There are two things one must try when visiting Scotland: a wee dram of whisky — preferably single malt — and haggis. Both were well loved by Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet and favourite son.
The Bard of Ayrshire (or, as he is known in Scotland, the Bard) is famous for such poems as Tam O’Shanter, and his lyrics to Auld Lang Syne ring in the New Year. Scots the world over celebrate his birthday every 25th January with recitations of his works during raucous Burns Suppers, in which whisky and haggis figure prominently. Last year (2009) marked the 250th anniversary of his birth in a humble cottage in Alloway, South Ayrshire. Donna Dailey hits the Burns Trail in Scotland.
Though many visitors rush past on their way to the cities or Highlands, to my mind the south-west corner of Scotland, where Burns spent most of his brief, prolific life, is one of its most beautiful areas. We’ve returned year after year to explore the heather-covered hills, picturesque towns and villages and stunning coastline. The county town of Dumfries, where Burns died at the age of 37, is only 86 km (55 miles) from his birthplace, and the Dumfries and Galloway region stretching in between is brimming with art, literature and music. Here are five areas worth investigation:
1. ALLOWAY — Burns The Poet, Burns The Taxman
The Robert Burns National Heritage Park, in Alloway, 3 km (2 miles) south of Ayr, seemed like a fitting place to begin our most recent journey. The cottage where Burns was born in 1759 into a poor farming family has been preserved as it was in his day, while the museum behind it contains the world’s foremost collection of his manuscripts and personal belongings. I was fascinated to see the original manuscript of Auld Lang Syne in his own hand, written with quill pens.
A pair of pistols revealed another side to Burns’ life. Although his first published works brought him fame, he could never support his family on his poetry alone. He gave up the hard farming life to become an exciseman, and I pictured him riding along the Solway coast in search of smugglers, a job that must have appealed to his romantic nature. Then I wandered through the village to the Auld Kirk (old church) and Brig o’Doon (bridge), which feature in Tam O’Shanter.
2. GALLOWAY — Act Naturally
A pleasant drive south-east along the A713 brought us to New Galloway, where we followed the Queen’s Way into Galloway Forest Park. It covers 480 square km (300 square miles) of woodlands and spruce forest, peaceful lochs and moorland surrounding the peaks of the Galloway Hills. The park abounds with wildlife, including several endangered species. At the Wild Goat Park and the Red Deer Range, we got a close-up view of these elusive native animals, as well as a glimpse of a rare red kite soaring above the moors.
I love the mysterious Raiders Road, which follows an old cattle rustlers’ route along the river. Another scenic spot is Glen Trool, where you can climb Merrick Peak, the highest in southern Scotland, at 843 m (2,766 feet). This beautiful landscape still inspires artists and writers, just as it has for hundreds of years. Hiking trails criss-cross the park, many leading to contemporary artworks that have been installed in hidden forest settings.
3. WIGTOWN AND SOLWAY — Bay And Firth
Wigtown, on Wigtown Bay, is known as Scotland’s National Book Town. A famous literary festival is held here at the end of September and attracts famous authors to read their works. But at any time of year, you can browse in the dozens of second-hand bookshops that fill the pretty pastel-painted buildings surrounding the town square.
Driving around Wigtown Bay, we continued east along the Solway Firth, which is dotted with beaches, inlets, coves and rock pools. Beyond the ruined Cardoness Castle, there are several sandy beaches near Gatehouse of Fleet, where lovely cottages are set around its granite clock tower. It was once an important mill town, and when Burns visited, he christened its Mill on the Fleet “Roaring Birtwhistle”. Today this restored cotton mill houses a visitors’ centre with exhibitions and a working water wheel.
Kirkcudbright (pronounced “Kir-koo-bree”) perches at the mouth of the River Dee. Fishing boats bob in its picturesque harbour, and its wide streets are lined with brightly coloured houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. The town has been an art colony since the 1880s, when painters such as Samuel Peploe, E.A. Hornel, Jessie M. King and other members of the Glasgow Boys (Impressionists from the 1880s and 1890s) and Scottish Colourists moved here from Glasgow, attracted by the area’s superb light and landscape. Some of their works are displayed in the Tolbooth Art Centre. I enjoy browsing the many art galleries and crafts shops tucked away down the mediaeval closes. Fans of the cult film The Wicker Man may recognise many scenes that were shot here.
Carrying on along the Solway Firth, we passed quaint villages and towns built of local stone, an ancient round tower house and the Gothic ruins of Dundrennan Abbey, all backed by rolling green pastures and woodland. Rockcliffe is a good spot for kids to play in the rock pools and look for cockles when the tide is out. From the golden beach at Sandyhills, you can see the English coast on the opposite shore. This stretch, called the Colvend Coast, has some of the finest scenery along the firth. John Paul Jones, the so-called “father of the American Navy”, was born in a cottage in Kirkbean, which is open to visitors.
4. NEW ABBEY, DUMFRIES, AND BEYOND — Back To Burns, Off The Coast
Burns was a passionate ladies’ man, and his many love affairs inspired much of his best poetry. But a much earlier romantic tale surrounds Sweetheart Abbey, built in 1273 at New Abbey village. The last great monastery built in Scotland, it was named in honour of the undying love of its founder, Lady Dervorguilla, for her husband, John Balliol, who established Oxford’s Balliol College. After his death, she placed his embalmed heart in an ivory box, which she kept with her always. She is buried with the heart, among these evocative ruins, in front of the High Altar.
Dumfries, a few miles north, is a handsome town of sandstone buildings set along the River Nith. Burns moved here in 1790, and the simple house where he spent his last years can be toured. Many also visit his mausoleum in the churchyard, but for me, a more fitting tribute to Rabbie Burns is to raise a glass in the Globe Inn, his favourite pub. The staff showed me around this historic place, filled with memorabilia, including a poem Burns etched on an upstairs window using a diamond ring. There is a memorial statue of him on the High Street, and the Robert Burns Centre, in a restored riverside mill, tells the story of his life in Dumfries.
About 10 km (6 miles) north of Dumfries on A76, Ellisland Farm, where Burns lived from 1788 to 1791, gave me further insight into the life of the Ploughman Poet. Its beautiful setting, with its idyllic river walks, inspired his best nature poetry.
West of Dumfries, there are more fine walks at the Glenkiln Reservoir, where a series of monumental sculptures by Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and Jacob Epstein have been placed in atmospheric natural settings in the surrounding hills and woods. You can walk or drive along the sculpture trail.
5. MONIAIVE — Westbound, But First . . .
On our way back to the Ayrshire coast, I stopped to see friends in the charming, whitewashed village of Moniaive. This laid-back, welcoming place is fast becoming Scotland’s Festival Village, with folk music, beer and bluegrass festivals running from May to September, including the Burns and Boglefest at the end of May.
Moniaive was once home to painter James Paterson, one of the Glasgow Boys. A country lane at the end of the village leads into the hills. Here, contemporary artist Andy Goldsworthy has recently installed a series of his signature outdoor natural sculptures, Striding Arches. Goldsworthy lives in the nearby village of Penpont, where his sandstone Egg crowns a hillside.
After viewing the new sculptures, we went for a meal in Thistles Bistro, which inevitably led to a music session in the adjoining bar of the Craigdarroch Arms Hotel. We closed the bar with a not-so-wee dram and a roaring rendition of Auld Lang Syne, a fitting way to end a journey in this land of poets and artists.
GLASGOW A GO-GO
Scotland’s largest city boasts a wealth of options — especially on the artistic and architectural fronts. And Glasgow’s only an hour’s drive from Ayrshire, making it an essential day-trip. Highlights include:
The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
One of the top five museums in the U.K., this enormous red sandstone building holds exhibits focusing on dinosaurs, Egyptian artifacts, and Scottish history and culture. The fine-art collection features works by the Scottish Colourists and the Glasgow Boys.
Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery
Glaswegian architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh left his distinctive mark throughout the city, from the Glasgow School of Art to the Willow Tearooms on Sauchiehall Street. Hunterian incorporates his former home, with original furniture and fixtures designed by Mackintosh himself.
It’s worth venturing to the southern reaches of the city to see one of the finest private art collections in Europe, which includes antiquities, Asian art, mediaeval tapestries, paintings, period rooms and much more.
Gallery of Modern Art
In the heart of the city, surrounded by excellent shopping streets, the gallery is a showcase for exciting contemporary artists from around the world.
This mediaeval gem marks the city’s birthplace and boasts lovely stained-glass windows, an open-timber roof and an unusual stone screen separating the quire.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Interval World magazine. © Interval International, Inc. Used with permission.
Writer: Donna Dailey