Late last year I rolled out a series of Itinerary Ideas articles that each highlighted a different section of Scotland. When I’d written as many as I could, I couldn’t help but notice there were still glaring holes on the map, little wastelands of knowledge here on my site. It was this process that kickstarted the planning of my next trip – I needed to dig into and explore these areas that didn’t have their own articles, and so I hit the road this past spring to ferret out some of the great visitor experiences of southern Scotland. Coming up next – Scotland itinerary ideas for Dumfries & Galloway!
As a refresher, these Scotland Itinerary Ideas articles collect many of my previous articles on the selected region into one place, along with my assessment of their criticality for the visitor and a bevy of useful tidbits that might’ve gotten lost along the way. At the end of the day, these articles should be useful cheat sheets to refer to when you begin planning your next trip to Scotland.
As always, don’t hesitate to pepper me with questions.
Dumfries & Galloway
Dumfries & Galloway in the southwest corner of Scotland is the Scottish equivalent of flyover country. International travelers arrive in the cities to the north and then head further north into the highlands, to places like Skye, Speyside, and the Cairngorms. More is the pity, for Dumfries & Galloway stands at eye level with Scotland’s more well-known regions, possessing great swaths of wild natural beauty and a deep and complex history stretched across the Viking Age and the wars of Scottish independence. From a cultural standpoint, Dumfries & Galloway is just as liminal a place as Shetland and Orkney, its identity bound up with the English and Northumbrians to the south as the northern islands are with Norway, and this intersection of history and culture makes for compelling exploration. Though it is within striking distance of Glasgow and Edinburgh, Dumfries & Galloway is far less touristed than many of the more difficult-to-reach islands. This paradox makes it a perfect destination to include in your next trip to Scotland.
Things You Can’t Miss
Caerlaverock Castle. There is no other castle in Scotland like Caerlaverock. The castle’s unique features are impossible to miss on first glance as a watery moat surrounds its one-of-a-kind triangular walls. It’s not clear why the Maxwells, who received this land via royal grant of King Alexander II in 1220, built the castle in this shape, but it is certainly pleasing to the eye. This is one of my favorite castles in all the land, and I can think of few places that are more evocative of their age.
The Galloway Forest Park. Dumfries & Galloway is anchored by a huge swath of wilderland called the Galloway Forest Park. This innocuously-named span of hills, lochs, and forest broods beneath some of the darkest skies in the country with terrain as raw and beautiful as any in Scotland. The Galloway Forest Park might not be a national park, but nevermind that nonsense it should be, and when you’re planning your trip to Scotland you ought to keep this beauty in mind. Don’t miss the Merrick, Clatteringshaws Loch, Glentrool, and a host of other worthwhile trails, glens, and monuments to explore and find within the park.
Sweetheart Abbey. In the triumvirate of Dumfries & Galloway’s abbeys, Sweetheart Abbey is king. Though Dundrennan Abbey and Glenluce Abbey are fine examples of monastic appreciation of beauty, Sweetheart Abbey mixes stunning red sandstone architecture, disturbing history, and plain old accessibility, which is a recipe for a winning experience.
Things You Shouldn’t Miss
Threave Castle. Castles are big, bold, beautiful reminders of a few important points that are easy to forget in the slush of modern life: The world can change, we are not the culmination, and that fantasy is often just a name for the paths we have not chosen. Threave Castle embodies all these ideas. Near Castle Douglas, Threave stands hollow and lonely on a small island within the River Dee that requires a short boat ride to reach. The story of the Black Douglases will set your teeth on edge, but you can’t deny it fits perfectly with Threave’s evocative and grim visage.
Kirkcudbright. Perched along the River Dee near the Solway Firth in the south of Dumfries & Galloway, Kirkcudbright is a pretty little town that makes an excellent base for exploring the region. Beyond Kirkcudbright’s excellence as an HQ, you’ll also find interesting sites in town, like Maclellan’s Castle and the Stewartry Museum, not to mention good pubs like the Selkirk Arms.
The Globe Inn. Perhaps Dumfries & Galloway is most famous for its connection to Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. The Globe Inn, found in the heart of unremarkable Dumfries, became Burns’s most famous haunt. The first Burns supper was held at The Globe Inn in 1819, and today it remains a living, breathing shrine to the bard’s memory where visitors and locals raise drams to his poetic prowess.
Things to Do Off the Beaten Path
Journey to the Isle of Whithorn. The most southerly tip of Dumfries & Galloway is a serrated coastline home to the Isle of Whithorn, a town whose name belies its situation, for it is no longer an island. Isle of Whithorn is just a blip on the map, but it is a beautiful, distant place with a ruined chapel of religious importance and a pub, the Steam Packet Inn, of personal importance. Isle of Whithorn makes for an excellent stop on any ranging through Dumfries & Galloway’s rough bounds.
Make a pilgrimage to Dundrennan Abbey. Perhaps it is only fitting that Dundrennan Abbey and its monks labored in the shadows of time far from the scribes of popular history, for the abbey was established by Cistercian monks who eschewed luxury and comfort in favor of hard physical labor and a life of austerity. Dundrennan Abbey is a haunting place of beauty and ruin in the hills beyond Kirkcudbright that sees far too few visitors.
Visit Moniaive. The vast majority of travelers follow the main roads, and so much of the tourism through Dumfries & Galloway hugs the A75 as it zig-zags near the southern coast through the towns of Newton Stewart, Kirkcudbright, Castle Douglas, and Dumfries. You will be rewarded, however, for venturing off this trail to the north, into southern uplands reminiscent of the highlands, to a tiny town, wedged between glens, called Moniaive. This is a peaceful place where I imagine hobbits blow smoke rings and wizards arrive on carts. Be sure to visit nearby Drumlanrig Castle!
Logistics and Salient Bits
Bases. Dumfries & Galloway is a big place, and I recommend basing yourself in two places to adequately cover the region. I stayed in Kirkcudbright and Moniaive on my last trip, and it worked out fairly well. In Kirkcudbright I stayed just outside of town at Glenholme Country House for a pleasant, expensive stay, while in Moniaive I spent time at the inestimable Three Glens Luxury Eco House. I highly recommend staying in Moniaive – at the Three Glens if you can swing it – because it situates you in a preconception-shattering part of the region with easy access to the Galloway Forest Park and Dumfries. And it’s downright beautiful. You can’t really go wrong with Kirkcudbright, but it is rather far from places like Castle Kennedy and the western reaches of Dumfries & Galloway. Next time I’m in the area I might look for accommodation nearer Newton Stewart and Cardoness Castle.
Transportation. You need a car to get the most out of exploring Dumfries & Galloway. Trains do run through Dumfries en route to Glasgow, but they don’t travel west from there and this severely limits your options. Perhaps the best reason to get a car is the flexibility it affords when exploring the various regions of the Galloway Forest Park. I know that I’m always recommending you rent a car in Scotland, but I would venture to say that without one you might as well cross off Dumfries & Galloway.
Food & Drink. Unlike in other portions of Scotland, I didn’t find many lonely but excellent pubs out in the hinterland. The Selkirk Arms in Kirkcudbright poured good cask ales and the food was excellent. As I mentioned earlier, the Steam Packet Inn in Isle of Whithorn is a worthy watering hole, as is The Globe Inn in Dumfries. It’s safe to say your best bet for food and drink in Dumfries & Galloway are the towns, especially a place like Castle Douglas, which has a reputation as a foodie destination. I always supplement my travels with CAMRA’s WhatPub? good pub finder, because I can’t imagine anything worse than being in a cask ale wasteland.
Well there you have it, another armload of travel ideas for your rangings around Scotland. I implore you not to dismiss this neglected corner of Scotland for it holds much to enamor the Scotland-minded traveler.