Each time I visit Durisdeer, the pretty hamlet makes me think of a mythical Brigadoon.
The approach road is narrow. Only occasional, well-spaced passing places allow for two cars meeting, or a tractor and a car, before easing past each other.
You’re nearly there before you actually see the substantial church. It appears to be watching over its surrounding huddle of a few houses.
In front, in the middle of what may have been a small village green in bygone days, stands a war memorial. The slab of granite has a carved outline of a soldier. Inscribed on the commemorative plaque is a list of war dead, local surnames. Why so many, you might wonder? You may also ponder on the size of the church. Was there ever enough of a congregation to justify this considerable building?
Part of the answer lies a short distance away. Two minutes will take you out of Durisdeer, through a gate and onto a rough path. Go just a few steps along the path then a little way up Durisdeer Rig - the big hill on your right.
Looking back, most of Durisdeer is already hidden behind trees. Far ahead, you’ll see the path cut into the slope of the hillside.
For much of the way, this path is bordered on the low side by a head - high, dry stane dyke. The quarrying, carting, lifting and careful placing of each differently shaped lump of rock must have been physically demanding. Constructing this wall would have been the work of a very large squad of men. Could it be that at the end of a long working week, Durisdeer Church being nearby could then take care of the workers’ spiritual needs?
From late summer ‘til late autumn this heathery hillside is clothed in deepest purple. When the blossom fades and eventually dies back the bees are left with little to eat. That’s when they become a little tetchy. As a beekeeper I met on the hill explained, while warning me not to get too close, his bees will need feeding in their hives through late autumn and winter. He’ll keep this regime going except when the weather turns really cold. If that happens, the bees will bunch together in an attempt to keep warm and hibernate.
From where we’ve stopped on Durisdeer Rig we can look across the path, over the dyke and the valley below, to the range of hills opposite.
Durisdeer now lies to our left at the foot of Castlehill. As the name suggests, there was a castle here at one time. Though no trace of it now remains, its early existence may have been the reason why the aristocratic residents had such an impressive church built nearby.
Seemingly, little consideration was given to the rest of the faithful of this widespread rural parish who could only get to the church with some difficulty.
Back on the path, we’ll go a short way before crossing the wall by climbing a wooden stile.
Our track now leads us along the valley bottom. It rises gently to a grassy hillock. There’s not a lot to see here, apart from some dips and bumps, but these outlines are what remain of a Roman Fortlet.
The garrison would have been protected by a wooden palisade. Since the immediate surrounding land falls away steeply, this would have been an easy position to defend - even from attack from the hills on either side.
These same hill tops also offered the Romans suitable sites for their flaming beacons. Their signals could then be seen at other distant encampments
After all this stravaiging, let’s get back on the path. We could keep heading north - west, further into the Southern Uplands, along what was the old Roman Road. But for now, let’s head back down for a wander round Durisdeer churchyard.
Many of the stones are weathered and moss covered. The oldest discernible is 1540 but doubtless some are of even more ancient date.
In a room behind the church, a tomb contains the remains of James and Mary, Duke and Duchess of Queensbury and Dover. The tomb lies beneath their two highly ornate effigies. Commonly known as the ‘Durisdeer marbles’, they are still brilliant white. It is believed they were the work of an Italian artist named Roubilliac, one of the most distinguished sculptors of the time.
Unfortunately, he never saw his works in place. According to an old legend, he was thrown overboard and drowned while sailing from Italy to deliver the goods. The work was never paid for!
Now here’s a real treat. For a few years now, throughout the summer months, the ladies of the parish have been offering Sunday afternoon teas (until the end of September) in a room of the church building. Part of the proceeds goes towards the running costs of the church and a local youth club. The remainder goes to charity. What’s more - you don’t have to scramble to the top of any of the hills behind Durisdeer before enjoying this splendid home baking.
Further Information: Durisdeer nestles in the Lowther Hills in Dumfries and Galloway about 1 mile off the A702 - 11 miles south of Elvanfoot and 3 miles north of Carronbridge on the A76.
It was dark. A cold wind whipped the last of the leaves from the trees. With a torch beam to light our way, my guide led me down a curving gravel path to a shed at the bottom of his garden. Once inside, we hardly heard a sound.
This garden shed is no ordinary storage space for bikes or tools. With a pull on an outside rope the whole roof slides open to reveal innumerable pinpoints of light glistening in the night sky.
My guide, Mike Alexander has studied the stars since 1969 when his early interest was sparked by blurry black and white pictures of the moon landing shown on televisions across the world. A book on astronomy at Christmas 1971 led to further study and a desire to keep learning more.
‘I just had to find out about the stars, the planets and whatever else is up there,’ said Mike.
Now the Galloway Astronomy Centre, run jointly by Mike and his wife Helen, attracts visitors who also want to know more about what is up there. Their cottage can accommodate a small number of paying guests usually on a Bed and Breakfast basis though some guests prefer to arrive in time for dinner as well. ‘We organise everything around our guests’ needs,’’ said Mike.
‘If we have a group of absolute beginners who may not be able to recognise the shape of The Plough in the sky, I’ll happily start there, very slowly. ‘Then I’ll explain the origin of constellations such as Leo the Lion or Aquarius the Water Carrier which are groups of stars that appear as tiny bright dots in the sky alongside umpteen other tiny bright dots. The constellations don’t readily make shapes looking anything like the descriptive names given them by the ancient Greeks so they can be difficult to pick out.
‘Then using the Centre’s telescopes, I can point out other wonders of the night sky such as planets, the craters of the moon, ring of Saturn, or the moons of Jupiter.
‘Looking much further into space our stargazers might be able to see the distant clouds of gas where new stars, perhaps one thousand light years away, are forming at this very moment.
‘We may even be able to pick out other galaxies that are several million light years away!’’
Mike points out that the Galloway Astronomy Centre is unique in Scotland. ‘I don’t just leave our guests to play with a telescope. I’m there with them in the observatory, guiding them across the night sky.’
Like a teacher pointing at a blackboard, Mike uses a laser pen to shine a beam that appears long enough to pick out individual stars. From them he can then trace the shapes of constellations.
Mike readily acknowledges that people who may be interested in observing the night sky often assume they’ll need expensive equipment and especially a large telescope to get started. But that’s not the case.
First of all, prospective stargazers need to get to a place where it’s dark enough to actually see the stars. Then with the naked eye they’ll be able to see millions of heavenly bodies and a few passing satellites. A pair of relatively inexpensive 10x50 or 7x50 binoculars will help even more, along with a good star map.
Not so long ago, our ancestors would have been aware of the night time sky. Today it’s good to know there are still places where we can be amazed by this nightly wonder.
Dark Sky ParkGalloway Forest Park lies a few miles north of the Galloway Astronomy Centre. A number of measurements have been taken there, in different parts of the park, to assess the light pollution, or more accurately, the lack of light pollution.
These measurements prove that certain areas of the park are especially dark and are particularly good for observing the night sky.It’s worth noting that only a few sites in the world have been given this dark sky grading.As the population of Galloway is small, with most people living in a few largish towns and lots of small villages there’s not overly much light created. So it’s reasonably easy to find areas where the sky is dark. These parts of Galloway are also fairly accessible, unlike other parts of the world where people have to travel a distance to get away from the light sent upwards from buildings, city streets or shop fronts.
For further information: The Galloway Astronomy Centre
Tel: 01988 500594
WWW.Galloway Dark Sky Park