The first half of the Southern Upland Way, across Galloway and then Dumries-shire, has plenty of wild and open country to enjoy.

The 65 miles through Galloway have great variety, from a coastal beginning to low moorland with the ghosts of ancient settlement, through great plantations of forestry and finally into the hills. Just one fault: too much road walking at the start, and too many gravel tracks in the plantations – no respite for the feet early on.

The 54-mile Dumfries-shire stretch includes the highest hills of the entire Southern Upland Way, but there’s far more to it than that. There’s the long, steady descent into Nithsdale to be enjoyed, and the upland village of Wanlockhead with its mining heritage, with occasional bits of forestry, all linked by paths that are mostly excellent underfoot. And at the end, one of the best bothies I have ever stayed in.

Note that the map shows the route as I walked it, with a couple of official diversions that are (presumably) no longer in place.

Download file for GPS

Galloway

Thursday 4 June 2105. Portpatrick to Castle Kennedy, 13 miles.

Though I was far later than planned setting out, thanks to cows on the line south of Girvan, this crossing of the Rhinns of Galloway has only one section that can be classed as even remotely rough, and it presents a good gentle opener to the walk as a whole. Portpatrick itself is a pretty little place, clustered around its harbour, which with a little more deep water would surely be serving still as the ferry port for Ireland that was once envisaged; it has a couple of little shops, a pub and a tea room, in any combination of which it’s worth spending time.

The SUW itself starts at the north end of the harbour, unpropitiously at the signboard by the loos. You know it’s the start because the first of the hefty SUW signposts, which show the direction whenever a public road is met, has only one arm. This leads to a coastal section that careers from clifftop to sea level and back again several times; it’s quite atypical of the Way as a whole, but a refreshing space to get one’s limbs moving. The turn inland comes at a lighthouse, Killantringan.

Portpatrick Harbour

Portpatrick Harbour

Killantringan lighthouse

Killantringan lighthouse

From the lighthouse there’s a few road miles before the crossing of Broad Moor, and I encountered the first of the leaflet boxes (each with valuable information about an aspect of the Way) and the first ‘Ultreia’ waymark – a Galician word also encountered on the Camino de Santiago, roughly meaning ‘Onward’. At each of these, look out for a coin-bearing container nearby for a further souvenir (I didn’t know this at the time though I picked a couple of the specially-minted copper tokens from elsewhere later on). It’s barely a mile though over the moor before you’re back on the road, not far from the back of Stranraer. The nicest way to divert into the town would be by forest tracks at NX 080589, but I wanted to put a few more miles on, so I continued to the main road at Castle Kennedy from where there is a good bus service into Stranraer – there’s a convenient stop just past the Aird Donald camp site, where I pitched my tent.

Friday 5 June 2105. Castle Kennedy to Beehive bothy, 14 miles.

Castle Kennedy Gardens

Castle Kennedy Gardens

I started with a drizzly hour in Castle Kennedy gardens, which are stupendously good if you like that sort of thing – even I was quite taken with the Araucaria avenue – followed by coffee and cake in the tea shop. Afterwards, it’s around three miles to the first of what I took to calling ’causeway paths’, though no doubt they have an official name. These lead you efficiently through forestry plantations, or the borders of them. These conifer forests, mostly planted many decades ago now, are in boggy ground that would be slow (as in one mile an hour) going to cross. Instead, the SUW uses narrow built paths, presumably made along with the planting, either within or, as in the case of the Glenwham Moor plantation, beside it. Very pleasant walking they make for too.

Shortly after, the wide Water of Luce is crossed by bouncy suspension bridge – approaching, I could hear a train on the track beside it, ironic as it’s somewhere on this stretch that cattle had prevented my train reaching Stranraer the day before. Soon after the Way crosses the fascinating Kilhern Moss, a place of ancient settlement and one ruined farmhouse; plenty of wild camp spots, were it not much too early in the day. A short road stretch past farms takes you into more forestry, this time with disinfectant and brushes to mitigate the spread of phytophthora disease. In a clearing is the Beehive bothy, unusual as having been purpose-built for the task in the 1990s. Beware the low door on exiting!

Kilhern Moss

Kilhern Moss

Beehive bothy

Beehive bothy

Saturday 6 June 2105. Beehive bothy to Caldons (Glen Trool), 20 miles.

Soon there’s a short detour to Craig Airlie Fell, the first ground over 1000ft encountered on the way and so a good viewpoint for the greater hills that are on their way. Below though is gravel forestry track, and soon the hard asphalt surface of a minor road leading four miles to the hamlet of Knowe. Here, I was looking forward to getting off the tarmac back through forestry, even though I suspected it might be a squelchy little stretch, but logging works forced a two-mile detour, still on the road! And when the detour was regained, the SUW takes another road mile. So that was something like seven continuous road miles: far too much. At last, the Way veers left over Glenvernoch Fell, a tiny hill but with the blessed relief of grass, and I didn’t even mind too much the boggy pasture lower down.

This led to Bargrennan, possibly the smallest village to have a village hall. It’s a little off route, but as I was just in time for a sandwich at the House o’Hill Hotel I decided on the detour. When something is called a ‘hotel’, you worry about its pretensions: would muddy walkers be welcome? Thankfully, it’s a friendly little place – where they put the residents I have no idea. Afterwards, the Way takes a southward swing into Glen Trool, leading to an intricate, winding little path over tree roots with bluebells and other spring wild flowers at their best. Coming late on a long day, with a lot of attention needed to avoid said roots, I might not have appreciated it as much as I would on a recreational afternoon stroll. Eventually though the path becomes riverside at the Water of Trool, which for me noted journey’s end. There was a campsite here once, at Caldons, and though facilities have been taken away it’s still used for wild camping. Alas they did not remove the midges along with the facilities.

Diversion signs

Diversion signs at Knowe

Bluebells

Bluebells in Glen Trool

Sunday 7 June 2105. Caldons to St John’s Town of Dalry, 20 miles.

There’s a lot of gravel-track walking on this stage, which is a shame, for scenically it’s up with the best. It starts with a conundrum: how to cross the Trool / Dee watershed? The map shows an enticing fellside path to the north of the Glenhead Burn, but earlier maps show use of a track on the south, and my guidebook (of 2007, rev. 2013) implied a further change. From the buildings at Glenhead, the signage gave no doubt that the gravel track to the south was indeed now the official SUW. Why this should be so I do not know – it’s in fact a National Cycle Route too; maybe there was some fear that walkers might have found the path too strenuous, but surely not on this of all trails? Thankfully, there has been much felling here, so there are good views, especially south to Bennanbrack. Over the watershed, I diverted to the bothy of White Laggan, just to have a look around – from the bothy book, a number of SUW walkers use it, and indeed some had been there the night before. Soon after, the wonderful views over Loch Dee to the Galloway Hills open out.

White Laggan bothy

White Laggan bothy

As I neared Clatteringshaws Loch, I could see the Way took a wide loop, presumably still on gravel, and I mused on the alternative delight of a short cut up to the buildings of Mid Garrary. This time, the Diversion God was on my side, for this is exactly what she demanded! It was a wet and tussocky little uphill pull but a very welcome relief as well. From here, a ’causeway path’ through forestry leads on to the attractive moorland of Shield Rigg, especially enjoyable in the descent to the farm of Clenrie, until a couple of road miles, prettier than some it must be said. Eventually the path veers off, through pastureland beside Croom Brook and then up to another little hill, Waterside Hill, a great viewpoint over the destination for the day, St John’s Town of Dalry – or just Dalry, as most call it, though don’t confuse it with a more industrial version in Ayrshire. I was soon made welcome at the Clachan Inn in the village.

Dumfries-shire

Monday 8 June 2015. St John’s Town of Dalry to Polskeoch bothy, 17 miles.

Striding Arch

Striding Arch on Benbrack

The first half day out of Dalry takes you more or less due north, a direction barely touched so far. Rounding Ardoch Hill early on, there’s one of those places where the OS map has decided the Way takes a slightly different line – down by the burn – to that signposted. Slowly, height is gained despite a couple of valley dips, to the community of Stroanpatrick. It didn’t feel too friendly around here, with a couple at a farmhouse studiously avoiding my wave and plenty of electric fences to be wary of. It’s one of the pick-up points for the Clachan shuttle however. North-east now, things get better over Manquhill Hill, with the even higher ground of Benbrack (1902ft, highest yet) and its satellites in view. It’s a stiff old pull up to the top of Benbrack, and it felt positively crowded – there seemed to be a figure ahead of me, and later, two behind.

Benbrack has not just a trig point but one of the four sandstone striding arches created in 2002 by sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Another, on Colt Hill across the valley, is in clear view but like the other two not visited by the SUW. Their circuit would be an interesting walk in its own right and perhaps the two walkers behind had that in mind; they did not overtake me. It was on the ascent of the next top, Cairn Hill, that I caught up with the solo walker, resting at a dip. Initially I was a bit concerned for him, as he’d not even taken off his sac. He had his GPS out and clearly needed both a rest and a bit of help with navigation – I assured him he was in the right place before continuing on. He turned out to be Alan, a 72 year-old with a formidable history including Corsica’s GR20, arguably the hardest trail in Europe.

After Cairn Hill there’s one more top, Black Hill – it’s a tad confusing, and despite signposts it would be possible to go wrong here – before the Way plunges into forest, seeking out Allan’s Cairn, a memorial to martyrs of the area’s seventeenth century ‘killing times’ of religious strife. Downhill to Polskeoch bothy, now; but not before an interesting obstacle course in the forest, fallen trees having blocked the path and causing a few minutes’ thought before finding ways round.

Allan's Cairn

Allan’s Cairn

Two other walkers, Josh and Kilian, were at the bothy when I arrived. I recognised their names (and Alan’s) from the bothy book at White Laggan. If Alan and I were the senior citizens, Josh and Kilian represented the future, both in their early twenties. Josh was testing himself for the GR20 with 25kg pack, while Kilian had come over from Germany for the trail. Alas, he was badly blistered and tomorrow would go only to Sanquhar before abandoning. Alan eventually made his way down, despite a meander, and we talked well into the night, well 9pm. The bothy had suffered from vandalism and wasn’t the ‘bothy Hilton’ promised in the guidebook; as the others all planned to be away at 7ish, and I didn’t, I volunteered to pitch outside so as not to be disturbed early.

Tuesday 9 June 2015. Polskeoch bothy to Wanlockhead, 17 miles.

In all my planning, I’d decided to have a short day today, just to Sanquhar, and give myself a 21-mile 5,000ft epic for Wednesday. Then just before I left home I tinkered with the idea of making the two days more even by splitting at Wanlockhead. I’m sure it was a sensible decision.

Sensible not least because Polskeoch to Sanquhar would have been a very short half-day indeed. There are a few road miles before branching off onto Cloud Hill, not a tricky climb – though I caught up Alan again, still checking his GPS! – and the descent into Sanquhar is a glory, just the right amount of steepness to encourage the legs without having to over-engage brain, and few boggy bits to hop or circle. With Nithsdale below, the broadest valley of the Way so far, and sun all around, this section was a joy right to the farmland on Sanquhar’s outskirts. There was a slight sting in the tail, when the guidebook said that the long way in via Sanquhar Castle had been replaced by a quarter-mile down a lane only to find it hadn’t, but there was plenty of time to sit in the town’s arts centre coffee shop for a bit to eat and some orange juice.

Sanquhar

Sanquhar from Cloud Hill

Sanquhar tollbooth

Sanquhar tollbooth

Wanlockhead

Wanlockhead

The afternoon was different in character, a triplet of rise followed by descent, each a little harder than the one before. It was on the last, climbing away from Cogshead Burn, that I caught up with Josh again, and the time passed quickly together as we spent the rest of the journey talking. That said, we were both taken somewhat aback by the scale of industrial devastation around Wanlockhead, most clearly seen by the tracks scoured onto Sowen Dod but present too in abandoned spoil heaps and derelict machinery. As the village (which is just over the border in south Lanarkshire) has neared, all this has been tidied up in the name of heritage and the Lead Mining Museum, and as the village has few amenities these days this is no bad thing. But it does still have a pub; Josh and I pitched our tents in its grounds, and enjoyed a good chat with the landlord all the way through to, ooh it must have been nine o’clock.

Wednesday 10 June 2015. Wanlockhead to Brattleburn bothy, 14 miles.

Time to start winding down the distance. But maybe not the height gain; Lowther Hill, at 2378ft, is the highest ground on the SUW, although any severity is tempered by the 1500ft start afforded by Wanlockhead (the highest village in Scotland) itself. There was just one logistical hiccup to solve, and that was not having any breakfast left and the pub not doing breakfast – a relic of earlier planning, I presumed, when I knew I would be able to get hold of something, probably with bacon and eggs in it, in Sanquhar. There was little choice therefore to wait for the museum tea shop to open at 11. Very worth it too, and filled with baps, toast, banana and tea Lowther Hill felt barely like a hill at all. Another top, Cold Moss, follows, but strangely it was the next and lowest hill, Laght Hill, that felt the toughest; I knew the Way didn’t cross its top, and subconsciously I might have been expecting to contour round earlier than the path allows.

It’s a bit of a scruffy descent from here to the A702, the busiest road since Castle Kennedy and carrying all of two vehicles a minute. I took a bit of time out at Potrail Water, scooping up the stream in my Tilley hat and drenching my head and top – a favourite pastime on hot days like this. I’d marked this spot as a possible wild camp had I not coped with the 21-miler I’d originally planned, though with all manner of flying insects around I was glad the need didn’t arise. From here, another causeway path led through forest to a gravel track, and hence to the Daer Reservoir – here, the guidebook was correct in showing the route over the dam itself rather than the road to the north.

Above Daer Water

Above Daer Water

On the ascent of Hods Hill I was surprised to see Josh ahead of me, as he must have had well over two hours’ start; I caught him up in the forest, to hear that he was suffering from achilles trouble, which I’ve had myself so could sympathise. We stayed together through the forest to Brattleburn bothy. What a find this is! As pleasant a surprise as Polskeoch was a disappointment, with two rooms and an attic, plenty of wood for the fire, ornaments, pans and doggerel. No loo though, that would have spoilt it. The picture below made the 2016 Mountain Bothies Association calendar, by the way.

Brattleburn bothy

Brattleburn bothy

Thursday 11 June 2015. Brattleburn bothy to Beattock, six miles.

As he was expecting to make slow going with his achilles, Josh started early, while I adjusted my timetable to suit the buses south from Beattock. It nearly didn’t work out, for no sooner had I put my boots on than I realised I had some foot trouble too, on my sole, so walking wasn’t a whole lot of comfort for me either. Still, nothing to do but get on with it. Most of the Way stays in forestry, with a little climb over Craig Hill to start, with a few more fallen trees to circumnavigate, just a single bit of boggy pasture across Garpol Water as variation. Eventually, past a picnic area, the forest ends at Easter Earshaig, and only two downhill miles remain. Barely thirty minutes at the bus stop by the Old Stables hotel; mental note made in case I needed a room the next year.

Moffat and the hills beyond

Moffat and the hills beyond

Forward to Cockburnspath