The South West Coastal Route 300: Scotland's secret corner


23 April 2020
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David M. Addison present five hand-picked gems on the SWC300 travel trail.

South West Scotlandhas been described as Scotland’sSecret Corner – with some justification. At Gretna, most visitors to Scotland batter on north, heading for the Highlands. Little do they realise what they are missing by not heading west on the A75 and picking up the South West Coastal 300 Route (SWC300). It is a land steeped in history. 

Neolithic settlers, the first Christians, the medieval warlords – just some of the peoples who have left their mark upon the landscape in the form of standing stones and stone circles, abbeys and churches, castles and tower houses. It also has associations with Robert Burns, J.M. Barrie, Thomas Carlyle and James Clerk Maxwell to name only four from so many more.

Prepare to encounter the unusual and the extraordinary. Here are five suggestions:

1 John Paul Jones Birthplace Museum, Kirkbean

John Paul Jones museum, copyright Ronnie Leask

Tucked down on the Solway Coast, not far from Southerness, is the humble cottage where John Paul was born on 6 July 1747. He later added Jones to his name before he also acquired the soubriquet ‘Father of the American Navy’. He died in Paris on 18 July 1792, aged only 45. His body now lies in a marble sarcophagus (modelled after Napoleon’s) in the chapel crypt of Annapolis Naval Academy. 

The cottage gives an impression of what it would have been like when John Paul was a boy. In the multi-purpose kitchen, through headphones, you can hear ‘Mrs Paul’ tell you what everyday life was like in the cottage. The extension, built after JPJ’s time, has been fitted out to resemble his cabin in the Bonhomme Richardand where you can see an audio-visual presentation of his most famous battle which was fought off Flamborough Head in 1779.

In the visitor centre nearby you will find a scale model of the Bonhomme Richard and can watch a video presentation of Jones’s life. You can also see the gold medal a grateful Congress presented to him as well as a bronze bust by Jean Antoine Houdon in 1780. Jones was so proud of it he had twenty copies made. Actually, the bust later had a practical use but that is another story… 

Website.

2 Devil’s Porridge Museum, Eastriggs

During World War I, HM Factory, Gretna, as it was called, was the biggest munitions factory in Britain, bigger than all the rest put together – a mind-boggling nine miles long and two miles wide. So big in fact, it stretched from Eastriggs to Longtown on the other side of the border. 

The work force was composed mainly of women – 12,000 of them, the men being otherwise engaged elsewhere. Incredibly, in 1916, 60% of the women were under nineteen. Dubbed the Canary Girls because of the effect the chemicals had on their skin, their main job was to stand in front of huge earthenware basins mixing nitro-glycerine with guncotton. They were making cordite, propellant for the shells. As a war correspondent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited the factory in 1916 and dubbed the hellish mixture ‘the Devil’s Porridge’.

The museum tells the girls’ story in words and pictures and the town, aka ‘Timber Town’, that grew up to accommodate them. Amongst other items, it also relates the story of the ‘Night of a Thousand Whiskies’ and not least, the Quintinshill Railway Disaster of 1915, which, to this day, remains Britain’s worst-ever loss of life on the railway network.

Website.

3 Ruthwell Savings Bank Museum

Ruthwell Savings Bank Museum, copyright pintail12

Ruthwell is twice-blessed. It not only has the world-famous Ruthwell Cross housed in the church (key available from the box outside the manse), but a museum devoted to the world’s first savings bank. 

It was founded in 1810 by the Reverend Henry Duncan – author, artist, pamphleteer, newspaper founder and editor, and geologist. It was as a philanthropist, however, that he created the bank – the need to help his poorest parishioners who received interest on what savings they could scrape together. Whereas other banks required the unimaginable riches of £10 to open an account, all Duncan’s parishioners required was sixpence. It caught on. By the time of Duncan’s death in 1846, there were 577 savings banks in the UK with funds in excess of £30 million.

You can see where it all began on the main street. If you are lucky, you can sit on the chair where the good Reverend conducted the bank’s affairs; see three original savings boxes with three keys each (for security); as well as coins and bank notes from all over the world. But best of all, in an adjacent room, you can see piggy banks in all their infinite variety. Is a piggy bank in the shape of a teddy-bear still a piggy bank, I wonder?

Website.

4 Crawick Multiverse

Crawick multiverse, copyright Rosser1954

This unusual attraction is the creation of Charles Jencks, the world-famous American landscape artist. The 55-acre site, laid out in a disused opencast coal mine, consists of a series of paths winding through 2,000 boulders and megaliths representing galaxies, comets and black holes. At its heart is the massive Sun Amphitheatre capable of holding 5,000 people.

The site is bisected by a 440-yard-long, boulder-lined path aligned north/south, with “intersection” boulders marking the start of other paths running east/west. The sun is seen in eclipse, an effect created by a pair of hemispherical lagoons at its southern pole. There are two main walks: the Low Road and the Comet Walk. At the end of the former, arising out of a desert landscape, are two spiralling emerald-green mounds representing the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies. 

There is much else besides. For an experience that is truly out of this world, this is where to come!

Website.

5 Cairn Holy I and II 

Cairn copyright Parrot of Doom

Near Carsluith, on a hillside which overlooks Wigtown Bay, you can step back 5,000 years and visit two Neolithic burial sites, a matter of 200-hundred yards or so apart. Once upon a time they would have been covered with masses of stones like the Grey Cairns of Camster in Caithness. 

Cairn Holy I is immediately striking, with its eight tall stones standing in a gentle curve like mourners gathered around the grave of some dead hero. The archaeologists tell us there was a forecourt in front of them. They found evidence of burning and from that they deduced that ceremonies would have been held there. The tomb itself consisted of two chambers completely closed-off from each other.

Cairnholy II is a good deal smaller, more compact, and is said to be the tomb of the mythical Scottish king, Galdus, who defeated the Romans. In reality, it must have been the resting place of a really important person; a chieftain perhaps. There is nothing to see now except bare earth, the body reduced to dust long ago – however in the outer chamber, archaeologists unearthed a hearth, a flint knife and Beaker pottery shards. How homely! I’m all for remaining close to your family, but this seems to be taking things a bit far!

Website.

Exploring the SWC300: A Cultural and Historical Companion to the South-West Coastal 300 Route by David M. Addison is published by Extremis Publishing Ltd., RRP £12.99. For more details, please visit the Extremis Publishing website.