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Glorious Galloway

Posted by Luci Ackers on 3 May 2016
Related property: Coo Palace
Glorious Galloway Glorious Galloway Developments taking place at Coo Looking out over the Solway Firth

by Sara Maitland

 

Once upon a time Modernity went stalking through rural Britain fiddling with this and that. But when he crossed the border between Scotland and England just north of Carlisle, he got over-excited and kept on heading north, as most people do. He forgot, as most people forget, that there are nearly 200 beautiful miles of Scotland’s south coast, first in Dumfriesshire and then further west across the ancient Kingdom of Galloway, which for several centuries was divided in two – into the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright (and why it should be, uniquely, a stewartry rather than a county is a mystery. But never say “Kirkcudbrightshire” if you wish to be loved or respected locally) and the County of Wigtownshire. In the 1970s these were brought back together and joined to Dumfries to create the Region of Dumfries and Galloway – one of the 32 administrative districts of Scotland.

There are of course some disadvantages in being an area that modernity failed to visit, but from other points of view it makes Galloway a magical place. The most important consequence is that over the last 200 years the population of the UK has increased enormously, from 12,600,000 in 1811 to 63,489,234 today, but the population of Galloway has remained almost entirely flat, and indeed is projected to decline. The largest town (Stranraer) has only just over 10,000 inhabitants and no other town has even 5,000. Nearly a third of the population live in households classified as “remote rural” and Galloway has Britain’s highest proportion of people working in agriculture. This means that it is quiet and empty and lovely. It means that although the Galloway Hills have summits almost as high as the Lake District, I often walk in their huge wild spaciousness and do not see another human being all day. It means low pollution of every sort, and thence the only Dark Sky Park in Britain, and night skies wheeling glorious and silent overhead to gladden the winter months. It means little traffic – except for the A75, the main road to Northern Ireland via the ferries at Cairnryan. It means beaches and cliffs so lovely that Galloway is competing with the West Highlands to be the “maritime National Park” that Scotland is planning, but which tend to be empty. It means a remarkable level of security – with the lowest crime rate in the country; I stood in a village recently waiting for a bus and reading the local notices in the shop window. The minutes of the last community council meeting recorded that in the previous six months “there were no crimes, but the ducks are still missing”.

It also means that a great deal of Galloway’s historical record has remained undamaged, not cleared away for development. This spans a remarkably long time period – you can take your pick.

There is the magical Neolithic site at Cairnholy between Gatehouse and Creetown and less than half a mile from the main road, where some theatrical standing stones were placed over 5,000 years ago looking towards the sunset over the two western peninsulas reaching southwards like fingers to both Ireland and the Isle of Man (the best summer evening picnic site I have ever found). And when you are bored of Bronze Age standing stones, stone circles, field systems and burial cairns you can as easily move forward: four of the 10 oldest Christian carved stones in Britain happen to be in Galloway; 150 years before Columba arrived in Iona Christianity had been established by Ninian in his “candida casa” the “shining white house” at Whithorn. This sleepy pretty village was once the home of an important Cathedral and pilgrimage site and the stone relics remain despite Reformation and the passing of a millennium and a half.

 

The somewhat more blood-strewn medieval period left its mark too – more castles and tower houses than anyone could need almost casually sitting at every river estuary and defensive site. The best of them all is probably Threave, not so much because it is in a high state of preservation but because it was built by the delightfully named Archibald the Grim, and is on a little island. When you want to visit you ring a hand bell on the river bank and a boatman comes from the island to collect you.

 

A few miles away at Dundrennan, sheltered in a deep bowl of hillside is what many describe as the “best preserved Cistercian Abbey” in the UK, and for added romance this is where Mary Queen of Scots spent her last night in her kingdom – before leaving by boat for England, long years of imprisonment and, finally, execution.

Meanwhile up in the hills in the north of the region is the site where Robert the Bruce won a notable early victory in his campaign which ended triumphantly at Bannockburn in 1314. The Battle of Trool was not of major strategic importance, but it was crucial to the would-be King – he had returned from exile in Ireland and needed a spectacular victory to establish his credentials and attract a fresh army. Trool was a brilliantly executed guerrilla style ambush – looking across the loch from his memorial it is easy to see precisely what he did.

The gentle beauty of the region and particularly the quality of the light led to another, perhaps unexpected, historical development in Galloway – in the late nineteenth century Kirkcudbright became an artists’ colony. The Glasgow Boys, a group of anti-establishment neo-impressionists loved the area (Hornel had a lovely house and studio in the older part of the town – now a National Trust for Scotland property.) The area attracted eccentrics, too – not least wealthy Manchester merchant James Brown, who in the early 20th Century commissioned the Gothic-styled Corseyard Farm and Model Dairy, also known as the Coo Palace, in Borgue, overlooking the Solway Firth. Full of Italianate touches and art nouveau flourishes, the purpose of Brown’s “folly” was to provide luxurious accommodation for his 12 prize heifers. The cows, of course, are long gone, and the building has fallen into disrepair – though plans are in place to restore it, and once more to provide comfortable lodgings, this time for human guests.

Even after the First World War Kirkcudbright continued to attract numbers of painters, as is celebrated in Dorothy L Sayers’s 1931 mystery Five Red Herrings. More recently this tradition has been revived – Kirkcudbright has been named as “the Artists’ Town” and there are plans afoot to develop a national quality Public Gallery here. In the meantime the whole area is blessed by a plethora of artists’ and craft studios.

There are lots more sites of real historical significance, but the defining factor is that, in the absence of large numbers of people they are all rather low key – pleasing rather than exciting, undemanding though intriguing: just enough to make long pottering afternoons fully agreeable and worthwhile. And this, plus of course the great tea-rooms and bakeries for which all of Southern Scotland is justly famous, makes for a gentle immersion in something older and perhaps sweeter than Modernity delivered elsewhere.

But above all what the tranquil, underpopulated countryside means is a truly remarkable ecology in which a huge variety of wildlife – flora and fauna – lives at surprisingly close quarters with the few human beings around. This variety is enhanced by the very diverse terrains that Galloway offers – seriously high wilderness, wide moors, green pastureland, sea coast and forests. It is not just the flourishing community of natterjack toads along the Solway coast in their most northern colony, nor the wide merses which makes wintering grounds for an impressive number and variety of geese and waders. Galloway has nesting ospreys, hen harriers, a thriving summer community of pied wagtails, a gannetry, a growing population of red kites... a fabulously mixed collection of bird-watching delights.

There is also one of the largest and healthiest groups of red squirrels in the UK – secure and numerous enough to irritate people when they take too many nuts from bird tables, but there are also viewing hides which offer a very high chance of seeing and watching them. There are plenty of otters, and some seals, porpoises and whales to be seen from the rocky coastal cliff walks. Forestry Commission Scotland are developing a project to support and expand the pine marten population. There are probably too many deer, roe and red (and the latter grow larger here than in the Highlands because the climate is so much gentler) and as a sort of magical treat, although this is cheating a bit because obviously they are not indigenous, there are a few pure white fallow deer in the Knockman Wood near Newton Stewart - a romantic relic of one of the very last deer parks constructed in Britain, a heart-stopping joy if you are lucky.

And all these riches are located in a variety of gently spectacular landscapes. Oliver Sachs described the Buchan Wood along the side of Loch Trool as one of the two “best preserved semi-ancient oak woods” in the country. 20% of Scotland’s milk comes from the sweet green fields around Kirkcudbright. The Rhinns of Kells above Carsphairn offer some of the finest ridge walking in Scotland, though it is hard work getting up there! And lochs and rivers and beaches and cliffs, and gentle green hills.

 

And the small population and the sense of space and freedom also means that visitors are warmly welcomed – we need and want them more than most places do. We all hope that the Coo Palace, once converted, becomes deservedly popular with its new non-bovine occupants.

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Luci Ackers

Luci Ackers

Luci loves getting out and about for a good cycle ride or easy-going walks in the countryside, and thoroughly enjoyed the time she previously spent working for the National Trust. Her love of writing started from a young age and on rainy days nothing beats curling up in a secret corner with a good book.

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