Travel: Under the palms of Galloway
Claire Gervat explores a beautiful and little-visited corner of Scotland with a kind climate, thanks to the Gulf Stream
Sunday 05 September 1999
Yet this was the place where Robert the Bruce won a great victory over the English in 1307. Glen Trool would have been noisy enough then, ringing with the clash of metal on metal and the cries of soldiers. I tried hard not to picture Mel Gibson with his face painted blue charging towards the English line: wrong man, wrong era, wrong everything.
The battlefield lies in Galloway Forest Park where, according to the leaflet from the reception area at Stroan Bridge, I might catch a glimpse of a red deer, a golden eagle, an otter or pine marten. It seemed as likely as seeing another visitor. It was not just the park, but the whole of south-west Galloway seemed wonderfully uncrowded. If Wordsworth wanted to "wander lonely as a cloud" these days, he'd be better off here than in the Lake District.
I was still puzzling over this as I drove down from Glen Trool along the back road to Newton Stewart. Maybe it was the fault of the Victorians with their obsession with the Highlands, but whatever the reason Galloway's emptiness was a blessing for anyone from the south: a touring holiday where the driving was actually part of the fun.
The Water of Cree was to my right, reflecting the bright sunlight. Earlier the sky had been more like mother-of-pearl, casting a pale pink light over the gorse bushes and stone walls. I stopped in the RSPB reserve at Wood of Cree for a walk along the burns that splashed their way through the forest and into the river below. The air smelt so green and clean I almost floated back to the car park.
South of Newton Stewart was the Machars, a triangle of rough, wild grassland. There were cattle grazing the lumpy fields - including belted galloways, black-and-white striped like a college scarf - and a handful of windswept houses. I wondered how bleak it would be up here on a bad winter's day. Then the sun's rays burst through the clouds and I felt I was in a William Blake painting. Somewhere out there were a plethora of prehistoric and early Christian sites, but the guidebook said you needed enthusiasm, imagination and a good map to find them, so I gave it a miss and drove back to Monreith where I was staying.
The next day I headed west for the Mull of Galloway, the southernmost tip of Scotland. The route took me along the coast, past the great pale sandy sweep of Luce Bay and along a hilly exclamation mark of land sticking out into the Irish Sea. The sun shone and the water in the bay was a rich blue. I passed small villages of whitewashed one-storey houses and fields studded with gorse.
At last I reached the Mull itself. Swerving to avoid the sheep on the single-track road, I drove up to the car park and stepped out into the elements. The wind was tremendous. Hunched up against it, I headed slowly round the lighthouse and down the stairs towards Foghorn Lookout. My RSPB leaflet told me I should have a good view of the cliffs where all kinds of seabirds nest between March and August.
I reached the lookout and turned to face the lichen-covered rock face. There were a few dark blobs in the distance. They could have been shags or cormorants or black guillemots, but there was no way of telling, even with my contact lenses in. I wished I had binoculars and I wished it was the height of the breeding season.
Below, the sea was doing things I'd never seen before as currents from several directions clashed. Ahead, I could just make out the Isle of Man and Ireland, a sliver of land on the horizon alternately revealed and concealed by passing bands of weather. Then another bank of clouds rolled in from the sea and I ran back to the car, not quite fast enough to avoid getting soaked.
Ten minutes later, I was on the outskirts of Drummore with the sun almost blinding me and steam rising from my clothes. To add to the tropical atmosphere, several gardens had palm trees. They may have been the smallest palm trees in the world, but it was remarkable they were there at all, on the same latitude as Moscow - and all thanks to the Gulf Stream. Certainly, the botanic gardens at Logan would never have existed without those warming waters. Billed as Scotland's most exotic garden, it has a staggering display of cabbage palms, tree ferns and chusan palms, overlooked by the ruins of a 15th-century castle keep.
As I travelled back round Luce Bay to Monreith, the sky was clear and the sea washed kingfisher blue against the pale sand. Galloway was looking its best, and yet the roads were almost empty. All the fresh air had cleared my head - but still I couldn't solve the mystery: why was this green and unspoilt place not swarming with tourists?
WHERE TO STAY
Claire Gervat stayed in Monreith House (tel: 01988 700248), which has four self-catering apartments sleeping up to eight people. One week costs from pounds 140 to pounds 460. B&B at the Steam Packet Inn (tel: 01988 500334), Isle of Whithorn, costs pounds 25 per person per night.
WHERE TO EAT
The Steam Packet Inn has a restaurant and serves bar food and an impressive selection of whiskies.
Dumfries and Galloway Tourist Board, 64 Whitesands, Dumfries DG1 2RS (tel: 01387 253862).
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