DUMFRIES AND GALLOWAY, this unknown or little known area…
welcome to a part of Scotland that no-one or hardly anyone knows exactly where to find, let alone dreams about going there on holiday! Sometimes it is confused and included in the historical region known as the Borders, part of a very general “SOUTH” and nearly always excluded from every Scottish itinerary.
When miracles happen and a “non-traditional” tourist decides to venture south of Edinburgh, having visited the wonderful abbeys of the Borders and the dearest sites of Sir Walter Scott (the excellence in Scottish literature), it is hard to imagine he would stay on for just a day longer, heading maybe south-west into the county of DUMFRIES AND GALLOWAY!
I am the first to admit that I arrived there only after my many Scottish journeys, already deeply in love with this land and greedy to soak up everything she has on offer; in love with those slightly off the beaten track places that exist and breathe without any fuss, that shine with a special delight attracting only few curious visitors or those just a little addicted like me!
Where exactly is DUMRIES AND GALLOWAY?
In first place, this region was created in 1975, the year in which the historical counties of Dumfriesshire and Galloway were united into one large entity, one that has always boasted the mildest climate in all of Scotland. Its territory occupies an extreme edge so much so it almost skims the Irish coasts and positioned south enough to look directly into the eyes of England’s Cumbria. The relaxed character of the area seems to come directly from its Irish cousin – that intrinsic joyfulness, the Atlantic wind – tireless certainly, and sometimes even furious! – but how it is mitigated by an extreme sweetness… just think, from here to Belfast it takes 2 hours or just a little longer on one of the ferries of the STENA LYNE departing every day from Cairnyan!
BUT WHYEVER LEAVE THE MOST FAMOUS BEATEN TRACKS immortalized on thousands of postcards and travel brochure to end up in DUMFRIES and GALLOWAY? I can assure you there are good reasons and many of them!
1) Even if forced to come in August, you hate the crowds, the confusion, sharing the most beautiful attractions of your chosen destination with the thousands of other tourists (often Italian) what better reasons to come here! In these parts your ears will be saved from the excessive use of Italian idiomy throughout the duration of your stay. Guaranteed!!!
2) Come if you wish to dive into an authentic Scottish dimension made up of idyllic scenes, of nooks and crannies full of poetry, of slow rythms, of a daily life that goes on undisturbed whatever while elsewhere ”fully booked” high season makes one go crazy.
3) Come if you love alternative and unusual itinararies. This is a county that offers both in a convincing way. Together with the ancient region of Cumbria just over the border with England, the historical Hadrian’s Wall, the picturesque LAKE DISTRICT celebrated by the most important Romantic poets or with the charming BORDERS, rich in historical attactions and not only; or even Ayrshire and its most precious jewels; the marvellous ISLE OF ARRAN with its superb variety of landscapes and considered “Scotland in Miniature”.
4) But come most of all because DUMFRIES AND GALLOWAY is a region that offers heaps of attractions….. as unknown as you wish but full of modest yet irresistible charm and fascination that at first simply brushes up against you and ever so slowly envelopes you eventually becoming part of you. All you have to do is look around….green, green and even more green, painted into the most varied of countryside: lush trees and peaceful herds at pasture; thick woods, lakes, hills, dozing local residents, tiny charming villages and all there as if just for you and you alone.
Then there’s the coast adding that touch of sky blue and an even deeper blue in a succession of secluded bays lapping up the Atlantic Drift ……this is what DUMFRIES and GALLOWAY has in store for you!
In two and a half days I certainly didn’t see everything but enough to be able to share this region in 10 UNFORGETTABLE STOPOVERS:
1) SWEETHEART ABBEY
Pure beauty starting from its name “The Sweetheart Abbey”, founded on the deep love that LADY DEVORGILLA DE BALLIOL felt for her deceased husband BARON JOHN DE BALLIOL. His heart was embalmed and jealously conserved in a silver and ivory casket that Lady Devorgilla never wanted to be separated from. Together with her husband’s heart, she now lies in peace in the Abbey’s presbytery, united for always in those ancient red ruins, surrounded by the silence and the well-managed fields so intense a green that simply looking at them is almost blinding!
We are in NEW ABBEY, a delightful village with very few residents, that slumbers quietly just a few miles south of DUMFRIES….. most definitely worth a stop, not only for its splendid thirteenth century abbey (the exact date of its foundation is 1275) but also for the exquisite cakes and delicious scones served in the splendid dwelling that hosts the ABBEY COTTAGE TEAROOM. This is an address to be marked on your map as a MUST for incurable romantics and incorrigible gluttons alike!!
2) THE GREY MARE’S TAIL NATURE RESERVE
The eighth wonder… the most amazing jewel of the whole area, that cries out to all to jump on the first plane, leaving whatever there is to prevent you leaving, to get here for just this attraction alone!!
At the Grey Mare’s Tail Nature Reserve, the roaring waterfall seems to precipitate directly from the sky through heather-covered hills; while awaiting for you there’s also the overwhelming beauty of LOCH SKEEN, the fabulous lake high up only to be seen after a hard climb! You can find my full report on this fantastic place and walk HERE (Italian only at the moment, sorry!)
3) THE DALVEEN PASS and THE MINING DISTRICT
We are now in the realms of the SOUTHERN UPLANDS and to be more precise, in the LOWTHER HILLS: bleak hills, often wrapped in clouds just steep and mysterious enough to create a harsh and desolate setting…… it goes without saying … typically Scottish!!
This is where we can find the A702- the winding, “perfect route” for motorcyclists. You can join it just north of THORNHILL and weave it down as far as the DALVEEN PASS….. a short rest, for your eyes to soak up the green and your hair the wind, to rightly take some photos and then to continue downhill through landscapes that will open your heart until reaching ELVANFOOT.
Did you think that the highest village in Scotland could be found in the Highlands? Think again !! It can be found here, where the historical county of Dumfries borders with South Lanarkshire, stuck in time where one can feel slightly out of place. From ELVANFOOT, you can bump into a succession of villages… heading west, the first is LEADHILLS (Lanarkshire), immediately after is WANLOCKHEAD (Dumfries and Galloway) which, at 410m is the highest of them all. We are in the “Mining District” where once the miners went into the earth’s bowels to extract lead (the village name leads us to understand the derivation). The mines were active from as early as 1100 to be closed several centuries later….in 1928 at Leadhills and about a decade later at Wanlockhead. Just imagine that in 1550, there was a gold mine in the area that turned out glimmering gold nuggets weighing as much as 60gms.The story is told in an excellent way by the “MUSEUM OF LEAD MINING” to be found in Wanlockhead, where you can book a guided visit to one of the mines.
How about feeling a child again, just for a day??
I can assure you that this is the place!!
Just go to the LEADHILLS and WANLOCKHEAD RAILWAY STATION, the highest standard-gauge railway in GB. The waiting room is a tool shed and only one of the three tiny carriages has glass windows. Keeping it alive is a team of passionate volunteers, who during the weekends and the summer months operate a 25-minute ride between Leadhills and Glengonner, a station that finishes in the middle of nowhere!! Until that day I had never thought it possible that a train could suddenly take me back to when I was 5, when only a ride on the public garden train was enough to make me truly happy!!
But Leadhills boasts this and other important firsts. It is here in 1741 that 23 enlightened miners grouped together giving life to the LEADHILLS READING SOCIETY, the first British membership library: three shillings to join and a two-shilling annual quota. This wonderful innovation was shortly imitated by Wanlockhead.
Now on to THORNHILL to finish the day going through the undulating and multilevelled display of the MENNOCK PASS with that feeling inside of one who has just experienced what could only be called an epic day!
4) DRUMLANRIG CASTLE
Without a doubt the fans of OUTLANDER already know that Drumlanrig Catle was the setting in the second series of this fiction as Lord Sandringham’s estate, where the British Army was encamped while Claire, Jamie and Murtagh faced the Duke in the castle kitchens.
Fan or not, don’t think about going anywhere near Thornhill without visiting the “Pink Palace of Drumlanrig”. Built between 1679 and 1689, in a most elegant pink sandstone giving it the nickname, Drumlanrig Castle, it boasts 3 towers and 7 turrets surrounded by woods and extensive gardens able to flabbergast you!! Inside, 120 sumptously furnished rooms make up the humble abode of the Duke and Duchess of BUCCLEUCH and QUEENSBERRY, owners of a rich collection including paintings of priceless value; to mention a couple – a Rembrant (La Vecchia Leggente) and a Leonardo da Vinci (La Madonna dei Fusi). The Madonna was the centre of a real thriller some years ago. Stolen in 2003, it was finally recovered in 2007 having been found in Glasgow. Today it can be appreciated by tourists and art-lovers alike in one of the galleries in the SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY in Edinburgh where the painting has been loaned indefinitely by the Duke and Duchess.
5) CAIRN HOLY
Roaming in solitude among the antique stones of the burial mound of a mythical Scottish king is priceless….and it is completely free at CAIRN HOLY. An extraordinary neolithic site, the existence of which I would have never known about if those mysterious stones had not caught my attention on the front cover of a magazine, spotted while wating in a local restaurant for a table for dinner. A candid question asked to a very busy waitress…”Do you know where this is?” and after a moment of panic, an exchange of astonished glances, a purple – cheeked expression, long moments of silence and then a rather hazardous hypothesis….”Stonehenege?”
Absolutely not my friend, I was tempted to answer!!!
We are dealing with CAIRN HOLY (as ascertained during a brief internet reasearch), a misconceived site even in these parts it seems!! Two neolithic tombs of immense charm dating back to 4000 BC and placed on top of a lost hill, with splendid views over WIGTOWN BAY. Known as CLYDE CAIRNS – a particular type of chamber-tombs characteristic of the Scottish SW- both deprived of their stone lids as they were taken away over the centuries to build banks and ramparts. The most elaborate and visually striking is CAIRN HOLY I: it is said that CAIRN HOLY II is the tomb of the mythical Scottish King GALDUS. It is one of those secret places –and rarely visited – ready to enchant you and can be found along the A75, about 10kms east of CREETOWN; free access is available all year round.
Imagine a day of “heavy rain”, one where the sky drowns all hope. Picture 24 bookshops crammed into the quietest village imaginable, with only 1000 residents and you have WIGTOWN. This village was elected Scotland’s National Book Town in 1998 and it has been exploited in a way only the British know how. You can get there leaving behind the inaccessibile group of the Galloway Hills, entering the MACHARS PENINSULA, an idyllic extention of sweet and slightly undulating pastures, in the shape of a triangle, that the waters of the SOLWAY FIRTH bathe on both lower sides. It is the perfect place to forget the rain, allowing you to feel “kidnapped” in the fascinating world of writings…. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” This is the correct sign that should be placed at the entrance to the largest Scottish bookshop- simply denominated “The Book Shop”. You should also know that you will lose completely all notion of time in the labyrinth of rooms and tiny reading rooms that are packed with mountains of volumes!
Are you already in love with Wigtown and do you find the idea of having to leave unbearable?
There is an answer to this question and it is the “OPEN BOOK”, so small and fascinating, with a connecting appartment on the upper floor which can be rented, for a week or a fortnight at a time, to those who wish to live the (deadline) dream of owning a book temple (in this case a “small temple”) in Scotland. If this interests you, be prepared for a long wait: even though the activity is not economically viable (indeed the complete opposite), to obtain it is an ambitious goal! Have you ever been privileged enough to feel part of that small eccentric community? Have you tried chatting with customers who have come to browse among “your shelves?” Well let me repeat that certain adventures are priceless!!
A big hi goes to Chiara and Katia, the lucky librarians during the time of our visit who happened to be there from Reggio Emilia…….meeting you in that role was a great and unexpected pleasure!
“In Scotland no place is further from the tourist tracks than Garlieston” (Lonely Planet)
Do you think for a minute I would miss such a place?
A hamlet forgotten by both man and time it is just 8 miles south of Wigtown, curled up like a cat in a sheltered bay, full of wind and religious silence. To welcome our arrival, a delightful little port with its XVIII-century terraced cottages that, as you distance yourself and leave them behind, disappear on the horizon of the grey sky like a flock of seagulls in flight! Seperating them from the sea you notice an intense green meadow dominated by a large Celtic Cross, some empty benches and a “closed” bowling green. Thank God this is the middle of August, just imagine the winter night life!!!
8) ISLE OF WHITHORN
It is called “”the Isle”, who knows why, maybe because it is in the middle of no-where, a magic postcard image suspened between sea and land, located on the extreme southern point of the MACHARS PENINSULA.
Picturesque village of the most ancient origins, the Isle of Whithorn was founded 1,600 years ago when St. Ninian, the first missionary and Scottish Saint, landed on these shores, much earlier than Saint Colombano on Iona.
In more recent times, loads of coal, fertilizers and wood were shipped here for the basic needs of the peninsula and it was exactly from here that you could board the Countess of Galloway , a large steam ship headed for Liverpool, the departure port for emigrants bound for The New World.
Soak up the salt-scented walk and the bright colours of the port, even today the focal point of the village life all year round, with nets and trawlers coming in daily with their catches of crabs and lobsters to be tasted fresh from the nets on the promenade or on the tables of the multi-awarded Steam Packet Inn.
On the edge of the port some tourist notice-boards direct you to the forteenth-century ruins of St. Ninian’s chapel, the antique site of pilgrimage and today trusted to Historic Scotland. It is on the top of the wild, wind-swept headland where your gaze can embrace the SOLWAY FIRTH and the IRISH SEA with the majestic peaks of the Lake District visible on the other side of the fjord.
Portpatrick is the most western point of the Souhern Upland Way,the 340-km trail that runs through valleys, woods and hills as far as the North Sea!
Historically, thanks to its location, Portpatrick was the most important port for trade with Northern Ireland, but a series of violent sea-storms made the docking dangerous and at the end of the nineteenth century, all the local ferries were re-routed to the nearby port of Stranraer, sheltered by LOCH RYAN.
With its mild climate,wonderful pubs and excellent restaurants lined along the cosy harbour, it is one of the most popular holiday destinations in all of SW Scotland…….and it is not difficult to understand why!! Is it maybe the Irish Sea…. or that sweet half moon shining over the rocky coast…. or even those pastel-coloured cottages or the magnificent views from the top of the cliffs, or maybe simply that here everything emantes a sweet infinity? Even the locals who greet you warmly with that curious expression of who asks oneself why a foreigner ended up there!
Sweet it is… but with the plucky intensity of the RHINS OF GALLOWAY, the small bean-shaped peninsula that seems to break away from the land running to meet the waves……those of the coast, abruptly harsh and uneven and the wind that blows so strongly to make one think of the wild and desolate Highlands! Be sure to stay for dinner in Portpatrick so as not to miss one of the memorable sea-dishes served at Campbell’s Restaurant or at the excellent restaurant open to non-residents in the Crown Hotel.
10) MULL OF GALLOWAY LIGHTHOUSE
They call it the “MULL OF GALLOWAY EXPERIENCE” and it’s truly an unforgettable one! It begins with a continual descent along solitary lanes reaching the terminus, on the very edge of the RHINS of GALLOWAY, where the sense of space stretches out and the sights suddenly become breathtaking! A small world in itself where nature reveals such a luminous beauty that can only blind you….becoming even more intense, overpowering, wild and uncontaminated!
Here one feels the marvel of being away from everything and everyone, common to all extreme places and to be found here in the most southern area of Scotland exactly like in the most northern parts! It is here where Robert Stevenson, the famous Scottish lighthouse engineer worked for two years on the completion of the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse, a white tower, 26 metres in height rising from the dizzy peak of a bleak cliff incessantly lashed by the wind! Its flashing light, visible from 28 miles away was beamed out for the first time on March 26th 1830, to guide ships through this insidious stretch of sea. Make sure you climb the 115 steps to soak up one of the most extraordinary panoramas you will ever see. From above on clear days, your astonished eyes can jump from the Irish Coast to the Isle of Man; from Scotland to the rugged profile of Cumbria! To seal your accomplishment you will be given a “Certificate of Achievement” to be conserved forever among your dearest memories.
But be careful, because your experience is not complete if you do not descend as far as the FOG HORN, overlooking the sea from the lowest point of the cliff, ready to blast an acoustic message to sailors, warning them and aiding them in the most critical of days. Naturally you have to climb back up again but don’t worry… to refresh and restore yourself from the effort, try the joys of the brightly-lit GALLIE CRAIG COFFEE HOUSE, built according to the most modern legislation in bio-construction and perfectly integrated in the surrounding environment. It is from its fantastic terrace, overlooking the lighthouse and the Irish Sea, with a sense of sadness, that we have to say goodbye to Dumfries and Galloway, already with plans to come back!!
OUR “BASE CAMPS” (alias Bed and Breakfast) in DUMFRIES AND GALLOWAY:
Around Thornhill: MAC MURDOSTON FARMHOUSE
Do you have a soft spot for country homes? If so, don’t miss this beautiful bed and breakfast overlooking the undulating meadows of Dumfries and Galloway. Situated just a few miles south of Thornhill and surrounded by a lush garden where three sleepy cats roam. It is the perfect base to visit all of Dumfrieshire. Its warm hospitality, well-kept and very pleasant ambient and excellent value for money make it a truly good choice. Smallish rooms but tastefully and comfortably furnished with a spacious private external bathroom. A rich breakfast of the highest quality awaits you. Most definitely worth a second visit!
In the Rhins of Galloway: KNOCKQUHASSEN FARM BED AND BREAKFAST
I admit…..a difficult name to remember for this bed and breakfast located in the immediate surroundings of STRANRAER! The exact position is however isolated and in the last stretch of the road there is a single track without the slightest suggestion of a passing place. Even the most corragious driver, my husband, looked at me with a glimpse of hatred exclaiming “I hope for your sake, it is worth it!!”
To welcome us a sort of Scottish Miss Rottermhaier who immediately hastened to teach my husband (the best driver in Scotland!!!) how to park the car without damaging the flower beds. Luckily for me the house is cosy……a small, spotlessly clean, fully-furbished room and so much more (from sanitary towels to battery charger) and a conservatory breakfast room with an unbelievable view! All in all a good bed and breakfast for those wishing to explore the Rhins of Galloway. Next time as an easier and attractive alternative, I won’t miss out on beautiful RICKWOOD HOUSE in Portpatrick…. I think nothing could beat the emotion of waking up every morning to such a lovely harbour view!