Welcome to Stranraer
The largest town in southwest Scotland, Stanraer lies at the head of Loch Ryan on the Rhinns of Galloway, a kind of double headed peninsula with arms stretching north and south. It is famed for providing the first roll-on roll-off ferry services between the British mainland and Ireland and still provides a popular ferry service which takes passengers direct to Belfast. But Stranraer has a lot more going for it than its ferry terminal and harbour. The town itself is an interesting one, with a characterful history evident from a number of old buildings and a castle. Situated on the narrow stretch of land which connects Galloway proper to the Rhinns, Stranraer acts as the hub for this ‘would be’ island. Stranraer is therefore the ideal base for the discovery of the Rhinns’ gentle countryside, long sandy beaches, and beautiful coastline; an area which also boasts the most southerly point in Scotland.
The coasts and islands of Scotland were to attract the first human settlers over 8000 years ago. It would be absurd to suggest that the Rhinns of Galloway were avoided by these peoples. However, substantial settlements did not come until much later. One example of the skills of Scotland’s prehistoric settlers is visible at Ardwell Bay, about 10 miles south of Stranraer. Here lies an Iron Age Broch, a round fortified tower with thick walls, called Doon Castle. Arguably the most important archaeological sites in the Rhinns are from the early Christian period. Near the south of the southern peninsula lies the village of Kirkmaiden. In the village’s Burial Chapel a number of locally uncovered Christian monuments are on display, the oldest being a pillar of stone dating from around the 5th century. These Christian Monuments are the oldest in Scotland outside of Whithorn, due east on the Machars Peninsula. Together these finds testify to the introduction of Christianity into Scotland from Ireland and the importance of the southwest as the area of its earliest establishment.
In Stanraer itself the most important archaeological site is the medieval fort, St John’s Castle. The tower house was built around 1500 AD by the Adairs of Kilhilt, one of the prominent landowning families in the Rhinns. Initially it was used as the family’s seat and power base. By 1596 the town which had grown around the keep was awarded the status of Burgh of Barony before becoming a full Royal Burgh in 1617. Much of this enhanced status was the result of the Dumfries-Portpatrick military road, built to facilitate transport between the Scottish interior, via Dumfries, and the main port for Ireland at Portpatrick. The road began to be used by Irish drovers driving their cattle to Scotland’s lowland markets, and the fort took on the role of securing this blossoming trade route.
The fort’s significance was recognised in the 1680s when it was occupied by government troops. The late 17th century was a time of great unrest in Scotland due to the undermining of the Scottish Protestant church and its Presbyterian form of church government by a hostile catholic regime led by the king from London. The oppression carried out by such troops as those based St John’s Castle was so extreme that this period has gone down in history as ‘The Killing Time’.
Despite such setbacks, the first port was built in Stranraer in the early 18th century. This served to enhance Stranraer’s position as a market town and the administrative centre of the region. At this time the Castle took on another role: as the region’s prison. And yet Stranraer was still not the main port on the Rhinns, that position still being occupied by Portpatrick. Stranraer could only claim this title after the arrival of the railway in 1861. It is from this time when Stranraer became not just the region’s premier port but the major sea link between Scotland and Ireland.
Despite Stranraer’s position being undermined in recent years by the decision of a number of ferry companies to operate out of other ports (especially with the fast catamaran service, the SeaCat, now sailing from Troon), the legacy of the town’s maritime history remains more than evident. The hustle and bustle in the old streets, the town’s austere old fort, the colourfully painted houses and the old harbour all give the impression that this is an island capital. And for the time being at least you can still sit at the harbour and watch the ferry’s sail north out of Loch Ryan on their journey to Belfast