Southern Upland Way
(214 miles, 9/12 days)
The Southern Upland Way is a 214 mile path across the fat bit of Southern Scotland from Portpatrick, a fishing village on the Ayrshire Coast to Cockburnspath on the east, north of Berwick. It is a fairly low level route, with much of the first part being through deep forestry but for those, like myself, who had always just passed through this area of Scotland to more interesting climbs it is full of interest and recommended as somewhere different to explore. There is sufficient accommodation on route but only just, to me the enjoyment of these walks is at its greatest when there is a mixture of wild camping and more formal accommodation and the Southern Upland Way is ideal for this.
Suitable for: due to much of the areas inaccessibility and some long sections this is for a more experienced walker than say Offa’s Dyke or the West Highland Way
Click for a larger map (opens in a new window).
Maps Required (from west to east): O/S 1,25,000: 309, 310, 319, 320, 328, 329, 330, 337, 338, 339, 346.
Places to Stay
To be added shortly
One day at a time, one step at a time
Before I started the walk I had planned little, read up very little and had not really thought about walking over 200 miles with a heavy pack. I had no thought process and I supposed glamorized it a little by thinking I would walk all day, pitch the tent and wander in to the nearest town for a pint and pub meal. In fact after the first couple of days I did not intend to carry food except chocolate and ‘keeping going’ provisions. I had quietly shut off the fact that it was going to be damned hard work and it never occurred to me that I would be completely exhausted after a days walking, regardless of the problems with my back in the first week and blisters in the second.
The walk itself on a day to day basis is not that strenuous but it is linking one day to another that is the difficulty. I did not want to take a rest day as that would lengthen when I would finish – I think that may be a mistake! I actually had a few shorter days which may have helped a little but 3 big days at the beginning certainly set the tone. One of the things anyone must decide is whether to take a tent or not. I split the walk and handed the tent back after 6 days as my back could not cope with the weight and time. I also would have got really fed up with camping in the 2nd week – particularly as this walk was in November and I was operating in long hours of darkness.
No doubt being November I was lucky with the weather. The big storm in the first week passed through early in the morning whilst in the tent and the remainder of the time I did not have strong winds and only light showers – at no stage on the walk did I feel wet. During the second week I actually had very good weather becoming colder as darkness started to come in after 3 o clock but clear or high cloud during the day. On bigger days I was off about ½ 7 to ¼ to 8, on other days start depended more on when I planned to finish the days.
In terms of walking pace I walked more to the clock than the time. I walked consistently between 2 ½ and 3 miles an hour depending more on whether I pushed it or whether I was walking without any real need to complete the day before darkness. On day 1 and the Beattock forest ½ day I was doing more than 3 miles an hour but on the last few days when mileage was a little less I dawdled a little and probably only pushed 2 ½.
The psychology of walking such distance is to take it in chunks. Each day usually split in to a variety of differing chunks, whether farmland, forest or upland sections and these often lasted for many hours. To split it down further would not achieve anything but looking at the map or book meant that I was able to split the days in to manageable proportions and achieving each was certainly satisfying. This was coupled with the fact about how quickly you can cover the ground and looking back at what you have done was extremely satisfying – it never ceased to amaze me how quickly you can cover the ground.
I also split the walk overall in to sections split obviously down the middle by the M74 – a big psychological boost particularly as it was over ½ way in mileage once Beattock was achieved. Within each section towns and places were significant, in particularly St Johns in Dawry, Wanlockhead, St Mary’s Loch and Galashiels as well as Beattock. Really though it was just a question of putting one boot in front of another.
There was very mixed scenery on the walk but really at only one possibly two stages was it ever really wild. There was a patch of mountainous scenery on the way to St Marys Loch and also the area round Loch Troon felt, although I could not see, that it was craggy. However being used to the Highlands it never felt as wild as some areas there – maybe the hills were just not as big. There were large patches though of higher hills or higher moorland – certainly the Lowther Hills are smooth but could be desolate as the hills between St Johns and Sanquhar before the forest. They were the only hills that you really went over the tops. There were a number of patches of hillsides, mainly when crossing from one valley to another, most days had these at some parts, often lasting for an hour or more. This is also where the main paths and roads became tracks – rarely difficult to follow and much like the stalker paths of the highlands.
The other area of upland were 2 long sections later in the walk – classic moorland walking on wide grass paths – excellent walking with a real feeling of openness and space, the first of these was short of Galashiels and the 2nd was short of Longformacus on the 2nd last day. They were enjoyable walking through the big grouse shooting estates of the Borders.
Forestry was dominant particularly in the first half of the walk with big stretches of each day involving slogging through large conifer plantations. This may have been path/tracks or forestry roads. In fact this was not as bad as I anticipated because much of what was forestry was in reality bare landscape with new plantations and young trees or desolation where there were some views as the trees had become cut. The walking was not as claustrophobic as I had anticipated as usually the trees were set back a little and, in many cases, for the good by hiding some of the less pleasant weather in the first week. However it is wrong to say that forestry walking is not a fairly large proportion of the Southern Upland Way – it is particularly in the first week. It ceases to be an issue soon after Beattock.
A good deal of time is taken walking through farmland, particularly sheep and cow fields which can be a little tedious. The farmers I encountered were all fine and said hello but I found these a more tedious bit of walking than the forests. I was even electrocuted on the final day by one of the fences! There was a certain amount of road walking – rarely though with any traffic at all. One stretch does stand out – down the Ettrick valley – where a straight 5 mile walk on a road was bad on the feet but good in that it was a classic long and lonely valley with isolated farms. On the roads I spent much effort trying to walk along the verge where the going was softer. At the beginning and end of the walk there are coastal paths which are always attractive – both coasts actually very similar. Why the walk ends in Cockburnspath I do not know, it should either be re directed to St Abbs or just stopped at Coves Harbour – particularly as the pub does not now exist.
I came across 3 areas of wind turbines and to be fair I have changed opinion on these – they do not spoil the landscape, in fact they add a certain dimension to what can be a very flat and open panorama. I would not like to live too close though – then they are over powering. However as long as it is proved that they are performing a viable service I am not against them.
Some other random thoughts before I go through the days: the way marking is excellent throughout – it would be almost (but not quite) possible to operate without a map, certainly I never took my compass out, it is lonely – I met only one serious couple of walkers high up on Benbrack although I encountered the ‘west’ warden repairing the path early on and at various time foresters and farmers but no-one actually doing the Way itself (I did here of a girl a few days in front of me who apparently quit at Lauder), actually having good drinking water could be a problem in the summer, I saw very little wildlife – some red squirrels, mountain hare and deer probably as good as it got, the bothies were all in excellent condition and if located more conveniently would be good for staying in and finally locals in the towns were all very friendly especially those in St John’s, the pub at Wanlockhead, the lady at St Mary’s loch and the Bill at the B & B in Longformacus.
I had support from the Helen and the girls from Wanlockhead through to Beattock, both moral and practical in moving the pack and Wayne for 2 nights in St Marys’ and Galashiels, particularly useful as the inn at St Tibbies was closed! Elspeth picked me up at the end and I got the train to Portpatrick at the beginning. The removal of all heavy items in the pack at the mid point was critical, I had already left my stove at St Johns’ partly because it had got wet in the storm, was a little dangerous and because it was heavy!
There was really very little gear I could have done without. Obviously taking the tent and cooking gear was heavy but totally dependant on whether I was doing the trip by camping or not – a clear pre departure decision would be needed next time. Outside that I used pretty much everything I carried. Big successes were the sleeping bag – great comfort, warmth and cosiness, the little radio, new platybus water bottle, book, bandages and new skin. Other items carried were one set evening clothes (light!), spare walking trousers/waterproofs, toilet paper, tooth brush, eye stuff, bivvy bag, some food, maps (1/50), Anthony Burton’s book (excellent) and phone (T mobile has rubbish reception).
Day 1. Portpatrick to Start 1st Forest 27 miles. O/N Camping
The aim today was to cover as much distance as possible and to get ‘in’ to the walk. Left at 7.30 for a brief stroll round the cliff top pass before turning inland on to a mixture of country roads and fields. I never got a site of Castle Kennedy before crossing the moors to New Luce and a welcome Lucozade in the attractive but very small village. The climb above New Luce became increasingly bleak as daylight faded and I pitched tent short of the first major forestry of the trip. The weather was good during the day, sunny to start with before becoming cloudy later, very little wind. End of the day dominated by increasing presence of forest and a Wind farm passing to the south. Main problem was sore feet from road walking and an increasingly sore back towards the end of the day.
Settled in to the tent with a radio, food (bizarre heating element) and book on Tenzing’s son. I spilt hot water in the tent – various items became a little wet as nothing to mop it up with
Day 2. Forest above New Luce to camp beyond Loch Trool 22 miles. O/N Camping
Although the day started pleasantly enough in the forest the afternoon was very hard work as my back became extremely sore. Packed and gone before 8 o/c for the first 4 hours through forestry. With a mixture of paths and forest roads this was actually quite pleasant, the way is well marked and there was various interest in the forest, including the Beehive Bothy and the 2 standing stones. I brewed up for the only time whilst actually walking. Thereafter I became obsessed with getting the distance done. In the forest I met the ranger for the western section of the Way who was repairing part of the peat track. His short cut ended up with me traveling an extra mile!
After Knowle there was a shortish selection over to Bargrennon and then through to the 3 lochs of Galloway – Trool, Dee and Clatteringshaw. I left the Way for a while looking for a shop or some proper non forest water through Trool village. Failing to find some I asked a resident and then ploughed on along the far shore side which was a Lake District style path. Weariness was creeping in and I found this and the subsequent climb extremely hard.
Daylight was falling as I climbed through some increasingly wild and remote country side (the Merrick not far to the north). The weather was coming in so I found a stream and by 5 o/c was pitching the tent. I probably felt worse on this day and towards the end of the day than any others and the sleeping bag was particularly welcome!
Having fallen asleep I woke to a night of heavy rain – a cold front was passing through and it was the only really wild night of the trip
Day 3 Loch Trool to St John’s of Dalry 14 miles o/n BB at Tourist Centre
At least this was looking a shorter day but I had a latish start as the rain did not stop till 8.30 but then cleared up for a while before some wintry showers came in. A large stretch of easy forest walking on a fairly major track kicked off the day. My back hurt but I was just trying to get over to St Johns. This was quite a close forest with very little views which continued as I passed over a col to the next valley. At last the hillside opened up and some normal walking took me down towards St Johns passing in to the small town via a small suspension bridge. At this stage I first considered ditching the pack with Helen at the weekend.
St John’s felt good so I had soup in the pub, booked in to the TIC, emptied my pack and stretched out in a bath. Some of the gear was wet so everything was dried. I went to the pub for a meal before passing out for the night in front of an Aberdeen UEFA cup match. I was thinking all the time about how I could lighten my load and enjoy the walk more – I started by abandoning the stove which was heavy and ceased to work
Day 4 St Johns through to Sanquhar 24 miles O/N Camping
A better and more enjoyable day as the back was not so bad and the scenery was considerably more interesting. Farmland was soon exchanged for a wilder hillside feel and a particularly lonely road seemingly heading to nowhere except the most remote youth hostel in Britain. After a minor B road the walk started heading for the first proper hills of the trip. Rounded humps they may have been but they gave some excellent high level walking – Colt Hill being a Marilyn. Views were to more hills and though the weather was showery at least there were mountains to be seen in all directions. I even saw 2 older guys out on a day walk – one looked fit the other certainly did not! One of the most noticeable things on the walk was the lack of steep up or downs.
Following the open hills early afternoon saw me start to flag and entering the forest again in the wet was depressing, if at least down hill. Muddy tracks and roads led past a well kept bothy before plunging out the forest back on to the open hillside for a final climb (typical as it turned out) over to the next valley. Sanquhar could have been made but I pitched a mile or so short just on the open hillside and beside a small stream. I was exhausted and collapsed again in to the sleeping bag and slept for an hour before devouring a pack of ginger biscuits. I knew at this stage I could not carry on at the present rate but I did feel I had achieved some big sections and the weekend would be shorter with Helen visiting.
Day 5 Sanquhar to the A702 14 miles O/N Moffatt. The lonely Lowther Hills
I set off at ¼ to 9 for the 1 mile finish in to Sanquhar. This is a depressing place and I was keen to move on. A reasonable sized town it had little to it so I bypassed all possible shops and headed up in to the Moors beyond. The section to Wanlockhead is interesting in that it featured some of the teepest up and downs on the walk to date. The valleys were more v shaped and eroded so the 8 miles took its toll. My back hurt and I decided to abandon my pack at Wanlockhead if remotely possible. Wanlockhead is an old lead mining village with the hillsides deeply scarred and lots of old mining cottages. Although the Museum was closed I persuaded the pub to open a little early and ordered some soup and tea. Friendly pub, it was allegedly the highest in Scotland (I thought Dalwhinnie claimed that honour).
So I set up over a major track to Green Lowther and the highest hill of the trip. The joy of walking without a pack is difficult to describe as I raced up and then dawdled over the high ridge (even though it was in cloud). I was also distracted by the Toon/Sunderland game on the radio and celebrating Milner’s late equalizer on the ridge. I was down in plenty iof time to be picked up by Helen and the girls. We drove round to Moffatt for the night and a touch of luxury.
Day 6 A702 through to Beattock. 15 miles O/N Beattock
A slow start that speeded dramatically in the middle before ending lost in Beattock. I decided to leave all the camping gear with Helen and just take enough to get through the next week including some emergency overnight gear just in case. I took Bracken for the first 3 mile walk through the woods which was nice but it was certainly the right decision not to take her on the walk anymore. As I dropped Bracken off at Daer Water Reservoir with Helen I realized I had messed up my timing and I would have to go some to beat the dark. I fairly steamed round Hod’s Hill (the last of the Lowthers) and then down through the forest (running part of the way) before ending up through the forest with enough day light to see me down and into Beattock. This is a long forest section on tracks not roads but enlivened by some surprising splashes of farmland seemingly carved out the middle of the forest. The easy but steep walk down to Beattock felt very significant – the M74 being beyond half way) but then I was unable to find the camp site that I had booked into and was wandering around for a good ½ hour. Not that I was missing much, the mobile home was grotty and the bar even worse as the owner seemed intent on picking a fight with everyone. I escaped to contemplate the next 2 large days.
Day 7 Beattock to St Mary’s Loch 23 miles. O/N St Mary’s Loch
This was probably the most interesting day of the lot in terms of scenery and variation in walking. After leaving the rubbish of Beattock behind and tracking some country lanes I disappeared in to the last major bit of forestry on the Way. I eventually emerged from this to be surprised by some craggy hillside and a steep v shaped valley. An enjoyable half hour was improved further by the crossing from Dumfries and Galloway in to the Scottish Borders – surely down hill all the way from here. Actually what I was faced with was a walk down the lovely but very empty Ettrick Valley. This enjoyable part of the walk was rather ruined by having to walk on the road and the reappearance of bruised feet and I suspect the start of blisters. This was what I imagined the walk to be and the sun shone!. However the section was to end with an inevitable trudge over in to the next valley and my increasing concern of where I was going to stay – Tibbie Shiels Inn being closed! I arrived at the Inn and took a bit of a gamble and left my pack with a note for Wayne and walked the next hour round the loch. Again this was attractive but I was more concerned about darkness falling and no sign of Wayne and no mobile reception. Finally I knocked on a farmers door, used her phone and was picked up. We stayed in a real traditional hotel a few miles down the road.
Day 8 St Mary’s loch to Galashiels 23 miles. O/N Galashiels
A day, which was in complete contrast with the previous. I spent most of the day feeling exhausted and just heaving myself round with little enjoyment which was a shame because the high level walking on a good track beyond Traquair is usually my favourite type of walking. The first 3 hours to Traquair I felt very strange and as the landscape was fairly innocuous the whole period was instantly forgettable except for my painful blisters. My lunch time sandwich did revive me somewhat but by the time I had completed a forest climb and had made it on to the open hillside I was exhausted again. The landscape was good and there was always the cairns of the Three Brethren urging me on.
Finally a track leads back down to the main crossing over the River Tweed and the final irritating last hour over another water shed trying to beat the fading light to Galashiels. I finally met Wayne at 5.15 in pitch darkness and staggered in to the Inn for the night. This is the one section of the walk I would willingly return to as I really did not do it justice at all but psychologically it was massive as the final 3 days were all considerably shorter.
Day 9 Galashiels to Lauder 14 miles. O/N Lauder
A day of some recovery as the first 4 to 5 miles were either through the towns of Galashiels and Melrose or walking along a very pleasant riverside path. All of this was very enjoyable with fishermen in the river and people walking their dogs – a complete contrast to everything else I did. The walk over to Lauder though was dull and certainly in the final hour exhaustion again took over and the blisters hurt. The landscape was mainly farmland with very disappointing views but involved little height gain or loss. Arriving in Lauder I found a pleasant if slightly drab small market town – typical of the region with a linear street and not a lot else. Again I collapsed on my bed for 2 hours before summoning up my enthusiasm to prepare for the next day.
Day 10 Lauder to Logformacus. 15 miles O/N Longformacus B&B
I suspect the second last day is always hard mentally and this was. I was just going to go through the pain and tiredness and just clock off the hours. The section itself was interesting in parts, particularly the 2 ½ hours over a large grouse moor. Again, as in many stages of the walk, it is the pure emptiness of the landscape that grabs you. Unlike the Highlands you are not penned in by the hills it uis just big skies and big distance – similar to Africa without the dramatic colours. The weather continued good for me as it did all the 2nd week which was a major blessing. Once past the high grouse moor the track wound its way down to an attractive Reservoir (Watch Water) and down a quiet country lane. Being under no time pressure helped this section and I was dawdling towards the end. Longformacus is just a small hamlet of cottages with nothing there, if the B7B does close which the owners are threatening to do it will change the composition of how people walk this section. Luckily they also offered me some Shepherds Pie as there was nowhere to buy food.
Day 11 Longformacus to Cockburnspath 18 miles O/N Home
As you would expect the walking on this section proved to be a bit of a mess, with the route not really holding together and nothing to hold the attention. However I did enjoy the section as it was the last day and there was once again very little time pressure. Wind Turbines dominated the first part of the day and then a reasonable section through mixed forest led to the small village of Abbey St Bathans. This was all ok but then the walk deteriated in to a set of farmers fields and small country roads, hard on the feet and not very satisfying. Crossing the A1 and the rail line was grim and felt dirty before I was back in some forestry winding my way up again to cross on to the coast. Eventually a gap in the trees afforded a view of the sea and the walk then changes on to a classic coastal path, but not before dipping in to an unattractive Holiday Park.
For some bizarre reason the walk turns back inland, instead of stopping at Cove Harbour, and winds its way back to the Celtic cross in the town of Cockburnspath which is a a nothing town. Elspeth soon turned up with some food and a couple of beers. It was finished. Satisfaction was certainly there but really the overwhelming feeling was of total exhaustion and the desire not to walk tomorrow! It was certainly on the edge of what I can do which made it the correct challenge to undertake anad I learnt an awful lot about how I should enjoy my walking. The need for more preparation is important but now I have done one I will have the experience to do another and know what is needed to increase the enjoyment.