‘Satisfaction alternates between quiet peace and raging gouts of dizzy joy.’
Extract taken from Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape
By Patrick Laurie
Published by Birlinn Ltd
Galloway is unheard of. This south-western corner of Scotland has been overlooked for so long that we have fallen off the map. People don’t know what to make of us anymore and shrug when we try and explain. When my school rugby team travelled to Perthshire for a match, our opponents thumped us for being English. When we went for a game in England, we were thumped again for being Scottish. That was child’s play, but now I realise that even grown-ups struggle to place us.
There was a time when Galloway was a powerful and independent kingdom. We had our own Gaelic language, and strangers trod carefully around this place. The Romans got a battering when they came here, and the Viking lord Magnus Barefoot had nightmares about us. In the days when longboats stirred the shallow broth of the Irish Sea, we were the centre of a busy world. We took a slice of trade from the Irish and sold it on to the English and the Manxmen who loom over the sea on a clear day. We spurned the mainstream and we only lost our independence when Scotland invaded us in the year 1236. Then came the new Lords of Galloway and the wild times of Archibald the Grim, and he could fill a whole book himself.
The frontier of Galloway was always open for discussion. Some of the old kings ruled everything from Glasgow to the Solway Firth, but Galloway finally settled back on a rough and tumbling core, the broken country which lies between tall mountains and the open sea. This was not an easy place to live in, but we clung to it like moss and we excelled on rocks and salt water both. We threw up standing stones to celebrate our paganism, then laid the groundwork for Christianity in Scotland. History made us famous for noble knights and black-hearted cannibals. You might not know what Galloway stands for, but it’s plain as day to us.
We never became a county in the way that other places did. Galloway fell into two halves: Wigtownshire in the west and the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in the east. There are some fine legal distinctions between a ‘Shire’ and a ‘Stewartry’, but that hardly matters anymore because both of them were deleted in 1975 when the local government was overhauled. The remnants of Galloway were yoked to Dumfries, and the result is a mess because Dumfries and Galloway are two very different things.
Dumfriesshire folk mistake their glens for dales and fail to keep Carlisle at arm’s length. They’re jealous of our wilderness and beauty, but we forgive them because it’s unfair to gloat. Besides, they have the bones of Robert Burns to console them, and don’t we all know it. Perhaps Dumfriesshire is a decent enough place, but we’ve pulled in different directions for too long to make an easy team. Imagine a county called ‘Perth and Fife’ or ‘Carlisle and Northumberland’. Both would be smaller and more coherent than ‘Dumfries and Galloway’. Now there are trendy councillors who abbreviate this clunky mouthful to ‘D ’n’ G’, as if three small letters were enough to describe the 120 miles of detail and diversity which lie between Langholm and Portpatrick. Tourism operators say we are ‘Scotland’s best-kept secret’, and tourists support that claim by ignoring us.
It’s easy to see why visitors rarely come. They think we’re just an obstacle between England and the Highlands. They can’t imagine that there’s much to see in the far south-west and tell us that ‘Scotland begins at Perth’. Maybe it’s because we don’t wear much tartan, or maybe it’s because we laugh at the memory of Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Left to our own devices, we prefer the accordion to the pipes and we’d sooner race a gird than toss a caber. If you really want to see ‘Scotland’, you’ll find it further north.
When Galloway folk speak of home, we don’t talk of heather in bloom or the mist upon sea lochs and mountains. Our place is broad and blue and it smells of rain. Perhaps we can’t match the extravagant pibroch scenery of the north, but we’re anchored to this place by a sure and lasting bond. There are no wobbling lips or tears of pride around these parts; we’ll leave that sort of carry-on to the Highlanders. We’ll nod and make light of it, but we know that life away from Galloway is unthinkable.
My ancestors have been in this place for generations. I imagine them in a string of dour, solid Lowlanders which snakes out of sight into the low clouds. These were farming folk with southern names like Laidlaw and Mundell, Reid and Gilroy, and they worked the soil in quiet, hidden corners without celebrity or fame. Lauries don’t have an ancestral castle to concentrate any feeling of heredity. We’ve worked in a grand sweep between Dunscore and Wigtown and now all of Galloway feels like it might’ve been home at one time or another. I was born to feel that there is only one place in this world, and I can hardly bear to spend a day away from it. Satisfaction alternates between quiet peace and raging gouts of dizzy joy.