27th July 2023: Home to Cockburnspath to Moffat

It’s probably worth taking a couple of paragraphs to put this walk in perspective. Today is 10 years 2 months and 29 days since I first set out from Portpatrick to begin the Southern Upland Way. I walked for eight days and finally gave up thanks to a pair of injuries, and a worrying lack of motivation to push through the hurt and complete what was a sometimes frustrating, but overall a truly enjoyable walking route. I reached a point about three miles outside Beattock and then turned about and headed for a café in Moffat to await a pickup from my son. You can read the chronicle of that walk here.

Two years later, I returned to Portpatrick with the intention of completing the task. I figured I’d enjoyed the western section so much, I would walk it again, rather than just take up from where I left off in 2013. A stupid decision, as it turned out – I only got as far as Sanquhar this time, before simple apathy and a desire to be back home forced me off the trail and onto a train, at the only station along the route outside Stranraer. You can read my journal for that walk here. Nowadays I would probably gut it out a bit longer and hope to overcome the melancholy, but back then I was fighting an unwanted change in my walking mentality; one that had my heart craving for its usual 14-15 day long distance walk each year, but was conflicted by my head saying the most I wanted to do away from home was 6 or 7 days. Invariably my head won out and since 2016 I’ve been slowly building up the number of days away to the point where I’m now quite happy with a couple of seven day walking holidays each year.

So it is that I’m headed back to the Southern Upland Way. However, I’m not making the same mistake as last time – and although I’d love to do the western section again (and I may well come back and do it at some point in the future), I’ve decided to play it safe and start at the furthest point along the route I’ve reached so far, Moffat.

The Southern Upland Way was originally one of the UK National Trails in Scotland, and the only officially sanctioned Coast to Coast route. It has long since been consumed by the rather grandly named Scotland’s Great Trails, along with what seems like dozens of trails that are far from ‘great’, in my opinion. I’m slowly working my way through this list, admittedly cherry-picking the one’s that actually appeal to me, and I’ve already completed the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way, the Speyside Way, The Cross Borders Drove Road and most recently, the Rob Roy Way. The next few days will hopefully add the Southern Upland Way, finally, to this list.

Logistics and Planning

Even back in 2013 and 2015, I found the SUW a tough trail to plan for, mainly because of the lack of accommodation at villages along the route. There were huge stretches that could only be covered by someone with a tent, or if one were willing to accept lifts from nearby B&Bs that would pick you up at a pre-agreed point, and then drop you back there the following morning. In 2013 the latter went against my ‘purist’ sensibilities and I had just about managed to put together a route that involved no motorised transport, albeit it did require me to leave the trail at a couple of points to make diversions to remote B&Bs. In 2015 I relaxed my self-imposed restriction and used the lifts offered by a hotel, which worked out just fine. I have since used public transport and lifts from accommodation providers on many of my long walks, simply because it was that, or not walk the path.

In late 2022, when I was planning this eastern section of the Southern Upland Way, it became clear early on that I was never going to find a bed in three of the seven places I needed to stop. The hotel at Tibbie Shiels has long since closed, but that gap is filled by a B&B who will pick you up at Scabcleugh, and drop you back there the following morning (at a high price), so I can avoid walking the 35 miles from Moffat to Innerleithen in one go! At the end of the route, there seems to be no accommodation, and no public transport options beyond Lauder, so I’m having to resort to a taxi company and two nights in a hotel about 10 miles from the route. I hate relying on taxis, even more than I hate relying on public transport, but as far as I can see, there is no other option for someone who isn’t prepared to backpack the route.

As I have for the past couple of walks, I’d planned to drive to the end of the walk, park my car somewhere and then get public transport back to Moffat. This involves two buses, which I’m quite glad about given the current spate of rail strikes that would potentially scupper any journey that relied on a train.

Getting to the Start

I set the alarm for 4.40, plumping for an early start and a partial night of comfy sleep in my own bed, rather than an uncomfortable night in the car, which would probably also see me mostly awake at 5am and then kicking my heels for a few hours. I was actually awake by 4.20, and out the door and heading north by the time my alarm would have gone off. The rain was off and on all the way to Cockburnspath, but never too heavy and the roads were clear all the way. My one hour buffer was never threatened and even with a couple of stops for breakfast and a pee, I was parking up at 9.30.

As public transport journeys go, the next few hours were fairly unremarkable, but quite stressful, and I can say this with some authority, as I have a new watch that measures my stress levels! My baseline is about 25, but today has been 48 overall, with over 3 hours in the High Stress range!

The first leg was a bus from Cockburnspath to Edinburgh and I found the bus shelter empty about 10 minutes before the bus was due to arrive. I was quickly joined by a group of people, 2 of whom had just finished the Southern Upland Way and were being shepherded by their hosts from last night’s B&B to make sure they caught the bus. Although they were Dutch, I’m fairly sure they could have navigated their way onto the bus without assistance, but sometimes people just want to be helpful I guess. A detailed discussion of vegetables was well under way between the four of them, the two Scottish ladies trying to explain what a marrow was and the Dutch couple struggling to translate it into something they were familiar with.

A couple more people also joined the throng before the bus finally arrived, only 5 minutes late. It was being driven by a trainee, and paying for fares seemed to take an age, so I could see why he was running late. I had almost an hour layover in Edinburgh so I wasn’t too worried (although my watch stats suggest otherwise) and in the end we arrived only 15 minutes late.

I googled the nearest Gregg’s and went and picked up a couple of sausage rolls. It was only Thursday, but the crowds on the street suggested it was Saturday afternoon, but it’s the middle of the long school holidays up here, and there were loads of kids amongst the tourists. An annoying Scottish Socialist was tannoying his message to everyone within a mile and I pushed my way through the throng, until I was back at the bus station, waiting for the next leg of my journey.

This one started stressfully, with the driver telling me I needed to change buses in Biggar, which was news to me! The traffic out of town was horrendous and we were soon at least 20 minutes behind schedule. Fortunately I’d picked a seat right behind the driver, so as we were queueing for some temporary traffic lights, I leaned across and asked him if the bus at Biggar would wait. He assured me it would, so I relaxed back into the journey. I’m listening to an audio book by Mortimer and Whitehouse at the moment, related to their Gone Fishing TV show, and it’s excellent. There are quite a few literal ‘laugh out loud’ moments in it, and I worked hard to stifle quite a few guffaws, not wanting to give the driver the impression I was unhinged, or worse still laughing at our predicament.

We arrived in Biggar about 30 minutes late, which was a 30 minute improvement on yesterday by all accounts, and sure enough the next bus was waiting patiently for us three Moffat bound passengers. It seems the two buses do an out-and-back from each end, meeting in the middle, swapping passengers destined for the other end, then turning round and going back. Seems like a bizarre way to run the service, but I guess there’s a good logistical reason for it. I didn’t care at that moment, it just meant my bus was waiting for me. The next bus into Moffat wouldn’t have arrived until after 9pm.

The driver of our new bus wasn’t taking any prisoners, so I guess he was on a promise tonight – the bus was thrashed all the way to Moffat, barely pausing to slow, even at stops where passengers were waiting. He made up almost 20 minutes of the delay and I alighted in Moffat to bright sunshine and only a few minutes behind schedule.

I decided to chance my arm and show up at my B&B a few minutes before the prescribed 4pm. I was met by John, who proceeded to give me a quite in-depth induction on how to stay in his B&B. He seems nice enough though, and I soon flopped gratefully onto my large double bed.

It still wasn’t raining, so I decided to strike while the sun was hot, and headed for the Co-op to pick up some supplies. I need stuff for lunch tomorrow, an evening meal in my room tomorrow night and enough for two lunches on Saturday, when I have almost 20 miles to cover. An evening meal could be provided by the B&B tomorrow night, but I was unwilling to pay £35 on top of the already £95 cost of the room and collection from the path. I’ll rough it, despite being warned I wasn’t allowed to eat in my room, rather than pay that much for a home cooked meal.

I’d booked a table in the Black Bull for 6pm, but I headed over about 5.30 in the hope of getting served earlier. I had an average burger and an excellent pint of some dark ale, whose name I never picked up. I’m back in my room now, writing this up.

The weather for tomorrow looks pretty good considering. A 30% chance of rain until about 8am and then dropping off to less than 5% by lunchtime. I’ll take that. I hadn’t planned to start walking until about 9am anyway, so fingers crossed I can continue my record of never setting out on a long distance walk in the rain. I doubt I’ll get too far along the path without getting wet though, the forecast for the next few days is pretty poor. What the feck happened to July?

2 thoughts on “Southern Upland Way 2023 – Day 0”

  1. Very excited to hear how you get on, I love that part of the world.
    Tibbie Shiels is a legend, there’s still a camp site there I believe, but there’s also a bothy somewhere along that part of the route?

  2. Hi Stuart,

    Great to hear you’re back on the trail!

    I know you do your homework, so you’ll know that the eastern section of the SUW is a bit easier that the western half – or so I’ve read. From what I remember, too, I think that’s true (I did a few days of the SUW from Portpatrick many moons ago, and found some of it hard going). I’ve done Moffat – Lauder too and that wasn’t as hard. As for your first night once you set off, it’s just a pity the Tibbie Shiels Inn is closed – it would have made a handy stop (about 20 miles from Moffat and actually bang on the trail). I am not sure where Scabcleugh is (I can’t even find it on Google Maps!), but hope it’s not too much of a diversion for you.

    Looking forward to your updates. Cheers

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