As Scotland basks in the heat of a so far brilliant summer, plenty of us will be thinking of our summer holidays. But as the recent weather proves, you don’t have to go far to enjoy a wonderful holiday, and visitors to our bonnie land can enjoy themselves too! Today we are going to look at a region of Scotland often overlooked by the fans of all things Highland and tartan related, the Borders. The southern part of Scotland has an incredibly rich history all of its own, and areas of outstanding natural beauty, from sandy beaches and rolling hills to craggy mountains and vast forests, are home to a plethora of amazing wildlife. The South-West is home to Dumfries and Galloway, and it is here our report will focus on some perfect ideas for a summer break!
The Dumfries and Galloway area is chock full of royal history, with no Scottish king more famous than Robert the Bruce himself! The king is best known for the famous Scots legend about him watching a spider building its web in the mouth of a cave, and continually failing until finally succeeding against all odds, and seeing this as a sign that the Scottish people must continue to fight against the English. Others nowadays will remember that he was a contemporary of William Wallace, as seen in the Hollywood film Braveheart – but what most people don’t realise is the nickname “Braveheart” actually refers to King Robert himself! Following his death in 1329, his heart was removed from his body and placed in a small silver casket. A close friend and ally of the Bruce’s, Sir James Douglas, wore this casket around his neck on a silver chain and rode into battle against the English, rallying the troops to his side in memory of their deceased king.
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During his life, Robert the Bruce spent a great deal of time in Dumfries and its surrounding areas. From the dreadful murder of his cousin and rival for the Scottish throne at Grey Friar’s Church, to his first major victory on the battlefield at Glen Trool, to his last journey to the shrine of St Ninian at Whitburn much of the Bruce’s life centred round this southern corner of Scotland; and an amazing Trail of the Bruce can be followed in this area nowadays, with historians retracing the steps of his life between various locations of importance. The trail is split into sections, allowing you to tackle one portion at a time – or meander between them, ticking off monuments, castles and battlefields as you explore the rest of the region.
If you tire of exploring old buildings, ruins and museums though, Dumfries and Galloway also has much to offer in the great outdoors! The Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve and Wetlands Centre is an excellent day out for all the family, offering walks among the Solway coast mudflats and flower meadows as well as comfortable towers and hides from which many different species of bird can be seen; from ospreys to barnacle geese. Or, for a more culinary experience, why not try the Cream o’ Galloway; where the kids can explore adventure playgrounds and gardens while you see how delicious Scottish cheeses and ice-cream are made, and sample some yourself!
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Of course, true romantics can’t spend time in this area without visiting the legendary blacksmith’s at Gretna Green! This small town lies just over the border from England, and in days past young English couples would hope over the border to pledge their troth as runaways, fleeing the stricter rules on marriage without parental consent for youths down South. Due to a quirk of Scots law, almost any person could conduct a marriage ceremony as long as two witnesses were also present, and so the town blacksmiths became known as “anvil priests”, marrying couples outside their shops using their anvil as an altar! Though the rules surrounding marriage have become much more regulated in modern times, Gretna Green is still a very popular wedding destination – hosting over five thousand ceremonies per year! Perhaps yours will be next…?
And to finally wrap up, you didn’t think we’d forgotten about Dumfries’ most famous son, did you? Of course not – who could forget that Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns himself, though born in Ayr, spent his final years in this beautiful Lowland Borders region! We have written much about the celebrations of Rabbie Burns’ life and poetry before, so suffice it to say that Dumfries is the place to be come January 25th! And indeed all year round Dumfries is a great place to learn more about this most influential of Scottish poets; Ellisland Farm where he lived and worked is now both a working farm and a museum to his time there with guided tours available, Robert Burns House where he died at the tragically young age of just 37 has been restored to show the day-to-day life of the writer and his family, and round the corner at the Globe Inn you can share a dram and some poetry at the Bard’s local pub! There are many other museums and monuments to Robert Burns in this region, and any fan of Scottish literature will want to make this pilgrimage a priority for their trip!
We hope this overview of just some of what Dumfries and Galloway has to offer has been useful to you – often the Lowlands are overlooked, especially by overseas visitors seduced by visions of tartans and Highland bagpipes, but the gentler landscape of South West Scotland has much to offer as well. As always, we hope to hear your perspective, and look forward to reading your comments below!
As regular readers will know, we truly believe that Scotland is a magical place filled with all the wonder and beauty of its Celtic past. But this passion for mythology goes further than usual in Bonnie Scotland – even our official national animal comes straight from legend! The fantastic unicorn is a powerfully symbolic creature and the selection of this special creature as a symbol for Scotland tells us a lot about the character of the Scottish people. Today, let’s look closer at the history of the unicorn, its symbolic meaning, and why it was chosen to represent our wonderful nation!
Unicorns, and unicorn-like creatures, have existed in myths across the globe for thousands of years – appearing in writings and art from locations as exotic and far apart as Greece, India and Ethiopia. In its original descriptions, it is portrayed as just another unusual type of animal – albeit one with strange abilities! One such description comes from the Alexandrian merchant Cosmas Indicopleustes, whose states in his writings on the flora and fauna of 6th century India that the unicorn was a fierce beast who, when cornered, would jump from a cliff rather than allow itself to be caught, landing on the tip of its horn to prevent injury to its body! During this time depictions of the unicorn in art and sculpture vary from being very similar to the one-horned horse image we are used to seeing today, to showing creatures that clearly have far more in common with goats, antelope or even oxen!
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During the Middle Ages, unicorns became strongly associated with the virtues of purity, joy and healing and nurturing influences. As a result, they were commonly used in medieval artistic depictions to signify the presence of virgins, especially the Virgin Mary, in the artwork. One specific legend of the time stated that only a noble young virgin could catch a unicorn, and that the otherwise fleet-footed and freedom-loving creature would be so enraptured by such a maiden, that it would go to her willingly and fall asleep with its head in her lap, causing it to be captured. Also around this time, the medicinal use of unicorn horn, a substance known as alicorn, became popular in certain circles, with proponents claiming that the powdered horn, with its qualities of purity and healing, could cure illnesses and be used to detect poison. Of course, as we know now that unicorns are mythical, these substances were not actual unicorn horn, but probably ground narwhal or rhinoceros horn.
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The Celtic mythology of Scotland recognised these qualities of the legendary unicorn as well, and the wild freedom, proud intelligence, pious purity and courageous beauty of the creature seemed to sum up the Scottish people very well! From the fifteenth century onward the unicorn begins to appear in royal documents as a symbol of the nation, first on gold coins, then as a central image on the Royal Coat of Arms. Originally this showed two unicorns as flag bearers, one holding the Saltire and the other the Lion Rampant, but, as a nod to the union between Scotland and England, this later changed. The new version of the coat of arms still showed a unicorn holding a St Andrews flag on the left, but its twin on the right was now replaced with the English lion, holding aloft the flag of St George.
The unicorn as it is depicted as a symbol of Scotland is not just a horse with a horn however. In a nod to the earlier illustrations of the beast, the Scottish unicorn has a horse-like head and body, but the beard and cloven hooves of a goat, with a tufted tail like a lion. Additionally, the unicorn is bound by a golden chain round its neck which winds all round its body. This device in heraldry informs the viewer that the beast depicted is seen as wild and dangerous, as the unicorn was in ancient times. The fraught relationship between Scotland and England throughout the generations however, gives this an ideal (if accidental) additional symbolism for the Scottish people, who have long had a history of fighting for their freedom.
This constant battle between Scotland and England was immortalised in a children’s poem titled The Lion and the Unicorn, making further reference to each nation’s most recognisable symbols. But despite the unicorn still being chained in the heraldry, many people of Scotland still hope to one day break the golden bonds and take back true freedom for this nation. Others don’t feel this is necessary, and are happy with the status quo with our neighbours and friends – but regardless of political leanings is it easy for everyone to agree that the unicorn is a perfect and beautiful emblem of Scotland; proud, beautiful, strong and brave!