Southern Upland Way 2003

Author: George Tod

This walk is illustrated with photographs. Click on small photo to enlarge in situ, or click caption to enlarge into new window.
Part 4 - Wanlockhead to Traquair

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Day 8 - Wednesday 4th June - Wanlockhead to Beattock (Barnhill Springs)

Distance: 20.5 miles, Ascent: 50 ft + 1,100 ft to Castle

I awoke to a grey morning, but as least it was not raining and the forecast was for better weather later in the day. I managed to get off reasonably early, at 8.40 a.m., after a nice breakfast and started the steady climb up towards the summit of Lowther Hill. There were good views back over Wanlockhead and the surrounding hills with only the sound of the wind and the lonely curlews to keep me company. The radar station at the summit was constantly in and out of the cloud, as is often the case. I had found that in the previous couple of days, even though other places may have been enjoying reasonable weather, the summit of Lowther Hill was surrounded by dark clouds. It reminded me very much of the North Pennines and the radar station on Great Dun Fell, which suffers from similar poor weather conditions.

Further on up the hill, the path meets up with the access road but, whereas the road zigzags up the hill, the path takes a much steeper line cutting across the zigzags. Near the summit, Wanlockhead came into view again, having been obscured for part of the way by lower hills. The route has to skirt around the summit because of the radar station and I took shelter from the cold wind for a while in a rusty metal hut nearby. I was feeling distinctly cool in my normal walking gear of shorts and a short sleeved shirt, although I was reluctant to put on anything warmer, as I would be sheltered somewhat from the wind as I started to descend the other side of the hill. The cloud was lifting slightly and there were even patches of blue sky, but none of the sunshine, as yet, was reaching Lowther Hill.

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Wanlockhead from ascent of Lowther Hill
Wanlockhead from above
View west from Laght Hill to Thirstane Hill
West from Laght Hill

The way follows a ridge of lower, rounded hills as it heads eastwards and this was a splendid walk with long distance views of the wide open country for miles around, even though it used up more energy with all the ups and downs. I saw a farmer racing around on his quad bike tending to his sheep. These vehicles must have made the life of the hill farmer so much easier, as they seem to be able to get almost anywhere. Even the sheep-dogs have an easier time by getting a lift. A few miles ahead I could see the lower land and the all too familiar forestry plantations that lay ahead. I stopped for a break and a snack just before Laght Hill, sheltering from the wind beside a wall, where I heard the farmer ride up and whistle away as he worked behind the wall.

The climb up Laght Hill was very steep at first but less so towards the rounded summit, where there were, again, some fine views. On the way down to meet the road, I caused a lot of consternation amongst the local bird population. They were making a lot of noise and swooping and diving quite close to me. This carried on for a few hundred yards and I could only assume that they had nests nearby and were trying to frighten me away. I was not sure what these black and white birds with orange red bills were at first, but I later discovered that they were oyster-catchers. They are quite common over the moorland along the way, which surprised me a little, as they are wading birds, but then so are curlews, which are also common on the high moors.

After walking for about half a mile along the rather busy A702 road, the route headed towards a conifer plantation. Again, however, a considerable amount of felling and replanting made the whole area much more open and there was no impression of being cut off from the surrounding landscape. The forest track came out into the open before making its way towards another plantation. Along this stretch, I encountered logging operations with huge piles of timber being stacked at either side of the track. There were the usual notices saying 'No admittance to unauthorised personnel', but no diversion signs. In this case, it would have been dangerous to walk along the path whilst this work was being undertaken and it was fortunate that there the adjoining area was rough, open grassland, so I was able to bypass the work in safety. After rejoining the track past the stacking operations, I then came upon some felling operations, which were not so easy to bypass. Looking at the work that was being carried out, it was sufficiently far back from the track to present no danger, or so I assessed, although it is surprising how far some of the trees can reach if they come down in the wrong direction. Keeping a careful eye on what was going on, I quickly passed by and got out of the way.

The next section of forest was, again, partly felled, so I had a clear view of Daer Reservoir with its waterworks, as well as a view of the route ahead up Sweetshaw Brae to Hods Hill. I stopped for lunch by the road bridge over Daer Water and was lucky enough to catch some sunshine for a while. At 1.45 p.m., after a 45 minute break, I was off again to start the ascent and found, once more, that the route had changed from that in my guidebook, taking a diagonal line to cut off the corner. I met up with a farmer on his quad bike, rounding up sheep with his dogs, so I stood well to one side to let them come past. On the ascent, there were some splendid views over Daer Reservoir and across to Lowther Hill, so I kept stopping to look back, whilst I took short rests.

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Daer Reservoir from ascent of Hods Hill
Daer Reservoir
Lowther Hill from Hods Hill
Lowther Hill from Hods Hill

From the summit, the path led along a ridge with a few ups and downs as it first ran by the side of the forest, then entered it, to descend quite rapidly in a wide clearing. Further along, it climbed back up again, but not to the same height. Another descent led to a large clearing with a farm. It had been spotting with rain for a while, but not enough to need waterproofs, and I was hoping to get as far as possible before it got any heavier. The forest walking had not been bad, as it was mainly on a path, with ups and downs and some wide clearings, although it had been harder work than the usual level forest tracks. A little further on, the path met up with a minor road leading out of the forest and over an area of upland grazing past Beattock Hill. Although it was now raining steadily and I had resorted waterproofs, this was still a pleasant walk with views across to the hills ahead. Down the hill I could see the M74 motorway at Beattock and, after crossing the railway line and the old A74 road, a path ran under the motorway to meet up with a minor road leading to my B&B at Barnhill Springs Guest House, right by the route of the Southern Upland Way.

After a bath and a refreshing pot of tea, I washed out some of my things before setting off in search of a meal at The Old Brig Inn, which I had passed on the way. The place had been built by Thomas Telford as a coaching inn when he was building the road up through Scotland. The barman was very chatty and very interested in the Southern Upland Way, as was the chef. I had a very good cottage pie along with a few pints of McEwans 70/- before returning to Barnhill Springs to watch television for a while before going to bed. My bedroom was enormous, as were most of the rooms in this fine old building, which used to be a farmhouse.

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Day 9 - Thursday 5th June - Beattock to St. Mary's Loch

Distance: 20.5 miles, Ascent: 2,750 ft

I again managed to get off at 8.45 a.m., after a good breakfast at 8 a.m., to start another long day's walk. All my things had dried on the radiator in my bedroom, which was quite a bonus and meant that I didn't have to don any wet clothing for a change. I had a packed lunch from the Guest House, as there was nowhere nearby to buy anything. I already had a head start of half a mile from Beattock, so I was soon climbing the small ridge over to Drumcrieff Bridge, where I could see some fine views north eastwards along the valley with lovely hills tantalisingly devoid of forests. The route followed the river for a way, through a strip of mixed woodland, which was so different from conifer plantations, then came into the open with good views up the valley before heading uphill to the east.

When the scenery is getting good, what do we do? We head for the forest. A steady ascent left all the good views behind and led along a forest track with little or no views. Another sign proclaimed 'No admittance to unauthorised personnel' and, of course, there was no diversion sign. I, therefore, did the only sensible thing and ignored it. The only thing to do is to keep a careful lookout for any sign of danger, and then take appropriate action to avoid it. However, there was no activity at all, and the sign was probably just one of many that get left around last time somebody did a bit of work nearby. The only evidence of any work being done were some piles of earth by the side of the track. If this were a public road, then it would not be closed just because some minor work was being undertaken. Because it is owned by Forest Enterprises, they feel the need to cut off access whenever the slightest activity is taking place, without a thought for the inconvenience it might cause. My conclusion is that these signs are put up mainly to safeguard themselves against any possible claims for compensation, without any proper assessment of what risks are actually involved. People can then choose not to observe them and if they are injured as a result, then they have very little grounds to sue for damages.

After a few miles of trudging steadily up the forest track, it eventually turned off onto a path, which was, at least, preferable, before emerging into the open. One thing I had forgotten to do in my haste to get off to an early start, was to fill up my water bottles. There was a fresh, clean mountain burn by the path, so I was able to fill them up from there. I was glad to see that the height gained climbing up through the forest was not wasted and I was rewarded with a lovely view overlooking a gorge with some waterfalls tumbling down - the ideal place for a rest break. The weather was cool but quite reasonable with the occasional patch of blue sky.

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Craigmichen Scar and waterfall
Craigmichen Scar
Selcoth Burn from Craigmichen Scar
Selcoth Burn

A nice open path crossed the border from Dumfries and Galloway into the Scottish Borders, and there were signs to welcome people from either direction. Soon it was back into forest again, but only for a short way and still with good views for much of the time. The track follows Ettrick Water right down the valley, becoming a road after a while. Most of the forestry lining the hillsides gives way to grass, and presents a very fine scene, which helps to compensate for the rather tedious five miles of road walking.

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Looking back up Ettrick Water to Over Phawhope
Over Phawhope
Small gorge along Ettrick Water
Gorge, Ettrick Water

At 1.30 p.m., I stopped for my lunch break by Broadgairhill Burn, and was rewarded with some patchy sunshine, which was in rather short supply earlier. I had been making good progress, and estimated that I had only about 9 miles left to go. I was off again at 2.15 p.m. for about another four miles of the road walking that remained. There was good scenery and Ettrick Water ran nearby for much of the way, so that all helped to make the miles go by more easily.

At last, a left turn onto a path up the hillside marked the last leg of the walk over to St. Mary's Loch. This was the first time since I had started the walk that I had seen a Public Footpath marked as such, although I saw to see quite a number later on. The signpost was erected by The Scottish Rights of Way Society. After a short, steep climb, the rest of the ascent was very gradual, climbing steadily beside Scabcleuch Burn in a steep sided valley until the watershed, when it climbed along the edge of Pikestone Rig. From this fine viewpoint, a little patch of water of Loch of the Lowes could be seen. After a while, the way started to descend and I could see another patch of water in the distance, that I took to be St. Mary's Loch, although my guidebook said it was the Loch of Lowes. On checking the photograph later, it was as I thought and it was the guidebook that was wrong.

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St Mary's Loch from near Riskinhope Hope
Glimpse of St Mary's Loch
Confluence of two burns and a circular sheepfold at Riskinhope Hope
Near Riskinhope Hope

The wind was quite strong by now, but there was quite a lot of sunshine, so I took another break, sheltering from the wind, by the ruins of a building at Riskinhope Hope with a lovely view of one of the many circular dry stone sheepfolds, and the confluence of two small burns. One might be forgiven for thinking that it was all downhill from here, but there is still a steep climb up around Earl's Hill before the track leads steadily down the St Mary's Loch. By now, the sun had gone and there were dark clouds and a strong cold wind, although this was moderated somewhat as the way descended. There was no problem with mobile phone reception, as there was a mast right behind Tibbie Shiel's Inn, which is where I was staying for the night. In fact it is the only accommodation anywhere near this part of the route, and it is in a beautiful setting between two lochs.

After a shower and a couple of cups of tea, I felt refreshed, although my feet were feeling the strain a little after two long days. However, they were only giving me minor discomfort, unlike on some walks where I have been extremely footsore at times. I put this down to the success of my home-made arch supports in conjunction with the Sorbothane insoles which, after my little bit of doctoring, were causing no more trouble.

I went into the bar, which was quite lively with several people having bar meals and drinks. I had a fish platter and a couple of pints of real ale, the first I had come across so far on this walk. The sun was shining, so I went out for a walk around the end of the loch and up to the James Hogg memorial nearby, where there was a beautiful view of both St. Mary's Loch and the Loch of Lowes. However, there was a very strong wind blowing and this soon drove me back to the inn for another pint before going off to bed.

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Day 10 - Friday 6th June - St. Mary's Loch to Traquair

Distance: 12 miles + 1.5 miles looking for B&B, Ascent: 1,150 ft

The weather was foul through the night with rain and a heavy sky first thing in the morning. I had another good Scottish breakfast and, by the time I had finished, there was a beautiful blue sky. I wandered around the area nearby and took a few photos of the lochs and also climbed up the hillside opposite to get a better view of St. Mary's Loch. This particular spot is the most picturesque place I have encountered along the whole of the Southern Upland Way so far. There have been many places with fine scenery, but mostly of a wild and remote nature with rough moorland and forests, which is what I expected on this walk. Here, however, this combination of lochs and hills with the inviting little inn, bridge and memorial in the midst of it all, presents a much more warm and inviting scene, and is a delightful contrast to some of the rather drab scenery in some parts of the way.

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St Mary's Loch near Tibbie Shiels Inn
St Mary's Loch
Tibbie Shiels Inn
Tibbie Shiels Inn
St Mary's Loch and Tibbie Shiels Inn from hillside
St Mary's Loch from hillside

It was after 10 a.m. before I set off to walk by the loch side on the next stage of the route. I had only 12 miles to walk, so I was in no hurry, and the beautiful weather meant that I could take my time and enjoy the lovely scenery. The first part of the walk was very tranquil and relaxing and here I encountered the first walkers I had met so far, apart from a few dog walkers near to towns. A couple who were staying at the inn were walking round St. Mary's Loch and returning via the road on the opposite side. Half way along the loch, the path joins a forest track, and the views are then partially obscured by silver birch trees growing by the loch side. My plan for the day was to make fairly steady progress so as to not arrive too early, so I had a short stop by a gap in the silver birches, with a view across to the route climbing up the hillside past the foot of the loch.

As I rounded the end of the loch and started the gentle hill climb, I saw a building surrounded by scaffolding and with a roof of waterproof sheeting, and realised that this was Dryhope Tower undergoing restoration work. At the top of the hill there was the last chance to take a good look back over St. Mary's Loch before heading into more wild and open country. Actually, it was not the very last view of the loch, as there was one more brief, distant view a few miles further along. I had to be a bit careful about my plan of taking my time as I realised that by noon I had only walked about three miles. I have sometimes done this in the past and then found that, by the middle of the afternoon I still had a long way to go and have had to rush to get there in time. I, therefore, pressed on ahead a little to just past Blackhouse Tower before stopping by the start of the forest for my lunch break. The wind was quite strong and cool, but the trees afforded some shelter, though not quite enough for any sunbathing.

After an hour, I was feeling rather cool, so I set off up the forest track, where most of the view was blocked by trees, although this was compensated somewhat by the lovely soft, springy turf of the track for most of the way. About a mile further on, a small clearing allows the very last view back over the distant loch. Now that I was walking again, the clouds cleared and I had lovely sunshine with a fresh breeze - ideal walking conditions. Exiting from the top of the forest, the path took me on a glorious lofty walk with wide open views all around and with soft springy turf underfoot. This, to me, was the epitome of what I expected of the Southern Upland Way. It was not picturesque, not photogenic, but beautiful upland walking country and gave me the feeling of being on top of the world. Of course, had there been low cloud and a force 9 gale with horizontal rain driving into my face, I might not have felt quite the same way, but today it was wonderful.

On one of the higher points along the way, I noticed, what looked like a small standing stone with Celtic carvings, a little off to one side of the path. When I went to examine it further, I realised that it was not a stone, but one of the kists that I had read about in a leaflet. It was actually hollow, with a flap at one side to allow walkers to pick one of the waymerks from inside, although I must confess to being a trifle disappointed in the merks themselves, as all the ones here seemed rather poorly cast with a virtually unrecognisable design on them. I was surprised that I had come all this way before finding a kist, but then I had not been paying particular attention and was not quite sure what I was supposed to be looking for. Not all of the kists look like this, as they are disguised in all sorts of different ways, so finding this didn't help me to find any more. This scheme is just one of the many ways that the councils try to promote this walk, although it does not appear to have attracted the number of people that they might have hoped for. However, I think that they deserve a great deal of credit for the effort that they put into the maintenance and waymarking of the path, and the advertising of the walk itself.

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Innerleithen and Traquair from Blake Muir
Innerleithen and Traquair

At Blake Muir, a new scene unfolds as the path starts its descent. The town of Innerleithen appears down in the valley, surrounded by partially forested hills, and half way to there is Traquair, where I was staying for the night. The path led to a track which then joined the fairly busy B709 road for the last mile into Traquair. The weather was still fine, and that made it quite hot in the sheltered valley without much of the breeze that there was on the hills. According to my Accommodation Guide, the grid reference of my B&B pointed to somewhere about three quarters of a mile out of Traquair on the way to Innerleithen, so I took a little side road to cut off a corner and made my may past the entrance to Traquair House until my GPS indicated the correct position. I was quite surprised that a place called the 'The School House' should be so far out of the village, and the only place I could find was a large house with no mention of B&B and was not called anything to do with School House. I concluded that the accommodation book must have been wrong and decided that it would be better to look near the village centre, or even more so to look near the school that was shown on the map. As I was passing a cottage, I asked a lady, who confirmed that was where I should be. If I had not taken the shortcut via the small lane, I would have passed a sign for it in the centre of the village. Fortunately, I had only had a short day's walk so the extra mile and a half did not matter, but it was still annoying to be sent on a wild goose chase by incorrect information.

I had a relaxing soak in the bath - one of the advantages of not having an en-suite room is that there is generally a bath available, whereas en-suite rooms mostly have only a shower, which is never as relaxing. I was served with a lovely dinner of soup, salmon with Hollandaise sauce, and fried banana with ice cream. The dining room had a huge table that could have seated ten with ease, but I was the only one sitting there. There were patio doors into the garden, which had marvellous views of the hills, both around by the route I had walked and also those overlooking Innerleithen, so I stood there for some time enjoying the view in the warm evening sunshine. The nearest pub was in Innerleithen, which was nearly two miles away, so I decided against all that road walking to just for a drink, and settled down for an evening in.

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