Cree Bridge bi-centenary comes about

Taken early to mid 20th century.
Taken early to mid 20th century.

Cree Bridge, that familiar handsome granite structure that links Newton Stewart with Minnigaff, will celebrate its bicentenary this year.

The bridge was built in 1813 after flooding in 1806 swept away the old bridge built in 1745. The old bridge had been positioned further up the river and its crossing point was at the bottom of the Salt Box Brae. But the bridge committee put in place to facilitate the building of the new bridge decided the best position was further south at a place where people and lifestock had previously forded the river. In 1329 on a pilgrimage to shrine of St Ninian in Whithorn Robert the Bruce crossed the river at this point.

The engineer given the responsibility of designing the new Cree Bridge was the famous John Rennie the Elder. He is also the builder of the bridge over the River Ken at New Galloway and Waterloo Bridge over the Thames in London. Rennie also planned the government dockyards at Portsmouth and Plymouth.

Rennie’s great contemporary was Thomas Telford and it was said that while Telford gave a cheaper job Rennie gave a more stable one, and the present bridge over the Cree has certainly justified his reputation. Records show that Telford probably quoted for the bridge as he was paid for plans he had drawn up, but Rennie was the final choice of the committee.

Tradition has it that on a wild and stormy night in Newton Stewart, Rennie was anxious for the safety of the bridge, then under construction, and ventured out onto the scaffolding with almost disastrous results when the scaffolding collapsed around him. He survived the experience, refused a knighthood later in his life and was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.

With the building of the Cree Bridge the communication with the outside world was greatly improved much to the advantage of the town. Stagecoaches regularly clattered over the bridge carrying passengers from London en route to Portpartick and the boat to Ireland. An enterprising race of “carriers” also sprung up in the town to transport goods to Glasgow and Edinburgh by horse-drawn cart.

The accounts for the bridge, released in 1814, show that three houses had to be purchased before the building of the bridge could start. They belonged to John McGill (paid £210), James McKie (paid £121.16s.4d) and Ebenezer Boddan (paid £180) A “small angle of garden” was purchased from William Dunbar for £30 and a corner of Thomas Erskine’s house (costing £50) was bought to “improve the access into Newton Stewart”.

The buiding work was carried out by a Mr Kenneth Mathewson for the sum of £6750. This included and extra payment of £250 to cover the “extra work” he undertook due to difficulties in “sinking, finding and building foundations”. He also received the interest on £1000 that was left in the hands of the trustees as security for the contractor.

The work was overseen by the civil engineer Mr Buchannan who charged the bridge committee the sum of £200.15s.9d but was only paid £170 after it was restricted by the committee for some long lost reason! Mr John Hall, the superintendent, was paid £500 for his two years of work on the project. He was also paid a gratuity of £21 and his postage costs of 32/1d were also covered.

Telford was paid £89.6s.5d for the first plan of the bridge and John Rennie was paid £107.11s.6d for the last plan of the bridge.

The money to pay for the Cree Bridge came from various sources: two County Collectors (Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbrightshire) raised £196.17s.11d; a grant came from the government of £3474.12s.6d and the collection of cess (tax) in Wigtownshire of £2281.9s.5s and the same amount in Kirkcudbrightshire. The total cost of the bridge was £8324.

When it was completed, a description of the bridge read: “The outer spans of the Cree Bridge are 38 feet six inches, the inner spans 45 feet nine inches and the centre span is 50 feet, all segmental in elevation.

“The bridge is low over the water and the centre arch has a rise of only six feet six inches. The width between parapets is 20 feet. The masonary is of rough-faced granite and above the pointed cutwaters, semi-octagons of masonry are carried up to parapet level forming pedestrian refuges”.

In a Galloway Gazette from February 1963 - 50 years ago - we found this fascinating account of the history of the bridge:

“The first bridge across the Cree at Newton Stewart was started in 1745. The previous year the Commissioners of Supply for Wigtownshire decided that a bridge should be built and approached the Commissioners of the Stewartry for their co-operation.

“The latter were not very enthusiastic, having other commitments, but ultimately agreed to pay half the cost after deducting voluntary subscriptions. A plan by John Douglas was approved, the estimated cost being £750. There were voluntary subscriptions of £300 from Wigtownshire, over £100 from the Stewartry, and the Commissioners of each County had to pay about £200.

The previous bridge was a narrow structure mostly of wood, and was erected a little to the north of the present bridge. The position of existing houses on both sides of the river show where the old bridge was. Previous to that there was a well known ford near where the dam dyke is now but it was dangerous when the river was in flood, and occasionally accidents happened and people were drowned. To this day some of the older inhabitants of Newton Stewart speak of the “Ford-mouth” beside the old town hall; indeed the original name of the site of Newton Stewart was “The Ford-house”, but when William Stewart of Castle Stewart, third son of the second Earl of Galloway obtained a charter from Charles II in 1677 for the erection of a Burgh of barony, the name was changed to Newton Stewart.

Sometimes a boat was used and it is believed that it was here that a misadventure struck the last of the Baillies of Dunragit. M’Kerlie in his “Lands and their Owners in Galloway” states that his own grandfather and Thomas Baillie were on their way to Edinburgh carrying documents of importance in connection with a litigation about Dunragit Estate: “In crossing the rapid and deep River Cree - with no bridge at that time - the boat they were in was, by some unfortunate mischance, upset. They got to land, but their papers went to the bottom, and were never recovered.”

In Minnigaff Churchyard there is a headstone to the memory of John M’Clellan, “once boatman at Newton Stewart”.

The bridge served its purpose until 20th December, 1806 when it was swept away by a flood. “Galloway Gossip,” edited by Saxon, gives a thrilling account of the last crossing of the bridge. The narrative explains that a gentleman had died in the west of Wigtownshire deeply in debt, and sheriff officers arrested the coffin and body in the hope that relatives would settle the creditors’ claims in order to get the body for burial in the family ground in the Stewartry.

The deceased’s butler broke into the premises where the coffin was held, and drove off with it in a carriage and pair. The officers, being informed, pursued in a light gig, and there was an exciting chase right across the county. The butler “drove on like desperation, and kept well on afore them till he reached the town of N-------. He drove on through the streets like Jehu, and when he was turning the corner to take the bridge the officers were at the head of the P------- Brae, so there wasna much atween them.

“It was an awful wet day; I never saw the like o’t afore or since, and there was an awesome spate in the river, and the bridge was just tottering, and the ledging and part of the arches were beginning to fall, and half the folk of the town was out looking at it... He then lashed up the horses and dashed in among the water that was surging two feet deep over the middle of the bridge which was already visibly giving way. The crowd shouted to him to turn back, but he stood up in the seat and lashed the horses like a madman... and just as he crossed the injured arch, it gave way beneath him, and coach, corpse and driver tumbled into the river together, while the horses struggled and held on to the dry land at the other side and prevented the coach and occupants being carried off by the flood.”

An examination of the horses, harness and carriage showed that little damage had been sustained and the butler was able to continue his journey free from pursuit.

Some years were to elapse before another bridge was built and in the meantime a flat bottomed boat which cost nearly £250 was used for ferrying passengers across.

In 1811 the government promised a grant of close on £3500 towards the cost of a new bridge and the same year approval was given to a plan by Rennie and a site suggested by him.

The following year Kenneth Mathewson of Inchinnan was given the contract for seven years. It was built of native granite, mostly from the moors of Minnigaff, and he brought masons from Aberdeenshire who were more skilled in splitting and squaring granite than the craftsmen of Galloway were at that time.

It is a substantial structure of five arches with a foot pavement on one side and the roadway almost level, and it has well withstood the buffets of wind and water for two hundred years.”

r Despite hours of research we cannot find a specific date of the official opening of the Cree Bridge. This may have been because the bridge was split between the two counties of Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbrightshire so neither side would ‘own’ the bridge.