Old friends in new places

We had our first extended outing from London last weekend, when we took the train to Scotland to see Michael’s friend Daphne from their undergraduate days. Daphne and her family settled in a remote corner of southwest Scotland (called The Machars) some 15 years ago, closer as the crow flies to Belfast than Glasgow (isolated enough that it served as the setting for the creepy 1970s British cult classic film The Wicker Man). It was the boys’ first experience on a quasi-high speed train (a bit faster than the Acela, but nothing like the TGV), the Avanti West Coast service from London Euston to Carlisle. From Carlisle on a local train (two cars long!) to Dumfries (home to Robert Burns at the end of his life), and then by bus for almost two hours to Newton Stewart–and then another 25 minutes by car!

On Friday, Daphne had meeting in Newton Stewart, the town about a half hour north where her children go to school. She dropped us off at the Kirroughtree Forest on the southern edge of the Galloway National Forest. The whole Machars peninsula is a popular mountain biking destination, and this park had walking and biking trails. We walked a loop that followed the run of an old lead mine chase. This is a managed timber area and among the older trees were magical amounts of mosses. The boys said it looked like a snow-making machine that blew moss had been trained on the area. I’ve never seen anything so green!

On Saturday morning we went for a walk at dawn along the coast south of Garlieston. The pictures below are the taken at about 8:30AM and you can see how low the sun is in the sky still. We walked about a mile and half south to a sandy beach where people gather for swimming and summer picnics. This beach, as well as several others in the area, were used to test floating harbor technologies prior to the Normandy Invasion during WWII (the famous Mulberry Harbors). There were three techniques that Allied engineers came up with for unloading the massive warships involving temporary piers and floating roads that army machinery could be driven over. The Garlieston Boathouse had period pictures of the three options that were tested in these bays.

Later on Saturday we decided to head south to Whithorn and the Isle of Whithorn (two separate towns) before the worst gales from storm Ciara hit. On the way we stopped at Cruggleston Church, a Norman era church (1100s) that is still a functional religious space. (It also doubles as a place for reading ghost stories during the Wigtown Book Festival). The boys learned what how a stile in a stone wall works! The last picture is could be labeled “And how many Scots does it take to unlock a car?” While looking at the church, the battery in the key fob to Daphne’s car died, leaving us all standing out in the wind with no way to unlock her car. Luckily we had a second car and weren’t too far from home!

Later that afternoon Michael and I headed back to Whithorn to explore the St. Ninian’s Whithorn Priory. It is famous as a pilgrimage destination of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. St. Ninian is a shadowy figure in the early Christian history of Scotland, reputed to have been the missionary who introduced the Picts to the faith in the late 4th century CE. In any case, on a blustery February day, the ruins of the priory and his shrine had a very mystical quality to them.

Later, as the storm approached, Daphne was kind enough to drive us to the Isle of Whithorn, the town on the tip of the Machars peninsula. We walked out onto the promontory of the isle that sticks out into the Irish Sea and leaned (literally) into the strongest winds we’ve ever felt! This was the landing place for the pilgrims who used to land to visit St. Ninian’s. The ruins still frame a view of the sea.

As we later learned from the news, other parts of the UK were badly pummeled by Ciara on Saturday night and Sunday, but the Galloway region of Scotland came off rather lightly. The winds remained powerful, but it was generally dry, so on Sunday morning Daphne’s husband Chris took us to two other sites of historical and natural historical interest. First, we stopped at the Martyr’s Stake in Wigtown. Here, two Covenanter women who refused to swear fealty to King James as the head of the church in 1685 were tied to a stake out in the tidal river at low tide and, well, the tide came in.

We then headed up the Queen’s Way into the hills, where waterfalls engorged by the rain thundered down barren slopes and wild goats grazed (Isaiah loved them). It was lovely to be away from the city for a few days, frankly.

The balance of our time we spent in quiet village life, either wandering the Garielston and its environs (different at every hour of the day) or hanging out with Daphne and her delightful family. We even got an introduction to the Scottish sit-com Still Game one evening, with a sense of humor and some accents that sometimes needed translating. We parted on Monday feeling cheered and humbled by their hospitality.

Daphne kindly drove us all the way to Dumfries, where we spent nearly two hours wondering if we’d make it to Carlisle in time to catch our train back to London. The flooding and wind damage wreaked havoc on British rail system. But after a bus shuttled us to Carlisle we reached the platform literally minutes before the train departed.

We spent a long time here on the way home awaiting Scot rail to resume service to Carlisle which had flooded in the storm the day before.

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