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Hills of Dumfries and Galloway
Rolling hills of Dumfries and Galloway

Don't trot out your Gucci or designer Gortex in Kirkcudbright, Scotland. Chunky cable-knit sweaters, worn blue jeans and wind-tousled hair are the norm in here, a casual chic attitude shared by the artists, the fishers, the hikers...just about everyone, really.

The village, tucked into the balmy coves of the southern coast, is that sort of place: a seaside resort untarnished by plastic, neon and tourist traps. Go there to daub at a canvas or to ramble the rolling hills of Galloway, among the sheep and Beltie cows. Snuggle into a cafe and wash down scones and clotted cream with a pot of strong Darjeeling. Trace castle ruins along a sparkling shoreline. But don't expect to see and be seen. Kirkcudbright is all about introspection and natural beauty.

The area may be called the "Venice of Scotland", but it has none of the flash associated with gondolas, huge cathedrals and the clatter of stilettos on arching stone bridges. Instead, low terrace houses line the broad streets, boasting the odd peaked gable, pastel trim or coat of black paint, shiny like a wet seal bursting from the sea.

The emerald hills loop over the horizon, thick with trees and shaggy meadows. Commercial fishing boats unload at the quay, nets glaring bright through the shreds of morning mist. Buoys are sold here - and hurricane lamps - but few fridge magnets, peppy t-shirts or plaster models.

Kirkcudbright (pronounced Ker-coo-bree) is a simple, lovely town, which stays true to its ideals. As mystery maven Dorothy L Sayers said: "In Kirkcudbright, one either fishes or paints." She should know. The creator of Lord Peter Wimsey was a regular visitor there in the 1920s.

Sayers wasn't the only writer to draw inspiration from this tranquil landscape. The poet John Keats made a walking tour through here in 1881. "Kirkcudbright County is very beautiful, very wild, with craggy hills," he wrote. "The country is very rich, very fine, and with a little of Devon."

Walter Scott dubbed Dumfries, a neighbouring town, the "Queen of the South". JM Barrie went one better and transformed this magical atmosphere into Never Never Land, the setting of his beloved children's book. The author fondly recalled playing on the banks of the River Nith as a child.

He admitted: "When the shades of night begin to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was long after to become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which was enchanted to me, was the genesis of that nefarious work."

The area also inspired Robert Burns, Scotland's most venerated poet. He held court at the Globe Inn on High Street in Dumfries - and even crudely scratched poems onto a windowpane with a diamond stylus. Burns died in a simple sandstone house, aged just 37, in 1796. Visit his humble home (free; Burns Street, Dumfries; 01387.255.297) or the more content-rich Robert Burns Centre in an 18th-century watermill (£0.60-1.20; Mill Road, Dumfries; 01387.264.808).

That's just the tip of the intellectual iceberg. This region claims the invention of the bicycle (and a famous British children's ditty about a centipede. The locals are still trying to live that one down). Kirkcudbright's shimmering light attracted famous Victorian painters, who formed an artists colony. EA Hornel, Jessie M King, her husband EA Taylor and Charles Oppenheimer were the most prominent. Burns claimed no student's training was complete without a season there.

Seaside Village of Auchencairn
Shimmering shore and mud in Auchencairn

Even the town's downsides - like the sprawling mud flats left by intense tides - were turned to good advantage by these bohemians. Lord Cockburn didn't find it quite so appealing, however, during his 1844 visit. "The painters don't dislike this substance, which they aren't required to touch. It is not unpicturesque, of a leaden grey colour, very shiny in the sun even silvery in appearance; utterly solitary, except to flocks of long-billed and long red-legged sea birds."

Cockburn, less enchanted with the muck, considered it "a world of sleech...a town surrounded by a lake of bird-lime." Yet that didn't stop him from coining the "Venice of Scotland" tag and admiring its charms. "I doubt if there is a more picturesque country town in Scotland. Small, clean, silent and respectable it seems the type of place to which decent characters and moderate purses would retire for quiet comfort," he wrote in "Circuit Journeys".

The same holds true 160 years later. When the frazzle of Edinburgh and stark Highland fortresses become overwhelming, detour to this unpretentious, cozy village. The Gulf Stream kisses the coast here, so you'll spot the odd palm tree among the moors, smugglers' bays, crags, crumbled abbeys and martyrs' graves.

Art buffs shouldn't miss Tolbooth Art Centre, which traces the history of the painters' colony. Keep an eye out for the chains and manacles outside, where felons were once chained to this 1629 building (£1.50; closed Sunday; High Street, Kirkcudbright; 01557.331.556). The Hornel Art Gallery showcases paintings, antiques, oriental curios, a 20,000-volume library and a hybrid Japanese-Scottish garden designed by its former owner, a founding member of the Glasgow Boys movement (£2; Broughton House, 12 High Street, Kirkcudbright; 01557.330.437).

The Stewartry Museum concentrates on natural and local history, including the earliest surviving sports trophy in Britain, still used to honour shooting prowess (£1.50; St Mary Street, Kirkcudbright; 01557.331.643). Stroll down Cuthbert Street to the eerie shattered ruins of McLellan's castle, built in 1582 (£2, town centre on the A711).

Peacock Resting Upon Wrought Iron Fence
The wrought-iron elegance and lush foliage typical of southern Scotland.

Dreamy, quaint Kirkcudbright also makes an excellent base for exploring the Dumfries and Galloway region. Drive out to "the little, bright, rose-bowered, garden-circled, seaside village of Auchencairn", as an early visitor - Mr Crockett - described it. Stone and slate homes tumble down a steep hill, facing the Solway Firth. Walk along the headlands and secluded sandy beaches, keeping an eye out for dolphins and nesting sea birds.

Mary Queen of Scots spent her last night on Scottish soil just outside this village. She sheltered in Dundrennan Abbey en route to exile in England. Shy, solitary Cistercian monks built this structure in the 12th century. Today, ghostly arches frame only lush plants, alone in a secluded valley (£1.50; A711, 5 miles southeast of Auchencairn; 0131.668.8800).

Other attractions include the Orchardton Tower, a smooth nub which was once a 15th century fortification. This was the only Scottish Tower House built in the cylindrical style more common to Ireland (Off the A711, 4 miles north of Auchencairn). Two miles further lies the North Glen Gallery, where glassblowers Ed and Tom Iglehart demonstrate their craft for visitors (01556.600.200. Call before arrival).

Amanda Castleman Gazing Over the River Dee
The author gazes over the estuary of the River Dee, bordering Kirkcudbright.

Their luminous art and jolly patter are as close as the area comes to dazzle. But for serenity Kirkudbright is hard to beat. A week here will soothe your soul, refresh your belief in the kindness of strangers, the magic of childhood and the beauty of mud. So wiggle into your worn woolens and head off to Never Never Land. Even if you don't believe in fairies, it'll leave you clapping.

IF YOU GO...

Transport
Kirkcudbright is a 7-8 hour drive from London. Edinburgh and Glasgow are just two hours away (first star on the left, then straight on till morning). The closest airports are Glasgow (www.glasgow-airport.com), Prestwick (www.gpia.co.uk), Edinburgh (www.egph.co.uk) and Newcastle (www.newcastleairport.com). Ferries to Ireland dock at the nearby port of Stranraer (www.stranraer.org).

Excellent train service connects the Dumfries-Galloway area with the North, Midlands and London (www.rail.co.uk). Bus 505 runs between Dumfries and Kirkcudbright (0870.608.2608). However, a car is recommended for touring the countryside.

Where to stay
Budget
The simple Royal Hotel warmly welcomes visitors to Kirkcudbright with a bar offering Tennent's Lager, McEwans and other Scottish brews (St Cuthbert Street; 01557.331.213; www.theroyalhotel.net). Alison Bradley's B&B faces the grey splendour of McLellan Castle, as well as the River Dee. Non-smokers only (9 Castle Gardens, Kirkcudbright; 01557.331.218).

Moderate
Robert Burns reputedly wrote the "Selkirk Grace" in 1794 at the Selkirk Arms, now a charming member of the Best Western chain on High Street, Kirkcudbright (01557.330.402; www.selkirkarmshotel.co.uk). The McLaughlin family offers B&B rooms with river views. Their Georgian townhouse was once owned by EA Hornel and rented to fellow artist Charles Oppenheimer. Lounge in the sun-drenched garden eating home-baked chocolate chip cookies (14 High Street, 01557.330.766).

Luxury
Once the shooting lodge of Closeburn Castle, the Trigony Hotel still combines gracious living with rural charm. You can even watch Shakespeare there in the summer months, set against golden stone and dripping ivy (Closeburn, Thornhill, Dumfries and Galloway; 01848.331211; www.trigonyhotel.co.uk). For special occasions, rent a 19th-century manor, set on lush lawns. Park House sleeps 8, 16 or 24 (01557.330.308; www.kent3.btinternet.co.uk)..

Where to eat
Mulberries Coffee Shop provides a mellow pink and gold backdrop to your tea, scones and clotted cream - or jolting espresso (11-12 St Cuthbert Street). The Crow's Nest, in the old smuggler's cove of Palnackie, serves up typical stodgy fare: soup, sandwiches, steak and onion rings, scones and all-day breakfast (01556.600.217).

Information
Collect further information from the Dumfries and Galloway Tourist Board (64 Whitesands, Dumfries; 01387.253.862; www.galloway.co.uk). Rangers can advise on local trails and nature excursions (4 Market Street, Castle Douglas; 01556.502.351). Helpful sites include www.dumriesandgalloway.co.uk; www.kirkcudbright.co.uk; and www.auchencairn.org.uk.

 

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