Discover Dumfries and Galloway

While searching for her family's roots, Kirstie Hills chances upon a richly varied and beautiful corner of Scotland that is missed by most visitors to the country

Situated on a rocky headland near Portpatrick is Dunskey Castle ruins, Dumfries and Galloway, Southwest Scotland, Scotland, United Kingdom. (Photo by: UIG via Getty Images)


The south-west region of Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway, was the birthplace and childhood home of my granny, Peggy. Most people zoom by it on the way to Scotland’s star attractions further north, but this is a mistake. I had never visited the region while Peggy was alive, but last October, eight years after my granny died, my mum took me for my first visit. I fell in love. Six months later, I was itching to go back to find out more.

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It’s a long drive north from my home in Bath, Somerset, but as I pass through the folds of the Cumbrian hills somewhere between the M6’s junction 37 and junction 38, my spirits lift. But relief really kicks in as I turn from the motorway past Gretna into the gentle hills of Dumfries and Galloway. Before I know it, a sign to Brydekirk has caught my eye and I’m deep in the countryside.

Brydekirk is where Peggy’s mother (and my great-grandmother) Annie Marshall was born. It’s a one-street town of pebble-dashed crofts in the shallow valley of the River Annan. I stop off to see if there’s any trace of my ancestors in the churchyard. With tombstones as big as old oak doors hanging from broken hinges, it doesn’t take me long to find three families of Marshalls. I scribble down the inscriptions and move on.

My family history is my excuse for a visit. My real mission is to meander. There’s a breadcrumb trail of specialist towns to lure you from Dumfries in the east to the Mull of Galloway to the west. Dumfries itself was home of the legendary bard Robert Burns and the handsome town is scattered with his memories.

Moving west, there’s the food town Castle Douglas, its streets lined with all kinds of goodies including a toffee shop, a chocolate shop, specialist butchers, smokehouses, local ice-cream producers, delicatessens, and even a microbrewery. It’s the Ludlow of the north, but less well known and far more earthy.

Head south-west for nine miles and you reach artists’ town, Kirkcudbright (pronounced Cur-coo-bree), which sits at the mouth of the River Dee, and reminds me of St Ives in Cornwall. As you walk down High Street, you can almost feel the graceful presence of Jesse King, Art Nouveau illustrator, who settled here in the 1915 and nurtured a thriving artists’ community. And a hop away is Wigtown, which has bred second-hand bookshops along its wide central street and, like a mini Hay-on-Wye, hosts a flourishing literary festival.

Sweetheart Abbey

On this visit, I am tempted by a different scent: the coastline. For my first evening, I head towards New Abbey just south of Dumfries, where I’ve booked to stay in the mountain-bike-friendly Criffel Inn. New Abbey is a pretty little village, lined with solid white houses, and dominated by the ruin of the 13th-century Sweetheart Abbey (above). It was built by Devorgilla of Galloway in memory of her husband John Balliol, founder of Balliol College, Oxford. He was a loathed man, but Devorgilla loved him, arranging for his embalmed heart to be buried with her body when she died.

It is a gorgeous evening so I embark on one of the many walks that begin here, but it’s too late to hike up the 173m (569ft) high Criffel. Next visit, definitely.

The following morning I set out to attempt the 7stanes mountain biking trail in Mabie Forest but am thwarted by a closed bike rental shop. So, after a short walk, I head to Mersehead RSPB reserve, the top tip I’d heard at breakfast.
 

South-east of Dalbeattie, the small industrial town where gran was born and raised, the Mersehead reserve stretches along the sea marshes of the Solway Firth. It’s the twin reserve of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s (WWT) Caerlaverock reserve (below) further east, and its big attraction is the gathering of the barnacle geese in the autumn. Tony, the RSPB volunteer, welcomes me: “In summer, you’ll see lapwings, sandpipers, ducks, lots of warblers – white throat, sedge warbler. But first of all, You mustn’t forget to stop and listen to the skylarks.”

I walk up an avenue of gorse towards the shore and squint into the sunshine to find the small hovering spec of larks and stop, as instructed, to listen to its beautiful big song.

When I get to the shore, there’s an expanse of yellow-ochre sand. Across the tidal flats, I see the lavender silhouettes of the Lake District mountains; to the left, out to sea, whir the 60 turbines of the Robin Rigg wind farm. I am alone in the warm sunshine and it is utterly peaceful.

I continue along the A710 to return to the coastal hamlet of Rockcliffe, where Peggy would have come as a child in a horse and cart for a Sunday out. It’s an unspoilt coastal village lined with white houses, with a sparkling view across the estuary of Urr out to Hestan and Rough Islands. It’s a place for walking dogs across wet sand, rockpooling with children and gentle walks around the coastline to Kippford. Nearby is the mysterious hillfort, the Mark of Mote, home of a Dark Age chieftain. Rockcliffe has also got a perfectly secluded spot for tea and cake, the Garden Tea Room.

After a chocolate and coconut slice, I press on along the A711 to Kirkudbright. Dropping down past Mutehill, the view across the bay of Kirkudbright is breathtaking.

Dark Skies project

That evening I head off to the Kirroughtree Visitor Centre, for a talk about the Galloway Forest Dark Skies project. I manage to arrive late, just as Keith Muir, head of tourism and recreation for the Galloway Forest District is getting his round of applause, and since I’ve missed the talk, I think I’ll let the sky speak for itself. I drive up the winding forest road towards New Galloway. I find a layby close to Wild Goat Park (Clatteringshaws is the other recommended spot), switch off the engine and the headlights and stare up at the night sky.

The problem is it’s not dark yet. It’s 10pm and the sky is still that amazing yellow-green-indigo wash of a warm day remembered. Not one star is in sight. I begin to wait, but 40 minutes later it doesn’t seem much darker and it’s probably not so smart for me to be in the middle of a forest where there’s no mobile phone reception. They say late September to March is the season for stargazing, so that’s another reason to return.

On Thursday, I join a gang of walkers for the last of the Newton Stewart Walking Festival events. We go on a four-hour walk along Auchenmalg Bay. I meet Phil and Jen, retired teachers from Yorkshire, and Phil confides: “The thing with Dumfries and Galloway is you don’t want to tell too many people about it… in case it gets spoiled.”

Jen, originally a Galloway gal, subtly takes on the role as my guide. She points out the silverweed and the stichwort in the hedgerows and spots a couple of hares. She also acts as my translator. “Watch out for the gloar!” she cries, as we approach a boggy patch.

I happen to know and love the word ‘gloar’. My gran would screech ‘gloar!’ in mock horror whenever we passed the merest spec of mud on a walk. It was part of her language, along with ‘driech’ for grey, ‘blether’ for chatter and ‘peely wahly’ for pale. When my family uses these words, mimicking her accent, we evoke Peggy with love and buried grief.

Swooping ravens

We walk inland from Auchenmalg to Stairhaven, and then back along the coastal path. Gorse edges the cliff tops and across the grey water, we can see the Mull of Galloway. Paul, an RSPB warden, points out the purple spring squill in the grass and stoops to show us a meadow pipit’s tidy nest. Most joyfully, he points to three fledgling ravens swooping through gusts of wind above the cliffs as they learn to fly. “Who says animals don’t know how to have fun?” he says.

Windswept and rosy-cheeked from my fabulous walk, I head for Portpatrick, a harbour town right on the edge of Galloway where Peggy would take mum on her holidays. I drive via the Bladnoch Distillery to buy whisky and sights along the B733 keep catching my eye. I stop at the Torhouse stone circle, with it’s 19 dumpy granite stones, and the one other lady visiting here recommends a visit to the Cairnholy stones, south of Creetown.

Desperate to return

I arrive with the rain in Portpatrick and check into Fernhill House Hotel. Peggy would have loved it here. She’d have loved the elaborate carpets, the chintzy green and cream decor. I love the fat Edwardian taps on the first bath tub I have seen for days. And most of all, I love the view. I soak in my bath after a day being battered by the wind on the cliffs, wrap myself into the slightly tatty but still luxurious bathrobe, and sink into an armchair to watch the rain coming in over a restless sea.

I’ve had a breathful of Dumfries and Galloway, but there’s so much to come back for. I want to climb Criffel, bomb down the 7stanes mountain biking trails, return for the Spring Fling artists’ open weekend. I want to drive through the Galloway Forest roads in daylight, and watch the sky when it’s pitch black to see if I can see the moons of Jupiter. I want to learn more about my family roots and how they lived in this land. And if I could write a postcard to Peggy now, I’d say simply and with all my heart: “Wish you were here.”

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Main image: Getty