The winding road

Jonathan Manning diverts from the classic Scottish tourist trail on a journey around the sensational south-west

Photo courtesy of Visit South West Scotland / Damian Shields

Tucked away in the south-west corner of Scotland, under night skies of the blackest ink, it is all too easy to overlook Dumfries and Galloway. Doe-eyed romantics get no farther than its border for weddings at Gretna Green; freight lorries make a beeline for Stranraer’s port as they trundle to Northern Ireland; and holidaymakers barrel along the A74(M) north towards Glasgow, the Trossachs and the Highlands. But branch off these well-worn routes and a new world opens, full of whisper-quiet beaches, exotic gardens and magnificent forests.

Established only a few years ago, the South West Coastal 300 (SWC300) driving route showcases these land- and seascapes, hugging the shoreline of Dumfries & Galloway then Ayrshire, before circling back inland. It clearly rides on the coat-tails of Scotland’s phenomenally popular North Coast 500, but to treat the young pretender as a tick-list tour would do a massive disservice to the region.

The SWC300 has no equivalent of Glen Torridon or Bealach na Bà to provide instant silver-screen entertainment through car windows. Instead, it reveals its treasures slowly to those visitors who are patient enough to invest time in the area. It’s an approach exemplified by Scotland’s greatest export, whisky, which spends decades maturing in barrels to develop its rich colours and complex flavours. Some things just can’t be rushed.

Mains attraction

Barrels at the Bladnoch Distillery

My tour starts a mile and a half from the small market town of Newton Stewart, at the impressively equipped Mains of Machermore Farm Certificated Location (CL). Site owner Isabel shows me the brilliantly named ‘wee hoose’ shower and toilet block, before summoning a pedigree herd of Belted Galloway, grazing in a neighbouring field, that have better recall training than my dogs. The distinctive, white-banded cattle amble over, accompanied by Texel and Beltex sheep, their lambs tottering on shaky legs.

“A lot of our visitors love cycling and walking,” says Isabel, pointing out the densely wooded hillside of Blackcraig that “looks like it’s illuminated when the sun shines on it in autumn”.

Birdwatchers are spoiled for choice, with RSPB reserves at Wood of Cree and and Crook of Baldon, a hotspot for migrant geese and waders. Higher-adrenaline activities are available at the nearby Kirroughtree 7stanes mountain bike trail centre.

Newton Stewart offers all the essentials for a camping tour, including a couple of supermarkets, the wittily named Brew Ha Ha café with its drool-inducing cake cabinet, and a community-run cinema for evening entertainment. Meanwhile, the site’s big draw is its location on the edge of Galloway Forest’s International Dark Sky Park, the first in the UK. On clear nights, this is a sensational place for stargazing.

Convinced that the only thing better than staring at the Milky Way would be staring at the Milky Way with a tipple in my hand, I face a choice. Within 15 minutes’ drive of the site are Crafty Distillery, home of the award-winning Hills & Harbour gin, and Bladnoch Distillery, source of Scotland’s most southerly whisky. 

I decide to head to Bladnoch, where a fun- and fact-filled tour ends with a tasting. The guide’s sing-song Scottish accent proves too much for a Dutch couple, and I spend the tour whispering clarifications as we pass the barley mills, mash tuns and copper stills. 

The photogenic highlight of the tour is the vast warehouse of maturing whisky, where the feature barrel is signed by ‘Charles and Camilla’. In the visitor centre, a pair of surfboards fashioned from old Bladnoch whisky barrels look like the perfect accessories for my VW California.

Next Chapter

Pointing the bonnet east, I enjoy a gentle drive to Wigtown, Scotland’s self-proclaimed National Book Town, and spend a happy half hour browsing the Penguin Classics in The Book Shop, where over a mile of shelving bears the weight of about 100,000 literary works. The 10-day Wigtown Book Festival in late September draws visitors from far and wide for readings and storytelling.

Heading south, it’s early evening as I roll into Garlieston Club Campsite, where pitches overlook tidal Wigtown Bay. Just outside the gates, a fish and chip van has taken up its weekly residency, and the smell is irresistible.

Site Manager Edgar grew up just down the road and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area, from the last vestiges of the Second World War Mulberry Harbours that are just visible at low tide, to the best walks and cycle rides nearby. Immediately next to the site is Galloway House, an enormous 18th-century pile whose free-to-enter 50 acres of parkland and gardens are filled with trophy plants from the Victorian era. Rhododendra and azaleas are in bloom as I visit, bluebells carpet the woodland floor and the smell of wild garlic clears my head quicker than a whiff of nasal decongestant. The highlight is a mature handkerchief tree, its beautiful white flowers fluttering like tissues.

This region of Scotland is blessed with several spectacular gardens, including Glenwhan, Castle Kennedy, Threave Garden & Nature Reserve and Logan Botanic Garden. Exotic plant species flourish in this part of the world thanks to the temperate climate ushered in year-round by the Gulf Stream.

Throughout the area, road signs proclaim this to be a UNESCO Biosphere, a status that engages local communities in conserving natural resources. Keen to play my part, I decide to cycle down to the Isle of Whithorn, a small fishing village, and catch four seasons of weather in just one hour. The roofless ruin of St Ninian’s Chapel occupies a scenic location at the end of the peninsula, gazing out to sea, while the Steam Packet Inn, complete with its own microbrewery, is open all day from morning coffee to nightcap. Many Garlieston campers catch a bus down to the isle (it’s not actually an island) and walk back along the coastline, says Edgar.

Continuing the tour, I drive to New England Bay Club Campsite, which enjoys a wondrous setting in the dunes of a seemingly endless beach, dazzling gorse adding a flash of yellow to the pitches. This feels like a private coastline, shared only with deer, seals and the site’s resident stoat. Site Manager Martin is keen to show me the gleaming chrome of the shower block, but  I can’t take my eyes off the view, which he says is even more spectacular at sunrise, if  I can raise my head from my pillow at 5am. I’ll take his word for it!

Caravanner Jude has been coming here since she was four, and has been bringing husband Les for the past 20 years, relishing the relaxed, unregimented feel of the site. They and their two giant Leonberger dogs love the vast expanse of beach.

For any camper wondering what swims in these waters, Port Logan Fish Pond – a tidal, open-air aquarium – holds the answers. It was built as a fish larder, but today provides a more secure home for starfish, crabs, lobster, skate, dogfish and even a conger eel.

But it’s not a fish supper that whets my appetite as much as Martin’s description of the lemon meringue pie served in the café at the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse, Scotland’s most southerly point. For a pie to eclipse the stunning, clifftop view is a testament to the baker, rather than any indictment of the seascape, and the café terrace proves to be a gorgeous place to sit and gaze out to sea in the hope of spotting dolphins.

Definitely maypole

Eventually, however, I break the mull’s spell and point the California north, revelling in a coastal drive that serves up spectacular views of the tiny volcanic island, Ailsa Craig, and the Isle of Arran, before arriving at Auchenwynd CL, just outside Maybole. It’s another superb spot, with hardstanding pitches, electric hook-ups, a shower and toilet – and there is a holiday cottage for anyone touring with non-campers. This is an outdoorsy spot, with walks, cycle rides and fishing opportunities on the doorstep, and easy access to the attractive coastline.

Golfers with deep pockets may be drawn to nearby Trump Turnberry, where they can take on the iconic Ailsa course – the venue for no fewer than four Open Championships.

A little farther north up the coastline stands Culzean Castle, an outstanding stately home designed by Robert Adam and perched proudly on a clifftop. Inside, the oval staircase is straight from a Hollywood movie, missing only a butler to announce guests as they sweep down the steps. Downstairs is memorable for a gleaming kitchen of polished copper pans, while, outside, a tangle of paths offers pretty walks through the estate and its woodland.

Barely 10 minutes inland, The Ranch Affiliated Site offers peaceful, fully serviced pitches and far-reaching country views, with the added bonus of a heated indoor pool if the weather is poor. A bus from the site heads to Culzean Castle and Maidens Turnberry Beach, while Maybole is walking distance in the other direction, so motorhomers can park up for their stay.

The penultimate stop on this tour is Ayr Craigie Gardens Club Campsite, where I park in a pitch of dappled sunshine, and enjoy a small glass of Bladnoch before planning the next day’s outing. A few people have mentioned on this tour that Ayr, once Glasgow’s holiday destination of choice, feels down on its luck, but the seafront still has great bones – handsome architecture and a magnificent beach – and the racecourse continues to bring life to the town.

This is Burns country – there’s even a Rabbie Burns Fish & Chips on the seafront – and, having always enjoyed Burns Night, but never understood the Address to a Haggis (“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race! Aboon them a’ ye tak your place, Painch, tripe, or thairm…”), I dive into the life of Scotland’s national poet and writer of the New Year’s Eve favourite, Auld Lang Syne. Burns Cottage, a modest, single-story thatched house, and the Burns Birthplace Museum, add flesh to the bones of this political radical, a farmer with a complicated private life who found fame through poetry and later became a taxman for the excise service. Fans can drive the Burns Heritage Trail from his birthplace to final resting place in Dumfries.

Far more glamorous and luxurious is Dumfries House, a popular local visitor attraction, says Ffiona, the Site Manager at Ayr Craigie Gardens. In 2007, a consortium led by the then-Prince of Wales, now King Charles, purchased the building and saved its collection of Georgian furniture for the nation.

Glasgow bound

From these peaceful backwaters, the pace of the tour picks up immeasurably as I leave the SWC300 and head for my final stop, Strathclyde Country Park Club Campsite. As its name suggests, the site sits on the edge of a country park that includes a large lake and the popular M&Ds theme park. This is a site busy with stopovers heading to and from the Highlands, but racing through misses the chance to explore Glasgow, a gem of a city. The site’s fabulously friendly team provides me with a lengthy list of ‘must-visit’ Glasgow attractions, and, thanks to a rail strike, I find myself driving into the centre rather than using the local train service.

Less than 25 minutes later I’m parking the campervan outside Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, a place so blessed in riches that I saunter slack-jawed from room to room. There’s an LS Lowry painting of VE Day that looks for all the world like the King’s coronation with its bunting and trestle-tabled street parties, alongside paintings by Van Gogh, Dalí, and some extraordinary works by the Glasgow Boys (A Highland Funeral by James Guthrie is particularly arresting).

In one hall, a full-size Spitfire hangs over life-size models of elephants, while in another a crowd of suspended white heads catches playful purple light. Turn left and there’s a hall of native Scottish wildlife, turn right and discover Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the pioneering Glasgow designer. There’s so much to see and so many histories told that Kelvingrove deserves a full day to itself.

Failing to heed my own advice, I race off to see the Riverside Museum on the Clyde, home to one of the world’s finest transport collections. I nod respectfully at a 1973 Volkswagen campervan, half a century older than my own, and gorgeous cars, displayed like Matchbox models on shelves along the wall, catch my eye, before I spy my real passion - bicycles. The collection extends from potentially the world’s oldest bike (made from wood) via penny-farthings, to Chris Boardman’s radical Olympic-winning Lotus 108, to Graeme Obree’s extraordinary Old Faithful, on which he rode farther in 60 minutes than anyone in history, smashing the World Hour Record.

At the back of the museum, the tall ship Glenlee offers a glimpse into Glasgow’s trading, maritime and shipbuilding traditions. When the ship docked for the final time on the Clyde, it had circumnavigated the globe four times, a fine example of touring and adventure for any caravanner and motorhomer to follow.

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