Dumfries and Galloway is one of Scotland's most beautiful - and diverse - destinations. There is an abundance of wildlife, hiking trails and woodland to explore, as well as pretty villages and vast lochs to admire. Here's what I love most about the Highlands of the Lowlands.
The dew is still glistening on the grass as I set out for an early morning drive through Galloway Forest Park. The sun casts a soft light on the heather-covered hills, and in the distance the massive antlers of a red deer are peeking out of the valley. A pair of red kites circling overhead completes this quintessentially Scottish scene so reminiscent of the Highlands.
However, I’m only 50 miles from the English border, in Dumfries and Galloway. People often rush past this region as they barrel up the A74 towards the country’s famous lochs and mountains. It’s a shame, for Scotland’s south-west corner holds some of its most beautiful scenery, from the sandy strands of the Solway Coast to the ancient woodlands and lush rounded peaks of the Southern Uplands. In between are the atmospheric ruins of castles and abbeys, exotic gardens and delightful wee towns to explore.
Covering 300 square miles, Galloway Forest Park is the largest forest park in Britain. Because of its stunning landscape of rugged moorland, mountains and lochs, it is often called ‘the Highlands of the Lowlands’.
A great variety of wildlife thrives here, and the park is a haven for endangered species such as the golden eagle and Scottish wild cat. Three visitor centres have information on forest trails, cycling and hiking routes. A scenic stretch of the A712 between Newton Stewart and New Galloway, known as The Queen’s Way, passes several park highlights.
At the Wild Goat Park you can see a herd of this native species grazing along the roadside. The Red Deer Range offers a hilltop viewing platform and ranger-led tours in season, the better to observe the herd of native deer. The Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre, on the shores of a lovely loch, has an interactive wildlife exhibit. Nearby, Loch Ken is the hub of the Galloway Red Kite Trail, which leads to viewing places where you’re likely to spot these magnificent birds of prey.
The Scottish Riviera
Dumfries and Galloway enjoys another nickname: the Scottish Riviera. The Gulf Stream laps at its 200-mile coastline, which runs along the Solway Firth to the south and the Irish Sea to the west. It brings a milder climate than in other parts of Scotland, and shows itself off in the region’s beautiful gardens.
Out on the western peninsula, Logan Botanic Garden is Scotland’s leading exotic garden, with unusual plants from the southern hemisphere. You can stroll through the colourful walled garden, palm groves and eucalyptus trees, and a giant rhubarb-like gunnera bog.
Afterwards, continue on down the peninsula to the Mull of Galloway, Scotland’s southernmost tip. Climb to the top of the lighthouse, which was built on the edge of the cliffs in 1830, for fabulous coastal views.
Near Stranraer, Castle Kennedy Gardens are romantically set between two lochs, surrounding the ruined castle. Among its highlights are the 21 Champion trees (the largest or tallest of their kind), a two-acre lily pond and a renowned collection of rhododendrons. The Scottish Rhododendron Festival is held here in April/May.
Outside the thriving market town of Castle Douglas, Threave Garden and Estate has something for everyone. There are glasshouses and gardens, tours of Threave House, woodland walks, an osprey viewing platform and Scotland’s only bat reserve. A short ferry ride takes you to the ruins of Threave Castle, on an island in the River Dee.
Castle Douglas is also home to Nikos Greek Restaurant, a personal favourite. Whether I come for a leisurely mezze and drinks, or a meal of traditional dishes, the food is always delicious and authentic, based on home-grown produce and served with a warm welcome from Chef Nikos.
In the footsteps of Rabbie Burns
Dumfries, the region’s largest town, is known as the 'Queen of the South'. Set along the River Nith, with handsome red sandstone buildings and bridges, it was the last home of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. He lived here from 1791, working as an excise officer and writing some of his best-known poems, until his death five years later at age 37.
The Robert Burns Centre, housed in an 18th-century watermill along the river, has original manuscripts and memorabilia that focus on his time in Dumfries. You can also visit the Burns House where he lived, and his mausoleum in the churchyard. Afterwards, raise a glass and recite a line or two of his poetry at the Globe Inn, his favourite pub.
Prior to his move to Dumfries, Burns wrote many of his greatest poems at Ellisland Farm, the home he built for his wife Jean Armour. It stands in a picturesque spot some seven miles outside town, and holds many more artefacts and manuscripts.
Along the Solway Firth
One of the great pleasures of Dumfries and Galloway is meandering along the Solway Firth. The UK’s third-largest estuary, it forms a natural border between Scotland and England. On clear days, you can see across the water to the Lake District.
Heading south from Dumfries, stop off at New Abbey for one of Scotland’s most unusual love stories. Sweetheart Abbey was built in 1273 by Lady Dervorguilla in memory of her late husband, John Balliol. When he died, she had his heart embalmed and carried it with her always in an ivory and silver casket. The monks named the abbey in honour of her devoted love. She is buried, with the heart, in front of the high altar.
Across the River Nith are the sprawling mudflats of Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve, a haven for local wildfowl and migrating birds, and a hotspot for bird-watchers. Here too are the striking medieval ruins of Caerlaverock Castle, surrounded by its moat.
There are lovely sandy beaches at Southerness and Sandyhills. A footpath leads along this scenic stretch of the Colvend Coast to Rockcliffe, where there are rock pools to splash in when the tide is out. The two-mile Jubilee Path continues on to Kippford village.
The coast road winds inland through small towns and back towards the sea, passing the 12th-century ruins of Dundrennan Abbey. Its grey, Gothic arches make a stark contrast to the bucolic landscape. Mary, Queen of Scots spent her final night in her homeland here, before she fled to England and her tragic fate.
Five miles on is the delightful harbour town of Kirkcudbright (pronounced kir-coo-bree). A picturesque fishing port turned artists’ colony, its pastel-coloured houses have been home to painters and crafters since the late 19th century. Their works are on display at the Tolbooth Art Centre and the Harbour Cottage Gallery. Historic attractions include MacLellan’s Castle and Broughton House.
Further west, near Gatehouse of Fleet, Cardoness Castle is a well-preserved, fortified tower house with a dark past. South of Newton Stewart, Wigtown is Scotland’s National Book Town, home to many second-hand book shops and the 10-day Wigtown Book Festival, held in late September. From here, explore the peaceful Machars Peninsula and its early Christian sites around Whithorn.
Scotland’s highest village
It would be hard to find a prettier village anywhere than Moniaive. Reached by winding roads through idyllic countryside, it lies 15 miles north-west of Dumfries.
Along the main street, bright bunting flutters above the neat, whitewashed cottages and market place. Moniaive is a festival village, hosting a folk festival in May, a comic festival in June, a bluegrass festival in September, and literature, film and arts events throughout the year.
The Craigdarroch Arms is music central, with concerts and jam sessions in the bar every week. The airy Glen Whisk café and Bistro and the excellent Piccola Italia restaurant, both on the High Street, serve some of the best food in the area.
Outside Moniaive, seek out artist Andy Goldsworthy’s monumental Striding Arches, made of Dumfriesshire red sandstone. Three arches stand on hilltops at Cairnhead, while another leaps through the window of an old farm building at The Byre. You can see Goldsworthy’s egg-like cairn sculpture as you approach the village of Penpont, where he has his home and studio.
Continue on to Sanquhar, where the A’ The Airts centre features local artworks and crafts, music concerts and other events. Outside town, Crawick Multiverse is Scotland’s newest land art attraction, where artist Charles Jencks has transformed a former open cast coal mine into an impressive cosmic landscape linking the stones to the stars.
Just south of Sanquhar is the turn-off for my favourite drive in Dumfriesshire. The B797 winds up the Mennock Pass through a stunning landscape of pristine, heather-clad hills and bubbling burns. Its beauty is as spectacular as the Highlands, and indeed, it leads to Scotland’s highest village, Wanlockhead, at 467m (1,531 ft).
The Museum of Lead Mining portrays the community’s industrial past. At the Wanlockhead Inn, you can have a pint in the highest pub in Scotland. It has its own microbrewery, serving Lola Rose ales.
On my final day here, I return to Galloway Forest Park, this time at night. Thanks to its remoteness from city lights, it is one of only 14 International Dark Sky Parks in Europe. The intense, star-clustered view of the night sky is breathtaking. Although the Aurora Borealis declines to make its occasional appearance, I can still make a wish on a shooting star or two. And I wish that it won’t be long before I once again take the low road through the scenic beauty of Dumfries and Galloway.
If you're looking to experience a different side to Scotland where you can take in some of the most beautiful landscapes, pretty villages and diverse wildlife, look no further than the 'Highlands of the Lowlands' for your next getaway.
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