Tales from the Big Trails, in print on 2nd September 2021, available now for pre-order from Vertebrate Publishing. Featuring all 15 National Trails in England and Wales, and the 4 designated long-distance Scotland’s Great Trails. This is the story of the people I meet, the landscapes and coastal scenery and the sheer joy of walking these iconic long-distance routes in the UK. Click on a link below for a copy.
A coast-to-coast trail through the Scottish borders from Cockburnspath on the north east coast to Portpatrick near Stranraer on the west. Most people will walk from west to east to have the south westerly winds behind them. There will be days when you will not see another living soul in this remote part of the British Isles, with major stretches without accommodation or services.
Time of year
April and May are considered good months. The height of summer will bring midges and overgrowth with ticks and the potential for very hot remote days. Winter months can make the trail impassable. Almost everyone I met was walking west to east, but I choose the opposite and had easterly winds for much of the trip.
Length of walk
212 miles. Long and rugged sections of moorland remote from civilisation. several significant climbs onto the Lowther and Galloway hills. Plenty of forest tracks and navigation is generally easy and well signposted.
Infrequent and requires careful planning on some sections, with limited options and perhaps the need to organise transportation to and from the trail. Wild camping and Bothies are definitely good options allowing more flexibility in distance planning. The Inns and pubs en route are excellent and full of local character where you will be made very welcome.
Logistics to get to either end of the path are not straightforward, but a combination of train/bus took a day to get me the to start on the east coast arriving late in the evening. There is no accommodation other than to walk into the woods and wild camp, but this allows for an early start across muddy cattle farmland. Arrive at Abbey St Bathans and cross the river through this pretty village to progress into moorland. Lomngformacus has no accommodation so again, up into the hills and a small copse to camp overnight. The cairns of Twin Law come complete with a bottle of single malt and visitors book. Snow lies at a high level, particularly on the northern slopes. Sleep well, but the freeze-dried meal didn’t taste that good.
The next morning I realise the meal was rancid and I find myself in the middle of nowhere being violently ill. I have to make it to the next town at Lauder, where a bottle of Lucozade seems to bring me around and allow me to progress to Galashiels, having eaten nothing. 20 miles in such a state is a major achievement. That day was a worry had it been worse, but a lovely B&B and FSB (Full Scottish Breakfast) sorts me out quickly. I book accommodation ahead just in case and walk another 16 miles to Innerleithen. Galashiels has everything and so stock up on a good lunch. I ascend towards the Three Brethren, for superb views across the Lammermuir Hills and a cold windy walk eastwards. The visibility is fantastic and I am sure I can see 50-100 miles in all directions from Brown Knowe a few miles on. I meet another Dutch couple, the third since the start and ask then why the Scottish Borders and they answer “because Holland is flat!”. Duh.
The Bothy option that night is difficult, as it has been demolished, but the local hotel, run by a friendly Welshman more than compensates. I am now fully recovered from the opening days’ illness.
Now for two successive nights in wonderful Bothies. Overpawhope has just had a new green roof fitted and is very comfortable. It even has a sofa, but no TV of course. The cast iron stove is a delight. En route I find my first Kist, containing a Weymerk coin, of which there are 13 to collect on the SUW, collectively known as a hoard. It is a delight to discover the sculpture and open its secret stash, recently refreshed and shiny. I subsequently lose the coin as I come to the end of St Mary’s Loch, to a lovely cafe, dedicated to that ‘proper’ bloke, Guy Martin. I meet a long distance cyclist, who complains as much as I do about the strong winds. After a moorland walk and long road, section leads to the Bothy and a quiet night.
The next morning drizzle pours through the cathedral-like pine woodlands to escort me along endless land rover tracks and into Moffat. A superb outdoor shop supplies me with much-needed gloves and volume adjusters for my new boots. Suitable fed at a lovely Italian style cafe I progress back uphill and across the A74 (M) into the moors and to Brattleburn Bothy. It is deserted save for a few mice who laugh at me trying to start a fire with damp wood. Eventually, it is started and I finish off a nice Danish pastry and tea, and the mice demolish the pastry wrapping to get at the single current I forgot to eat. A bottle of single malt has been left on the table for fellow visitors. I’m the only one there that night. The Bothy is wonderful, full of Scottish humour and nik-naks. I refresh the wood store before departing the next day for Sanquhar.
Up into the moors again and to newborn lambs, so young that they happily follow you, have not yet bonded with their mothers.Conditions underfoot are boggy, as I cross the River Clyde and ascend the Lowther Hills. I find another Kist and collect a rusty coin before the final ascent to the radar station at 725m, the highest point of the SUW. The views are dramatic and far-reaching and I spend 1/2 hour over lunch soaking up the peace and quiet. The descent into Wanlockhead is rapid and I catch sight of a few Mountain Hares, still with patches of white from their winter coats. The cafe provides sustenance for the last section into Sanquhar and a sublime Victorian B&B, unchanged in 4 generations. The landlady cannot do enough to make me comfortable, hot water bottle included. The next days’ breakfast could feed the whole town, so I take the opportunity to construct lunch at the table.
I am practically floating on calories as I pass through moorland and a difficult boggy section with many fallen trees before and ascent to a huge rock arch sculpture at Ben Brack. I meet even more Dutch walkers before entering St. Johns Town of Dalry. It is a welcome sight to see the Clachan Inn after some 26 miles. Perhaps the longest day of walking with little or no facilities en route. I meet a group of LDWA walkers known as the “irregulars”, walking the SUW west to east. We are all tucking into superb Cullen Skink and Black Pudding meals washed down with superb beer and local banter for the farmers, who are on form for a Friday night.
The following day ends up being a long road/track walk through the forest to Glen Trool. Pretty in places with a chorus of mountain goats to entertain you. The thought of switching to cycling emerges as I follow the National Cycle Network Route 7. The last section into Bargrennan follows what must have been a heavily flooded section of the River Cree. The hotel is comfy, but unpleasantly modern.
With only 2 days to go, I pick up the pace in the heat towards New Luce where I meet more Dutch walkers, plus a someone from California for a change. The wind farms encroach and dominate the area, some overworked examples seemed to have suffered catastrophic failures. On entering New Luce I am looking forward to a good meal and rest, but the hotel is closed Mondays. Fortunately, a B&B is comfortable and I find time for an afternoon nap.
More road and land rover tracks the next day until I see the sea, but east of me? Loch Ryan being the entry bay to Stranraer on the anvil-shaped peninsula. It is windy as I progress along the last few miles along the coast and past the Black Head lighthouse. I enter Portpatrick and without stopping, catch a bus to Stranraer which connects perfectly with a train to Glasgow and Milngavie and the start of the West Highland Way.
The Southern Upland Way is exceptional and highly recommended.
- Day 1 – 24m – Twin Law – Tent
- Day 2 – 20m – Galasheils – B&B
- Day 3 – 18m – Innerleithen – Hotel
- Day 4 – 26m – Overpawhope – Bothy
- Day 5 – 17m – Brattleburn – Bothy
- Day 6 – 24m – Sanquhar – B&B
- Day 7 – 26m – Dalry – Inn
- Day 8 – 24m – Bargrennan – Inn
- Day 9 – 18m – New Luce – B&B
- Day 10 – 23m – Portpatrick – B&B Milngavie
Day 10 train to Glasgow and Milngavie to start the West Highland Way the following day.