Starting mileage: 20618 km
Day started: 11:00
Day ended: 21:00
One way Dumfries & Galloway decided to deal with its lack of touristic appeal was to sell itself as a county of, and for, artists. The booklet for art sites from D&G council is thick with sculpture parks, art trails and galleries, and two towns on the southern coast are dedicated to art in particular: Wigtown, the town of books, and Kirkcudbright, the town of painters.
Kirkcudbright, where we stayed the night and came down in the morning to visit, has a small fishing harbour, ruins of a castle, an old church and several streets of brightly coloured, pastel houses, inhabited by various artists of local renown, both now and in the past, culminating in an Art Centre and an Academy in the northern corner. The painters had been coming here from Glasgow in the beginning of the last century, creating a colony that attempted to rival that of St Ives in the south, if the marketing board slogan is to be believed. The name of the town means “Church of St Cuthbert” in a mixture of Norse and Gaelic, which is typical for the western coast of Scotland. Since passing Gretna, the placenames begin to sound as if they were made up by a bored English cartographer, writing down the first sound he heard the locals speak.
The weather in the morning did not show off the best side of Kirkcudbright’s pastel facades, and it was hard to believe we were in the southernmost, and warmest, part of Scotland, until midday when the sun finally appeared from behind the steel clouds. We paused to restock at a nearby smokehouse and castle – only in Scotland can a smokehouse have its own castle – and, with the Galloway Hills loomed over the road, we headed towards Wigtown, when we saw a sign pointing to a chambered cairn a mere half a mile to the north.
Remembering our experience with signs like that from NI, we prepared ourselves for a long and fruitless search, but it turned out the Scots don’t like to play games: the arrows continued on every cross-road, with precise measurements and directions, until we found the cairn itself exactly where it should have been.
From the road, Cairnholy I – the nearer of two sites on the same hill, the other – Cairnholy II – being a simple, though large, chamber – is fairly unassuming, but once you walk around the mound, the view is simply stunning. It is not a big site in terms of scale – just eight stones in line, each slightly taller than a man – but what strikes the observer immediately is the purposefulness of the design. A vast majority of neolithic arrangements are fairly simple, something a child might come up with putting pebbles together on the beach: a few stones in a circle, or three stones in the simplest arch, etc. Cairnholy is architecture.
A man we met at Cairnholy – indeed, a man everyone meets at Cairnholy – had discovered this purposefulness a long time ago, and spent most of his recent years trying to discern its mysteries. As far as we could tell, Joe – Joseph Proskauer – spends most of his days at Cairnholy, observing the shadows, the sunsets and sunrises, calculating and measuring; over the years he had made some startling discoveries; according to him – and there was little reason not to believe his words, since the stones had been set up so obviousl to show something – the shadows of the eight stones at Cairnholy form a complex sundial-cum-calendar. He gave us a nearly two-hour-long lecture about timings and markings he had discovered on the stones; he did give out an air of a man ever so slightly obsessed – but it was a beneficial obsession, far more useful to the world than most.
We spent so long at Cairnholy that we decided to skip Wigtown altogether and go straight to Rhinns of Galloway – a pickaxe-like peninsula jutting both ways from the south-western tip of Scotland. The Rhinns are washed by warm currents on all sides, and the result is a climate far more humid and hot than should be expected of a place on the same latitude as Kamchatka. To make the best use of this weather, a botanical garden at Logan has been set up, and it is now one of the real wonders of the region – a place that should feature at the start of every Galloway guidebook, and makes the long detour well worth it.
The plants at Logan come from places like Tasmania, South-East Asia or Chile; palms avenues, tree-ferns, camellias, eucalyptus groves – all with no trace of a greenhouse, out in the open, half an hour drive from Glasgow. It’s like magic.
At the very tip of the Rhins is an RSPB reserve of the “sea birds on cliffs” variety we had to skip, and scattered around the peninsula are stone crosses and inscribed stones from early Christian period. A few of these had been taken to Edinburgh for research, but we still saw the remarkable double-faced cross at Kirkcolm: one side was Norse, showing Christ dominating a pagan God (Odin or Sigurd or a mixture of both), the other, Celtic, showed Christ dominating a serpent. Each side was carved in a different style.
The North Rhinns is a campsite of the sort we had been staying at in our first journeys around UK, and which encouraged us to drive in a camper in the first place: a tiny place in somebody’s garden, with all the facilities you may need for a peaceful and comfortable night, inexpensive and with good views in each directions.