It may not be as dramatic as the wildly popular North Coast 500 route in the Scottish Highlands, but the A77 road trip to the south-west of Scotland is still pretty enchanting – despite its profusion of post-winter pot-holes (at least at the time of writing). Follow this coastal route southwards from the Central Belt and Ayr - with its views across the Firth of Clyde to Arran and Ailsa Craig - and you can see the lighthouse at Turnberry, stop off for local produce at the new Dowhill farm shop and café and admire the pretty village of Ballantrae before driving up through Glen App to enjoy the first sightings of the gentle slopes of the Rhins of Galloway across Loch Ryan. Continue through the unprepossessing town of Stranraer and you eventually hit Portpatrick – surely one of the loveliest former fishing villages in Scotland, and yet one of the least celebrated compared to, say, Tobermory, Plockton or Portree.
From our elevated vantage point of Cedar Lodge (part of the Corsewell Estate high-end holiday cottages portfolio), we could see that Portpatrick, in the parish of Wigtownshire, is a gem by anybody’s reckoning. Its picturesque little bay is lined with painted buildings, dominated by the ruins of the 16th century Dunskey Castle and surrounded by rocks and cliffs – lending it the expectant atmosphere of an amphitheatre and all the more so when you realise you’re at the furthest point west it’s possible to go in Southern Scotland. West-facing towards Belfast and the Mountains of Mourne, a walk along its curved esplanade is quite special. We had the privilege of enjoying more fantastic views from Cedar Lodge’s large deck with French windows.
Before this, my first-ever, visit, I hadn’t realised Portpatrick’s potential as a foodie destination. There’s a farmers’ market here once a month. On our first evening stroll we found the Crown Hotel, an 18th century inn at the harbour, which has not only been named Wigtownshire Pub of the Year by the Campaign for Real Ale but whose restaurant has also earned a reputation for local seafood and game. The menu includes West Coast scallops, locally-caught lobster, mussels, crab claws, Galloway venison casserole, and pheasant, partridge, wild duck and pigeon from the local Dunskey estate. Since we were dining at our lodge courtesy of the catering arm of the Fig & Olive independent café in Stranraer (owned by Maria Salzmann, an Australian chef who declares herself “proud to be part of Scotland’s dynamic food community”), we plumped for a pre-prandial glass of wine and I was tickled to be handed a “smarge” (medium, or halfway between small and large) measure of red.
(Our meal of turmeric and coconut salmon curry with vermicelli noodles and mixed Asian greens, and a braised red wine and cinnamon free range chicken casserole with warm chat potatoes, heated in the oven at the lodge and enjoyed on our antique dining table, was absolutely delicious.)
On spotting a sticker in the window the village baker, John Gillespie & Sons, that it holds the title of “Best Potato Scone in Scotland” maker by the Scottish Baker of the Year Awards, I returned next morning to purchase half-a-dozen. Salty, soft and retaining the earthy smack of local potatoes, they were greedily devoured within the hour.
They kept us going on our Saturday morning climb up to the start of the Southern Upland Way, accessed via steep stone steps from the harbour. Leaving behind a flock of guillemots paddling gently in the bay below us, and trying hard not to be put off by the distressing sight of washed-up plastic items strewn in high volumes across the sandy bays on its approach, our breath-snatching clifftop yomp gave the most stunning views of the rocky coastline down towards the Mull of Galloway and northwards towards our destination of the Stevenson-designed Killantringan Lighthouse – the point at which the SUW turns inland towards the Rhins of Galloway for 200-plus miles. Our walk amounted to a round trip of just six miles, but was strenuous enough to set the endorphins dancing, enhanced by the sight of rock doves nestling in the cliffs and cormorants perched precariously on the most jagged points.
Thus enthused, we decided to walk up the hill back to our car at the lodge and head over the Machars to Wigtown and Whithorn, via Garlieston – another pretty 18th century village, built by the 7th Earl of Galloway. This is where the sea trials of the Mulberry Harbours, installed off Arromanches in Normandy during World War Two, took place because the large rise and fall of the tides echoed those of Normandy. (This was a bittersweet discovery for me, as my late father was involved in the building of the Mulberry Harbour off Arromanches, having been called up to the Royal Engineers.) Sandbags in the doorways of harbour-front houses hinted at stormy high tides even today, though the bay when we visited was populated by rare redshanks.
Further inland is the stately but rather neglected-looking Galloway House, built in 1745 by the 6th Earl of Galloway and on whose grounds is an organic dairy farm. The house was sold to Glasgow Corporation in the 1940s as a residential school for city primary school children to learn about rural life, and is now privately owned. It later transpired that a family member of mine had spent enjoyable time at Galloway House as a Glasgow primary school pupil, and still has his treasured handwritten diary of his holiday, complete with childish drawings.
I was interested to discover, from local historian Tom McCreath, that the 10th earl of Galloway, MP for Wigtownshire, was responsible for bringing the railway from Stranraer to Whithorn and Garlieston Harbour.
There used to be a rail link from Portpatrick to Stranraer and Dumfries too. The entire region has been inaccessible by rail since the Beeching cuts of the 1960s – the reason, some say, for the relative lack of tourism to the area compared with much of the rest of Scotland which is currently experiencing unprecedented visitor numbers.
Angus Carrick-Buchanan, whose family has owned the Corsewall estate since 1819, and who with his wife Kate started letting four of its cottages as a business in 2012, said: “In comparison to Skye and the Highlands, Galloway is slightly overlooked as a holiday destination. As John Buchan wrote in his classic novel, The 39 Steps: ‘I fixed on Galloway as the best place to go. It was the nearest part of wild Scotland, so far as I could figure it out, and from the look of the map was not over thick with population.’
“But I believe it’s a ‘Caledonian Cornwall’, but without the crowds and queues. One day I strongly believe Galloway will come into its own and it’s all less than two hours down the coast from Glasgow.”
The Dumfries and Galloway Council recognises that tourism is key to building the local economy. Its Tourism Strategy 2016 to 2020 aims to increase visitor numbers to 2.6m from 2.43m, and its value to £330m from today’s £300m. Enhancing its food and drink offer is an important part of that aim.
Wigtown, Scotland’s national book town since 1997 with a successful annual book festival, is leading the way. Last year record visitor numbers brought in a much-needed £3 million to the local economy and this year looks set to exceed that. On our own whistlestop visit, we were astonished by the number of independent book shops, many with their own cafes. We drove onwards to see the Martyrs’ Stake, a memorial to the two local women who in 1685 were put to a slow and watery death at the original site of the town harbour for their refusal to accept the Episcopalian church. They were tied to the stake and died by drowning. Not exactly cheering, but informative all the same. This region is as steeped in fascinating history as anywhere else in Scotland.
Whithorn, by contrast, claims to be the location of the first Christian church in Scotland and boasts the stunning Candida Casa, St Ninian’s white-walled church. It’s believed that St Ninian landed here around AD397 before Columba did at Iona in AD565. I was somewhat dismayed to find the ruins of pilgrim shrine of St Ninian, beyond a car park at the Isle of Whithorn, so apparently unexploited in terms of attracting tourists.
Our drive back to Portpatrick was magical. Sudden shafts of winter sunlight would break through the cloud to transform the gentle slopes of Galloway’s fertile dairy pastures, where entire fields of bulls, and others of cows, were grazing, bringing to mind the local industries of cheese- and ice-cream-making. The snowcapped Galloway Hills glistened pink and peach in the early sunset, revealing themselves best when heading north with the sun behind us.
Dinner at the Old Colfin Creamery, a newly opened restaurant on the outskirts of Portpatrick, included handmade fish cakes, local steak and handcut chips, oven-baked local camembert, and a fabulous summer fruit knickerbocker glory.
On the way southwards on a sunny Sunday morning to meet Richard Baines, expert curator of the five-star Logan Botanic Gardens (founded by the McDouall brothers in 1869 and part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh ), we spotted three roe deer in the embankment above the blissfully quiet country road. This serendipity seemed to bode well for a fascinating tour of the unique collection of plants and trees from South and Central America, Southern Africa and Australia and New Zealand, some rarely seen in the UK and helped here by the Gulf Stream: there has been no snowfall here for 15 years. Many of the species have been brought here personally by Mr Baines.
Lunch of homemade soup in the Gardens’ Potting Shed Bistro (which has won Scotland’s ‘Taste our Best’ award for two consecutive years) rounded off a delightful trip. I wish charming Wigtownshire every success in its development plans for the future, but I have to admit that part of me wishes it could stay just as it is.
[* This travel feature was first published in The Herald Magazine, September 1, 2018. My photo shows Portpatrick from the start of the Southern Upland Way.]