I am going to give a brief account of my long walk along the Southern Upland Way (212 miles coast-to-coast across the Scottish Border country), focusing on the highlights and insights. It took two weeks, so I’m going to break it up into 4×3-day and 1×2-day blog-friendly sections. Enjoy the walk!
Day 1 – Portpatrick to Castle Kennedy (13.4 miles)
And so I set off after the obligatory snaps by the ‘official’ starting point looking out across the handsome harbour of Portpatrick. My gaze lingered on the Irish Sea – in a fortnight’s time, if all went well, I would be beholding the North Sea, reached under my own steam (or sweat and blisters) by Shank’s Pony. It was good to finally set off after all the preparation and the long journey north. Now, all the tedious traffic jams on the motorway melted away as I climbed the steps out of Portpatrick and struck out along the first section of the route – lovely cliff-top walking to the Blackhead lighthouse. It had been glorious sunshine when I had left the campsite – so I was rather optimistically in my shorts and t-shirt. By the time I reached the lighthouse it had started raining. Turning inland as briskly as possible, away from the exposed coastal path, I trudged up the track passed an elderly couple smugly getting into their waterproofs. Looking at my bare limbs sceptically, they called ‘the weather is setting in!’ I agreed, but pushed on – realising I had not brought my jacket that day. I was hoping it was just a light shower, but by the time I had reached the open moorland (of Broad Moor) it had really set in. I was looking for some shelter to have my sandwiches – no such luck. Starting to feel my core body temperature drop, I realised that unless I did something quick I could get ‘exposure’. So I improvised with what I had (all part of the spirit of an adventure) – putting on my gloves, scarf and (thank goodness!) waterproof trousers, and fashioning a rain-poncho out of my emergency blanket (which I had been carrying around in my walking kit for years unused until this point). I looked ridiculous – an extra from a low-budget sci-fi movie (‘Space Rambler’) but I didn’t care. I was preserving my precious body heat, and was able to sit down and eat my sarnies in relative comfort.
As soon as I got moving, I warmed up – and started to enjoy myself in a slightly mad way, alarming cows in my shiny get-up and spindly appendages (poles I find essential, usually one suffices: for testing footing, and fending off frisky cattle – although two can be handy for steep bits and when ‘Nordic-walking’ is required to warm-up or to make progress). I was hoping I wouldn’t meet anyone. It’s okay looking ridiculous in the middle of nowhere, but not in built-up areas. Fortunately, the route skirted Stranraer, and I only passed a couple of hamlets. Typically though, I met the only two other hikers on the whole of the route that day – a German couple, wombled up in their full-length rain ponchos. They were lugging full packs and slogging up a steep lane in the heavy rain when I passed them. I may have looked a nob, but at least I wasn’t having to bear a full backpack for the long miles ahead. Not only does it make the whole experience less of a slog, there were times when being light on your feet was life-saving – when bog-trotting across lonely moorland for instance; negotiating steep, slippery slopes; or balancing atop stiles over electric fences! I was pleased with myself for reaching my first destination, Castle Kennedy, ahead of time (I find an average walking speed of 2 miles an hour across tricky terrain about right – which allows time for stops; on good paths this can pick up to 2.5 or even 3). I was relieved to find my partner waiting in the layby (the hotel we had arranged to meet at had closed down), and glad to get back for a hot shower, and a change of clothes. A long day’s walk certainly gives you a good appetite, but you find yourself nodding off very early.
Day 2 – Castle Kennedy to New Luce (8.9)
The next day, according to my journal was ‘a most agreeable day of walking.’ The shorter route meant there was time in the morning to explore the lovely Castle Kennedy Gardens with Chantelle. When I spotted four white swans on the ‘Black Loch’ I suggested to her she sang ‘White Wings’ – her song about the Children of Lir created for our new show Brighid’s Flame (premiered a week before the start of the walk). I recorded her on my phone, and thus jumpstarted her ‘Ballads of the Borders’ project which she would entertain herself with while I was off gallivanting every day: her plan was to record herself singing a selection of Border Ballads in situ. Her Lir song was clearly not one in the literal sense, although in terms of liminality and littorality it was. Anyway, it was a nice way of responding to the genius loci. After we parted I didn’t see a single soul all day. As I crossed the Glenwhan Moor I was overcome with a deep sense of peace – dropping down into a place of still and silent contentment. The peace was so tangible it was not an absence, but a presence – and it stayed with me (I captured it in my poem ‘Deep Peace’). The view across the moor was quietly beautiful, for and of itself. Apart from the occasional percussion of a Stonechat, there was hardly any sound at all. The sussuration of the wind, the squelch of my boot, or tap of my stick. Now and then I sang. Today I warbled Woody Guthrie’s classic ‘This Land is Our Land’, as well as ‘The Wind and the Rain’ from Twelfth Night. Apart from surprising grazing cattle with my crooning, my small voice was absorbed into the silence of the moor as though soaking into peat.
Day 3 – New Luce to Bargrennan (17.8)
Today was my first long stretch, and it was glorious walking – sunny, but not too hot. I was slowly heading for the high country, the Galloway Hills looming before me as the day progressed. It was pretty wild in places, bog-trotting across lonely moorland with not a soul in sight within a 10 mile radius. The morning was dominated by a massive wind-farm – it was a surreal, slightly disquieting experience to walk amongst these giants that towered over me like malevolent tripods from some HG Wells reboot. 65 metre high, with 30 metre long blades, each one generates power for a 1000 homes – and although I think they are a generally good thing, I could see for the first time why there is often fierce opposition to them locally, as they have massive impact on the landscape, dominating the skyline for miles around (obviously such an impact is miniscule compared to that of a nuclear power station). From afar, they can seem quite ‘pretty’, but not up close and personal. The thrum of the blades and the screech as they turned was a bit oppressive after a while, as was the dreary infrastructure of gravelly roads, signage and fencing that gave the landscape a militiarised feel. I also experienced the ‘joy’ of forestry plantations – which are very tedious to walk through (especially when the path across one of the windfarms roads was completely decimated – sans footbridge and signs). This was offset by reaching the lovely Beehive Bothy, the first of six quirky dwellings along the route. Bothies are a fine institution – free and open for all respectful walkers to use, either for a respite from the rain, a spot of lunch, or to spend the night. There maybe a fireplace, a chair or two, and a space for a sleeping mat – but not much else. Logbooks record the visitors and guests. I added my name and comment, before pushing on.
The other highlight in the forest was the Laggangarn (or ‘gairn’) Stones – two megaliths (possibly the remains of a stone circle, Christianised with crosses (as the way intersects with a pilgrimage route to the Isle of Whithorn, where St Ninian made landfall and first brought Christianity to pagan Scotland). In the late afternoon, feeling fatigued, I had an epiphany – I felt (and not for the first time) that walking in this big country expands your soul – you feel ‘bigger’, but not in an egotistical way. It just makes you realise how much we ‘shrink’ ourselves to fit into our lives. We limit ourselves when we can be so much more. Our true glory awaits, ennobled by the hills.