Best in show: South of Scotland triumphs with record-smashing SIX Scottish Thistle Awards


CORKS are popping across the South of Scotland as the region celebrates a sensational performance at the national Scottish Thistle Awards for the tourism and hospitality sector – businesses from Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders scooped six national awards at Friday’s glitzy ceremony in Glasgow, smashing the previous regional record of three and making the South of Scotland the most successful region on the night.

The six winning businesses’ achievements are now set to be recognised by the South of Scotland Destination Alliance (SSDA) with guest of honour status at their next annual conference, being held in Dumfries on 20 March 2024.

The South of Scotland triumphed in the following categories at the Scottish Thistle Awards 2023:

  • Cream o’ Galloway ice cream founders Wilma and David Finlay, who are partners in family farm Rainton Farm in Dumfries and Galloway, home of The Ethical Dairy, won the prestigious Silver Thistle Award, which recognises an individual or individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to tourism over many years.

VisitScotland Chair Lord Thurso, who presented their award, said: Congratulations to Wilma and David Finlay on receiving this year’s Silver Thistle Award. This is a well-deserved award that recognises the outstanding contribution they have made to tourism in Scotland.

“Described as pioneers in their industry, they have demonstrated the principles of responsible tourism throughout their career and continue to inspire and encourage others to follow in their footsteps. They have not only made a huge impact on their local community in Dumfries & Galloway, but their pioneering work has had a lasting effect on farming, agritourism and responsible tourism in Scotland as a whole.”

  • Tourism Individual of the Year award was won by Melanie Allen, recognising her as an influential leader and ambassador and in light of the positive impact she has made on the visitor experience at regional and national level.

Melanie Allen said: “I am absolutely honoured and delighted to be recognised as Tourism Individual of the Year at the Scottish National Thistle Awards particularly being alongside so many talented finalists. Winning this prestigious award is such a wonderful accolade that I dedicate to all the inspiring people I have had the pleasure to work with. Success in tourism is always at its best when it’s achieved in collaboration with other like-minded people who work with a shared vision to be ‘world leaders in 21st Century Tourism’. Through these cherished relationships, I hope the passion and ambition I have for destination Scotland continues to be contagious with both businesses, community and visitors. Wishing massive congratulations to all the award winners and finalists celebrating this evening and making a difference to tourism in Scotland.”

  • Melanie Allen, with husband John, also scooped the Scottish Thistle Award for Best B&B or Guest House Experience for their Nithbank Country Estate luxury B&B in Thornhill, Dumfries & Galloway. The couple operate an exclusive B&B in this historic country house set in an 11-acre estate and were commended for their focus on local first and responsible tourism. 

Owners Melanie and John Allen said: “We are honoured and delighted to win this prestigious award. The Thistle Awards are the pinnacle of success for tourism in Scotland and showcase a commitment to providing consistency through authentic and quality guest experiences.

“The great tourism product we are able offer is only made possible through working with some amazing local businesses and our wider community – it is definitely a collaborative effort that goes towards creating unique memorable moments for guests here at Nithbank.”

  • Best Self-Catering Accommodation Experience went to Arden Holiday Cottage in Dumfries and Galloway, a rural self-catering cottage with an ‘outside the box’ approach, helping provide a different kind of experience for guests looking to switch off from their everyday lives and social media.

Owner Hester Binge said: “Arden Holiday Cottage are absolutely delighted to receive this prestigious award. “We are just one of many self-catering cottages who go that extra mile to ensure the experiences we offer are memorable and unique. Our Escape Room is based on local folklore which celebrates the rich tapestry of Dumfries & Galloway encouraging guests to explore all our beautiful region has to offer. This award means we can highlight Dumfries & Galloway and bring more guests to our often-overlooked region benefitting all tourism providers.”

  • Scottish Borders luxury self-catering specialist Airhouses landed the Best Luxury Experience award, with judges praising their community engagement and fair employment, which will  ‘help to inspire other businesses in the Scottish tourism industry.”

Elisabeth and Damian Kelly, partners in Airhouses, said: “We are delighted that our team’s hard-work and dedication to customer service, excellent cleanliness and providing each guest with a unique and bespoke experience, has been recognised by this award. We would like to thank our wonderful team and our fantastic guests for making Airhouses such a special place.”

  • Finally, Best Bar or Pub was won by The Cross Keys Inn, Ettrickbridge, which reopened in early 2023 after a painstaking refurbishment by new owners Rory and Vicki Steel. Judges hailed the Inn for its comprehensive programme of engagement with local groups and the Ettrickbridge community.

Rory and Vicki Steel, owners of The Cross Keys Inn, said: “We were absolutely thrilled to win this award in our region and we’re honoured to fly the flag for the South of Scotland in the Thistle Awards National Final. To win again this evening really is the best end to our first year of operating. We can’t thank our whole team and our local community in Ettrickbridge enough for all their support and we’re looking forward to building on this success throughout 2024!”

David Hope-Jones, Chief Executive of the South of Scotland Destination Alliance (SSDA), said: “I’m absolutely thrilled to see so many South of Scotland businesses receive national recognition at the Thistles. It demonstrates just how brilliantly our tourism and hospitality sector does what it does, with a real devotion to excellence, quality and responsible tourism.

“The scale of the South’s success (beating all other regions and doubling our best ever result in the 30-year history of the Thistles) is hugely inspiring.  It’s not just these six brilliant businesses that are celebrating, it’s all of the South of Scotland.  As a destination, we are finding our voice, building confidence and establishing our global reputation.

“This sensational result couldn’t be better timed, with a new Responsible Tourism Strategy soon to be launched, setting a bold, ambitious vision for the future of tourism in the South. Under our shared banner of ‘Scotland Starts Here’, we are keen to tell a new story about the South of Scotland, as an exciting destination offering a quality rural experience for the discerning visitor.”

The first ever dedicated South of Scotland Thistle Awards were held at Dumfries’s Cairndale Hotel in October, organised by the South of Scotland Destination Alliance (SSDA) and South of Scotland Enterprise, supported by VisitScotland and with headline sponsor Caledonia Park Designer Outlet.

Planning is already under way for the next South of Scotland Thistle Awards in 2024, with entries due to go live in the spring.

A special free session aimed at helping businesses craft a successful application – How to be a Scottish Thistle Award Winner – is scheduled on 7 March 2024 as part of the SSDA’s ongoing Winter Webinar series, available to all tourism businesses in the region.

The South of Scotland Thistle Awards 2023 ceremony was sponsored by Caledonia Park Designer Outlet,  The Borders DistilleryFishers, the Scottish Licensed Trade AssociationJohnstons of Elginand SW Audio. Any businesses or organisations keen to find out more about sponsoring the awards in 2024 are invited to contact the SSDA via at their earliest convenience.

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