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A literary tour to Scotland

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online on September 21, 2005

Sarah Anderson turns to her ancestors and Scotland’s “booktown” for inspiration after the nightlife is a let-down in Scotland’s Dumfries and Galloway

However much I travel I am always drawn back to Scotland, which I think has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world – but this is not an opinion shared by everyone: “Shall I tire you with a description of this unfruitfull country? … every part of the country presents the same dismall landscape, no grove nor brook lend their musick to cheer the stranger” (Oliver Goldsmith, letter to Robert Bryanton, 1753).

It is hard to imagine he is referring to Dumfries and Galloway in the south-west, with its fertile farmland, varied landscape and rushing water, like so much of the country. It also has Wigtown, the Scottish Hay-on-Wye, which besides its many bookshops has a live video link to an osprey nest in its local library: “What pleases about the ospreys is the quiet success of their return to their rightful place. A damage remedied, a change of direction in our attitudes, as the bird itself makes the turn into the prevailing wind” (Kathleen Jamie, Findings, 2005).

About 11 miles away is Whithorn, called the “Cradle of Christianity” for its association with the Roman missionary St Ninian. The Latinus stone in the local museum dating from around 400 AD is the oldest Christian monument in Scotland and predates St Columba by at least 100 years: “Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places, Standing stones on the vacant wine-red moor, Hills of sheep, and the howes of the silent vanished races, And winds, austere and pure” (Robert Louis Stevenson, Songs of Travel).

The nearby sandy beaches are empty and a small abandoned chapel and its adjoining graveyard huddle together against what must often be stormy weather but which turns into hot sun for me.

The Maxwell family, ancestors of mine, started to build the present pink-stoned Caerlaverock Castle on the Solway Firth in 1270. It has a moat and its triangular layout is unique in Britain: “In shape it was like a shield, for it had but three sides round it, with a tower at each corner” (Roll of Karlaverock, 1300).

Sir Walter Scott set Guy Mannering in the area: “He had visited, on the day that opens our history, some monastic ruins in the county of Dumfries, and spent much of the day in making drawings of them from different points” – could these monastic ruins be those of Sweetheart Abbey?.

The Cistercian Abbey was founded in 1273 by Lady Devorgilla of Galloway in memory of her husband John Balliol – when she died she was laid to rest near her husband’s embalmed heart. This idyllic site with its red sandstone ruins, set against a granite background and close to the River Nith deserves its romantic history.

After a day of sight seeing I was keen to have a glass of wine, but discovered that you certainly don’t go to this part of Scotland for exciting – or indeed any kind of – nightlife. I stayed one night in Dumfries but couldn’t find anywhere open after about 7 pm, apart from saw-dusty pubs and the odd fish and chip shop, so I retreated back to my hotel, the perfectly adequate Edenbank (enquiries@edenbank.fsbusiness.co.uk), where at least they provided dinner and a drink.

Further north another ancestor of mine, John Drummond who died around 1372, is buried at Inchmahome in Perthshire, a ruined Augustine Priory situated on the Lake of Menteith (the only “lake” in Scotland)- this romantic ruin is one of the many places reputedly visited by Mary Queen of Scots: “The noble stag was pausing now, Upon the mountain’s southern brow, Where broad extended, far beneath, The varied realms of fair Menteith” (Walter Scott, The Lady of the Lake).

Over 30 sculptured stones dating from the 8th to the 11th centuries have been discovered at Meigle in Angus. These Pictish stones are now in a small museum where there is one with a superb carving of Daniel in the lion’s den.

I mostly had picnic lunches and dined with friends but did eat in Edinburgh at Howies (29 Waterloo Place) – where the Georgian building, a converted Quaker chapel of rest, was more interesting than the food.

We had been for a pre-dinner walk up to the Observatory on Calton Hill from where there is an astounding 360-degree view of the city over the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat and the Lammermuir Hills: “Auld Reekie wins every time. The New Town looks pallid beside it, overawed despite itself, like some able and imaginative young executive, fresh from management training, outfaced by a criminal, self-made tycoon” (Jan Morris, A Northern Prodigy from Travels).

Scotland, as usual, captured my heart – perhaps, like Henry James suggested it does take a little effort but: “Once you get the hang of it, and apprehend the type, it is a most beautiful and admirable little country – fit, for ‘distinction’ etc., to make up a trio with Italy and Greece” (Letter to Miss Alice James, 15th September 1878).




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