I look out over the moody blues (not the band) and shrouding greys of Dumfries and Galloway’s Big Fleet of Water, the expanse of blue where Scottish shoreline transitions into Irish Sea. The rolling lichen-wrapped hills of Southern Scotland bound away in front of me as if they’re making a dash for the beach – or running scared from the craggy rock outcrop behind.
Suddenly, the ground is wrenched from beneath my feet, like some sort of Brontë-esque illusion. Or, rather, I remember I’m standing on a Segway and have leaned too far forward. I compose myself, not wanting to make the rather undignified mistake of falling off a vehicle that can only hit a maximum of 20mph. I’d seen it happen earlier to another member of our group. It wasn’t pretty.
The Segway is a fascinating beast. Having never used one, I’d imagined them to be mainly for carting lazy people around shipping malls, but it turns out there’s a whole other side to the contraption – in this case, the off-road side. Here, at Laggan Outdoors in Gatehouse of Fleet, a town nestled in the small pocket of Scotland directly north of the Isle on Man, the Segway becomes a hill-climbing, chunky tyre-wielding, brute of a machine. Such a thing can barrel along stone paths and race up hills – and plough over sheep’s mess – like nobody’s business.
The activity centre not only offers two-wheeled off-road tours, but archery, clay pigeon shooting, grass sledging (basically sliding down a hill on a glorified square bucket) and mountain balling – think of this as being strapped inside a huge rubber sphere and being pushed down a hillside. I hope I haven’t sold it short with that description because it’s hilarious. The jewel in Laggan’s crown, however, is the 820 metre-long zipwire, which, up until just weeks ago, was the longest in the UK (it’s since been pipped at the post by the Big Zipper at Penryhn Quarry in Wales). It even offers the chance to zip in pairs, so you can realise that ‘flying in a magic double sleeping bag’ fantasy you’ve always harboured.
Frustratingly, the Scottish wind was up to its usual gale-force tricks so we weren’t able to participate, but the view from the top of the ride was almost adequate compensation. Factor in the 4×4 Jeep journey to the summit, bounding along inclines and narrow paths, plus the fact that I felt compelled to sprint back down the mountain, meant I got enough of a thrill without.
But Castle Douglas isn’t just about throwing yourself down a mountain or trying not to throw yourself off a Segway. Just along the coastline lies somewhere to indulge the palate after you’ve maxed out your adrenaline reserves: Cream O’Galloway is an award-winning ice cream manufacturer. The team know what they’re talking about, too: I learned at the Visitor Centre that ‘soft scoop ice-cream’ is effectively just standard ice cream with extra air pumped in to save on resources – the ‘softness’ is just a well-marketed byproduct of stinginess. Cream O’Galloway offers the chance to create your own ice cream in their on-site kitchen, the amusingly-entitled ‘Ready, Steady, Freeze’. Our concoction, whisky and ginger – using only natural ginger and a local tipple, of course – was a resounding success, even if I say so myself.
There are cultural treats aplenty too, including the chance to visit to Threave Gardens and Estate – a quick skip (or a regal saunter) across the River Dee. The holder of second place in the Independent‘s ’10 Best Gardens to Visit in the UK’, the estate comprises a restored Scottish baronial-style house, landscaped gardens with sculptures in themed ‘outdoor rooms’ and a nature reserve. For the fans of flying mammals out there, the property is one of Scotland’s bat hotspots, as well as a wildfowl sanctuary. (Coincidentally, bats are the only mammals truly capable of sustained flight; animals like flying squirrels can only glide and so their name is actually a misnomer.)
Heading back to Glasgow for the start of the journey home, we moved from the baronial to the borderline homeless – the Cail Bruich Restaurant, in Glasgow’s West End. Here, modern Scottish cuisine is influenced by French cooking techniques – using ingredients than can be foraged by guests from the nearby Botanical Gardens. Indeed, the exquisitely-presented dishes of produce from “Scotland’s outstanding natural larder”, including from local suppliers such as Campbell’s Prime Meats, were not only delicious but packed with remarkable foraged foods I had never even heard of, including scurvy grass, sea aster and gorse flowers. As we dined, we agreed that the restaurant was a perfect mixture of high-end dining and ‘low-end’ product sourcing – and why not encourage visitors to learn more about the natural world as they eat?
Such is the character of southern Scotland in general: a fascinating mix of natural and urban, historic and modern. I once heard that “if Scotland was 4,000 miles away, it would be packed with English tourists”, but because it’s on our doorstep, we don’t feel the need to visit. I wholeheartedly agree; for a flight time of less than one hour, there is really no excuse to not go.