Its Sunday September 2nd, and our underwhelming stay at the Crown Hotel in Newton Stewart ends with a breakfast that was so greasy, Mary commented that she’d probably need to go on cholesterol medication as soon as we get home – this from a lady who eats much healthier than almost anyone I know. Not the most auspicious start to our day, which unfortunately was once again, a rainy one.
We were aware that some of our options for the day would be limited by the fact that it was a Sunday, and many shops would not be open. Undaunted, and comforted by a couple of Rolaids each, we set off for the town of Wigtown, a short nine-mile journey from Newton Stewart.
Wigtown is a fascinating place in that by the early 1990’s it was in a very depressed state. The town’s two main employers, a creamery and a distillery had closed, and many of the shops were boarded up and run-down. Around that time, there was a national search conducted in Scotland to find a candidate to become known as Scotland’s book-town, and Wigtown’s submission won them that honour.
Since 1998, it has worn that mantle with pride, and today it is a healthy thriving town filled with book-stores and book-themed events. Our visit turned out to be a week early, otherwise we would have been there for the 20th annual Wigtown Book Festival, an event which attracts writers from around the world to come and meet and greet their fans.
There were only a couple of shops open due to Sunday closures, but we had a very enjoyable time browsing the shelves for hidden treasures. Being the avid readers that we are, it should be no surprise that we emerged with two new books to add to our home library, one that is already overflowing onto the floor around it.
The weather forecast indicated that the rain would stop by late morning. Unfortunately Mother Nature did not get that forecast, and instead, the light rain got heavier as we set off for the next planned stop for the day – Cardoness Castle.
On our way, we saw a sign indicating a point of interest called Cairnholy. The rain had lightened up a bit and now we were enshrouded in a thick mist, which lent a rather ghostly atmosphere to the surroundings. What we found was an elaborate layout of well-preserved stones in a field, stones that were in fact tombs from the neolithic period dating back some 4000-6000 years ago. While little is known about the people who inhabited the area at the time, a 1949 excavation uncovered part of an axe made from a beautiful green stone called Jadeite. This stone originates in the Swiss Alps and Jadeite axes were symbols of great power and wealth in ancient times.
We were already wet from our trek through the mist and the long wet grass at Cairnholy when we pulled into the parking lot of Cardoness Castle. As Mary turned off the engine, the rain increased in intensity and it was actually blowing sideways while the wind buffeted the car. We sat in the car for about 15 minutes before convincing ourselves that the rain had let up a little. A mad dash for the gift shop at the base of the hill ensued, and once inside, we entered a small room to read about Clan McCulloch, whose castle ruins we were about to explore. With no real let-up in the weather, Mary put up her portable umbrella, I pulled the hood of my Blue Jays hoodie over my head, and we made our way up the hill to the castle.
Cardoness is a well-preserved 15th-century tower house that has been abandoned for more than 300 years. It’s site was certainly well-chosen as it sits atop a hill that looks out in all directions, which would have made it very difficult to sneak up on. There was evidence of an outer wall that at one time would have surrounded the castle to slow down any attackers and allow the inhabitants time to set up their defenses.
In its day, this particular castle had six stories which included a storage facility and a prison on the ground floor, then a great hall, a dining area, and finally the lord and laird’s chambers. It was described as a “bungalow which had been turned on its side”. We ventured up to the roof via a slippery and winding spiral staircase and took a few quick pictures of the soggy surrounding area.
The castle dominates the western approach to the town of Gatehouse of Fleet, which is where we went next. A small town that has existed since 1765, Gatehouse of Fleet developed into a centre for industry, particularly cotton mills, and it takes it name from its location near the mouth of the river called the Water of Fleet. In town, we visited the cafe and gift shop of the restored mill before moving on to our next destination, the town of Kirkcudbright.
Our reason for heading there, was that it is the location of the next closest ancestral castle in the area – MacLellan’s Castle – home to Clan MacLellan. The ruins of this castle loom over this small town, and it dates back to 1582, making it younger than Cardoness Castle by almost 100 years. It was never finished in its entirety but was home to the Maclellans until 1752 before being sold to Robert Maxwell. By the late 1800’s, the castle lay in ruins and was described as a “mass of ivy”. In 1912, it was handed over to the state, and it has been cleaned up and turned into an interesting tourist attraction in the years that have followed.
The next and final stop for our day was Threave Castle, which was our absolute favorite of everything we saw on this day. But first we had to walk 800 metres through soggy wet farmer’s fields, unlocking and re-locking multiple sets of animal gates along the way. Did I mention it was still raining?
At the end of that walk, we came upon a small dock, where a sign advised us to ring a bell to summon a gentleman in his motorized rowboat to come across the river Dee. When he arrived, he fitted us with slimy life-jackets and then took us a short ride across back to where he had come from.
After another brief, but very muddy and slippery walk, we arrived at Threave – the ancestral home of Clan Douglas, and Archibald the Grim! They were known as the Black Douglasses and they were a blood-thirsty bunch, fighting alongside Robert the Bruce during the Border Wars of the early 1300’s. The castle was dismantled after a battle in 1640, and remained largely unused until given into state care in 1913.
By the time we got back to the car,just after 5 PM, we were wet and cold, but we were also laughing and smiling as we had enjoyed an adventure-filled day, and had seen three of the more important clan castles in southwest Scotland.
Before leaving the parking lot at the Threave Visitor Center, I went online and booked us into a well-regarded B&B in Dumfries – the Morton Villa, and upon our arrival 40 minutes later, we were not disappointed.
We dropped our bags off, changed our footwear, and noting that the rain had finally stopped, we walked into town and enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Cavens Arms Gastro Pub. Just beside the pub is the 400-year old Devorgilla Bridge that crosses the River Nith. It is named in honour of the mother of King John Balliol, and is one of the oldest standing bridges in Scotland.
On our walk around Dumfries, we passed Greyfriars Kirk, a church built in 1868, and noted the statue in front of it dedicated to Robbie Burns, and to be clear, we were in the heart of Robbie Burns country. He is in fact buried in Dumfries.
Back at our room at the Morton Villa, we crawled into a warm bed, talked a little bit about our plans for the next day, and neither one of us had to count too many Scottish Sheep before we were sound asleep.