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Exploring the South of Scotland

Scottish Borders, UK



[I was invited on a Press Trip to #SeeSouthScotland by VisitScotland but all thoughts and love of the region are my own]

Until recently, my knowledge of the South of Scotland was pretty limited. Having said that, it's an area of Scotland I've been eager to explore for quite some time after hearing bits and pieces about the area like the annual Wigtown Book Festival and a charming-sounding place called Peebles. So you can imagine my delight when a lovely email from VisitScotland slid into my inbox inviting me on a press trip to explore Dumfries & Galloway and the Scottish Borders plus the area's strong literary connections. Although we were only in the Borders for four days, we definitely covered significant ground and really got a taste of what the area has to offer. From Scotland's beloved book town to a house that inspired Queen Victoria, I've not only enjoyed exploring the area but learned so much about Scotland. Keep reading to discover my guide to the South of Scotland, and since this was a literary-inspired press trip, I've left book recommendations throughout the post!

Mist rolling into "Devil's Beef Tub"

Exploring the South of Scotland

Peebles - An area of outstanding natural beauty

Peebles is one of the charming little towns dotted along the banks of the River Tweed. We were fortunate enough to visit when it had a dusting of snow, which made it all the more magical! The town started as a market town, then played a significant role in the woollen industry, before finally transitioning into a tourist destination, thanks to the boom in health tourism which flourished in 19th century. We had the opportunity to visit one of the few survivors from the era, Peebles Hydro Hotel, who have recently opened a gin distillery and school called 1881. The 1881 gin is named after the year the hotel opened and uses the water from their private spring.

Peebles also has literary connections as the Scottish novelist, John Buchan, lived there and even wrote about the town. Today, you can visit a wonderful museum called the John Buchan Story which sits on Peebles' high street in a grand old hunting lodge. With its beautiful mix of architecture, interesting assortment of shops, and magnificent views of surrounding scenery, it didn't take long for Peebles to become one of the highlights of my trip.

Book recommendation: John Buchan's classic thriller "Thirty-Nine Steps".



Peebles High Street

Dumfries - Home to literary legends

Next on our tour of the South of Scotland is Dumfries. The historic market town was once a royal burgh and even has the nickname of the Queen of the South! We arrived in Dumfries just in time for Burns Night and spent the evening at Dumfries' annual Big Burns Supper Festival. Having been to a traditional Burns Supper, it was fun to celebrate the life of Scotland's National Bard in a new way. Picture a beautiful Spiegeltent and a host of wonderful bands like Band of Burns, Rura, and Newton Faulkner. It made it all the more special to celebrate Robert Burns' birthday as he spent the later years of his life in Dumfries (you can visit his house, more info here) and was buried in St Michael's Churchyard in a grand Mausoleum.

As if it wasn't enough that Dumfries has strong ties with Scotland's National Bard but it's also where another literary legend, J.M. Barrie, grew up. In memory of the author of Peter Pan and to encourage children to discover a love for reading, the visitor attraction The Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust was opened in Spring 2019. Interestingly, tucked away behind Moat Brae's Georgian House is a secluded garden overlooking the River Nith which was the childhood playground of J.M. Barrie and is said to have been his inspiration for Neverland! Today, the garden has been turned into a magical playground for children of all ages. The Georgian House which J.M. Barrie once said "I was more in that house than any other in Dumfries” has been lovingly refurbished and turned into the National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling. As you enter the house, the first impression is of a museum, however, with paintings coming to life, a guide in period costume waiting to share snippets of history, and Tinkerbell dancing on the walls of Wendy, Michael, and John's bedroom, you're transported from Dumfries into the world of J.M. Barrie. Not to mention, the visitor centre also has a wonderful cafe that serves up scrumptious brunch on Sundays as well as lunch on weekdays.

Book recommendations: J.M. Barrie's classic "Peter Pan" and Selected Poems by Robert Burns.





Kirkcudbright - A charming fishing town with an artistic flair

One of the things I found most interesting while visiting the south of Scotland is that the area is home to various 'designated' towns such as Scotland's "Food Town", Castle Douglas; "Book Town", Wigtown; and "Artists' Town", Kirkcudbright. Kirkcudbright (pronounced kir–coo–bree) gained its title as it was a magnet for Scottish artists in the late 19th century. As you walk around the town, there are signs that show its strong fishing roots. However, behind the harbour, you'll find pastel coloured houses which housed generations of creative artists, a tradition maintained today by a flourishing colony of painters and craftworkers. Furthermore, some of you may be familiar with Edinburgh's famous Tattoo, well, Kirkcudbright also has an annual Tattoo and Riding of the Marches!

Although our visit to Kirkcudbright was brief, I was wholeheartedly won over by its colourful houses with bundles of character, quaint harbour, and stunning surrounding scenery. So, it's no surprise that I'm already planning a return for a weekend visit to further explore the charming town, experience the Arts and Crafts Trail, and visit their six art galleries.

Book recommendations: Dorothy L. Sayers' murder mystery "Five Red Herrings" or a more recent mystery novel called "The Shadow of the Black Earl" by Charles E McGarry.




Wigtown - A book lovers paradise

Since 1998, Wigtown has been Scotland's National Book Town and is home to the popular annual Wigtown Book Festival. Ever since I read Shaun Bythell’s “Diary of a Bookseller”, Wigtown has been on my Scotland bucket list. The town is crammed full of book-related independent businesses and with over a quarter of a million books to choose from, I was in my element. We had roughly an hour to explore the town centre and I spent most of my time running between bookshops and losing myself amongst various bookshelves. Naturally, my first port of call was “The Book Shop” which is Scotland’s largest second-hand book store, with roughly 100,000 books, and is owned by Shaun Bythell. I also picked up a few books at the Wigtown Emporium and the Old Bank Bookshop! Another fact that endeared me to this charming town was that most stores had a 'store pet', whether that be a gorgeous grey cat called Sula, a rather lovely yet rotund cat called Captain, and a very welcoming dog called Wolfie! 

Book recommendation: Shaun Bythell’s humorous "Diary of a Bookseller”.

The Book Shop

Wigtown Emporium

Old Bank Bookshop

Abbotsford House - Home to an often overlooked Scottish literary legend

Last, but certainly not least, we visited Abbotsford House which stands proudly on the banks of the River Tweed and is a testament to Sir Walter Scott's life and creativity. Being a Scot, I was somewhat familiar with Sir Walter Scott, however, I didn't realise just what an important character in Scottish history he is. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Scott, or even if you think you are familiar with him, here are a few fun facts:
  • He is thought to be the first international literary superstar and is considered to have invented the historical novel, with authors like Leo Tolstoy admitting that without the inspiration of Scott's writing his legendary novel 'War and Peace' may never have been penned. 
  • Scott was also instrumental in creating the romantic image we have of Scotland today. Through his poetry and novels, Scott changed perceptions of the Scottish Highlands, from somewhere that was considered to be bleak and dangerous to rugged and romantic. 
  • We also have him to thank for bringing back kilts and tartan, after both had been outlawed since the Jacobite rebellion. 
  • Abbotsford House, which was designed by Scott, so impressed Queen Victoria that she chose to model Balmoral Castle on Abbotsford’s Scottish Baronial style. The house is also a physical representation of the 'Romantic Movement' that Scott helped create.
  • Lastly, some of you may be familiar with the rather impressive gothic Scott Monument in Edinburgh, but did you know it's the largest monument in the world dedicated to a writer?
Scott's View

I also wanted to take a minute to mention "Scott's View", which is just a short drive from Abbotsford House. The lookout was known to be one of Sir Walter Scott's favourite places to visit and reflect. Apparently, Scott's horses were so used to stopping, that on the day of Scott's funeral, the horses automatically stopped at the view.


Book recommendation: After our fascinating tour there was an opportunity to ask questions and I asked which Sir Walter Scott book should a reader start with and he suggested "Guy Mannering”.



Scott's View

Where to stay in the Scottish Borders?

The South of Scotland is a wonderful place for a short break or weekend getaway and there are various places to stay in and around Dumfries & Galloway and the Scottish Borders. These are a few places we visited or stayed at.

  • Peebles Hydro / Peebles

    Although we only visited Peebles Hydro's 1888 gin distillery, what we saw of the hotel looked promising. They are currently refurbishing the hotel to bring it up to date, plus there are spa facilities.

     

     

  • The Cairndale Hotel & Leisure Club / Dumfries

    Located in Dumfries, The Cairndale Hotel is the largest hotel in Dumfries and is family-owned. With comfortable beds, good breakfast spread (with great veggie/vegan options), and friendly staff, it's a great place to stay a night or two while you explore Dumfries.


  • GG's Yard Seaview Snugs / Gatehouse of Fleet

    GG's Snugs offers 18 individually themed self-contained rooms which consist of a spacious bedroom, en-suite shower, and huge glass windows to admire the coastal views. Due to being out in the countryside, there is very little light pollution meaning you can spend the night stargazing! Plus, a short walk up the hill brings you to their charming cafe which serves breakfast and lunch. It's little wonder GG's snugs was extremely popular amongst our group. 

    "The Stag" Snug room


  • Abbotsford House's Hope Scott Wing / Tweedbank

    Not only did we get the chance to visit Abbotsford House, but we even had the opportunity to stay in the Hope Scott Wing. The Hope Scott Wing, once home to Sir Walter Scott’s granddaughter, Charlotte Hope Scott, is now luxury self-catering accommodation which sleeps up to 15 guests. As well as bedrooms, the Hope Scott wing has several drawing rooms, a large kitchen, grand dining room, a courtyard, and much more. It was an incredible experience! 




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