//In Paid Partnership with Visit South West Scotland//
Adventures on the Dark Side in South West Scotland
How often do you take the time to stop and gaze up at the stars above you? If you live in a city, it’s probably not often – most of us can barely make out the twinkling dots above us due to light pollution. Luckily, there’s a corner of Scotland where the night sky burns bright – welcome to Dumfries and Galloway in South West Scotland.
I usually head straight to the Highlands when I get to Scotland, but I was astonished to discover quite how rugged, remote and jaw-droppingly gorgeous the hilly countryside of Dumfries and Galloway is. There’s a reason this area is called ‘the highlands of the lowlands’, and it deserves to be better known by hikers, cyclists and lovers of wide-open wild spaces. Home to the first Dark Sky Park in the UK, Galloway International Dark Sky Park, it’s perfect for learning more about the stars above us, on a tour with a Dark Sky Ranger, by popping into the planetarium or with a night in a bothy, the perfect spot for stargazing. Ready to go exploring? I’ve rounded up nine of my favourite adventures and activities from my trip to South West Scotland.
Nine must-do adventures in South West Scotland
1, Take a tour with a Dark Sky Ranger
Most areas of natural beauty have Forest or Park Rangers – Dumfries and Galloway have their very own Dark Sky Rangers, experts in the night sky and the wonders that are visible from this light pollution-free corner of Scotland. Book a tour on a clear night to spot shooting stars, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Aurora Borealis and stellar nurseries. There were only a few stars twinkling through the cloud on the night I joined Dark Sky Ranger Matthew McFadzean, but I was still spellbound by the stories he span about the galaxy above our heads. I’ll definitely be back on a clear night – on some evenings you can even glimpse the northern lights.
Matthew runs Dark Sky tours and Astro Photography workshops at Clatteringshaws Loch, bookable online.
2, Go gravel cycling
Welcome to Galloway – a gravel cyclist’s paradise. Off the main roads (which are also incredibly quiet if you do fancy road cycling) you’ll find mile upon mile of rough but thrilling gravel tracks that lead straight into wild open spaces and deep forest, and that offer amazing views of the surrounding peaks. I joined Warren of Galloway Cycling, who also runs the area’s annual Raider’s Gravel event, and we went on a bone-rattling but brilliant 20 mile spin around Clatteringshaw Loch. Our middle point was Back Hill O’Bush bothy (below), where we stopped for coffee with a view. A glorious ride that made me feel like I was truly in the wilderness – and in just an afternoon of pedalling.
Galloway Cycling offer ‘gravel rides for mortals’ as well as custom-designed cycling tours, holidays and bike rental. Guided rides start from £25pp.
3, Try paddle boarding at Galloway Activity Centre
Whether you love eye-popping adrenaline sports or relaxed paddle adventures, the Galloway Activity Centre is a brilliant base for trying new activities. This friendly centre offers an exhaustive list of adventurous and outdoorsy things to do, all based around the huge deep waters of Loch Ken, and taught by lovely instructors and suitable for all ages. My favourite was a paddle boarding session on Loch Ken – this wild loch is fringed with forest and you’re likely to spot herons swooping past and see red kites circling overhead as you paddle along. The centre also offers everything from kayaking and climbing to a terrifying(ly fun) giant swing, so it’s a one-stop shop if you like to get active.
Book an adventure at the Galloway Activity Centre.
4, Spend the night at Loch Ken Eco Bothies
A bothy is usually a rough and ready little shelter – not so at Loch Ken, where you’ll find four gorgeous, off-grid and bothy-inspired cabins that are very luxurious indeed. I stayed in Otter, an eco-friendly roundhouse sleeping two and complete with wood-fired hot tub, huge double bed, kitchen and telescope. A picture window looks out over a little lochan, and you can lie in bed and watch the sun rise – the two resident red squirrels may even come past to say hi. The hot tub is the perfect spot for late-night star-spotting with a glass of wine, and in daytime, Galloway Activity Centre and Loch Ken are on your doorstep.
There are four Loch Ken Eco Bothies available, sleeping 2-8, from £112/night.
5, Go horse riding at Barstobrick Riding Centre
Love exploring in the saddle? Barstobrick stables has horses and ponies – and hacking routes – to suit all abilities. I headed out on a relaxed hack aboard Cara and we meandered through a fraction of the beautiful 650-acre estate that the stables call home, spotting bright gorse and riding through woodlands ablaze with bluebells. Barstobrick also offers trekking for disabled riders.
Book lessons and hacks of different lengths at Barstobrick Riding Centre.
6, Try local craft gin at the Dark Art Distillery
Got time to stop for a quick G&T? Pop in to the Dark Art Distillery, a new kid on the block in Kirkudbright after opening in 2021. Founder Andrew was inspired by the Galloway Dark Sky Park when he named his new distillery, and their first gin, Sky Garden, uses locally-sourced and handpicked botanicals chosen because they give off their scent at night. On a distillery tour you’ll get to meet the star of the show – Peggy, Dark Art’s beautiful copper still – and learn how the gin is created, before finishing with a tasting of Sky Garden (it’s pretty perfect with tonic).
Tours cost £15, last an hour, and can be booked via the distillery.
7, Explore Kircudbright and the Dark Space Planetarium
First, learn to pronounce the name of this charming little harbour town – it’s ‘kuh-ko-bree’. Well-known for its artsy community, this fishing port is home to the Dark Arts Distillery (above) and a clutch of great galleries, craft shops, cafes and restaurants (I loved the coffee at The Belfry). Stop in at the Dark Space Planetarium, housed in an old school and home to fascinating exhibits as well as short films covering everything from the Apollo landings to life on other planets. A good first stop before you head out stargazing of an evening.
Visit Kircudbright, the ‘artist’s town’. Adult tickets to the Dark Space Planetarium costs £15.
8, Stay the night at Back Hill O’Bush Bothy
If you fancy a night in a truly remote Scottish bothy, make the journey on foot or by bike to Back Hill O’Bush, hidden 6 miles from the nearest proper road. Inside, this snug cottage is pretty basic but comfortable, with two bunk rooms to choose from, each with wood-burning stove. Outside, however, is really glorious, with far-reaching hill views and a rushing river you can take a dip in. There’ll be no-one else for miles around, so this is another great spot for stargazing come nightfall. If you do decide on a bothy stay, please use it responsibly, respect others and leave the bothy clean and tidy.
Read more on the curious history of Back Hill O’Bush bothy in Galloway Cycling’s blog
9, Hike in Galloway Forest Park
Keep it simple and stretch your legs with a hike in Britain’s largest forest park. In 2009, Galloway Forest Park became the first Dark Sky Park in the UK and western Europe, which may indicate quite how wild, remote and unpeopled this beautiful area is. The surrounding glens and hills (they aren’t mountains, apparently, but they’re still on a pretty epic scale) are a hiker’s paradise, and wild camping is permitted, so multi-day hikes are easy to plan, too.
Forestry and Land Scotland offer walking suggestions of different lengths – there’s also a Red Deer Range if you fancy snapping some of Scotland’s most photogenic residents.