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Scotland Magazine Issue 2
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Dumfries & Galloway
Broadcaster and writer Fiona Armstrong, who lives and works on the English border, takes a look at the fascination of this unspoiled and magnificent part of the country
This is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. But, then I would say that, wouldn’t I? Living here in the eastern stretches of the region, on the banks of the glorious Border Esk.
It’s where green-clad fly-fishers come to try for silvery sea-trout and, truly, if you’ve never eaten a fish from a Dumfries and Galloway river, you’ve never lived! Pulled from the water, pink and moist and needing only a brisk fry in a buttery pan and a twist of lemon.
The spring fishing beckons now; the long nights are passing and we look forward to brighter days. The snowdrops are passing, to be followed by the bluebells and eventually the ubiquitous rhododendrons.
I live just a few miles north of the border with England. It’s definitely Scotland, but 500 years ago, this area was called the Debateable Lands, because no-one knew if it belonged to England or Scotland.
Back then our ancestors didn’t spend their time writing. No, in those days, they had many more exciting things to do – like attacking the English.
Armstrongs, Bells, Moffats, Maxwells, Crichtons, Irvings and Johnstones; these were just some of the families in this part of the world; folk who regularly rode across the divide, wearing steel bonnets and bearing long lances, to wreak havoc on the other side.
The Armstrongs, in particular, were a fearsome lot. According to the historian, George MacDonald Fraser, at the height of their powers, they could put 3,000 fighting men in the saddle. He also says they did more damage by foray than any two families in either England or Scotland. But I boast – back to the point.
They raided, at first, to survive; it later became a way of life. These were the border reivers; the independent, lawless clans who cared nothing for authority, save that of family and chief.
According to reports, they were ‘a perverse and crooked people’. They were certainly condemned by the governments of both lands. Yet, in a perverse way, it suited the powers that were to have these wild men guarding the edges of their kingdoms.
Here in Dumfries and Galloway, history is key to understanding the area. Here are bloody tales and fantastic stories of daring and deception. Braveheart would have nothing on these border men and women.
Take, for example, the legendary Johnnie, Laird of Gilnockie. Johnnie was an Armstrong and a freebooter, someone who ran a protection racket across the border, from Canonbie to Newcastle.
So powerful was he that the Scottish King decided to act. He invited Johnnie to meet him and Johnnie went, richly attired and surrounded by his followers. He thought it was an invitation to dine. It proved to be a bloody feast, as all they found was a noose and a grave.
Or there was the legendary feud between the Maxwells and the Johnstones. The two families fought each other over the years, ending in a bloodbath at the Battle of Dryfe Sands in Lockerbie. It was the last great border battle and one where 11-year-old boys were put into the saddle to fight.
For a deadly feud was just that. You may have forgotten how it actually started, but one thing was certain, if you inherited one in this part of the world, it could last forever.
In fact revenge was so much a part of life here that even the church had to acknowledge it. When a baby boy was christened, his right hand was left out of the ceremony – ‘all the better that he could strike unhallowed blows on the enemy.’
Admittedly, things are rather quieter these days, but folk still pride themselves on being from fighting stock.
When the freedom fighter William Wallace wanted help, he came to Dumfriesshire to raise a small army. Robert the Bruce had his castle in Lochmaben and in 1306, he killed his rival for the Scottish throne, John Comyn, on the altar of Dumfries’ Greyfriar’s Church.
And, of course, it’s often pointed out that while the Highlanders were fighting each other, the Lowlanders were holding the line against the English.
A lot of people think Scotland begins and ends at Glasgow and Edinburgh. And, of course, the Highlands are magnificent and the history there is undisputably bold and brave. But when the tourists just head north, they’re missing out on another, vital part of Scotland’s past.
Dumfries and Galloway has been called Scotland’s best-kept holiday secret. But it’s got much more than that to boast about.
For a start, this is the place that gave Scotland its name. In the fifth century, Irish tribes sailed across here in tiny boats, settling on the coast and pushing east and northwards, taking their name, the Scotiae or Scots, with them.
Scotland’s first Christian monument is on the Solway Coast. The country’s first Christian Church, Candida Casa, was founded around 400 AD and St Ninian was the first bishop. In medieval times, the south coastal was a favourite route for the pilgrims, with thousands visiting Whithorn Priory, including several monarchs.
There is other history, too, here. It was from these southern shores that Mary Queen of Scots was helped in her flight to exile and it was here that Bonnie Prince Charlie gained vital support for his campaigns against the English.
Reiving names apart, here were some of the greatest Scottish families. Clans like the Douglases who helped shape the course of Scottish history, had a base in Dumfries and Galloway, at magnificent Drumlanrig castle. The Maxwells, powerful kingmakers, lived on the Solway at Caerlaverock Castle.
Then there are so many firsts. The first penny newspaper in Scotland was started here in 1643. The Eskdale and Liddesdale Advertiser still prints away. The world’s first submarine was made near Annan; Europe’s first operation under anaesthetic was carried out in 1846 in Dumfries.
There are other claims, too. Scotland’s oldest brass band is at Langholm. Britain’s oldest Douglas Fir is at Drumlanrig Castle. The highest village is at Wanlockhead, the world’s narrowest hotel at Moffat.
Duchess Bridge at Mouswald Grange is the tallest in Scotland. Orcharton Tower is the only cylindrical tower in Scotland. The Motte of Urr at Dalbeatttie is the largest and best-preserved Norman motte and bailey earthworks in Britain.
Writers have found inspiration in these very lands, not least Scotland’s greatest poet. Though he was born in Ayrshire, The Bard spent most of his life in and around Dumfries. Robbie Burns famously wrote The Selkirk Grace at Kircudbright and Scots Wha Hae at Gatehouse.
Sir Walter Scott, who came from the borders, based many of his characters on local people here. The historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan. The author JM Barrie, of Peter Pan fame, was schooled in Dumfries. Gavin Maxwell, he of otters and Ring of Bright Water fame, came from Wigtownshire. The 20th century poet, Hugh McDiarmid, hailed from Langholm.
The man who invented tarmac, John Loudon MacAdam, is buried in Moffat. James Clerk Maxwell, the physicist who paved the way for electricity and space, was from Parton. John Paul Jones, founder of the US Navy, came from Kirkbean. Even Merlin the Wizard is thought to have hailed from Moffat.
The world’s first pedal cycle was apparently invented here, so, when you come, you’ll have no excuse not to get on your bike. Better still, use your legs. The Southern Upland Way is the longest pathway in the country. It spans 212 miles from Portpatrick to Cockburnspath; it touches 16 communities and features a wealth of visitor interests attractions and activities. For details of what that has to offer, go to www.southernuplandway.com. It’s a stunning web site that shows the outdoor enthusiast what’s available along the route.
As for my own suggestions about where to go, here they are …
Visit Caerlavrock, Britain’s only triangular castle. On the Solway Coast, it’s spectacular not just for its history and atmosphere, but because it’s surrounded by an amazing seaside nature reserve.
Or head for the Logan Botanic Garden with its vast range of tropical plants and palms, fed by the Gulf Stream – and all this on a chilly Scottish shore!
Go to romantic Sweetheart Abbey to hear the story of Lady Devorgilla, a woman heartbroken by the death of her beloved husband. She loved him so greatly that she had his heart embalmed and carried it about with her in a silver casket – and so the word ‘sweetheart’ entered the English language.
And while you’re feeling romantic, visit Gretna Green, wedding capital of the world. Just on the border between England and Scotland, this was traditionally the home of runaway lovers, for unlike England, you could marry here without parental consent.
In the old days, thousands of thwarted couples made the romantic dash north of the border to tie the knot over the anvil, often with angry guardians in hot pursuit. They still come today to the blacksmith’s shops, though there are rarely angry relatives in tow.
Threave Garden in Castle Douglas is delightful all year round. Best known for its spectacular spring daffodils, the Victorian house, which opens to the public later this year, is home to The National Trust for Scotland’s School of Practical Gardening. The adjoining estate has many interesting walks – including a 2.5km estate trail which guides visitors through a variety of landscapes – plus a wildfowl refuge and wetland, important for plants, breeding wading birds and wintering wildfowl. Now there is the Countryside Centre in the old stables, highlighting nature conservation, horticulture, forestry and agriculture at Threave.
Take a drive down the 200 miles or so of Solway Coast, visiting Wigtown Bay and the Barnacle geese. Try the juicy mussels at a coastal hostelry, or head for the Mull of Galloway for a fantastic view into England.
If conflict is your thing, reiving sites are a must-see. Visit the Armstrong museum at Langholm for a taste of reiver history. Or there’s Lochwood Tower near Lockerbie for the Johnstones and for the Moffats, there’s the darkly named Devil’s Beeftub at Moffat, or the beautiful round-shaped Orchardton Tower for the Maxwells.
Near the Devil’s Beeftub is the Grey Mare’s Tail, a 61m (200ft) waterfall in a hillside near Moffat. The area is rich in wild flowers and geological interest and there is a herd of wild goats. A new Visitor Centre offers a CCTV facility, which gives excellent views of a peregrine falcon nest site and a panoramic view of hillside features.
In the forests and rivers, you’ll see red deer, otters, oyster catchers and Galloway cattle, the local ‘belties’, with their distinctive white band round the middle. At this time of year, watch out for the gaily coloured pheasants stepping out, confident now the shooting season is at an end.
Try the events – the August Border Gathering of border clans, when Elliots, Armstrongs, Bells and others get together to proudly raise their banners. Go to the World Gird and Cleek championships at Parton (I don’t know quite what it is but it sounds interesting!). Take a drink at the Oktober Beerfest, or dance away with Gaelforce, the traditional Celtic festival.
If museums are your thing, there’s Shambellie House for a fascinating collection of historical dress. Visit the Creetown Gem Rock Museum, or the Camera Obscura at Dumfries. Or, see the Bhuddist temple at Eskdalemuir, a vividly coloured centre set against the fir-clad Dumfriesshire hills.
We’ve 31 golf courses amid spectacular scenery, Scotland’s National Book Town at Wigtown, and an artist’s haven at fishing port Kircudbright, the place that inspired artists EA Hornel and the renowned Glasgow Boys to put brush to canvas.
Are there any drawbacks? Well, the valley of Eskdalemuir is thought one of the wettest places around. And yes, we have midges but where in Scotland don’t they? But just don’t all come here at once.
It is a pretty well-kept secret, but we do allow a few folk in. As an Armstrong ancestor once said, when next in Bonnie Scotland, come visit us!