Sandy McKnight is a pagan, a bibliophile, a metallic detectorist and – at 71 – claims to be Scotland’s most-tattooed man. Flames, skulls, demons, dragons: his complete physique is roofed, except for his face and a quite delicate space decrease down. For that, nonetheless, Sandy has plans: his scrotum, he thinks, may look nicely if inked to resemble a mind.
I be taught all this standing on the counter of the Bookshop in Wigtown, having stopped off on the South West Coastal 300, a brand new 300-or-so-mile driving route looping by Dumfries and Galloway, and elements of Ayrshire. Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town and celebrated for its annual ebook competition, is without doubt one of the highlights of the route; the Bookshop is without doubt one of the highlights of Wigtown; and Sandy is without doubt one of the highlights of the Bookshop. He is its most common and most vibrant (actually and figuratively) buyer. To fund his ebook behavior, he carves strolling sticks from the “nine sacred woods of the druids” – together with hazel and rowan – and sells them right here in alternate for credit score. He collects books on archaeology, folklore and native historical past, and has constructed fairly a library, which he expects will return to the Bookshop’s cabinets in the future.
Illustration: Bek Cruddace
“When I pop my clogs, he’ll walk into my house rubbing his hands,” Sandy says, nodding to the store’s proprietor, Shaun Bythell. “I’ve told my kids: when that day comes, just phone Shaun.”
“Yes,” Bythell smiles. “I’ll come round and rip you off. Actually, did you not tell your kids that when you die they should flay you and sell your skin?”
Sandy nods with the blithe air of a person who is aware of his personal worth: “Somebody said my skin was worth about £60,000.”
The Bookshop is labyrinthine and atmospheric, home to 100,000 second-hand books and nearly as many first-class nooks. A skeleton, strung from the ceiling, holds a fiddle to its left scapula. A Kindle, blasted by a shotgun, is displayed as if it had been a big-game trophy. In the historical past part, a stuffed badger has pale from black and white to brownish, from everton mint to humbug.
Local color … Shaun Bythell with Sandy McKnight on the Booksop, Wigtown. Photograph: Peter Ross/Guardian
In Bythell’s memoir, Diary of a Bookseller, he quotes from a 1916 information which states that Galloway – the realm that features Wigtown – “has remained unknown to the world longer than any other part of Scotland, with the possible exception of the island of Rockall”. This remains to be true. In the nation’s far south-west, Galloway is commonly described as a “forgotten corner”. Unless you’re catching a ferry to Northern Ireland, it isn’t actually on the way in which to anyplace.
“Everybody who comes here says how wonderful it is, but so few people make it in the first place,” one native says, ruefully. “When you go up and down the M74 (the cross-border motorway), there’s no indication anything exists on this side.”
One should, in different phrases, make a particular effort to go to. The SWC300 gives a purpose. You can begin anyplace and drive in both route. I select to travel anti-clockwise because it appears in line with the opposite, cussed nature attributed to people on this a part of Scotland.
Under the thatch … Burns Cottage, Alloway. Photograph: Ian Paterson/Alamy
I start within the village of Alloway, so as to go to the cottage the place, in 1759, Robert Burns was born. It’s a type of shrine. Keats and Tennyson got here right here, as did that different poetic heavyweight, Muhammad Ali. It is a low stone constructing, painted white, with a thatched roof. Though extraordinarily fashionable, the cottage just isn’t universally liked. It has been thought to be emblematic of the moist-eyed sentimentality to which Scots are inclined, and a logo of patriarchy.
The author and translator Edwin Muir, in his traditional 1935 travelogue Scottish Journey, referred to as it “ludicrous and pathetic” and recommended it’s pulled down. In 1914, the suffragettes Frances Parker and Ethel Moorheadattempted to blow it up.
The humble room wherein Burns is alleged to have come into the world is just some steps extensive and lengthy. The lowing of cattle from the adjoining byre should have been one of many first sounds he heard. There is an air of the Nativity about it, a contact of Away in a Manger. It’s an odd mixture of anticlimactic and overwhelming to face on the stone ground, wanting on the field mattress, and considering, “Well, this is where Auld Lang Syne and A Man’s A Man got their start.” Yes, Burns’s cottage is a bit shortbread tin-ish, but it surely has an untouched grace for all that.
From Alloway, it’s a run down the coast, passing ruined Dunure Castle, and pausing solely to conduct a purification ritual exterior Trump Turnberry, the golf resort that was the scene of the president’s summer time go to. The island of Ailsa Craig, an amazing darkish dome, looms out of the ocean to the west. There are boat journeys to it from the seaside city of Girvan. It is essentially the most dramatic sight in the entire 300 miles. If the mountainous North Coast 500, after which this route is modelled, is all operatic crescendos and arias, the SWC300 is a pastoral symphony – a journey by a inexperienced and mild panorama.
The lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway, essentially the most southerly level of Scotland. Photograph: Alamy
Well, maybe that’s not fairly true. The clifftop lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway, Scotland’s most southerly level, has a sure discordant wildness, particularly in stormy climate, when waves crash across the rocks far beneath.
Near the city of Whithorn, I fall in with a bunch of mates – amongst them the author Sara Maitland, who lives domestically – picnicking on scones and jam in preparation for a brief pilgrimage of three miles or so to St Ninian’s Cave. Whithorn is called the “cradle of Scottish Christianity” because it washere that, within the fourth century, Ninian established the primary church in Scotland. Every yr, on a Sunday near his feast day of 16 September, his life is widely known with a mass on the seaside close to the cave which he’s mentioned to have used as a retreat.
“Do you mind if I bring Zoe?” Sara asks us. Zoe is a border terrier.
“Is she Catholic?” asks Eddie, mock-sternly.
“No,” Sara replies. “She transcends that. Dogs are without sin.”
We set off, and shortly be a part of a crowd. A few hundred pilgrims have come from far and extensive, some even strolling from Glasgow on the Whithorn Way long-distance path. Some accomplish that in the identical spirit that leads folks to help lower-league soccer groups: a desire for authenticity over glamour. St Columba, they’ll let you know, attracts the crowds to Iona, however Ninian was right here in Galloway first. Visitors can see the stays of his shrine, and a very good museum of early Christian stones, at Whithorn Priory.
Holy applicable …St Ninian’s Cave, the place the fifth-century saint could have lived. Photograph: Alamy
The mass itself is a really British event. The bishop leads the service from inside a kind of gazebo, the altar fabric held down towards the wind by pebbles from the seaside. Girl scouts hand out hymn sheets and worshippers rise from tartan rugs and folding stools to go up for communion.Afterwards, a lone piper performs Bonnie Galloway, an applicable tune for this most stunning stretch of coast.
Onwards, now, to Kirkcudbright, which calls itself Scotland’s Artists’ Town. Since the 19th century, painters have been drawn right here by the sunshine and the prettiness of the place. Kirkcudbright Galleries, opened this summer time, has a splendid assortment of works by artists who referred to as this city home, amongst them Jessie M King and her husband Ernest A Taylor, a part of the bohemian set between the wars.
One native artist is a residing hyperlink to these glory days. John Halliday is 86, and the folks who run the gallery may do nicely to offer him with a snug chair, a cup of espresso and a everlasting spot by his portray, A Woman in Black. There, he may take his ease and inform tales. As an adolescent, Halliday was on good phrases with a few of Kirkcudbright’s most-celebrated names. “In the heavy winter of 1947, Charles Oppenheimer gave me two shillings to take his painting to the station on my sledge to go to the Royal Academy,” is the kind of factor he says as an apart.
Whited sepulchre … The Robert Burns Mausoleum, Dumfries. Photograph: Alamy
My remaining cease is the Burns Mausoleum in Dumfries. Having began on the cottage the place Robert Burns was born, it appears becoming to finish with the city the place, in 1796 on the age of 37, he died.
St Michael’s and its churchyard are the color of rust, or dried blood; the tomb stands out for being a superb white. A heavy gate, topped by golden thistles, prevents entry, however, on the wall above the grave, a rare marble tableau exhibits Burns at his plough being visited by the muse Coila, who is throwing her cloak about him. Like Alloway, it takes sentimentality to the purpose of vulgarity, and but there’s something undeniably numinous about this place.
Still, it’s one thing of a aid to note a seagull pecking at a discarded crisp packet after which flying as much as the copper dome of the mausoleum with its prize. Burns, that poet of mice and lice and the standard creatures of the world, would probably approve of its cheek.
• More info on the South West Coastal 300 at visitsouthwestscotland.com. The Wigtown Book Festival runs from 21-30 September. Peter Ross shall be speaking about his ebook, The Passion of Harry Bingo, on 23 September. Hillcrest House on the sting of Wigtown is a snug resort, with doubles from £75 B&B
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