Pages

Follow by Email

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

A hike across Scotland on the Southern Upland Way


In the hills between Dalry and Sanquhar

We’re just back from an eight-day hike along the western section of Scotland’s Southern Upland Way, a demanding 120 miles through some of the emptiest country I’ve encountered this side of the northern Highlands.

Looking back at Portpatrick
We began in glorious weather at the delightful little town of Portpatrick, completing 13-14 miles to pass Stranraer and reach Castle Kennedy the first night.

 
The gardens at Castle Kennedy - the cut that connects two small lochs
It was thirsty work, but sadly there was no pub at Castle Kennedy, only the rather splendid gardens, which we visited on Sunday morning before setting off on a fairly leisurely ten-mile hike to New Luce. There we stayed with a writer friend who has a house a few miles from town.

What I’d never realised about Dumfries and Galloway is that these innocently named Uplands actually rise to around 2,500 feet, so most days we found ourselves with some stiff climbs and stiffer descents. The area is also very sparsely populated. There are scattered farmhouses, there are sheep, and there are forest plantations, and that’s about it. What it means is that accommodation is hard to find, and some stretches of the route can be as long as 26 miles. Mercifully, it is possible to make arrangements that reduce the distances to manageable levels. At Dalry, for example, the manager of the Lochinvar Hotel arranged to pick us up at a point seven miles before we reached the town, drop us off at the same place in the morning, then collect us at the end of that day’s hike, some eight miles beyond.   
 
Dalry from the south (full title St John's Town of Dalry)

We were very lucky indeed with the weather. It basically stayed fair throughout. By day three and four the talk was of cataclysmic thunderstorms coming up from the south – but they contrived to show up when we were in bed; and the heatwave that had the newspapers hopping certainly didn’t penetrate the Lowther Hills. When we did have cloud cover we were generally glad of it: it was warm work when the sun was out. Thankfully, there was generally enough of a breeze to keep the midges at bay.

Dumfries & Galloway is a country of big bare hills and secluded valleys - like this, below Cloud Hill, south of Sanquhar
...and when you do finally see a town, this being Sanquhar, it can be a long, long descent
Our toughest day was the last, when we left Britain’s highest village, the old mining settlement of Wanlockhead, and hiked 21 miles to Beattock, more or less the mid-point of the 212-mile route. The day began with three very steep climbs to 2300-odd feet. The descents were precipitous, and the ground underfoot squelchy.
 
At times, yes, it was a bit of a trudge.
With the severest undulations behind us we entered a long stretch of forestry where, for the first time, the way-markers seemed mostly to have disappeared. With some luck, a little floundering and a determined reliance on the compass, we found our way out of the woods and on to our final destination.

The road down into Beattock - which was our journey's end
Would I recommend the SUW to other hikers? Yes, but with certain caveats. You need to be prepared for the three or four long days (17-21 miles). You will need to carry plenty of water and food each day. On most stretches you will be reliant on what you have in your pack. On the plus side, all the places where we had B&B offered packed lunches, and, when we asked, were willing to do some laundry and/or drying for a small fee. But then we carried little more in the way of clothing than a change of underwear. The SUW wouldn’t suit everybody – and I suspect that the distances involved mean that it isn’t as well used as was hoped when it was pieced together in 1984. The way-marking is patchy in parts, and we found a number of posts that had rotted at the base and fallen over. But those were minor inconveniences to set aside the delight in walking such empty country, with such expansive views.