Can a new road trip mirror the success of the North Coast 500 at the other end of the country? Prepare for horticultural wonders, Hollywood stars and literary footprints on the South-west Coastal 300

The Saab is in hog heaven – as am I. Coming off the M74 at Abington, we turned back on ourselves and barrelled north-west along the first of many B-roads, the presence of a couple of motorcyclists going in the other direction indicating quality motoring territory. Hooking left, we swooped down through a shallow basin of moorland in the Lowther Hills, the car stretching its legs after a tedious stretch of motorway.

Then we come swiftly upon a coach making inelegant but efficient headway on the threshold of the Crawick Pass, throwing gravel to both sides. The pass is touted as being among the highlights of the very reason Katherine and I are here on a sunny Sunday in late April. Not if you’re stuck behind an elephant on 24in wheels. Who would be travelling by coach here today?

The identity of the passengers is soon revealed when a Honda CRV hurtles past first the Saab and then the bus, with one of the green-and-white-clad passengers giving a sustained middle-finger salute to the coach passengers, whose team, it turns out, has been trounced 5-0 by their rivals from the east end of Glasgow, thereby securing Celtic’s seventh consecutive Scottish Premier League title.

Welcome to the South-west Coastal 300, which tourism bosses hope will replicate the success of the North Coast 500, increasing the number of visitors to such spots as Kirkcudbright, Wigtown and Mull of Galloway. Given the mixed response to what has been described as Scotland’s Route 66 from Highland communities, who have expressed concern over road safety as well as the pressure placed on infrastructure, you might think “be careful what you wish for”. But the focus of my tour is squarely on the driving experience and the scenery (with a side order of paying homage to a literary hero), and while I’ve ticked off most of the north and the islands from my list of places to visit, like many people I’m ill-acquainted with this corner of the country.

We’re tackling the route over three days, the odometer reading 184,383 as we leave Paisley. I’ve opted to take the anti-clockwise approach to the official route, with berths booked in Portpatrick on day one and Gatehouse of Fleet on day two, with home the final destination on day three.

After bidding a relieved farewell to the depressed legion of Rangers fans, I finally get my foot down and hustle west through Kirkconnel, taking a left onto the B741. It’s here that the road starts to show character, a series of straights and easy bends that sweeps up and down through forest before descending to Dalmellington, just north of Loch Doon on the northern tip of Galloway Forest Park.

READ MORE: Has North Coast 500 been a blessing or a curse?

From here it’s a short distance uphill before giving way to a trio of motorcyclists – another good omen – at a cattle grid and entering a stretch of singletrack. Soon we are on the tail of another vehicle ill-suited to the scenery – an Asda delivery van who kindly pulls in to allow me to give the Saab what’s known as “the beans”. A terrific downhill stretch, where the deployment of low gearing is the only way to stay within the speed limit, leads to the village of Straiton, overlooked by a striking obelisk on Craigengower Hill erected in memory of Lt-Col James Hunter Blair, who met his end in the Crimean War.

After the moorland of East Ayrshire, Straiton is the first stop on a birl through more verdant scenery, a landscape of lush green fields, woodland and bridges over the winding Water of Girvan. Soon we are craving our arrival in Girvan and the mandatory consumption of ice-cream.

With the afternoon wriggling free from my fingers like an eel, there’s little time to do anything other than spend a penny then gobble a double cone while gazing out to Ailsa Craig before we’re bundling back into the chariot. Within minutes we are mazing south on the A77 through Lendalfoot to Ballantrae, the Firth of Clyde glistening to starboard, before we turn inland and uphill. A blast down Glen App leads to the mouth of Loch Ryan and a trundle through Cairnryan and on to Stranraer.

There’s nothing for us here, so it’s a swift run down the A77 before bisecting the Rhinn of Galloway and twisting through farmland to Portpatrick, only 144 miles from home but a world away in terms of serenity. Soon, under a clear sky with the sea air in our lungs, we are unwinding outside the Crown Hotel with the expert assistance of Fog Horn IPA, made by Portpatrick Brewery. Blessed? You bet. We press the pause button. Dinner. Bed. Sleep.

We rise to a view of the broad azure sky dropping to meet the horizon, a solitary cargo ship chugging north. In the far distance lurks the coast of Northern Ireland. Blue upon blue upon blue. What a gift. From our hotel above the harbour the village looks no more or less busy than it did the night before. It looks just as pretty, too.

But leave we must, making a solemn promise to return. A journey of 110 miles on mostly rural roads lies ahead. Full Scottish devoured and coffee gulped, we pile into the Swedish hooligan and get on the gas.

READ MORE: Has North Coast 500 been a blessing or a curse?

Ploughing south on the A716, Luce Bay yielding to the glorious Machars peninsula to our left, our first stop is the most southerly tip of Scotland, Mull of Galloway. More motorcyclists – a pair of Germans who tell us their plan is to cover the entire mainland coast in a fortnight – keep my hopes high. The conditions are ideal for padding around the lighthouse, from where, to the north, you can see Ringdoo Point; to the east, Burrow Head; to the south, the Isle of Man; and to the west, Northern Ireland.

Mindful of the day’s schedule, we muscle over to Port Logan on the western flank of the Rhinns en route to our next port of call. While there’s the sum total of hee-haw happening in the tiny village, I do come across a thickly-bearded scarecrow clad as a sailor, his naval cap at a jaunty angle. This, I discover later, is a tribute from the locals to Gerard Butler, one of my wilder contemporaries at Glasgow University and now a bona fide A-lister, who was here last year filming the forthcoming movie Keepers.

Onwards we shift, leaving the B7065 for Logan Botanic Garden, which even early in the season is brimful of wonders both horticultural and piscine, being home to a formal pond hoaching with koi carp who possess a curiosity about the humans above the surface to rival that of a peckish street cat. The gunnera bog is yet to spring into life, yet the panoply of cheerily thriving plants from far-flung corners such as Chile, New Zealand and Asia is testament to the climate you can expect on a visit to the south-west.

But there’s no time to stand still, not on this occasion, so we get the show on the road – the A716, to be exact – and head north past Sandhead and across to Glenluce, where the ruins of the 13th-century Cistercian abbey provide a momentary detour. We baulk at paying an entry fee for a site we can satisfactorily appreciate from a distance of 200 yards, look at the time and get moving.

After making swift progress down the A747, on the east coast of the Machars, I allow myself the puerile pleasure of stopping to photograph a sign for the splendidly titled Cock Inn (another proudly asserts: “Cock free house”) before we turn sharply uphill off the main road and hunt for the house in which the writer and one-time basking shark fisherman Gavin Maxwell was born in 1914. A short distance after the village of Elrig I spot the house, haughtily sited on a hillside, which Maxwell’s parents built and in which he and his siblings spent the bulk of their early lives. Understandably, the current owners do not welcome sightseers and getting close to “Elrig, with its far bare horizons and arrogant defiance of the elements” is impossible.

With an air of slight disappointment we rejoin the main road and are soon uplifted by coming across an otter statue outside the village of Monreith, where Maxwell’s family home stood. The bronze otter commemorates the life of Maxwell, whose Ring of Bright Water trilogy vividly tells of his affinity for the species and thwarted attempts to tame them. Overlooking Luce Bay and St Medans Golf Club, on a fine day such as this there can be no better spot on which to reflect on the life and work of a fiercely complex man and a devastatingly eloquent writer.

But enough about me. The relentlessness of our schedule dictates that I cut short my musings and drive. We stop in Isle of Whithorn for long enough to conclude we will need to eat later then steer the Saab north along various B-roads through tree-flanked avenues and farmland to arrive at Bladnoch Distillery and Scotland’s national book town, Wigtown.

Never let it be said that Herald writers endure minimal expenses, for our late lunch comes in the shape of cut-price sushi and a prawn mayonnaise sandwich. Revived, we step into the aptly-named Bookshop, where Shaun Bythell – owner, former Herald Magazine cover star and author of Diary of a Bookseller – is dutifully posted at his computer by the front door. A quick scoot through the Scottish section fails to yield a copy of Maxwell’s The House of Elrig – Bythell tells me the owners of the titular property ask him to keep any copies for them to give to guests – but does result in an edition of his book Harpoon at a Venture and The Missing by Andrew O’Hagan.

READ MORE: Has North Coast 500 been a blessing or a curse?

Heads spinning with books and horticulture – not to mention on-the-turn salmon nigiri – we sprint north along the A714 to Newton Stewart, where we join the efficient but charmless A75 and set the controls for the heart of Gatehouse of Fleet – specifically the Cally Palace, an 18th-century manor turned hotel and golf resort where we will be laying our heads tonight. I nap. I eat. I drink. And then fall into a bottomless slumber and dream of roads, motion, travel.

Day three, and the end is nigh. First stop: Kirkcudbright, a douce town with a growing reputation for arts and crafts. Matters artistic have been thus far absent from our odyssey, so we pop into the Tolbooth Arts Centre and take in an exhibition. Like others I speak to in the area, museum attendant Katie Halliday is enthusiastic about the potential of the South-west Coastal 300 but has yet to see a significant boost to tourist footfall. As for concerns about whether Kirkcudbright can handle an influx, she is confident the town will cope with whatever comes its way.

On a saunter round the streets you can see why. There are cafes and art shops aplenty, and when the town hall is reborn a week tomorrow as Kirkcudbright Galleries it will be home to an art space of national significance, with three halls – one for a permanent display and two for temporary shows. I stop under a cherry tree outside the Episcopal church and drink a takeaway coffee. There are worse places to be, I ponder, on a bright spring morning.

South of Kirkcudbright we boost along the A711 through Dundrennan, past the abbey ruins and on through Auchencairn to Dalbeattie. This is a quintessential driver’s road, a jumble of twisting bends and long straights with ideal sight lines, and for those less consumed by the pursuit of motoring the scenery of the East Stewartry Coast is a feast for the eyes. The delights continues south of Dalbeattie until we turn off the A710 towards Rockcliffe on the River Urr estuary.

An impulsive decision, perhaps. The correct one? Undoubtedly. The first thing to catch my eye is an orange Triumph Spitfire 1500 in the driveway of a house-cum-shop, The Garden Room. Whoa. This requires investigation. It transpires that the car belongs to Rose Vernon, the proprietor of the coffee shop, who drives it as often as possible. It’s no museum piece, she says, and no – it’s not for sale. As for the South-west Coastal 300, she is cautiously optimistic about its power to lure visitors. The business community needs to do something, she says. “We’re dying down here.”

With Dumfries looming as the next – and final – stop on our trip, we ask for Rose’s recommendation on somewhere to pull in before we reach the big smoke. “Steamboat Inn, Carsethorn,” she says.

And thus, 15 minutes later we are parking outside the seafront pub with rooms, voted best pub in Dumfries and Galloway for the past two years. Solidly snug, as it needs to be given its unprotected location on the Solway coast, the Steamboat immediately strikes you as a place to spend a rip-roaring night. I curse the car key in my pocket and fetch Katherine a half of Criffel, an IPA made by Sulwath Brewery in Castle Douglas, making do with a cola. Catching the last of the lunch service at 2.30pm, our food is hearty and a cut or three above your standard fare.

And that is where the joy of the route ends (or begins, if you’re travelling in a clockwise direction). Thereafter it is a short hop to Dumfries, where the traffic comes to a standstill within minutes. Slow progress through the town instantly peels away any sense of being on holiday, and the journey home is notable only for how little time it takes to get from Carsethorn to the central belt, even factoring in traffic congestion (two and a half hours by my reckoning). The odometer reads 184,798 as I remove the key from the ignition.

Can the South-west Coastal 300 succeed? Not without significant improvements to the roads, a number of which are in pitiful condition. The idea of inviting drivers and motorcyclists from home and abroad to risk trashing their vehicles and endangering themselves is absurd.

And not without ensuring visitors can sit down for lunch or dinner at a time of their choosing. Like it or not, tourists march on their stomachs and there’s no place in the 21st century for kitchens closing at 2.30pm or serving dinner from 6pm until 10pm.

What our three days on the route drove home to me most of all, though, was that there is no lack of activities and attractions in the south-west, whether you’re interested in history, culture, geography, motoring and anything in between. If your default impulse is to go north, hit the reset button. Go to the beautiful south. That’s what I’ll be doing.



McMillan Hotels owns North West Castle in Stranraer, Fernhill Hotel in Portpatrick and the Cally Palace in Gatehouse of Fleet. Visit or call 0844 488 9695.