April and May in Scotland can often deliver good weather alongside a distinct lack of troublesome midges. Three Points of the Compass glanced at the weather report, then headed north to walk coast to coast across the ‘fat bit’ of Scotland.
Three Points of the Compass has slowly been knocking off the National Trails in England and Wales. Traditionally included alongside these are four of Scotland’s ‘Great Trails’. One of these, the 215 mile Southern Upland Way, is one of the least visited of Britain’s long distance paths. The plan was to complete this Irish Sea to North Sea trek through the Galloway Hills, Casphairn range, Lowthers, Ettrick Hills, Manor Hills, Minch Moor and lovely Lammermuirs as a continuous walk, with a day off somewhere around the mid-way point. I won’t go into too much detail on the trail itself as there is plenty of YouTube material and some bloggers have covered the trail very well. If you are thinking of completing this walk yourself, I would certainly point you at the excellent resource that rambling man has produced for planning purposes. What follows are three blogs touching on my day stages on trail. I was going to include a LighterPack gear list but that website has been playing up recently and lost all my pack detail.
As to food, I had planned on no resupply for the first few days of the Southern Upland Way (SUW) as few places are passed and there are no guarantees at those that are. So I was carrying eight plus days of food. Because of the weight and bulk of this, I had included eight dehydrated evening meals- five Summit to Eat and three plant based meals from Something Good. I will offer my view on the latter in another post.
Living in the South-East of England I obviously had a bit of a journey to get to my start, but it turned into a bit of a marathon entailing an early start, five trains and two buses. The trains took me to Dumfries where I arrived late afternoon and stayed in a cheap guest house. Enough said on that as it did little more than suffice. At least I arrived in time for an evening walk to suss out where the bus station was for the following morning, or more specifically, which halt I had to stand at. A couple of pints in the local ‘Spoons with accompanying Haggis, neaps and tatties set me up prior to a good nights sleep.
Day one- Saturday 16 April 2022.
Portpatrick to Chlenry Hill
Having risen at 7.30 and breakfasted in my room, I caught the 9.18 Bus 500 toward Stranraer which arrived on time at Whitesands bus stance 5 in Dumfries. My ticket for two buses all the way to Portpatrick was £6. Despite the bus breaking down with a jammed door midway (easily solved by an engineer arriving who simply yanked it open, followed by a computer reset), this took me to Port Rodie where I still had time for a quick fish and chips with pot of tea before catching the 13.00 bus 367 to Portpatrick where my transport deposited me 20 minutes later in this pretty little harbour town. I took my obligatory start photos at the first SUW marker post and was soon walking up onto the cliffs, on trail at last, incredibly excited to get going on another long trail and eager to leave the crowds of tourists behind.
The Southern Upland Way starts with a two mile walk to the lighthouse up the coast before turning inland. This is the best part of the first days walk by far as a fair bit of road walking follows. Almost all of the few SUW walkers I met over the following days were suffering from feet damaged on this first day, tarmac can be a killer! There were lots of skittery new lambs in the fields, a taste of many days to follow on this springtime walk. I didn’t really halt until diverted by a newly erected blue coloured ‘bottle refill’ sign at Knockquhassen. Liz lived there and provides a tap outside her house for SUW walkers to refill bottles. She had recently retired to spend more time with her horses and we chatted for some minutes before I resumed my road walking. The trail skirts Stranraer and I was pleased to, as the day was drawing on and I had no real idea on where I was stopping that night.
I had started walking fairly late today and my daylight hours were limited. I thought about stopping in the narrow stretch of woodland approaching Castle Kennedy but it was pretty obvious that other backpackers had stayed there and there was a fair amount of rubbish strewn around with bottles and cans jammed into trees. I didn’t want to associate myself with that and walked on. I was then tempted to find somewhere just off the quiet private road that I followed through the grounds beside White and Black Lochs approaching Castle Kennedy Gardens but thought it would get frowned on if I were discovered the following morning by early visitors, while also wanting to gain a little height away from people with a bit of a view if possible. It was starting to get dark when I settled on a more than adequate wildcamp, almost on the trail itself, on the slopes off Chlenry Hill. Beyond the ruined farmstead at Chlenry and no more than two miles from Castle Kennedy. From there I could see the flickering lights of Stranraer, across distant Loch Ryan, appearing in the rapidly gathering dusk before I retreated to the Duplex for a wash, with a massage and cream of feet that were already suffering a tad as a result of todays unwelcome road walking. Thankfully I had no foot issues for the rest of the trail. It had been a good first day with the highlight definitely being the coastal section out of Portpatrick.
Day two– Sunday 17th April.
Chlenry Hill to Beehive Bothy
I was awake at 4.30 but didn’t rise until 5.40. Breakfast was chocolate peanut butter squeezed straight into the mouth, along with a mug of tea. Dry Nature’s Valley bars would be eaten while walking over the next two hours. Skirting New Luce I had easy forest trails and scrubby boggy forest tracks to start. These led me through farmland followed by the Waters of Luce and moorland walking where I was thrilled to come across a stunning Adder. I haven’t seen one of these for four years and it was a beauty and our time together was all too brief. Later, I took on the mantle of cow herder for a few minutes at one farm, assisting a couple of chaps on quad bikes to direct their recalcitrant charges down the trail and into a barn.
With plenty of time for todays section I took time out to go and find the slightly disappointing Neolithic burial site at the Caves of Kilhern. This is such an unassuming site that I wonder just how many similar but undiscovered tombs are scattered around the area. The afternoon took me into forestry. This was weird walking with the clunking of rotating but mostly unseen wind turbines rising, fading and echoing. They can certainly make a racket. The trail through here comprised of very large shattered chunks of stone that were really hard on both my feet and ankles. There was a real risk of turning an ankle and I took my time. It was far too early on trail to be getting injured.
After a first ‘proper’ day on trail I was thankful when the attractive Beehive bothy came into view. This bothy is provided by Dumfries and Galloway Outdoor Access Trust. There was no-one else at the bothy and no-one turned up but I still decided to camp rather than stay the night inside. Having arrived late afternoon with no lunch I was both weary and hungry. A late if simple lunch of noodles and hot brew cooked in the bothy was followed by a wash and change of clothes before I retreated to the tent for a nap, wet clothes drying in the breeze outside. I woke to unexpected rain and retrieved clothes just before it began hammering down. I was dry and cosy enough however and read and made notes in my journal until prepping an evening meal and settling down to an early night. The rain lessened but continued, the clunking of a nearby turbine gently permeated my sleep through the night and a lone tawny owl made itself heard when the rain briefly stopped.
Day three– Monday 18th April
Beehive bothy to Glentrool campsite, Bargrennan
It rained intermittently throughout the night but had stopped prior to my packing up and exiting the shelter in the morning. I was surrounded by thick mist and condensation was as heavy in the shelter as it has ever been. Slugs were in profusion in the grass and I was relieved to have put trail shoes inside the shelter with me. Dry feet and shoes were immediately soaked on setting off but I had expected that and the freezing shock wasn’t too great. The knocking, whirring and clunking of infrequently seen turbines persisted and it was strange when halting to view the ancient standing stones at Laggangarn while surrounded by such modern alien structures.
What is it with hikers losing gear as they walk? I passed hats, socks, gloves, a pair of waterproof trousers, water bottles, plus too many of the annoyingly discarded sweet wrappers and tissues.
Willow Warblers kept me company along the tracks until leaving the forest it was back to road walking, though these cannot see much in the way of vehicular traffic. I passed a puddle with a Smooth Newt in, a little further, a toad on the road refused to move despite my waving my camera phone in its face. I never saw another walker throughout the day, no backpackers, no day walkers, no dog walkers, no-one until I passed another (and the last) of the blue ‘water refill’ signs at a holiday let at Waterside. The owner came out to chat. After years of service Dave had left the Lancers and piled all his lump sum pension fund into the place in June 2020. I asked if Covid had scuppered his plans but deer ‘management’ had been a permitted activity during lockdown and he had continued with lets and earning for much of the time. The summer that year had been punishingly hot and he recounted stories of peeling wilting SUW walkers off the tarmac outside. ‘I carried one chap in as he had no skin left on the soles of his feet. I wasn’t really set up for visitors but told him he could stay that night. He stayed for three, then rang his wife and she came and joined him for another four‘. Dave had rung the SUW Rangers and told them he had an outside tap available and they erected the blue sign I had seen.
I stopped for lunch of noodles and sausage just off the road at the little hamlet at Knowle. While packing up I chatted to a family returning to their car. They had been visiting Knowle in the hope of meeting the owner of one of the houses there. The Liverpudlian mother was keen to do so as her mother had lived there and they had a dream of moving there to live out their days. They had been trying in vain to contact the owner and had been told by a neighbour that the property hadn’t been visited by the second-home owner in four years. Such are the problems of rural Scotland.
I crossed one fenced section of moorland in the afternoon that I could have done well without. Cow trodden to the extreme, it was knee deep mud in places and extremely slow and difficult going and was relieved to put it behind me. Nearing Bargrennan I halted to talk to Barry, sat on his Suzuki quad bike. He had stopped letting his fields out years previous as those renting them were inclined to overstock and over graze fields while ignoring the upkeep of the dry stone walls, “more trouble than it was worth”. I asked how quad bikes had changed his working life- “only by increasing it about thirty years, I’m 81 now”. These days he spent most of his time raising and flying Peregrines for hunting. We could hear them shrieking in a cage beside his home a couple of hundred metres away. I mentioned that I had heard they were the fastest bird on the planet in a stoop and he told me of the tracking devices they use on the birds now. One of his friends had recorded his bird in a dive from 2500m at a speed reaching 245mph. From there it was a short walk off trail to the small Glen Trool campsite. I was one of two tents on site, the remainder being motorhomes.
I had hoped to eat at the House o’ Hill Hotel, a few minutes walk down the road from the campsite. But that was closed for some unknown reason. I did at least have opportunity for a good hot shower (with shower tray foot tread wash of some clothes), charge electrics and use the info centre/kitchen/rest room provided for campers, to prepare another dehydrated meal.
Day four– Tuesday 19th April
Glentrool campsite to White Laggan bothy
It was a very cold night and I was so glad that I had chosen my winter quilt for this hike. I was also relieved that I had thought to put my water filter in the footbox of the quilt overnight as it had dropped quite a bit below freezing. It was a lovely mornings walk, first beside the River Cree then following the Waters of Troll. I hoped for a glimpse of otter as this is prime territory but was unlucky. Reaching what used to be the Caldons campsite, now closed, I began to encounter a few day walkers as there is a carpark here and a lovely popular walk around Loch Trool.
It was a little beyond Loch Trool that I was caught and passed by Dougi and Eileen who were walking half of the SUW, utilising a baggage company for their bags and meeting transport to their overnight accommodation each night. While enjoying the trail they were not enjoying the pressure of a timetable and were finding it hard to meet the required miles to rendezvous with their pick-up each day. They climbed to the next bealach at a fair rate of knots leaving me to steadily trudge up in their wake, passing a loose and wary group of feral goats on the way. Small wonder they were wary, I had to step smartly off trail twice when two logging lorries hurtled down the all too narrow track, leaving choking clouds of dust in their wake. I had stripped off my windshirt on the climb as the sun came out and it got warm. On reaching the pass, it began to hail. Yep, I’m in Scotland!
Descending to Loch Dee the hail stopped, then the sun came out, then it began to rain. I cared not as it was then a short walk off trail up a boggy path to the nights halt- the beautifully situated MBA White Laggan bothy. Once there I did what I always do on arriving at a bothy. Claim a space on the sleeping platform, sweep it out, tidy up the rubbish invariably left and prepare a fire without lighting it, gathering and sawing wood as required. Then collect water, then put a brew on, then get out of trail clothes and have a bit of a clean up. It was another bothy to myself for the night and a fine one at that. I stood outside with a hot Oxo and found a signal to call Mission Control. While chatting to Mrs Three Points of the Compass the sun dipped behind the hills and the temperature immediately plummeted. The nights are cold here at this time of year so I lit the stove and fed it for a couple of hours while I washed, cooked and ate, but it really went through wood quickly so it was another early to bed for a long and decent nights kip.
Day five– Wednesday 20th April
White Laggan bothy to Culmark Hill
Peering out of the bothy window in the morning revealed a white valley. Frost covered the ground and I treated myself to clean dry walking socks. Why, I have no idea as having cleaned up the bothy and enjoyed two mugs of tea before leaving, by the time I had splodged down the boggy track to rejoin the trail, both feet were as sodden as the previous day. However this ‘wet feet walking’ is how I tackle trails; breathable trail shoes and good wool socks drying quicker in this type of terrain than they would if I wore high ankle ‘waterproof’ boots. It doesn’t suit everyone this style of walking but it works for me.
The forests for much of the morning were a mess. Logging in profusion combined with quarrying for the stone with which to make the logging roads. ‘Forestry Civil Engineering’ they call it round here. Thankfully I left this behind me. Kites circled overhead, lovely black faced sheep stared balefully at me, it warmed up as the sun came out and butterflies were in profusion- Peacocks, Red Admirals, Orange Tip and more.
I had hoped to reach St John’s Town of Dalry (or Dalry as everyone simply calls it) in time for a purchased lunch and had built up a mental image of mugs of tea accompanied by thick bacon sandwiches. Having made the steep ascent approaching the town and enjoyed the steady descent and lovely riverside walk into it, it was almost to be expected that there was nothing on offer. The only shop with food had closed and other than that, the Clachan Inn only served food until two o’clock. Obviously it was now half past two. I sighed and made the long climb out of town, now ravenous. Reaching country again, I stopped for a proper extended break and heated water for a brew and noodle meal fortified with cheese and sausage, followed by squeezes of peanut butter. I had planned on a longer hike today to make the following two days more realistic so was setting myself up for the afternoon’s exertion.
It ended up being a 12 hour walking day but I enjoyed it immensely. As evening approached I stopped at Butterhole Bridge and considered camping there, but again, wanted to get up onto the heights with a bit of a view. I filtered three litres of water, the added weight of which made the steady climb from there something to think about. Culmark Hill was more a raised lumpy plateau and I searched around for quite a while amongst the tussocky boggy grass before finding a more than adequate drained slight rise where the Duplex would just fit in such a manner that there was a flat air mat sized bit of ground diagonally below the tent floor. Tired but inordinately happy. I had a quick tent wash and changed into insulated clothing as the temperature rapidly sunk. Good hot food and drinks followed, rounded off by dark chocolate. Despite being dog-tired the body felt good, I felt good, the trail was great and I slept well.
My first five days on trail had taken me to the Glenkens, located midway along the western section of the Southern Upland Way. This forgotten part of Scotland is the wildest and largest glen in Galloway- the Valley of the Ken, surrounded by hills and moorland. The next blog takes me further into the hills toward my day off at Moffat. Before then however, I had a problem to contend with…