Kirkcudbright is a fascinating and genuinely pretty Scottish town. Attractive and well kept houses and shops in white or pastel colours vie for attention along its broad streets. And buildings like the town hall, the Parish Church, Greyfriars Church, the Tolbooth, the Old Jail, Broughton House and MacLellan's Castle add still further to the overall impression. All you'd need for the complete effect would be a working harbour well stocked with boats: and Kirkcudbright has one of those too.
You sometimes find towns that show signs of a once splendid history since departed. Kirkcudbright is unusual in giving every indication of being more thriving and better cared for today than in the past. In 1726 Daniel Defoe obviously caught the town on an off day: "A pleasant situation, and yet nothing pleasant to be seen. Here is a harbour without ships, a port without trade, a fishery without nets, a people without business."
Kirkcudbright's origins are ancient. The name comes from "Kirk of St Cuthbert" (it is pronounced kir-koo-bree) and reflects the town's early importance as an ecclesiastical centre. A monastery had been established here by 1000AD, and in the 1100s the area was also home to a Cistercian nunnery and an Augustinian priory, as well as to a stone-built royal castle. A Franciscan friary followed in the 1200s.
Kirkcudbright's early centuries saw great wealth generated through trade. In the 1400s over a quarter of Scotland's cloth exports were loaded at the quays on the River Dee here, bound for destinations as far afield as Spain. There were setbacks. The castle and much of the town were destroyed by pirates from the Isle of Man in 1507; but 20 years later it had recovered enough to be described as "rich".
A town wall was built in the 1540s. This proved a sound investment when it allowed the residents to beat off an English attack in 1560. MacLellan's Castle, built in the centre of Kirkcudbright in the 1570s, was more for show than for defence.
Defoe's unfavourable observations were made during the town's decline in the 1600s and 1700s. But the 1800s saw a renaissance and a great deal of new building, much of which remains on view today. The coming of the railway in 1864 was, with the town's scenic qualities, among the factors which contributed to Kirkcudbright's growing attraction as a centre for the artists which persisted into the 1900s.
Today's Kirkcudbright is a real joy for anyone interested in nice buildings and attractive townscapes. The High Street is unusual, being wrapped around two sides of the core of the town and not actually forming a main thoroughfare. Here you find the Tolbooth Art Centre and the court building which includes the Old Town Jail.
Here, too, you find the Selkirk Arms Hotel, which cannot be recommended highly enough for anyone staying in Kirkcudbright: comfortable accommodation that is only surpassed by the excellent food, good choice of wines, and real beer. Along from the Selkirk Arms Hotel are 115 & 117 High Street, now used as offices, but the closest approximation to a dolls' house you are ever likely to see in real life. Elsewhere on the High Street you find the striking Broughton House, home of the eminent artist E A Hornel, which with its magnificent garden is open to the public.
The heart of modern Kirkcudbright lies around the oblique cross of roads formed by St Cuthbert Street and St Mary Street. Where the former meets the High Street is MacLellan's Castle, overlooking the nearby wharves on the River Dee, while the Town Hall and Parish Church face one another across St Mary Street, near the Stewartry Museum.
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