This Scottish National Tourist Route may call itself after the county of Galloway, but it covers a lot of ground in neighbouring counties as it makes its scenic way from Gretna to Ayr. The Galloway Tourist Route (GTR on the road-signs) starts at Gretna Green, where the expression “marry in haste, repent at leisure” might have been coined. You won’t have cause to repent travelling this route but there’s no point trying to do it in haste, either.
In fact, if you’re a savvy shopper, don’t head off straight away; there’s a huge outlet “village” at Gretna that’s worth spending an hour or two in first. There’s everything from bedding through to watches and waterproofs.
When you’ve finished, you leave Gretna on the B721 towards Annan. You could take the A75 if you’ve spent too much time shopping and need to get a move on, but the smaller road is prettier, with views down to the Solway Firth and across to England on your left.
Annan is a good place to stop, especially if you’re a keen cyclist: there are miles of marked cycle routes around here. Annan itself is worth a wander, too. It’s a fine old market town, situated near the mouth of the River Annan, with a lighthouse on the point to guide shipping on its way up the often foggy Solway.
You cross the river out of Annan, turning left onto the B724 and heading for Dumfries. Alternatively, if you’re ready to stop for the night, take the A75 out of town and then head almost due north up the B723 to Hoddom Castle Caravan Park, where you can spend the night in the shadow of a 16th century Border keep. You can pick up the A75 again the following morning at Carrutherstown to reach Dumfries.
Dumfries is the biggest town in the area and boasts one of Scotland’s oldest bridges, dating from the 12th century. Greyfriars Church is built on the site of a crime-scene: the monastery where Robert the Bruce murdered John Balliol to improve his own chances of becoming King of Scots. There’s also the Robert Burns Centre (not to be confused with the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, which you have the chance to visit later en route) and you can raise a toast to him at one of his favourite pubs, the Globe Inn. More recent past residents include “Peter Pan” author JM Barrie and racing driver David Coulthard.
Just south of Dumfries is the Mabie 7stanes mountain bike trail centre which caters for all levels of expertise from beginners up, with a skills area and woodland trails.
From Dumfries you take the A711 to Dalbeattie and Castle Douglas. An alternative route, avoiding Dalbeattie, is the Old Military Road, which branches off the A711 just outside Cargenbridge and goes to Castle Douglas via Lochfoot and Haugh of Urr. It’s one of many military roads built across Scotland by General Wade after the 1745 Jacobite Rising.
However, if you’re a keen mountain-biker, you’ll probably want to go via Dalbeattie, as it’s home to another of the 7stanes mountain biking centres. It’s famous for its technical trails and terrific coastal views.
There’s now a bypass round Castle Douglas if you don’t fancy driving through the middle of it, but it would be a shame to use it. This 18th century market town is a designated “food town”, with plenty of delicious local produce available, so it’s definitely worth a visit.
Carlingwark Loch on the outskirts of town is a great place for both walking and (free) fishing for pike and perch. Despite the name, you won’t find a castle in the town: there were two successive Roman forts but they were abandoned around the year 160 AD. But there is a proper one nearby, at Threave.
Threave Castle was built for Archibald the Grim in 1369, on an island in the middle of the River Dee. To visit it you take a boat across the river. Nearby Threave House and Gardens, a later and rather more comfortable property run by the National Trust for Scotland, is also Scotland’s only bat reserve. Both are worth taking a short detour to visit.
From Castle Douglas your route heads north-west on the A713 up Loch Ken to New Galloway.
It’s a very pretty road with helpfully wide straight stretches where other vehicles can overtake you. Along the way, you can stop and enjoy the woodland and moorland walks on the right of the road.
On the left, at Parton, you’ll find Loch Ken Holiday Park, which has hard-standing pitches for motorhomes. Situated right on the loch edge, it has boats, kayaks and pedalos for hire, as well as two children’s play-parks and loch-side fishing. It also boasts its own herb garden, making it a great stop for both outdoor and food enthusiasts. Every August the village of Parton hosts the Scottish Alternative Games, which includes events as diverse as tractor pulling and snail racing.
Tiny New Galloway is Scotland’s smallest Royal Burgh. It was – and still is – an important crossroads and market town: roads from the whole south-west of Scotland meet there. Nowadays it’s a centre for cycling, golf, fishing and water sports. Kenmure Castle, nearby, has been burnt down not once but three times!
Heading on up the Water of Ken, your next port of call has a name almost as big as the village: St John’s Town of Dalry. Not surprisingly, it’s often shortened to plain Dalry (not to be confused with Dalry in Ayrshire). This pretty and ancient pilgrim town is popular with walkers on the Southern Upland Way long-distance footpath. Nearby is the site of Lochinvar Castle, immortalised by Walter Scott in “The Young Lochinvar”. Sadly you can’t visit it, as it’s now at the bottom of a reservoir.
From St John’s Town you have two options: the official route along the west of Earlstoun Loch on the A713 or the higher and narrower B7000, which is less suitable for motorhomes. They meet again at Carsphairn, up on the moors. This part of the country is more like the Highlands than the rest of the south-west, bleakly beautiful.
It ends with a sudden, unheralded plunge as the road tumbles down Glen Muck, back into softer country. Dalmellington is a former mining town, in a fabulous setting but not very tourist-orientated. The road bypasses it, following the River Doon north-west towards Ayr, and you should probably do the same: you’re near your destination now.
Ayr is a popular seaside resort with a reputation for being “genteel”. The town dates back to the 1200s and was a busy port for centuries. Its main attractions include a racecourse, which dates back to the 16th century, the esplanade and sandy beach, and the Citadel with its cannon. It also has the great (and increasingly rare) advantage of plentiful free parking.
Further out of town you’ll find the award-winning Burns Birthplace Museum at Alloway, Donald Trump’s Turnberry golf course, and at least three motorhome-accommodating campsites within easy reach. Culzean Castle and Gardens is a short drive south along the coast and Ardrossan, where the ferries leave for Arran, a little further northwards.
Ayr’s a good place to end your journey on the Galloway Tourist Route, looking across the water towards the sunset, the Isle of Arran and the Mull of Kintyre.