Two decades ago, Gatehouse of Fleet was bypassed by the A75 trunk road from Dumfries to Stranraer. The main road now runs about a mile south of the village, making it a much more tranquil place than it used to be. As a result, a visit to the village requires a little effort and a slight detour. But it is only a very slight detour, and if you don't make it, you miss one of the most attractive villages in Scotland.
There has been settlement in the area for many centuries, and Cardoness Castle, a mile to the south west, has stood on its rocky bluff since the 1470s. But Gatehouse of Fleet itself owes its origins to the predecessor of the modern A75, the traditional east-west route across Galloway. Knows as a "gait" after the Old Norse for road, the old road crossed the Water of Fleet over a wooden bridge.
The local lairds, the Murrays, saw a commercial opportunity, and built a stone gait-house or inn on the road near the bridge to service the passing traffic. Over time the word gait passed into antiquity, and the gait-house became known as the gatehouse.
By the 1640s the gait-house still probably stood alone, but also incorporated a very early post office on the post route to Ireland. By 1700 the combination of major route and inn had led to the establishment here of an important cattle market. The slowly growing village received a setback when the wooden bridge was washed away in 1721. It was replaced with a stone bridge built over the Water of Fleet designed by architect John Frew in 1730. In the 1760s the route across Galloway was significantly improved with the building of the military road from Bridge of Sark on the English border via Dumfries to Portpatrick. The bridge was widened in 1779 and 1811, and remains in use today.
Most of today's Gatehouse of Fleet dates back to the planned village established here by James Murray of Broughton in the 1760s. In part this was intended to serve as the estate village for Murray's new home at Cally House, just to the south of the village. It was also intended to become an important commercial focus for this part of Galloway.
The old inn was significantly expanded to become the Murray Arms and three streets of new buildings were constructed. A tannery was established, as was a brewery and, in 1785, a water-powered cotton mill. By 1800 there were four cotton mills operating in Gatehouse of Fleet, employing between them some 500 people (out of a total local population of about 1100).
Meanwhile, Gatehouse of Fleet was also becoming a significant port, with up to 150 ships each year calling at Port Macadam, on a canalised section of the Water of Fleet a little to the south of the village. It may be difficult to believe today, but for a short while Gatehouse of Fleet was known locally as "the Glasgow of the South".
From the mid-1800s, Gatehouse of Fleet's remote location tended to make its industries less competitive than those developing nearer Scotland's growing cities, and between 1850 and 1900 the population declined from 1,750 to around 1,000. Early regeneration could have followed the building of the Portpatrick Railway in 1861: but this took a route some distance to the north of the village, and though a station was built called Gatehouse of Fleet, it was actually a rough 6 mile carriage ride away from the village.
Today, little remains of Gatehouse of Fleet's industrial past. The Mill on the Fleet Visitor Centre occupies the one remaining mill building on the banks of the Water of Fleet, on the north side of the village. Here, too, you can see the end of the mill lade which brought water three miles from Loch Whinyeon to power the mills.
But for the most part, today's Gatehouse of Fleet is a slightly sleepy and supremely attractive village. Its focal point is the clock tower standing at the junction of High Street and Ann Street. The village continues to do well for hotels. Cally House has become the Cally Palace Hotel, a little to the south of the village, while Gatehouse of Fleet itself is home to two impressive hotels: the Murray Arms, now greatly extended from the old gait-house, and the recently renovated and truly excellent Ship Inn, on the west side of the bridge over the Water of Fleet.
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