Wildlife, walking, history, beauty and spectacular starry skies – the Scottish region of Dumfries and Galloway has it all!
Visitors to Scotland may be missing a treat as they head north to Loch Ness, Ben Nevis, Skye and other tourist hotspots.
While most travellers hurry up the M74 towards Glasgow – and the delights of the Trossachs, the Highlands and the islands beyond – those in the know will leave the M6 at Gretna Green, just after crossing the border from England, and head west.
The little-visited region of Dumfries and Galloway contains everything good that Scotland has to offer. Although it may not have the highest mountains, it does have snow-capped peaks, beautiful coastline, lochs and glens, fascinating historic sites – and an extraordinary wealth of wildlife.
And the best bit is that it's relatively unknown as a tourist destination – so it rarely gets crowded.
In the centre of the region is the vast Galloway Forest Park – a pristine area of lochs, forests and hills that is stunningly beautiful.
Begin your visit at the Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre, on the shores of Clatteringshaws Loch. Here you'll find all the information you need about visiting the park, as well as a great little café with superb views across the lake. This is a lovely spot for lunch – sit at the picnic tables outside and enjoy the antics of the many birds that visit the strategically placed feeders. In summer, you may be able to spot a visiting osprey as it fishes on the loch.
There are several walking trails of varying lengths that start from here. A short stroll along the shore of the loch and through dappled woodland will bring you to the Bruce's Stone. This large, upright, granite stone is one of two monuments to Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, in the Forest Park. It's said that Bruce rested against the stone after fighting a battle with the English nearby.
For a slightly longer and more challenging hike, the Loch View Trail heads up Benniguinea Hill, through fields and mixed woodland. As you climb, you're rewarded with increasingly beautiful views across the loch to the majestic, rolling hills of Galloway.
Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre is also the place to head for if you have an interest in astronomy. Galloway Forest Park is the UK's first Dark Sky Park. With virtually no light pollution, it's one of the best places in the world to enjoy the night sky. More than 7,000 stars are visible with the naked eye, and the Milky Way – clear and bright and arching across the sky – is spectacular. Regular stargazing events are held at the visitor centre, with Dark Sky Rangers on hand to explain what you're seeing.
Cycling is another popular activity in the park, with a range of different trails offering superb mountain biking for all abilities, including the world famous 7stanes – eight mountain biking centres spanning southern Scotland. The Galloway Forest Park is home to two of the 7stanes centres at Glentrool and Kirroughtree.
Galloway Forest Park is home to some remarkable wildlife – including several rare species. Red squirrels, red deer, otters, osprey, capercallies and black grouse can all be spotted in the park.
Above, left: the Bruce Stone; right: Loch View Trail
A chaffinch feeding at Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre
Top: red kite; above: the view across Clatteringshaws Loch
Birds are plentiful in this part of Scotland, and the RSPB's Ken-Dee Marshes nature reserve will offer plenty of opportunities to see a range of species. A pleasant three-mile walk leads through the reserve's woodland, where flowers are in abundance – including carpets of snowdrops in February and bluebells in May.
Listen out for great spotted woodpeckers drumming in the trees – and you'll almost certainly see them feeding at one of the reserve's two bird hides. If you're lucky, you'll also spot the elusive willow tit. Numbers of willow tits have declined across the UK, but they're doing well at Ken-Dee Marshes – in fact, this is one of the best places in Scotland to see them. We spent ages watching these beautiful small birds visiting the peanut feeders just outside the Old Hide at the far end of the reserve.
Red squirrels also live in the reserve and can sometimes be seen from the bird hides, especially in autumn when they are particularly active as they search for food to store over winter. Galloway has one of the largest populations of red squirrels in the UK – the Ken-Dee Marshes offers the perfect habitat for them, with a mixture of coniferous and broadleaved woodland.
The Red Deer Range – a short drive from Clatteringshaws – is a good place to find out more about this iconic Scottish species. A viewing area and hide allows you to see red deer close up in a natural environment. We were amazed to see an enormous stag standing right outside the window as we entered the hide. This was Spike, who is well known for showing off and delights visitors with his antics.
Wild goats have been roaming the hills near here for decades, with several hundred resident in the surrounding area. These are British Primitive Goats – long-haired and long-horned, and historically kept for their milk, meat and skins.
Getting close to red deer at the Red Deer Range
Near the reserve's car park, a viewing platform gives excellent views of the flock of white-fronted geese – a rare species from Greenland – that spends the winter at the reserve. Other wading birds, such as oyster catchers and lapwings, can also be seen from here.
The Ken-Dee Marshes nature reserve is situated along the Galloway Kite Trail. The area is famous for large numbers of red kites – and the waymarked trail takes you on a 24-mile circuit, with plenty of chances to see these spectacular birds of prey.
For an exhilarating experience, don't miss the red kite feeding station at Bellymack Hill Farm, near Laurieston. At 2pm each day, dozens of these spectacular birds swoop so closely over the heads of viewing visitors that the wind rushing through their wings can be heard. It's a dramatic way to get a really close-up view of the birds and offers great photo opportunities.
Step back in time
The wildlife of Dumfries and Galloway is fantastic – but the region also packs in an impressive number of historical sites. From the Cairn Holy Chambered Cairns near Creetown, to the Laggangarn Standing Stones or the Drumtroddan cup and ring marked rocks, there are prehistoric monuments dotted across the region.
Castles also abound. At Threave Castle, visitors have to cross the River Dee by boat in order to explore the 14th-century ruins of an island fortress. Or visit MacLellan's Castle, near Kirkcudbright – a tower house built in the 1500s.
One of the most outstanding castles in the region is Caerlaverock Castle. This unique triangular stronghold stands surrounded by a watery moat. It's a true fairytale castle, with turrets, towers and battlements.
It's lovely to see the castle in the sunshine, but visiting on a foggy day – as we did on a cold but atmospheric February morning – provides an other-worldly experience as the imposing medieval stronghold looms out of the mist. Cross the bridge and enter through the gatehouse – flanked by two huge towers – to explore the great halls, spiral staircases and ornate stone carvings of the castle's interior.
A nature trail leads all around the castle – the best way to fully appreciate the extraordinary geometry of the building – with a detour along a woodland boardwalk to the site of the old castle. There are several important wildlife habitats in the castle's grounds, including ancient natural woods, grassland and wetland.
Top, left: blue tit; right: nuthatch. Above: snowdrops at Ken-Dee Marshes
Above: willow tit
Above and below: Caerlaverock Castle
Where to stay
The wonderful Coach House at Durhamhill offers eco-luxury accommodation a 20-minute drive from Galloway Forest Park. The east wing sleeps six and has three bedrooms and three bath/shower rooms. There's a unique green-roofed extension, with wildflowers growing on the roof in spring and summer. Electricity is provided by wind turbine, and the building is sustainably heated using an air exchange system.
Dumfries and Galloway
Green Adventures March 2017