For many, a trip to Scotland means a journey to Edinburgh, with a side trip, perhaps, to the Highlands — maybe even to the Island of Skye. Author Liz Curtis Higgs knows Scotland well, having traveled there 11 times. However, after researching a series of books in the Lowlands’ Dumfries and Galloway, Higgs realized that the southern region deserved a closer look. Her travelogue My Heart’s in the Lowlands highlights the small wonders of this less-touristed region. We recently interviewed Ms. Higgs about the book and her love of the Lowlands.
You call the Dumfries and Galloway regions of the Lowlands “Scotland’s best-kept secret.” What distinguishes the area?
Tucked along the southwest coast of Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway are peaceful, friendly, charming — and often overlooked by tourists who land in Glasgow or Edinburgh, then head north to see the majestic Highlands. All the more reason not to miss this idyllic corner of Scotland with its rolling green farmlands and quiet country roads. Piping hot tea and scones can be enjoyed at tearooms in all but the tiniest villages. History buffs will find an abundance of ancient castles and abbeys in the region. And for those who like a good hill walk, Criffel — a 1,868-foot mound of granite that juts up like a knuckle at the edge of the Solway Firth — offers a steady climb and unobstructed views of the Solway coast and England’s Lakeland Fells.
On your many trips to Scotland you’ve rented a car. Is this necessary to see the region?
If Glasgow or Edinburgh are your primary destinations, a rental car is unnecessary. Day trips to nearby attractions can be handled by bus or rail, and both cities are easily enjoyed on foot — Edinburgh especially. But my curiosity about a region is only satisfied when I can explore out-of-the way places where motor coaches don’t venture: a pottery shop discovered along a narrow lane; the moss-covered ruins of an old church hidden in a secluded glade; an abandoned castle waiting at the end of a road. Driving on the right-hand side of a vehicle on the left side of the road is truly easier than it sounds, especially on the quiet byways of rural Galloway. Stick with automatic rather than manual cars, have your directions in hand before you start out, and remember that traffic roundabouts give you a chance to get it right the second time. Ordnance Survey maps, divided by region and available at newsstands everywhere, are an invaluable resource for explorers.
Any tips for first-time visitors to the Lowlands? A beginner’s itinerary perhaps?
In My Heart’s in the Lowlands, we take a circle tour of Dumfries and Galloway that covers the southwest region thoroughly in ten days, with maximum leisure and minimal driving each day — my recommended method for getting to know a place. Heading south from Glasgow, our itinerary includes: elevensies (lights snacks) at a tearoom in Sanquhar and a stroll through the burgh of Dumfries where poet Robert Burns once lived; a morning in a costume museum and an afternoon in 13th-century Sweetheart Abbey; admiring the daffodils at Threave Gardens and crossing the River Dee on a boat bound for brooding Threave Castle; a tartan-hunting expedition and a breathtaking drive along the Solway coastline between Gatehouse of Fleet and Creetown, once deemed by Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle to have been the loveliest road in all of Britain.
Scottish cuisine is often a derided as a sort of “diet of dares,” thanks to classic dishes like haggis. What local specialties agreed with your palate?
Haggis does sound awful — sheep innards, onions, and oatmeal, boiled in the sheep’s pluck — but the finely chopped, highly seasoned meat is quite flavorful. Often served with mashed tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips), haggis is a must-try dish. More appealing might be duck, rabbit, venison, or lamb — all common on Lowland menus — and the salmon and trout are as fresh as can be, pulled from river that same day. For sweets, sample the sticky toffee pudding, a date sponge cake soaked in caramel and smothered in ice cream, or try cranachan, a cottage favorite made of toasted oatmeal whisked with double cream, castor sugar, and vanilla.
Lots of inns and B&B’s dot the Lowland villages — do you have any favorites?
In Kirkbean, the 18th-century Cavens Country House Hotel provides a grand view and splendid meals. Set amid six acres of gardens, it’s blissfully quiet, with several oversized couches made for curling up with a good book. If you’ve never tried black pudding, Cavens House is the place to give it a go. The Creebridge House Hotel, situated along the River Cree across from the busy market town of Newton Stewart, is anything but quiet, yet that’s part of its appeal. Built in 1760, and added to many times thereafter, Creebridge House is a maze of passageways, all of which lead to your cozy room. Eventually. And north of Dumfries, I’ve happily lodged and dined at the Trigony House Hotel numerous times. An Edwardian shooting lodge built by the owners of Closeburn Castle, Trigony House’s red sandstone walls are draped in ivy, and the broad wooden door is left slightly ajar, beckoning visitors inside. A room with a garden view never disappoints, nor do the sumptuous suppers.
You make an effort to attend local church services when you travel. Do these visits enhance your understanding of a village’s personality?
Oo aye! I’ve found a warm welcome at every parish church I’ve attended. Their numbers, sadly, are dwindling: one Sunday I visited four Galloway churches before I found one with its doors open. But empty does not mean lifeless, since the centuries-old buildings themselves are worthy of a visit. At Durisdeer Parish Church two remnants from the 18th century decorate the pulpit: a pewter baptismal basin and a sandglass to mark the hour-long sermons of old. The view through the clear glass windows is appropriately pastoral and solemn rows of gravestones surround the church, inspiring a sense of the eternal and a measure of reverence. Yet it’s the bright-eyed octogenarian minister and his flock of 30 villagers that give Durisdeer its unique personality. Spending a Sabbath morning in church is the best way to discover the real Scotland…the one most tourists long to find.
— Interviewed by Katie Hamlin
Learn more about Liz at lizcurtishiggs.com.
Scotland’s many charms aren’t kept secret in the Forums.
“We had no trouble finding “walks” wherever we stayed. I don’t think you will have any trouble doing that — most B&B owners will be happy to point you towards local resources, and the local tourist offices also have walking maps.”
“Apparently there’s a little discord at home over the issue of whether Mom and I will kill ourselves driving on the ‘wrong’ side of winding Highland roads.”