Monreith village is situated 2 miles south-east of the harbour village of Port William and lies on Monreith Bay, looking out over Luce bay and on to the Rhinns of Galloway. Originally called "Milltown of Monreith" , this was owing to grain mills driven by the water power of Monreith Burn, and built on the land owned by the then vast Monreith Estate; it therefore housed many of the estate and mill workers. The village would also provide accommodation for workers of the Monreith Tile Works producing bricks from a local clay pit; the tile works closed in the early 1920's. A "smiddy" or blacksmith's business was located at the southern end of the village, known as Clarksburn.
Lying on Monreith Bay are the ruins of Kirkmaiden church, one of the oldest churches in Scotland, and the resting place of many of the McCulloch and Maxwell family members, who owned the Monreith estate. Legend has it that when this parish was united with Glasserton, the pulpit and bell were removed from Kirkmaiden church and were to be transported by sea across Luce Bay to a church of the same name near the Mull of Galloway. A strange storm blew up and the boat foundered, sinking the pulpit and bell. The story goes that on the approaching death of any descendant of the McCullochs of Myrton, the wraith-bell rang from the depths of Luce Bay. Also buried in Kirkmaiden Churchyard is Francois Thurot, naval officer of the French Navy, who was one of many Frenchmen whose bodies were washed ashore after a battle fought at sea off the Isle of Man in 1760 between Britain and France. Francois Thurot introduced the secret society, the Order of Coldin, into Sweden, which is the only country still to have this order, and members of the Swedish society erected a plaque to Francois Thurot on the wall of Kirkmaiden Church in 1960. The church is found opposite the car park of St. Medans Golf Club, named after St. Medana, whose legend can still be told by the locals: the "chincough" well, located on the beach below, is supposed , thanks to her saintly powers, to have a magical healing influence on illnesses and especially whooping cough ( formerly called "chincough" ) .
Above the church and overlooking the bay is the bronze otter,(photograph below) sculpted by Penny Wheatley, standing as a memorial to Gavin Maxwell (see Famous Sons) , the author of the famous book "Ring of Bright Water", which was also made into a successful film. Gavin Maxwell was often seen exercising his tame otter, about which he wrote his book, on the beach below Kirkmaiden church, when he returned to the area. (further information on Gavin Maxwell below)
In the vicinity of Monreith, Cup and Ring markings can be found at various locations, and the area is renowned for several groups of Standing Stones, thought to date back to 2000BC and to be connected with religious ritual and ceremony. It is interesting to note that if you stand on top of "The Wren's Egg" ( a standing stone at Blairbuy Farm, Monreith ) on the shortest day of the year, if the weather is clear, the sun will set directly behind Big Scaur ( "Scaur" meaning "isolated rock in the sea" ) which is situated out in Luce Bay. On every other day, it sets further west.
Approximately one mile from Monreith is Barsalloch Point, with evidence of human encampments as early as 6000 BC , making it the oldest dated settlement in Galloway. Barsalloch Fort dates from about 1000BC, though historians of the past thought it might have been a Roman fort. In more recent history, two bombs fell, during the Second World War, one at South Barsalloch Farm and one at Barmeal. It is thought perhaps that the round stacks of oats were mistaken for troop encampments, but more likely the bombs were jettisoned after raids on Clydebank of Glasgow.
The Monreith Estate originally covered approximately 16000 acres, but now is greatly diminished in size. Monreith House, however, is still owned by the Maxwell family and has been converted into holiday flats. The house is surrounded by beautiful woodlands, and looks towards the White Loch of Myrton. The original home of the Maxwells was the tower house known as the "Dowies", situated behind the Fell of Barhullion, which is the highest point overlooking Monreith Village. When the Fell was owned by the Maxwell family, a member of the family is said to have boasted to a friend that he owned a fell from which five kingdoms could be seen on a clear day; when the friend queried how this was possible, the reply was that the kingdoms were Scotland, England, Ireland, Mann, and finally, the Kingdom of Heaven. The "Dowies" is now owned by the Landmark Trust , has been beautifully renovated and is available for holiday accommodation.
The present-day population of Monreith Village itself is approximately 60-70 people, which is regularly supplemented by visitors to holiday homes, Knock School Caravan site and Monreith Sands caravan site. The area attracts those looking for a tranquil holiday, with many wonderful walks; a recent addition to the village is the signposted walk from the south end of the village at Clarksburn through fields , giving a magnificent view of Monreith Bay to Gavin Maxwell's otter. From the otter site itself, the view is of St. Medan's Golf Course , a 9-hole undulating course which is very popular with visitors and locals alike. Refreshments are available throughout the summer months at the clubhouse.
Monreith boasts sandy beaches, quite rare on this section of the Galloway coastline, with safe swimming areas, rock pools and some interesting caves, one of which is streaked red and known as the "Butcher's Cave". The remains of a man-made flounder pool can be found at the extreme end of the Black Rocks sands and was built to catch flounders as the tide receded; at Ben Buoy, which is a sheer rock face, an interesting cave allows an agile person to cross through the cliff and emerge in a small bay between Knock Farm and Cairndoon farm. Further along the Cairndoon shore where the cliff ends to meet the raised beach, Johnny Logie, a local hermit, lived, the only troglodyte recorded as living in Scotland in 1960.
Loch and sea fishing are available and the area is a haven for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts. Low Knock on the outskirts of the village is an open farm very popular with visitors, who may wish to see the otters, ornamental ducks, and belted Galloway cattle ( among other species ) at close quarters.
Monreith is known for excellent community spirit and during the year provides various community activities in the hope that as many visitors as possible will participate : for example, there have been Children's Fun Days, talent contests, Coffee afternoons, beetle drives, mostly held in the newly renovated Monreith Village Hall.
Contributed by Alison McMaster
Gavin Maxwell (Writer) 1914-1968
Gavin Maxwell, the author who became a household name in the 20th century through his writing, is undoubtedly the best known of the Maxwells of Monreith and probably the best known of all the Maxwells.
Gavin, who was my father's younger brother, was born in 1914. His father, Aymer who was to be killed a few weeks after his birth in the First World War, was the heir apparent to Monreith, then a substantial and prosperous agricultural estate of about 17,000 acres including four villages around Monreith House. The Monreith Maxwells were descended from a younger brother of the first Lord Maxwell and had prospered over the five centuries since leaving Caerlaverock.
The Monreith Maxwells were more than local "pillars of society". They had been created Baronets in 1681 and would have been considered members of London as well as Scottish Society. Gavin's mother, Lady Mary, was a daughter of the Duke of Northumberland who was one of the richest and largest landowners in England and incidentally a close relation of James Smithson of Smithsonian fame.
Gavin has chronicled own his life in some detail in his various books and several books have been written about him. 1 can perhaps add some details that are not generally known.
Having been bought up on the hills of Elrig near Monreith, Gavin at an early age became an expert shot at wild game and trap shooting. He was much in demand at pheasant shoots where hosts wanted to achieve large "bags". He was also a gun expert. One of his party tricks was to throw a weighted cigarette packet in the air and shoot it with a revolver before it hit the ground. He was a great admirer of Annie Oakley of "Annie Get Your Gun" fame.
When the Second World War broke out, he was a natural choice as a small arms instructor to the Special Forces. He was due to be parachuted into France to help the Resistance but broke an ankle on the compulsory static jump onto a concrete floor in a gymnasium. Soldiers who did that were not allowed to do the real thing in case it happened again.
At the end of the war, Gavin took flying lessons. He was reputed to have run out of instructors willing to fly with him before he could qualify. He then enrolled on a postal course in journalism, which he did not finish. Both his grandfathers had owned newspapers. For a short period of time Gavin tried to make a living as a portrait painter with limited success.
Gavin then hit on the novel idea of making a fortune by fishing for basking shark on the West Coast of Scotland. This involved buying a small island, building a processing plant and buying several harpooning boats, which suffered from varying degrees of unseaworthiness. To do this he borrowed large sums of money from various relations, which was totally lost. Unfortunately the Maxwells have always been better at marrying money than making it. The only good thing to come out of this episode was his first book "Harpoon at a Venture" which got critical acclaim and sold reasonably well.
Gavin had always been interested in the story of a distant aunt who had married a Sicilian nobleman in the early 1 91h century who had died soon after the wedding. She continued to live in Sicily until her death many years later. Gavin's interest was in what had happened to the estate and money rather than respect for a dead relative. Gavin at this time was a director of the family farming company at Monreith and so "borrowed" a farm Land-Rover. then a new toy, and drove to Sicily in search of the lost fortune. He discovered that a Neapolitan lawyer had been paid to manage the estate by the Monreith Maxwells after Ms Maxwell's death. Every year the lawyer had asked for more funds to be sent from Scotland to repair the villa until finally the Scottish Agent had been instructed to tell his Neapolitan counterpart that the Maxwell family wished to have nothing more to do with the property. Gavin also discovered that the Neapolitan lawyer had taken possession of the property and assumed the Sicilian title.
Gavin arrived in Sicily shortly after Salvatore Guiliano, the charismatic politician, had been assassinated. Guiliano had been campaigning against Mafia corruption and was betrayed by one of his friends. This was the basis for Gavin's next book "God protect me from my friends", which further established his literary reputation. Sadly the Land-Rover either broke down or crashed and was sold to pay for the airfare home.
Gavin always loved fast cars but was, according to his brothers, dangerous at any speed. The state of his finances at any time could be assessed by the quality of his car. It was about this time that Gavin acquired in England a very inexpensive two-seater Maserati sports car. This was a far cry from the sleek Italian styled job that might be imagined. It had actually started its life in 1936 as a single-seater, eight cylinder supercharged grand prix car and was driven by Whitney Straight, the well-known American amateur racing driver. After WW2, it was converted by an enthusiast for road use by the addition of an ugly two-seater body and a starter motor that was woefully inadequate. As a result, whenever Gavin went anywhere he had to arrange for the local garage to tow start him when he wanted to leave. As well as being ugly, uncomfortable and very unreliable, it was a very strange colour. The reason for this was that the previous owner wished to have it painted 1talian Racing Red as are current Ferraris. The local garage was not familiar with this description and so the owner had the brainwave to dispatch a cherry of exactly the right colour to the garage. Unfortunately the car returned painted nearly black as the cherry had ripened before the car was painted. On the rare occasions that it worked it was extremely fast with a top speed of over 150 mph. It is now restored as a single-seater and in a museum.
1 had an interesting motoring experience with Gavin when he took me from school to see one of his friends who kept otters near Henley on Thames. The Thames valley is notorious for dense fogs in winter and that evening the fog was particularly bad. As usual Gavin's own car had suffered from a malfunction and was in a garage being repaired. As a result he had hired a basic level Ford which 1 remember as being very slow and cold. It also had a floor mounted gear shift lever with the sequence opposite to that of other European cars. All went well until we arrived in a dark and very thick fog at a major road, which we had to cross. Gavin explained that he would wait until no car lights were visible either way and then accelerate sharply to the other side. The execution was not quite as planned as Gavin selected the wrong gear. The car shot forward a few feet and the engine stalled. In his efforts to find the correct the knob to start the engine, he managed to turn the car lights off 1 was too young to drive but realised that stopping across a major road with no lights on a dark foggy night was probably not a good idea as indeed did the drivers of two cars that just missed us and shouted most uncomplimentary things. Gavin finally worked out how to turn the lights on, s" the engine and located first gear. 1 took a train back to London.
Gavin was then offered a chance of visiting the Marsh Arabs of Iraq and wrote about it in "A Reed Shaken by the Wind". It was another best seller. It also resulted in him being given a baby marsh otter which he took back to London. Both the otter and Gavin became instant celebrities when he was photographed taking it for a walk on a lead down the Kings Road in Chelsea, London.The otter was not suited to London life and developed the anti-social habit of occasionally biting people and so Gavin decided to take it to Sandaig, his remote Highland cottage situated on the coast near the village of Glenelg. His subsequent book "A Ring of Bright Water" about life in the cottage with this otter and subsequent otters, became a world best seller. A film of the same title was loosely made from the book.
When Sandaig was completely destroyed by fire in 1966, Gavin moved into a nearby former lighthouse keeper's cottage on the island of Eileen Ban near Kyle of Lochalsh where he died from cancer in 1968. The island is now an otter sanctuary and his cottage a museum. His grave and that of the otter killed in the house fire are all that remain at Sandaig which is still visited by many hundreds of people each year.
This biography was written by Gavin Maxwell's nephew, Sir Michael Maxwell of Monreith Bt.