Scotland is famous for its stunning scenery and dramatic landscapes – but in order for future generations to enjoy this too, tourism to these natural wonders must keep sustainability in mind. The Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere is boosting eco-tourism in Scotland by encouraging sustainable development and gentle adventures in the south-west of Scotland. Read on to find out how the Biosphere is shaping eco-tourism in the area of Glentrool and the Galloway Forest Park – and how this might be adopted in other parts of Scotland!
This post is part of a paid campaign with Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere, the University of the Highlands & Islands and the SHAPE project, part-financed by the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme, to promote eco-tourism in south-west Scotland.
This post contains affiliate links, which I may make a commission from.
Nature is arguably one of Scotland’s finest assets. Many people visit Scotland to see dramatic coastlines, towering mountains, serene lochs and paradise beaches. Even though nature has been tamed in many ways by modern society, the majority of Scotland is relatively sparsely populated. That leaves a lot of space for nature to do its thing and one is never too far from the tranquillity of a forest, beach or mountain. Scotland is a country you cannot leave without immersing yourself in the environment.
But increasing footfall to the same places can mean trouble – I have many thoughts on the issues of over-tourism on the Isle of Skye, for example, and hope to encourage everyone who visits this blog to think outside the box. Luckily, nature-based tourism is possible all over the country and it is easy to go off the beaten track to enjoy Scottish nature without putting more strain on the usual suspects.
The southwest of Scotland is the perfect region to visit when you want the mountains without the crowds, sprinkle in some cliffs and beaches, visit a lighthouse and wander through quirky seaside towns. A large part of Scotland’s south-west is covered by the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere (also referred to as GSA Biosphere in this post), including the Galloway Forest Park, the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park and the hills of the Southern Uplands mountain region.
I was invited to spend a few days in the GSA Biosphere – not only to learn what a biosphere is and how it contributes to the development of sustainable tourism in the region but also to experience some of these initiatives first-hand. In this article you will find:
- An introduction to UNESCO Biospheres worldwide and the GSA Biosphere specifically;
- Things to do in Glentrool in the Biosphere;
- And lots of practical advice for visiting the Biosphere: accommodation, transport and (vegan-friendly) eateries.
Visiting the Galloway & Southern Ayrshire Biosphere
What is a Biosphere?
First things first – I had no idea biospheres were a thing until I got to visit one myself. Biospheres are designated by the UNESCO – a global organisation that is also responsible for granting World Heritage Site status. They are a bit like national parks in that they are large regions with a particular focus on enhancing biodiversity. However, biospheres go beyond the aims of nature and landscape conservation (which are the primary objectives of any national park) to incorporate the needs of the environment as well as the needs of the people who live and work in the area. All biospheres have a core area which is internationally protected for nature. Surrounding that is a buffer zone which separates and shields the core from intense human impact. And outside that, the last layer of a biosphere is a populated transition zone with locals, businesses and industry. Every biosphere around the world has these three regions and follows four core objectives:
Natural conservation of the core region;
Encouraging learning and education about global issues;
Enabling the development of sustainable business; and
Raising awareness for climate change.
Biospheres have a very collective approach to conservation and sustainable growth – after all, if businesses rely on the stability of the natural environment, it is in their best (economic) interest to do business in a way that has no negative effect on nature.
The Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere
The GSA Biosphere has three core zones: Cairnsmore, Silver Flowe and the Merrick Kells. The Galloway Forest Park serves as the buffer zone and the transition zone stretches roughly from the A76 to the Ayrshire Coast and from the south-west coast of Galloway to Ayr. That does not mean though, that nature is confined to the middle of the Biosphere – especially the coastal regions also have a lot to offer for nature- and wildlife enthusiasts, so there is something to see everywhere in the biosphere. Visit the biosphere’s website to find out more.
A Case Study for Eco-Tourism in Scotland
For the past three years, the GSA Biosphere was involved in SHAPE – a collaborative project with other biospheres in Finland, Norway, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. SHAPE stands for “Sustainable heritage areas: Partnerships for ecotourism”. Each participating biosphere has developed a way to encourage and expand sustainable tourism in their area and shared learnings, resources and experiences among the network. Together they are moving forward with new initiatives to promote nature-based tourism in a sustainable manner.
Focussing on the area around Glentrool, the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere has created a case study to illustrate the positive impact eco-tourism can have on a region. Throughout the SHAPE project, they have created a network of local businesses who share the same ethos towards nature, developed a Certification Mark to provide a qualitative standard, and trained new Biosphere Guides to start sustainable tourism businesses in the area.
I got to enjoy the fruits of all this labour and I can tell you – the GSA Biosphere has done a stellar job in creating a seamless experience for anyone who wishes to immerse themselves in Scottish nature.
Why visit the South-West of Scotland?
So, why should you visit the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere in the south-west of Scotland? The first reason that comes to mind is that it lies off the beaten track. No need to worry about sharing beautiful Scottish views with crowds of tourists – you will pretty much have it all to yourself if you venture to southern Scotland instead of north into the Highlands.
But that is not the only reason why Galloway and Southern Ayrshire should be on your itinerary. The regions are also incredibly diverse offering different landscapes from sandy beaches to tall mountains in less than two hour’s drive from Glasgow. There are castles and lots of other local histories to discover, lovely seaside towns and thriving village communities, stunning roads and lots of activities for all tastes. You can get a little bit of everything Scotland has to offer in a relatively small radius and if that is not perfect for a short (or long) trip to Scotland, I don’t know what is.
Biosphere Community: Glentrool
Since the eco-tourism initiatives of the GSA Biosphere focussed on the area around Glentrool village, I should give you an introduction to this little community.
Glentrool is one of four Biosphere Communities in the GSA Biosphere. The others are Whithorn, Gatehouse of Fleet and St John’s Town of Dalry. Biosphere Communities are places where the local residents and businesses have committed to support the Biosphere and help it achieve its goals.
Glentrool is the only village inside the Galloway Forest Park and was originally established to house employees of the forestry commission on a short term basis. As the number of forest workers needed in the park decreased, the houses in the village were sold and slowly the village grew with permanent residents coming in. In the last few years, however, the community has had the same struggle as many rural villages around Scotland – the population declined, young people moved away and only rarely came back, finding plentiful opportunities elsewhere. The closing of the local school in Glentrool village was particularly hard for the community.
But with the help of the Glentrool Community Trust and support of the GSA Biosphere, things are looking up again – lots of new starts to be had and plenty of space for fresh ideas.
The old school is now a welcoming centre where folk can meet, socialise, learn and relax. There are new opportunities in the sustainable tourism industry and tangible excitement among locals to share their beautiful region with more visitors to come.
Glentrool is a fantastic home base for a trip to the GSA Biosphere as it offers a range of accommodations and some food options and is nearby many outdoor activities and walking trails.
How to get to Glentrool & Around the Biosphere
Glentrool is less than two hour’s drive from Glasgow, three hours from Edinburgh, two hours from Carlisle and 45 minutes from Stranraer (Northern Ireland ferry port). If you want to fully immerse yourself in the eco-tourism initiative though, why not travel in a more sustainable way?
Getting to Glentrool by public transport
From Edinburgh/Glasgow: From Edinburgh, make your way to Glasgow Central Station – you can either take the train or the bus. From Glasgow, take the train to Girvan, approx. 10 miles west of Glentrool. Girvan lies on the line to Stranraer and coming from Glasgow you might have to change in Prestwick or Ayr – the change is very straightforward though. Once in Girvan, continue by bus to Glentrool village (Stagecoach Service 359).
From Northern Ireland/Stranraer: If you travel to Scotland from Northern Ireland, you will arrive by ferry in Stranraer. Take the train to Girvan and continue by bus as above.
From Carlisle: Public transport from Carlisle in England is a little bit more complicated. The easiest option is to take the train to Glasgow (1 hour) and continue as above. Alternatively, get the train to Dumfries, the bus to Newton Stewart (Stagecoach Service 500) and then the 359 bus to Glentrool.
You won’t necessarily need your own means of transport in the Biosphere as activity providers can meet you in Glentrool village, but you will not be able to go far for dinner or shopping unless you head to the nearby town of Newton Stewart (15 mins bus ride using the Stagecoach Service 359),
Getting to Glentrool by bicycle
Alternatively, instead of getting off in Girvan, stay on the train until you reach Barrhill and continue your journey to the GSA Biosphere by bicycle. This gives you more flexibility and a wider reach than “just” using public transport. This is what I did!
One of the sustainable businesses in the GSA Biosphere project is Biosphere Bikes. They offer hire bikes (regular and e-bikes) as well as guided bike rides in the area. Ann, who trained as a Biosphere Guide, met me at Barrhill station, handed over the bike and off I went. She outfitted the bike came with two waterproof pannier bags which fit everything I needed for a few days in the Biosphere.
There is no bike path between Barrhill and Glentrool, but the main road is not overly busy. If you are comfortable with cycling on the road, this is a great environmentally-friendly option to explore the GSA Biosphere. It took me approx. 40 minutes by e-bike from Barrhill to Glentrool. Once I was in Glentrool, the bike gave me the freedom to explore independently on two wheels.
Things to do in Glentrool
Biosphere Experiences are bespoke activities that show off the diverse features and unique stories of the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere. There are Biosphere Routes for self-guided tours around hidden gems in the area or you can book a guided outing with a Biosphere Guide or Biosphere Certified partner. There are tons of things to do in the area around Glentrool to get up close with the natural environment and the locals of the Biosphere.
Guided Hiking & Wildlife Walks
The Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere is thriving with local wildlife, nature trails and mountain tops waiting to be climbed. Local Martin Webber offers guided hikes and wildlife watching in the area starting from Glentrool village.
Did you know that the tallest mountain in the Galloway Hills is almost a Munro? At 2,766 ft, the Merrick offers fantastic trails for avid hikers. The Merrick is part of the Range of the Awful Hand, five mountains in the shape of five fingers – each with its own challenges and stunning views.
Martin and I picked Kirriereoch Hill – the second-tallest in the range – and even though we did not make it quite to the top due to time restrictions, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of hiking with a local. Like Ann from Biosphere Bikes, Martin is a trained Biosphere Guide. He builds on decades of experience working for the forestry commission and knows the Galloway Hills like the back of his hand.
Throughout our hike, Martin pointed out local flora, pointed out tracks of different animals and explained how the eco-system is developing in this area and why. It was a really eye-opening experience as a nature-lover.
An Evening with a Dark Sky Ranger
The GSA Biosphere encompasses the Galloway Dark Sky Park, an area officially recognised for its dark night skies and incredibly low light pollution. When the sky is clear after dark you can see a dazzling number of stars. If you want to do more than “just” look up and marvel at the stars, I can highly recommend an evening with Dark Sky Ranger Elizabeth Tindal.
Elizabeth and I met in the centre of Glentrool village after dark. Armed with red headlamps, we began our evening with a darkness walk through the local forest surrounding the village. Elizabeth let me go ahead, giving my eyes the opportunity to get used to the dark and forcing me to use my other senses to navigate the forest. After a meditative session listening to a waterfall by the Glentrool Visitor Centre, we continued our walk to a big open clearing. There Elizabeth and I made a fire and prepared a lovely picnic with fresh bread, roasted vegetables, baked apples and warm berry juice.
Elizabeth patiently answered all my questions about the stars and told stories about different constellations and myths. To top off a perfect night, she got our her professional astro-binoculars so we could take a closer look at the surface of the moon and see stars that would not be visible to the naked eye. It was an educational and fun night. I learnt so much and found a new appreciation for the dark night sky. I even saw a few shooting stars – this Biosphere Experience was a definite highlight of my trip!
Kayaking on Loch Trool
Apart from the coastal areas, there are many lochs and rivers in the GSA Biosphere – particularly among the mountains near Glentrool. The Girvan-based activities provider Adventure Carrick is the perfect company to head out for an adventure in the water. AC offers a wide range of water- and land-based activities throughout the Biosphere. The company was established by Chris Saunders who runs the non-profit organisation Adventure Centre for Education, which provides educational programmes with a focus on adventure activities.
Chris picked me up from the village centre at Glentrool’s old school and took me out to Loch Trool. I had chosen to go kayaking for a physical challenge and to change my perspective on the Galloway Hills for a few hours. We paddled for a few hours, stopped every now and then for a breather and to look at the plants along the shore – holly shrubs with bright red berries, tall pine trees, dense reed creating sheltered pockets on the loch for wildlife and tired paddlers.
After we returned to the van, Chris got out a reclaimed satellite dish and quickly made a fire – it might have been a crisp and bright November day, but as the sun started to set the cold crept nearer. We made delicious chickpea pancakes on the fire, served with white bean hummus and avocado and followed by warm flatbread with dates and banana. What a treat after a day out on the loch!
Chris was an amazing guide with a huge wealth of knowledge about the local area and I learnt a lot about reading the loch to navigate my kayak. We had great conversations about outdoor education, running a small business and how he sees his relationship with the Biosphere. He said to me:
“We are the Biosphere. It’s not something that is separate from us. We are the people who live and work in the Biosphere. The deeper connection with nature. We are working with the environment, not using it. We are all one, so we try to work in harmony.“
A lasting impression and a perfect way to summarise my encounter with local sustainable businesses in the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere.
I spent two nights in the GSA Biosphere in two different accommodations – a self-catering glamping hut with uninterrupted views of the Galloway Hills and a traditional hotel in the village of Glentrool.
Creeside Escape Shepherd’s Hut
Approximately halfway between Barrhill station and Glentrool village, the Creeside Escape Shepherd’s Hut offers the perfect getaway in beautiful scenery. The hut has a cosy bed, a dining table, a rocking chair, a kitchen area that has everything you need for a few days, and a separate bathroom with a sink and compost toilet (no shower). The small wood-burning stove heats the hut efficiently and is super-easy to light.
Creeside Escape Shepherd’s Hut lies just off the main road and from the bed you can enjoy beautiful views over the River Cree and the Merrick mountain in the distance. There are plenty of books, games and a knitting basket in the hut, so you won’t even miss your phone – which does probably not have any reception anyways!
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A note for vegan readers: Please be aware, that the Creeside Escape Shepherd’s Hut is owned by sheep farmers and located in the middle of a sheep field. Personally, I welcome the step more and more farmers are making to monetise their beautiful farmland in a different way – becoming less reliant on farming and breaking into the tourism market – but I understand that not every vegan feels the same way.
House o’ Hill Hotel
The House o’ Hill Hotel lies just outside of Glentrool village and is the only inn located in the Galloway Forest Park. It is the perfect home base for a weekend in the GSA Biosphere – especially if self-catering accommodation is not your jam. The hotel has two en-suite rooms and guests can enjoy a full Scottish breakfast in the morning.
The inn is first and foremost a restaurant with a creative menu and delicious vegan options. Even though I stayed mid-week in November, the restaurant was busy – clearly a local favourite! Owner and headchef Helen sure puts a lot of effort into her menus and forages for fresh ingredients whenever she can.
The Glentrool Kindness Path begins just across the road from the hotel and leads to Glentrool village. The trail that runs parallel to the road and is dotted with painted rocks and kind messages. It makes for a lovely morning walk!
Vegan Food around Glentrool
Being vegan in the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere was very easy – and delicious. Both my accommodations took good care of me. Sarah at Creeside Escape Shepherd’s Hut filled a hamper with vegan breakfast goodies and prepared a lovely potato stew for me to heat up on the stove. Helen at House o’ Hill created a wonderful vegan main for me after a full-on day on Loch Trool.
Two of my guides, Dark Sky Ranger Elizabeth Tindal and kayak guide Chris Saunders, included a meal in their Biosphere Experience and were incredibly accommodating.
As such, I did not have to worry about finding vegan-friendly cafes or restaurants in the area, which was a pleasant surprise – sometimes it is nice to know that everything is taken care of and the locals are on board!
My trip to the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere was an absolute treat. I made so many unique experiences in just three days and met people with an infectious passion for sustainable tourism in Glentrool.
Participating in the SHAPE project has enabled the Biosphere to create a wonderful way to experience the south-west of Scotland. From arriving at Barrhill station to handing my bike back to Ann three days later, my trip to the Biosphere was a seamless adventure.
The idea is to offer similar packages in the future, but with a few calls and emails, you can easily plan a trip just like mine!
I am excited to see how the GSA Biosphere will continue to grow its sustainable tourism initiatives in the future – and whether other areas in Scotland will develop similar projects. I sure hope so!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.