The Story of the Solway

chapter seven


The Nith gouges creeks through its mudflats

Mudflats dominate the edges of the Upper Solway and the entrances to the estuaries and estuarine ports. The mudflats and the saltmarshes work together on the margins, they go hand in hand. But what is mud, and how does an organism live in or on this slippery, shifting substrate? But perhaps mud isn’t so malleable and shifting after all? I didn’t know. And I wanted to see mud as others saw it – artists and scientists. And to look at the life that was in or on it to see how it contributed to and was influenced by the characteristics of the neighbourhood.

In the chapter, artists Alison Critchlow and Lionel Playford – both artists well used to painting and sketching en plein air – joined me, at Port Carlisle and Grune Point, respectively, and explained to me what they saw and how they tried to represent it. We had some very interesting discussions, especially about ‘ways of seeing’. Lionel’s wet and muddy dog ‘helped’.


I visited the ‘Mud Lab’ (the Sediment Ecology Research Group) in St Andrews where Professor Dave Paterson explained about the microscopic diatoms and bacteria that live in and on mud, and their effects on the colours of mud: greenish-blue, golden-brown and black, in changing patterns and proportions.

The stability of mud or its erosion depends greatly on the life within it: the bioturbators and the bioengineers, stirring up the contents or changing its structure. Lugworms,ragworms, mudshrimps and mudsnails all contribute; there are some interesting and amusing research techniques to look at the 3D shapes of their burrows.


For years there were mussel and cockle fisheries along the shores and mudflats of the Upper Solway; they are currently closed, but surveys are carried out and collecting might be permitted again in the future. Mussels – ‘mussel-mud’, ‘sea silk’ and pearls; drifts of empty cockle shells at Kippford: to find these, there are strange and unexpected places to visit. Places to examine closely, where one can learn and wonder.