This post is part of a paid partnership with Visit South West Scotland to showcase the beauty of the night sky and the many diverse attractions in this part of the country
A 3 day itinerary for exploring South West Scotland
Not only is the South West of Scotland packed with attractions for all ages and interests, it is also one of the best places in the country to enjoy a dark sky experience and stargazing has become one of the most popular evening activities.
You could get away from it all and hang out beneath the stars in the peaceful Galloway Dark Sky Park, or do as I did, and base yourself in Moffat, Europe's first Dark Sky Town. Staying here offers the best of both worlds, a bustling hub of independent shops and cafes during the day, and easy access to the wonders of the night sky after dark thanks to a community observatory and special lighting that keeps light pollution levels low.
Moffat is surrounded by forests and rolling hills, yet it is only 1 hour from Glasgow and 90 minutes from Edinburgh making it a great destination for a nature break. It also acts as a convenient gateway to the many attractions in the South West of Scotland as I found out on my recent trip.
From hiking one of the UK's Highest waterfalls to following in the footsteps of Scotland's National Bard or exploring a historic mine in Scotland's highest village, there is plenty to keep you occupied during the day while you wait on the sun to set and the night sky to shine.
Here is my suggested 3 day itinerary for sampling some of the best things to do in the area -
Day 1 - Immerse yourself in the spectacular scenery & dark skies of Moffat
STOP 1 - EXPLORE MOFFAT - EUROPE'S FIRST DARK SKY TOWN
Moffat has a nice mix of historic charm and green spaces. Take a wander along the High Street filled with quality and quirky independent businesses including the famous Moffat Toffee Shop overflowing with colourful old-school sweetie jars and local sugary treats.
Other points of interest are Scotland's oldest pharmacy dating back to 1844, the world's narrowest hotel and a sculpture of the Moffat Ram by William Brodie who is probably best known for another of his statues, Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh. It was commissioned in 1875 to celebrate the town's long association with sheep farming and the wool trade.
Stop by the old churchyard dating back to around 1600 or take a short walk to Station Park, an oasis of greenery with a popular boating pond. You can easily fill a morning strolling around the town and if you've worked up an appetite, I can recommend Brodies on Holm Street for lunch or a tea and cake stop.
STOP 2 - HIKE UP GREY MARE'S TAIL WATERFALL
Grey Mare's Tail is one of the UK's highest waterfalls and despite being only 20 minutes from Moffat, the short drive from the town through hills and glens is as scenic as any in the Highlands, with the occasional sheep jam to contend with. If you didn't think you could find landscapes like this in the south west of Scotland, it might be time to visit for yourself and revaluate your preconceptions about this part of the country.
I'm not going to sugar-coat it, the hike up the waterfall is a proper workout and you will need sturdy shoes and some basic walking gear, but if you are able, the vistas from the top where the water plunges down 60m to the valley below are well worth the effort. If that sounds more than you can manage, you can still enjoy some fantastic vantage points without too much of a climb or just chill out at the viewpoint at the bottom.
STOP 3 - LOOK DEEP INTO THE NIGHT SKY AT MOFFAT OBSERVATORY
Although you can see thousands of stars, some planets and a few other space objects with your naked eye on a clear night, there is so much more you can see with a professional telescope and a bit of expert guidance as I discovered at the Moffat Community Observatory. Located a 5 minute drive or 15 minute easy walk from the town centre, the observatory is open to the public and anyone can book an 'Introduction to Astronomy Session' for free (although donations are appreciated).
My tutor for the night was Stephen Hunter, a local astronomer and astrophotographer with a real enthusiasm for his subject which really rubs off on you. Visits do depend on the sky being clear enough to view astronomical objects so basing yourself close by and being flexible increases your chances of being able to see something. Luckily, my visit coincided with an almost cloudless evening and before long I was viewing the swirls of the Whirpool Galaxy, the aptly named Ring Nebula, the spirals of Bodes Nebula and the Hercules Globular Cluster which looked an explosion of stars on the telescope lens.
Stephen's knowledge allowed him to pick out the best objects given the time of year that would showcase the variety of astronomical objects that lie beyond what you can see with the naked eye. I had a fascinating night and despite having only basic knowledge when I arrived, I left armed with lots of new facts and a greater appreciation of the many mind-blowing things that surround our little planet.
Day 2 - Follow the Robert Burns Trail around Dumfries
STOP 1 - VISIT ELLISLAND FARM, THE FORMER HOME OF ROBERT BURNS
About 40 minutes from Moffat and 15 minutes from Dumfries is Ellisland Farm, a former home of the famous Scots poet Robert Burns. The buildings he designed have changed little since he lived there with his wife Jean Armour from 1788 until 1791 and despite only spending a small part of his life at Ellisland, he produced a vast amount of writing and some of his most notable work there including 'Tam O'Shanter' and 'Auld Lang Syne'.
View the preserved interior and follow in the poet's footsteps along the River Nith which provided him with endless inspiration. Recently taken over by a new trust, business development manager, Joan McAlpine, shared lots of exciting future plans for the farm which will further add to the visitor experience including a renovated cottage which will be opened as holiday accommodation in the near future. I'm already excited to stay there!
If you are looking for a more authentic Burns attraction rather than a museum, Ellisland Farm ticks the boxes.
STOP 2 - PAY TRIBUTE TO THE POET AT THE HOUSE WHERE HE SPENT HIS FINAL YEARS
Visit Burns House where the poet lived out the final years of his life until his death on 21st July 1796 and where his wife Jean Armour continued living until her death in 1834. Today it is a free to visit museum and has been designed to give an idea of how the Burns family lived.
There are numerous artefacts owned by Burns on display and a guide is on hand to answer any questions you might have. A highlight is his small study complete with desk and if you look closely at the window you will see where he engraved his name on the glass.
STOP 3 - GO FOR A WANDER AROUND HISTORIC DUMFRIES
Dumfries is the largest town in South West Scotland but the centre is still easily walkable and I enjoyed a circular stroll, starting in the town centre to view the historic buildings and architecture, before venturing down to the River Nith. I made a pit stop at Kings Coffee and Books for lunch but I can also recommend Mrs Howat's Vintage Pantry from my last visit.
Crossing the suspension bridge I was greeted by some bonnie pink cherry blossom trees as I made my way to the Robert Burns Centre (see below) and then The Old Bridge House Museum (see below). From there I crossed the 15th century Devorgilla Bridge, one of the oldest bridges in Scotland, which led me back towards the town centre for my sumptuous dinner at The Globe Inn (see below).
STOP 4 - LEARN ABOUT SCOTLAND'S NATIONAL BARD AT THE ROBERT BURNS CENTRE
The Robert Burns Centre is another free attraction and the best place to find out more about the poet's time in Dumfries. A small exhibition with information boards and artefacts connected to Burns document his move from Ayrshire to Ellisland Farm in Dumfriesshire, his subsequent move to the town of Dumfries, his final years, and his funeral.
There is information on his occupation as a local exciseman, his character, and his beliefs, which build a picture of a complex personality and respected local figure. By the end of your visit, you will undoubtedly feel like you know Rabbie a bit better than when you arrived.
STOP 5 - VISIT THE OLDEST DOMESTICATED HOUSE IN DUMFRIES
The Old Bridge House Museum is located in the oldest house in Dumfries dating back to 1660. Built by James Birkmyre, a wooden barrel maker, today it is home to a collection of curious objects from bygone times including the dentist's chair and meat roasting jack pictured above.
The museum is free to visit and gives an insight into how the people of Dumfries lived in the past. Information boards tell the story of some of the occupants, including its final inhabitant, Granny Black, and some of the events they would have witnessed, from the five women dragged across the bridge accused of witchcraft in 1671 to the smugglers of the 1700s.
STOP 6 - EAT A SUMPTIOUS DINNER AT BURNS' FAVOURITE HOWFF IN DUMFRIES
When I lasted visited The Globe Inn, it was for a tour of the rooms connected to Robert Burns. At that time I made a mental note to return for dinner some day as the restaurant and food looked incredible.
As it turned out, I was back sooner than I thought, with the opportunity to try out their 5 course tasting menu which showcases local produce and the skills of the chef. It was an exquisite (but not pretentious) dining experience from the arrival of the dainty and vivid canapés of smoked salmon galette, roe and fennel crown; and bacon and beetroot madeline, orange gel and marigold, to the range of petit fours which included man o'words whisky and orange chocolate, and kola cube jelly.
My main course of venison tartare was served with a croquette in a glass dome filled with a peaty smelling smoke which transported me straight to a cosy cottage and a roaring fire. The palette of colours, the aromas and the presentation combined to create a menu that was a treat for the senses.
At £55 for multiple dishes, it is also excellent value in my opinion and if you are visiting Dumfries, there is no better way to treat yourself. I recommend combining it with a pre-dinner Burns Tour for a very special experience.
Day 3 - Take in some of the other diverse sights in the area
STOP 1 - DISCOVER THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL'S BEEFTUB
A short and scenic drive from Moffat is the 'Devil's Beeftub', a striking dark hollow in the hills once used to conceal stolen cattle. However, it was not just a place for hiding livestock, it is said William Wallace held secret meetings with local clans here and Covenanters used it as a hideout during the Killing Times.
Today it is a haven for walkers and photographers, with a circular trail to follow if you have the time. I only managed a photo stop from the designated layby but it is definitely a hike for the future as this is another stunning landscape in South West Scotland that I'd love to see more of.
STOP 2 - HEAD DEEP UNDERGROUND AT SCOTLAND'S HIGHEST VILLAGE
I love surprising people with the fact that Scotland's highest village is in the south of Scotland, many Scots don't even know this! Wanlockhead grew as a settlement after the discovery of the most important lead-zinc deposit in Scotland and although mining no longer takes place, the evidence of it is everywhere, from the visible heaps and shafts to the library, cottages and museum.
The Museum of Lead Mining is the best place to learn about the history of the area. Inside you will find a wealth of information among the various exhibits, however the highlight for me was a chance to head underground on a tour of one of the old mines.
I last toured this mine a number of years ago and was surprised to discover how far it has been extended since my last visit. Shuffling along by torchlight deep into the hillside really gives you a taste of the challenging conditions that the miners had to work in.
Davie, my tour guide, was excellent and really brought the experience to life through interesting anecdotes and pointing out remnants from the past. After we remerged into the light, Davie took me up to the miner's library, home to an important collection of historical books. It always amazed me how well educated the miners were.
Before leaving I enjoyed a wee lunch stop in the café and it turns out when Davie isn't taking tours or digging out mines, he is rustling up some pretty delicious soup and scones, a man of many talents!
STOP 3 - VISIT THE IMPRESSIVE DRUMLANRIG CASTLE AND GARDENS
Drumlanrig Castle is the Dumfriesshire seat of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and sits in the Queensberry Estate which covers over 90,000 acres of southern Scotland. The castle has attracted a bit of attention since it was used as an Outlander filming location and you can book a guided tour of the interior during the summer which I can highly recommend.
On this visit, I spent my time wandering around the impressive gardens which extend to 40 acres so there is plenty to see! The spring colours were just coming in to bloom and butterflies and bees flitted through the air, hopping from flower to flower while chirping birds sang their wee hearts out in the trees.
After a lot of exploring over the previous couple of days, sitting in the sunshine with a coffee from the tearoom in such peaceful surroundings was the break that I needed. With the foliage and bedding plants changing throughout the season, there is always something new to see.
STOP 4 - WALK THROUGH THE COSMOS AT CRAWICK MULTIVERSE
Crawick Multiverse seemed a fitting place to end my trip to South West Scotland as it brought together the themes of landscapes, mining and the cosmos. As this trip was all about discovering the night sky, an artland designed to inspire deeper reflection about our connection with the universe was a great daytime location to think back on my 3 day adventure and ponder on all the amazing astronomical objects I had seen on my visit to Moffat Observatory.
The former open cast coal mine has been transformed into an a landscape inspired by space, astronomy and cosmology. Stones found on the site have been repurposed to create unusual artworks including a hand that points at the North Star, stones perfectly aligned with compass points and patterns that represent galaxies and comets.
Created by the late Charles Jencks, it feels like an ancient stone landscape although it is very much inspired by more recent scientific discoveries and theories about the universe. The views from the top of the ridge across the artland to the pretty hills and valleys beyond is spectacular.
From hikes reminiscent of the Highlands to scenery that inspired arguably Scotland's greatest poet, to magnificent castles and underground mines, the South West of Scotland is full of surprises. At the end of a day exploring, be sure to find a quiet spot, put your feet up and take some time out to marvel at the exceptionally beautiful dark skies that shroud this part of Scotland, it will be a trip you won't forget any time soon.
My Base - The Buccleauch Arms Hotel in Moffat
During this trip I stayed at The Buccleuch Arms Hotel in Moffat which is centrally located for visiting many of the attractions mentioned and especially handy for visiting the observatory. The building is a former coaching inn dating back to 1760 which is now run as a family hotel, with three generations of the Smith family working in the business.
The team have recently won awards for 'outstanding customer service' and 'outstanding family business' and I can understand why. On arrival I received an extra warm welcome and throughout my stay the family and staff were on hand to make sure everything was exceeding expectations, to offer advice on things to do in the area and just generally catch up with guests during their stay.
Although it is a hotel, it had a more intimate family feel that is usually found in smaller establishments and I think that comes down to the owners seeming genuinely interested in getting to know their guests on a personal level and being hands on in running every aspect of the hotel. Director, Clint, even gave me a lift down to the observatory to make sure I got there okay which is definitely outstanding customer service.
The family hail from Zimbabwe which explains why the dinner menu features some South African dishes, an unexpected find in a historic Moffat inn and naturally I had to give them a try. I opted for the Bobotie, a spiced mince dish topped with an egg mixture, and finished off with 'Lekker' Malva pudding which has some similarities to a sticky toffee pudding but fluffier and lighter. This was my first time trying South African cuisine and the bar has been set high because I scooped up every crumb of both dishes.
In the morning I was impressed to be given a separate gluten free breakfast menu which didn't compromise on choice and I should mention that many of the dinner dishes were also available gluten free which was a bonus.
The Buccleuch Arms isn't your typical hotel stay and if you are interested in the history of Moffat, you will love the old photographs and mementos that decorate the public areas.
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