The River Nith at Dumfries
Southwest Scotland is an area Ted and I knew very little about, despite being fairly close to home. In my younger days in Scotland you either headed north to the Highlands or straight down the West Coast Main Line or the A74 to England. In 1975 a friend and I had a few days hitching around the area and that is about it. To rectify this we’ve paid four short visits to the area – roughly a triangle bounded by Annan, Stranraer and Ayr.
In 2011 we visited Kirkcudbright and Kirkcolm, in 2015 we reached the Isle of Whithorn and South Ayrshire, in 2016 Kippford and Moffat and in 2022 Dumfries and Annan. Our notes are arranged roughly from East to West, starting with Dumfries, the largest town and first calling point on all four visits.
Each time we reached Dumfries by rail from Carlisle. Ostensibly a rural area the journey passes by or close to Kingmoor freight yard, the Longtown Military Railway heading off to the huge Longtown Munitions Depot, Eastriggs Munitions Depot (last used about 2010), the redundant Chapelcross nuclear power station decommissioned in 2004, less visible since the cooling towers were demolished in 2007 (though it will be 2095 before the site is fully cleared), pharmaceutical and boiler factories outside Annan and the site of Powfoot ordnance factory (closed in 1993). It was the militarisation of this area during the first world war that led to licensing laws, the weakening of beer and the nationalised local pubs and the Carlisle State Brewery to keep the workers (relatively) sober.
On one journey, just before Dumfries the train horn sounded, to warn some track workers of our approach, but then it kept on blaring. Two Scotrail drivers sitting near us jumped up and headed for the cab, worried that the driver had collapsed at the controls – it turned out the horn had simply stuck.
Each journey began by heading out of the station at Dumfries and into the centre of town – There are handsome red sandstone buildings such as the Cairndale Hotel and Dumfries and Galloway Council headquarters. Dumfries makes much of its connection with Rabbie Burns, who spent the later years of his life there and his statue looms over the main square at the top of the High Street. On our most recent visit the High Street looked as though it was suffering with several closed shops and English Street (the road from the station) was very rundown. This is despite Dumfries being the main centre for a large area – hopefully things will improve.
On all our previous visits we spent only an hour or two in Dumfries, waiting for buses or trains (i.e. going for a couple of pints of lunch). We decided in 2022 to spend a night in Dumfries and Ted and I used it to explore the town (and its pubs) a little more, staying overnight in the Cairndale Hotel, together with our friend Ken – that’s him outside the Midsteeple.The New Bazaar, Dumfries and, below, Steve and Ted enjoy a pint inside.
On each visit we headed for the riverside at Whitesands. This would be a nice spot if it wasn’t mainly a car park, and it is also where the long distance buses pull in. As a plus there are two pubs. We’ve had a pint in the Coach and Horses back in the day. The beer was good, and from the posters it looked like an excellent music venue. In 2022 it has limited opening hours, but it is still in the Good Beer Guide 2022 and features live music, though it was up for sale. The New Bazaar, a few doors away is an excellent traditional pub. It is obviously a Doonhamers pub with a football signed by the Queen of the South team in prime position above the gantry, and a bottle of specially bottled Doonhamers whisky to celebrate the team becoming Scottish Second Division Champions Division 2001-2. Wow. The beer is good and the punters are friendly, though once again in 2022 there was a for sale sign, and we hope it remains much as it is.
Back in 2016 we just missed a bus to Dalbeattie so we had almost an hour to pass, this time in the Caven Arms, which had won local CAMRA awards every year for the last ten years (and remains in the 2022 Good Beer Guide). At lunchtime it was busy mainly with diners though it had a wide selection of beers and the the staff were friendly. We returned in 2022 and for our evening meal. It was busy, the food was tasty – I had a Criffel chicken, named after a local hill (the name appears on everything) – and the bar area looked like it would become a good pub later in the evening.
In 2016 we had another hour at Dumfries waiting for a connection to Moffat and we tried the Wetherspoon’s pub Robert the Bruce. In the bar there was a Robert the Bruce Community Board, advertising meditation classes, though I reckon that pillaging classes might be more appropriate to Bob.
On our first visit to the Tam O’ Shanter Inn, pictured above the pub was busy and the banter was lively:
Bloke number one ‘If ah could pish petrol ah’d pish oan him and set a match to it’.
Barmaid ‘you’re being a right wee bitch the day’
Bloke number two ‘live and let live’.
We returned in 2022. It has been refurbished, was quiet that evening, though friendly and with decent beer. In fact, every pub in Dumfries was remarkably quiet for a Thursday evening – it was before pay day and after a fair weekend. With more time in 2022 we also visited the Douglas Arms, down a side street towards the river. Another good one, maybe catering to younger people, with good beer, interesting signs and a friendly landlady. We called in at the Fleshers Arms, which was a bit soulless, though the landlord provided the entertainment by playing bizarre Country and Western songs on the video jukebox. We paid a brief visit to the historic Globe Inn, Burns’ local, complete with ‘Mind yer Heid’ notice (pictured) but unfortunately the beer was undrinkable.
On previous visits we returned home to Durham by train from Dumfries. However, in 2022 we covered the stretch to Carlisle by bus. and took the opportunity to stop in Annan for an hour. We were in time for the Blue Bell Inn to open. The pub has been in the Good Beer Guide for donkeys years, justifiably. Much of the decor, such as the bar and the wood panelling dates back to the Gretna State Management Scheme days, when all the pubs in the area were nationalised, from 1917 to 1972. The owners, staff and punters are all friendly and it is well worth a stop if you’re passing through. It is close to the bridge over the River Annan at one end of the prosperous-looking High Street.
The bus to Moffat is a very flash coach – it is the local bus as far as Moffat but then heads up the motorway to Glasgow. The road out of Dumfries is littered with the usual car showrooms but once in the country the land is largely forested and most of it seems to be owned by the Annandale Estates. We passed fairly close to the village of Ae (only mentioned because we like the name), cross the railway line and motorway at Beattock then up the hill to Moffat.
The location of Moffat away from the motorway and railway line means that I’d never been there before. It is attracrive in a small town Scottish sort of way – there’s a huge Walkers shortbread lorry delivering supplies to the natives to keep them going and plenty of woollen, tartan and tweed shops. It is the home of Moffat toffee and there is a statue of a ram with no ears in the middle of the High Street. The street would be impressive if it hadn’t been turned into a giant car park and getting around town means dodging traffic. Another of Moffat’s no doubt many claims to fame is the Star Hotel (pictured), in the Guinness Book of Records © as the narrowest hotel in the world – 20ft wide. Not only that but it still has a plain public bar round the side – most Scottish hotels used to have one but very few do now. So we paid it a visit, had a decent pint and also managed a half hour in the bar of Stag Hotel along the road, before it was time for the bus back to Dumfries.
Moffat – essential food delivery
The Kippford trip
View from Rockcliffe over the Urr estuary towards the Solway Firth
Our 2016 visit to Kippford took us by bus via Dalbeattie where we had seven minutes to wait for the connecting bus – time for an essential quick visit to the loo in the Maxwell Arms (and a quick half pint of fizzy Belhaven). On the road out of town we passed a pub called the Cum Ye Inn, which sounds as though there will be interesting goings on in the back room later at night, but then again, maybe not. We reached Kippford but it was still early and it was dry so we remained on the bus to the next village Rockcliffe and walked back along the coast path. The half-hour walk is on a quiet footpath with good views over the estuary, where the Urr Water flows into the Solway Firth.
The River Urr at low tide
We chose Kippford because it looked like a nice spot and the Anchor Hotel was in the Good Beer Guide. After a walk around and a pint we decided we liked Kippford – it is a mixture of upmarket sailing types and families from the caravan sites nearby. It is a small village and quiet – the road in is a dead end and there is no through traffic. The main street has the hotel and cottages on one side and the river on the other. There is a small lifeboat station and Kippford is also the home of the Solway Yacht Club. Like much of the Solway Firth the tidal range is large and the yachts are only able to get out at high tide. From our bedroom window in the Anchor we watched the tide come in and some of the strange currents that form as the mudflats are submerged. The Anchor Hotel is a welcoming pub with rooms – it is still there and getting good reviews. The public bar area is cosy with a wood-fire burning and the beer is good – I drank Sulwath Criffel (that hill again), a fairly strong bitter brewed up the road at Castle Douglas. The food was good as was the banter with the staff and punters.
The Anchor Hotel, Kippford
We had a sound night’s sleep and a (very) full breakfast. The morning was miserable with poor visibility and smirr which soaked you without you seeing it. We took the bus back to Dumfries the long way round via the coast. It is just over 20 miles by the coast road but takes about 80 minutes with diversions into villages at the end of cul-de-sacs – Kippford itself, Rockcliffe, Southerness and Carsethorn. At Sandyhills we changed buses – the minibus headed back to Dalbeattie, a regular bus arrived, turned round, picked us up and headed back to Dumfries. The tourist literature refers to this area as ‘the secret coast’ and it was quiet. There are quite a few caravan sites dotted around, but it is difficult to see where people will come from – it is a long drive from any major city for a weekend break. It was difficult to see much of the scenery through the gloom and the condensation but it looked like pleasant countryside, with long beaches on the coast. Southerness is a large holiday park in the middle of nowhere and a few damp refugees from the camp boarded, heading into the toon (Dumfries) for the day. Kirkbean is the birthplace of John Paul Jones, founder of the US Navy, and has an odd-looking church. Carsethorn these days is only a row of cottages with an attractive pub, the Steamboat Inn, though in the past it was well known as a port from which many emigrated (voluntarily or otherwise) to Australia and America. On the left is the prominent hill of Criffel, named after the beer, and at New Abbey the remains of Sweetheart Abbey could be seen through the gloom. It was the day of the Scottish Parliament elections and there were plenty of Tory posters in the middle of the fields, presumably to remind the sheep how to vote. In the towns the posters were for the SNP plus a smattering for the Greens – Labour and the Lib Dems scored zero posters.
Kirkcudbright – The Gordon Arms Hotel and MacLellan’s Castle
We visited Kirkcudbright on the first of our recent visits in 2011. This was before I started taking notes and writing up our journeys for the website, so my memories are limited. We stayed in the Gordon Arms Hotel, which was cheap and cheerful and had decent beer, though it appears to have closed since then. We recollect a pleasant wander round the town and an excellent haggis supper from the chippy by the harbour.
Newton Stewart, The Machars and the Isle of Whithorn
Isle of Whithorn
In 2015 we caught the 500 Stagecoach coach in Dumfries and rolled along the A75 through a mixture of farms, woods, cottages and cows, calling into prosperous little towns such as Castle Douglas and Gatehouse of Fleet, and after 90 minutes were arrived at Newton Stewart. We checked into our hotel then returned to the bus stance and boarded the 415 minibus for a trip through the area known as the Machars to Isle of Whithorn.
The Steam Packet Inn, Isle of Whithorn
The one-hour journey is via Wigtown (Scotland’s National Book Town), Bladnoch, with its distillery (production resumed in 2017 under new owners after a period in administration) and good looking pub – the Bladnoch Inn known for its real ale, Kirkinner, Garlieston (‘home of the Mulberry Harbour’) and Whithorn. I remember Isle of Whithorn vaguely from my last visit when I was twenty years old. We did the same thing as I did then and went for a pint in the Steam Packet Inn. It has an excellent location on the harbourside (though it was a bit cold that day to sit outside) and a wide selection of beers (now with an in-house brewery). There was only time for the one pint before we caught the last bus of the day back to Newton Stewart, and the driver was expecting us. Whithorn is a pretty little place but it looked a bit run down (closed shops and pub). We called in at the Stagecoach depot (a farm shed with room for 2 buses or 4 minibuses) then back to Newton Stewart.
Isle of Whithorn village from the Steam Packet
We stayed overnight in Newton Stewart because it’s the best centre for bus connections and there is a range of accommodation. The towns and villages of the Machars look like good alternatives – the pubs in Isle of Whithorn, Bladnoch and Wigtown all have accommodation. The area generally seemed fairly prosperous, though there were a few closed pubs are around. We had a wander round Newton Stewart. As expected there was not a lot happening on a Tuesday night, though the bus shelter had its complement of disaffected youth sharing a packet of tabs. A couple of pints of fizzy beer and a fish supper and then we had an early night.
The sights of Newton Stewart
Stranraer and Kirkcolm
The Blue Peter Hotel, Kirkcolm
Back in 2011 Ted and I continued onward from Kirkcudbright to Stranraer, with a brief lunchtime stop in Newton Stewart. Stranraer is a scruffy little town largely dependent for work and passing trade on the ferries to Ireland (now all departing from Cairnryan further up the coast). However the Grapes is a smashing pub – unspoilt, full of characters and still in the Good Beer Guide in 2022. We stayed at the Blue Peter Hotel in Kirkcolm, a no-horse village about seven miles from Stranraer on the Rhinns of Galloway. We chose it because it had won CAMRA awards (it’s in the 2022 GBG), and both the beer and the food were excellent. The pub has changed hands since our visit but still gets excellent reviews. I particularly liked the punter who estimated my age as 38. The decking and beer garden attracts wildlife including red squirrels.
The welcoming station at Stranraer
Next day we returned to Stranraer and caught the morning train to Glasgow. Stranraer station is at the end of a pier at the harbour – it seemed like a long walk from town on a wet morning (the town station closed in 1966). Since late 2011 the trains wait for ferries from Larne that never come. The journey to Girvan is through wild country – there is a signalbox at remote Glenwhilly where tokens for the single line are exchanged. It looks as though the railway line has never been touched since the 1950s –though the trains are marginally newer. That trip ended with a late lunch at Mother Indias Café in Glasgow then home to Durham.
On our 2015 trip we headed North from Newton Stewart. The first bus of the day was the 359 minibus to Girvan. We pootled through the woods, calling at Glentrool, a Forestry Commission village. We crossed from Dumfries and Galloway into South Ayrshire and immediately the road surface became appalling. The quiet A road has not been modernised in umpteen years and it was like being driven in the 1960s. After the railway line from Stranraer comes in from the Southwest near Barrhill we crossed over or under the line six times, twice in the length of the same railway viaduct.
At Girvan we were sensible for once. At 1020 the Harbour Bar was already open with a couple of punters having a smoke outside. Instead of going in we wandered around and took a few photos. It was a dreich day, there wasn’t a soul on the beach, the amusement arcade or the Italian café. It looked as though there were no holidaymakers on the Costa del Clyde, though the caravan parks we passed during the morning were busy enough.
A dreich day on Girvan beach
On the busy bus to Ayr the two gentlemen in front were talking about Big Stewart. ‘The one with the bad legs?’ asks one. ‘No, the one in a wheelchair’ replies the other. By the time they get off they haven’t agreed (and we are none the wiser) whether there are two Big Stewarts or only one, albeit at differing stages of dilapidation.
Turnberry golf course and resort (a different world from Girvan though only 4 miles away) was getting ready for the British Women’s Open. The bus travelled on via Maidens, past Souter Johnnies Cottage at Kirkoswald (read your Burns) and the entrance to Culzean Castle, then via a short detour to a housing scheme on what felt like a mountainside outside Maybole, and finally along the main road through the smug suburbs of Ayr.
We had 40 minutes to wait and as we spotted a Weatherspoon’s pub, the West Kirk, along the road from the bus station we popped in for a pint. It must be a listed building – it was every bit a kirk inside and out, with an uncanny resemblance to others I was in in my childhood. At least it’s been put to a better use.
The next stretch was through the South Ayrshire coalfield. I chose the route because I’ve never been before, despite having a family connection with Cumnock (though the details are limited). It is much like the parts of County Durham which haven’t recovered from pit closures. Through Coylton and on to Drongan, which is basically a housing scheme (the original pit village was demolished in the 1930s), and we zigzag through every street. Though it looked depressed, and the Welcome Inn did not look at all welcoming (and it has since closed), there were no empty houses that I could see. There are some new bought houses built at a suitable distance from the scheme, to avoid the inhabitants having to mingle with the village neds. Onward past the site of Killoch Colliery, through Ochiltree, a large village where the only pub was open only
Killoch Colliery winding towers 1960 – 1990
three days a week and has since closed. We passed the site of Barony Colliery, where the A frame winding gear is now a heritage attraction. I remember from geography lessons at school that these were two large pits, but both closed in the late 1980s and there were few signs left of the coal industry. Auchinleck was a bit more lively than Drongan or Ochiltree, though there were plenty of closed shops (and a recently opened Tesco – there may be a connection). Finally we arrived at Cumnock where the bus terminates.
The weather had improved but it decided to shower so we took shelter in the Craighead Inn. There was keg McEwans 60/- on draught and the maximum they felt able to charge for a pint was £2.40. Cumnock looked, felt, and is poor, and I suspected that I was actually older than most of the men in the bar, all of them in poor health.
The Dumfries bus was a full size coach, though were the only person and bear on board as it left Cumnock, and the maximum number of passengers during our journey was six. There was a coal conveyor on the outskirts of New Cumnock – the opencast workings around the town, which replaced earlier pits, finally closed in 2013. The original village of New Cumnock was derelict with no sign of life – everyone lives in the housing scheme up the road. There were quite a few Union flags about which, round here, I suspect (It was July) is more to do with sectarianism than a comment on the 2014 referendum.
Then we crossed over the border back into Dumfries and Galloway and, to be trite, I could say that both the landscape and the social cachet of the area changed immediately, but it didn’t. Kirkconnel is an outlier of the Ayrshire Coalfield, and most people live in Kelloholm, the neighbouring housing scheme across the river Nith, built to house miners. The bus seemed to visit every street. The houses and gardens were well kept and there were no empty houses, but it appeared that every community facility was closed and boarded up. We passed an old coal bing, the final sign of the industry, then arrived in Sanquhar, which marks the real transition into Dumfriesshire, and it looked prosperous. We carried on down Nithsdale, with a glimpse of Drumlanrig Castle (home of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry) on the right, and into Thornhill.
I was in need of a comfort break so it was time to get off the bus. Thornhill is a very pleasant planned village on the Buccleuch and Queensberry estate. We plumped for an hour in the Farmers Arms (always a good idea if you can find an accommodating farmer), mainly because it was the only pub open at three o clock in the afternoon. Definitely a more upmarket village – £3 a pint here. Then on to the next bus which took a back road through Dalswinton, another planned village, Kirton and back into Dumfries and the train to Carlisle and eventually home to Durham.
Another journey over. Ted waits for the train home from Dumfries
Another view of the Nith at Dumfries
Trains run Carlisle – Dumfries – New Cumnock -Kilmarnock – Glasgow and Stranraer – Girvan – Ayr – Glasgow, though the service on either line is not very frequent. The Dumfries and Galloway Council website includes all bus services in the area. Most major bus services are operated by Stagecoach. The key bus service through Galloway is the Stagecoach 500 which runs from Dumfries (Station and Whitesands) to Stranraer via Castle Douglas and Newton Stewart. It runs 6-7 times daily Mon-Sat (4 journeys on Sun), provides connections with local services and the journey takes takes 2.5 hours.
Photos: All photos by Steve Gillon except for the following: Killoch Colliery by www.scotbrut.co.uk; Tam O’Shanter by www.dumfriescamra.org.uk ; Ted and Steve inside the New Bazaar and the interior of the Blue Bell, Annan (pictured) by Ken Donald. The map is from Philip’s Atlas of the World, paperback edition,1996 edition (but the area hasn’t changed much since then). Thanks to Ken Donald for his company on the 2022 visit.
© Copyright Steve Gillon 2015 – 2022
Original version written in 2015 and 2016. Rewritten and with additional photos 2022.