The First Settlers
The earliest evidence of human habitation in the South Rhins is around 8000 BC when Middle Stone Age nomadic tribes from Europe followed the receding ice sheet which had covered this part of the world, and settled in the valleys and along the coast.
Their campsites, showing a reliance on stone, wood, bones and antlers for tools and weapons, have been discovered on the shores of Wigtown Bay, Loch Ryan and Luce Bay as well as along the river valleys where they were probably attracted by the area’s dense forests as much as by its warm, damp climate.
The next inhabitants - farming groups who arrived around 4000 BC - built permanent settlements and many artefacts and flints from this Neolithic Age have been found at the Mull of Galloway.
Bronze & Iron Ages
These Stone Age farming groups were followed by other settlers who originated from among the Celtic peoples of Central Europe though they were not the same Celts who invaded centuries later.
By 2500 BC, Bronze Age metalworkers and merchants had settled in the area, to be followed in turn by Iron Age dwellers whose influence was such that the Celtic language was to become dominant in Galloway for over one thousand years from their arrival in 700 BC to the end of the 6th Century.
Around 400 BC, the Celts invaded Ireland before crossing over to the west of Scotland where these Iron Age warriors built substantial hill forts and constructed fortified settlements - called Crannogs on artificial islands in the middle of lochs.
Under the command of Julius Agricola, the Romans arrived in the Solway area around 80 AD and, within two years, had become established in Dumfries and Galloway. Marching camps were established at Gatehouse of Fleet and Girvan and Roman coins have been found at Stoneykirk along with other artefacts at nearby Clayshant.
But the Romans never fully conquered Dumfries and Galloway, nor did they penetrate the interior, concentrating instead on patrolling and trading along the coastline and keeping to coastal areas.
Yet their influence remained with the local people long after they finally left in 410 AD for they left the foundations of Christianity as evidenced by the Kirkmadrine Stones and their Latin inscriptions.
Saints, Saxons & Vikings
Scottish Christianity began in Galloway when St Ninian laid the first stone at Whithorn around AD 397 and within Ninian’s lifetime, Christianity was flourishing within The Rhins. By the middle of the 6th Century, two abbeys, eight other parish churches and as many as 34 chapels marked the Rhins of Galloway as an important centre of early and Medieval Christianity. Unfortunately, none have survived intact though the most famous of all - St Medana’s Cave and Chapel - are commemorated within the name of Kirkmaiden.
The turbulent times of the Dark Ages saw Galloway being absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in the mid-7th Century and later became a Norse earldom, ruled from Norway. Indeed, it was to remain under Norse rule until 1057 when King Malcolm brought Galloway close to the Scottish Crown.
King, Crown & Covenant
By the 13th Century, despite writings referring to “the French, the English, the Scots and the Gallovidians”, the independence of Galloway had diminished in the interests of nation building. The War of Independence came and went with Galloway supporting the unsuccessful Balliol against Robert Bruce but warfare with neighbouring England continued for the next 300 years until the Scottish and English Crowns were united in 1603.
But if temporal warfare declined, spiritual unrest increased even though the Scottish Reformation was accomplished with comparative ease to that in England. In a period of deep religious strife, Galloway figured prominently in the black episode concerning The Covenanters and The Rhins was fortunate in that its main religious dispute related to the siting of a church at Drumniore still known today as the old Kirk Covenant.
Smugglers & Excisemen
Agricultural reform in the 18th Century led to numerous land workers being displaced and, with an extensive and rugged coastline at their disposal, many turned to smuggling. Goods were brought ashore in dead of night around Luce Bay and the Mull of Galloway from the Isle of Man and Ireland.
Tea, brandy and tobacco were obvious cargoes but high quality salt from Ireland and strong beer from England were among the less obvious items that escaped the attention and duties of the Excisemen. Sadly, scant details survive about most of these illegal activities as the Excise Records were destroyed but on a precarious coastline, 18th and 19th Century smuggling was a very precarious way of life and far removed from the glamorous image that history and Hollywood have given it.