Dumfries and Galloway is a region of remarkable beauty and dramatic, awe-inspiring contrasts; remote wilderness, breathtaking coastal views, historic sites and sensory delights. It has unique magical qualities that emanate throughout the year, but there’s something a little special about the winter time and especially close to Christmas and New Year, when that little puff of fairy dust seems to make things sparkle.
This winter has been far from cold in D&G and there’s no doubt a twinkling of frost or dusting of sugary snow would’ve been lovely. Despite weeks of rain and flooding, Dumfries and Galloway’s immense natural beauty and warm community spirit has shone through.
To celebrate the festivities, we invited people to share their views on what characterises our glorious region during the winter, Christmas and New Year. Entwined with some of our personal favourites, I’d like to present Dumfries & Galloway – A Feast of Festive Delights!
The Abbey of Dundrennan is a spectacular ruin that evokes a profound sense of spirituality, giving you a hint of why the monks chose this spot to build their place of worship. The Abbey is linked with Rievaulx in Yorkshire and it’s believed that Cistercian monks came to Galloway to build Dundrennan, having been invited by David I. Dundrennan, the daughter house of Rievaulx, became the mother house of two beautiful local abbeys; Sweetheart, founded by Lady Devorgilla Balliol and Glenluce, founded by Roland, Lord of Galloway. Having taken 50 years to build, the Abbey was in use for around 400 years.
In May 1568, a famous guest arrived at Dundrennan. Having escaped from Lochleven Castle, Mary, Queen of Scots, spent her last night on Scottish soil within the Abbey’s protective sanctuary. The following morning, Mary was taken from Scotland on a fishing boat bound for Workington; this journey would lead to her confinement and execution. When visiting, there are two notable effigies we encourage you to seek out. One is believed to depict Alan Lord of Galloway; the other has darker associations and shows a monk, said to have been murdered, his disembowelled assassin lying at his feet…
Twelve Apostles Stone Circle
Just a stone’s throw from Dumfries, find yourself transported back to Druidical times, an unassuming field filled with grazing sheep holds in its grasp a magical site – the Twelve Apostles, the largest stone circle on mainland Scotland. There are only eleven stones in the circle, the twelfth may well be situated at the gate and originally, it is believed that eighteen stones formed part of this ancient site. A bronze figure was uncovered around 1882 which was later identified as St. Norbert and is now housed in the wonderful treasure-trove that is Dumfries Museum. You’ll find that some of these ancient monoliths now lie flat whereas thousands of years ago, they may have stood upright alongside their stony companions.
Legend has it that on Halloween night, if you walk around the circle and count twelve stones, you’ll be met with a grim and untimely end! The person who told me this story has carried out this Halloween ritual many times, counted eleven stones and found it a most peaceful place! Some traditions associate the missing twelfth with Judas Iscariot, suggesting it was symbolically removed. Certain stones are said to display cup marks dating back thousands of years. On a frosty or snowy day, the winter breathes vital energy into this site; take a walk there sometime (the Winter Solstice is a must!) and find your own sense of enchantment…
An iconic location spanning the River Nith in Dumfries, the Devorgilla or Old Bridge is much photographed, discussed and written about. Originally, it’s believed a wooden structure spanned the Nith, founded by Lady Devorgilla Balliol in the 1260s. A second bridge, this time made of stone, was erected in the 1430s and was later rebuilt following its partial destruction by flooding. Once, the bridge had nine arches; three were removed in the early 19th century and a flight of steps put in place.
The Old Bridge has witnessed in its long life a diverse range of events. From the darker side of history when witch-hunting and religious persecutions were rife – the heads and right arms of two Covenanting Martyrs were displayed at the Bridge Port – to the Rood Fair, once a massive annual tradition in Dumfries’ social calendar when crowds of people gathered on Dumfries Whitesands. The bridge is a super vantage point from which to watch amazing wildlife, like swans, huddled together – graceful and resilient – a heart-warming vision…
Whithorn Church and Priory
Whithorn is a wonderful, mystical wee town set deep in The Machars and is renowned across the world for being the birthplace of Scottish Christianity. St. Ninian’s Priory Church in Whithorn stands out for its beautiful simplicity and fascinating heritage, with parts of the medieval priory built into its structure. The Priory itself has a unique spiritual atmosphere and origins going back to 397AD , when St. Ninian established the first church in Scotland, known as the Candida Casa or White House owing to its gleaming white-washed appearance.
Following St. Ninian’s death, he was buried here and it became a centre for religious pilgrimage. During the 1100s, the next phase of this fascinating story continued with the building of a grander Cathedral for the Bishop of Whithorn. Fast forward to 1822 when the current church was erected, the area around it becoming a fine historic graveyard. Therein, you will find the nave, now roofless but still powerfully redolent of a more spiritual era…
Whether floating with jagged shards of ice or covered in a thick, freezing blanket, a frozen Scottish Loch is surely a sight that epitomises winter and its transformative qualities. Milton Loch is especially meaningful for one of our page visitors, who put it forward for our blog. In 1953, a crannog, or ancient loch dwelling, was excavated by C.M. Piggott, a fascinating find said to date as far back in time as 400BC. For people wishing to find out more about this incredible archaeological site, check out Canmore.
Battle-scarred and weather-beaten, the craggy vestiges of Lochmaben Castle are a stunning sight in winter. Built by the Hammer of the Scots, Edward I and former stronghold of King Robert the Bruce, the castle also played host to a famous royal visitor – Mary, Queen of Scots. Bordering it, is beautiful Castle Loch, abundant with vibrant life and flanked by peaceful woodlands, this is a rather idyllic location where you can while away the day or night imagining how life used to be.
With such a turbulent history, the castle and grounds have many a legend and ghost story attached which enhances its ethereal atmosphere. Our favourite time to visit is when the frost glistens under the spotlight of a bright wintry moon, your breath creating ghostly vapour trails in the night air. Nothing beats that crisp stillness, the sort of calm where if you listen very, very carefully you can almost hear the metallic chink of swords clashing in the distance…
In the 24 days leading to Christmas, Dumfries had the privilege of taking centre stage in Living Advent, an inspiring community oriented venture created by Donna Winter. The event featured a diverse collection of people and projects from around Dumfries and Galloway. There were Elf Workshops, singing, dancing and live music on the Plainstanes, a Mostly Ghostly storytelling session at Baker’s Oven featuring J.M. Barrie’s festive chiller “The Ghost of Christmas Eve”.
Donna and her colleague Sullivan Michael worked exceptionally hard through biting wind and driving rain to bring a wee bit of Christmas cheer to the historic cobbled streets of Dumfries. These challenging conditions only served to highlight further the passion and dedication of those behind this series of unique events which brought a wealth of festive fun to Dumfries!
Churches, Kirkyards & Burial Crypts
There’s something magical about an old church at Christmas and Dumfries has a wonderful collection; from the oldest town church – St. Michael’s – which towers impressively over the streets then across the river to Troqueer with its atmospheric bell tower that emerges ghost-like on a foggy day. St. Mary’s Church sits in a high, commanding position, Gothic and imposing while the magnificent Crichton Memorial Church features stunning architecture reminiscent of a cathedral.
Dotted all over D&G, you’ll find charming, inviting places; we love Anwoth Old Kirk, ruinous and enthralling with some incredible gravestone sculptures; fascinating Irongray with its Covenanting connections; Holywood, on the site of an ancient abbey; Durisdeer and the Queensberry Marbles; Kirkmadrine, home of early Christian monuments and tranquil Applegarth near Lockerbie. Too many to mention!
Over Christmas 2014, we took a walk round St. Michael’s, St. Mary’s and Troqueer Churchyards. The air was thick with damp inpenetrable-looking fog, its ethereal nature transforming the historic monoliths with a spellbinding shimmer. Another time, the fog had frozen, creating tiny ice particles that gripped the mossy headstones – quite breathtaking.
We also recommend a climb to Repentance Tower for its amazing views and historic graveyard. Particularly loved looking around the interior on a previous Doors Open Days, a must-do if you get the chance. Cummertrees is beautiful in winter with its unusual lychgate War Memorial and Mouswald Kirk, with its elevated position, awe-inspiring views and effigy of Sir Simon Carruthers – outstanding. A friend suggested Carnsalloch Chapel at the Mount, also a personal favourite – a private burial crypt nestled in crow-abundant woodlands near Kirkton. With its overgrown stone steps and heavy old-fashioned door knocker, this Gothic chapel looks straight out of a Christmas ghost story…
Theatre Royal, Dumfries
Think of the word ‘pantomime’ and what do you envisage? Colourful, outlandish costumes, comic capers, the Pantomime Dame and of course, the theatre. Here is Dumfries, we’re exceptionally lucky to lay claim to Scotland’s oldest working theatre and a real gem of a place it is too! Having undergone extensive and radical renovations, Dumfries Theatre Royal recently kicked off the latest chapter in its illustrious life with Beauty and the Beast. The Pantomime is an immensely popular local institution and a much anticipated date in the Theatre’s eclectic calendar.
This building oozes history and has welcomed many leading lights and luminaries of stage and screen through its historic doors; the exceptional John Laurie, National Bard, Robert Burns, creator of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie and has undergone three major transformations, the last being the most radical since 1876 when its capacity was increased to over 1000 seats! No theatre would be complete without a few eerie encounters and in its 223-year-old existence, the Theatre Royal has witnessed a plethora of the unexplained…
These are just a few of the places and aspects that symbolise our region through the dark depths of winter – please keep sending your ideas! Sheena Horner, owner of Galloway Chillies, suggested the Castle Kennedy Christmas Fair as a seasonal highlight. And on a personal note, we love the hot kick of Sheena’s warming Chilli Burns toddy; A cup of the spicy stuff will put renewed spring in your step, a delicious winter elixir! She also suggested House O’ Hill, a favourite eating place and from us, The Nith Hotel and Barbours, where you’re always assured a warm welcome and delicious food in relaxed, convivial surroundings.
The bonnie cheer of Cloud 9 Studios in Dumfries’ Irish Street shines a beacon of light on dark afternoons and inside, you’ll discover the magic of local artist Julie Hollis and her inspiring creations. The arrival of Santa in Whithorn this year was put forward as well as walking in the gorgeous, rugged area around Glentrool. From the team, walks at Kippford and Castle Point featured highly and driving along the eternally beautiful Dalveen Pass. And having just welcomed in the New Year, a hearty rendition of Auld Lang Syne – most famously associated with Robert Burns – still brings joy and unity across the world.
Let’s not forget Dumfries & Galloway’s people; warm, friendly, resilient, creative, dynamic, determined, innovative, inspirational and so much more! We’re really privileged to live in D&G and feel blessed to call this amazing place home.
Happy New Year everyone!
Photo of Theatre Royal: Courtesy of the Theatre
Photo of Cloud 9 Studios: Courtesy of Julie Hollis