Down on the farm

Rhiannon Batten experiences holiday perfection in a pastoral corner of south-west Scotland

Booking a holiday cottage is often a bit of a gamble. You've seen a picture of it on the internet or in a brochure and made a decision - based on better -than-average odds - that it will turn out to be as good as it looks.

Booking a holiday cottage is often a bit of a gamble. You've seen a picture of it on the internet or in a brochure and made a decision - based on better -than-average odds - that it will turn out to be as good as it looks.

However, there's still an outside chance that when you arrive things won't be quite as they seemed. Will there be a three-lane motorway tucked behind the hedge of your country idyll? Or, will you find that you can no longer walk along the bucolic local footpaths because Madonna has moved in next door and wants to close them all? Most of the time you break even, ending up with a cottage that's no better or worse than you expected. But at High Lodge in Galloway, for once luck doesn't come into it. So perfect is this tiny former gamekeeper's cottage that I had to be dragged away when the week was up.

The moment you walk through the door you realise that this is a very special place. A bunch of freshly picked wild flowers sits in an old jug on the kitchen table next to a home-made lemon cake that's hidden beneath a Cath Kidston tea towel. The small Shaker-style kitchen boasts an old ceramic sink, a tasteful collection of pretty cupboards and crockery, smooth wooden floorboards and, in pride of place, a cream-coloured Rayburn giving off a cosy heat throughout the diminutive building. If that other champion of Scottish holiday style, Cawdor Cottages, has been described as the Vogue of the rentals market - well thought-out and inoffensively fashionable - then High Lodge is its World of Interiors equivalent - not just fashionable but exquisitely designed.

Hidden away near Garlieston, in the quiet south-west of Scotland, the cottage belongs to 30-something dairy farmers Finn and Ella McCreath. It's an appropriate association, because the property feels a bit like a churn of buttermilk. The walls are painted in soft, Farrow and Ball shades, the carpet is a neutral sea-grass and the downstairs curtains are recycled tartan blankets, albeit in subdued, natural colours. In fact, the effect of all this wholesome good taste is that it makes you want to start cooking cottage pie and drinking freshly pressed apple juice.

Come in a year or two and you'll be able to do just that without stepping off the surrounding farmland. The bathroom's elegant free-standing bath looks out over a small orchard that Finn and Ella have recently planted at the back of the cottage. In the meantime, you can buy organic meat and milk direct from the McCreaths and help yourself to vegetables from the patch beside the farmhouse.

At High Lodge, it's the scale of the building that makes staying there so much fun. Romantically, the cottage only sleeps two (two more if you use the sofa bed in the lounge). Climb the ladder to the attic bedroom and you're in a den of white linen and cosy blankets. It feels a bit like sleeping in a Wendy house. In the lounge there are petite wooden-framed pictures, while the Alice in Wonderland effect is heightened by an enormous radio that sits on the mantelpiece above a wood-burning stove - and by a gigantic sofa that's perfect for curling up in if the weather turns blustery.

Which is something you might start wishing for if you want to keep the lights on at night. With its wind and solar-powered electricity (there's a discreet windmill to the side of the cottage and solar panels on the roof), the cottage is also eco-friendly. There's no self-righteousness about the ecological ethos though - no chemical toilets or lecturing notices on the wall about using plastic.

Instead, you're simply left with a keener sense of the importance of conserving energy. If it runs out, you know that you will have to call Finn to bring up a generator. But unless you stay indoors all the time it's unlikely you'll need to.

From the huge recessed window in the lounge you have a temptingly open view right the way through Finn and Ella's organically-farmed fields to the sea, with not a road or house in sight. Step outside and veer left for a wander down through the fields and you find yourself in an Enid Blyton landscape with house martins and swallows overhead and cow parsley, nettles and apple blossom to the side of the path.

Coming out at Garlieston's pebbly beach, a footpath along the coast leads up through bluebell woods to a spooky tumbledown cottage. Here, squeeze through a pair of rusted iron gates that look like something from a gothic film set and you're suddenly out of the woods and following a bracken-edged clifftop path that leads to the ruin of Cruggleton Castle and the ultimate picnic spot.

The castle's solitary remaining arch frames a cascade of cliffs sinking into clear sapphire water. Leg-wobblingly far below, as the waves break over smooth rock, their spreading surf nudges cormorants and gulls to launch themselves off on fishing expeditions, or to seek out a more restful perch on little tufts of grass that have survived in ledges among the cliffs.

It's tempting to do the same walk every day, but then you would be missing out on the area's other attractions. Ten minutes' drive north, for example, brings you to Wigtown, Scotland's answer to Hay-on-Wye, with an annual literary festival that takes place each autumn. Here many of the 30 or so local book shops skirt a pretty village square, as do its post office, butcher and pub - although on the day I visited, people were showing more interest in the town hall's webcam of an osprey hatching in a nearby nest than in the retail possibilities.

From cavernous second-hand shops to a specialist in supplying ancient newspapers, Wigtown's book shops are the kind of places where you go in looking for a specific title and come out two hours later clutching a dozen books and a stomach swollen from the owner's generosity with cups of tea. Presumably many of the previous guests at High Lodge know the feeling. The cottage was originally designed as a writer's retreat, and a flick through the visitors' book shows that at least one visitor was so inspired by her stay that she ended up writing a book there (it now sits on the cottage's shelves alongside Ian McEwan's Atonement and Gordon Adair's spooky A Closed Book).

There is history close to High Lodge too. Five minutes' drive in the other direction brings you to Whithorn, which as the place where St Ninian settled in the 4th century lays claim to being home to the first Christian church in Scotland. Further south still, on the tip of this spear of land, is the picturesque Isle of Whithorn. Actually a village set around a harbour rather than an island, this is the site of St Ninian's cave. You can still reach the cave, and its carved crosses, by wandering out along the rocky, clover-sprung shoreline at the edge of the village. Or you can just sit in the sun and watch as white-sailed boats spill out from the nearby harbour.

But if you really want something to remember Galloway by, take a tip from Finn and drive out over the moors north of Mochrum. Here, in a lonely field ,you suddenly come up against the surreal sight of a large herd of shaggy Galloway Belties. As the name suggests, this special local breed of cow is all black, except for a neat white stripe, like a girdle, around its waist. Up close they are far fiercer looking than their eyelash-batting sisters on the postcards down in Wigtown. Still, they're pretty enough for it to be best not to visit just before dinner - especially if you've got an organic joint roasting away in High Lodge's Rayburn.

High Lodge costs from £145-£325 per week (01988 600694; www.cottageguide.co.uk/highlodge). The McCreaths also have two larger properties to rent within the main farm courtyard, as well as kennels for guests' dogs. The 2004 Wigtown Book Festival takes place from 18 to 26 September (01988 402036; www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk). For information contact the tourist board (01387 253862; www.visitdumfriesandgalloway.co.uk)

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