Scotland’s Solway Coast and the Rhins of Galloway

The Solway Firth

Scotland's Solway Coast and the Rhins of Galloway

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.

The WWT Wetland Centre at Caerlaverock

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.

Barnacle Geese at the Caerlaverock Wetland Centre

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.

Caerlaverock Castle

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.

Sweetheart Abbey

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.

Birthplace of John Paul Jones

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.

Seashells on the Seashore at Southerness
Southerness Lighthouse

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.

The Wicker Man at Dundrennan

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.

Maclellan's Castle at Kircudbright

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.

The Mill on the 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.

The Mull of Galloway

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 Mull of Galloway Lighthouse

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.


23 thoughts on “Scotland’s Solway Coast and the Rhins of Galloway

  1. Stuart Templeton

    Hi Malc – apologies for taking so long, I’ve been having a bit of a wordpress break recently. Fascinating post and I fully agree with you – it’s always worth getting off the beaten track and away from the tourist traps – and this area looks like it fits that well – it looks beautiful. It’s an area we’ll definitely being doing at some point because Caerlaverock Castle has been on my ‘to visit’ list for years – it looks a fascinating place!

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Stuart. I certainly think that Caerlaverock is somewhere for you – and I quite understand why you would want to take a break from WordPress

      1. Stuart Templeton

        I’ve always fancied going there – it looks a very impressive castle.
        I actually hadn’t intended to take a break – it’s just kind of happened – I’ve started a few posts but can’t get into finishing them.

  2. Alli Templeton

    Thanks Malc, will do.
    The red hot poker theory is the most popular, of course, as it’s the one that’s engaged people’s imagination most. I still don’t buy it though, because if you want to do away with someone quietly – and we mustn’t forget he was an annointed king – you don’t do something that will make the victims’ screams heard in the villages and settlements for miles around. However, the threat of having that done to you would would be a massively effective deterrent today, I have to admit! Enjoy your visit. 🙂

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Alli. If there’s anyone there making toast by the fireside I’ll make sure I give them a wide berth 🙂

  3. Simone

    Another one of your lovely pages Malcolm! It is great to sit and read your pages that brighten up my day on this dreary Sunday afternoon in Sweden. I can just imagine that one day I myself might have a chance to visit here as well. You sure do increase my travel wishlist with each page that you write!

    1. Easymalc Post author

      I’m pleased to have brightened up a dreary Sunday afternoon for you Simone. It’s always great to hear such lovely comments. Thank you – and I do hope you manage to reach this corner of Scotland one day.

  4. Alli Templeton

    Sorry for the delay in getting to this Malc, believe it or not I’ve had no notifications at all about your posts recently, so I only discovered this and your more recent post because I came direct to your website. I’ve even been having problems with my own site, which WordPress are blaming on my browser. What a pain. Anyway, I’ve loved this tour around this part of Scotland, especially as this week I’ve been reading all about the Wars of Independence. Caerlaverock Castle is high on my list of places to visit, so it’s nice to hear a bit about it’s background and the Maxwells and their vacillating loyalties. I know Edward 1st laid siege to the castle and it stood up to the bombardment admirably. And I didn’t know that there was a nature reserve there too, so a double reason to go there now.

    It looks just our kind of place, with the castles, abbeys, lighthouses and all that gorgeous coastline. Maddie walked past me while I was reading about your trip and said ‘Oooh that looks nice!’. We don’t know much about John Paul Jones, but one of Maddies’ favourite songs is ‘John Paul Jones is a Pirate’ by the Longest Johns! As for the Wicker Man, I haven’t actually seen the film, but I know a fair bit about it and that it attracts a big cult following, so it must have been pretty special for you to visit where it was filmed.

    Another of your fantastic and inspiring posts, Malc, and I’m glad I caught up with it. 🙂

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for seeking it out Alli. I agree that technology can be a real pain at times. I can see that you use Microsoft Edge as your browser and I don’t think many people do, not for wordPress from what I can tell, so it might be worth considering using Google Chrome or Firefox as well and see if there’s any improvement.
      You can also subscribe to my blogs directly by using the panel on the right hand side of this page if that helps.

      As regards the Solway Firth, Caerlaverock is only just half an hour from Gretna and while you’re enjoying the castle, Stuart could be bird -spotting. Anyway, I’m glad that you took the trouble to still seek out my blogs, and that you found it worth the trouble. Thanks again 🙂

      1. Alli Templeton

        Thanks, Malc. I’m going to have to change my server as it’s all going to pot on Edge. Fingers crossed for an improvement there. I’ve done my latest post on Firefox. We’ll see…

        Caerlaverock is now high on the list… 🙂

        1. Easymalc Post author

          It’s worth bearing in mind that not all the problems you encounter will be the fault of your website. It took me quite a while to work that one out 🙂

            1. Easymalc Post author

              I’m sure that we’re not the only ones to have problems with this technology. I’ve come to the conclusion that all we can do is make sure that our own sites are working ok and then find the best solution to suit our needs because some things are outside of our control. I very often go straight to a person’s website to avoid any conflict within wordpress itself. I don’t do it with all of them, just those that matter the most to me, if that makes any sense.

              1. Alli Templeton

                Yes it does make sense, Malc. I think I’ll start doing the same with the others I want to keep in regular touch with.

                1. Easymalc Post author

                  Our communication already seems better this morning. I’ve had no glitches with your comments at all this morning, which hasn’t always been the case. I hope I’m not being over-optimistic

                  1. Alli Templeton

                    I’ve had one reply refuse to go, so I had to go straight to your site, but other than that things do seem to be running fairly smoothly on Firefox. Think I might try Chrome as well though, just in case. 🙂

                    1. Easymalc Post author

                      For what it’s worth I use Firefox for communicating and Chrome for writing. I don’t like complicating things but that’s how it works best for me.
                      Have you been to Berkeley Castle by the way?

                    2. Alli Templeton

                      Funnily enough, I haven’t been to Berkley Castle yet, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently and would like to go soon. Did you like it? Mind you, I think it shuts for the winter, doesn’t it? If so, I’ll go as soon as it opens next year.
                      I might give the dual-browser thing a go myself if you think it helps you. 🙂

                    3. Alli Templeton

                      Oh wow, have a great time. I’d love to hear what you think of it – especially the medieval bits, of course. I’m looking forward to the room where Edward II was kept, and I know they think there that the red hot poker story is just that – a story. I’ve never believed it anyway. They think he was smothered in his sleep. That’s much more likely if they wanted to keep his murder quiet. 🙂

                    4. Easymalc Post author

                      I prefer the red hot poker story myself 🙂 and what’s more I think the punishment should be brought back 🙂 Just joking of course – I think 🙂
                      Went there years ago, but it I think it’s time to pay another visit.

                      Anyway let’s hope you find using different browsers a benefit. I’m no good at this sort of stuff myself, but if you think I can be of any assistance don’t hesitate to ask. Two heads are often better than one.

  5. Fergy.

    Maxwells untrustworthy, what can you possibly mean? Just look at that nice Robert and his darling daughter Ghislaine.

    I agree that this is a beautiful part of a beautiful country although I have only visited briefly.

    As a bit of Wicker Man trivia, the then very young fiddle player in the film is a guy called Ian Cutler who is a mate of mine and who I have jammed with. I was speaking to him a couple of months back.

    Another brilliant post Malc, keep it up.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for that Fergy. I’m surprised that you know a fiddler – and as for that Robert Maxwell, the least said the better


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