Think romantic weekend, and Dumfries and Galloway probably isn't the first place that springs to mind. But from Gretna Green to great ice cream, there are definite possibilities in tham thar hills...
When it comes to fairytale castles it's hard to beat Threave in Dumfries and Galloway. Unlike so many fortresses across the country whose prominent positions make them visible from road or seashore, Threave is tucked neatly away in lush countryside. You’ll have to walk on a pathway bordered by tall grasses for almost a mile and cut through farmland to even get close. Protected by a natural moat, formed by a split in the River Dee, Threave Castle sits on its own private island. To reach it, ring the bell by the jetty and a boatman will appear to row you across the reed-strewn water. Our ferryman appeared complete with straw hat and waistcoat.
Threave Castle is one of those places that evoke fanciful notions of knights and ladies and courtly love - at least until you find out it was Archibald the Grim’s pad, so called because of his reputation as a fearsome warlord.
But from courtly love to illicit love, and Dumfries and Galloway’s best-known attraction, Gretna Green. It’s the Las Vegas of the UK and over the centuries tens of thousands of lovers have made their way here to tie the knot. It’s an unremarkable little town, but thanks to fate and history it has become world famous.
Few people had heard of it until a law passed in England back in 1754 raised the legal age for marriage without parental consent to 21. But this law didn’t apply in Scotland and as Gretna Green stands close to the border, a whole industry sprang up to meet the needs of those who eloped.
Head inside the Gretna Green Story Exhibition and you can read about the scandals, intrigue and dangerous liaisons that followed. Apparently, the road to Gretna was chock-full with wedding traffic – young lovers hotly pursued by angry parents and henchmen, love-rat farm hands eager to seduce wealthy heiresses, cheating bigamists and, of course, doting couples.
Running away to marry at Gretna may be grand gesture enough for many, but it would be hard to top creating a grand design in honour of your beloved, as Devorgilla Balliol, a descendent of David, King of Scotland, did. Take the beautiful coastal road, which offers glimpses of the Solway Firth, to New Abbey and you’ll find the pretty red-brick ruins of Sweetheart Abbey. As its name suggests, it’s a monument to love. Devorgilla was said to be so completely broken-hearted when her hubby John died that she founded this abbey with its beautiful arched windows to his memory. She was later buried here by his side – along with the casket she had carried with her always, which contained John’s embalmed heart!
If the thought of that hasn’t made you lose your appetite, then I recommend a visit to Cream o’ Galloway, one of my favourite attractions in the UK. With a steak house plus an ice cream factory, it’s a real his-and-hers attraction. The ice cream comes in around 30 flavours, including caramel shortbread, whisky with honey and oatmeal. You’ll get to try around 11 of them if you join the Ice Cream Experience Tour. Marry this with a tour of the farm and you’ll also get to meet the prize cattle that provide the finest milk for that ice cream, and the succulent beef that you can gorge on in the restaurant – both the steaks and the organic burgers are heavenly.
In between your ice cream breakfast and steak supper you may like to burn off a few calories. And exercise here is all about having fun. There are two adventure playgrounds with tunnel slides, rope swings and monkey bars, one of which was designed for children, the other with adults in mind. You can cycle on the bike trails or walk along the nature trails – all for free – or you can glide down the zip wire for a small fee.
Dumfries and Galloway is a gorgeous part of the world, blessed with more than its fair share of coast, castles and rolling hills. Even so, Kirkcudbright stands out as a place to rest your head. A harbour town with pastel-coloured houses, it's also home to a cosy yet grand townhouse B and B. The couple who run Number One bed and breakfast are charming, funny, have an eye for interior design and are fabulous cooks. What more could you ask for? A view of the castle perhaps? It ticks that box, too - the icing on the cake for that romantic weekend away.
- Virgin Trains run a fast and frequent service to Carlisle (the gateway to Dumfries and Galloway) from Glasgow and London.
- If you do go by train, Arnold Clark offer car hire and can arrange to meet you at the station.