Three Points of the Compass set off to backpack the 215 mile Southern Upland Way in April 2022. Part One took me into the Glenkens, I was now heading toward Moffat for resupply and rest, before then however, there was a problem to contend with…
Southern Upland Way: Part one- Portpatrick to the Glenkens
Day six– Thursday 21st April
Culmark Hill to Chalk Memorial bothy (Polskeach)
My wildcamp on Culmark Hill was exposed and the wind had been pretty strong for the first couple of hours after pitching, this coincided with the sun going down and cannot be coincidental. The Duplex was well nailed down however and beyond a bit of flapping and rattling there was no issue and the wind eventually died down for a quiet night. I wanted an early away and was up and dressed before the sun rose. My morning brew would have to wait until later. The grass was crisp with frost and once packed I set off layered up with hat, buff and gloves on. I steadily descended, passed Culmark Farm where I upset the geese who no doubt woke everyone up. I was soon ascending back up the contours. Coming across a random bench two hours in to my morning, I decided that was the ideal spot for a pint of tea and calories.
Despite best intentions, I had started this trail unfit and overweight and the legs were feeling it on the climbs. I knew hill fitness would come, it was just the working toward it that was difficult, but taking my time, enjoying my trail and keeping my days fairly short seemed to be working so far, it was just the longer day yesterday that had taken its toll slightly. The climb up Benbrack was protracted and I could see I was being chased down by a couple of hikers behind me which gave me a bit of a spur. They caught me a little beyond the impressive sandstone Striding Arch artwork that stood not far from the trigpoint. It was Dougi and Eileen who had passed me yesterday. I glanced at their tiny daypacks and felt a little better about my slower progress.
The two of them left me at somewhere approaching twice my speed and my day traversing the Galloways continued. This is lonely lovely walking around here and you could probably spend months exploring the remote uplands that surrounded me. Rather than a long day into Sanquhar, I was playing the long game and breaking this section into two so had an early finish in mind. As it was, having climbed and descended more hills and walked back into forestry, I caught up with my trail ‘companions’ as they rested at Allan’s Cairn. We chatted for a while before the three of us set off together. It was only two miles or so until we reached Chalk Memorial bothy at Polskeach. This bothy is owned and managed by Dumfries and Galloway Council. My halt for the night but they had another five miles and were already looking anxiously at their watches as they had transport to catch. They carried on and I put a brew on.
Typically there was a fair amount of rubbish left in the bothy, beer bottles and cans had obviously been bought in by car and I totally fail to see why they couldn’t have been taken out the same way. Having swept up and tidied up, packing what rubbish I felt I could carry out with me the following day, I rested for the remainder of my day. I cleaned out the ash choked stove and sawed enough wood for the next occupant as I had no plan on lighting it tonight. Layering up in my insulated clothing sufficed when the sun dipped and the temperature lowered. I filtered four litres of water from the burn behind the bothy, converting two litres of that into hot drinks and an unsatisfying evening meal. Then it was yet another early night. ‘Hiker Midnight’ is around nine in the evening on these trails and I was frequently asleep before then. Another good day with really enjoyable walking. It wasn’t to last.
Day seven– Friday 22nd April
Chalk Memorial bothy to Sanquhar
I had a pretty rough night. Cooking my evening meal in the gloom of the bothy I had recoiled as I opened my ‘sealed’ dehydrated meal of pasta bolognaise. Beyond the unpleasant smell, it tasted disgusting and I have no idea why I persevered. Food poisoning kicked in during the early hours and I won’t go into great detail here about the miserable circumstances that persisted for the following couple of days. Thankfully I was well supplied with both copious quantities of TP and the necessary medication that enabled me to stay on trail though resultant weakness made it hard going and I slowed things down considerably with two short days following.
Thankfully I had managed to make it outside the bothy prior to vomiting during the night so had little to do to the bothy before leaving. I could manage nothing more than drinking a little water prior to setting off and it became one of those days that test the individual. I was nauseous, suffering stomach cramps, feeling weak, lightheaded and remained prepared for frequent trips off trail as sickness periodically took hold. The trail itself was an obvious delight but I was glad to be hiking alone where I could concentrate on my own thoughts, progress and urgent calls of nature. I kept having to stop on the thankfully modest climbs which at least gave me the excuse to look around in attempts to take my mind off my malaise. Quad bike borne farmers on distant slopes inspecting the new lambs and their mothers, Ravens on the air, a discovered Kist (more on that in a separate blog), anything was suffice to warrant a rest. The miles came slowly but steadily and my day drew to an end with a long two hour drop down to Sanquhar where I had noted on my map the presence of an official campsite.
If the Sanquhar campsite was ever a decent locality, those days seemed to have passed and it was now simply a field behind an apparently closed garage, where caravans and motorhomes were in storage. There was however a scattered group of tents belonging to youngsters undertaking their Gold Duke of Edinburgh. A taciturn adult sat in a van on guard duty, to ensure no-one stole the tents I presume. He did at least point out where I could find someone from the site management.
The lady I found was pleasant and happy to take a fiver from me for an overnight pitch. I found a pitch away from the DofE group and explored the site facilities. There wasn’t much. There was no shower, no hot water, but there was at least a small brick built w/c with plenty of TP and a cold water tap outside. I cleaned myself up best I could, tried to stay hydrated and rested in my tent until my stomach felt settled enough for me to venture back up the high street to visit both pharmacy and small supermarket. This took it out of me a bit. I wasn’t out of the woods yet and it was back to the Duplex where, shaking with cold and distress, I wrapped myself in my quilt, feeling a bit sorry for myself, an early and long night beckoned.
Day eight– Saturday 23rd April
Sanquhar to Wanlockhead
Medication had held my bowels together and it wasn’t too rough a night. Despite another short ten mile day planned, I was up at six thirty and away an hour later as I was hoping for a half day rest at the next nights halt. I managed a tea, and bread roll with a smidgen of cheese which felt like it might stay down.
I felt improved on the previous day, it was a lovely sunny morning and I actually enjoyed the wide drovers road that took me up and out of Sanquhar. I was now walking into the Lowther Hills and this first day took me across the lower ones with the bigger climbs the day after. A father and daughter passed me. Both were doing the SUW and with small day packs they were doing big miles. I continued my slower sauntering gait- I’m on holiday! The mornings walk was a delight comprised of rolling green hills and steep valleys before I descended into the fascinating Wanlock valley, the site of Scotland’s lead mining heritage. There is a ‘lead trail’ approaching Wanlockhead and it pays to read every notice and info board on display as much of the area’s past is opened up and explained.
I had read that camping was permitted at the pub (Scotland’s highest) but pitches are really not up to much. There is barely anything even approaching flat and anywhere that is flat has had a ‘hobbit house’ or camping cabin built on it for maximum revenue. I found a small area between two picnic benches but knew I wasn’t going to get any peace until late that night as it was a Saturday and there was a constant coming and going of pub visitors. Then the local motorcycle club turned up, their exhausts echoing around the hills. At that point I cared not. I had finished walking for the day, could feel that I was much improved, my pitch was free and there were clean and decent loos in the Inn. I had been warned that there was no shower facility but must have looked crestfallen to the lady behind the bar as she arranged for the electric and water to be turned on in a new bathroom being fitted out and was told I could use it- “you will have to step over the paint tins”. It was a cutting edge space age affair with buttons and jets in profusion. I was pretty sure if I pressed the right combination of buttons I would step out into another dimension. As it was, I stepped out of the shower feeling cleaner and fresher than I had in quite a while. I changed into my ‘town clothes’ and almost began to feel normal. My stomach had settled and I risked pints of beer, burger and chips with salad. I was most definitely on the road to recovery and my afternoon was spent simply sitting at a table, charging electrics, drinking tea and reading while watching the comings and goings of the clientele.
Evening came and I ordered yet another pub meal. The menu was really poor, most offerings had sold out and I had to settle for an adult sized kids sausage and chips with salad. I was tired and ready to sleep by seven but hung on as there was far too much noise. Typically, many of Scotland’s pubs will shut early and by nine, the lights were out and I was wrapped in my quilt in the Duplex as another cold night beckoned.
Day nine– Sunday 24th April
Wanlockhead to Brattleburn bothy
It was an ‘interesting’ first few hours in the evening before things settled down. Kids had no discipline and shouted to their parents in their camping cabins from the poorly provided external w/c facility. But that was as nothing compared to one young couple that decided to have a shouted barny, this ended with- “yee accuse me of fooking battering yee, well get in the fooking car then“. At some point things fell silent, the night got very cold and a freezing wind blew around and through the shelter that I had put high for ventilation. Having drunk pints of IPA and a glass or two of red wine I actually slept pretty well despite having to exit the Duplex three times for a pee during the night, until rising early morning for a pint of tea. Packed and away, I had a quiet potter round the slumbering village, looking at lead mining remnants before setting off up Lowther Hill.
Beyond my want of a short day, one of the reasons I had halted at Wanlockhead is because it is the highest village in Scotland and therefore only entails a climb of just 300m the following morning to the radar station. This is, literally, the high point on the SUW and was passed early morning which left plenty of time for me to enjoy the central Southern Uplands that follow. I was almost recovered from the deleterious effects of my evening meal a couple of nights previous and my journal records that despite the strong wind threatening to push me off my feet- “had a cracking morning walking across the tops” of the Lowthers. Approaching Daer Reservoir the trail was diverted but still swung back round to take me up the steep climb away from the reservoir. I presume the climb was simply to skirt boggy ground as after a brief wander along the tops it was another steep descent before making my way back onto forest paths.
This had been another day of classic upland walking and I never saw another soul until late afternoon when another SUW walker caught me up. Fitter and faster than me, Andy was having a hard time of it. His back, shoulders and blistered feet were troubling him and after sharing Brattleburn bothy with me that night, he abandoned the trail the next day. The bothy had two rooms with sleeping platforms downstairs and a large loft area. Andy had already claimed one room by the time I arrived so I took the other. No-one else turned up and we gave each other plenty of space. I think he was somewhat immersed in his own thoughts and concerns so we chatted amicably but briefly. I swept out all the rooms, gathered the inevitable abandoned beer bottles together and prepared the stove in my room, again deciding not to light it. There is plenty of water at this MBA managed bothy as two burns converge right behind it. Be sure to pick the right one to draw water from. One was dark brown and peaty, the other almost clear and sweeter.
After the usual cursory body wash and the essential foot care regime- wash, massage and balm, it was into sleeping layer under insulation layer and Sealskinz socks before cooking a welcome Salmon & Brocolli Pasta, usual strong tea before updating the journal and turning in. I must have been well hydrated as I was up twice during the night for a wander outside for a pee. This is Dark Sky country and the Milky Way was brightly smeared across the sky above the bothy. I didn’t hang around star watching however as it was probably hovering around freezing.
Day ten– Monday 25th April
Brattleburn bothy to Moffat
I had a short day (yes, another!) to Moffat and didn’t want to arrive at the official camp site too early as I wouldn’t be able to book in. I hung around the bothy- ablutions, filtering more water, drinking numerous mugs of tea and consuming any remaining chocolate in my foodbag. I swept up and was still away before Andy. More forest walking followed but it was all rather lovely though there were a lot of blow downs blocking the trail that required negotiating. I reached one open patch of ground where a farmer and his dogs were herding sheep. I hung around at the edge, uncertain, not sure whether to cross the diagonal path across the field while he was so obviously working sheep. He ignored me and I eventually just went for it, muttering apologies under my breath. I still have no idea if I annoyed him, or he was indifferent to my presence as he steadfastly refused a wave. I reached the far end and climbed the rise beyond, turning to watch him expertly working two dogs. I could then see Andy taking the same path. When he caught me I mentioned the sheep and it was apparent that he had given no thought to them at all. We chatted briefly and he walked on, he had a bus to catch.
Much of the Southern Uplands barely sees any visitors. Presumably most just keep heading north to the Highlands. This is a shame as it was apparent just how much good walking is on offer in this part of Scotland. However authorities have done their best to rip the soul out of many of the hills. There are hundreds of wind turbines though these are just a taster of how many are ultimately planned. Forestry also tracks its way across many of the hills. Having reached a certain age, the shallow rooted non-native trees are now being thrown by infrequent storms or are being cut down and replaced by overseas owned corporates. This ‘harvesting’ results in decades of unsightly, uncrossable swaths of sawn remnant and brash. I found myself walking through, and not for the first time on this trail, huge tracts of land that looked to be suffering from some form of alien destruction but were simply the aftermath of forestry work.
Leaving the forest the trail became road walking and the quality of the day noticeably deteriorated. The miles passed however and eventually Moffat came into view. The town is slightly off trail and I followed the busy A701 into it’s centre. Moffat is fairly small but well appointed with just about anything a SUW walker would require. There is even a gear shop but I had no need to visit that. Instead, it was into a bakers for a hot Scotch Pie which I snaffled as I ambled down to the towns campsite, arriving five minutes before the reception opened.
If there is a need to halt at an ‘official’ campsite, then Three Points of the Compass is a fan of those operated by the Camping and Caravanning Club. Always efficiently run, always spotless, always welcoming. I am also always able to tuck myself away from the caravans and motorhomes and this was the case at Moffat where I had my tent pitch to myself. Showered and cleaned up and having changed into ‘town clothes’, it was off to explore the town and whoop it up a little. OK, have a pint and a curry. Sadly, my much anticipated Indian that evening was a bit of a disappointment. But Moffat had time to redeem itself.
Day eleven– Tuesday 26th April
Day eleven was a day off. This had been my plan from the outset as while Moffat is technically past the actual halfway point, it is nonetheless generally accepted as an honorary halfway point on the SUW. Certainly it is an ideal place to take a break from the trail. It was opportunity to do some (much needed) laundry at the campsite, resupply with food and recharge electrics, while also recharging the body with some decent rest and meals. The campsite is close to the town centre and only a couple of minutes walk to a large visitor/shopping centre where countless numbers of coaches drop off hoards of tourists every day. They do not start arriving until mid-morning however so I had the spotless and efficiently run cafe to myself for breakfast. The town almost empties of visitors in the evening too so on both days my evening meal had to be pretty early as everywhere shuts early too.
On the afternoon of my rest day in Moffat a couple on a motorcycle turned up and pitched their pyramid tent alongside. Daniel, Gina and I chatted at length and also met up for convivial drinks later that night in town after I had enjoyed steak pie and veg dinner at the Star Hotel.
I had explored Moffat and was fully rested and recuperated. Any illness felt behind me and I was eager to be back on trail. The following day would be Wednesday 27th April, also day twelve out of Portpatrick and day eleven on trail. I had experienced both highs and lows on trail and knew it had more to offer- my Southern Upland Way continues in part three…
Southern Upland Way: Part three- Moffat to Cockburnspath
I’m really enjoying reading your account of the SUW, thanks so much for posting it. Sorry to hear you were so ill.
I was a few days behind you, having started at Portpatrick on 27 April. I saw your entries in the bothy books at White Laggan and Polskeoch and heartily agree with the sentiments you expressed regarding the lack of care some people (thankfully a minority) show towards these invaluable resources. Polskeoch, when I arrived at the end of my day 5 on 1 May, was a bombsite, clearly a party the night before. Took me a couple of hours to clear up the following morning.
Unfortunately I had to abandon on day 6, 2 June, just above Sanquhar, due to a freak accident (999 call and quite lengthy stay in hospital – the full gories are on my Instagram account at https://www.instagram.com/a_slower_adventure/).
I enjoyed immensely the 150km or so that I did although, like you, I found the first day very hard on the feet. It’s an unsung trail, for sure and I know that the best bits were still to come. I shall certainly be back to finish it off at some point, once I’m recovered, and I’ll look forward to reading your account of what awaits me.
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Thanks for commenting Nick. The issue with some of the bothies on the SUW is vehicular access and people looking for a free party location. Very much removed from the MBA ethos sadly.
I think I can describe my own SUW as a ‘slower adventure’ too! I liked that the trail was quiet as, while I am happy to meet and chat to people, I do prefer a bit of solitude for most of the time on trail. Sorry to see the result of mishap, hope you get yourself sorted and back to enjoy the remainder soon
Kudos to you for pressing on in adversity and for continuing your informative and entertaining blog. I assume the offending bag of pasta bolognaise is the one pictured in Part One. As an experienced on-trail cook what do you think the underlying problem was? Manufacturing error, prior storage issue, past its sell by date, hole in the packaging to let in air and bacteria, not heated/boiled for long enough or some other cause? Hope you’re back to full fighting weight soon and happy wanderings.
I didn’t like to name names (or brands). Best Before date was 2028, I suspect it wasn’t sealed and hadn’t been for quite some time. I still gag when I think of the smell. I really don’t know why I continued eating it. I had simply thought that it was a meal type/flavour that I had not had before from that particular brand and never to have it again