Southern Upland Way

“One of the most remote and least populated national trails but one of the best. Don’t miss it”

(214 miles, 9/12 days)

The Southern Upland Way is a 214 mile path across the fat bit of Southern Scotland. Starting from Portpatrick, a fishing village on the Ayrshire Coast to Cockburnspath on the east, north of Berwick. It is a mixed terrain route. Large sections of forestry early in the walk combine with rolling hills and lowland lochs. The thing that stands out though is its remoteness. I have travelled the M74 multiple times to  higher mountains further north and this is what most of us do. However there is some lovely countryside worth exploring and the Southern Upland Way is a good way of doing this.

Near Benbrack

Near Benbrack

Suitable for: A more experienced long distance walker is better suited than the novice who should start with Offa’s Dyke or the West Highland Way.

2015: Ray Wilkes has completed the Southern Upland Way recently and kindly added his thoughts and suggestions. Click Here

Map

 

Southern Upland Way map

Maps Required (from west to east): O/S 1,25,000: 309, 310, 319, 320, 328, 329, 330, 337, 338, 339, 346.

Official Southern Uplands Way website

Personal Journey

One day at a time, one step at a time

Planning

Long road of Phawhope

Long road of Phawhope

This was my first long distance walk. 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 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. It never occurred to me that I would be completely exhausted after a days walking, have problems with my back in the first week and blisters in the second.

The walk itself on a day to day basis is quite strenuous but linking one day to another increase 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 distance. I also would have got really fed up with camping in the 2nd week compounded by the long evenings November brings.

My first Long Distance Walk

Three Brethren, Galashiels

Three Brethren, Galashiels

No doubt being November I was lucky with the weather. The big storm in the first week passed through early in the morning whilst I was in the tent. 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. On longer 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.

I walked at my comfortable walking pace. I walked consistently between 2 ½ and 3 miles an hour. 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.

Mental Tick Points

Orange Sheep

Orange Sheep

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. Reading the map or guide book meant that I was able to split the days in to manageable proportions. Achieving each was certainly satisfying. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly walking covers the ground. Look back and the distances are vast that you have covered. It is very satisfying.

I also split the walk overall in to sections split obviously down the middle by the M74. Beattock is over 1/2 way so psychologically important. Within each section towns and places were significant. In particular St Johns in Dawry, Wanlockhead, St Mary’s Loch and Galashiels as well as Beattock.

Scenery

Hods Hill

Hods Hill

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 Mary’s Loch and also the area round Loch Troon. However being used to the Highlands it never felt as wild as that, maybe the hills were just not as big. There were large sections of rolling hills after Moffat and also the Lowther hills themselves. Much of the climbing was short ascents as you went from valley to valley. The paths over the valleys though are very good.

The other area of upland walking was typical east Britain. Here classic moorland dissected with good paths, very enjoyable. The first section was short of Galashiels and the second was short of Longformacus on the 2nd last day. These were a couple of the the big grouse shooting estates of the Borders.

Forestry was dominant particularly in the first half of the walk. Usually this was helped by wide forest tracks or paths. In fact this was not as bad as I anticipated because much of the forest was in reality bare landscape. Here the new plantations and young trees (or desolation where the trees had been cut)provided some views. 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. The exception was to the east of Loch Troon. However there is little argument that forestry does dominate the first section of the Southern Upland Way.

More than just forestry

Brewing up at the Tarf Water

Brewing up at the Tarf Water

A lot of walking is through farmland, particularly fields ofc cows and sheep which can be a little tedious. The farmers I encountered were all fine and said hello but I found these fields more tiresome that 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 (the Ettrick valley)  where a straight 5 mile walk on a road was bad on the feet but good in scenery. Isolated farms, stone walls and steep valley sides reinding me of the Dales. At the beginning and end of the walk there are coastal paths which are always attractive. 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.

There were 3 areas of turbines but on this occasion they were not over powering. Much of this area of Scotland has been ruined by the turbines and until someone persuades me they are genuinely a practical substitute to other methods of power I will continue to fight their development.

Random Thoughts

Cove Harbour

Cove Harbour

The way marking is excellent throughout. It is almost possible to operate without a map (but not quite and certainly not as much fun). I never took my compass out. It is a lonely trail. I met only one serious couple of walkers high up on Benbrack. 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). I saw very little wildlife (could be the time of year), some red squirrels, mountain hare and deer. The bothies were all in excellent condition and if located more conveniently would be good for staying in.  Finally the 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 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. Wayne turned up 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! Thanks to all.

There was really very little gear I could have done without. Obviously taking the tent and cooking gear was heavy but nothing more than wild camping in November necessitated. As it turned out though a wrong decision. I used pretty much everything else I carried. Big successes were the sleeping bag – great comfort, warmth and cosiness, the radio, book, bandages and new blister 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).

2018: Technology has moved on but not much has changed on long distance walking!

Day-by-day

Day 1. Portpatrick to Start 1st Forest 27 miles. O/N Camping

Portpatrick

Portpatrick

The aim today was to cover as much distance as possible and to get ‘in’ to the walk. I started 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. New Luce was my first stop and a welcome drink of Lucozade. The climb above New Luce became increasingly bleak as daylight faded and I pitched my tent short of the first major forest of the trip. The weather was good during the day, sunny to start with before becoming a little more cloudy later. End of the day dominated by the increasing spectre of forestry and a large wind farm. 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 and book on Tenzing’s son. I spilt hot water in the tent. Various items became a little wet as I had nothing to mop it up with.

Day 2. Forest above New Luce to camp beyond Loch Trool 22 miles. O/N Camping

Above Loch Dee

Above Loch Dee

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 endless 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

Lonely Loch Dee

Lonely Loch Dee

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. It past in to the small town via a small suspension bridge. This was the time I first considered ditching my ruck sack.

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 needed to be 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 had ceased to work.

Day 4 St Johns through to Sanquhar 24 miles O/N Camping

Near Benbrack

Near Benbrack

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 fee.A lonely road seemed 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 is a Marilyn. The views were far reaching. The weather was showery but clear in between with endless hills as far as II could see. 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. Plunging out the forest back on to the open hillside there was 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. However 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

Wanlockhead

Wanlockhead

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 as it featured some of the steepest sections 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). I left my pack for a pick up later.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 of time to be picked up by Helen and the girls. Having returned to pick up the pack we drove round to Moffatt for the night and a touch of luxury.

Day 6 A702 through to Beattock. 15 miles O/N Beattock

Daer Reservoir, closing in on Moffat

Daer Reservoir, closing in on Moffat

A varied day with a slow start, quick middle before getting lost as I approached Moffat. 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 was crossed but then I could not find the campsite I had booked in to. And it was dark! 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

St Mary's Loch

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 it was down hill 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 hobbling of any long distance walker who does plenty of tarmac walking. This was what I imagined the walk to be and the sun shone!. However the section was to end with an inevitable uphill trudge to the next valley. I was also concerned where I was going to stay – Tibbie Shiels Inn being closed on the day I arrived! 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 contacted Wayne. He had seen my pack but not the note. 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

Nearing Galashiels

Nearing 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. This 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 odd, kind of unwell. 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. He had spent the day taking photos, very good ones too. This is the one section of the walk I would willingly return to. I 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

Melrose

Melrose

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 that had come before. The walk over to Lauder though was dull and certainly in the final hour exhausting. My blisters were really beginning to cause pain. The landscape was mainly farmland with very disappointing views but the walking starightforward.  Arriving in Lauder I found a pleasant if slightly drab small market town. Typical of many Scottish towns there was a main, linear road and little else. Again I collapsed on my bed for 2 hours before summoning up the enthusiasm to prepare for the next day.

Day 10 Lauder to Longformacus. 15 miles O/N Longformacus B&B

Watch Water, Longformacus

Watch Water, Longformacus

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 is just big skies and big distances.

The weather continued to be stable as it was all the 2nd week. 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 B & B ever closes, which the owners are threatening to do, it will alter how people walk this section. Fortunately they also offered me some Shepherds Pie as there was nowhere to buy food.

Day 11 Longformacus to Cockburnspath 18 miles O/N Home

Turbines above Owl Wood

Turbines above Owl Wood

The final section of the walk was varied and fiddly. There was nothing of great interest.  Again I dawdled a little, I was not under any time pressure and the weather was benign. 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. The walk deteriorated in to a mix of fields and country lanes; hard on the feet and not very satisfying. Crossing the A1 and the rail line felt satisfying but very industrial. I was soon plunged in to forestry again to remind me of the first half of the walk. Eventually a gap in the trees afforded a view of the sea. The path then emerged on to a typical coastal path, before dropping in to an unattractive Holiday Park.

For some bizarre reason the walk turns back inland, instead of stopping at attractive Cove Harbour. It doubles back to the town of Cockburnspath whch had little to commend it. Knowing some gorgeous coastal villages a little further south did make me wonder about the disappointing finish to the walk. Maybe I was just exhausted. Fortunately 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 was capable of. I learnt an awful lot about how I should enjoy my walking. The need for more preparation is important but now I have done a long distance walk I will have the experience to do another and know what is needed to increase the enjoyment. Probably.

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