Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Galloway’s hidden delights

June 20th, 2015

DSC02686A CHANGE is as good as a holiday, and the Doyenne and I have had both. We are back from a break in Gatehouse of Fleet, in Galloway, an overlooked and beautiful part of Scotland.

The A74(M) runs between ramparts of the Border Marches and the broken foothills of the Southern Uplands, up the eastern flank of Dumfries and Galloway. Most travellers crossing the threshold of Scotland at Gretna Green seem unaware of what happens away to the west, driving headlong on to Glasgow and the Highlands.

After such a quiet and restful week down there I wonder myself how many Scots know just how much the area has to offer. It has its own distinct character and is markedly different from our Courier country.

Grassy land
Both have a coastal plain backing up to hills but where the north-east is predominantly arable agriculture, the south-west is given over almost wholly to grass for beef and dairy, and sheep. It’s green as far as the eye can see – not a plastic polytunnel for growing soft fruit or a yellow field of ripening oil seed rape, which are so much an accepted part of our own landscape.

It’s Belted Galloway country, the sturdy cattle with the distinct broad white belt encircling their otherwise black body. Like Highland cattle, the Belties were bred for survival in the coorse winter weather on high upland hillsides and windswept moors.

Hedges and dry stane dykes mark out the fields there. We’re familiar with beech hedges but there they had a preference for planting hawthorn, and the lacy blossom was at its best a fortnight past. Yellow broom, paler than the prickly whins, gleamed on brae faces and alongside roads.

It was principally broadleaved woodland where we visited. You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to walks – in the woods, on moorland tracks and along the coastal paths. There’s as much diversity of woodland wildlife as I’m used to at home but I was surprised how little wildlife we saw in the fields and along the hedgerows, even taking into account that it’s the nesting season.

They like to paint their house fronts but it all seems quite random and unplanned and the towns and villages are very colourful. The village names themselves have a touch of romance. I liked Whauphill – before agricultural improvements were introduced the whaups, the old Scottish name for curlews, must surely have flocked to the area in great numbers to feed or maybe nest. Beeswing is prettier still – shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peaseblossom.

We took an unclassified road out of Gatehouse, narrow with passing places and running between hawthorn hedges and the distinctive scent of their blossom, the verges left uncut and filled with cow parsley, buttercups, vetch, speedwell, the last of the bluebells and the wild roses starting to bloom.

In blazing sunshine we climbed to the view point at euphonic Knocktinkle and looked back on the Fleet Valley and Wigtown Bay. It was utterly peaceful and unspoiled, just the whickering of ewes calling on their lambs. In forty minutes we saw only one other car. You couldn’t have asked for better.

A local poet had carved into a boulder the verse – Turner painted landscapes / Their beauty brocht him fame / But the landscapes in Fleet Valley / Bear the Murray Usher name.

The Wicker Man
In complete contrast we birled round a bend in the road and were face to face with the Wicker Man towering thirty feet high in a natural amphitheatre just off the A711, near Dundrennan. He’s the embodiment of Scotland’s Alternative Music Festival which takes place on 24th and 25th July.

By an odd coincidence we found it on the day that the death of actor Christopher Lee, who played the deranged Scottish laird in the film The Wicker Man, was announced.

It’s strange what moves the spirit. Two names in Galloway had always attracted me and I was determined to see both on this holiday.

The jig, The River Cree, is a Scottish country dance tune that I’ve known since childhood. It was on an old 78rpm Beltona label record, played by Jim Cameron’s Band, a favourite of my family. We went to Creetown where the river flows into Wigtown Bay and followed its course up the road to Newton Stewart.

I learned the story of enduring love and the founding of Sweetheart Abbey in history lessons and its romance touched my callow, schoolboy soul.

In 1273 Lady Devorgilla established a Cistercian abbey in memory of her husband John Balliol, a leading Scottish noble and founder of Balliol College, Oxford, who had died five years previously. So great was her love for him that she carried his embalmed heart in an ivory box always with her. On her death she instructed that she, and the casket containing her husband’s heart, should be buried together in the sanctuary of the abbey church she had founded.

In tribute to her love for her husband the monks thereafter called the abbey she had founded, Sweetheart Abbey.

Where better could I take the Doyenne?

Written on Saturday, June 20th, 2015 at 2:20 pm for Weekly.