Robin McKelvie

IF images of airport chaos have you looking at holidaying at home this year your mind is probably wandering off to the vast wildness of the Highlands, or heading to one of our islands. But what about southern Scotland, a land alive with romantic abbeys, trim market towns, beaches and far fewer tourists, plus new attractions aplenty? I’ve just been back down to see how our brace of southerly regions – the Borders, and Dumfries and Galloway – stack up for a holiday. After all, Scotland starts here.

Stepping off the train in Dumfries in Scotland’s balmiest region I’m off to a good start. Mike Harris of Criffel Coaches thrusts out his hand in welcome and smiles, “I hope you’ll like it here. It’s a great part of the world.” Within an hour I do and I’m becoming convinced it is a great part of Scotland.

To be fair, it’s hard not to like anywhere you dine as well at as The Globe. Robert Burns’ favourite Dumfries howff has been given a serious makeover that would have fair cheered Scotland’s bard. Mercifully, his chair still adorns the interior, as do his etchings scratched into the windows, but they’ve added a seriously impressive restaurant, parachuting in a brace of chefs from Gleneagles. And it shows: langoustine risotto with fresh white crab, spiced with fragrant saffron is even better than it sounds. In the land of Belted Galloway and Solway Firth seafood I shouldn’t be surprised.

I follow Burns out of The Globe. Scotland’s bard lived and died in Dumfries, but I don’t mention that as I don’t want to spoil our sated joyful mood – Dumfries is increasingly joyful these days. I’m humming local boy Calvin Harris as we walk, and thinking of Joanna Lumley, who recently deigned Dumfries Absolutely Fabulous enough to back the campaign for city status, where Dumfries lost narrowly out to Dunfermline.

After checking out Burns’ vaulting statue – he created over a quarter of his work in Dumfries – we cross Devorgilla Bridge, as fine a stone span as you’ll find in Scotland. I learn more at the Robert Burns Centre and sneak a peek at his grand mausoleum. Grand maybe, but it wasn’t always so. Today’s incarnation only rose after the Wordsworths were shocked at the poor testament to a romantic hero they held in high esteem when they visited Dumfries. So shocked that they commissioned a more fitting tribute.

It’s easy to see why Burns so loved Dumfries and Galloway. He relished both its beauty and its vastness – how many Scots even realise Dumfries is closer to both Edinburgh and Glasgow than it is to Stranraer? It’s spectacular too with Southern Uplands Fault forging through, sculpting vaulting hill and glen; thick forests too once roamed by Robert the Bruce’s guerilla army. And the coast is sculpted with sandy beaches, towering cliffs and craggy rocks. No wonder swathes of the region has been recognised as a UNESCO Biosphere. The Galloway Forest Park was the first in the UK and also the UK’s first Dark Skies Park, given its low levels of light pollution.

The imprint of man also looms large too. Did you know Dumfries and Galloway has the UK’s only triangular castle: Caerlaverock Castle? Then there is Threave Castle, a fairy-tale fortress you literally sail away from the modern world to. The trio of ruined abbeys are arguably even more romantic. I find Sweetheart Abbey almost impossibly so: it was fashioned by Lady Devorgilla as a testament to her late husband, who she adored so much she carried his embalmed heart around her neck for decades.

Another highlight comes in riverside Kirkcudbright. I knew that the quality of the light here on the ‘Scottish Riviera’ drew in artists, but didn’t know it attracted stargazers too. Joining them at the new Dark Skies Planetarium the interactive exhibits expand the cosmos, with lots of touchy feely bits to keep younger visitors happy. They have fashioned their own planetarium too.

I don’t have time for the planetarium show as darkness of a different kind awaits next door at the Dark Art Distillery. Fiona Williamson, the talent behind the delicious gins she distils on ‘Peggy’, talks me through the botanicals that are specially harvested at night. “When I asked a local nursery to grow these botanicals I think they thought I was daft, but now they’ve tasted the end product they’re on board,” she says.

Williamson tells me you cannot really come to Dumfries and Galloway and not walk; well at least you shouldn’t. The 214-mile Southern Upland Way kicks off in Portpatrick and this is said to be the most dramatic section. I vault up from the picturesque harbour and sweep with the seabirds along the cliffs in search of Killantringan Lighthouse. Sublime. This long distance charmer also features castles, stone circles and hills with a view. This is serious walking country – I could have followed the route for days, but I’m Borders bound.

Pushing east into the Borders I’m in the shadow of the Eildon Hills. And in illustrious company. Robert the Bruce’s heart lies interred in Melrose Abbey, a statue of William Wallace beams from a ridge just down the River Tweed and I even hear King Arthur is buried here too.

I’m more interested in the Great Tapestry of Scotland, which now stars in a purpose-built new museum in Galashiels. The largest community tapestry in the world is a joy that sweeps through Scottish history, taking in everything from Jacobite battles and both world wars, and on to Glasgow’s shipbuilding and Steamies. “This piece of Scotland’s living history has finally found its home,” beams John Baxter, operations manager.

Across the River Tweed in Melrose at the revamped £1.4 million Trimontium Museum a window into the area’s Roman heritage has just opened. The director of the Trimontium Trust, John Reid, tells me his theories about how important Trimontium was and how it turns what is presumed about the Romans in Scotland on its head. Reid dubs Scotland “Rome’s Afghanistan” and he plans more digs to prove his theories, bringing in the local community, teaching them archaeological skills so they can help as well as learn.

I walk with the Romans in the Eildons to the site of their old hillfort; I’m spoiled for walking options – I cannot think of anywhere in Scotland with more than Melrose. The Southern Upland Way ripples through, as does the four-abbey circular Borders Abbeys Way, while the St Cuthbert’s Way swishes from Melrose Abbey all the way across the border to Lindisfarne. The Borders are – like Dumfries and Galloway – serious walking country and the reborn Borders Railway offers a green artery into the heart of the network just outside Melrose at Tweedbank.

I follow the Borders Abbeys Way east to Floors Castle, arguably Scotland’s grandest country house. No fousty old dame, there is renewed life here: a new 41-year-old duke is at the helm and I feel a palpable changing of the guard. A portrait of the jeans-clad Duke with his young daughter greets me as well as news they’re hosting gigs with Tears for Fears and Alison Moyet this summer.

There is new life and energy in the town of Selkirk too. I ease south through hills where once Borders Reivers rampaged to the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project’s ‘The Eyrie’ and learn how they’ve staved off the threat of golden eagles becoming extinct in southern Scotland with their pioneering programmes. At The Haining I find a tumbledown old country house from the 1790s being revamped in a community and volunteer revival.

Selkirk’s High Street grew more independent shops during Lockdowns; its authenticity on display in the original ‘Souter’ (Selkirk is the town of shoemakers), a gin distillery and a General Store that recycles everything and anything – I snare a rugby ball cushion fashioned from Tweed offcuts.

At that General Store owner Sue Briggs couldn’t be more welcoming. She enthuses, “Nothing goes to waste here and we’re very much with the new spirit of Selkirk and the positive things that are happening in the Borders. We have more shops in Selkirk than before, people have been using the independents more and more.”

I retreat at the end of my southern Scotland sojourn to Kingsmuir House in Peebles, just back from the Tweed. It’s the last of a string of superb southern Scotland boltholes I’ve discovered through the Scottish Guest House and B&B Alliance, a new initiative to spread the word about quality B&Bs that offer luxury and a knowledgeable local touch. Malcolm Mullarkey, the cheery owner, welcomes me with a glass of bubbly and freshly baked scones, and explains: “We try to do things a little differently these days and I’m seeing that all across the Borders. After lockdowns, people want a real quality experience to treat themselves and we’re here to help.”.

That night I dine in on Eyemouth-landed seafood and a Borders ale, a fitting end to an adventure across Dumfries and Galloway, and the Borders. Scotland starts here and it’s left my head alive with vivid images of ruined abbeys, sweeping hills, and rampaging Romans and Vikings. And a swathe of Scotland that today stacks up for a thrilling, life-affirming staycation with not an airport in sight.

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