Regular travellers along the A701 between Dumfries and the M74 to central Scotland will have noticed roadsigns to Ae and the Forest of Ae, off to the north of the main road. We are all attracted to biggests, smallests, and other extremes, so there's an inevitable curiosity about the settlement bearing the shortest place name in the UK, and its only place name containing no consonants.
The oldest feature to carry this striking name seems to have been the Water of Ae, which makes its way through the remote countryside south of the Lowther Hills before becoming a tributary of the Kinnel Water and then the River Annan. The name is believed to have come from the Old Norse "aa", meaning, simply, water.
Following World War II, the Forestry Commission planted some 10,000 hectares or 25,000 acres of the area with conifers, producing one of the largest forests in the UK. This was named after the river and became known as the Forest of Ae. Forests need workers to manage them, and in 1947 the Forestry Commission built a village on the side of the valley above the west bank of the Water of Ae close to the point at which it emerges from the forest. This was Ae.
Today's village comprises white-harled houses spread out in a pleasantly functional sort of way over its hillside site. Community facilities include a village school and a pub, the aptly named Foresters Arms. From a visitor's perspective the most striking aspect of the village is the evidence of its community arts projects. One part of the village is home to a series of tiled tree containers placed here by the "Ae Youth Eye Project" in 2005. Even more impressive is the superbly carved wooden totem pole produced by the same project in 2006. You can see more of this on our feature page about it.
The nearby valley floor on the very edge of the forest is the location of extensive Forestry Commission offices and workshops. Close by is the Ae 7stanes Centre. This attractive modern building houses a bike shop and cafe, a bike hire centre, workshops and bike wash facilities, and showers and toilets for the use of cyclists. The centre serves as the hub of a network of forest tracks and paths, many specially designed and built for cyclists. They cater for all ages and levels of experience, and include everything from gentle valley bottom jaunts to a full-on downhill mountain course recommended only for experts.
The 7stanes initiative is operated by the Forestry Commission and provides mountain biking centres in seven locations in their forests across Dumfries & Galloway and the Scottish Borders. The collective name, 7stanes, comes from the presence in each of the areas of a large stone sculpture. The sculpture in the Forest of Ae is known as the Talking Head Stane and is made from a glacial granite boulder. It weighs in at 1.5 tons and has a mouth, ears and eyes and is carved with a translation of a Norwegian poem.