Stories from the Scotland's Coastal Heritage at Risk Project

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Mesolithic oaks to Mulberry Harbours – 8,000 years of history along the Solway Firth

One of the joys of coastal archaeology is that it encompasses sites of all types and periods. A recent recording visit to three stretches of the Solway coast with the Coastwise Project and local volunteers took us from remnants of Mesolithic forest to secretive D-Day preparations.

A group of brightly dressed people on a shingle beach with a sunk boat visible in the water behind them

Solway Coastwise volunteers exploring and recording coastal archaeology

At Redkirk Point, where the river Esk meets the Solway Firth, a short stretch of coast tells the story of 8,000 years of a dramatically changing landscape. On the sloping bank, crumbling into the channel, tree roots, stumps and trunks embedded in the peat are the remains of mesolithic oak woodland, drowned by rising sea levels.

Close up of a sandy and silty beach with a tree stump and roots embedded in the sediment

Tree stumps eroding out of the riverbank are the remains of 8,000 year old oak woodland

Land has been lost to the sea here in more recent history, too. The name Redkirk Point comes from a church (probably built out of the local red sandstone) that stood here since the 12th century. However, it too was overwhelmed as the land was washed away from beneath it in 1675. In the 1845 New Statistical Account, the local minister writes how:

“the tide and river whirling violently round that headland have swept them away entirely, but some old people yet remember the unwelcome sight of bones and coffins protruding from the banks…”

A map of the Solway Firth at Redkirk point showing the different lines the channel has followed from 2015 going back to 1857

Mapping the line of the main channel from historic maps illustrates the constantly shifting nature of the Solway Firth waterscape.

The threat of loss to the sea here is perpetual, as illustrated by this timber structure which was recently uncovered by erosion not far from the site of the erstwhile Red Kirk.

An eroding muddy riverbank with several parallel long lines of wooden posts running along the waterfront

Recent erosion has eaten away at the coast here, revealing this long wooden structure

Its purpose is unknown, but it may have been built in an effort to consolidate the eroding bank. Watch the Solway Coastwise film clip of our visit to Redkirk to get a sense of the river landscape here.

From the muddy shore of the Inner Solway Firth to the rocky coastline of Auchencairn, we explored how people in the past few centuries have exploited the potential of the carboniferous geology in this area. This is an extractive landscape of quarrying, mining and dashed hopes.

A large group of people standing talking on a rocky beach with the sea in the background

Coastwise volunteers at Auchencairn discussing the industrial history of the area

The description of this parish in the 1794 Old Statistical Account lists its many positive attributes, the only complaint being a lack of fuel. However, optimism shines through in a description of recent attempts to exploit coal seams exposed on the beaches…

“These lands lie upon the shore; and so promising are appearance that veins, 3 inches thick, of excellent coal, are found among the rocks at low water…”

A historic map of the Auchencairn coast showing coal pits and a smithy labelled between the Rascarrel Burn and the Airds Burn, highlighted with a red box around the area of interest

A contemporary map by John Ainslie in 1797 also shows several coal pits along this coastline. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland 

We spotted a band of black shale that resembles coal in the coastal section at Auchencairn, and recorded the remains of several mine shafts in the hinterland. However, it seems the industry never progressed beyond the prospecting stage because late 19th century maps show only the ‘Old Coal Shafts’ of abandoned workings, while the New Statistical Account of 1845 is silent on the subject.

A historic map of the area between Rascarrel Burn and Airds Burn showing several 'Old Coal Shafts'

The 1895 2nd edition map shows a cluster of Old Coal Shafts – the mining attempt had been abandoned by then. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland 

The short-lived interest in coal may have been the inspiration for companion industries such as salt production. A map of the Estate of Rascarrel from 1870 shows a salt pan on the beach, associated with several coal pits. We didn’t find any trace of the panhouse, however, an intertidal reservoir or bucket pot has been constructed using the natural shape of the bedrock with the addition of a stone wall. Seawater would have been pumped or bucketed from here to the salt pan.

An aerial view of a rock and shingle beach where a semi-circular reservoir has been created at the coast edge, using a natural curving ridge in the bedrock with a wall built to form one side

A saltwater reservoir to hold back tidal water has been constructed using the natural shape of the rocky foreshore with the addition of an enclosing wall on one side to form a bucket pot

We also encountered evidence of two smithies built to service the mines. The first stands close to the salt works and is now almost completely disappeared. However, the layers being revealed as a result of coastal erosion contain smithing slag which confirms the building’s function.

Several large stone slabs exposed in an eroding vertical face at the top of a beach, while a group of people behind take notes and read measure

Stone walling exposed in the eroding coast edge, while volunteers record the ruins of the smithy building beneath vegetation

A later and better-preserved stone building to the east is known locally as ‘the smithy’, an identification confirmed by the discovery during our survey of a smithing hearth at one end.

A measured plan drawing of the ruined smithy building showing a detailed elevation of the smithing hearth

A plan of the later smithy building showing the detail of the ironworking hearth discovered by volunteers on the east gable, which confirmed the building’s function.

Other minerals extracted at Auchencairn include barytes; a heavy white ore used in bleaching, and in the manufacture of paper and white paint. The mouth of a small mine tunnel on the shoulder of Little Airds Hill is marked by a scatter of the white barytes on the slope below. Nearby, a complex of buildings are the remains of a copper mine. We don’t have any records of its early history, but in the 19th century, the pump on which the workings relied failed, and the mine flooded.

A group of people standing next to a beach in front of a grassy slope and small hut, with a line of stones exposed in a small slumped area beneath the grassy slope

The Coastwise group standing in front of the collapsed adit mouth which joined the copper mine.

The final attempt at exploiting the geology along this coast was in the 1950s, when a mining engineer named Billy Shaw reopened the old mine. Although primarily interested in investigating the barytes vein, they also encountered copper and quartz. However, the quality of the copper ore was too poor to be economically viable while the market for quartz (to supply pebbledash for the post-war housing boom) was dominated by companies from England. Recounting the history of the failed 1950s enterprise Shaw lamented the heavily faulted geology they encountered “so that little real sense could be made of it” and which precluded commercial success.

An unexpected surprise of a site – known locally, but not on historic environment records, was an intertidal quarry which worked the sandstone bedrock for millstones.

Flat slabs of bedrock on the coat with circular outlines of small holes

Lines of small holes forming circles on the surface of the intertidal rock show where wedges were driven in to remove circular slabs to be worked into millstones – these ones have been abandoned before they were extracted.

Here, the cavities left on the shore where large slabs have been removed attest to the quarrying activity, while lines of small holes along the bedding planes and forming circles on the surface show where wedges were driven in to remove slabs to be worked into millstones.

Our third stretch of coastline to investigate and record was Cairnhead Bay, the site of top-secret D-Day preparations. Watch the Coastwise film clip to see the site in its context.

An aerial view of a rock and shingle beach, where a pontoon made of concrete and shaped like a boat sits at the water's edge

Behind a rocky promontory on this secluded shore, you’ll be confronted by the unexpected sight of what appears to be a concrete boat.

It might be quiet now, but 75 years ago this coast was anything but. An essential element of the Normandy beach landings was portable harbours that could be secretly towed into position and used to land troops and supplies. This ambitious project, code-named ‘Mulberry’, required a pioneering engineering solution, which needed extensive testing. The stretch of the Wigtownshire coast around Garlieston was selected for its similar tidal range to Normandy, similar sea conditions, and its remote location to maintain secrecy.

Three designs were trialled here, and it was a storm at Cairnhead Bay that put them through their paces, leading to the decision to adopt the innovative floating roadway design that was ultimately successfully deployed on D-Day.

A black and white aerial photograph over the sea facing inland showing a wide pier structure with a large boat alongside, and a floating road running from it to the shore, supported by floating pontoons.

Wartime photos show the complete prototype harbour at Cairnhead being tested, helping us to understand the remains on site. Picture credit Imperial War Museum (IWM). From http://www.mulberryharbour.info/

Our concrete ‘boat’ is actually a ‘Beetle’, code-name for the pontoons that supported the floating roadway of the Mulberry Harbour that was used in Normandy. The Beetle is a rare reminder of the important role this remote section of the Solway coast played in Britain’s D-Day planning, but sitting on the beach and covered by the tide every day for 75 years it is also very vulnerable.

Visit the Garlieston Mulberry Harbour website to see contemporary photographs of the Mulberries at Cairnhead that explain the floating roadway and the role of Beetle pontoons in the construction, and then explore our 3-dimensional model of the Cairnhead Beetle to see what’s left of this ingenious design.

For much more detail of all our discoveries read the Solway Coastwise survey report.

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