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Issue 18 - Dumfries & Galloway – castles, books and single malts

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 18
January 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Dumfries & Galloway – castles, books and single malts

Tom Gillespie explores Scotland's hidden Dumfries & Galloway

By the time the Scottish Highlands reach the Solway Firth and the Irish Sea in Scotland’s southwest corner, they’ve lost their harshness and austerity.

The rocky Highland crags that shout defiantly at the sky have turned to rolling green hills that invite visitors in like a mother’s arms. The uncertain wildness of Skye and Glen Coe has become the welcoming charm of market villages like Newton Stewart and quaint fishing ports like Portpatrick.

Officially known as Dumfries and Galloway, the region is two hours south of Glasgow and Edinburgh and borders northern England to the south east. Lying relatively undiscovered off the main routes to the northern cities, the region offers a more subtle Scotland than travellers find as the routes continue north to the Highlands.

Small farms, with their ever-present rock walls, known there as dry stand dykes, dominate a landscape where agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of the area’s land use. Forests cover another 25 per cent.

“It’s a gentler landscape, more welcoming than farther north,” says Lorna Young, a native who had returned to the area after having lived in the fast pace of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, for years. Her red hair and fair skin hint of Ireland, which lies within sight to the west on a clear day.

“When you live in the big cities, you never get to experience the peace and quiet of this area. I never really relaxed until I came back.”

Ivan Bell returned in 1993 after he lived and worked for 30 years in Borneo and Malaysia for a major construction equipment company. Today, he owns and operates the 18th century Anwoth Hotel, a welcoming inn in Gatehouse of Fleet a village with a population of about 1,000.

With his Celtic look and friendly brogue, it’s hard to imagine Bell living anywhere except Scotland and doing anything except enjoying pouring malt whiskies for those who appreciate a good dram. The hotel’s bar has Scotland’s largest selection of single-malt whiskies on dispense – 300 and counting.

“Water is the key to a good malt,” says Bell, obviously an expert on the subject. And his favourite?

“I’m partial to any free one,” the husky Scotsman says with his typical good-hearted smile. “Actually, my favourite is a 12 year old Dalmore,” he says, turning to point to a black label hidden among the many other upturned bottles hanging from every conceivable part of the large bottle-walled booth behind the bar.

The bar’s most popular single malt is the 16 year old Lagavulin.

“We have a 66,” he says, referring to the alcohol content. (Most single malts are about 43 percent alcohol.) “But we only allow two per night.”

A moderately knowledgeable single-malt man myself, I accepted Bell’s offer of a 12 year old Glen Ord, the day’s special, and sipped it as he talked about the logistics of collecting all the different single malts. He’s constantly searching out new ones.

“I’d immediately know if it was one I didn’t have,” he says, when questioned about how he keeps up with new additions. “Everybody knows about the collection, and sometime people bring me new ones.”

Farther west, the village of Wigtown lies like a gold nugget in a prospector’s pan, hidden off the beaten path and waiting to be uncovered by the discriminating wanderer.

The town’s friendliness and welcoming feel belies its infamous past, when two women were put to death in 1685 as Covenanters, members of a movement which for 50 years defied the claim of the king to be head of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The Wigtown Martyrs, as the two were later known, were tied to stakes in the tidal River Bladnoch and drowned by the rising water. Their gravestones lie in the local churchyard, and a monument was later erected on a nearby hill to honour them.

In 1997, the village took on the less gruesome title of Scotland’s official Book Town because of the number of second hand bookshops in the area. Not content with being known simply as the nation’s book town, it also holds the distinction of having the widest street in Scotland – lined, of course, with bookstores.

I stopped counting at 20 – in the village of slightly more than 1,000 people. One of the 20, The Book Shop, houses Scotland’s largest stock of second-hand books. A free cup of coffee and a warm stove await would-be buyers.

Shaun Bythell, the store’s owner, took me down rows of history, travel, railways, crafts, gardening, philosophy, theology, biography, fiction, poetry and military – and those were just the store’s specialties. His shoulder-length ringlet hair, boyish look and mischievous smile could have fooled any customer looking for the owner. Only his Ben Franklin glasses gave the slightest hint of his proprietorial endeavours.

Around Wigtown Bay to the east, at the mouth of the Solway Firth, the fishing and farming town of Kirkcudbright wraps around the river as it enters the bay. Kirkcudbright is one of those town names that few visitors pronounce correctly on their first try.

“Ker-coo-bree,” a lady politely told me. By midmorning, the town’s fishing fleet rested on their keels in the River Dee’s mud bottom, left high and dry by a tidal river that maroons boats completely out of the water like beached whales, tied two and three deep, when the tide is out.

I stopped to talk to an elderly lady who was enjoying the morning sun on the chilly late-April morning. She sat on a bench just off the town centre’s garden park, which doubles as MacLellan Castle’s front yard. Her family had always lived there, she said, and she would happily die there, she was sure.

On a nearby narrow side street, a grandmother pushed her young grandson in a baby stroller, the seat completely covered with transparent plastic, snapped along each edge to form a protective cocoon around the infant. A fast-moving rain shower didn’t seem to phase either of the two, and it was quickly gone.

Like all of Scotland, weather in the south west, good and bad, can come and go like gossip. Sleet can fall in April as likely as rain, but warm winds from nearby Ireland can quickly push out rain clouds.

Fifteen miles north, near the town of Castle Douglas, Threave Castle sits like a giant stone box turned on its end on a small island in the middle of the River Dee. The massive 14th century tower was built by Archibald the Grim, Lord of Galloway, and was later the stronghold of the Black Douglases. Today, only visitors storm the castle, making the three-quarter-mile walk through pasturelands, guarded now only by sheep. Large rock weights dangling on chains, history’s first automatic door closers, ensure that pasture gates remain shut.

Dumfries, the region’s largest town and capital, clings to each side of the Nith River, its banks dotted with pink cherry trees. High Street, historically the town’s main route, is now blocked off to traffic, forming an open square and plaza bustling with shoppers.

Like all the area’s towns, which have escaped the curse of suburban shopping malls, the downtown is alive and vibrant. Spike-haired teenagers mix congenially with suited businessmen and middle-aged women pushing two-wheeled shopping carts.

But even among the bustle, Dumfries welcomes visitors. This is Robert Burns country, and the town is full of references to Scotland’s national poet.

The Globe Inn, on the lower end of High Street in the centre of town, was Burns’ old haunt, and some of his poetry can still be seen there, inscribed by Burns himself with a diamond on his bedroom windows. The inn also offers his favourite chair. But would-be poets should beware. If they sit in the chair, they must recite a line of Burns or suffer the penalty of buying a round in the bar.

Physically, the inn has changed little since Burns’ time, but it’s no stuffy museum. Just as they did then, locals still gather for food and drink.

On Saturdays in Dumfries, a makeshift market appears, with booths erected that day from pipes and plastic awnings and clamps and stands in a downtown area near the river. Today, like centuries earlier, stalls are filled with fruits and vegetables and clothing and tools and games.

But now, engine parts have replaced horseshoes and light fixtures have supplanted candles and there are more electric blankets than hand-woven quilts. But like almost everywhere in Scotland, the old and new in Dumfries live in harmony.

South of Dumfries, Caerlaverock Castle overlooks the Solway Firth, the bay separating Scotland’s southwest peninsula from England. Built in 1277 with a unique triangular plan, it stands as one of the best surviving examples of medieval castle building in Scotland.

Much of the castle’s turbulent history was due to its proximity to England – almost within sight across the bay on a clear day – which brought it constantly into border conflicts, particularly with England’s Edward I, who used Caerlaverock as the target for his wrath against Scottish resistance.

After the 1640 Civil War, the moated castle fell into ruin, but it still remains one of Scotland’s finest fortresses and the epitome of the medieval stronghold. Today only siege warfare re-enactments offer a hint of the castle’s bloody past.

In the region and throughout the Scottish Borders with England, ancient abbey ruins dot the landscape, giant monuments to a religion of another time. South of Dumfries, halfway to the Solway Firth, stands Sweetheart Abbey, the ruins of a late 13th and early 14th century Cistercian abbey founded in 1273 by Devorgilla, Lady of Galloway, in memory of her husband John Balliol, Edward I’s puppet King of Scotland.

At her death in 1290, Devorgilla was one of the richest women of her time. She was buried near the abbey in a silver and ivory casket containing her husband’s embalmed heart, which she carried with her all her life after his death. Their love and her devotion to carrying her beloved husband’s heart are the origins of our modern term ‘sweetheart,’ I was told by an abbey attendant there.

Now only high stone walls exist where an elaborate domed roof once covered wood and stone floors, replaced today by manicured grass and ancient inscribed grave slabs, once built into the abbey’s floor. Like all the abbeys along the Scottish border with England, Sweetheart Abbey remains both a religious icon and a tribute to its medieval architects.

Too soon, I had to leave Dumfries & Galloway. But I had found a subtle, less-travelled part of Scotland that, unfortunately, many visitors miss on their dash from England to Edinburgh and Glasgow and on to the Highlands farther north.

I had discovered that all of those things that make Scotland a great destination – its history, beauty and warm welcome – extended father south than I had ever expected.