Southern Upland Way 2003

Author: George Tod

This walk is illustrated with photographs. Click on small photo to enlarge in situ, or click caption to enlarge into new window.
Part 3 - St John's Town of Dalry to Wanlockhead

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Day 5 - Sunday 1st June - St John's Town of Dalry to Smittons Farm

Distance: 7 miles + 0.5 miles to B&B, Ascent: 350 ft

Breakfast was from 8.30 to 9.00 and I was in no hurry today with only a short way to walk to Smittons Farm. I had washed out a number of things last night, including my shorts, and they were still soaking wet, so I resorted to the old trick of heating up the jug kettle and draping things around it until the worst of the wet was dried out. For breakfast, as I only had a short walk, I opted for a small breakfast of bacon, sausage and egg rather than the full works. I have been finding that, even on long days, I do not get so hungry, possibly because of my age, but possibly also because a lot of the walking has been on the flat, which doesn't use up so much energy.

I set off at 10 a.m. wearing clothes that were still not dry, but they soon dried out in the breeze. The weather was better than expected - cloudy but with some sunshine and considerably cooler than the last few days. It is always a problem to know what to do on a short day's walk. If I were to press on quickly, I could do the walk in a bit over two hours, but there is no point in arriving in the middle of the day unless it is somewhere with things to occupy the time in the afternoon. In good weather, it is possible to stop every mile or two to have a long rest enjoying the view and possibly sunbathing, whereas in bad weather with no shelter, the only option is to press on. Had it been raining, I would probably have spent the morning in St John's Town of Dalry, had a pint or two and something to eat at lunch-time, and then walked in the afternoon. As things are, the good weather option is a possibility.

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Earlstoun Loch from Ardoch Hill, a little off the route
Earlstoun Loch from Ardoch Hill

The scenery around here is really fine and makes me feel like I am in the Southern Uplands, unlike the earlier part of the walk. The town itself has quite a few facilities with a few shops, a bank and even a Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths. Above the town, a steady climb opened up some lovely views of the surrounding hills, so when I reached Ardoch, I turned left instead of right to head for the summit of Ardoch Hill, which gave a fine view to the west overlooking Earlstoun Loch and the hills behind. Unfortunately, the rather cool breeze got stronger, so I decided to move on after a little while at 11.45 a.m.

After rejoining the way where I left off, I made my way through pleasant walking country before getting a bit confused with the waymarking. I passed one marker post, but could not see where the route was supposed to go. It didn't help that the map in my guidebook was rather inaccurate about the route around here, showing it running close to the forest wall, whereas it actually runs about a hundred yards to the west. On re-examining the last marker post, however, I found that it had a very faded arrow pointing to the right. This was all right for a little while until I came to a little gate without hinges tied up with baler twine and without a stile. This sort of thing is quite commonplace on some walks, but not in keeping with the generally very high standards I had found so far on the Southern Upland Way, so it made me a little unsure as to whether I had missed my way. I could see no other route, so I climbed over the gate and soon found another waymarker post.

At this point, the sun was shining again and there was a wall to shelter me from the wind, so it seemed an ideal place to stop for lunch and a spot of sunbathing. After a couple of very relaxing hours, I decided to make my way a little further. This is very fine walking country, with distant views of the hills all around. After a while, the path joined up with a minor road for about a mile to Butterhole Bridge, where I encountered a very strange thing in these parts. It was a motor car - not even a farmer's Land Rover but a saloon car.

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Rhinns of Kells from near Butterhole Bridge
Rhinns of Kells
East from Marskaig Hill
East from Marskaig Hill
North from Culmark Hill - Smittons Bridge is to
left, with Cairnsmore of Carsphairn behind
North from Culmark Hill

From here there were fine views of some of the higher hills of the Southern Uplands, with Cairnsmore of Carsphairn to the north, and the Rhinns of Kells to the west. Soon, the way took to a footpath making its way up to Culmark Hill where, again, the route shown in my guidebook was a little different from the actual route, although this didn't matter too much, as the route was waymarked reasonably well. On top of the hill, a wide vista opened up with Smittens Farm, my destination for the night, beside the river with a forest behind and a backdrop the high rounded hills of the Cairnsmore of Carsphairn. The route of tomorrow's walk could also be clearly seen, as far as Benbrack. I had another stop to admire the view and to pass a bit of time before making my way down to my B&B.

It is at times like this, with plenty of time to spare, that binoculars come in useful for picking out distant features and observing the wildlife. It is always debatable as to whether it is worth carrying the extra weight when, on many days, there is not a lot of spare time to make use of them, but for the last several walks I have carried them with me.

When I thought that it was late enough in the afternoon, I descended the hill to Culmark Farm, where the route should go through the farmyard, but I found a newly erected fence blocking the way with no stile, as yet, erected. It was not much of a problem to skirt around the perimeter wall of the farm to regain the way along the access road to the farm and from there to the B729 road to Smittens Bridge. This was quite a busy road for these parts, with about half a dozen cars travelling along in the last hour. At the road, the way goes off to the right, but Smittens Farm was about half a mile off the route to the left. This is the only accommodation within a reasonable distance of the route to enable this 25 mile section of the walk to be broken up into two, rather unequal parts, although there is a bothy further on that many people use.

I was given a very warm welcome when I arrived at the farm just after 5 p.m. and, after a cup of coffee and a bath, I had a very nice meal of lentil soup, chicken in a pepper sauce and cheesecake. There is no pub anywhere near here, so I spent the evening looking through four volumes of serialised weekly 'Discover Scotland' magazines, which were very interesting and well illustrated. The couple had been there for five years and only started doing B&B when a Southern Upland Way Ranger pleaded with them to do so. The nearest town is Carsphairn, about five and a half miles away, and the only person they regularly see is the postman, although they did have their 5 year old granddaughter staying with them for a holiday.

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Day 6 - Monday 2nd June - Smittons Bridge to Sanquhar

Distance: 18 miles + 0.5 miles from B&B, Ascent: 2,650 ft

I woke up to a bright, sunny morning, had a good breakfast at 8 a.m. and off just before 9 a.m. back along the road to meet up with the way. There was a cool wind and quite a few clouds were gathering as I made my way on the gradual climb up Manquhill Hill. This really is in the heart of the Southern Uplands, with wide views of hills and forests all around. Some of the highest ground was just in the cloud but, otherwise, there was good visibility all around. I stopped for a rest and drink of water on the summit of the hill, which is slightly off the route. It was interesting to see that I had full signal strength here on my mobile phone but there was none at all back at the farm.

To look at the map, it would seem that there is a large area of dense forest to contend with around Manquhill Hill. In fact, there is very little impression of this on the ground, as the trees were young and no more than 8 or 10 feet tall and well spaced from the path. With the contour of the hillside, there was very little impression of being surrounded by trees and there were good, open views most of the way. Even when the trees are fully grown, they will not have a big impact on the openness of the scenery.

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Benbrack from Manquhill Hill
West from Mid Hill towards Cairnsmore
of Carsphairn
West from Mid Hill
Scar Water Valley towards Polgown
Scar Water Valley

The ascent of Benbrack was somewhat steeper, and was the first significant climb of the walk so far with an altitude of 580 M. However, it was not a difficult climb to the rounded summit, which opened up views of the route ahead. I stopped for another short break just past the summit, where there was less wind. There were still some patches of blue sky, but also some dark clouds looming, but all in all, it was still good walking weather for this splendid stretch of the route. Eventually, the way entered another forest at High Countam and the views mostly disappeared for a mile or so, although the walk was, at least, on a path that meandered around to make it less tedious. As I started the descent of the hill, there were more clearings and a better view of the surrounding hills, which climbed steeply up from the valley, so were often visible above the trees.

I stopped for a break at the Memorial Bothy, which made a convenient place to sit down. There had been a few spots of rain but it managed to hold off for the moment. The diary in the bothy showed quite a few recent entries, but not all of them from people walking the Southern Upland Way. Many, like me, were using it to have a lunch break and the last entry from Southern Upland Way walkers was on 29th May. It also was apparent, from some of the diary entries, that this is used as a pickup point for walkers going to various B&Bs. I was starting to get a bit cool, so set off again after a 45 minute break with about half of the day's walk completed.

Near Polskeoch (these place names on the map are generally just names of isolated farmhouses), I came across a group of motorcyclists, Italian I think. At first I couldn't work out what they were doing, but then realised that they had come upon the locked forestry gate and were trying to manoeuvre their bikes around a boggy area of grass to bypass the gate. The next couple of miles were on a minor road, but were enjoyable because there were fine views down the valley and the road meandered a little, so was not so monotonous. At Polgown, the way heads up the hillside on a path, revealing ever finer views of the broad valley running between a series of hills on either side. The sun started shining a bit more just to add to the scene, although there was still a cool wind blowing.

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Scar Water Valley from ascent of Cloud Hill
Scar Water Valley
Approaching Sanquhar

I started to notice that my left heel was feeling rather sore, so I stopped at the top of Cloud Hill to investigate. A blister had formed, so I put a plaster over it to help stop the rubbing and tightened my bootlaces a little to try to reduce any movement of my feet within my boots. I also noticed, when I looked inside my boots, that the seams in the GoreTex lining at the heels had split, and the foam padding beneath was wearing away, leaving a hollow by each heel. This was the cause of my problems, and not very satisfactory for a pair of expensive new boots.

Over the Hill, Sanquhar came clearly into view, and Lowther Hill with its golf ball radar station was also clear to see. Most of the hills of the Southern Uplands are lacking in any distinctive shape, and are, therefore, difficult to distinguish apart, so it is always good to see a clear identifying feature on some hills to make them unmistakable. Sanquhar looked deceptively close, but was still about four miles away, as the route has to make a considerable detour to cross the river via the road bridge. However, the sun came out more and more, making a pleasant end to an enjoyable day's walk, ending with a riverside walk and then to the castle ruins.

All in all, this has been the best day of the walk so far, despite the weather being cold and windy in the middle of the day. There has been relatively little walking on roads and forest tracks, some good, high level walking and some splendid hill scenery. This has made the miles pass by almost unnoticed, which is how it should be on a good walk.

My B&B was only a short way round the corner in Castle Street, where I relaxed in a hot bath and then did some minor surgery on my blister before setting out in search of a drink and a meal. The first bar I saw didn't look as if it would be serving food, so I took a chance on the next place along the road. The lady behind the bar said that she could cook something if I didn't mind waiting a bit. The bar itself was small and rather run down with three regulars propping up the counter. One chap was totally wrecked, still with three drinks in front of him and the couple were knocking it back quite a bit, particularly the woman. I find it difficult to understand the mentality of some of the Scottish population who feel the need to drink themselves into oblivion as quickly as possible in the early evening, but it did make me think that I had made a big mistake by choosing this particular bar, though I don't know if the other ones would have been any better. Everyone in the bar had a strong Glaswegian accent, unlike most of the people I had met on the way so far, who didn't have very pronounced accents at all and were quite easy to understand. Although they were all very friendly, I didn't particularly want to get into conversation with a chap who could hardly manage to stand up straight, but the place was too small not to get involved.

After a while, the food arrived and I was able to sit down at one of the two small tables and, at least, be a little bit more out of the way. The landlord refused the drunken chap any more drinks and took him home. Meanwhile, various other people came and went, including a chap who worked in the Chinese Restaurant almost next door. He seemed to like a quick pint of Guinness when he had a few minutes to spare, and whilst he was there, the couple ordered a take away, or carry out, as they are called around here. After finishing his drink, he went off to prepare the meal and returned with it a short while later. By this time some local youth was trying to impress the girls outside by doing racing starts down the High Street in his car. The woman at the bar took exception to this, as he was a well known local hothead, so she rang the police, who arrived a short time later. They were trying to get people to make statements so that they might have a case against him. Meanwhile, the Chinese take away was sitting on the bar getting cold. At this point, I had finished my meal of steak pie and chips and my drink, so made a hasty exit. Oh for a quiet life!

It was a lovely sunny evening, so I took a look around the castle ruins, which were covered in graffiti. I climbed to the top of what remained of a spiral staircase, which gave me a fine view of the town and the surrounding countryside, although I couldn't help feeling that anywhere else in the country this would have been cordoned off as unsafe. I got the feeling that, despite having some beautiful countryside around here, life was cheap. I returned to my B&B to watch television for a while and to get some rest.

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Day 7 - Tuesday 3rd June - Sanquhar to Wanlockhead

Distance: 8 miles, Ascent: 1,800 ft

I had another good Scottish breakfast at 8 a.m., although I was in no particular rush to get off today with only 8 miles to walk to Wanlockhead. After yesterday's walk, which had considerably more ascent than previous days, coupled with about eighteen and a half miles of walking, I was feeling a little weary, as I packed my things and set off into town. I wanted to buy a few things for lunch and also use the cash machine, as it could be quite a way to the next bank. Sanquhar is one of those towns that that straddles a main road and a railway line and, although it has a number of shops, banks and other facilities, doesn't seem to have what you would call a town centre.

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The weather was fine but with cloud around the hills to which I was heading and there was a strong breeze. The way goes under the railway line, then climbs a hill overlooking the town, then onto a plateau before climbing further up into the hills. Once again, my guidebook proved to be out of date, as I headed for the road to cross Loch Burn by the road bridge and then lost the waymarking. There is now a short cut using a footbridge. It doesn't make much difference in distance, but I am generally happier to take a footpath instead of a road, even for a short distance. A steady climb took me Coupland Knowe, then a steeper climb led over towards Cogshead, where I took advantage of some shelter from the wind to have a rest break. I was taking things very steadily, as I was trying to not rub the blister on the back of my heel. It was not giving me any discomfort, but I was trying to give it a chance to heal a little before being subjected to longer days of walking. At this point, according to my guidebook, there was a choice between an easy, but considerably longer route via forest tracks, or a shorter but steeper route over the open hilltop of Highmill Knowe. There are no prizes for guessing which route I decided to take. However, when I reached the point where the two routes were supposed to diverge, I found that the only route signposted was the high route. Once again, I think that the forest route had been the original one before the way was diverted over the hill and became the official route, the same thing as had happened more recently by Loch Trool.

As I climbed the hill, it started raining. There were just a few spots at first, but gradually it got to the point where it was wise to stop and put on my waterproof jacket, and it remained like this for the rest of the way to Wanlockhead. All around the village are the remains of the old lead mining era, which only came to an end well into the 20th century. Many things have been preserved as part of the mining museum, although some of the buildings are still crumbling. The village straggles out along the track and road for about a mile with various mining relics and spoil heaps along the way. At the head of the village, I happened to see my B&B, which used to be the village garage, so I dropped my things off, got changed, and then went to have a better look around.

The earlier rain had passed over and there were now occasional patches of sunshine. I was under the impression that there was a pub in the village, but I couldn't see it at first. The 'golf ball' radar station on Lowther Hill stands prominently above the village, as does a BT communications tower further along, although they are hidden from some parts of the village by lower parts of the hillside. As I wandered around the village looking at the various remains of the mining era, I came across the badly run down Wanlockhead Inn, securely padlocked, and with a faded sign. It also had a 'For Sale' sign on it, so it was back to the museum tea-rooms for refreshment before buying a ticket for the museum, which included a guided tour of one of the lead mine, some miners' cottages, and the miners' library, as well as the museum itself. The museum closed at 4.30 p.m., so I was just in time to do the full tour.

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Beam pump and miners' cottages, Wanlockhead
Beam pump, Wanlockhead
Relics of old tramway, Wanlockhead
Old tramway, Wanlockhead
Lowther Hill with its radar station from Wanlockhead
Wanlockhead & Lowther Hill

After the tour, which was very interesting, I wandered up a hillside and sat overlooking the village until the weather deteriorated and I had to return to my B&B. I later had dinner there of soup, salad and pavlova, and had been thinking of walking a mile or so to the pub in Leadhills afterwards, but my plans were shelved because of the foul weather. Instead I settled down to an evening of watching the wide screen television with Sky Digital.

The landlady said she thought that the pub had recently been sold to some English people, as have a large percentage of the properties in the village. As a result, the village has lost much of its community spirit and character. One thing that was not clear was whether the new owners of the pub intended to run it as such, or just convert it into living accommodation. It would be a great pity to lose the pub altogether, as there are a large number of museum visitors, as well as walkers passing through. However, with mainly seasonal and weekend trade, many such places are not economically viable.

The landlady had had 46 walkers staying so far this year, which surprised me a little, as other B&Bs had not had so many. She attributed it to the fact that her entry was the first entry for Wanlockhead in the accommodation guide, so people tended to ring her before anyone else.

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