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James Orr's Scotland

The Orr family came from that part of Scotland through which flows the river of that name...

So begins Mary Eleonore Orr’s history of our family. The first time I read it, I looked at a map and found that there is no River Orr in Scotland. It was a disappointing dead end.

I eventually returned to the puzzle, however, and found a reference to the Water of Orr, in Kirkcudbrightshire on the Southwest coast. According to my source, the River Urr was once called Orr; these two names would have been pronounced the same (to sound like "moor").

Nowadays, this area is encompassed by the county of Dumfries and Galloway. Kirkcudbright (pronounced Kir-COO-bree) remains the major harbour on the Irish Sea and the Solway Firth. I say major harbor; it is a town of about 3500, known for being artsy.

My father was descended from a race of seafaring men. [His] great grandfather James Orr, for whom he was named, and the first of the family to settle in Ireland, was a Captain in the British Navy.

The Water of Orr and Kirkcudbright harbour were once busy shipping centers trafficking with Liverpool. A “race of seafaring men” might well have come from this now quiet corner of Scotland.

So when we took our trip, I planned to do a bit of sleuthing in "that part of Scotland through which flowed" what I thought might once have been called the River Orr. On the next to last day, in cold, gray weather, we reached Kirkcudbright and stopped for a bite to eat.

Father's ancestors were living as early as 1688 near "Derry," as he always called it (not "Londonderry," which he said was the name given it by the English), in the northern part of Ireland.

I prowled the oldest part of town, trying to imagine which stone buildings might have been there when James Orr left in the 1680s. I decided to ask around.

old mapAt the Stewartry Museum, an obliging librarian pulled out the Urr Valley Parish records, but they went back only as far as the 1770s. If by 1688 Captain James Orr had settled in Derry, that was a hundred years too late.

No one could confirm that there was even a connection between the names Urr and Orr. No Orr burials had been recorded in the Urr Valley Parish. Disappointed, I bought the only thing I could see that seemed at all relevant: a notecard with an old map of Kirkcudbrightshire (the old name for Lower Galloway) on the front.

We stayed at the Urr Valley Hotel, an old and charming country house in a beautiful setting of low, rolling hills and green pastures. The morning dawned fair.

I studied the road map. Kirkcudbright is situated at the mouth of the River Dee (not the same River Dee that flows through Aberdeenshire). Just a few miles east of Kirkcudbright along the Solway Coast is Auchencairn Bay, on the right branch of which is situated the little village of Kippford or, as it was once known, Scaur. This is the mouth of what is now called the River Urr.

Kippford dates back only to the 1760s, whereas there has been a settlement at Kirkcudbright for eight centuries or more. I concluded that my five-times-great grandfather lived in the Urr River Valley and would most likely have traveled from Kirkcudbright to Derry by way of Liverpool.

I now thought I knew where he had sailed from and roughly where he lived. But where exactly? I was looking for a trace.

We drove first to the Haugh of Urr (pictures), in deep, isolated country, until we found a stone bridge over the River Urr. Looking down, I saw clear water, hardly more than a foot deep, and only about 20 feet wide, set in grassy banks lined with trees. Three red roe deer looked up at me from where they grazed about 50 yards away in a field.

We continued along the River Urr, through beautiful, gently rolling heath. There’s another bridge, the last before you reach Kippford, at the site of an old ford where Mary Queen of Scots is said to have crossed the river.

We then drove to Kippford where the river meets the sea. The older name of Scaur is descriptive: this tidal estuary drains down to smooth sand flats. When we were there, boats sat all the way out of water, but we could see that they’d be picked up by a channel that might be as much as 8 or 10 feet deep at high tide. I found a worn fragment of blue and white china stranded at the bottom of the boat slip. There the trail ended.

Kippford Sunset
(Wikipedia image: Kippford at Sunset)

Alas and alack, the battery in my camera was dead, and I had not yet examined closely the card I had bought in Kirkcudbright the day before.

detail mapIt was not until I got home, beyond all possibility of further exploration, that I looked carefully at the old map, dated 1777, and there it was: the River Orr. And alongside what appears to be a road, a mile or two inland by the river, is a dot. This dot, I assume, marked a hamlet or a home, and on the map it is called Orr.



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