An intro to... the Southern Upland Way, Scotland’s Coast to Coast Walk

The 347km (215 mile) long Southern Upland Way from coast to coast, is Scotland’s longest Great Trail, and now, thanks to a new route through the Ettrick Hills, higher than before. Here's a quick summary of what you need to know.

Where is it and how far is it?

The 347km (215 mile) long Southern Upland Way, Scotland’s longest Great Trail, starts out from the west coast of Scotland at the picturesque old harbour of Portpatrick and continues eastward across the Galloway Hills, past the dramatic Loch Trool, over the Lowther, Ettrick and Lammermuir Hills before finishing at Cockburnspath.

For many, the challenge will be to walk the Southern Upland Way from coast to coast as a continuous walk across Scotland. It forms the basis of a superb walking holiday of about two weeks’ duration.

M015 Suw

Why should you walk the Southern Upland Way

The best long-distance walking trails have two characteristics that make them great: a succession of dramatic landscapes coupled with a broad selection of interesting places to visit along the way. The Southern Upland Way, Scotland’s Coast to Coast Walk, scores highly on both.

As the route cuts across the grain of the country many different landscapes are unveiled: coastal cliffs, high moorland, rolling hills, remote mountains, forests, lochs, mountain streams, majestic rivers and sylvan valleys abounding in wildlife. The way passes through regions that are exceedingly rich in archaeological and historical associations, from prehistoric standing stones to monuments commemorating the Killing Times of the 17th-century Covenanters. There are formal gardens and stately homes to visit en route as well as some of the more elegant towns of Dumfries & Galloway and the Borders, such as Moffat and Melrose, the latter with its famous abbey – so many places of interest to stimulate and delight the visitor.

The Southern Upland Way has it all! If you choose this trail for your annual walking holiday then you will certainly not be disappointed.

When should you go?

You can walk the Southern Upland Way at any time of the year, although during the winter months on the upland sections of the Trail, you will need the usual winter hillwalking gear, together with the appropriate experience. When the hills are plastered in snow and ice then crampons and ice axes must be carried.

Most walkers should do the Southern Upland Way in the spring, summer or autumn months, from April to October, when the days are longer and the weather conditions are (usually) less severe. Only the hardiest, suitably experienced backpackers should consider walking the route in winter. Spring, when the birds are in full song and when the wildflowers are at their best, is particularly rewarding for nature lovers.

Loch Ken Seen From Waterside Hill Summit Stage 5
Loch Ken seen from Waterside Hill summit (Stage 5)

Did you know?

  • Britain’s oldest post office, dating from 1763, will be seen on the High Street of Sanquha
  • Wanlockhead at 425m (1394ft) is Britain’s highest village.
  • The highest point of the Southern Upland Way is at 712m (2335ft) on the Lowther Hills.

Accommodation on the Southern Upland Way

Accommodation is limited on the Southern Upland Way, and you will need to be creative in a couple of areas in order to avoid lengthy days of up to 54km (33 miles). The closure of Tibbie Shiels Inn, as well as all the Youth Hostels close to the route, has been a blow to walkers.

The best solution at present is to arrange transport pick-ups at various points, with return the following morning. The alternative is backpacking the route, carrying your tent, food and cooking equipment. Scotland’s access laws allow wild camping almost anywhere along the route – a huge choice of idyllic camps; there are also the five bothies available as wet-weather fallbacks. This removes the need to complete a full stage each day in order to reach accommodation. Of course, the down side is carrying all the extra weight.

Taking the high route on the Ettrick Hills.
Taking the high route on the Ettrick Hills.

You get a certificate

Attractive high quality completion certificates are available free of charge to all those who have walked the entire route of the Southern Upland Way, whether in a single crossing, or as a series of shorter walks. They make excellent mementoes of your achievement and are nice souvenirs of your walking holiday. They are available from the Countryside Ranger Services of either Dumfries & Galloway or the Scottish Borders or via the Southern Upland Way website.

Must see:

Melrose, which with its ancient abbey ruins, formal gardens and Walter Scott associations is a great place to linger a while.

Melrose Abbey
Melrose Abbey

Here's an idea...

Why not combine the Southern Upland Way with one of the other long-distance paths in southern Scotland?

A week long holiday in south-west Scotland could be had by walking the Southern Upland Way from Portpatrick to New Luce, then south into the Machars to Whithorn along the Whithorn Pilgrim Way.

A companion trip to this could be a week or 10 days in the Borders and Northumbria along the Southern Upland Way from Moffat to Melrose, from where St Cuthbert’s Way will lead you to Lindisfarne, Holy Island.

The Southern Upland Way also connects with the excellent Borders Abbeys Way at Melrose and the two trails combined would also make a worthwhile walking holiday.

Finally, the new Annandale Way from Annan itself to Moffat, combined with the eastern half of the Southern Upland Way, allows for a very fine and rather shorter coast-to-coast crossing of 215km (135 miles).

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