Take my car keys and go to Dumfries and Galloway. At Once!

by Robin McKelvie, 27th November 2021
Devorgilla Bridge| Dumfries
Take my car keys and go to Dumfries and Galloway. At Once!

Dumfries and Galloway reminds me of what Bill Bryson wrote about often overlooked Durham: “You’ve never been to Durham? Good God, man, you must go at once! Please – take my car’.” I feel the same way about seriously underrated Dumfries and Galloway. So please take my metaphorical car keys and head for Dumfries and Galloway. At once!

Arriving back in Dumfries and Galloway I’m instantly reminded of one of its greatest charms – the warm, engaging people. Mike Harris of Criffel Coaches is waiting for me at Dumfries station; on time, yes, but, even more importantly with a beaming smile and good cheer. “I hope you’ll like it here. It’s a great region,” he smiles. I do and it is.

Dumfries and Galloway love affair

My own love affair with Scotland’s most southerly region stretches back over two decades. I’ve been here with my kids bashing around joyously in a motorhome from beach to glorious beach. I’ve yomped through the wilds for a week on the Southern Upland Way; careered down the steep Glentrool hillsides on a mountain bike; danced on a stag weekend in Dumfries and followed the Burns revelry vibe; escaped to Knockinaam Lodge for a romantic break with my wife, bubbled away in an outdoor hot tub in the Rhins of Galloway another time; took a train to Scotland’s highest village on yet another trip. I keep coming back.

There is just something about Dumfries and Galloway. Clearly, there must be. As a travel writer who has been to over 100 countries I keep returning to this remarkable corner of my homeland. Truly remarkable corner. We’re talking brooding hills and unforgiving moors to match the Highlands, the kind of sweeping beaches you thought you only got in brochures, and swathes of thick forest fit to hide an outlaw. An outlaw king even – and they did. This is Robert the Bruce country.

My love affair with the region stretches back over 20 years and on each visit there’s something new to discover.

Excellent food

My memories are etched into my brain; my heart and soul too. Oh, and yes my stomach. I’m dreaming now of a boat-fresh seafood feast in a pub on the Portpatrick waterfront, seagulls squawking above and lobster calling below as I tuck in, pint of local ale in hand. I’m dreaming no longer now – I’m back in the moment on this trip in Dumfries at Casa Mia. This brilliant bolthole was recommended to me by Nick Morris of the Station House Cookery School in Kirkcudbright. He was spot on as are his cookery courses. As is the salmon they cure and smoke at Casa Mia, and the delicious beef fillet that followed.

You’ll eat well in Dumfries and Galloway. I always do. In fact I also eat brilliantly at The Globe on this trip. Robert Burns’ old howff has been superbly revamped. It’s a now a fitting testament to the great man, but also a startling place to eat with two chefs who’ve worked at the two Michelin star Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles. How about a langoustine risotto with fresh white crab, spiced with fragrant, striking saffron? Utterly delicious.

The recently refurbished Globe Inn offers food far superior to what Burns himself would have eaten!

On this adventure even the hotel restaurant at the Cairndale Hotel and Leisure Club rustles up an excellent seafood starter and local sirloin main. The Cairndale proves an ideal bolthole, handily located and welcoming, with a pool too. My room exceeds expectations – I think that’s quite a Dumfries and Galloway thing – with a wee sofa area, a proper wooden desk for working and a spa bath with bubbles to ease muscles strained by walking every inch of Dumfries.

And you should walk around Dumfries. There is a great self-guided walking tour that connects a flurry of sites associated with Burns. I follow it, his verse soaring through my heart, and it leads me to a final stop at the Robert Burns Centre down on the lifeblood River Nith. After learning more about his own love affair with Dumfries and Galloway I wander with his ghost along the river banks admiring the sturdy sandstone Devorgilla Bridge, named after another of Dumfries and Galloway’s most celebrated historic figures.

Robert Burns spent the last years of his life in Dumfries and there are several sites to visit to learn about the Bard.

Historical roots

History runs deep, of course, in Dumfries and Galloway. We’re talking the UK’s only triangular castle at Caerlaverock, epic ruined abbeys, early Christian sites and back to Robert the Bruce. I love that you can literally stumble upon history. Once hiking from Knockinaam Lodge along the coastal cliffs north to Portpatrick I chanced upon Dunskey Castle. It was just me, the ruins, the swirling ghosts and the diving gannets. Sublime.

This trip was a short one ‘just’ checking out Dumfries and also popping for a day into Kirkcudbright. I love this wee riverside oasis of artists and their galleries, of pastel-hued facades and grand sandstone buildings. The Galloway Hoard, a mind-boggling hoard of silver and gold buried in Viking times, is the star attraction at Kirkcudbright Galleries. It’s here until at least summer 2022, but I reckon we should start a campaign to keep it here. In its home. In Dumfries and Galloway.

Found in a field in Dumfries and Galloway, this fascinating collection of Viking treasure is on display in Kirkcudbright till next July.

Bright things are afoot elsewhere in Kirkcudbright. In a dark way. Very dark at the Dark Space Planetarium. The interactive exhibits are backed up by a proper planetarium. Next door in this old school complex is the Dark Art Distillery, where I meet Fiona Williamson. She’s as bright and bubbly as the afternoon here on the ‘Scottish Riviera’ as she talks me through the botanicals she has grown on the outskirts of town to weave into the award-winning gins she distils in ‘Peggy’. “Dumfries and Galloway is a really inspiring place to live and work. Our wee distillery feels very welcome and at home here. And we love welcoming in visitors too”, she smiles.

Fiona Williamson is waiting to give you a tour of the Dark Art Distillery in Kirkcudbright, featuring the still, called Peggy.

This positivity and warm welcome is something that ripples through Dumfries and Galloway. It’s a huge part of why I love this beguiling southerly charmer. As I drag myself back through the hills to Central Scotland I vow to come back. But I think you knew that already. You should go too; you’re more than welcome to take the keys to my metaphorical car.