Troon to Dumfries: SOK’s First Birthday (how time flies)

We’ve had a busy few days travelling south through Ayrshire and into Dumfries & Galloway. This is one of those fabulous parts of the country that we’ve somehow not previously discovered.

Overview: 5 days, 295 miles

Our first stop as we headed south from Troon was Robert Burns’ birthplace and museum at Alloway on the outskirts of Ayr. I can’t say that I’m a big fan (we were passing and as it’s run by the National Trust, it was free with our membership), but we had a look at the cottage where he was born and managed to hum Auld Lang Syne as we looked around the modern museum about his life and work.

Brig o’Doon bridge. Tick.

We both really liked the mouse on the “poet’s path” between the cottage and the modern museum.

From Ayr, we took the coast road south (the A719 rather than the A77) so as to take in the “Electric Brae”. I’d been there before so knew what it was all about. It was Mark’s first visit…..

Basically, it’s an optical illusion, a quarter mile stretch of road that seems to slope “the wrong way”. In the photo above, we were going uphill….. honest. Mark was sure that we were going downhill. We turned around and went the other way (back north) for another look, so did the Electric Brae three times in total. Mark managed to convince himself of the slope by stopping and seeing which way SOK rolled (it must be mayhem in the summer when there are more tourists doing this!). The name “electric brae” dates back to a time when it was thought that some electrical or magnetic phenomenon must be responsible for the effect.

Culzean Castle is another place that I’d visited before but Mark hadn’t. It was built in the 1770s on the site of an earlier tower house and designed by the famous architect Robert Adam.

Apparently, the oval staircase is one of Adam’s masterpieces:

To be honest, the interior doesn’t really do it for me. It’s too Robert Adam. It takes me back to the late 1980s when some people used to go nuts with the Laura Ashley catalogue….. There’s no individuality to it. Mind you, the guy who had the place built was a lifelong bachelor, so he quite possibly didn’t care what it looked like so long as it was big and impressive.

Aarrgghh – the ornate ceilings (like Wedgwood on drugs), the matching motifs on the friezes and fireplaces depicting the purpose of the room (buggered up in the case of the photo above as the original library has since been turned into a dining room. That’s what happens when you try to get too clever…..)…. no, I wouldn’t want to look at it every day……

After a quiet night on the large harbour car park at Girvan, we continued south on Monday onto the Rhins of Galloway, the peninsula by Stranraer. We happened across the Kirkmadrine Stones, some carved stones in a church a few minutes’ walk from the road.

Then it was on to Logan Botanic Garden, which belongs to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The mild conditions resulting from the Gulf Stream allow them to grow plants from around the world outdoors here, many of which wouldn’t survive or prosper outdoors in Edinburgh.

Monday night was spent on a quiet CL (Low Glengyre Farm) at Ervie, a few miles north west of Stranraer. On Tuesday, we ventured into the area known as The Machars and visited Whithorn.

According to the Venerable Bede, St Ninian (died 431AD) built a “Candida Casa” (shining white church) at Whithorn. A monastery grew up around St Ninian’s shrine by the 700s and it became the most important pilgrimage site in the area, though unfortunately little remains above ground today. We did manage to see the undercroft that was the location of St Ninian’s shrine.

A small on-site museum houses some more carved stones, among them Scotland’s oldest surviving Christian monument, dating back to circa 450AD.

Further east, we had another unexpected find: the Cairn Holy chambered tombs. This is Cairn Holy 1:

Dundrennan Abbey near Kirkcudbright closed for the winter at the end of September, so we weren’t inconveniencing anyone by spending Tuesday night on the empty car park:

The abbey was founded in 1142 as a daughter house of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire.

Tuesday was SOK’s birthday, exactly one year since we picked him up from Marquis in Preston. How time flies….. In that time we’ve spent 242 nights in the van and done over 12,000 miles…..

We had another unexpected find on Wednesday morning: Orchardton Tower. We’re back in the border region now so I guess it was hardly surprising that we should happen across a 15th century fortified house. This one is different though – it’s the only round tower house in Scotland.

The tower house is thought to have been built shortly after 1455 when James II of Scotland confiscated and redistributed lands belonging to the previously powerful Lords of Galloway, the “Black Douglas” family. The recipient of the land clearly thought he’d build himself something a bit different…..

We came across the Black Douglases again at our next stop, Threave Castle. The castle was built around 1369 for Archibald the Grim (who gets our “top name of the week” award). His father had been the Douglas tasked with carrying the embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce on crusade to the Holy Land, and Archibald even had a couple of hearts on his coat of arms in remembrance of the family claim to fame.

The castle is on an island in the river Dee, so you have to take a small boat across the river to visit. It originally had five floors. The photo below is of floors 3 and 4 which would have contained living accommodation.

Below the floor is a huge vaulted roofed area the same height that would’ve housed the cellars and kitchen. The castle was unusual in having a fifth floor designed specifically to house men at arms in a siege situation. Not that it helped when the castle was besieged by James II in 1455, surrendering after 60 days……

We drove east to the village of New Abbey for Wednesday night as we knew that there was a motorhome-friendly car park there. It’s a really attractive little village. We didn’t bother paying to go into Sweetheart Abbey – it’s one of those where you do feel that you get most of it for free by looking over the fence.

The abbey was founded in 1273 by Devorgilla Balliol, the widowed mother of the John Balliol who went on to (briefly) become King of Scotland in 1292. Devorgilla’s husband had died in 1269 and she had a special casket made to keep his embalmed heart in (what is it with embalmed hearts in this part of the world? We’ve come across three now in the past few days – the third Marquess of Bute had his buried in the Holy Land, Robert the Bruce had his taken on crusade to the Holy Land, and Devorgilla Balliol kept her husband’s in a special casket then had it buried with her when she died in 1289).

Cistercian monks were brought from Dundrennan Abbey and named their new home Sweetheart Abbey in honour of their patron. I wonder if “Strange Woman Abbey” made the shortlist?

Our interesting little titbit of information from Sweetheart Abbey is that William Paterson, the originator of the disastrous Scottish Darien Scheme, is buried here.

There’s a second attraction to visit in New Abbey – the New Abbey Corn Mill. The monks of Sweetheart Abbey set up the first mill on the site; the current mill dates back to the 1790s and remained in use until shortly after World War 2.

Mark really enjoyed the mill and had plenty of questions for the guy from Historic Scotland!

After a quiet night in the car park, we headed back to Kirkcudbright on Thursday morning. The Historic Scotland properties that we’d visited the previous day were closed on Thursday/Friday, so we’d prioritised them on Wednesday and now had to retrace our steps to look at some National Trust properties in the area.

Broughton House at Kirkudbright was the home of artist E.A Hornel (1864-1933). We know very little about art and neither of us had heard of E.A. Hornel, so it was a pleasant surprise to learn that he travelled widely and to see that some of his paintings inspired by travels to Japan and Myanmar are quite attractive. His house wasn’t bad either:

Then it was back to Threave to visit Threave Garden and Estate, which is the home of the National Trust’s School of Heritage Gardening. Sure enough, we saw a few young lads sitting around eating Mars Bars and looking for all the world like trainee gardeners.

Most of the other people we saw were north of 70 years old and showing much more interest in the tea shop than in the garden…..

Unfortunately, the Victorian house was closed – our guide book said it was open until 31 October, but for some reason involving the date of Easter, school holidays, and a Halloween event, it was closed when we visited. Oh well…. The guide book says nothing at all about the contents of the house, so I doubt that it’s spectacular, but I do always enjoy a good poke around someone else’s Victorian house….

With a bit of time to spare on Thursday afternoon, we drove the short distance (under a mile) back to Threave Castle. The castle is run by Scottish Heritage but the land forms part of the estate owned by the National Trust. There are wildlife walks and bird hides that you can access for free. We’d checked out one of the bird hides on the way back to SOK from the castle on our first visit, and Mark wanted to go back for an hour or two…..

We spent Thursday night on a really nice CL (Mollance Farm) near the A75 south of Dumfries. So there you have it – a whistlestop tour though the many tourist attractions we’ve been busying ourselves with in recent days! We’ve really enjoyed this SW corner of Scotland.

One comment

  1. Another super-detailed account of your travels. As I’ve said before, after reading this there’s really no need to go yourself–it’s all there!


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