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Touring southern Scotland


MY 2013 UK travels continued north of the border when I took the overnight coach from London Victoria to debus in the sleepy town of Lockerbie (scene of the 1988 Pan-Am terrorist jet blast which killed hundreds) at 6am.

Travel With Dusty Miller

For the second successive year, I found myself staying about 18km from Lockerbie in the pretty Scottish town of Moffat, in Dumfries and Galloway, when the annual sheep races were held!

The whole town and much of the district grinds to a halt on a Sunday in mid-August as farmers from across Scotland’s superbly picturesque Southern Uplands  bring trailer loads of their finest ewes and rams into the granite town to see which will be crowned Scotland’s Fastest Sheep.

A course is laid out through the town centre and the sheep entered for the meeting are penned nearby or remain on farmers’ trailers, mostly towed by rugged Land Rovers of venerable age, until their race is called.

Entries are mainly hardy cross-bred Scottish sheep raised for meat, wool and increasingly for milk given an increasing demand for sheep-milk cheese, but pedigree breeds also come under starter’s orders.

Each sheep carries a knitted wool “jockey”, usually wearing a tartan kilt or bonnet, and they race down the main street, egged on by snapping, growling, beautifully trained sheepdogs (usually Border Collies) and small boys, to hoarse cheers of hundreds of spectators who line the road, crane necks to watch from stone steps outside village shops and hang out of upstairs windows.

Bookmakers do well as do the many pubs (at least two owned and run by Zimbabwean dispossessed farmer, Dave Smith), coffee and fish and chip shops around the mainly Georgian era town.

I stayed at Dowding House, with former Zimbos who retired there. It’s named after Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding,  born there when the building was St Ninian’s Boys’ Prep School, founded by his father. Residents are former Royal Air Force personnel or surviving spouses, but the complex has a guest room available at a few pounds a night.

Dowding was chief of the RAF’s Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Two full Scottish international soccer players were born in Moffat (population 2 500) as was Scottish-Indian comedian Danny Bhoy!
Moffat’s been a tourist centre since the 17th century due to sulphurous wells, where wealthy folk “took the waters” as a cure for almost everything.

The Hydropathic Hotel was razed by fire in 1921 and never rebuilt.

The narrowest hotel in the world (according to the Guinness Book of Records) is in Moffat.  The Star Hotel is 6m wide and offers accommodation, great food, drink and company. Molinos Hotel in Granada, Spain is a bit narrower, but isn’t detached on all four sides, like The Star.

Moffat House Hotel, operated by Best Western, is also in the town centre, occupying a site of nearly a hectare. It was designed by the famous architect, John Adams and built and opened as a country mansion for the Earl of Houpetoun in the 1750s.

There must be 10 or 12 pubs (several with more than one bar) in and around High Street, Moffat and as drinking and driving is verboten in  Britain it was pleasant to pub crawl from inn, to hotel, to tavern for a couple of hours on long Scottish evenings.

In summer, it’s light until around 10pm and a stroll around the town window-shopping and stopping for the odd half pint of something delightfully chilled and of a moderately intoxicating nature was relaxing.

All pubs and hotels serve food to non-residents, usually until 9 or 9:30pm and there are a couple of fish and chips shops and a Chinese takeaway, which opens at about the time its Zimbabwean equivalents close!

Talking of fish, Moffat lies on the beautiful Annan River; wonderful fishing on the river itself, in nearby lochs and the sea, which isn’t far away, can be enjoyed from spring to autumn. Catches include salmon, salmon trout, sea tout, brown trout, grayling, chub and pike.

Scotland’s favourite son, Robert Burns, the Ploughman Poet (1759-1796), was said to have fathered an illegitimate daughter in Moffat, where he spent much time in the boozers.

In the 1930s, the sleepy place hit the headlines when dismembered human body parts were found about three kilometers from the CBD. As they were wrapped in a special “slip” edition of a Sunday newspaper that only circulated in the Morecambe-Lancaster area of England, detectives traced and arrested general practitioner Dr Buck Ruxton  (a Parsi from Bombay, he’d Anglicised his name) who had murdered his common-law wife and their maid, dumping the remains almost 200km from the crime scene.

After breathtaking detective work and a major trial exposing new forensic techniques, he was found guilty and hanged at Strangeways, Manchester in 1936.

Moffat is a great centre for touring Scotland and the north of England. Nestling in glorious rolling country, it’s an hour’s drive from Edinburgh or Glasgow, both of which we visited; half an hour from Dumfries.

We also made day trips to Kirkudbright, a pretty little artists’ town on the River Dee about 10km from the sea on Scotland’s west coast; North Berwick with two lovely sandy beaches and great golf courses at East Lothian on the east coast (not to be confused with Berwick-upon-Tweed, the most northerly town in England, which is on the Scottish border.) We went to Carlisle in England, twice and had a run down to the English Lake Districts on another day out.

The previous year we drove high on the barren moors above Selkirk and my eyes were opened by the incongruous sight of a gold-leaf decorated Buddhist temple in the rolling countryside, where we had tea and refreshments in a sun-kissed Zen-peaceful garden, where saffron-robed shaved head monks toiled to help keep the settlement self-sufficient in food.

According to the Scottish Tourist Board, the Samye Ling Temple (first to be built in the West) is the fourth most visited site in that country


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