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"Ower the Sheuch"

Travel between Scotland and Ireland

map The narrow seas between Scotland and Ireland, and most especially the "Sheuch" between Wigtownshire and County Down, have seen a steady stream of passages throughout their history, almost all unrecorded. At many times governments have tried to collect customs duties and regulate trade, often Irish cattle on the hoof, and in the more turbulent periods have also tried to impose some regulation of passengers, but until very recent times this has been both fitful and ineffective. In 1616, shortly after Scotland and England first formed a united kingdom, but while Ireland still had its own government in Dublin, a Royal Warrant attempted to limit crossings between Down and Wigtown to the ports of Donaghadee and Portpatrick. Such travel was greatly increased by the then government's "plantation" policy of settling Scots in Ulster. The trade was initially dominated by Hugh Montgomery. Portpatrick was renamed Port Montgomery and in 1626 he rebuilt the harbor at Donaghadee using Scots workers. In 1717 the Post Office of Britain and Ireland, united by an Act of 1711, took over, and then operated the mail boat route for some 40 years on the 21 mile crossing. This shortest of all the sea passages was noted as even as little as two hours under sail in 1793, but more typical was three hours by steam packet boat in the 1840s.

Efforts to contain the trade were clearly unavailing. The small port of Irvine in Ayrshire in 1784 handled 496 sailings to Ireland, compared with only one single sailing to any other "foreign" destination. Donaghadee remained as the principal Irish packet port until 1849, when the mail service was moved to Larne. Portpatrick remained the officially favored Scottish landing, despite its very considerable dangers and deficiencies, through frequent storm damage and rebuilding, until 1874 when the service was moved to the far better protected port of Stranraer. Scottish-Irish travel thereafter remained almost synonymous with Stranraer-Larne into the 1990s. Later services included Larne to Cairnyan and Stranraer to Belfast, but on Sunday November 19th of 2011 Stranraer saw its last ferry after 150 years. New fast ferries now link Belfast to Cairnryan and rail passengers must go by bus to Ayr.

pic In one period of Irish rebellion around 1797, Irish migration alarmed the Scots authorities so greatly that the Sheriff of Wigtown and the Lord Advocate stationed "proper persons" at Portpatrick to ensure that new arrivals, if not "of genteel appearance", at least had proper documentation. The nature of their papers or "passports" was not specified, but may have been more of the nature of references using today's terminology. During three months 912 passengers "of low condition and mean appearance" arrived in the holds of the packet vessels, while almost as many arrived yet more economically on the cattle boats, most seeking work as weavers. Once landed, they could not be readily distinguished from resident Scots, even by accent. Many authors have commented on the strong similarity of speech across these 20 miles of water, to the present day. A security risk to those governmental eyes indeed! Meanwhile, the Lord Advocate's concerns must have spread much wider than this one authorized route. In the same years, many folk, some in quite large groups, avoided the eye of authority completely and landed well away from even the smallest ports, on beaches and in bays up and down the Ayrshire and Galloway coasts. There were of course methods for dealing with the unwanted influx, if ever they were detected. Those unfortunates without their "passport" papers might be summarily inducted into the British Army, or if they appeared to have any nautical skills or connections, pressed into the Royal Navy.

Clearly, this was not a documented migration. Some might have references or other papers, many would not. The officially sanctioned packet might have its sailing list, but survival of such an ephemeral document is unlikely in the extreme, while the masters of small boats which would willingly make the 20 miles passage would have strenuously avoided such incriminating paper. It seems that in general, records for those who came or went "ower the sheuch" in the early 1800s are about as unlikely to be found as for those travelling many similar distances by bus in the 20th century, while in later periods, until the 1920s, all travel from Ireland across the Irish Sea was considered internal, within the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and was regulated only by the steamship companies and their own ticketing policies.

Not all travelers were migrants, many traveling then as now, about their regular business. But the Portpatrick Parish Register from 1759 to 1826 records the marriages of 234 couples not being parishioners. Most had crossed from Donaghadee for the purpose, though a few were from other parts of Scotland, some from England and the Isle of Man, and even a few from Wales. At least some Portpatrick ministers were apparently willing to turn a blind eye to the requirements for banns and for settled address, and Portpatrick, thanks to this and to the packet, was famed as the "Gretna Green for Ireland". Such a service was not for everyone however, as the minister charged L10, ten pounds sterling, a very considerable sum for the period.

These narrow seas are well recognized as turbulent waters, open to the south-westerly gales of the Irish Sea and to much of the fury of the North Atlantic. That fury spelled the end for Portpatrick as a packet port after repeated storm destruction of piers and harbor in the early to mid 1800s. More recent and well remembered evidence of the sea's power was the loss of the car ferry "Princess Victoria" in the storm of 31 January 1953 taking 134 lives. Other safer havens on the Mull of Galloway than Portpatrick were proposed from time to time, and although in 1820 a massive stone breakwater provided Port Logan with a small harbor, it was never a real competitor. Today both are home only to a few small yachts and fishing boats.

Crawford MacKeand. November 2011