A History Journey Through Dumfries and Galloway
Scotland’s south west corner is arguably the most tragically overlooked slice of this fair land. But rest assured. As part of my latest campaign with the Scotlanders, we’re trying to do something about that. With history as my theme, I charge hell for leather around the best attractions and ruins and see how much I can fit into a weekend. Here goes….
History in the Dumfries Area
My weekend kicks off at Caerlaverock Castle. Sometimes, in a flurry of excitement, I decide that Caerlaverock is my favourite of all the Scottish castles. What is without doubt though is that it will be amongst the leading contenders in anybody’s book. Triangular and glowing almost pink in the right light, it is a stunning ruin that will have photographers and historians alike in a state of awe. Best of all, it has a moat. A very rare thing (I believe only Rothesay in Scotland also boasts one) this says it all. A historically turbulent area during the Wars of Independence, defence was always paramount to fortress construction in these parts. You’re not meant to get in here easily, and so it proved.
1300 saw Caerlaverock’s greatest siege. A small but determined group of resolute defenders faced the mighty army of Edward I who stood battering at the walls outside. That’s Edward the Longshanks by the way – cue shivers all round. Subsequent attacks continued in the centuries to come as the owning Maxwell family’s Catholic persuasions met Protestant resistance. As if being precariously close to the Scotland-England border was not enough to give you sleepless nights! We do love any old excuse for a scrap.
The raw romance of the region comes alive with my next stop, Sweetheart Abbey. Glowing red, never has a building been better named. The atmospheric ruins sum up so many of the historical gems that are dotted around southern Scotland. Much like the Scottish Borders Abbeys, much of Sweetheart has crumbled away but the core foundations show the relevance and status of this 13th Century monastery. Founded by Dervorguilla of Galloway in memory of her husband John Balliol, it still stands as the focal point of the pretty town of New Abbey, south of Dumfries. Dervorguilla was so devoted to John that she had his heart embalmed and kept it with her day to day. Bit grim, but hey. She eventually had it buried alongside her at the Abbey. If that’s not a sign of true love I shudder to think how much further someone would have to go.
Castle Douglas Area
Not much beats a boat crossing to visit a castle. There is something eternally glorious about having to boat it across to an island fortress. An isolated and distinctive little tower, Threave Castle was a stronghold for the Black Douglases and had to endure a bit of a battering at the hands of Mons Meg in 1455, the absolute brute of a cannon that now sees out its retirement in Edinburgh Castle.
Currently closed due to a group of falcons having set up camp – leave it to birds of prey to think they own the place – the castle can still be viewed, superbly, from a distance. There are numerous huts set up for watching the local wildlife – the RSPB have a huge interest in Dumfries and Galloway. Neighbouring Threave Estate is also amongst the most impressive garden areas in the country and an excellent additional attraction to add-in while in the area.
My road continues west and on to another cute southern Scottish town, Kirkcudbright. A contender for the most oft mispronounced name we’ve got (it’s Kirk-coo-bree by the way), the town boasts a couple more historic diamonds in the form of Broughton House and MacLellan’s Castle. The former was home to E A Hornel, one of the Glasgow Boys artists. Bedecked in his work, Broughton includes a beautifully designed library loaded with the work of another hero in these parts, a certain Robert Burns. The connected Japanese-style gardens outside complete the almost-therapeutically relaxing visit. Just what a frenetic travel blogger needs with all this darting around between historical and cultural sites.
A short walk from Broughton House is the centrepiece of Kirkcudbright, the dramatic ruins of MacLellan’s Castle. The 16th Century residence of the town provost it stands at the head of the high street, alongside the harbour. Family home rather than intimidating fortress, there is still a grimness to MacLellan’s that only the best castles can deliver. Kitchens, living quarters and a grand hall make up the structure. Particularly amusing is the presence of the Laird’s Lug – a hole in one of the Hall’s walls for eavesdropping on dinner guests. The back-in-the-day approach to leaving the baby monitor on.
Nearby 12th Century Dundrennan Abbey is a bit special. Much like Sweetheart, there is an aura about the place that makes it very different from the aforementioned moody/sinister/awesome castles in the region. Romantically set in a serene valley outside of Kirkcudbright, this was also the spot where Mary Queen of Scots spent her last hours in Scotland.
Gatehouse of Fleet Area
Before heading for the west coast to our base for the night at the excellent Fernhill Hotel in Portpatrick, a final detour stop is at the slightly ominous Cardoness Castle. Enjoying a gorgeous location with superb views from the tower in all directions, the castle’s historical McCulloch occupants weren’t the most charming bunch. Legal disputes, questionable marriages, theft, raiding……yeah, they liked a bit of controversy. Particularly bitter was the feuding with the Gordon clan in the 1600s. In this case, Sir Godfrey McCulloch shot dead one of the Gordon family in 1690 before darting off to France to hide. On his return in 1697 he was recognised and beheaded in Edinburgh. Nice bit of blood and gore – every castle needs some.
The West Coast
An early morning wander from the hotel in pretty Portpatrick presents an opportunity to ogle at another fine example of a Scottish coastal ruin. Another to get photographers scrambling, Dunsky Castle is perched precariously over the coastline. It glares out menacingly over the Irish Sea, daring would-be attackers. While not on the scale of the Dunnottar, Tantallon or Culzean Castles of this land, this little collection of stones has its own curious story to tell. Originally the site of a medieval fortification (Adair Castle), this was raided and torched by those pesky McCullochs and what we see today dates from the 1500s. The castle is inaccessible and not open to the public (there’s precious little there). But wander around the coastline and you’ll be rewarded with some fabulous vantage points of what does remain.
By now breathless and with historic stats bouncing around willy-nilly in my head, I draw my weekend to a close with a long-awaited jaunt down to the Mull of Galloway. The most southerly point in Scotland and with views over to Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man, there’s no better place to end my D&G experience. Passing tropical botanic gardens and a mild climate aided by the Gulf Stream, this is a quite unique stretch of the west coastline.
It’s rugged and gentle at the same time. Single track roads blocked by cattle, luscious fields and the odd beautiful sandy beach make the drive out to the end-of-the-road lighthouse a memorable one. I love how, with Cape Wrath in the north-west and the Mull here, Stevenson lighthouses mark the western corner points of Scotland. Wildly different landscapes they may be but it’s nice to see they have something in common.
You can also listen to my regional highlights on Radio Scotland covering history, the outdoors and more by clicking play below:
Do you #LoveDandG yet?
Dumfries and Galloway is heaving with history, as all of the above sites will testify. Do I recommend seeing it all in a day or two? Not at all. I’m mad, that’s all. Do it at your own pace, have a Cream of Galloway ice cream or two along the way and be sure to spread the word – there’s a lot more going on down here than the guidebooks would have you believe!