Wild Routes

Merse Magic

Merse Magic


‘Merse’ is a Scottish name for saltmarsh, areas of low-lying land which border river estuaries or the sea itself and which are periodically inundated by the tides.  The territory covered by this itinerary contains a diverse range of habitats, from mudflats and peat bogs to sand dunes, grassland and woodland, as well as saltmarsh. This diversity of habitats, and of landscapes and the wildlife they include, is what makes this itinerary so interesting  for the visitor and what prompts many people to come back time and again.

The Merse Magic itinerary follows the A710 coast road along the west bank of the Nith Estuary from Dumfries for about twenty miles as far as the beaches of Sandyhills – see map. There is an equally wide range of other attractions and places to stay along the route.

The Itinerary

Start from the centre of Dumfries, at the Whitesands on the east bank of the River Nith.

Despite the urban location, the shallow river and sandbank at this point are host to a number of species of ducks and wading birds, including brightly coloured mergansers.  In the autumn, this can be a good spot from which to watch wild salmon leaping up the weir as they head upriver.  There is also a resident otter which you may spot at either end of the day, if you’re lucky.

Cross St Michael’s Bridge and follow signs south for New Abbey / A710.  Less than 5 miles along the road is the entrance to Mabie Forest on the right, a Forestry Commission woodland devoted to walking and cycling.  All walks start from the main car park, about ½ mile from the entrance, where there are also a children's adventure park, BBQ pits and toilet facilities.  Maps and interpretation boards describe nature trails of varying grades through beautiful woodland while, for the more athletic, Mabie Forest is one of the 7 Stanes centres of mountain biking.

Back on the A710, just 200 metres or so after the turn off for Mabie, another minor road on the left drops down to the car park at Kirkconnel Flow National Nature Reserve (NNR).   White on blue butterfly signs mark a short, circular route out to the peat bogs on an often muddy, and sometimes waterlogged, track and then back through birch woodland with a chance to spot adders, hen harriers and several different species of bog plants, including bog cotton.

Continue south on the main road to New Abbey where there is good public parking at Sweetheart Abbey, on the south side of the village.  This is not a wildlife site but it is difficult not to stop and spend some time to appreciate the romantic history of the former abbey ruins, to inspect the inner workings of the former corn mill at the entrance to the village or just to absorb the rural charm of its main street.

Further south, sweeping views open up over the Nith Estuary and the viewpoint at Drumburn, signposted just off the A710, provides an opportunity to enjoy them at your leisure.  The car park includes picnic benches and an interpretation board. 

2 miles further on, the road passes through Kirkbean.  Turn left here for the coast at Carsethorn where there is good public parking immediately after the Steamboat Inn pub and extensive information inside the bus shelter about what to see and do locally.  This is a fascinating village, full of maritime history, that rewards exploration on foot.  The village also makes an ideal base for walks down to and along the rocky shore as far as Arbigland to the south and back through country lanes.

The next stop, roughly 5 miles southwest along a road with sweeping views over the Nith Estuary, is the RSPB reserve of Mersehead.   This, deservedly, is one of the RSPB’s flagship reserves and includes comfortable facilities in the main visitor centre for viewing the birdlife of the merse plus a variety of walks around the site, with hides overlooking wetlands to the north and a 4km coastal path taking in a good family beach to the south.   The reserve comes into its own in the late autumn and through the winter when migrant geese and swans arrive in their thousands but the woodland walks and the beach equally reward visits in the spring and summer.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Southwick Coast Reserve, just 2 miles further along the A710, has a much more remote and ‘wilder’ feel to it - in complete contrast to Mersehead.  The reserve is not signposted but the entrance is on the south side of the road, opposite a junction signposted for Southwick Graveyard / Clifton Farm.  There is room for one car in the layby in front of the gate, otherwise park up the lane opposite.

The reserve is in two sections: an overgrown garden with seating and good views over the merse at the top; and the wide open merse and muddy banks of the Southwick Water beneath.  The two are joined by a very pretty wetland path that leads through a rock arch known as ‘the Needle’s Eye’, while the target to aim for once on the merse is the distant tower of rock to the west known as ‘Lot’s Wife’, where an impressive waterfall tumbles down the cliffs behind.  Caution is needed at all times on this site to avoid slipping on the muddy channels that meander through it and the mudflats beyond the waterfall can also be treacherous.

Back on the road it may be time to reward yourself for your explorations, especially on a warm day, with a gentle stroll, or even by sunbathing, on the magnificient flat beach at Sandyhills, less than 2 miles further on.  

Castle Douglas

Isla Cottage, Springholm

Nestling in the village of Springholm, Isla Cottage, a 4 star B & B provides the perfect base to begin exploring Dumfries & Galloway’s varied wildlife.  Red Kites and much more can be seen from the two well appointed ensuite guest rooms.  Wonderful countryside views and a breakfast of locally sourced products make for a memorable stay.

Contact:  Caroline & Stewart McKean, Isla Cottage, Springholm, Castle Douglas DG7 3LP

Tel: 01556 650275 / Mob: 07974782145



Unusual Escapes

Set in 80 acres of meadow, woodland and ponds, Gorsebank is a haven for nature and wildlife.  Our Pods, Wigwams & Bothies  provide comfortable accommodation for all year round camping allowing you to get up close and personal with our wonderful natural world.  Our few horses and Herdwick sheep share the land with foxes, badgers and roe deer.  The occasional red squirrel visits us from the the forest and otters pass across our streams and ponds. We are open all year, and our location lets you explore both the coastline and hills of the wonderful Galloway countryside.

Tel: 01556 610174 / 07814 501214


Barend Holiday Village

Escape to the peace and quiet of cosy, well-equipped, comfortable lodges, overlooking loch, forest or Solway.  Sandyhills beach, walks, riding and free fishing nearby.  Enjoy our dark skies and wildlife from the comfort of your own balcony.  Indoor heated pool, sauna, pet friendly bar, restaurant, wifi, boules courts, on-site.

Tel: 01387 780663


Sandyhills, Dumfries & Galloway, DG5 4NU

Mersehead Cottages

Within Mersehead Nature Reserve A pair of semi-detached holiday cottages, Barnacle and Shelduck, are open on the reserve for bookings throughout the year. Both have two bedrooms, kitchen, lounge/dining room, bathroom, open fires, and easy access to the reserve's nature trails and beaches.

Follow the links for more information:

Barnacle Cottage

Shelduck Cottage

Look for local nature-based events and walks to enhance the enjoyment of your stay by clicking here.

Other Information

For more information