From the mid-14th century until 1975, Galloway had no official existence. After the ancient Kingdom of Galloway was absorbed into Scotland, the area was divided in half; into the county of Wigtownshire and, uniquely, the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright.
In 1975, when Scotland was regionalised, the two were reamalgamated and joined with Dumfriesshire, and the whole area is now a unitary authority, Dumfries and Galloway. It is this slightly secret-feeling location that has led to some of its most endearing features such as its tiny population density – 23.1per square kilometre. While the population of the UK as a whole has multiplied by about six since 1800, Galloway’s has very nearly flatlined. This is not an unmixed blessing for its inhabitants but it is a precious gift to visitors.
South to the sea
Once you know where it is, Galloway is very accessible – weekendable, even – from southern England. The A75 rather neatly divides the district. South of it is the coastal area, with sweet green dairy farms, much of the historical and cultural heritage, what small towns there are and little ancient harbours.
Portpatrick in the furthest west was the old route to Ireland that John Keats used in 1818. Three peninsulas push down into the Irish Sea, longer and narrower as you move westward: Borgue, which is a National Scenic Area (the Scottish equivalent of an AONB); the Machars; and the Rhins, with the Mull of Galloway, a notable RSPB seabird reserve, at the very bottom.
All three are well worth exploring. In particular this is bird-watching country; there are several reserves but for those less ornithologically inclined, there are excellent gardens, fine Bronze Age remains – and, at Wigtown, the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland.
For me, it is north of the A75 that the real adventures begin. Galloway Forest Park covers 300 square miles of “nothing”, as a benighted friend of mine put it. A nothing that includes feral goats, red deer, black grouse, spectacular peat flows, red squirrel, golden eagles, little isolated lochs, weird rock formations and a colony of pine martens.
At the heart of the forest are the Galloway Hills, a vast rough wilderness ringed by Forestry Commission plantations. The Dark Sky Park maps loosely onto the park and has three visitors centres: Kirroughtree, Clatteringshaws and my favourite, Glentrool.
Glentrool visitor centre at the Stroan Bridge offers some fine waymarked walks and off-road biking trails, a good information booth and a café with first-class fresh baking. But I suggest keeping this until tea-time. Instead push on up the road, to a second car park, and a couple of hundred yards further to a tiny third one.
Walk up to the nearby Bruce’s Stone – and enter paradise. The long narrow glacier-carved Loch Trool shimmers below you, above you loom the huge hills (the path up the Merrick starts here) and, perhaps best of all, you are looking over the Buchan Wood, said to be the least spoiled ancient oak wood in Britain. Right there, not quarter of a mile from your car, the source of all our fairytales.
You can walk from here, on a path round the loch or up into the hills, or potter in the wood – when it is warm enough I bathe in the Buchan Burn in a deep hidden pool below the track – and look, watch, wait. The peace and wonder of it will get to you soon enough.