Known as the Scottish Riviera’s ‘artists’ town’, Kirkcudbright is a well-kept cultural secret and a great base for exploring the surrounding coastline. Words: Emily Mawson. Photographs: Tim Williams
Amid the craggy cliffs and meandering estuaries on the Solway coast in Dumfries and Galloway, the town of Kirkcudbright (pronounced kir-coo-bree) is a bustling hub.
Its collection of colourful cottages, Georgian villas and Victorian townhouses are within striking distance of quaint coves on the Scottish Riviera, while the town boasts interesting shops, quality galleries and museums, a castle and an award-winning Arts & Crafts Trail in the summer months.
It’s no coincidence that this cultural centre developed on an estuary in one of Britain’s least populated counties. Dubbed the ‘artists’ town’, Kirkcudbright is said to have an ethereal light that attracted painters including EA Hornel, Charles Oppenheimer and illustrator Jessie M King in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It takes its name from Saint Cuthbert, and is thought to date from the 12th century. It grew thanks to its natural harbour, which is still working, often busy with fishing boats bringing in scallops to distribute worldwide and locally. But the best bit? So many people drive past this corner of Scotland on their way north that it feels like a well-kept secret and you can enjoy your stay minus the crowds.
10AM ARTISTIC HERITAGE
I enjoy the views from the bridge over the River Dee, which Kirkcudbright straddles, before going on to explore the town. After admiring the 16th-century MacLellan’s Castle – its grey walls still intact enough to retain majesty – I join the L-shaped High Street. It is a bit like stepping into a chapter of Scottish art history. There are Georgian and Victorian buildings scattered with commemorative plaques – Oppenheimer lived at number 14, writer Dorothy Sayers at 14a, and so on. Elsewhere, a cluster of beach huts from last year’s Art & Crafts Trail now forms a colourful permanent fixture on the harbour front. I also visit the Stewartry Museum. Small, and packed with cabinets depicting eastern Galloway’s history, it’s popular for its ever-changing exhibitions and its collection, including book jackets by Jessie M King in her signature art nouveau style (artandcraftstrail.com; dumfriesmuseum.demon.co.uk).
11AM CHOCOLATE & MORE
Kirkcudbright’s shops are clustered on St Mary and St Cuthbert Streets. I browse all sorts, from outdoor wear at Wm. Law, which also hires bikes, to handmade chocolates at Mulberries Café, and cards featuring Scottish artists at family-run Rhubarb. Along the road my tummy leads me to Paul Jones Bakery. Named after the ‘father of the US Navy’ John Paul Jones, who was born in the area, it sells divine roughly ground brown bread (lawskirkcudbright.co.uk; rhubarb-homeware.co.uk).
2PM GETTING CRAFTY
I have homemade soup at The Belfry Café, which is as unpretentious as its meals are tasty, before my next date: a lino-cutting class at the Kirkcudbright Working Print Studio. Kim Lowe, who owns the studio with her husband George, inherited equipment from her father, who was a printer, and now also runs introductory classes in letterpress printing for adults and children. The studio has beautiful designs on display – I wonder how I will replicate anything similar from the starfish that I sketched earlier. Kim is a brilliant tutor, showing me different cutters and how to create striking effects by scratching out strips of lino. I do a test run before printing two versions that Kim mounts for me. I’m thrilled with the result. Classes cost £20 per person (kirkcudbrightworkingprintstudio.co.uk).
5PM ROCKPOOLS & WRECKS
Starfish stowed, there’s time for a pre-dinner drive to Brighouse Bay, which has good rockpools. I pass Dhoon shore (where at low tide you can walk to the eerie remaining ribs of wrecked 1880s schooner Monreith) and 10 minutes later reach Brighouse, a family-friendly beach facing the Isle of Man. The tide is in, so there’s no chance of finding a real starfish.
7PM CREATIVE CUISINE
Grub in Kirkcudbright ranges from pub fare (The Kirkcudbright Bay Hotel is good) to creative cuisine. For the latter I try the Auld Alliance, which serves up French-inspired Scottish dishes in a stylish, attic-like space overlooking the shops on St Cuthbert Street. I work off my ratatouille quiche with a stroll along the harbour. A fishing boat has docked and its crew are unloading bulging sacks of scallops – it’s nice to see both sides of Kirkcudbright in a day (kirkcudbrightbay.com; auldalliancekirkcudbright.co.uk).
8AM PENINSULA VIEWS
From my homely B&B, Jings, I watch sea mist rolling over the estuary. By the time I’ve eaten breakfast, however, it’s become a beautiful morning for a walk. Owner Marion suggests St Mary’s Isle, a three-mile route around the peninsula with views of both sides of the bay. I set off in woodland, spotting oystercatchers and an owl. Further on, I clamber onto a beach that’s scattered with shells, and can see Little Ross Island at the end of the bay.
12PM A SCOTTISH CATCH
Hungry after my ramble, I have lunch at award-winning, family-run Polarbites on Harbour Square. It serves a range of fish and seafood, from salmon to mussels. I go for a classic with haddock from Shetland, and it’s melt-in-your-mouth good (polarbites.co.uk).
2PM A GREEN MASTERPIECE
Broughton House & Garden is one of Kirkcudbright’s must-see attractions. The former home of EA Hornel (who grew up a few doors down), this elevated townhouse has been carefully preserved. Hornel’s decorative paintings of local children, some of them at Brighouse Bay, hang in the Edwardian gallery, along with paintings from his travels in the Far East. The studio contains unfinished pieces and the library has one of the world’s largest collections of works by and about poet Robert Burns (Hornel was an avid book collector). Outside, however, is the real masterpiece.
I have never seen anywhere so colourful: stretching to the waterfront, the garden is inspired by Hornel’s trips to Japan and is an organised explosion of flowers, from wisteria to Japanese cherries. I settle down on a bench and happily while away the hours (nts.org.uk/Property/Broughton-House-and-Garden).
4PM FINE ART
Kirkcudbright’s current art scene is enough to prise me away from the bench. The pick of the bunch is The Whitehouse Gallery, which specialises in contemporary and affordable art, and the High Street Gallery, which is not far from Broughton House and sells Scottish fine and contemporary art, jewellery and ceramics. While I can’t really stretch to one of the stunning seascapes, I buy a little book of paintings of Kirkcudbright facades as a souvenir (whitehousegallery.co.uk; highstgallery.co.uk).
6PM LOCAL HEROES
My appetite whetted by yesterday’s harbour scenes, I look for a restaurant offering Kirkcudbright scallops, and find The Selkirk Arms on the High Street. It has a pristine cream and sky-blue Georgian exterior, while the interior is beautifully decorated with local art. I follow the scrumptious scallops with tasty spinach and quinoa patties. After dinner, The Masonic Arms around the corner tempts me with its selection of real ales and a folk concert – a suitable end to my weekend in this lively little town (selkirkarmshotel.co.uk).
NEED TO KNOW
Once home to Jessie M King and artist husband EA Taylor, Greengate (above) mixes antiques with illustrations and driftwood creations by owners Colin and Pauline Saul. The guest room blends eccentricity and luxury. From £70 per night (thegreengate.co.uk).
Newly opened in 2014, this B&B is a short walk from the town centre. Bright, cosy and plush, the guest suite (with a double and single room) costs £115, or it’s £75 for the double room only (jingsbandb.com).
Brighouse Bay Holiday Park
This park by the Irish Sea caters for caravans and tents, and has cottages and lodges to rent. It’s 15 minutes’ drive outside Kirkcudbright but is worth it for facilities including a swimming pool. A two-bedroom lodge costs from £278 for three nights, Fri-Mon (gillespie-leisure.co.uk).
HOW TO GET THERE
Take the A75 from Gretna, then the A711. For a more scenic drive, follow the Galloway Tourist Route. Bus services run from Dumfries, and direct trains go to Dumfries from Glasgow, Newcastle and Carlisle (see travelinescotland.com). For more information, go to kirkcudbright.town and visitscotland.com.