As a measure of how little populated this region is, the first 120 miles took me across only a single parliamentary constituency. Indeed, after the short coastal start, I saw only a dog walker near Stranraer until I caught up three others on day five; there were several other ‘unaccompanied’ days on the second half too. So the Southern Upland Way is, unquestionably, a great place to get away from it all.
It’s actually more difficult to get to the Way’s start point of Portpatrick than any of the stepping-off points I’d used on my way to the far north. The town closest to Portpatrick is Stranraer, which until 2014 was the base for ferries to Northern Ireland, though these have since decamped a few miles north, worsening the town’s connections. The town retains a rail link, a few times a day to Ayr, and a reasonable bus service links it to Portpatrick. So for anyone coming from the south, the train is very circuitous and slow; but the only alternative is a long bus ride from Carlisle or Dumfries. One way of easing the pain is the sleeper train to Glasgow and rail south from there. It just about worked for me, but cows on the line meant I had to be ferried by taxi for the last two stops!
If the walk is being done in two halves, then the obvious break point is Beattock, which has a good bus service to Lockerbie for trains south (and Scots can take the bus all the way to Glasgow). The ‘three thirds’ option uses break points at the towns of Sanquhar (rail and bus both north and south) and Galashiels (rail and bus north, bus south). For all walkers, the end point at Cockburnspath has a reasonable bus service to Dunbar (for trains north) and Berwick (for trains south).
In the western half especially, there are inordinately long stages between settlements of up to 27 miles (43km) – few walkers, myself included, would choose to undertake these day after day (and inexperienced walkers should on no account even try). There are two alternatives.
Pick-up point for baggage transfer
The purer is to carry food, tent and sleeping bag, for a mixture of wild camping and bothying – there are several good bothies on or near the route, helpfully pretty much at the places they are most needed; and this being Scotland, wild camping is legal almost everywhere.
- For the 51-mile, nominally two-day Bargrennan to Sanquhar section in particular, use a baggage transfer service. This will split these days into three, by using a couple of strategically placed pick-up points; you get picked up / dropped off by minibus, and taken to / from a B&B or pub, probably in the pretty village of St John’s Town of Dalry. Plus point: good pub in the village. Minus points: you have to pay, and it’s cheating, just a bit.
There is an excellent section of the Rambling Man website devoted to the SUW – particularly useful was its hints and tips on the best spots for wild camping. I checked it out because in 2015, the official SUW site was probably the worst national trail site that I’d seen, but it’s much improved now.
How long does it take? Well, it took me 11 full days and four half-days, but on the latter half especially, I was lucky with the weather, hardly needing to worry about boggy bits (and not at all about rain).
Towns and villages
On the western section, apart from the places mentioned above, the tiny settlement of Bargrennan and the former mining village of Wanlockhead both have good pubs, and the latter has a mining museum too (which alas I didn’t have time to sample, other than the tea room). Neither though has a shop. Castle Kennedy, near Stranraer, does, but no pub; there is a tea room in the famous Castle Kennedy Gardens, worth a visit even for a gardenphobic like me.
St John’s Town of Dalry
The western half is full of metropolises compared to the west, though that’s purely relative. From Beattock – shop and pub just off route – some walkers divert to the town of Moffat just to the north. The famous Tibbie Shiels Inn at St Mary’s Loch closed in 2015, though there is a cafe nearby on the main road. The town of Innerleithen is not far from Traquair, and as well as Galashiels, Melrose and Lauder are on the route, all with good services. After Lauder, there are only two villages, Longformacus and Abbey St Bathans, neither with a shop, but the first does have accommodation (which I used on my cross-Scotland walk).
Guidebooks and maps
I used Alan Castle’s Cicerone guidebook. It’s since been revised, but always be alert to waymarks. It comes with sectional maps but you will need your own to give a wider perspective. I found OS Landranger (rather than Pathfinder) to be sufficient and rather than take many rather bulky folded maps, printed off single sheets from my mapping software. But now, there is a wonderful Harvey Maps alternative, which I am sure I would have used.
Finally, for the collector in you, there are two sets of materials to be collected along the way, or at least there were in 2015-16. Leaflets giving information about features such as wild life and place names are placed in well-marked leaflet boxes; and specially-minted coins, the ‘New Hoard’, are found a few paces from the trail near waymarks signed ‘Ultreia’ – finding the waymarks is one thing, the boxes are by no means always obvious.