Bewitching Holiday Home Oozes History; Travel Treading in the Footsteps of Kings and Pilgrims, Jane Hall and Family Spent a Week to Remember in a Former Monastic Gatehouse That Has Been Brought to Jacobean Life

Article excerpt

Byline: Jane Hall

SOME people claim to have fairies living at the bottom of their garden. Frankly, they've probably got a few kangaroos jumping around in the top paddock too.

Few would argue, however, if it was claimed a phalanx of phantoms lived in the backyard of what must rank as one of the UK's most beguiling holiday homes.

On a moonlit October night, my eight-year-old son and I are squeezed into two separate upstairs window embrasures looking at the ghostly silhouette of a ruined medieval cathedral.

It's deathly quiet; the only sounds the occasional hooting of an owl and the breeze rustling the few remaining leaves in a nearby stand of trees.

"Are there such things as ghosts?" whispers John David, nervously peering at the nearby stone edifice looming up out of the gloom.

Who knows. But if the dead do indeed still walk the earth, then you can believe they would choose to do it in this location.

We are in the master bedroom of Pend House, directly over the archway that in days gone by gave access to the medieval priory of Whithorn. Once royalty and commoners alike passed under the gatehouse's wide stone arch on pilgrimage to Scotland's answer to Canterbury.

For it was here, among the rolling heathland and wide bays of the area now known as The Machars in south west Scotland, that St Ninian chose to found the first Christian church north of the border in the Fifth Century AD, over 100 years before St Columba established his famous religious settlement at Iona By the Middle Ages, the Royal Burgh of Whithorn had grown into a powerful and prosperous place thanks to its status as one of the great pilgrimage centres of Europe.

There is little to indicate its past importance now. St Ninian's original church - Candida Casa - is long gone, and like hundreds of other wealthy medieval religious houses, Whithorn fell victim to the Reformation that ravaged western Christendom in the 16th Century.

Now Whithorn slumbers serenely in a remote corner of Wigtownshire in Dumfries and Galloway. This settlement's loss is the holidaymaker's gain, though. Here pubs double as corner shops; cows and sheep outnumber people 100 to 1; grass grows up the middle of roads because they are so little used; standing stones and cairns grow like trees from the wide, open landscape; and anywhere with more than two houses is regarded as a village.

The journey back in time begins as soon as you leave Dumfries on the A75. The further west you travel, the less traffic there is until it dwindles to almost nothing as you fly past Gatehouse of Fleet and the open road hugs the coast in spectacular fashion around Wigtown Bay before turning inland to Newton Stewart and the junction of the A714 that takes you the final 18 miles to Whithorn. We arrived late on Saturday and drove slowly down Whithorn's long, broad main street lined with frayed-around-the-edges town houses.

Pend House lies at the road's widest point and is an arresting sight with its arch punched through it bearing the glittering royal arms of the Stuart kings of Scotland, reflecting the priory's once powerful patronage.

It says much about the world that Whithorn now inhabits that the Pend's imposing wooden front door had been left unlocked in anticipation of our arrival.

Privately-owned but marketed as holiday accommodation through the National Trust for Scotland, we immediately felt at home as we stepped over the threshold straight into the dark and cosy main room with its huge, open fireplace, wood paneling, heavy period furniture and faint smell of woods-moke.

Up the winding staircase there were more period delights - a beautiful fourposter in the master bedroom over the archway; a pair of box beds set head to tail in the twin bedroom quickly commandeered by John David for himself and baby brother Matthew; and a suit of armour in the family room with its portraits of three Stuart kings on the wood-paneled walls. …