High time for the Southern Uplands
It’s about as extensive as the Pennines, in some ways similar and in others a little bit better. Inveterate hillwalker Ronald Turnbull says every hillwalking lifetime should contain some Southern Upland.
Most of us pass through the Southern Uplands on the motorway on the way to somewhere nice like the Highlands or the Lake District. And the area inbetween looks like somewhere really rather nasty, with shapeless flat hills covered in spruce plantations and what's currently (until the next one) the UK's second biggest wind farm.
This is a trick, designed to shuffle you safely onwards to the Lakes or the Highlands, while concealing an important and interesting bit of hill ground. Just think: 83 hills of 2000ft or more, spreading pretty much from North Sea to Atlantic. Rounded and grassy, one behind the other until they drop to the wide and winding River Tweed, or the grey plains of Ayrshire and the distant sea. Round and grassy and lots of ’em – this is just right for lively striding through a long summer day.
Grassy tops – but also, slightly more interesting sides, cut into cones and curves by the distinctive ‘linns’ (small gorges) and ‘scars’ (scooped stony slopes). Stop for a sandwich snack in a ‘hope’ (a high enclosed hollow, just right for summer pasture) before grappling with some mossy stones and sheep skeletons in some obscure little ‘cleuch’ (rocky-sided stream slot).
Most of the 83 grassy rollers don't have anybody else about. There's a history reason for this, and also a geography reason. Come in from the north, and you could have been in the Highlands: come from England, and you could simply swerve off to the Lakes.
It's like playing the Glastonbury main stage immediately before Florence and the Machine and immediately after the Dalai Lama.
Also, there's an awful lot of Southern Upland, so those of us who are up there are spread around pretty thin.
The history reason is the long-distance cattle-thieving Border Reivers of the 16th century. Their slaughterous exploits contribute to the emptiness of it all even today: few roads, few pubs and an alarming absence of gear shops and pay-and-display machines.
Even in summer, the Southern Uplands have more real remoteness than anywhere south of the Highland Line. In winter, the snowfields stretch, hump beyond hump, for 20 miles or more to the misty blue of the Lowlands or of England. Follow the snow-projecting tips of the fencing along the ridge for six or eight hours, and you look down into one of the Southern Upland glens. But even then, it's just an icy river far below, and a strip of empty roadway, and ruined pele tower, and a silence as deep as when the Stewart kings cleared this ground for deer hunting, or the Armstrongs from over the hill drove away the cattle and burned the small thatched cottages and left a huddle of spear-slain corpses at the field corner.
And after that – a whole lot more hills on the other side.
But those big, empty hills are just the half of it. Way back in the Carboniferous Period, the lowland plain that extends from Ayrshire to Edinburgh was a rift valley, with volcanic Kilimanjaros all over the place. Still there today, the stumps of those long-ago lava vents pop up tiny but surprising in the middle of Edinburgh, or in the sea on the way to Arran. North Berwick Law rises darkly rocky and a proud 111m high. As if this mini-mountain wasn't silly enough, it's topped with a whalebone arch in off-white fibreglass. It used to be a real whalebone but it rotted. The Pentlands are steeply stony – steeply pinkly stony – giving Edinburgh the best city hills anywhere. Well they would be if it wasn't for Arthur's Seat and the Castle being even better as they rise straight up behind the tartan bagpipers.
In size and wildness, these hills can be compared with the Pennines. They’re better than the Pennines (and with all respect to Dufton Pike) in the rocky richness of the small-size hills. They are, of course, far less trodden on than the Pennines, and lack the Pennines’ eerie night-time glow from all those surrounding cities. The Pennines have some unique geology, ‘limestone pavement’ – the name says it all, there's a certain flatness about it – and in the Southern Uplands, the special geology is the granite of Galloway.
Bare slabs of speckly grey rise from green tussocks and black peat. Wild goats, wild deer and the occasional peat-stained person roam below; overhead there might even be an eagle. Between the Murder Hole and the Devil’s Bowling Green the hills are small but vicious, speckled with granite boulders, and every hollow holds a lochan. The highest one, Loch Enoch, sprawls in amoeboid bays and islands, edged with white granite sand. The swans stop off here on their spring trip up to Iceland, but it’s a long rough ramble for any swan-spotting human being.
Walking on the ocean floor
Like Yosemite’s granite, or the limestone of Spain’s Picos de Europa, or Snowdonia’s volcanics, the Southern Uplands are a range made of one sort of stone. It’s a deep-ocean sludge called greywacke, squeezed and squashed upwards as the gap between Scotland and England closed and the two finally crashed together.
Greywacke comes in chunky layers: each of those layers was an underwater avalanche down the continental shelf of that long-lost ocean. But the Scotland-England crunch has bent the layers about and raised them upright. The rock is only middling-hard, and there are eroded scars of scree and stones rather than any impressive crags. Being made of mud, it's smooth and rather slippery for scrambling on. But the deep-cut stream cleuchs make these ranges well drained, for those long days along the rounded grassy ridges.
Galloway’s silvery granite melted its way up into the grey rocks. And in a ring around the granite, a ‘cooked’ rock called hornfels gives the ring of upstanding hills from the Rhinns to Merrick and the Minnigaffs.
Granite and greywacke: the Southern Uplands are the range for geology beginning with G.
Fairies and fossils
Skylarks, tick. The occasional eagle, and the sudden stimulation of the nasal passages when Mr Billygoat’s just been passing by, tick. A slinky fox threading the yellow grasses and roe deer standing surprised on the forest road, tick. But the Southern Uplands’ unique wildlife encounter? It has to be the fairies, last spotted in Ettrick Glen but known to be in residence under Eildon Hill. Or leave an offering (cash or small snacks) at Cheese Well on the Minchmoor. Only slightly less elusive, the graptolite, the connoisseur’s fossil: looks like little scratchy marks and tells you everything about the Ordovician. Graptolites, as well as some of the goats, hang out in the spray of the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall, 60m high and among the grandest in Scotland.
Baggers of Corbetts – the Scottish 2500-footers – will be making seven ascents. Broad Law is about as exciting as it sounds. In terms of living up to its name, it’s up there with Broad Cairn (Grampians), Broad Peak (Karakoram) and the Breithorn (Swiss Alps). But White Coomb has that great Grey Mare’s waterfall leading up to the hidden Loch Skeen. Hart Fell has the Devil’s Beeftub for hiding those cows you stole from your neighbour across the hill, as well as a finely pointy green ridge at Saddle Yoke. Merrick, rising proud above the Galloway lochs and granite, is one of our finest anywhere – even on the 999 days in every 1000 when you don't get the UK’s longest view, all the way to Snowdon.
And Corbetteers should also be after the Cheviot (815m), pending any reconquest from the English. The Cheviot range as a whole should hardly be counted as Scottish Southern Uplands, being partly in England and crossed by the so-called ‘Pennine’ Way. But then again, they share the same history of pony-trekking Reiver raids – the same long, green ridges – the same big skies and skylarks. Cheviots from the Scottish side are a rather better range, with winding glens, and pointy hillocks each topped off with an iron-age fort, and hardly any damned needle-trees. While Cheviot itself (why did they hand it over so meekly back in 1174?) has on its Scotland side the great Hen Hole, rocky-sided, waterfall-bottomed, and big enough for in fact several billion hens.
Any hillwalking life should have some Southern Uplands for sure, but we can refine this further. Important are the Highlands, lovely are the Lakes – and there’s somewhere called Snowdonia away in Wales. But these Southern Uplands are also fully deserving of attention from your spikey poles and booted fell-walking feet.
Leif Eriksson discovered America. It’s high time you discovered the Merrick.
Ronald Turnbull writes regularly for TGO, Lakeland Walker, Trail and Cumbria magazines. His previous books include Across Scotland on Foot, Long Days in Lakeland and Welsh 3000ft Challenges. He has written many other Cicerone guides, including Walking in the Lowther Hills, The Book of the Bivvy and Not the West Highland Way.View Articles and Books by Ronald Turnbull