My Heart’s in the Lowlands by Liz Curtis Higgs


 My Heart’s in the Lowlands by Liz Curtis Higgs is a virtual tour of some of the most beautiful and beloved places in southwest Scotland.

Liz Curtis Higgs is well-known for her historical christian fiction books set in Scotland (i.e. The Lowlands of Scotland series). In this non-fiction book Liz takes us on a 10-day journey with her around the countryside of Galloway visiting idyllic country villages, remote castles and churches, and even some of the places she used as settings in her fictional series. Liz is so enamored with the Scottish countryside that one can’t help but catch a bit of her excitement as you travel the pages of her book.

The tour begins in Glasgow as Liz collects a rental car and heads south past Sanquar to the tiny hamlet of Durisdeer. The sightseeing starts at the Durisdeer parish church and continues through the afternoon as Liz’s car winds through tiny villages and lands in the vicinity of Dumfries. We tag along as Liz gives us glimpses into each of the places she stops for a meal, throwing in Scottish vocabulary here and there to help foreigners get a feel for the words used in everyday life in the region of Galloway.

Each day is planned with historic sites, a museum or used bookstore, a handful of villages to delight any tourist, new foods to discover, and descriptions of the lush, magical countryside that enchants its visitors. Liz drives us to places like the Abbey Cottage Tearoom, the Shambellie House Museum of Costume, Drumcoltran Tower, the town of Castle Douglas, and Threave Gardens. Places full of history and overflowing with beauty appear on page after page. And Liz makes sure to tell the names of the roads she’s taking and other helpful travel info so people can find these places on their own!

Liz intersperses her touring with bits and pieces of history about the places she stops. She also includes quotes here and there from her novels. Those familiar with her books will be able to picture the places she was painting into her works of fiction. Notes are included in the back of the book so you can see what resources Liz used for her own travels (she returns to Scotland yearly) as well as for this book. She also mentions Scotland’s Gardens which is a charity listing all the private gardens open each year for a small entrance fee. It is worth checking their website for gardens in the area you may be traveling to.

Travel Notes: this would be a very helpful resource for planning a trip to the area of Galloway and Dumfries or for armchair travel in general.

Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland by Dorothy Wordsworth

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  Imagine traveling around 19th century Scotland in a horse-drawn cart, taking in the raw beauty of the countryside long before modern tourism came alive. This is just what Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the famous poet William Wordsworth, did for six weeks in 1803. She traveled with William, and their mutual friend Samuel Coleridge, driving from their home in the English Lake District up through the Scottish Lowlands, into the southern Highlands (nearly reaching Fort William), through Perthshire, down to Edinburgh, and through the eastern Lowlands as they headed homeward. She recorded this journey in Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland.

This kind of tourist travel, at this time period, was not a walk in the park. Dorothy describes the rude accommodations they often had to resort to: dirty rooms, beds of straw on the floor, little food. She describes the poverty, and sometimes misery, of the country dwellers and the hovels that many of them lived in. And of course she depicts the natural beauty of the land, such as the mountains of Glen Coe: “I cannot attempt to describe the mountains. I can only say that I thought those on our right….were the grandest I had ever seen.”

The book is written in a journal form, broken into days and weeks. The modern reader may find it almost tedious at times but this tedium is delightfully broken by the inclusion of collections of black and white photos with each week of writing (20 pages per week). The photos are modern but capture the places that Dorothy mentions in her writing so you can put words together with pictures.

William Wordsworth recorded the events of this journey in his own way — poetry. He wrote at least two poems on the journey (“To A Highland Girl” and “Degenerate Douglas!”) and continued to write many more poems in the years that followed the journey. Dorothy includes William’s poetry throughout the journal.

Travel Notes: A very helpful map is included in the front of this book giving an overview of all the towns and cities visited on this journey. Some of the most notable include: Gretna Green, Dumfries, New Lanark, Glasgow, Dumbarton, Luss, Tarbet, Ballachulish, Callander, Crieff, Dunkeld, Blair Atholl, Stirling, Falkirk, Edinburgh, Peebles, Melrose, Kelso, and Jedburgh. This book would be an excellent volume to accompany someone making a tour of similar parts of Scotland.

A Childhood in Scotland by Christian Miller

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A Childhood in Scotland by Christian Miller tells life as it truly was for one family living in a Scottish castle in the 1920’s. Miller’s book is written in one long chapter of only about 112 pages. It was first printed in The New Yorker in 1979 and was later published as a book. The story is easy and, for the most part, quite delightful reading, except for the occasional sketches of the harsh realities of growing up with a difficult father.

Christian Miller describes for us the castle and its properties, the ghosts that inhabited the castle, the rooms and furnishings, the castle staff (butler, housemaids, cook, etc.), mealtimes, the cadence of a typical day, governesses, the yearly shooting events on the estate, the lack of medical care, holiday traditions, and the arrival of the telephone. In many ways Miller describes the life we see depicted in Downton Abbey minus all the grand clothing and sumptuous eating and warm-ish parental involvement.

Often people imagine that life in a castle was filled with privilege and excess. In some ways that was true. However, it seems that more often than not castle owners were more “property rich” and “cash poor.” Miller grew up receiving very little food at meals and feeling hungry much of her day. She had five older siblings to interact with but it seems her parents thought it best to keep them isolated from other children. Miller explains the harsh upbringing of her father which sheds light on her own upbringing and the remnants of Victorian Era behavior that pervaded it.

This book is not all harsh reality. Miller recounts many happy memories of going into the village with her mother to shop, attending the Highland games, running about in the castle gardens, and playing with her siblings. Miller’s story is a gem of insight into a bygone world of which many of us still long to catch a glimpse.

Travel Notes: Christian (Grant) Miller grew up on the Monymusk Estate in Aberdeenshire. The Estate is still privately owned but you can drive through the village and explore the area. Or, you can hire out the castle for a wedding! This book is relevant reading for just about any castle tour in Scotland.

You Never Knew Her as I Did! by Mollie Hunter

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You Never Knew Her as I Did! tells the thrilling story of Mary Queen of Scots daring escape from her island prison on Loch Leven. Written as historical fiction by one of Scotland’s most talented writers, Mollie Hunter, this book is both delightful entertainment and insightful history. The book is aimed at young adults and children but can be equally enjoyed by adults.

img_1265 The story is narrated by Will Douglas, a seventeen year old page and bastard son of Sir William Douglas, owner of Loch Leven Castle. Mary Queen of Scots is brought to the island as a prisoner in 1567 after surrendering to her noblemen and abdicating the throne to her infant son. Will Douglas is a young man with little hope for the future and a great desire for excitement. The advent of Queen Mary to the island brings excitement to daily life, especially when the idea of helping the Queen escape the island becomes a real possibility to Will.

The book is filled with descriptions of daily life in the castle, the people who went in and out of its walls, the food that was eaten, and the business that was conducted. Mollie Hunter certainly did her research before writing this book and endeavored to stay as close to history as possible. The book keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering if the escape plot will be found out or if it will be safely executed.

img_1252Travel Notes: Visitors can take a boat across Loch Leven to the Castle and tour the very ruins where Mary Queen of Scots was held captive and where the events in this book took place. It works well to pair this tour with a visit to nearby Falkland Palace where Mary Queen of Scots enjoyed spending time.

 

The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers

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The Five Red Herrings is a classic mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, a well-known British crime writer of the previous century. This book is set in the beautiful, rolling countryside of Galloway in the towns of Kircudbright and Gatehouse of Fleet, an area favorited by artists for many decades. Sayers picks up on this in her novel, choosing to make the murder victim and the six suspects local artists.

It is Sayer’s favorite hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, who is vacationing in the Kirkcudbright area and almost immediately becomes entangled in helping to solve the murder of a local artist whom no one likes. Wimsey embarks on investigating the six local artists closest to the situation and all the details of their alibis and suspicious movements. This plot is all about the details: exact train times, where trains stop, and how long it takes to bike between various locations. It leaves one with a great respect for the knowledge previous generations must have had of the means of transportation available to them.

Each of the six suspects’ alibis and movements are gone over in great detail and then various theories are hatched by the Scottish police before Lord Peter Wimsey reveals his own complicated, but perhaps ingenious, hypothesis. A murder reconstruction is ordered in the hopes that this reenactment will reveal the veracity of Wimsey’s theory, and perhaps even the killer himself.

The book becomes even more interesting knowing that Dorothy Sayers routinely spent time in the Kirkcudbright area herself and dedicates this volume to the inn keeper of whose inn she frequented. Sayers admits the locations and landscapes in this book, and the trains mentioned, are all real. For more information on Dorothy Sayers and her connection to Galloway, check out this site.

The Five Red Herrings is an excellent piece of classic mystery writing and is also an ideal book to read before visiting the Galloway region. It is also the kind of book that benefits from multiple readings as this allows the details of the story to be more deeply understood.

Travel Notes: You can stay at, or visit, the Ship Inn in Gatehouse of Fleet where Dorothy Sayers first stayed when she came to Galloway and to whose proprietor she dedicated this volume (it was known as the Anwoth Hotel in those days).