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 rowing boat or punt 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 boat 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 boat on the Solway waters.

A story that illustrates the dangers of crossing the Solway in a rowing boat 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 boat 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 boat 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  St Ayles skiffs being rowed along the Solway coastline.  In late summer you might get a sighting of small boats rowed by teams of four with a cox steering them, 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.  

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.