Starting mileage: 20438 km
Day started: 10:00
Day ended: 22:00
Dumfries & Galloway has got a problem. Several problems, actually, starting with being a made-up name and administrative unit and no obvious coat of arms, but it’s main problem is the M6 corridor.
It runs right past the entire county, straight from England towards Glasgow and the Highlands, leaving D&G – a region the size of Devon – to the side, apart from the marriage-themed amusement park of Gretna Green; unless you have a really valid reason to visit, you will join thousands of other travelers going North without stopping.
(There is one other reason to cross the county border, and that is to go on a ferry to Ireland from Galloway Rhinns, but that road also skirts along the side of Galloway, leaving the entire interior behind.)
I’m sorry to report we were initially planning to do the same: drive up the M6 straight to Clyde Valley; but a few days before reaching Scotland we decided we’ll be going the whole way around. This was, after all, our coast journey, not a get from point A to point B quickly journey.
And so, after visiting the Gretna Green – a place where couples from England could famously elope to get married without their parents’ permission; the age of consent is still 16 in Scotland. The marriages took place in a blacksmith’s house, over an anvil, and you can still take the vows there today, at a fee. The place was full of American tourists, searching for their roots, and Japanese tourists, searching for their guide – we turned west from the motorway, into the unknown, mysterious land of Dumfries and Galloway.
I did some hasty research the day before, so we knew roughly where to go and what to expect. The first stop after Gretna was somewhat obligatory: a WWT reserve at Caerlaverock Castle. We skipped one of those back in Lancashire – we really couldn’t stand any more delays in getting out of there – but this one promised to be rather unique. For starters, it was really in the middle of nowhere: a long way down a single-carriageway road across the hills and farmland of Southern Scotland took us to what seemed like a slightly dilapidated farmhouse. Secondly, it didn’t have any of the usual “birds of the world” section that other WWT places have, and which is most of the time the only place to actually see any birds in the reserve. That could turn out either promising or disappointing; promising because perhaps it meant that the native wild birds were the real attraction, disappointing if we couldn’t see neither.
The reserve, laid out in a cross pattern, with two long alleyways leading to two observatory towers, delivered. At first all we could see were seagulls and crows (and some cows) – but a closer look at the grass revealed tens, if not hundreds, of curlews, wading slowly in the marsh (curlews are Europe’s largest wading birds). That was the most we’ve seen of these birds so far, and would have made the journey worthwhile by itself – but then I tried to look through another window, and I saw a huge osprey – fish-eating bird of prey – sitting on the fence no more than a hundred feet away. The last – and only – time we’d seen an osprey was at Thorney Isle, a few years ago, and then it was just a speck in the spotting scope’s eye. This one was up close, fully grown-up, slightly shaggy after the rain, sitting on its fence post for long minutes, letting us ogle it to our hearts’ content. After long weeks of seeing barely a sparrow, we finally had a proper bird sighting to note.
The reserve’s poetic name comes from a nearby, actual, castle – the name Caerlaverock means “Castle Skylark” in gaelic – and that was where we had gone to next. The castle, like so many in Scotland, is now a picturesque ruin, but it’s a lot bigger than the usual “fortified turret”, and is strikingly red. It is also a perfect triangle, and I was reminded of an old computer game I used to play in which you could build a medieval castle; the triangle was the first, most basic shape you could afford, and what I remembered from the computer screen was remarkably similar to what was standing before us: a single gate and two towers behind a moat.
The inside of the castle – in care of Scottish Heritage, which for us meant half-price tickets – is far more remarkable than the outside. Within the 13th century ramparts stands a 16th century wall of a mansion, highly decorated in renaissance style. The red stone and the Rome-inspired decor immediately puts in mind the desert city of Petra; the effect, especially in good light, is nothing short of stunning.
It was getting late, and it was time to find a campsite. We headed for the only C&CC camp in the area of Kirkcudbright (or “Kekubrie”, as some locals call it; Kirk meaning church in Norse) driving along very picturesque coast during low tide. Sadly, campsite was one of those “5 campervans only” sites, and was already full. The only other sites within our range were the garish, terrible holiday parks, each costing a whopping £26 per night, with owners not budging to give us a discount on account of us being late, small and not really willing to use the heated swimming pool and bar lounge; we only wanted a place to stay the night.
This was where we began to get really annoyed; people often think travelling in a campervan means total freedom, but it’s far from it, at least in England – and, it now seemed, the Borders. All possible parking spaces around Kirkcudbright were marked with big signs announcing “strictly no camping” or “no overnight staying” – even if they were perfectly secluded, equipped with toilets and out of sight of anyone who could possibly be bothered by us. It’s much easier when you’re just with a tent, but a car, even as small as ours, is fairly conspicuous, and we didn’t want to risk our trip ruined by an overzealous guard.
Note that the wording on the signs is always vague; “no camping” is straightforward enough, but what is camping? There are no legal definitions of this activity as far as I’m aware; and what punishments awaits those who dare to camp? That, too, is never explained. The fine for not paying for parking is usually £60, and that is said clearly. The fine for a terrible crime of staying overnight is left to the imagination of the driver.
Anyway, this little rant aside, annoyed and tired we discovered that – surprise, surprise – the council of Kirkcudbright was actually running a campsite nearby; with no other options left, we headed there.
Our annoyance aside, Silvercraig campsite is not that bad; it’s quite costly – £22 per night – but it is very well located, right over the town centre, but far (and high) enough for this not to be a bother. Access to facilities is on code lock, which we found a bit odd, but the rest was pretty standard for a medium-sized site.