Like so many travellers, I’ve often been guilty of rushing past this quiet corner of Scotland in search of the country’s more celebrated attractions further north, but several years ago I decided that it was about time we turned left at the Scottish border to take a steady drive along the Solway Coast to the Rhins of Galloway and find out what we’ve been missing.
From what I can see of it nothing much has changed around here since we visited, but one thing I’d better mention is that we didn’t drive along here all in one day, as the route I’ve described would take at least four hours without stops; and although it might be possible, I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to enjoy the area properly.
Naturally, I wasn’t expecting the same jaw-dropping scenery that the Highlands can offer, but I already knew from experiences elsewhere, that the Lowlands of Scotland have an appeal of their own, but in a much more subtle way.
Immediately after crossing the border into Scotland is Gretna Green, the famous runaway wedding location, where most first-time visitors will want to stop – even if they don’t intend getting spliced. Having been here before, I was keen to move on because I think it’s one of those places that, unless your name’s Henry VIII, you only want to visit once, and so we carried on along the ‘B’ roads towards Caerlaverock instead.
Caerlaverock as far as I’m concerned is a real gem: It’s not a village as such, but an area that sits alongside the salt marshes and mudflats that are so characteristic of the upper part of the Solway Firth.
Designated a National Nature Reserve, the low-lying marshland attracts an abundance of birdlife in the form of wildfowl, swans and geese, best seen at the Wetland Centre, which is run by Sir Peter Scott’s Wildfowl and Wetland Trust.
The naturalist’s first reserve at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire may be better known, but Caerlaverock has become a haven for birds migrating from their breeding grounds in the Arctic to overwinter in Scotland’s comparatively milder climate. In October Whooper Swans from Iceland, Pink-Footed Geese from Iceland/Greenland and Barnacle Geese from Svalbard come in their thousands and stay here right up until April.
The importance of conservation in places like this is borne out by the fact that in the 1940s the number of Barnacle Geese left in Svalbard was down to around 500, but at the last count there were somewhere in the region of 25,000, and practically all of them overwinter here in the Solway Firth. To witness so many of these birds descending into the reserve to feed after a night’s rest is a real privilege.
Caerlaverock isn’t just for nature lovers, but history buffs too.
I don’t think anybody would argue that Scotland is blessed with an abundance of incredible castles, and having seen quite a few over the years, I would argue that Caerlaverock Castle should be up near the top of every castle bagger’s list.
Built in a triangular design during the 13th century, it belonged to the Maxwell family (for most of the time) until 1640 when its turbulent history finally came to an end after a siege by the Covenanters.
The years in-between had seen it in conflict with both the English and fellow Scots, and I’m not sure that the Maxwell family knew who to side with next. One minute they were fighting King Edward I, the next minute they were being paid by him to look after the castle, and then in the contest between John Balliol and Robert Bruce of Annandale (Grandfather of Robert the Bruce) as to who wore the crown of Scotland, at first they sided with Balliol, and then it was ‘The Bruce’ – and so it went on – a completely untrustworthy family if you ask me.
From Caerlaverock we took the B725 up alongside the River Nith towards Dumfries, but from what I’ve read, the town’s nickname of Queen of the South is somewhat misleading, and so instead of exploring the town we followed the A710 on the other side of the river down to New Abbey. The main attraction here is the 13th century Sweetheart Abbey, but unfortunately it wasn’t open when we were here so I had to make do with viewing it from the roadside.
The abbey got its unusual name from the founder of the abbey’s devotion to her husband. When John de Balliol died, his wealthy wife, Dervorguilla of Galloway kept his embalmed heart in an ivory and silver casket and took it wherever she went, even to her grave.
John de Balliol was the person who founded the famous Oxford college, and their son of the same name became King of Scotland for a short while after the contest with Robert the Bruce.
The A710 continues through the village towards Southerness, and passes near to the cottage where John Paul Jones, father of the American navy, was born in 1747.
Our hasty decision to take advantage of the decent out of season weather forecast meant that most visitor attractions would be closed including this small museum, but I think it’s a price worth paying on the whole.
Southerness was a good example of where it can be an advantage to come out of season if you don’t want too much hassle. The small village has far more caravans than houses, thanks to its long sandy beach, and will appeal more to families who come here for a summer holiday more than it does to me; but at this quiet time of the year it was worth venturing down to the beach just to take a look at Scotland’s second oldest lighthouse, which was built in 1749.
Our next focus of interest was the small town of Kircudbright (pronounced Kir-coo-bree). The town and its surroundings were the location for the filming of the cult 1970s film the Wicker Man starring Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward. It’s one of those films that you’ll either turn off straight away or be glued to it from start to finish; I fell into the latter category, and obviously I wasn’t the only one because they used to hold a Wicker Man Festival on the outskirts of the town each year until 2016.
Kircudbright is a charming little town that has been popular with artists for over a hundred years, and if I was to come back to this neck of the woods, it would be one of the places that I would consider worth staying. As it was, we just had a wander around for an hour or two, and no doubt it would have been longer if Maclellan’s Castle had been open and the tide had been in.
At Gatehouse of Fleet we had a pit-stop at the Mill on the Fleet, an old cotton mill that now holds exhibitions, information centre and a welcome café next to the Water of Fleet.
It’s not possible, or even desirable, to see everything on a trip like this, and as I pointed out at the start, we didn’t cover this area all in one day. One of the sections along this coast that we missed out was the Machars, which is the name given to the triangular peninsula below Newton Stewart, and which, from what I can gather, is predominantly an agricultural area of low-lying sandy grassland, and not exactly a place to go out of your way for.
Mind you, I always think it’s a bit unfair to describe a place in this way if I’ve not been there, because some of the most fascinating places I’ve been to are those that time – and people pass by.
One place that definitely shouldn’t be missed out though is the Mull of Galloway. It does involve a one-way detour down to the headland and back, but worth it in my opinion.
It’s a 45-minute drive from Portpatrick (and the same back) and is the most southerly point in Scotland: On a clear day it’s possible to see the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland, but for those days when it isn’t clear there’s a lighthouse and foghorn to keep ships safe from harm.
This completely unspoilt part of the Rhins of Galloway (the hammer-head shaped peninsula) is also a nature reserve to protect the 3,500 pairs of breeding seabirds.
The final destination for this blog is Portpatrick, a lovely little town with a harbour, some decent pubs and restaurants, and somewhere nice and warm to put our head down for the night. Now you know why it’s worth turning left at Gretna Green.