Burnswark a hill with stories

This photograph was taken from near Bowness on Solway in Cumbria, England and the distinctive hill seen on the skyline is called Burnswark and is near Lockerbie about 10 miles north of Annan in south west Scotland on the north side of the Solway estuary. Burnswark is a hill that can be seen from many different places on the Solway coast and over time it has become a place of intrigue for me and somewhere that I was keen to visit.

Whilst attending a great talk at the West Cumbria Archeological Society  about the Caledonian hill fort which once stood on the top of the Burnswark plateau I learned about the demise of the small native British community who lived on top of the hill until the time just after the death of Emperor Hadrian (of Hadrian’s Wall fame) who died in AD 138.

After Hadrian died Antoninus Pius took the throne of Rome and it is during his reign that the removal of the community living on Burnswark hill plateau is believed to have taken place.  Evidence of Roman army camps have been found to both the north and the south sides of Burnswark and the events that took place there have been contested for many centuries by different archeologists.    Early surveys of Burnswark suggested to archeologists that the hill had been a Roman military practice ground or a seige site. Recent finds of substantial amounts of Roman sling bullets and ballista have however produced a new theory that an assault by Roman legions destroyed the native British community living in a fort on the hill.

Armed with this knowledge, I decided I had to pay a visit to Burnswark. So on a clear frosty November morning my old dad and I drove to the Lockerbie area, parked the car, donned our boots and walked the short path up onto Burnswark hilltop. It was beautiful and did not disappoint.  A stunning full 360 degree view looking across to the Cumbrian Lake District fells, taking in the length of the Solway – we thought we could see as far as Workington to the south in Cumbria – and a distant view of Criffel in south west Scotland. North into the Scottish Borders and south east views of the northern Pennine hills. Very splendid.  When the Covid 19 lockdown allows I hope very much to revisit this place to once again take in the fabulous views of the Solway estuary, Borders and northern hills that it offers.

Solway skiffs

A traditional form of transport on the Solway – a St Ayles skiff

Nowadays the views across the Solway, whilst expansive and magnificent, take in only a few passing boats or ships.  It is easy to think that the waters of the Solway have always been quiet, and without much traffic.  The Solway however has a rich maritime trade history and boat building past.  Maryport in Cumbria and Annan in Scotland both having been important ship building sites producing wonderful sailing ships and grand steamers which travelled the globe.

Another type of craft which would frequently have been seen on the Solway estuary and coastline were small rowing boats,  which today are known as St Ayles skiffs, designed to transport both goods and people.

Alan Thompson of the Annan Harbour Action group explained some of the history of these small crafts

 “St Ayles skiffs were first designed and built in 2010 paying homage to the Orkney yawls and their predecessors, so the vikings would have used similar boats to dot about the Solway a thousand years ago. In the past 200 years though most Solway crossings would be by punt. These  looked similar to our skiffs other than having a transom and were  most generally designed for one person to row with two oars. When the fishermen from Morecambe Bay colonised our side in the mid 1850s they eschewed conventional rowing as this prevented them seeing where they were going and used a technique called sculling with a single oar from the transom, with a similar stance and motion to a Venetian gondolier. Perhaps it was this technique that  led to punt becoming the common term for rowing boats.”


Whilst there are a number of forgotten walking routes or ‘waths’ that for centuries have been used to cross the Solway on foot.  These routes were known to be a dangerous option having over the years taken many lives when the speed of the incoming tide or the line of the route across the sands was misjudged. Similarly travel on land around the Solway coast during the turbulent centuries suffered in the UK Borderlands was a perilous activity.  A skiff would for many people have been the transport mode of choice for travelling along the coast or across the estuary – far safer than travelling on land.

Travel by skiff would not however have been without it’s perils, with the tidal drag of the estuary constantly changing the lines of the deepest channels, moving sand banks, creating new shallows, eddies and flows.   Add to this mix the sometimes unpredictable and stormy nature of the coastal weather and it’s clear that knowledge and skill have always been essential for safe travel by rowing boat on the Solway waters.

A story that illustrates the dangers of crossing the Solway in a skiff is that of a love smitten couple – John Edgar and Jean Scott – who in 1771 decided to elope to Gretna Green  to get married. The marriage laws in Scotland being different at that time to those of England.  To avoid angry parents who wanted to prevent the wedding, the young people chose to hire a skiff and crew to row them the short distance from Burgh by Sands marsh in Cumbria, England across the waters to Gretna Green where they could be married legally under Scottish law.  Their parents found out about the plans, pursued the couple and also hired a Solway skiff and oarsmen to take chase across the estuary.  A Solway storm was brewing, whipping up waves.  The eloping couple, drawing on the skill of their crew whilst still pursued, fought their way through the waves and arrived safely in Gretna Green where they were married.  Unbeknown to them the boat pursuing them capsized in the storm. This resulted in the drowning of one of the oarsmen.  It is not known if the young married couple ever returned to England or if they heard about the tragic incident associated with their elopement.

Occasionally these days it is still possible to see traditionally built skiffs being rowed along the Solway coastline.  In late summer you might get a sighting of skiffs rowed by teams of four with a cox steering the boat, making their way out into the middle of the estuary on a crossing from Annan harbour in Scotland to Bowness on Solway in Cumbria, England – all taking part in an event that marks a locally notorious theft of the Bowness and Dornock Church bells in 1626.  This year there is also an additional and splendid opportunity to see some coastal skiff rowing races in July at the Skiffie Worlds 2019  – a rowing event which is taking place in Stranraer in Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland.  Up to a 1000 competitors from all over the world are expected to take part…… a fine celebration of the coastal skiff, a very traditional form of Solway transport.

Outlaw King Solway Secrets

Heritage sites around both the Scottish and the English sides of the Solway coast have significant links to Robert the Bruce and Edward I.  One such site in Cumbria is the abbey in the photograph below. This is where the father of Robert the Bruce,  the Earl of Carrick, was buried and which in later years was also raided by  his son ‘The Bruce’.

The abbey where the father of Robert the Bruce is buried

Edward I was not buried at the site of his death as shown in the new Netflix film Outlaw King. His body was taken to the nearest church, which was in Cumbria, and there lay in state until the arrival of his son Edward II, who then took the remains of his father to Westminster for a royal funeral.

You can experience these places and learn more about their connections with Robert the Bruce and Edward I by booking a Secret Solway guided tour.  To find out more about Secret Solway tours email  info@solwayconnections.co.uk or phone (+44)07494489901.  www.solwayconnections.co.uk


Capturing Criffel

Views from the Cumbrian coast across the Solway estuary to Criffel a 570m hill in Dumfries and Galloway are worth savouring. This is a hill with a majestic outline that draws the eye to the west as you journey around the Cumbrian coastal plains on a Secret Solway Tour.

Looking across the Solway estuary to South West Scotland, the seasons and the changing light give differing personalities to Criffel. On a soft, calm misty morning Criffel can almost float in a suspended state above the estuary, seeming like ‘middle earth’ to those of a Tolkien persuasion. On summer evenings Criffel becomes a slumbering dragon with a wondrous fiery sun setting behind it. On stormy grey winter days Criffel turns into a foreboding and implacable being.  Sometimes mystical, secret, or serene, and always changing, fascination for the mercurial nature of Criffel has made photographing this beautiful hill a favourite Secret Solway pastime.

The name Criffel is thought to be from Norse language, meaning ‘Crow’s hill’. With flanks covered in bog cotton,heather and bilberry, inhabited by skylarks, Criffel looking down over Loch Kindar and across the Solway Firth to Cumbria in England, has born witness to the deeds of many through the centuries. The lives of the Carvetti tribe or ‘Deer people’ who lived on the Cumbrian Solway plains and the Novantae tribe of south west Scotland would have been watched over by Criffel. As would the arrival of the Romans, and then the Vikings to the Solway shores. Viewing the passage of pilgrims, reivers, smugglers and others, Criffel has also born witness to the tragedy of lost lives of many fighters and travellers who through the ages failed to safely cross over the dangerous sands and waters of the Solway estuary. A hill with tales to tell and a reason for visiting the Cumbrian Secret Solway coast.



Secret Solway Stories: Burgh Marsh Races and a celebrity visitor


This is a photograph of Burgh marsh, near Burgh by Sands on the Cumbrian side of the Solway Firth,  an isolated and windswept spot, where a lonely monument marks the death in 1307 of the Plantagenet King Edward I.  This is also the place where the legendary racehorse Red Rum, 3 times winner of the UK Grand National race, once paid a visit.

Burgh marsh has a long history of horse racing dating back to the 1690s. To raise money for Cancer research and to celebrate the racing history of the area the Burgh by Sands Cancer Research Charity committee, in 1978, decided they would organize a commemorative race meet to take place once more on the original course on the nearby marsh. Somebody suggested Red Rum the famous race horse, who by this time was retired from racing, should be invited to the Burgh Marsh race meet as an equine celebrity. A plan was hatched. Ginger McCain who had trained Red Rum was duly contacted.  Nobody really thought that Ginger would agree to bringing this valuable horse to the village race meet, but much to everyone’s surprise – he did agree, and for the fee of £300 said that he would be pleased to transport his valuable ward to Burgh marsh race meet.

On the day of the races it was windy and wet in the morning and there was some concern about the impact of the weather on the racing.  Everyone waited and looked out for the horsebox that would signal the arrival of the famous guest.   Worried looks were beginning to spread across the faces of the organisers who had contacted newspapers and had journalists arriving to cover the story for the local press.  Suddenly the horsebox appeared in the distance making it’s way through the country lanes to the gateway on to the Marsh.  Red Rum had arrived.  The sun came out. Crowds of people travelled from Carlisle and local villages to see the famous racer.  All went to plan, the day was a huge success raising much money for Cancer Research, and local history was made –  September 3rd 1978  the day when  the famous Red Rum,  giant celebrity of the horse racing world, spent the day as the star guest at Burgh marsh races.

Signs of spring on the Solway


At last it feels like spring has arrived.   Longer days and warmer weather for walking next to the lovely Solway Estuary. The Barnacle geese have started heading north  on their long flight to summer nesting sites.  Chiffchaff and other summer migrants are beginning to arrive.   Jackdaws are busy building nests.  Wetland pools full of frogspawn and emerging tadpoles.  Spring flowers, trees bursting into leaf.  So much to see and a great time of year to explore the Cumbrian Solway coast and wetlands on a Secret Solway Tour.

Frosty Solway mornings

If you are wearing lots of warm clothes, the cold, clear, frosty mornings of winter have been great for walking on the Solway salt marshes and along forgotten drovers lanes.  A combination of the early morning light, frost and chance encounters with local inhabitants makes for magical moments.

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A good winter on the Solway for seeing Barnacle geese


This year has been particularly good for seeing Barnacle geese on the Solway.

The numbers on the Solway have risen to over 43,000, which is excellent news given how threatened this population of geese was some 30 or so years ago.

This year the geese seem to have been very amenable for folks who want to take photographs.  Their use of spaces close to the road and  near to  concealed footpaths has been most helpful.

In a couple of months time the Barnacle geese will start to disappear from the Solway coastline as they once again make their long flight to Svalbard in the Arctic for the breeding season.  This is a marker of seasonal change on the Solway, indicating a move out of winter and the arrival spring.

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Hidden stories on the Solway wetlands

On first encounter this photograph of a rough grassy area with a big round shed situated behind it may not seem so interesting.  When however, you find out that the rough grassy area in the photo is where generations of Solway families went to dig peat for use as fuel for heating their homes and for cooking their meals – and that the big round shed behind the rough grassland is a world war 2 aeroplane hanger and that planes stored in it were built in America for the British war effort, suddenly the picture starts to raise lots of questions. Which families went to this site to dig their peat? What tools did they use? How did they transport the peat to their homes? What else was peat used for? …. Or – why was this air hanger built in such a remote area of northern England? Who delivered the planes from the USA? Where did the pilots and maintenance crews live and where did they come from? The Solway area has many unexpected secrets and stories to share.  http://solwayconnections.co.uk/secret-solway/

Secret Solway Starlings

Secret Solway Starlings


Solway Starlings beginning to flock as night time arrives.

Just before 4.00pm on a cold, clear winter evening we arrived at the Easton junction on Burgh marsh near the  Solway estuary in Cumbria, UK. Having been told that as night arrived starlings were beginning to gather here in large numbers in the trees and on the telegraph wires, we wanted to try and photograph a starling murmuration with a sunset backdrop. Yes the birds were there, not as many as last year at  the nearby Watchtree Nature Reserve when it was thought that over fifty thousand birds were roosting and not as many as the hundreds of thousands seen in previous years at Gretna Green, but there was the beginning of a Starling murmuration. The birds took to flight as the light began changing. We snapped a photo of them beginning to flock together with a backdrop of Criffel mountain in Scotland and then they headed south east only occasionally looping back round towards us, but not so that we could get another photograph. They stayed low in the sky, and did not bunch up tightly nor form shifting shapes in the sky as we have seen in previous years. Without warning the birds suddenly dropped down into fir trees. Perhaps it was just too cold for flying around.   The number of Starlings might increase over the winter months - there may still be the chance later in the season to get that photograph.

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