If you like your wild landscapes really wild, if you like your lakes to have whooper swans in the middle and no ice-cream vans around the edge, if you like to have one foot on bare rock and the other one deep in a peat bog, if you like your granite with goats on, then the Galloway Hills are the place to go, says Ronald Turnbull.
My story could start like a Star Wars movie. Far, far away, in a corner of Scotland that nobody goes to, there's a little mountain range where wild goats bound across the granite slabs, red squirrels run through ancient oakwoods and half a hundred white-sand lochans sparkle under the sun…
The Galloway Hills – the Galloway Highlands, they used to be called – are small, but special. They stretch just 20km west to east, and 40km north to south (15 miles by 25) – almost the same size as Snowdonia. Within that area – much of it pathless – Galloway has 23 summits over 2000ft, including four Corbetts (2500-footers).
Little visited by most of us, they've been well loved by a select sort of discriminating hill goer. The outlaws and vagabonds of the 18th century, Faas and Macatericks, loved to lurk here on the fringes of civilisation. The fastnesses of Dungeon were just right for raiding the small farms of the lowlands or grabbing passing hikers and looting our expensive Gore-tex and electronics before dumping us in the convenient swampy corner of Loch Neldricken.
Before that, outlaw King Robert the Bruce hung out in these hills with his 200 mixed mercenary warriors out of Ireland. The convicted murderer and future king relaxed on a comfy boulder on the Rhinns of Kells while planning how to lure the English into an ambush at the edge of Loch Trool. Even John Buchan's hero, Richard Hannay, pursued by the police, a band of sinister foreigners and a 1914-model light aircraft, ‘fixed on Galloway as the best place to go…’
The walk from Loch Trool over Merrick and Craignaw gives you the full hit of my favourite hill range. For those in a hurry, after this one quite big walk you don't need to come back to Galloway ever again. You can do it in a day – 18km (11 miles) with 1100m of ascent. No need to make a night of it, unless you really do need to watch the sun rising over Loch Enoch from the summit of the Merrick.
I really did need to see the sun rising over Loch Enoch from the summit of the Merrick.
You drive in along the lonely glen of Trool, not seeing the hills for the trees. Around the southern edges of the Galloway range the original tree cover is Atlantic oakwood. Chunks of this remain, and these are being infilled with the aim of a single, lovely oakwood all the way down the Cree to the sea. No longer harbouring wolves, brigands and red-handed chaps and lasses, it's still a stronghold for the native red squirrel. Roe deer also roam here; your best chance of seeing them is if you're the first along a forest track very early in the morning.
But my two-day plan had me arriving mid-afternoon. At Bruce's Stone overlooking Loch Trool, a sleepy green haze hung about the oaks. Where Bruce once heard shrieks and battle cries across the water, there was no sound but a few buzzing insects.
A gourmet feast
The path up Merrick is well used – by Galloway standards. Meaning that on a fine Saturday in the school holidays you just might see somebody else. In the school holidays on a sunny Monday, I had the car park to myself. That Merrick path has one uncharacteristic (for Galloway) feature: a path signboard at its foot. But it sets off in typical terrain: a jumble of peat and boulders above the rocky Buchan Burn. It soon smoothes out and takes you quite quickly up through the band of Sitka spruce. Lower ground around the Galloways is rather overgrown with these future loo rolls on the twig.
The main Merrick path is, at least, a quick way up through the plantation. The boring bit under the conifers counts as the shuffling around of the chairs, as it were, before the commencement of the gourmet feast – which is what this walk is, for Galloway fans.
But a gourmet feast does tend to be mainly cream and asparagus, and some of us require some added roughage… Which can be supplied by the alternative, tree-free start over the Fell of Eschoncan.
Small but strenuous, the Fell of Eschoncan rises in steep bracken immediately above Bruce's Stone. The small path was created with a strimmer for the very first Merrick hill race, to avoid some repairing works on the main path. Over the years the trainer-clad feet of the runners have kept the route open, although it is still tricky to trace in high summer from July until the bracken gets squashed back on the mid-September race day. Once on the flat felltop, the peaty little path continues upwards by various viewpoint cairns and small peaty pools surrounded with bog asphodel and cotton grass.
Bennan's top is surprisingly rocky and rugged for such a very flat place. Slabs of ocean bottom greywacke rock are tilted at about 30 degrees. You walk through a gap in a slab-top line of low crag, and find five metres of downhill bare rock. Step onto it and run down, counting on the softness of the bog at the bottom…
But it's at Benyellary, after rejoining the main Merrick path, that the walk takes classic status. This is the start of a high-level ridge wander along the Neive of the Spit, looking one way across the Ayrshire plains to the distant sea, and the other way into the granity heartland of Galloway with its little lochs. And my other reason for messing about on Bennan had been: not being on Benyellary until the sun was nice and low. A golden haze hovers in the air alongside, like a kindly waiter with a bottle of some sweet and rather rich desert wine, perhaps a Muscatel. And on the right, the Gloon corrie is slowly filling up with purple shadow, not unlike a gently poured glass of good Claret.
There's only one Merrick, and the hill is referred to locally as 'The' Merrick. This is reflected on the larger-scale Explorer map, at the point where the slope to the summit is named as 'Broads of the Merrick'. It needs to be gone up slowly. Not because it's steep, which it isn't. But so's to arrive at the trig point at the perfect sunset moment.
From Merrick’s top, we're told, it's possible to enjoy the UK's longest view: 139.5 miles (224.5km) all the way south to Snowdon. But there's no time now to look at what's actually visible only inside the computer. Not when the sun's about to go down behind the isle of Arran, lighting the Firth of Clyde in tasteful shades of purplish grey. But even more important is the view the other way.
Open out the Galloway map and the place is an accident in a blue paint factory. For its size, this area is more lake-infested even than the well-known bit in the northwest of England. Best of a damn good bunch, bang in the middle of the huddled hills, Loch Enoch sprawls like an amoeba across a square mile of granite bedrock. Its little beaches are silver granite sand. That sand is pure quartz, the crystals still sharp, so that it was once gathered to make into whetstones for scythes.
The loch is bottomless, it never freezes over, and the largest of its islands itself contains a small peat pool, the Loch in the Loch. The first of those statements is unlikely but the third of them is true.
From up here on Merrick the loch on its own island adds one extra sparkle to a view that's already a piquant mix-up of land and open water. The second of the three statements is definitely false. I have crossed the ice of Loch Enoch to visit that island with its lochan. So has someone I met at Merrick summit last autumn, on my final trip before the deadline for the Galloway Hills guidebook. People have also swum Loch Enoch to the island. The 'Loch in the Loch' is reported as pleasantly warm on a summer's day; but the swim back will quickly cool you down again. Please note that these crossings are not being recommended to readers of this page: both the swim and the ice-walk have obvious dangers.
But why see Loch Enoch when you could be at Loch Enoch? After a long lie-in until 7am (tut, tut, a full three hours after sunrise), I continue down the Redstone Rig towards that sublime central loch. It's a grey day, and the loch is slaty among its miles of grey-green grassland. As I go down, I cross a crucial junction somewhere in the grassy hollow between one dark grey knobbly outcrop and the next – well, the next outcrop isn't knobbly at all, but a smooth and rounded slab. And not dark grey, but pale grey and speckly.
Granite cools slowly in big lumps called plutons (the word just means deeply underground thing). It has time, as it cools, to form crystals several millimetres across. They are of three sorts: tough, glassy quartz; white or grey feldspar; and a dark iron-rich mineral. The dark minerals and the feldspar rot away in the wind and rain, leaving the sharp-cornered quartz to give a superbly grippy surface. This active weathering also rounds off everything's edges, giving a lack of actual handholds to hang on to, as well as the nicely rounded sculptural boulders decorating the hillsides. Meanwhile, the eroded-out quartz crystals make the pale gleaming beaches of Loch Neldricken and Loch Enoch. It's a fair summary to say that what makes Galloway Galloway is the granite.
And what the Galloway granite makes is the hill called Craignaw.
Don't be misled by the fact that Craignaw is 198m lower than Merrick. Craignaw is the one that rises in bare, glacier-scraped granite slabs. Craignaw is the one where the goats go, where the tussocks are green and grim, where the Devil plays at bowls with erratic boulders on a 'lawn' that's bare rock.
Devil's Bowling Green
A narrow and rather rocky col called the Nick of the Dungeon leads up to the Devil's Bowling Green (or, as it should be, the Bowling Grey). Above it Craignaw, so flat on the map, rises in little crags and big half-buried boulders. There is a way, easier to walk if trickier to find, contouring out to the west then up the gentler slope above Loch Neldricken. Straight up involves a bit of clambering about; but for those on Craignaw, clambering is simply the appropriate way to go.
As the granite pluton cools it shrinks into big, regular blocks. The main shrinkage cracks are parallel with the top surface of that underground pluton. So, the granite breaks to smooth, near-level slabs – as now walked on at Craignaw. Rising out of the grass and peat those grey slabs make great, easy going: and from Point of the Snibe in the south over to the Brishie Ridge on the Dungeon, one step in two on this hill will be on that naked granite.
Because I'm a guidebook writer, I sometimes go to places not because I especially want to, but just because they need going to. To update a bit of route description, I now headed on south, over all the granite slabs there are, for a tough and tufty crossing over a lesser hill called Craiglee. And perhaps this is the point to admit it: quite a bit of Galloway's lower ground is the ground that grinds you down. Tussocks can be knee deep; old boulderfields are an ankle-grabbing mesh of holes hidden under the heather. All of this can be challenging and confrontational, and thrilling for the sufficiently fit. With Craignaw already crossed, and an overnight backpack on my back, I'd prefer to be unchallenged and non-confronted (or yes, okay, but only a little). So normally I'd be trickling off the side of Craignaw down to the welcoming shores of Loch Neldricken.
At Loch Neldricken there's an ice-cream van waiting, and a pub with picnic tables and a fine range of authentic ales and whiskies, and a wide, smooth path nicely built for us by the ranger team.
Well there would be if Loch Neldricken were just 60 miles to the southeast, within an ice-cream van's tinkle of Keswick town.
The convenient facility that Loch Neldricken actually has is its Murder Hole. ‘It never froze; it was never whitened with snow. With open mouth it lay ever waiting like an insatiable beast for its tribute of human life; it never gave up a body committed to its depths, or broke a murderer's trust.’
Okay, so readers of Cicerone Extra probably won't be lugging along any looted victims needing disposal. Especially not given the 800m of height gain you'd have had to haul them over the top of Merrick. It's in SR Crockett's The Raiders that the fierce tribes of Macaterick and Faa drop off unwanted dead bodies in this strangely circular, rush-girt corner of Loch Neldricken.
A peaty path passes an old stone sheepfank to the next in the downhill sequence. Compared with Neldricken, Loch Valley is somewhat more busy and civilised – the last time I was there I met two fishermen. Next down after Loch Valley, you're back at Loch Trool. And four miles on down the road there is – yes – a little café, and they do sell ice-cream. It's made in Gatehouse of Fleet and it's called the Cream o' Galloway.
But the real cream o' Galloway is this outing over Merrick and Craignaw. The ancient oakwoods of Loch Trool; the airy ridgeline of Neive of the Spit. Loch Enoch, high and quiet among the peaty wilderness. Craignaw, with its granite slabs and small grey crags. After this one quite big walk, you don't need to come back to Galloway ever again. You don't need to … but you surely will. Happy Galloway!
Best outings from Glen Trool
English general Aymer de Valence marched innocently along the edge of Loch Trool, as Bruce's hillmen lurked high on Mulldonoch ready to roll down the conveniently rounded granite boulders. Aymer had the right idea, even if his timing was a bit off. For a first taste of Galloway, head up the little Glentrool road to the Bruce's Stone monument high above the loch.
Best gentle walk
Circuit of Loch Trool 9.5km (6 miles) with 300m (1000ft) ascent – smooth path
Best ordinary hillwalk
Up and down Merrick by the airy amble along the Neive of the Spit 12.5km (8 miles) with ascent 900m (3000ft) – path rough in places
Best extraordinary hillwalk
Up Merrick by the Neive of the Spit, down to Loch Enoch; head south either by Buchan Hill or by Lochs Neldricken and Valley 13.5km (8½ miles) with ascent 900m (2900ft) – some rough going
Best extraordinary non-hillwalk
To Loch Enoch by Buchan Hill and Rig of Loch Enoch, returning by Lochs Neldricken and Valley 11.5km (7½ miles) with ascent 550m (1800ft) – some rough going, a little scrambling on Buchan Hill
The real point of it all
Craignaw and Loch Enoch 15.5km (9½ miles) with ascent 750m (2500ft) – rough but rewarding
The cream o' Galloway
Merrick, Loch Enoch and Craignaw 18km (11 miles) with ascent 1100m (3500ft)