People scurrying north along the M74 rarely turn off at Gretna and head for Dumfries and Galloway. This is a pity, as it is a wonderful area that can match anything in Scotland for beautiful scenery, grandeur and history. There are more than 200 miles of coastline with small coves, neat fishing ports, towering cliffs and wonderful sandy beaches. There also are beautiful villages, old abbeys and castles, vibrant towns and country roads that meander through soft, verdant scenery or climb up into bleak moorland landscapes that were made for walking. In the fields you will see herds of the region’s own indigenous cattle - the Belted Galloways, so called because they have a wide white band running round their bodies.
Dumfries is the largest town in the area, and is a lovely place, full of old red sandstone buildings and great shopping facilities. It is where Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, is buried, and any trip to Scotland should include a visit to St Michael’s Kirkyard to see his mausoleum. Kirkcudbright, because of the quality of light found there, has had an artists’ colony since Victorian times, and is a gracious place full of Regency and Georgian buildings. Wigtown is Scotland’s official book town, and Stranraer, with its ferries, is a gateway to Northern Ireland. Then there’s Lockerbie, forever associated with the air disaster of 1988.
The area contains three former counties - Dumfriesshire, Kirkcudbrightshire and Wigtownshire, and each one has its own particular charm. You can explore beautiful Nithsdale in Dumfriesshire, for instance, and visit Drumlanrig Castle, one of the homes of the Duke of Queensberry and Buccleuch. Kirkcudbrightshire was the birthplace of John Paul Jones, founder of the American navy, and Wigtownshire was where Christianity was introduced into Scotland.
Surrounding the fertile fields and picturesque towns of coastal Galloway are the high hills and bleak moorland that cut off Dumfries and Galloway from the rest of Scotland. Because of this, the area was almost independent of Scottish kings in medieval times, and was ruled by a succession of families, from the ancient Lords of Galloway to the mighty Douglases. All have left their mark in stone, such as Devorgilla’s Bridge in Dumfries, and the mighty Threave Castle, built on an island in the River Dee.
Then there are the abbeys, for, like the Borders, this was an area much favoured by medieval monks. At New Abbey are the ruins of a monastery that gave the word sweetheart to the English language; at Glenluce - a word that means valley of light - are the wonderful ruins of Glenluce Abbey; and south of Kirkcudbright is Dundrennan, where Mary Stuart - better known as Mary, Queen of Scots - spent her last night on Scottish soil. The castles are equally as impressive. Drumlanrig, Threave, Cardoness, Caerlaverock; the names trip off the tongue, and go to the very heart of Scotland’s history.
From the middle of August to the end of October each year, the area holds its Gaelforce Festival, bringing together musical events, literary festivals, traditional Scottish entertainment, concerts, drama and art.
This part of Scotland has a mild climate, and at one time the coastline was nicknamed the Scottish Riviera. First-time visitors are always surprised to see palm trees flourishing in cottage gardens near the coast, or in the grand, formal gardens such as Logan Botanic Garden or Castle Kennedy Garden in Wigtownshire. But then, Dumfries and Galloway has always been full of surprises.