Robin McKelvie takes us on a lesser known road trip around Dumfries and Galloway.
Scotland’s Route 66, the NC500 (North Coast 500), has enjoyed spectacular success since its launch in 2015, but hands up who has heard of the SWC300, or the South West Coastal 300? Thought not. This new kid on the long distance driving route block is just starting to forge a name for itself, so now is the time to savour it before the word gets out.
The South West Coastal 300 now tempts car drivers, cyclists and motorhome owners to Scotland’s most southerly and balmiest extremities. As well as an unremittingly spectacular swathe of scenery, from the dense forests of Galloway, through to the sweeping beaches of the Solway Forth and the rugged otherworldly cliffs of the Mull of Galloway, the attractions en route are manifest. Belt up now as we set off to explore some of the highlights of this remarkable 300-mile epic adventure.
Handily, the South West Coastal 300 is fairly circular and also much of it is on relatively quiet roads. You can start at any point, but Stranraer is a neat fulcrum. The first section sweeps you around Loch Ryan to the main ferry port to Ireland of Cairnryan. As you gun north in search of Ayrshire, you will enjoy grandstand views of that most dramatic of Scottish isles, Ailsa Craig, and then another eye-catching island, Arran.
Fans of gin may want to make a pilgrimage to the distillery at Girvan as it’s home to the world-famous Hendrick’s. Nudge along the road and you are in Trump territory as the super luxury Trump Turnberry Resort looms into view. It makes for a great lunch stop and if you’re a golfer you can hop off for a round and re-create the ‘Duel in the Sun’.
Two more unmissable sights in Ayrshire are Culzean Castle, (pictured above), one of Scotland’s most spectacular historic sites and brilliant for all the family with its walks and playgrounds, and wee Alloway. This trim village is, of course, renowned for being the home of Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns. You can view the modest cottage where the mercurial poet was born before checking out the striking modern museum nearby, which really illuminates his work (below).
Push deeper east and you emerge in Sanquhar, which boasts the oldest post office in the world, dating back to 1712. You can walk its historic streets and enjoy views of the hills that rise up all around. The Southern Upland Way ripples through this area, one of the many opportunities for great walking on the South West Coastal 300.
You could hike all the way to Wanlockhead, but driving is easier. In fact you can ski in these parts too at the Lowther Hills Ski Centre. Yes, seriously! The area is more traditionally associated with the mining industry. I recommend taking the cute wee train from Wanlockhead (the highest village in Scotland at 467m) to Leadmills for a trip back in time and also to check out the mining museum in Wanlockhead (below).
Pushing south, now we seek out Lockerbie and then on to the largest settlement in Dumfries and Galloway, Dumfries itself. The town offers more Burns connections with the Robert Burns’ House and Centre, plus Moat Brae, which has recently been brilliantly revamped to serve not only as a testament to Peter Pan author JM Barrie, but also as a new national storytelling centre.
I’ve travelled the length and breadth of Scotland researching two editions of National Geographic’s Scotland guide and I’ve not found an abbey more romantic than Sweetheart or a castle more striking as Caerlaverock. The history of Sweetheart Abbey dates from 1273 when it was built by the widow of John Balliol, a prominent figure in Scottish history. After his death, Lady Devorgilla built the abbey in his memory and carried his embalmed heart around with her for the rest of her days.
You will probably do a double, or more appositely a triple, take, the first time you stroll around Caerlaverock Castle, also handily close to Dumfries. Yes, it really does have only three sides, surely the only castle in Scotland with this design feature. It boasts a lovely moat too, along with forests trails and a modest visitor centre where you and the kids can try on period clothing.
Now it is time to explore Scotland’s Artist’s Town. Kirkcudbright is alive with myriad galleries and studios, including the new £3 million Kirkcudbright Galleries, an acclaimed exhibition space that only opened in 2018. Kirkcudbright also sports a working harbour, its own castle and many independent shops and cafés.
For something totally different, detour inland to the Galloway Forest Park, spectacular by day, and even more so by night as it is home to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory and the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, the first Dark Sky Park in the UK.
We cut now into Scotland’s deep south, towards the picturesque Isle of Whithorn on the Machars Peninsula, which you should avoid the temptation to skip. It’s a pretty place despite the confusing lack of an island – ask one of the locals why. You can also explore Scotland’s Book Town of Wigtown, which sports bookshops aplenty and a rich slew of cafes.
If you are running out of time, kick on from the Machars as you don’t want to miss the magical Mull of Galloway, Scotland’s most southerly point. If you need a beach to chill at stop off en route at Luce Bay. The Mull of Galloway is famed for its wild, untamed beauty. There is also an RSPB reserve here and a café, which feels very much like an outpost at the end of the world.
There is still time for one more highlight out west. Portpatrick is arguably the prettiest village en route and that’s saying something. You can recline here in a waterfront pub, enjoying boat-fresh seafood while toasting yourself for discovering the SWC300. Afterwards Stranraer is within easy driving distance, but I’ll wager you won’t want to leave the life-affirming adventure that is the South West Coastal 300. What NC500?
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