Kirkcudbright ranks highly for having one of the most confounding names in Scotland. Pronounced ‘kir-coo-bree’, the popular belief is that it is derived from the church/kirk of St Cuthbert, but it is also possible that this in itself was a derivation of an earlier name, Caer Cuabrit, meaning ‘fort on the bend in the river’.
Whatever the truth, there is no doubting that the first Christian church here was dedicated to Cuthbert, the 7th-century saint whose uncorrupted body was carried around the country in the late 9th century by monks from Northumbria fleeing attacks from the Danes. The church was most probably situated on the hill to the east of town, where St Cuthbert’s graveyard can now be found.
What to see and do
Kirkcudbright today is known as ‘The Artists’ Town’ and is as enticing a place as you can imagine. Compact but with wide airy streets, the old town with its brightly painted houses clusters around the remains of the 16th-century MacLellan’s Castle, which stands prominently overlooking the fishing boats moored at the harbour.
Such a mix of attractions has a timeless appeal that gives this small town a perpetual charm. It is a place to explore, to linger, and to get to know. Standing at the harbour, reflect on the fact that Kirkcudbright can claim over 800 years as a commercial port, from warfare, piracy and smuggling to passenger services and international trade. And what’s more, it’s still in use today.
The town’s most iconic attraction is Kirkcudbright Galleries, a four-storey display space housing 600 works in what was formerly the Town Hall, including some of the very best items of the nation’s holding of art and antiquities. Paintings, jewellery and correspondence from names such as the Faed family, Peploe and Jessie M King are all here, and there is an on-going series of talks, in addition to workshops, family activities and events, and a delightful café.
Just along the road from the gallery is The Stewartry Museum, which was purpose-built in 1892–93 and stepping inside is a like stepping back in time. Glass-fronted wooden cabinets are positioned around the ground floor while the upstairs balcony is fitted with glass-topped display cases of the type that are only found in museums of this vintage.
The collection is crammed with items of historical interest, from artworks and book covers to old rifles and pistols, a model railway and newspaper clippings telling the gruesome story of the ‘Lighthouse Murder’ in 1960 on Little Ross Island at the mouth of Kirkcudbright Bay. Upstairs is dedicated to natural history, with stuffed animals, birds and fish, as well as pinned butterflies and birds’ eggs.
The northern end of the high street bends round to the right on to Castle Bank, site of the remains of MacLellan’s Castle, a fine example of late 16th-century domestic architecture as it evolved from more heavily defended tower houses.
The town also has a range of shops and is particularly noted for its commercial galleries, full details of which (and more besides) can be found on the local website.