Where is Galloway?
So where is Galloway exactly, in relation to the rest of Scotland? Plenty of folk visit Scotland yet miss Galloway - mostly because when visitors arrive by road from the south, (or 'England' as we sometimes call it), many of them are relentlessly drawn, like so much tourist matter, to the black hole of Edinburgh. And that simile is truly touch and go, because Edinburgh is really a very attractive destination and you can understand why they are intent upon it. However, a sharp left turn just over the Scottish Border can be very rewarding because you'll discover Galloway.
Truly, I don’t think many of these Edinburgh-focused visitors to Scotland ever ask the question about where Galloway is. No, they just hurtle on northwards through the Scottish Borders. Many even ignore the old Scottish Borders’ strap-line ‘Scotland’s leading short-break destination’. (Unless they mis-read it as ‘Scotland’s leading short-bread destination. I know I do.)
In which part of Scotland is Galloway?
To us, living in the north, of course, Galloway is exotically south-west. OK, it's a minority viewpoint. We would tend to travel to Galloway via the Robert Burns Museum cafe's haggis in Alloway, Ayr, for lunch, on the way. (But that's only because we like the way they serve haggis there.) Anyway, parts of this page draw on a wee excursion we made recently down (yes, down) to South-West Scotland. We came through Ayrshire and over by the moors and high woods to drop into Newton Stewart, strung along the River Cree. The RSPB have a nature reserve, the Wood of Cree, nearby. The riverside oakwoods are just filled with birdy goings-on. And they even have pied flycatchers in the summer. (Well, I’m sorry, but that impressed me.)
Simple map here shows how visitors end up whizzing past Galloway. There's no escaping geography. (And the habits of generations of visitors.)
Galloway towns - Wigtown – stacks of books
We stayed at Wigtown – in an immaculate B&B called Brora Lodge – recommended. Galloway communities often have highly characteristic painted frontages to the houses, and a wide main street, where fairs and markets used to be held. Wigtown confirms to this pattern. It’s attractive. Unhappily, Wigtown is associated with a horrible story from the time of the Covenanters. (The 17th-century religious confrontations in Scotland were as extreme and unpleasant as any war fought in the name of religion today.) Apparently, the story goes that this mother and daughter, for their beliefs, were tied to a stake and left to drown when the tide came in. See what I mean? It’s a hopeless theme for a visitor attraction.
So, with a couple of monuments in town recalling the event, Wigtown suddenly came up with a good idea. It would become a book town. Today, it’s stuffed with bookshops. Extraordinary. It has the second biggest book festival in Scotland, held in autumn every year. It’s all terribly respectable and middle-brow. In 2011, for example, they even had one of those weird feet ‘let-fish-chew-at-your-skin’ therapies exhibiting in their food and drink tent. No, thinking about it, I didn’t get the connection either. Perhaps it was just intended to be a footnote. Or possibly it was a food and drink tent intended for fish only, but they let us in. Then again, maybe it was symbolic of being tied to a stake and nibbled by fishes when the tide came in. Gruesome. I feel sorry for the fish. Anyway, I expect in a couple of years you’ll be able to download Wigtown and its festival on your Kindle or other reading device.
From Wigtown, you can go west to explore Galloway’s gardens. That stand-by of the tourist brochure writer, the Gulf Stream, helps here. The mild airs of Galloway take the edge off the winter cold and this is appreciated by the tender plants that are found here in the Mild West – such as cabbage palms and tree ferns at, say, Logan Botanic Garden.
Parking in Galloway – we like this a lot
Anyway, what else is here? I suppose that instead of asking where is Galloway we should be asking what is Galloway about. Well, it’s got one especially endearing feature. You can park in its towns for free. Yes, unlike the punitive regime that is Edinburgh’s parking regulations, there are no grasping city authorities treating visitors with cars as cash-cows. No, the Galloway folk actually want you to park your car (sensibly in a car-park of course) then go and explore. And, frankly, it’s worth going to Galloway for that reason alone.
This easy parking feature makes, for example, the town of Kirkcudbright (pictured here) even more attractive. (Pronounce it 'kir-coo-bree'.) We like this town, for its colour and neatness and for its points of interest. Broughton House is worth a visit, especially as you feel the artist E.A Hornel, one of the Glasgow Boys, artist has just popped out and could arrive back home at any moment. (I expect, if he did, he’d be surprised to find the National Trust for Scotland had moved in. To be perfectly frank, I quickly got bored of all those paintings of twee girlies and kaleidoscopic kimonos, but probably that was just me. Nice garden though)
The harbourfront is quite interesting, at least worth a stroll, and verges on the picturesque: while there are quite a few crafty and arty little shops. The High Street Gallery is especially friendly and worth a browse. I admit I had to crouch in the foliage to take the picture here , in order to blank out the Winnebagoes / campervans parked in front of MacLellan’s Castle on the skyline in the centre of town.
On this occasion in our excursion we also took in Castle Douglas. For some time Castle Douglas has promoted itself as a ‘food town‘. It is said to have a high concentration of food related businesses in the town. Well, it certainly has three butchers and a couple of delis and some sweet shops and cafes and if you stand at one point on the main street nearly all the shops in view are called ‘Gowans’ and sell dresses for farmers’ wives (possibly).
In other words, it’s full of charm and idiosyncracy and slightly mysterious, mainly because you expect a ‘food town’ to be more obviously, well, foodie. So, the streets are not paved with pies and, to be honest, we wondered up and down and never really found anywhere we fancied for lunch. This was just a case of having our expectations set too high perhaps. (Anyway, according to a chatty if gloomy local we met, Tesco is doubling the size of its outlet in the town – so that’s going to finish off a few food businesses. Oh dear.) But, like these other Galloway places, the main street is well worth a look. Definitely. And they do have food events on an annual basis.
Galloway touring is all about South-West Scotland and the advantages of the gentle and relaxing touring that can be enjoyed here. This page covers some of the places you’ll find as you tootle around. (I mean, as you go around the area at a slow pace. This is important.) We started from Wigtown, quite a long way west. After some rural meandering – a back road from Creetown – we found ourselves at Gatehouse-of-Fleet. This is just a nice wee place. There is plenty of background information at the Mill on the Fleet, a former bobbin mill overlooking the River Fleet. Stop me if I get too technical here but bobbins were important thingies in the textile industry of old. Alternatively, ‘Bobbin Mill’ is a made up term that b & b business, cafes and pubs call themselves to sound more rural and authentic
(Pictured here) Gatehouse-of-Fleet, a pleasant little Galloway town. Well, they all are, really.
I also hope the tourism folk promoting the area don’t mind me saying this: but part of the attraction of Galloway touring is that the area never seems to have totally committed itself to tourism, so that the towns don’t feel like dedicated tourist towns – I’m thinking here of, say, Callander or Pitlochry in the Highlands, both fine places, but very dependent on the important industry of tourism. There are no equivalents in Galloway. This is a plus point. Yes, really. In spite of the Gem Rock Museum, the Red Kite Feeding Station, the Cream of Galloway visitor centre, plus the gardens, the castles, the forest walks, the nature reserves and much more, I’ve always felt that Galloway is quite happy if it could just get on with its agriculture and its forestry and its little shops.
(Pictured here) Galloway is where you can take up cow-spotting as a pastime. Highest marks are awarded for seeing a field of the local Belted Galloways, so named because, well, you can probably work that one out for yourself. In our experience of this pleasant hobby (suitable for all the family), spotting Belted Galloways in other parts of Scotland can also be enormously satisfying. (Note to self: must get some new hobbies.) 'Belties' are used as logos for the area sometimes and turn up as souvenirs - soft toys, pictures etc. Buy yourself a cuddly beltie when you visit. Sorry about the all-black one in the picture. Still, she must be so proud of her authentic offspring.
Tootling in Galloway
Having said that Galloway doesn’t seem dependent on visitors, you can be sure there is still plenty to see in Galloway. But it is essential to adopt tootling mode. By tootling, I mean going slowly. If, for instance, the little town of Castle Douglas has an attractive air of the 1950s about it, almost old-fashioned but in a good way, then your Galloway touring speed should be equally 1950s. (I could let you have '1970s' if you are quite young.) You have enough of a choice of rural back roads in which to discover the fun of relaxed Galloway touring. Mind you, after a day on the back-road loops behind Gatehouse-of-Fleet or Creetown, or traversing the Raiders’ Road, a Forestry Commission road between Clatteringshaws and New Galloway, you may find that returning to the hurly-burly of the A75, the main east-west artery, is a bit of a shock!
That’s why the photograph here (it might be below if you are on a laptop) is especially poignant. In the distance is the Big Water of Fleet Viaduct. This used to carry a railway from Dumfries west to Stranraer, the ferry gateway to Ireland. It closed in the 1960s. Now get this. Just to make sure that the railway would never open again (cynics say), the British Army blew up the neighbouring Little Water of Fleet viaduct as part of a training exercise. Imagine; and it wasn’t even at war with anyone. So, no east-west rail link may explain some of the heavy traffic on today’s main arterial route. And the industrial archaeology of the ‘Port Road’, as the old railway used to be called, is still in places a poignant part of the hill landscape of Galloway.
Galloway Forest Park
What do you do if you have miles and miles of not hugely productive moorland and poor soil? In Scotland, you plant lots of trees on it. You swaddle the landscape in acre after acre of muffling conifers. The Forestry Commission is the government agency charged with this task – turning trees into a cash crop. What makes it OK is that, these days, monoculture is diluted a bit, at least round the edges, and the Commission have a keen awareness of their role as a resource for countryside recreation. In short, they let people in to the forest and even make paths, put up signs and interpret the place – in short, they positively encourage everyone to lose themselves in the trees.
Dark Skies - a bandwagon designation?
In some places, for instance, they are especially good at mountain bike tracks. Everywhere, they sign the car parks, the long walks, the short walks, the views. They do interpretation centres and campsites. And in the 96,600 hectares, or 373 square miles of the Galloway Forest Park they have done something unusual in Scotland (and beyond): they have created a Dark Sky Park.
Using a measure called the Sky Quality Meter scale that goes from 1 to 24, where 24 is a photographer’s dark room and 8 might be a typical reading from, say, Edinburgh at night (ie not very dark), the relatively unpopulated and therefore unlit Galloway Forest Park gets readings of 21.5 to 23. So, that’s pretty dark. Actually, it’s bumping into your partner and tripping over tree-roots dark. You feel you can fall into the sky on a good night, there are so many stars. (There are very few other dark sky parks in the whole world - though I have a bad feeling this is a bandwagon type designation – everyone will want one soon.) Watch this space. Outer space, really.
Galloway Touring – summary
(Pictured here) Upland Galloway looking south to 'gasp' English Lake District hills on the horizon. To tell the truth, it was a toss-up between this picture and a picture of a viewing place on the Dark Sky Park mentioned above. But this is the more interesting one. This is Galloway, after all - the South of Scotland. Across the Solway Firth lies another nation. (And this site also features an English town. Take a look at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Simply one of our favourite places.)
The best features of Galloway touring are the upcountry loops. To be blunt, the Solway coast is OK, though if you are a curlew or a redshank, or just about any other wading bird with a long thin probing beak, then it is five star. But if you take a Galloway south to north cross-section, then this goes from tame coast to productive fields, attractive woods, picturesque towns, then up to upland grazings and moor, all backed by rolling lonely hills. And it’s on the back roads that you get the sense of Galloway of old: smugglers, Covenanters, lonely shepherds and all. In short, it’s all just pleasant and satisfying.
So, that's our take on Galloway. Sometimes overlooked - but well worth a look.
Right-oh, so we mentioned that there are lots of birds in Galloway. We didn't mention that Robert Burns lived in Galloway - though we did say how easy it was to combine a visit to 'Burns Country' with a trip to Galloway. Finally, Mary Queen of Scots spent her last night in Scotland, in Galloway, at Dundrennan Abbey. All of which justifies the links below. (Tortuous? Yes, I thought so too.)