Day 7 – Sanquhar to Wanlockhead (7.4)
Today was a short ‘recovery’ walk after the 3 long days from Bargrennan and Chantelle joined for the first time for what turned out to be brief, but enjoyable hike.
The route was easy to follow, and apart from one big hill (one of the Lower Lowthers), it was easy-going too. It felt strange to stop after only 4 miles for lunch – but we had started later, which was a pleasant change to my early starts. So easy to forget we’re meant to be on holiday! Typically, I’ve turned my vacation into something to do with ‘work’ (with my Creative Writing PhD) – some experiential field research – although I wasn’t feeling remotely academic, away from computers and the internet. I made light notes, but it was mainly about experience the landscape of my characters and that was to come in the latter half of the walk. Today culminated in our arrival in Wanlockhead, with its well-preserved lead mining industrial heritage: slag heaps, mine shafts, miners’ cottages, and an old beam engine. It’s big claim to fame is for being the highest town in Britain (and also for being used as a location for the deeply weird SF film, Under the Skin. Chantelle re-enacted the ‘bus-stop scene’, sitting where Scarlett Johansson’s alien femme fatale sat).
We treated ourselves to some sticky toffee pudding in the Lead Mine tea-rooms (living it up!), and got chatting to a lovely old lady, who kindly gave us a lift back to Sanquhar down the dramatic Mennock Pass, the ‘Glen Coe’ of the Lowlands.
Day 8 – Wanlockhead to Beattock (20.5)
This was a great day’s walking in the sun (although it left my arms red, as I hadn’t been expecting it to be quite so sunny). It was a long day, which meant an early start – but with Chantelle’s help I was on my way by 9.15am. Today had two significant ‘benchmarks’ – crossing Lowther Hill, at 2378ft the highest point on the SUW, and also crossing the halfway mark (around Daer Reservoir), an important psychological threshold. Achieving both, I knew the way would be easier from now on – but I savoured them while they lasted – two of the most satisfying moments on the walk. Leaving the glamour and grit of Wanlockhead behind, I hiked up to the landmark on the Lowther of the ‘golfball’ comms tower. It was a surreal contrast to the industrial mining heritage, now far below. The SUW skirted its perimeter and I took some photos, thinking if this was anywhere else I’d be arrested at this point. But there wasn’t a soul in sight, as I strode over the Lowthers that day – following the ridge as it traversed Cold Moss (2060ft), before plunging down into a col before Laught Hill (1663ft), a steep, tiring descent and ascent on very slippery ground. The way was hard going in places today to the point I thought of rechristening the walk the ‘Boggy Upland Way’. Reaching Daer Reservoir by 2ish, I stopped to have some lunch beneath the terns sporting over the water – letting my feet dry out and cool down.
From lead mining to satellite dishes, to hydro-electric dams and wind-farms – the human impact upon the landscape was very tangible today. Strange that I didn’t see a soul though as I crossed lonely moorland. I did see plenty of wildlife though – voles, kestrel, kite, falcon and a curlew (the latter, traditionally loathed by the locals, because according to folklore their cries gave away the location of the hiding Covenanters. Indeed, the one that harangued me was particularly vocal, so I was glad I wasn’t hiding from ‘Bloody Clavers’, their hated scourge). I arrived at the ‘Old Brig Inn’ an hour early and in high spirits – pleased with my progress.
Day 9 – Beattock to Tibbie Shiels Inn (20.5)
It was thrilling to reach the Ettrick Hills today, and enter the picturesque vale of Ettrick Water – where the ancestors of my main protagonist in my novel The Knowing: A Fantasy hail from. And with the ghosts of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer in the psychogeography, suddenly, the landscape became numinous (or more so for me, as my ‘folk radar’ vibrated). The shift in the ‘feel’ of the land was distinctive, and not just because I passed a sign saying ‘Welcome to the Scottish Borders’ – a debatable point, as indeed the ‘Debatable Lands’ were constantly being fought over, and the Borders stretch from coast-to-coast and from Hadrian’s Wall to Forth and the Clyde if you include all the tides of history that have swept back and forth over this region. Practically, ‘The Scottish Borders’ seems to denote a county authority now – one that doesn’t like to put free leaflets in holders along the SUW (although most of the boxes were empty, back in Dumfries and Galloway). Still, the signage seemed to be a tad better – perhaps because this stretch of the LDP was more frequented, being nearer the tourists honeypots of Moffat and Melrose. Today’s highlight was crossing over from the Ettrick to the Yarrow valleys – a tiring slog after the 15 miles I’d already done, but one made enjoyable by the presence of Hogg. One of his verses adorned the start of the stretch, and his spirit perhaps inspired me to come up with my own song of the hills as I crossed them. This was classic hill-walking – though yet again I didn’t see anybody after bumping into a father and son from Germany, walking the SUW in sections east to west at the lovingly maintained Over Phawhope Bothy a few miles back. It seemed almost sheer indulgence to have all this glory to myself. The last push from Earl’s Hill in the rain was hard – and it resulted in it being a ‘2-Tunnock walk’ today, as I needed the extra energy to get me to St Mary’s Loch. All day long I’d been looking forward to a pint at the historic Tibbie Shiels Inn, a famous hostelry run by the widow of a mole-catcher, Tibbie Shiels, who lived into her 90s and was carried, like Hogg over the corpse path from the Ettrick. The inn had once been frequented by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, and so it was sad to discover it was now closed – I chatted briefly to the owner, who explained it was no longer viable to run a pub. Surprising, since it should be on the tourist trail (and with a bit more effort could be a coach-friendly attraction along the lines of the popular Drovers Inn, above Loch Lomond). But the former landlord said he wasn’t getting enough footfall (so few walkers do the SUW) and, despite having a campsite, said he couldn’t compete with Airbnb, the cafe’ opposite, or the Gordons Arms down the road. I had to wait until Chantelle picked me up and got us back to Melrose – but then we enjoyed a dram over a meal celebrating the mid-way point. Slainte!