Whithorn’s Burgh Surveyed

In 2008 a Burgh Survey was undertaken by Historic Scotland. Working with them, Charles McKean suggested some features in the evolution of the Scottish town, quite distinct from English developments, and looked in particular at this evolution in Whithorn and Tain.

A royal burgh under the control of the prior of Whithorn, and he exerted considerable power as “Whithorn Priory was one of the largest in Scotland”, was erected in 1325. The original layout survives to this day. Whithorn is, “sheltered in a fold in the plateau of southern Galloway, not far from the tip of the peninsular, the town comprises an exceptionally elongated market place – over spacious and attenuated even by David 1st burgh standard. It is narrow at the top by the High or Isle Port Mouth, and at the northern end by Low Port Mouth”. These entry ports offered protection but there is no indication that the town was ever fortified or needed to be. Behind the buildings fronting the market place were long rigs ending in back dykes.

The survey concluded that this “strangely over-ambitious and potentially windswept market place”, that is now George Street, had once been divided, and functioned in three distinct ways. The elements which divided it have now been removed. The Ket Burn, which once flowed openly and was crossed by a timber bridge, has now been piped below street level.

To the south, in the centre of the street just opposite the Roman Catholic Church, once stood the tolbooth. General Roy’s map (above) of 1747 shows a large square building at this point in George Street,described by Bishop Pococke as a “market house….adorned with spire and turrets and prouded with bells”.

To the north, the space between the Ket Burn and the Low Port Mouth, was a sheltered space were travellers from the north would have arrived, indeed it once had at least 3 inns.

To the south, above the site of the tolbooth, the houses on the south-west side still retain there forelands. “The urban form of this section may be the result of this open space being used as a gathering point for pilgrims prior to their formal entry to the priory and the shrine of St. Ninian.”

“Between the Ket and the tolbooth was Whithorn’s principal ceremonial space.” It was once dominated by the mass of the priory with its tower that, “scaled up from the surviving ruins, was likely to be a minimum of forty metres high”, somewhat higher than the Old Town Hall steeple. This area was the town’s market place with the market cross, and the priory gatehouse. Another approach, by a road to the south (King’s Road) brought travellers arriving by sea at the town’s harbour at the Isle.

The survey concludes, “Whithorn is a re-occupied pilgrimage destination of high quality, whose forms and rigs survive with a certain quantity of ancient fabric embedded in re-edified properties. Yet the pilgrimage routes are neither clear nor fully open and since so little is made of the priory church, the ensemble makes little sense at present. The space dividers that used to shape George Street (the tollbooth and the Ket Burn) have been removed or disguised. There is, however, enormous charm in the way that the town folds into the country and its boundaries are still delineated by back dykes to the long rigs.”

Charles McKean proposes that, “with the enormous revival in Europe of pilgrimage to Santiago della Compostella extending as far north as Trondheim. By re-opening the pilgrimage route to the Isle, re-excavating the priory church and representing it so that its scale might again be appreciated, Whithorn could retrieve its part in that European-wide movement.”

First Published October 2009

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