A 2-week adventure on The Southern Upland Way
Kathryn Shore was looking for a walking adventure with minimal disruptions. With the route already defined and the accommodation flexible, walking a National Trail with a tent seemed the ideal solution.
In the wake of Covid regulation uncertainty I had little inclination to spend time making complex plans that could be undone at a stroke by the next twist in the pandemic story.
Walking a National Trail with a tent seemed an ideal solution. The expedition needed to be in Scotland where wild camping is legal and usually well accepted.
The result was that I was at a guesthouse in Stranraer on the evening of 21 June 2021, equipped with a pristine and virtually unread Cicerone guide to Walking the Southern Upland Way, plus a Harvey’s map of the trail as well as a fully packed backpacking rucksack.
The Southern Upland Way
Scotland's Coast to Coast trail
Guidebook to the Southern Upland Way, a coast to coast walk through Galloway and the Scottish Borders. One of Scotland's Great Trails, the 347km (215 mile) route links Portpatrick on the west coast to Cockburnspath on the east, through diverse landscapes and rich natural and historical interest. It can be completed in around a fortnight.More information
My only preparations had been to book transport for the journey to Stranraer and overnight accommodation there as well as for three of the 13 nights on the route. I had also earmarked possible wild camping spots on my rough timetable and, of course, needed to ensure I reached my booked accommodation on the correct days.
I had discovered that there was a bus from Stranraer to the start at Portpatrick and a bus, but not on Sundays, from the end at Cockburnspath to Berwick-on-Tweed.
However, what I hadn’t appreciated was that the Southern Upland Way (SUW) is perhaps the most remote of all the National Trails, with spectacular scenery at every stage. In addition, probably due to the remoteness of some parts of the trail and the difficulty in organising accommodation at reasonable intervals on all sections, it also appears to be one of the lesser walked.
After leaving St. John’s Town of Dalry on Saturday morning, I saw only a few people in the distance and no-one within speaking range until the following day as I descended towards Sanquhar.
Although the trail passes through and near huge windfarms and large forestry plantations, this does little to detract from the glorious isolation and sense of space in the dramatic landscapes that unfold along the route.
It was overall a very much more exciting and interesting expedition than I had expected. In addition, this is border country with interesting historical artefacts dating from prehistoric times, Roman remains, classic drove tracks, memorials relating to the Killing Times of the 17th century when the Covenanters who objected to Episcopalian interference in their worship were mercilessly persecuted, as well as the historic industrial lead mining landscape at Wanlockhead, in peak production during the 19th century.
An interesting feature of the route is the opportunity to discover special mementoes – the hoard. At 13 remote places on the SUW there is a 'kist' to be found. This is a small box containing specially minted 'coins' engraved with images representing some aspect of the archaeology, history or wildlife of the hiding place area.
In my minimal preparation, I had omitted reading introductions in my guide book and so these 'kists' were an interesting surprise.
It is possible to find out the approximate locations, which makes the search easier but I did not do this. I found five but I know someone who was walking around the same time as me found 12, and she was sure that she missed the other only because she was trying to get past cattle.
If I had to pick out the top day of the walk, it would be the one from Moffat to a wild camp near the Scabcleuch Burn on the eighth day of my expedition. This brilliant day was helped by the excellent sunny and dry weather as well as the long hours of daylight near mid-summer.
As I ascended on the optional high level path to the marvellous viewpoint at Croft Head, I passed a plaque on a way marker stating that Anna Rutherford had smashed the women’s record for running the entire 214 miles of the Southern Upland Way. This had been only a few weeks earlier in April/May 2021 in a remarkable 62 hours, 34 minutes and 55 seconds!
I’ve since discovered that she did it at nine months post-natal while still on maternity leave.
From Croft Head, which is the final 2000ft-plus summit on the official path, the path descends and the high and low level routes re-join.
Near Ettrick Head a notice informed me that I had passed from Dumfries and Galloway to the Scottish Borders. This is the watershed of Scotland and rivers now would be flowing east to the North Sea.
Everything was going well and the weather was perfect. When I reached the metalled road beyond Potburn, I decided to leave the way-marked path that goes for 9km down the road to Scabcleuch and take an unofficial high-level alternative.
It’s mentioned in passing in the book and the whole area is on my Harvey’s map. The visibility was excellent and there weren’t any real navigational issues. However, I was aware of the need for care as even the National Trail route is a lonely place without easy access to help and this route was 'off-piste'.
I climbed on a well-defined track through a forest and then followed a compass bearing on a route over the shoulder of Bught Hill, reaching the main ridge with fence at Bodesbeck Law (2171ft).
Having reached the main ridge, it was possible to see that fences guided the way and it was merely a case of keeping track of the number of summits I walked over as I made my way along the top.
The lack of any path in places, together with all the tussocks, made it very hard going at times, but no worse than the Dartmoor terrain to which I am accustomed.
Views were superb and I could see the hills continuing layer upon layer to the horizon, sometimes encompassing the entire 360 degrees of the panorama. The major summits above 2000ft were Bell Craig (2047ft), Andrewhinney Hill (2221ft) and Herman Law (2014ft). Even some of the unnamed summits were above 2000ft.
Looking at the map now, I can see that although the ridge is undulating, I stayed above 1800ft until I descended from Herman Law towards Peniestone Knowe at the culmination of this glorious walk.
I have also spotted on the map now what appears to be a path ascending from near Ettrick Head initially over Capel Fell (2224ft) and see that I could have left the main trail there for an even lengthier high traverse. It would have involved some more descent to Bodesbeck Burn though and may have been too much to tackle in the time available. Perhaps that’s one for another expedition and with a day starting nearer to the range than Moffat…
As I descended from the range of hills, swinging in a more easterly line towards Scabcleuch Burn, I enjoyed splendid views towards St Mary’s Loch, where I would be heading the next day. There had been no water supply along the ridge so in the warm conditions I was running very low on fluid.
I could see the sunlight reflecting off a metal footpath sign and I headed towards it thinking it was a Southern Upland Way sign. Actually it was a sign for a path to Ettrick Kirk and I realised I was going up over the far side of the Scableuch Burn valley. It didn’t take me long to realise and I made my way back into the valley and down the upper dry stream bed until there was a flow to collect some much needed water.
I found a wonderful place to camp high above the burn, away from the worse of the midges, and pitched my tent. I was very tired after the hard ridge walk on top of the previous distance walked from Moffat but very happy to have completed such an awesome day of perfect hill walking.
I completed my walk after a further five excellent days of walking on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Just to be clear, it wasn’t dry every day and there had even been a dramatic thunderstorm one evening.
Another highlight followed my completion. Reaching the Mercat Cross at Cockburnspath was actually an anti-climax, but I noticed a sign to a community shop. This had opened only four weeks earlier following the closure of the village shop over a year before. It is amazingly well stocked, including lots of local items.
I was pleased to buy a cold drink and an ice cream (Scottish tablet flavour). The extremely kind volunteer shop assistant even gave me a free celebratory cup of coffee when she realised that I had just finished walking the Southern Upland Way – my completion no longer seemed an anti-climax!
As it was Sunday, there was no bus until the next day. I had been unable to find any accommodation or campsite nearby, the holiday camp not taking tents. It was too early to put up my tent near the cliff top in this less than remote area.
I made my way back to the coast, where I walked to somewhere that is amazing. What this is I will leave as an exercise for anyone else who walks this path and, as requested by the local population, I am not even including any pictures.
I walked back towards the holiday camp where I had planned to buy my meal, passing the spot where I had decided to pitch my tent. Before I reached the holiday camp, I changed my mind and walked back to my camping spot. The path seemed empty of people and I didn’t want to spoil the magic of the evening by visiting a noisy restaurant.
A man walked past with his dog and I apologised about being so near to the path. I would normally choose somewhere much more secluded for a wild camp but there wasn’t anywhere suitable.
The views later that evening over the cliff tops were awesome and I enjoyed them in solitude after eating my meal cooked on the camping stove. It poured with rain in the night but I was snug and dry in my tent (Edinburgh was flooded!).
The next morning as I was waiting at the bus stop in the village the dog walker from the previous evening walked past and asked me about the night as it had rained so much. However, he was also apologetic about the lack of amenities such as overnight accommodation in the village for walkers, appreciating that was why I had camped.
I am impressed by the friendly folk in Cockburnspath and the feeling that this is a living community with amazing potential. It was really an amazing and memorable end to a superb trail walk.
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