LONG READ National Trails Scotland

Chapter 15 – Southern Upland Way. “It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks”

I have a dream to write a book one day, so I have made a start by writing chapter 15 – The Southern Upland Way.  Longer than your average blog.

Southern Upland Way

Scotland’s Coast to Coast

“It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks” – Anatole France

I have been looking forward to walking the four Scottish “official” trails for years, leaving them until the end, almost like a reward for completing the paths in England and Wales.

The mad plan is to walk all four paths in one continuous journey, starting with the Southern Upland Way and proceeding north via the West Highland Way, Great Glen Way to the Speyside Way. A grand total of 465 miles to be completed in three to four weeks using a tent for accommodation as much as possible.  After all, the weather is always wonderful in Scotland, isn’t it?

Scotland, for me, is at its best in April/May and September/October. Midsummer means doing battle with the legendary midge, together with the possibility of ticks and cleggies.

Midges need no introduction for anyone who has travelled in Scotland and can be a real pain for those who plan to camp. Ticks are an increasing concern and more prevalent when the ferns and grasses grow, providing a launching platform onto unprotected legs – I like to wear shorts as much as possible. In summer cleggies (horseflies) can appear as you stop for lunch to completely spoil your day; with a bite on the neck as you take a bite of your sandwich.

Winter is for the experts, masochists, or students in Doc Martens, as I later learn.

A break in my freelance work ‘mysteriously’ appeared in the spring, ideal for a three or four-week expedition.  My wife thought I might think about some home decorating, but I managed to negotiate a pass for a month with a promise I’d take her to Scotland later in the year to see the best bits.

The Southern Upland Way is Scotland’s Coast-to-Coast path through the Scottish Borders connecting Cockburnspath, near Dunbar in the east; with Portpatrick, near Stranraer, in the west. Most people walk from west to east to take advantage of the predominant south-westerly winds. I chose to walk from east to west as I like breaking rules and conventions, or perhaps I like walking into horizontal sleet rain to improve my complexion.

This part of Britain is remote, like a no man’s land between England and Scotland, once the province of nationless border reivers and mercenaries, who would raid the wealth of the lowlands irrespective of their nationality. The Southern Uplands are not only a political boundary, but the geological boundary formed some 500 million years ago when Scotland met England for the first time; with Scotland coming out on top as England folded beneath the continental crust. The displaced seabed sediments formed the Southern Uplands. After a bit of further volcanic colouring and polishing from an ice age or two created the landscape we see today.

The path is Scotland’s longest official trail at 212 miles and follows this intersection. Except for the market towns and a few villages, you will only meet local farmers and forestry workers and, if you are lucky, some fellow Southern Upland Way walkers. More if you walk east to west: had the prospect of total isolation and loneliness influenced my decision to walk the ‘wrong way’?

Different accommodation itineraries suit each National Trail.  So I studied the entire Scotland trip to see what I should do. With several long remote sections, it seemed sensible to take a tent and use as many bothies as practical, using Inns and B&Bs to meet the locals for conversation, insight and guidance. A quick scan of the excellent accommodation guide maintained by the Southern Upland Way Association indicated a ten-day itinerary was possible, but this meant an ambitious twenty-something mile daily average.  The West Highland and Great Glen Way had good camping options too.

Having a tent, and carrying evening meals, meant I had a contingency plan, so I would only book ahead if necessary. I prefer this flexibility so I can adjust for conditions and fitness. If I were to book a full Scottish three-week expedition I would be a slave to that schedule and I like the serendipitous nature of adventure. The Scottish government also has an enlightened policy towards wild camping and it seemed a shame not to maximise nights under the stars and the prospect of seeing the northern lights.

So with my usual pre-expedition anxiety butterflies, I set off again from my local rail station, taking a perverse pleasure from joining the glum commuters into London to connect with the east coast service to Edinburgh. The carriage lights had failed and an eerie smartphone glow lit up each weary face glued to their daily news and social feeds. I was looking forward to the pleasure of a long-distance off-peak “Flying Scotsman” service from Kings Cross, complete with Yorkshire tea, a decent breakfast and a read of the broadsheets. Very civilised.

With a bit of advanced planning, the few extra pounds for a first class service paid dividends as the morning sun lit English landscape. I could trace my earlier adventures in Yorkshire as I recognised the hills and rivers, or to be more precise, the huge power stations belching out clouds of water vapour from their cooling towers. One recognisable feature that was rewarding to see was the white horse on Sutton Bank, below the Yorkshire Gliding Club airfield, a turning point on the Cleveland Way into Helmsley. If I had not walked that trail earlier in the year, the landscape would have been meaningless, but it meant something now. I reflected on the distance I had walked; now consumed by an express train journey in minutes.

Another cup of tea as we progress northwards and then a schoolboy thrill to cross at River Tyne at Newcastle, with all those beautiful bridges. Likewise at the River Tweed, Berwick; with superb views of the harbour.

Welcome to Scotland.

Unfortunately, the train did not stop at Dunbar and in fact, passed within a few metres of the starting point at Cockburnspath. I could see it out of the window. How annoying. It would take me another four hours to reach that point, double backing to Dunbar by train and then catch the Perryman bus service to Berwick. Never mind, at least I could enjoy the views across the Forth of Firth to Bass Rock – a black volcanic plug covered in hundreds of years of bird droppings.  A strong easterly and you would smell it too. {largest gannet colony in the world}

The hills to the south and north are covered in a healthy dusting of white too, but this is not guano. I hope this does not mean winter conditions ahead as I ascend into the Lammermuir Hills as I am not prepared for that prospect.

At Dunbar, I wait at the bus stop, snacking on a Co-op Pasty, drawing the attention of a huge bold seagull. Judging by his aggression, I can only assume he had served an apprenticeship in the seedier parts of the Edinburgh and spotted an opportunity of an unguarded Englishman. It seemed sensible to retire to the bus shelter for protection but at the expense of an aural assault from a pair of teenage girls. The high-speed gabbling is incomprehensible to me, fresh off the train from London. I think they are talking about which flavour vaping oil they like to smoke. The shop nearby offers a variety of choices like a sweet shop.  They sound like Vicky Pollard’s northern cousins. I quickly finish the Pasty as my bus arrives, they catch another. “Single to Co’burnspath please”; I ask.

The driver forgets to stop at my destination, but a quick guttural exchange of dialogue saves the day.  “You forgot to drop off the walker at Co’path, Jim”; a fellow passenger shouts. Emergency brakes applied and I get off. My thanks are not acknowledged, but I wave goodbye anyway.

I am now in an oasis of peace and tranquillity that is the village of Cocksburnspath.  Population – seems to be declining. After asking, on the off chance, of a room at a house with a B&B sign, I was told the business had long been sold, but they had not taken the sign down.  So my tent will be put to good use tonight.

The Mercat Cross marks the start of the path, I assume, as I could not find any official marker. This cross, erected in 1503, commemorates the marriage of King James IV of Scotland to Margaret Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII of England. The rose and the thistle are carved into the cross to symbolises the proposed union between the two countries.

I take a look at my watch and take my first step on the Southern Upland Way.

The first task is to find a campsite and water. The latter ‘stolen’ from the huge commercial camping farm at Pease Bay but not somewhere I would want to stay.  There are no discrete areas to pitch on the coast path, so I progress inland to enter thick woodland and pick a sheltered spot. No sunrise across the North Sea for me this time. A pity, as the limitless seascape will be transformed in twelve hours into a shimmering dawn. The pitch was pleasant enough, quiet and sheltered and I slept well after a full day travelling. Sometimes train and bus journeys are more exhausting than actually walking.

An early departure was rewarded with the sight of a Kingfisher on a roller coaster flight path down the stream. The winter rains and snows have left the ground muddy.  Muddy as in boot sucking muddy, stirred up with cattle hooves and tractors and blended with slurry. I stop for a chat with the local farmer before progressing on firmer ground into Abbey St Bathans, crossing the river via the footbridge instead of the ford, which is in full flood and would challenge the gnarliest 4×4.

I meet my first Southern Upland Way walker. A Dutchman on holiday, with suspiciously mud free boots. “Walking the Southern Upland?”; I ask.  “Only one more day to go” he replied, “…conditions are good ahead, but the weather has been difficult at times”
Either he has walked through a car wash or the path ahead is dry; I hope the latter. We stop and chat for a while to exchange recent knowledge of the path conditions ahead.  I briefly mention the cattle field and suggest he continues on the farm track.

“Are you not walking the wrong way?”; he asks. I make a nonsense excuse so as not to complicate the discussion.  “Good luck”; we conclude.

The village has the first of many information boards along the Way, which reminds me to keep a lookout for buried treasure. There are thirteen ‘Kists’ along the route which each contain a ‘Weymerk’ coin. Each coin minted with a design from a local school and the idea is that you collect all thirteen, or “The Hoard”. It is such a wonderful idea that I am surprised that other trails have not adopted a similar challenge. On reflection, I am sure this can only work on the remoter paths. Each ‘Kist’ is in a remote place and takes some effort to reach. I have missed the first ‘Kist’, but I am not too concerned about collecting all thirteen, otherwise, I will spend a month in the Borders looking for the damn things.  Little metal plaques saying “Ultreia” (“on with your quest”) are nailed to waymark posts. The ‘Kists’ can be found between them. All very Middle Earth – not too far from the truth in ‘Middle Britain’.

The path out of Abbey St Bathans continues on farm tracks until you reach Longformacus. There was a possibility of accommodation, but the village is very quiet, if not closed for the season, hopefully not a deserted second home holiday ghetto. This means a night in the tent, so I ascend Twin Law along a track to look for a pitch behind a wall on in a copse. I fill up with water, that will need to be filtered, at a fishing hut alongside a reservoir and then into the moors proper to reach the twin cairns at Twinlaw.  I read an inscription:

‘And they biggit twa cairns on the heather
They biggit them roond and high
On the top of Twin law Hill
Where they twa brithers lie’

The story goes that two brothers, separated at birth, fought hard for the opposing Saxon and Scots armies and were killed in battle. When the lairds discovered the family connection, they built the twin cairns in their memory. As if to continue the tradition, one cairn contained a visitors book in a tin, alongside a half-full bottle of single malt, inviting you to take a dram in their memory, which seemed mandatory after you had read the story. Unfortunately, the cairns were destroyed in the Second World War, as target practice on tank manoeuvres, only to be rebuilt later.

Snow, as seen the day before, was lying on the northern slopes, but eventually, I found a good camping spot. After pitching I cooked the evening meal. A freezed dried favourite of Spaghetti Bolognese. Easily cooked, but something about that meal was not quite right. My decision to eat it swayed by hunger rather than taste.

I woke early, feeling very ill indeed. My body disposed of that meal in short order.  Now I suspect that the meal was, in fact, rancid. I was violently ill in the middle of nowhere, but I will spare you the details and all I will say is that walking poles are useful to hold you upright as you retch.  I had no choice now but to walk into the next town and rest, even taking a day off. I could not contemplate eating breakfast or even taking on water, but my legs seem to be working.

After a while, I reach Lauder. The local shop has Lucozade, which seems to have a remarkable effect on my stamina and keeps me going.  I decide to keep going and shortly cross the River Tweed at Montrose. The river has recovered after the severe winter floods, the extent of which is evident from the detritus hanging 10m above, in the trees.

After crossing a suspension bridge I follow the river until I reach a cycle path which follows a new rail line. In 2015, Britain opened the longest new domestic rail service in a hundred years, connecting Tweedbank and Galashiels to Edinburgh. The Queen officially opened the line on the 9th September and the Borders community made an occasion of the day, although the Queen was delayed by fog.  No leaves on the line this time. I am sure the scenery en route is wonderful.

Arriving in the town centre I have completed a full twenty-mile day, across the Lammermuir Hills, without food and feeling ill. This is a major achievement and I will never complain about sugary drinks again. I wonder if the freeze-dried meal package had been compromised or if my water was tainted, even though it had been boiled.

I find a wonderful B&B, with a delightful landlady who shows be a comfortable room. I rest well, but still eat nothing until the morning, where I have no option but to demolish a huge FSB (Full Scottish Breakfast) and sod the consequences. I have made a full recovery, but I do take the precaution to book into a hotel in Innerleithen, sixteen miles away.

Galashiels has everything and I stock up with some healthy lunch options and make a point of taking it easy as I cross the River Tweed and ascend to The Three Brethren at 465m. No, not triplet brothers separated at birth, but the boundary meeting point of three estates; Buccleuch Estate, Yair Estate and Selkirk Burgh, each estate corner is marked with a massive stone cairn. The Selkirk fence post holds a plaque with brass name labels going back to 1960, each denoting the annual standard bearers for the Burgh. No names are repeated.

The views extensive across the uplands and moorland.  The skyscape and landscape can be seen for at least 100 miles in all directions, more clearly to the north. You can see the rolling uplands coloured with a patchwork of brown heather, green grassland and white snow, with the occasional volcanic mount interrupting the scene. The Eildon Hills which overlook the town are clearly volcanic in nature and very prominent.

A more recent scenic interruption is not so welcome. Vast tracks of wind turbine farms. Something that will plague me until the west coast.  I am always confused as to why they sometimes seem inoperable, even with a healthy wind blowing. I am sure it has to do with supply and demand and today it is windy yet sunny.

Another feature are the roman and drove roads, which criss-cross the upland landscape.  Predecessors of the A74(M) and A7 trunk roads that connect Scotland and England. Instead of an articulated lorry full of sheep en route to their maker, drovers would have driven the flocks’ many miles to the markets in England. The network of roads complements a checkerboard of snow, heather and grassland as far as the eye can see, which today is a good fifty miles at least.

Before descending into Innerleithen the first of many art installations gives me an excuse to stop and pause.  Patterns cut into the heather that forms not only a work of art but has a practical use too. They preserve the heather and provide a food source for Black Grouse, which I have yet to see, in contrast with the more populous Red Grouse, found on the English and Scottish moors. Mind you, the Red Grouse are bred to be shot.  It is big business and a significant source of income for the local community.

I meet a Dutch couple as I stop for lunch at Browne Knowe, 523m. They are cheery and suspiciously mud free too, with the wind behind them and glorious views ahead, they have every right to be joyful, as do I.

The Minchmoor Bothy, originally planned as a stopping point, has been demolished for safety reasons, so I do not feel guilty staying at the Traquair Arms Hotel, even though I have a two-mile road walk to reach it. I pass Traquair House, dating back to 1107, the oldest continually occupied house in Scotland, strategically placed at a crossing point for the River Tweed. It has a brewery, so I make a note to visit when I come back to the Borders as a tourist at some point in the future.

I am met by the hotel owner with a broad Welsh accent, which throws me for a second.  “Alright lad?” he asks, before showing me to my room. “Restaurant’s closed tonight I am afraid. Chef has called in sick, but you’ll find plenty in town”

I am made very welcome and find a good meal at the Whistle Stop Cafe, with dessert at Caldwell’s, the famous ice cream shop. I sleep well, relieved that my illness is behind me, but still another 400 miles to go.

Breakfast comes with a good Welsh natter (and exchange of life stories) about the local going-ons.  Seems the crime rate is non-existent. The town is popular with cyclists when the weather is good. “No, I’d never go back to Wales, love it here see”; he says as I put on my boots.  Is he in witness protection I wonder.

As I ascend back into the hills I discover my first ‘Kist’ and collect a shiny ‘Weymerk’ coin.  The container looks like a drove road marker. As you touch a symbol on the side, it opens up to reveal a several hundred coins in a bowl. I take one and store it in my pocket safely.

I reach St Mary’s Loch at Dryhope Tower, a ruined defensive building used by locals when the armies marched through. They provided enough defence for it not to be worthwhile of attack or to lay siege. The path follows the Loch until at its end you find a Guy Martin-themed cafe. They serve a welcome lunch in the company of 20 identikit American tourists in a ‘Rabbies’ tourist bus.

“You have walked from Dunbar!”; they exclaim. “In this weather!”
“Who’s this Guy Martin fella? Is he from Scotland?”; they ask.

I try my best to explain the meaning of a ‘Proper Bloke’, but it does not translate.  They are jet-lagged and more attentive to the bus driver, dress in a regulation kilt. He spurts forth a pre-recorded stream of historical facts, without a pause or rewind button: “St Mary’s Loch is the largest natural loch in Southern Scotland … three miles long … created by glacial action … “

I sit with a cyclist, serious long distance training for a competitive event. We exchange stories and he gives me further insight into cycling in the area, a subject which is beginning to trigger some thoughts in my mind about what I will do after I have finished.

“The headwinds are murder”; we agree. “But at least I’ll have a tailwind soon as I return to Galashiels”; he is pleased to say.  I have another 10 miles over rough moorland ahead, to Over Pawhope Bothy.

As I go to pay I realise I have lost by ‘Weymerk’ coin. I wonder what value a coin had to be for me to turn back? “Damn”; I mutter as I make a brief foray back to the sailing club to see if it fell from my pocket when I checked my map.

Another ascent into the hills to meet another Dutchman! I have to stop and ask. “Why so many Dutchmen in the Southern Uplands?”  The answer is logical and rehearsed. “Because The Netherlands are flat!” He is unaware of the ‘Kists’, so I ask him to look out for my ‘Weymerk’ coin and the ‘Ultriea’ signposts.

“On with your quest”; I say as we walk apart. He looks at me quizzically.

After a long boring road walk, I reach Over Pawhope Bothy. What a delight. It has unheard of levels of luxury, a sofa and a new green watertight roof. I light the cast iron stove, make tea and prepare a meal. Afterwards, I try my best not to fall asleep as the stove crackles and the calories soak into my tired legs. I make the effort to replenish the kindling and logs by attacking a tree left by the forestry workers.  Knowing the pleasure of arriving at a Bothy with dry wood and a fire ready to be lit, it is a pleasant duty.

Pawhope means a valley of different colours. But today that variegation is now a dark green monoculture of Sitka Spruce. While many praise the commercial value, I welcome the protection they give from the wind and rain showers. In the early morning, the sun shines down the orderly corridors giving an ethereal like quality to the light, like walking in a smoky Cathedral.  There is a religious peace and quiet, a sanctuary from the relentless rage of the south westerlies.

The Sitka Spruce was introduced by David Douglas (of Douglas Fir fame) in 1831 from the west coast of America. It was planted extensively for the two World Wars to provide timber. This included materials for building aircraft, as the tree has strong fibres and an excellent strength to weight ratio.

The Roman roads and drover tracks continue through the Eskdalemuir Forest to Ettrick Head en route to Moffat, a major town on the A74(M) and an opportunity for a decent lunch and to resupply. I need a few items from the outdoor shop, but it is closed for lunch until the owner sees me waiting on the steps and runs across the road to open early.

“I’ll open up for you”; he says, carrying a sandwich. “How can I help?”  This is no high-street fashion shop and is full of exactly what a Southern Upland walker might need.

I buy gloves and volume adjusters for my new boots. New gloves are needed in case the weather turns and the adjusters fit underneath the insole to compensate for the fact I have gone up a boot size.  I have noticed that my feet grow as I age and walk more frequently.

I spend a while chatting about the route ahead.  “One student from Edinburgh walked the Way in winter in Doc Martens and seemed none the worse for wear”; he says.  I wonder if he made it? I am sure his DMs did.

The Italian style Cafe Ariete on the high street offers an excellent FSB and Scottish high-calorie cake and pastries with indecipherable names. Refreshed and resupplied I set off to pass under the drone of the motorway into the Lowther Hills and to Brattleburn Bothy. I am back on the drover roads again.

‘When we first rade down Ettrick
Our bridles were ringing
Our hearts were dancing
The waters were singing
The sun was glancing
An’ blithely our voices rang out thegither
As we brushed the dew frae the blooming heather
When we first rade down Ettrick’

A concerned gentleman stops his car. “Fancy a lift to the top of the hill?”; he asks. One of many such kind offers I have received over the years. I have to explain what I am doing and regret the opportunity for a chat when I refuse the offer.  “I’d love to, but I’m walking the Southern Upland Way”; I state. “Good luck,” he says as he struggles with a hill start in a car that has seen better days.

The bothy is deserted and I am early, so I set about making myself comfortable. Starting the fire in the stove is almost impossible as the wood is very wet, but after some persistence, I can make tea, warm up and settle down.  I cut more wood and bring it indoors to dry, also cutting more kindling for the next guests. There are enough axes, saws and cleavers to build a small town, so there is no excuse not to oblige.

This bothy is a covered in humorous graffiti and friendly Scottish banter as if a party of comedians were stranded here for weeks with nothing else to do.  Mel Gibson doesn’t fair to well for his portrayal of William Wallace in the film, Braveheart. Neither do Englishmen, particularly from London. A half bottle of whisky has been left, with a note saying “Enjoy!” An ideal nightcap – I make a toast to all the good people in the world.  No other walkers turn up, so I drift off to sleep, awaiting the last minute sound of a lifting door catch of a late arrival. It doesn’t happen.

I sleep well until woken by the sounds of mice scratching around the bed and turn on my head torch to see a pair of the wee devils eating the remains of the paper bag that contained my danish pastry. The utter peace and silence of this remote bothy serve to amplify any foreign noise, so I watch the entertainment in the light of my head torch as they search for a juicy morsel until my eyelids succumb to tiredness. I depart early leaving thanks to the Mountain Bothy Association for yet another gem.

I pass one of two memorial stones to shepherds who lost their lives on these moorlands. A healthy reminder of how exposed the moors can be and the precious shelter that is offered by a bothy. The stones mark the exact spots where the bodies were found as they sought to protect their flocks.

The usual pattern of an early morning ascent brings me over Hods Hill to the Daer Reservoir and then a crossing of the A702 and the River Clyde. Newborn lambs, still young enough to have not bonded with their mothers, follow me over the boggy moorland until a fence defeats their progress.  They then bleat for their mothers. These lambs are a few weeks behind those in the valleys and I am amazed at their ability to survive at this elevation. Although some do not when the weather is severe.

Next up is a long arduous ascent to the summit of Lowther Hill near the ‘golf ball’ radar station on Green Lowther. I collect another ‘Weymerk’ coin and get into gear as the never-ending summit eludes me for a few hours.  Eventually, I reach Lowther Hill and the highest point on the Way at 725m. I am blessed with clear skies, light winds and extensive views over Dumfries and Galloway. The silence is absolute, save for the background tinnitus in my ear.   If it were not for the wind turbines, there would be little evidence of man. I find an ideal spot for lunch near a rusted hut, wearing camouflaged steel panels that hide it in the heather. I couldn’t be further from city life.

I descend into Wanlockhead taking shortcuts across the hairpin maintenance road. I catch glimpses of a several Mountain Hares, still yet to lose their white winter camouflage and easily seen against the brown heather terrain. Feeling elated after crossing the Lowther Hills I fall into the museum cafe and demolish a toastie and several slices of cake.

My legs have seized up after the unexpected afternoon break as I dawdle through the disused workings of Wanlockhead, the highest village in Scotland, where lead, copper, zinc, silver and gold were once mined. The gold is some of the purest found at 22.8 carats and used to make the Scottish Crown. Judging by the unnatural landscape and presence of beam engines and sluice gates, that must have taken some effort to find. I wonder where that crown is today? I suspect it is in the Tower of London.

I ascend again into the last remains of the Lowther Hills and descend into Sanquhar, after negotiating some very treacherous undrained cattle fields. Covered in mud it is time to find accommodation.

“Sorry lad, we’re fully booked. It’s the wind farms you know”‘ is my first response. “Try down the road, opposite the shop”; is another.

But no luck. I sit on a bench and get my Smartphone out. Before long I find a delightful farm B&B nearby. “We don’t do evening meals,” she said, so I eat a hearty meal in town.  I walk out towards the manor farm to meet a wonderful landlady and her enormous Great Dane dog. She cannot be more accommodating:

“If you need a hot water bottle, let me know”; she offers. “We only have a bath, use as much hot water as you like”; she adds.

A China tea set appears, with home-made cake while I browse a library of local books. The house is delightful, stuck in a Victorian time warp and has remained in the family for four generations. The bed is a mound of blankets and sheets, not a duvet in sight.  I switch on the electric blanket – what a guilty pleasure. It must have been half a century since I last experienced such luxury.

I sleep deeply, to awake to a huge FSB served with a Victorian cutlery and crockery set and a huge silver teapot of similar age. It is more than I can eat and I have to ask for some silver foil to build a lunchtime feast from the remains. She has no problems with any leftovers, with that huge dog around. The abundance of calories is no bad thing, as I have a twenty-six-mile day ahead into St. John’s Town of Dalry.  This is a tough section.

I thank the landlady for her hospitality. She refuses to let me round-up the bill and hands back a few coins in change. I make a note to return to Sanquhar and its many attractions, as I head up into the hills across the River Nith.

The Sanquhar to Dalry section is the longest stretch of the Southern Upland Way, with no facilities or accommodation en route, save for a Bothy which I could not find at Polskeoch. The sense of isolation and remoteness is wonderful, yet humbling and it is a welcome sight to meet any other walkers. The ascent to Allan’s Cairn is tough, as many trees had fallen, blocking the path. Shortly afterwards I meet a large party of organised walkers, who wanted very much to keep themselves to themselves. No doubt they were on a day trip to see the huge Red Sandstone arch sculptures, by renowned artist Andy Goldsworthy, that stand on Colt Hill and Benbrack nearby. They are clearly visible for miles and yet change in shape and form as you approach them. I ascend to Benbrack and linger, studying the landscape for more artwork and their careful construction.

We are now in the land of The Covenanters: The Scottish Presbyterians who objected to English Episcopalian interference in their worship. Their opposition was met with force in the 17th Century and many Covenanters were shot as they conducted their open-air gatherings (conventicles). Yet another Borders boundary. This time religious; to add to the geological and political boundaries between England and Scotland.

Allan’s cairn is the first evidence that draws my attention to these “Killing Times”, as they locally known. In this case, the cairn is a monument to George Allan and Margaret Gracie. They were shot nearby on the Fawns of Altry.

I see more deer, a common sight in the moorlands and forests, but this time a sizable herd in transit. The effortless manner in which they can cross the landscape is a marvel to behold. Two-metre fences are no obstacle as the herd seems to move as a fluid pouring down the crags.  I wish I could cross a pathless landscape like that.

A long descent leads me into St John’s Town of Dalry, after meeting another Dutchman and a group from the Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA), called the ‘The Irregulars’. Similar in a way to the Covenanters in defying convention, they walk on a Wednesday, instead of the tradition LDWA Sunday. This action was deemed “Irregular” by the LDWA executive, hence the name stuck and became a movement.

“Where are you staying tonight?”; they ask.  “The Clachan Inn, about eight miles ahead I hope”; I reply.  “We are catching a bus, so will see you later”; the declare, knowing that I would refuse an offer of a lift.

I arrive later Saturday afternoon to a public bar packed with locals lubricating their weekend. The atmosphere is buzzing, so after a shower, I return to have a pint or two to wash down an excellent meal of Cullen Skink and Black Pudding. What a fantastic Inn, full of character. Each room with its own gun cabinet ready for the “Glorious 12th” which marks the beginning of the shooting season for Red Grouse.  This is the sort of pub I’d love to live next to, for the buzz and sense of community.

Early morning I rejoin ‘The Irregulars’ for breakfast and we exchange notes on the Way. They are walking west to east, so we exchange clues to find further ‘Weymerks’ and they talk about their eccentric club. They are a great bunch of walkers and I should really think about joining them when I retire – they venture abroad as well as the UK.  I welcome their chat and banter after having spent a week in the wilds.

I start the next day’s walking by crossing the suspension bridge that was only repaired recently following the extensive floods last winter. I catch a close view of a huge Buzzard hiding in a tree. It watches me for a second before lifting up above the mist, in the direction I am going. A very pleasant early section, with views to the Rhinns of Kells, turns into a very long forestry track walk, merging with the National Cycle Network Route 7 at Loch Dee.  This is a time when a bicycle would be very welcome.

“Bonjour”; a French couple announces as they cycle past me. I am too envious to reply. “Au Revoir”; I reply, out of earshot.

The Loch has some very interesting art installations and the panorama would please any landscape photographer. A stone carved with ancient Runes is particularly striking and fits well into the scene, as do a pair of stone surfboards. Cuckoos can be heard at regular intervals, as can the sound of mountain goats high above, but difficult to see. I stop to study the crags and can see young kids bleating to their mothers and progressing across seemingly impassable rock faces with ease. Walking offers a greater opportunity to study such flora and fauna, although I’d still like to be riding a mountain bike today.

The path at Loch Trool is closed for forestry operations. A large ‘Listen to the Hand’ sign leaves you in no doubt that the diversion is mandatory. At least I get to see Bruce’s Stone, overlooking Loch Trool, commemorating Robert the Bruce’s first victory over the English in 1307. Behind me is Merrick, the highest point in southern Scotland at 843m.

Cycle track turns into stone track until I reach the Water of Minnoch, where evidence of severe flooding is quite frightening. At least the grass path is a welcome change from hard track gravel as I turn towards Bargrennan through some very pleasant woodland and my hotel for the evening. It has been a long day, and the terrain has made my legs tired, even though the map suggests less climbing and distance than the previous day.

I wish I had stayed at the campsite, but the hotel was comfy enough and the food in the restaurant an opportunity to meet some fellow walkers who were a few days into their west to east walk.

“Are you walking the Southern Upland”; I ask. A rhetorical question as I can see the guides and maps on the table. “Yes, how did you guess”; they reply.

One lady, in her 70’s, was quite inspirational she has completed many long-distance routes, always camping.  “Oooh! you’ll love the West Highland Way”; she says. “I have completed it four times”; she is proud to say.

We had a long geeky chat about boots, lightweight tents and walking poles. The other couple were making slower progress, accompanied by a manic Springer Spaniel, who I would have happily abducted.

The Galloway Forest, a Dark Sky reserve, is now behind me and I can sense the sea, two days away. I am sure I would be able to smell it, but I am blessed with strong easterly winds for a change. This is a much shorter day, so I take it easy and settle into a meditative pace over a gentler landscape, peppered with new wind farms.

I meet a Californian lady, exhausted, with boots off, relaxing under a tree.

“Are you ok”; I ask. She is fine, but it doesn’t explain why her Scottish guide is a few miles behind her, who asks if I have seen her guest ahead.

I need to start learning Dutch as the half-expected Dutchman appears later.  They are becoming part of the community in a big way. “What is Dutch for Good Morning”; I ask. I commit “Goedemorgen” to memory.

I explore the bothy at Laggangarn, which has no stove being of wooden construction in the shape of a beehive. Not dissimilar to the glamping units found now at many campsites. It is cosy and next to a good water source and sits alongside two ancient prehistoric standing stones. Once part of a stone circle, they still serve as sentinels that marked the route over the moors. These stones are estimated to have been in place for some 4,000 years and were “vandalised” with Christian crosses in the 8th Century. It is said that to interfere with the stones will bring a curse, as happened to a farmer who tried to remove one to build a barn and died of a rabid dog bite the next day.  Spookily, a small gravestone lies a few metres away, dog or farmer or both, I am not sure.

I can see a walker approaching and I judge to be from Europe (brand names give the game away). “Goedemorgen”; I say, careful to get the pronunciation correct. “Guten Morgen”; comes a reply.  Oh, well, I can practice my limited German. We exchange path news and I help her locate the Bothies ahead, which she is keen to use.

The descent into New Luce is through fields of young lambs and calves until I reach their home farm and follow a road into the village.  I was hoping to camp at the pub and spend my money in the bar, but it is closed. “Damn”; I grumble. Fortunately, a B&B is open a few hundred yards away and I take that option rather than search for a wild campsite. It is early enough for an afternoon nap and a cup of tea.

The weather forecast for Scotland a week ahead is glorious, temperatures approaching twenty degrees Celsius with strengthening easterlies. A decision to walk east to west is now paying dividends.

After a bowl of porridge and the usual natter I am back in the hills after getting lost, the usual symptom of being too relaxed about navigation. I come across a ‘Kist’ with the theme of ‘Mid Life Crisis’ and ponder the symbolism of the Ivy and Iron construction. If my age is constraining my freedom I don’t feel it.

This is not a day for contemplation, but to enjoy the weather and relaxed wind assisted walking towards Stranraer. I grab lunch at a petrol station, crossing paths with high-speed travellers topping up with fuel and coffee. I treat myself to a Lucozade now that I am addicted to its restorative powers. I should wean myself off sugar now that I am recovered.  

My first view of the sea is confusing, as it is not to the west! A quick check of the map shows I am on a ridge overlooking Stranraer and Loch Ryan to the east.  I can see the Belfast ferry gliding into port. I expected to see it docking in Stranraer, but the ferry terminal is a few miles further north at Cairnryan. I am now back in the modern world, having left the moors, mountains and border folk behind. I know I do not have far to walk until the finish.

The next section is easy going but very windy and exposed. A medium-sized wind turbine has self-destructed recently, its blades lying smashed on the ground. The fibrous mess dangling above is evidence of their construction. It is a sorry sight and a place I would not have liked to have been when it happened.

I collect the last ‘Weymerk’ coin a little further on. One that ‘The Irregulars’ could not find, as I could not find my earlier ‘Kists’. It’s well hidden.

‘Makar’s Kist
Unbeknownins kist amongst stone ocean light
Sky spins glass words are made of air
Sculpted fancy will fettle sides handles lid
Trade grain fish axeheads magic or memories
For a waymerk token So- the journey opens’

I have collected eight odd tokens now, some rusty, some shiny, but all with a story to tell. If ever I return to the Southern Upland Way I will endeavour to collect the remaining five.

The Irish Sea comes into view, as does the Irish coast and mountains some twenty plus miles away. Black Head lighthouse aids navigation for shipping through this narrow channel between Scotland and Ireland. I stop to reflect on the journey I have made from the east coast before turning south towards Portpatrick and a fine coastal walk. Sunsets here must be spectacular, as a sunrise would be in Cockburnspath.  It is wonderful to be coastal walking again, but all too briefly as I arrive at Portpatrick, my destination.

Descending the concrete steps I can see a direction sign for Cockburnspath stating 212 miles to go. I stop to talk to some walkers who recognise a long distances companion.

“You must try the Camino de Santiago, in Spain”; they plead. “It is a wonderful pilgrimage”. They ask questions on the accommodation in the Borders, quite different from their self-guided pre-booked holiday.  My pilgrimage has not yet ended as my mind turns to the West Highland Way.

I want to stop for a coffee and cake, but I can see the bus arriving and make an impulsive decision to jump aboard to return to Stranraer.

“Single to Stranraer rail station please”; I puff, having run a few yards to the stop.

A quick check of the timetable shows I can reach Glasgow by late afternoon, so I hatch a plan to stay in Milngavie that night. As I reach the train station I have 10 minutes to secure accommodation. If I can make a booking I will not have to stay in Stranraer and can immediately start the West Highland Way the next day. By some incredible luck, a B&B has a cancellation, so I buy a ticket with seconds to spare and jump aboard the train to Glasgow.

I can see much of the landscape I have walked from the window and chat to someday cyclists about the route they have taken that day. They too recommend the area for walking and cycling and this further cements an idea in my head to explore cycling in Scotland.

From the west window, I can see Ailsa Crag as we approach Girvan. An impressive volcanic plug, not dissimilar to Bass Rock near North Berwick on the east coast. The start or end points of the walk are extinct volcanoes, I note, what could be more fitting.

Changing at Ayr to an express service has me in Glasgow in good time, and I grab a meal before joining the homeward bound commuters to Milngavie. I am pleased a Scottish friend of mine has told me how to pronounce the name (“mul-guy”) as I would have never got on the right train.

I am in a strange world now of commuters and city folk. I am still dressed for walking in shorts and muddy boots. I am happy to reach the B&B, and meet a wonderful landlord, who shows me to my room after ten minutes explaining all the rules about keys, evening meals in town and breakfast.  I sleep well, pleased I have saved a day connecting the Southern Upland to the West Highland Way.

© http://www.trailplanner.co.uk 2018

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