Dumfries & Galloway
If you read this I may have to kill you
Granted, it sounds a little melodramatic. But since, contrary to tourism industry claims, there is no such thing as a ‘best-kept secret’, I do have to play my cards close to my chest.
Like all the worst travel clichés, the notion of the best-kept secret has gorged upon itself until now, almost every nation on the planet lays claim to islands, towns — even entire provinces — that have somehow spent decades beneath the all-pervading radar of global consumer consciousness.
Forget about secrets, but consider this: I know of one British locale which, due only to geographical misfortune, is laughably under-visited, never mind that it can appeal to almost everyone.
It is an improbably temperate corner of the U.K. with extravagant flora and fauna tacked to an ever-changing backdrop; tumbling hills, dark dense forest wilderness, watercolourist dream farmland – and hundreds of kilometres of coastal diversity from glowing beaches the size of Cold War airfields to 130-metre-tall avian apartment block sea cliff faces. This land, sprinkled as it is with centuries-old architecture immersed in history, even has more exquisite lighthouses than you could shake a brass telescope at.
So I cannot be too careful. Because sparsely populated Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland’s south-west, never mind that it abutts straight onto crowded England, remains gloriously unspoiled by tourist traffic, even in mid summer.
Why? Because the overwhelming majority of Scotland-bound holidaymakers are in a lemming lather intent upon the tartan-and-shortbread ‘real’ Scotland that, the popular myth maintains, doesn’t even begin until north of Glasgow. When visitors flood into Scotland from the south, Glasgow remains more than an hour distant by rail, and two hours away by car. And so it is that no more than a trickle of travellers diverts left into Scotland’s glorious south-west.
Which means that the rest of us can have the place to ourselves.
Dumfries thrives in its centuries-old role as the region’s hub of transportation and commerce. Straddling the River Nith, the town oozes character, was home to the Scottish bard Robert Burns who was buried there in 1796 – and has one of the best local museums in Britain, complete with one of only two working Camera Obscura in Scotland. The town centre is webbed with twisting medieval vennels, narrow lanes that jink between ancient buildings and that always seem to drag me towards the town’s two oldest pubs.
The Tam O-Shanter, a living-room-sized den that easily pre-dates Burns, has the best real ales in Dumfries. A short stagger away (slurs the voice of experience), the Globe Inn’s landlady cheerfully shows off upstairs rooms where Robert Burns bedded down whenever he got too cockeyed to ride home to Ellisland Farm, north of town.
I am more intent on paying my respects to a relatively unsung hero. In the two-street rustic hamlet of Keir Mill, I track down the former smithy where in 1839, blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan created the world’s first pedal-powered bicycle. The only clue to the building’s historic significance is a sandstone plaque marking the 1939 centenary of the visionary creation that never made Macmillan a penny.
It says: ‘He builded better than he knew’.
A few minutes away is the mighty Renaissance exclamation mark of Drumlanrig Castle, home to the Duke of Buccleuch, and where Macmillan worked as a blacksmith. At the castle’s tiny but eclectic cycle museum, a replica of Macmillan’s wood and steel device inspires me to rent a mountain bike from Rik’s Bikeshed and discover the offroad trails that weave through the surrounding forest.
Dumfries and Galloway has some of the best mountain biking in Europe, much of it developed by the state’s Forest Enterprise, and promoted under the tag of The Seven Stanes. Each of the Stanes (stones) dangles offroad cycling to suit every age and skillset, from infant beginner to downhill-racer nutcase.
My hotel is a former Duke of Buccleuch hunting lodge where, a hundred miles from the nearest city, I eat one of the best meals I have enjoyed in years. I fall asleep bothered by the thought that, with three days still to go on my journey, in epicurean terms, things must surely go downhill from here. How blessedly wrong I am.
The Solway Firth coast road floats atop an emerald plain, almost never losing sight of the sandy shoreline, and soon I face two large, crisp flags that snap proudly in the brisk sea breeze. One is the Scottish Saltire, the other, the Stars and Stripes. Framed by the flag poles is the 1747 cottage birthplace of a man scarcely known in Scotland, but revered throughout the United States as the ‘Father of the American Navy’, John Paul Jones.
The young John Paul (he later adopted ‘Jones’ to escape the stigma of a murder charge that he was found innocent of) lived in the cottage that his father held as gardener to the Arbigland Estates. When I arrive, the museum is empty save for the curator, who tells the story of a young sailor who shunned the African slave trade to command commercial vessels in the West Indies before siding with the Colonists in the American Revolution and helping create the new ‘Continental Navy’. He later commanded US vessels in Europe, and even led audacious attacks on his native Scotland.
Just then, an older man pulls up atop a beaten tractor. When he mentions a part of the cottage that ‘his father built in the 1930s’, I can’t believe my good fortune, since he may even be a professional descendant of John Paul’s gardener father. I ask about life in the cottage, but he looks nonplussed – and the curator whispers that I am talking to the owner of Arbigland Estates.
Before pointing my wheels west again, I take in Southerness Point and its peculiar square-section lighthouse. The village was commissioned by a nineteenth century land-owner to mine coal in the area, but when coal never materialised, it became the isolated seaside tourist village that it remains today.
Along the coast, I am not the first to realise that the town of Kircudbright (helpful tip: pronounce it ‘Kir-koobrie’) at the mouth of the River Dee is almost painfully picturesque; artist E. A. Hornel of the ‘Glasgow Boys’ arrived here in 1895 and became the focus of an emerging artist colony whose influences live on. An exhibition called Monet and the Impressionists is opening soon. Imagine that. Original Monets, in a wee fishing/market town in the Scottish backwoods.
I tack south to my favourite camp ground at striking Brighouse Bay, where I wander the rocky coastline, and watch golfers playing the park’s own private oceanside 18-hole course.
The village of Crossmichael is famous for The Plumed Horse, one of only six Michelin-starred restaurants in Scotland. I don’t know what to expect, but when I arrive, sixteen people occupy a half-dozen tables, making the restaurant almost full.
The meal that follows inspires only one, albeit very real, regret. Travelling alone, I have to keep the joys of dining at this sumptuous level all to myself. Until now.
Trying to wring every last nuance from each revelatory mouthful, I start on roast fillet of salmon with queen scallops, cucumber spaghetti, fennel and seafood velouté. A main course of pan-fried free-range pork stuffed with, of all things, prunes is all too soon gone, leaving behind only myriad aftertastes. For desert, a knickerbocker glory with rhubarb and raspberries and drenched in champagne pushes every button in my brain and more besides.
Before leaving, I compliment the chef/proprietor, Tony Borthwick, a breezy Yorkshireman clearly enchanted by life in his own little culinary fiefdom. He hopes I will be back soon. Not half as much as I do.
I awake in the middle of the night at the Marks farmhouse B&B high in the hills above Kircudbright, and listen intently for long minutes before concluding that my initial instinct is correct. For the first time in my life, and no matter how hard I strain, I can hear absolutely nothing, not a sound. I could get used to this.
For the next two days, I flit impulsively from one point on the landscape to the next. At the ruined Threave Castle, a jovial guide bids me ‘welcome to the 14th Century’ then, with a degree of familiarity that suggests they may have gone to school together, narrates the story of the man behind the sturdy monolith, the wonderfully-tagged Archibald the Grim.
I make a mandatory stop in Wigtown, lately re-invented as Scotland’s national booktown. Where empty premises recently sat boarded up, the town’s grand square buzzes with over twenty second-hand bookstores and book-related businesses that entice bibliophiles from far and wide.
Crossing the Machars of Galloway, a peninsula featured in John Buchan’s classic thriller The 39 Steps, I reach Whithorn. This is where some believe St Ninian first brought Christianity to Britain around 397 AD, a theory poo-pooed by those who credit St Columba with importing the faith to Iona one hundred and seventy years later.
Almost as much zeal is saved for the 1973 cult horror movie The Wicker Man, filmed in Whithorn. A lively music festival named for the film happens every summer, and this year it featured The Stranglers. Yes, you read that correctly, The Stranglers. There really is something for everybody down here.
Like a kid saving his favourite colour of candy for last, the Mull of Galloway, a skinny finger of land drooping from the south-west corner of Scotland into the Irish Sea, is among my favourite locations on the planet.
Thanks entirely to the Gulf Stream, the peninsula is forever greener than a coffee table book on Ireland. Its Port Logan Botanical Garden is world-renowned for an astounding collection of southern-hemisphere flora, all outdoors.
The peninsula exists in a transport time-warp, somewhere in the fifties or sixties perhaps, a time without highways or heavy traffic, without traffic wardens or even traffic lights. On its narrow arterial roads, directions still come from old-fashioned raised-lettering pointed hands.
The southern extremity of the Mull of Galloway is known, however confusingly, as the Mull of Galloway. I always make a point of visiting both when I’m in the neighbourhood. Or when I’m in the same place.
This Mull of Galloway is a bird sanctuary and a viewpoint without compare. If I spin on the spot, I can see mainland Scotland, the Machars of Galloway, England’s Cumbrian coast, the Isle of Man and Ireland’s Mountains of Mourne. I can also take in a working lighthouse with enough aesthetic appeal to more than earn its own place in this stunning landscape.
The lighthouse is part of the amazing story of five generations of Stevensons who, for over one-and-a-half centuries, designed, built and maintained ninety-seven lighthouses around Scotland. This one was built in 1832 by the first of the Stevensons, Robert, whose son Thomas, besides building over fifty lighthouses, also fathered Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Kidnapped and Treasure Island, and one of the world’s most celebrated literary figures of the 19th Century.
I am delighted to discover a new addition to the Mull, a tastefully-conceived café/restaurant with wondrous views of vertiginous cliffs that attract bird-watchers from all over Europe. One friendly ‘twitcher’ names shags, razorbills, guillemots and many more that I cannot recall.
I turn north again, and less than an hour later, just after watching a hare, rear legs like furry banjos, bound in front of the car at nearly forty kilometres per hour, I pull up overlooking Corsewall Lighthouse. Built in 1815 by the same Robert Stevenson and perched on the shoulder of Loch Ryan, it faces thirty ferocious kilometres of Irish Sea separating Scotland and Ulster and, like all the Stevenson lighthouses, remains in service.
It is also a fully functional luxury hotel. I really have saved the best for last.
Being a lighthouse, the hotel brings a whole new meaning to the word isolated. Other buildings visible with the naked eye appear only when the sun sets and the lights go on in Northern Ireland. The hotel consists of nine suites and a restaurant, and that’s it. I love it.
After yet another gourmet delight for dinner, I settle in The Firth of Cromarty Room, leaving the terrace door open so that the sound of waves lapping on rocks echoes around me.
As I wait for sleep I try to think of anywhere in the nearly forty countries I have travelled that I would rather be. I’m asleep before a single alternative springs to mind.
Now do you understand why I may have to kill you?