It's not every day you get invited on a trip to a mystery destination in Scotland (well I certainly don't!), so needless to say when I received such an invite from VisitScotland, I immediately cleared my diary and packed my bag for all eventualities. Okay they did specify dress cosy and warm but that seemed a bit vague so I stuffed my rucksack with as many clothes as I could fit, although the fact that one of the zips burst was a sign that I might have packed a few things too many, oops! The trip was a media event to coincide with the launch of their new global marketing campaign 'Scotland - A Spirit of its Own'.
In search of some top secret #ScotSpirit I boarded a minivan in Glasgow, accompanied by a group of journalists and bloggers from around the UK and Ireland and we quickly set off towards our still undisclosed destination.
I was delighted when we eventually stopped and I realised we were in the depths of Galloway Forest Park in a stunning spot overlooking Loch Riecawr. It seemed rather fitting that our secret destination turned out to be in Dumfries and Galloway, a region which still remains secret to many tourists despite it being rich with scenery and steeped in history. Our immersive local experience provided an opportunity to discover some of the elements that make up the Dumfries and Galloway #ScotSpirit.
After a quick chance to stretch our legs, a children's playpark provided a viewpoint and variety of unconventional seating for the group to sit quietly, while we were encouraged to reflect and inhale the unique detail of the surrounding landscape, looking for original photography ideas rather than randomly clicking away with our cameras and phones. Thankfully we had some expert advice on hand from one of the park's new Dark Sky Rangers, Morag Paterson, who handily also happens to be a professional photographer and artist.
In 2009 Galloway Forest Park gained status as an International Dark Sky Park, the only one in the UK and only one of four in the Western world. In a bid to increase tourism to the area in the quieter months, four Biosphere Dark Sky Rangers, from a variety of backgrounds, have been trained to use their personal specialisms in a way that will encourage wider use of the park, with photography being just one of the activities on offer.
Getting a literal flavour of an area, is an essential ingredient to any immersive local experience but how do you provide an authentic fine dining setting in the middle of a remote and commercially undeveloped forest? Well naturally you deliver the restaurant to the park! This is much easier when the restaurant happens to be a converted shipping container on wheels pulled by a tractor.
Once you realise it is one of the latest brainwaves from brothers, Tom and Dick Lewis, of the family run Mhor brand, the quirkiness of it all makes perfect sense. Owners of a hill farm in Perthshire, an esteemed hotel, motel, fish restaurant and bakery among other smaller ventures, a transportable eatery seems like a perfect addition to the family.
However, it is also their passion for local produce that made them the perfect hosts for the evening and both brothers were on hand to tell us more about the ingredients behind the delicious dishes which were either sourced from within 30 minutes of our location or raised on their own farm.
With a full belly and darkness well and truly descended outside, it was time to reluctantly drag myself from the warmth of the wood-burner (yes, you read correctly, the restaurant also has a wood-burner, obviously!) and join Matthew McFadzean, another of the Dark Sky Rangers, for a spot of stargazing.
As we stumbled our way along pot-holed paths in the blackness, it wasn't long before stars and planets began to pop out overhead as our eyes gradually became adjusted to the dark. With no light pollution other than the twinkling canopy above we could easily identify the constellations that Matthew expertly pointed out. With the use of a telescope and binoculars we could even inspect the detailed features of the moon and a distant nebula.
Looking into the night sky is one of my favourite things to do and this is the reason I've camped out in Galloway Dark Sky Park before, however it was fantastic to have a knowledgeable and passionate guide on hand to enhance the magical experience.
After a few obligatory ghost stories around a burning brazier it was time to once again immerse ourselves in our more immediate surroundings and find out just what was lurking in the inky shadows. Thanks to state of the art, hand held night vision and thermal imaging wildlife observation equipment and a guide from Nocturnal Wildlife Tours, I could clearly see everything around me, albeit in shades of white and grey.
Not surprisingly our noisy, gaggling group seemed to have frightened off every living creature for miles but I certainly appreciated how easy the equipment would make it to spot nocturnal nature in the right conditions.
Soaking up the landscape, wild dining with ingredients from the doorstep, gazing at the stars and searching for native nocturnal wildlife, left me with a new appreciation and connection to this pleasantly remote part of the country.
All too often visitors to Scotland arrive on a mission to venture north and completely dismiss the southern regions which always seems a real shame to me. The hills may not be as high but there are lochs, castles and standing stones aplenty if that's your thing. History, beaches, wildlife, pretty towns and villages; you'll find more than your fair share of them too.
The magic and mystery of the landscape is just one of the many elements that VisitScotland want to showcase in their new global Spirit of Scotland campaign and I certainly experienced magic and mystery in abundance during my all too brief night under the stars in Galloway Forest Park.
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