid all round the curve of the loop and the Fleet has been compelled to gnaw at these bare bones instead of sinking its teeth into the flesh of the good red earth. There are now no patches of ‘reid brae’ to mark the latest landslides. All the cliff-bank is covered with whins, broom, brambles and other pioneering vegetation. Right to the top ey! and over the top so that to look down on the river, except in a few places, you must now peer through a whin bush.

It is food for thought, that what we call beauty places are, generally, the result of violence – volcanic upheavals or the grinding, tearing action of the mighty cataract or the stormy sea while the fertile pastoral landscapes, which really provide livelihood is taken so much for granted. It can be gathered that the ‘reid brae’ made its appeal to me.

All round the loop these big stones have been dislodged and moved a little. Only at the lower end have they the semblance of building. At the first, and chief, point of assault, the river has spread-eagled this breast-work and piled the stones on top of each other, and for the moment seems to have over-reached itself, for this pile of big stones dams and deflects the current and the Anwoth bank is actually being undermined a little. This only temporary however, the current has moved the stones and got behind them and will continue the good work until the very stones, designed to keep it in check, will help it by deflecting the current, fiercer than ever, against the bank and ‘reid brae’ conditions will be with us again. The biped-man may, of course, again interfere with nature’s arrangements.

Economically it does not matter such a great deal. Except for the area represented by the sloping cliff-bank, the level meadow within the loop approximates compensationally to the area that has been removed; only it is at a lower level.

The cemetery is less than 250 yards away, but if it has taken the Fleet since the last ice-age to come from the ends of the loop; then the cemetery is quite safe for a few thousand years. While the amount of fall between the ends of the loop remains the same, then as the loop grows bigger this amount of fall has to be distributed over a longer line of river bed so that the current and its excavating power become progressively lessened.
The rock is never far from the surface, anywhere in Galloway, and any day an outcrop of rock may show itself, like the Knuckle Rock at the Craig, already mentioned. The digging power of the Fleet, at this point, would then be indefinitely cancelled.

Yes! the Stannin’ Stane Loop is well worth seeing, yet it has never been featured on a picture post-card. It would require an aerial view from the west to do it full justice but any view, especially one from the top of the cliff-bank, would mark it off at once as an outstanding beauty spot.


Our consideration of the Banks o’ Fleet naturally falls under two headings. To the north of the town custom and convenience decree that the path should be on the Girthon bank, while to the south of the town you take the Anwoth bank. Not only does the public road leading south hug the river bank for a mile but on the Girthon bank, opposite Alder Lea, there is a wide expanse of pasture land, known as the Merse, which at high spring tides is flooded to a depth of 3 and 4 feet with resultant muddy conditions. Furthermore the Girthon bank to the south of the town lies within the ground policies of Cally House.

The river, as it flows through the town, is spanned by a handsome, substantial two arched bridge. Authority to rebuild the bridge and exact tolls was granted in 1661 The bridge, of course, has been improved and widened since then. Just after crossing the bridge turn to the left and the road leads you to the old shipyard. Oh Yes! the old shipyard for the “glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome” lingers on and haunts every nook and corner of old-world Gatehouse. An outcrop of rock at the Pot Pool causes the Fleet to make a sharp right-angled turn and at high spring tides the resultant high sheet of water was highly suitable for launching the small coasting vessels that were built at the Boatgreen.

Passing the old tannery, the layout of which is still well preserved, one can keep on the riverbank till Port Macadam is reached. The port is now usually deserted but after the big “blaw doon” I have seen it, on occasion, with every berth occupied and two or three boats lying in midstream waiting their turn for a berth. From the quay a canal was driven straight to the sea in 1824 and the river turned from its leisurely windings into it. The sharper current thus induced kept the channel deeper. From this point the bank was used as a towing path to the end of the Castle park, known locally as “the fit o’ the bank” for the high water mark sweeps away from the river-bed here and estuary conditions end the promenade on the bank.

I remember, one beautiful Sunday evening 45 years or so ago, I was with my father at the fit o’ the bank at 10p.m. and the half of Gatehouse as well. The bank was black with people for we were waiting to welcome the first steamer that ever sailed the Fleet. It turned out to be one of those tubby 110 tonners, known as “puffers” built to suit the dimensions of the locks on the Forth and Clyde Canal, with a cargo of manures and feeding stuffs for Cavins, the banker, who was an agent for such things and had two storages in the Cross Street and one in the Devil’s Elbow. A youth of the smart alick type, on the fo’c’astle head, loudly demanded what did all the people want and on being informed out of his superiority complex he gave the horse laugh, the loud guffaw and nearly wrecked the proceedings.

The skipper and the rest of the crew, however, not only maintained their dignity but rose right nobly to the occasion and gave us – me at any rate – as fine a representation of the Queen Mary taking Southampton water as I shall ever hope to see.

When the drawbridge was in commission it was well worth while to cross over and to walk down the Girthon side. The first noteworthy feature is that this bank, from the quay right down is raised about three feet, in some places more, above the level of the Callymains fields. Now at high spring tides with an in-blowing wind I have seen the water just “lipping” this bank so that but for it the fields would have been under water for an hour or so.

A little way down from the drawbridge the bank is being undermined in two places by the tidal water. Doubtless this will be repaired before there is any danger of a real breach in the raised banking. The sections thus exposed and also in places on the opposite bank, display the alluvial nature of the deposit in the old-time estuary. It is fine grained sediment with never a stone of a pebble in it. There used to be wattle-work fences, about a foot high right along the sides of the channel, to prevent such erosion as this and I can remember seeing fragments of the wattle-work. It has now all disappeared but many of the stobs of this fencing can still be seen.

Just opposite the Anwoth “fit o’ the bank” there is a detached pile of masonry. This is the remains of the targets of former days, and, with whatever added precautions of warning people off the canal bank, the estuary seems to have satisfied the safety first slogan of those times. The modern high powered rifle is the better of a hill behind the target.

A few hundred yards further on the bank is pierced by a culvert. This is where the Fleet in its uncontrolled state emptied into the sea and the old bed of the river can be easily followed yet. Now the Fleet is the boundary for the parishes of Anwoth and Girthon, so the Ordnance Survey shows all to the west of the old river as being in the parish of Anwoth. I do not know if this is observed in practice to-day or if in the matter of rates and taxes there is some arrangement about the “annexed” territory. The long, low, semi-circular escarpment that runs, behind the Merse, from the Pot Pool to Port Macadam is the result of excavation by the Fleet and at one time formed its eastern bank. The map, following a later winding of the river and still quite easily traced, shows, also, the half of the Merse as being in the parish of Anwoth.

Now from the old outlet of the river a broad and straight embankment, doubtless formed with the material excavated from the canal, has been run out to the Rough Point and at high tide the lower level of the fields is very striking. The culvert is controlled by an automatic, flap sluice which is closed by the weight of the inrushing tidal water. The small trickle of fresh water thus impounded forms a pool but its surface is a good few feet below the level of the tidal water which, if unhindered, would flood a big stretch of the country here. I impounded fresh water escapes when the tide recedes and the sluice opens again.

The Statistical Account of Scotland says that by the embankment and the automatic sluice 170 acres of highly fertile land has been reclaimed and it does not appear to be an exaggerated claim. All the same it should be noted that natural reclamation, which is a slow process has been stopped on the “reclaimed” land. Every time the tidal waters cover an estuary they leave a film of mud for it has been observed that the sediment and silt washed down by the river tends to precipitate on contact with the salt water.

When this embankment was run across the merse-land, the land would be the same level on both sides of it. Even to the casual eye the higher level of the land on the seaward side, to-day, is quite obvious and the observant critic is amazed at this evidence of the amount of deposit laid down in 115 years, Financially, of course, the bank and sluice system yields its benefits to the present generation.

Viewed from the fields the embankment rises a big broad rampart, 15 feet high and half a mile long, which shuts out completely the view of the estuary. So for young Gatehouse here is a genuine small scale counterpart of the world-famous “Dykes of Holland that remain to keep out the sea.”