Scotland's colourful and turbulent history is well represented around the fringes of the Galloway Hills, but seldom did anything of note occur within their bleak confines.
The first hunter-gatherers settled along the coastal margins so that they could live off the produce of both the land and the sea. The hills will have been clothed in their original wild woods, with swampy areas and wild beasts. Although a horde of Bronze Age implements was found on the Fell of Eschoncan, there are no traces of any hill forts or permanent settlements. There is however, a reconstructed Romano-British house near Clatteringshaws Loch. Although Whithorn and Galloway are associated with the dawning of Christianity in Scotland, all the old churches and big abbeys are located some distance from the hills.
We're well into historical times before there are truly momentous happenings on the hills. Robert the Bruce and his tiny army of a few hundred were hemmed into these wild hills by thousands of English troops. The Bruce had killed Red Comyn and hastily assumed kingship. Despite early successes he was later forced to flee for his life, then had difficulty raising an army. He embarked on a campaign of guerilla warfare from the hills, where he used the rocky, boggy terrain to his advantage in 1307. With each success he was able to break from the hills and extend his campaign throughout Scotland, finally defeating the English at Bannockburn in 1314.
In the turbulent years of the 'Killing Times' through the latter half of the 1600s, the hills again provided a refuge and safe haven for people fleeing religious persecution. Furious debates had centred on the need for bishops in the Scottish church, and the extent of authority the king should wield. Fiery preachers sprang up and some clerics were ousted from their parishes, and as dissent was punishable by heavy fines, imprisonment, torture or death, secret 'conventicles' were held in the hills. Even so, some people were killed while attending these prayer meetings in the hills and there are monuments to the 'Covenanters' all over Galloway. There's a story behind every monument and the victims are widely regarded as martyrs.
A novel called 'The Raiders' by SR Crockett again focuses our attention on the hills. Although fact and fiction are woven together in the story, these hills really were used as a hideaway for fierce gypsy clans - notably the Faas, Marshalls and Macatericks. They seem to have lived by raiding cattle and stealing goods from their neighbours. The most colourful character in those times was surely Billy Marshall, widely regarded as the gypsy 'king'. He is reported to have lived for 120 years, dying in 1792. Many stories are told about him throughout the region and they surely contain at least a grain of truth.
The few farms that ever managed to eke an existence out of the wild interior of the Galloway Hills were abandoned and falling ruinous by 1900. The land came into the hands of the Forestry Commission and sheep rearing was replaced by timber growing. The planting started in 1922, so some stands are coming into maturity and are being clear felled. Replanting is taking place so that timber can be harvested in the future.
The Galloway Forest Park covers much of the forestry Commission's holdings in the Galloway Hills. Some 250 square miles (670 sq km) of land was designated as a Forest Park in 1943. Although the Forestry Commission's primary purpose is to produce timber, not all the land has been planted. There are no plantations on the highest hills, where the trees simply do not thrive, nor have all the boggy valleys been planted, even though they would support forest cover.
The needs of conservation and recreation have been recognised and the Forestry Commission have provided some basic amenities and interpretative facilities for visitors, as well as allowing virtually free access on foot.
In recent years the visitor centres at Kirroughtree, Clatteringshaws and Stroan Bridge have been developed to provide first class facilities in the heart of the park.
The 7 Stanes, Extreme Mountain Bike routes at Dalbeattie and Kirroughtree provide an exhilarating experience for experienced riders as well as more sedate options suited to families or less ambitious cyclists.