Often overlooked in favour of big cities and dramatic highlands, Dumfries & Galloway is a region of subtle charms and gentle pleasures. Without the distractions of designer shops and bagging munros, this quiet corner of Scotland leaves you in peace to absorb the balmy landscape and slow-moving towns.
For this reason, the south-west is a hotbed of artistic activity. From the poet Robert Burns to the innovative painting gang Glasgow Boys, creative types have been inspired by the area for centuries. The trend continues today and for one weekend a year you can glimpse the local artists in action. Taking place at the end of May, Spring Fling 2005 is a collective throwing open of doors as 60 artists allow the curious into their workshops, studios and homes. The brochure suggests six trails to follow around the region, and includes several refreshment stops recommended by artists, but make sure you don’t miss out on some of Dumfries & Galloway’s more idiosyncratic attractions.
The artists’ muse
Fans of cult horror The Wicker Man might recognise the harbour town of Kirkcudbright, down whose high street Howie (Edward Woodward) chases a Hobby Horse. But the St Ives of Scotland is a lot less sinister in the flesh. Surrounded by the lush rolling hills of Galloway and made up of elegant 18th century buildings, Kirkcudbright (pronounced Kir-coo-bree) has long been a muse for creative types. At the Tollbooth Art Centre, based around the original 1630s tollbooth which served as a courthouse and prison, you can dig deeper into this artistic heritage. EA Hornel, an Australian-born member of the Glasgow Boys, is one of the bigger names associated with the town. His last home here, Broughton House, has been restored to how it would have looked during his time (he died in 1933) with casts of the Parthenon frieze souping up the living room and his paintings propped up on easels in a huge, vaulted studio. Inspired by trips to Japan, the enchanting garden is broken up by blossom-covered ponds sprinkled with stepping stones. The garden leads to the shores of the River Dee. Here you can take a Kirkcudbright River Trip in a boat skippered by Gary McKie, catching up on local gossip as you chug towards the Solway Firth.
• Kirkcudbright Tourist Information Centre (01557-330 494; www.kirkcudbright.co.uk).
At the extreme south-western tip of Scotland is Logan Botanic Garden, an exotic outpost where palm trees and tropical plants thrive in a mild climate created by the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. Part of Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens, Logan focuses on plants from the southern hemisphere – there are 35 different types of eucalyptus and dense clumps of the ferns that decorate the jerseys of the All Blacks rugby team. Part of their conservation work includes growing threatened species from Australasia including the evocatively named lobster’s claw from New Zealand. With all this exoticism it’s no surprise the gardens were chosen as the location for the ceremony of fertility in The Wicker Man.
Nearby you’ll find Logan fish pond, a natural blowhole transformed into a larder for storing live sea fish in 1788 by the then-Laird of Logan. Beware the killer eel that apparently lies in wait for tasty fingers to be dipped into the water.
• Logan Botanic Garden (01776-860 231; www.rbge.org.uk).
A literary gem
A decade ago Wigtown was a forlorn smattering of shuttered shops and deserted streets. Then in 1997 it was picked to be Scotland’s Book Town and, like a butterfly breaking free of its cocoon, the town in the heart of Galloway emerged as a worthy literary centre with 24 bookshops each serving a niche from science fiction to feminist writing. The bookish came in their droves, followed by hotels, pubs and the reopening of The Bladnoch Whisky Distillery. We were there during The Annual Wigtown Literary Festival when David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) and Joanne Harris (Chocolat) were likely to be among those scouring for that precious first edition.
• Wigtown Book Town Office (01988-402 036; www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk).
With more than 100 red deer in a 500 acre area The Galloway Red Deer Range gives you the chance to get up close and personal with Britain’s largest mammal. At feeding time you can hand pellets to the amazingly tame (to the point of being pushy) calves, and with the secret whistle of man- in-charge John Davies you’ll be able to spot some of the larger stags. When you feel the weight and fierce points of the antlers in Davies’ collection of shod sets, you’ll be glad the big guys are separated from you with a sturdy fence.
• The Galloway Red Deer Range (07771-748 401).