Dominated by the Southern Uplands, a chain of bulging round-topped hills, Southern Scotland divides neatly into three regions: the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, and Ayrshire. Although none of them has the highest of tourist profiles, those visitors who whizz past on their way north to Edinburgh, Glasgow or the Highlands are missing out on a huge swathe of Scotland that is in many ways the very heart of the country. Over the centuries, its inhabitants, particularly in the Borders, bore the brunt of long, brutal wars with the English, its farms have fed Scotland’s cities since industrialization, and two of the country’s greatest literary icons, Sir Walter Scott and Robbie Burns, lived and died here.
North of the inhospitable Cheviot Hills, which separate Scotland from England, the Borders region is dominated by the meanderings of the River Tweed. The towns here have provided inspiration for countless folkloric ballads telling of bloody battles with the English and clashes between the notorious warring families, the Border Reivers. The delightful small town of Melrose is the most obvious base, and has the most impressive of the four Border abbeys founded by the medieval Canmore kings, all of which are now reduced to romantic ruins.
Dumfries and Galloway, in the southwestern corner of Scotland, gets even more overlooked than the Borders. If you do make the effort to get off the main north–south highway to Glasgow, you’ll find more ruined abbeys, medieval castles, forested hills and dramatic tidal flats and sea cliffs ideal for birdwatching. The key resort is the modest, charming town of Kirkcudbright, halfway along the Solway coast, indented by sandy coves.
Ayrshire is rich farming country, with fewer sights than its neighbours; almost everything of interest is confined to the coast. The golf courses along its gentle coastline are among the finest links courses in the country, while fans of Robert Burns could happily spend several days exploring the author’s old haunts, especially at Ayr, the county town, and the nearby village of Alloway, the poet’s birthplace.