Old Newton Stewart

IN AROUND 1400, there lay a small peasant settlement beside a river in a remote part of Scotland, desired by those with few pennies and fewer skills.

Home to the Bishops of Galloway, the parish of Penninghamme boasted no attractions to anyone who passed through and for two centuries remained home to a few hundred people, a church and two inns.

William Stewart, one of the few well-to-do local estate owners, obtained a charter from Charles II which gave the town Burgh status - and it soon became known as the New Town of Stewart.

It wasn't until Stewart was forced to sell off his land due to debt in 1777 to Galloway-born businessman William Douglas that the town - now with a population of 1000 - began to flourish.

Douglas had made his fortune in America and had returned to Britain to buy up land and property in Scotland - two of which being the at parishes of Penninghamme and Carlingwark, which gave Castle Douglas its name.

Douglas had intentions to regenerate Newton Stewart and turn it into a productive, manufacturing town which would create jobs and skilled labourers for what he saw as a down-and-out area.

A new name for the town - Newton Douglas - was not the only change as Douglas lived up to his word and created a cotton mill and streets of houses for its workers.

The houses were called Cotton Mill Row and the Gorbals, but are better known today as King Street and Arthur Street and were lived in by not just locals but by people who flocked to the now thriving town looking for work. Many of these were Irish and they continued to arrive in the town until the early 1830s.

Obviously unknown to them, the mill was demolished in 1926, seventeen years after Douglas had died. The town took back its old name and began sustaining itself through agriculture - a new breed of workers and respectable society had grown with the mill's popularity, leaving none of the former peasants behind!

Bacon curing, handlooming, and the district market were how the town was known by the 1840s and grain mills, a tannery, a brewery and no less than 34 pubs added to the town's economy. This was all helped by the arrival of the railway to the area in 1961.

Newton Stewart station was the terminus for the Whithorn branch line and was a stopping point for the Castle Douglas to Portpatrick line.

Cree Mills Ltd arrived on the scene at the turn of the century and re-erected Douglas' old mill on the same site, creating 147 jobs by the 1950s. Sadly, by 1986, the mill ceased production and the building sat empty until 2005 when a local builder demolished it to make way for housing developments.

With the end of an era as the trains left Galloway in the 1960s, some stations less than 100 years after it had arrived, Newton Stewart became once again somewhat cut off from the rest of the country. The Leyland Lion was the main form of transport - a Caledonian Omnibus Company (later SMT) bus which ran from one end of Dumfries and Galloway to the other. Today's journey would take perhaps three hours on a bus, but in the 60's and 70's, travellers would have benefitted from a picnic and a pillow!

The present Creebridge separates Newton Stewart from Minnigaff, and technically separates Wigtownshire from Kirkcudbrightshire, although much of Newton Stewart and Minnigaff's community and local government issues are dealt with together.

Minnigaff existed before Newton Stewart and in the old kirkyard can be found a headstone dating back to 1416, but it is believed the village was there from the 13th century. The village had a well-attended market long before that of Newton Stewart and attracted people from miles around, including many farmers and villagers from high in the hills and moors around what is now Glentrool.

Today, Minnigaff is considerably bigger than it was a hundred years ago with large housing schemes obscuring land around Kirroughtree and opposite by the river, behind the present medical centre.

Creebridge was once acknowledged as a village in its own right and although it only offers one street, it is still used in postal addresses today.

There stood an inn and a shop along from the tollbooth by the bridge itself, which collected tolls from those travelling on the Old Edinburgh Road through the New Galloway moors wishing to pass into Newton Stewart.

The first bridge linking Newton Stewart and Minnigaff was built in 1745 but was washed away in great floods in 1803, forcing locals to use a horse-drawn ferry across the shallowest parts of the river. But in 1813, work on the present-day Creebridge began slightly downstream from its predecessor - and has withstood heavy rains, snow and flooding to this day.

A sight most of us would never imagine was commonplace in the 1800s - when the river Cree froze, hoardes of locals would use it as a curling and skating rink and in the winter of 1895, February brought two weeks of heavy storms.

The Galloway Gazette reported that the town "baffled description" and added that the council had gathered the town's unemployed to shovel snow and form a path through the main street.

Snow such as that - with six-foot high drifts - hasn't been seen in the town for many years and some wonder if it ever will again.

Today, Newton Stewart is better known as being a market town thanks to the Craig Wallace Market on Queen Street. With the much-used Euro route running alongside it, Newton Stewart sees many A75 travellers stop by for a rest en route to or from Northern Ireland.

With a population pushing 5,000 the town has come along way from its peasant roots and is a major attraction to lovers of the great outdoors.

More photos of Newton Stewart in the past and information can be found in David Pettigrew's 'Old Newton Stewart', published by Stenlake Publishing, Ayrshire.