28th July 2023: Moffat to Scabcleugh pickup – 15.5 miles
I didn’t think I slept much last night, although my watch says I got 8 hours, albeit quite interrupted. I woke at 2am and 4am and again at 5am. As I was watching a film on my tablet last night, I heard the dreaded toll of bells from the church across the road. The worst possible scenario – they rang the quarters, halves and the full hour! They weren’t as loud as previous bells that have kept me awake all night, but they’d be loud enough to disturb me, so I opted for the ear plugs. I heard the 9pm chimes, then put the plugs in and decided on an early night. I never heard them all night, which I now put down to them being switched off after 9pm, rather than my ear plugs being really effective. They still haven’t started up again, and it’s almost 8am. So finally, a town that cares about its residents – well done Moffat!
I’d not been impressed with the savoury selection in the Co-op last night, no pies, grossly overpriced (and probably stale) sausage rolls and no scotch eggs! As a result, I’d wandered around town looking for a bakery. The only one I found had shut at 2pm, but their sign said they opened again at 6.30am, so this morning I’ve paid them a visit. I do love a scotch pie when I’m north of the border, and I’d been hoping they’d have some fresh baked. Sure enough, I’ve snagged a couple of pies and a lovely, generously filled sausage roll, which should see me through tonight and lunch tomorrow. I was tempted to pick up a hearty bacon and sausage bap too, as the B&B only does continental breakfast, but John may be a bit peeved if I don’t turn up for breakfast and I don’t want that on my mind all day.
It was raining very gently as I popped to the bakery, and the surrounding hills are covered in cloud. The weather forecast has shifted too, and not in my favour, there’s now a 50% chance of rain until noon, so I’ll likely be setting out in my coat!
I obviously wrote the previous paragraph while in my B&B in Moffat, actually while I was waiting for breakfast. I’m now sat on the bed in tonight’s B&B with gently throbbing feet and the satisfying feeling of having completed a tough days walking and nothing else to do all evening except put my feet up. I don’t have to worry about finding somewhere to eat, or go to the local Co-op, because I’m in the middle of nowhere! That works both ways of course, but at least the day is done and I can relax now.
I had an enjoyably feisty conversation with John, my host, over breakfast. I was sitting in his kitchen, while he prepared what he obviously considers to be his chef’s special of scrambled eggs on sourdough toast. So I was a captive audience really, but our views were remarkably similar on a number of topics, including the SNP, wind farms, the mad rush to net-zero at the cost of our way of life, and so on. He would hardly let me go, but I eventually managed to disentangle myself and bead to my room and complete my packing. There are exactly 50 stairs to my room, up on the third floor of the building, so it’s been good training for today’s walk!
I was out at almost exactly 9am, heading out along the road, in baselayer and shirt, rather than coat. The rain had stopped and although the air was heavy with it, it wasn’t falling from the sky yet. My coat was at the top of my pack though, as I expected to need it fairly soon. My record for dry starts to long distance paths is still intact!
The air was heavy and muggy and I had a bit of a sweat on as I walked out of town and along lanes to rejoin the Southern Upland Way. I’d walked the first couple of these miles along the Way back in 2013, when I’d bailed and headed into Moffat to wait for a pickup. I recognised some of the landmarks from then and I’d marked the furthest point of my progress from that walk, on my map. I had a Sam Gamgee moment as I soon reached it. As they are leaving the Shire, Sam says to Frodo “If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been”.
I stood at the point where I’d turned round 10 years ago and said to myself “if I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest along the Southern Upland Way I’ve ever been”. I took another step…. it’s a dangerous business, Stuart, going out of your door!
The rain had tried to start a couple of times by now, but I’d stuck to my guns and kept my shirt on. It was soaked with sweat anyway, so I figured a bit of rain wouldn’t make any difference, and the longer I could avoid putting the coat on, the better.
I almost missed the turn off for the high route and probably would have done if not for the profusion of signage beside the path. One of the signs said that due to logging operations, the lower track was closed and even though it’s a fair weather alternative, walkers were being instructed to use the high path. I’d fully intended to do this anyway, as it’s the official route, so I was glad I’d not missed the turn.
The path so far had been on a wide farm track / forest road, but I now dropped down through woods to cross an old bridge and follow an increasingly narrow path through low trees and bushes. I was soon getting quite wet from the water hanging on the leaves and branches I was having to push my way through. After a while I was back on another wide forest track, which offered a good view of the ‘low route’ which seemed to be about level with the track I was on. I could see no logging operations and indeed, didn’t see any logging at all until much later in the day, long after the high route and low route joined up. I’ve never taken any notice of ‘path closed’ signs on long distance walks, and I must admit, if I’d wanted to walk the lower route, the sign would not have deterred me. After a short stretch along the forest road, the path heads into the trees again as it climbs beside Dry Gutter and heads towards Craigbeck Rig.
The trees were even closer together along this section, so I eventually relented and swapped my shirt for my coat. This was quite a steep climb, somewhat relieved by a switch back path and I was soon streaming with sweat. I put this solely down to the humidity and not poor a fitness level, which is still surprisingly good (although probably not as good as it was for the Rob Roy in May). The coat wasn’t helping either of course, despite the marketing bollocks there’s nothing breathable about Gore Tex lined hard shells! I soon reached another wide forest track though and the incline flattened out, thank goodness. I got some great views back to Moffat, but the views ahead were obscured by first trees and then by the low cloud, which showed no signs of lifting.
All too soon the forest road turned left, and the Southern Upland Way carries on up Gateshaw Rig. The next mile or two were a real mixed bag. The path was steep and I was climbing into the low clouds, but the heather scenery was out of this world! When I planned this walk, I’d deliberately chosen late July / early August to take advantage of the flowering heather. I’d been expecting the best of this to be on Sunday, across Minch Moor, but the path up to Croft Head is absolutely glorious. It would have been even more impressive with bright sunshine of course, but even in the mist it was a beautiful section to walk. I took loads of pictures and generally took my time along this section, thoroughly enjoying it.
I had no views at all, other than about 10 yards either side of the path, at Croft Head, so I pushed on down the other side, hoping to find somewhere to stop for a break. As I began the descent of a quite brutal downhill section, the clouds peeled back and I was presented with a fantastic view of Craigmichen Scar, a rugged cleft in the hills ahead with a beautiful waterfall cascading down through it. As I progressed down the zig-zag path the cloud pulled back and the views became even clearer. It’s immediately one of my favourite locations on any long distance walk. It’s in the same category as High Cup or Cauldron Snout on the Pennine Way, it’s absolutely incredible.
At the bottom of the path there’s a thoughtfully placed bench, looking right up the cleft and waterfall. I stopped, took my pack off and had my first lunch, looking at this wonderful scene. Despite being a little chilly, I was as happy as I can remember being in ages on a walk.
As I set out again, the sun came out. I kept my coat on as protection against the chilly tail wind, and the path up beside the Scar was a delight. None of the recent Scotland Great Trails I’ve done recently are a patch on this. I’d walked on more grass today than on all of the Rob Roy and Speyside Way put together. The path hugs the hillside and climbs gently before dropping down to cross the interesting little bridge over Black Grain. I spied the Ultrea plaque on a marker post and started looking for the nearby kist. I crossed the bridge and found the corresponding Ultrea on the next marker post, so I had to go back and search for it. It’s easier to spot for west-bound walkers, and I was soon one more waymerk richer. There are only two or three left in that kist, so better visit soon if you want to fine one!
At Ettrick Head the path heads back into the forest for a while, initially on a soggy forest path and then along a forest track, which soon emerges from the forest and provides long views ahead, down into the glen. I passed the bothy at Phawhope without stopping and then passed Potburn before meeting the tarmac road that would take me to Scabcleugh, and my pickup.
I’d arranged to be collected by my B&B host at 3pm, and I don’t normally react well to a hard deadline on a walk, as you may have read on previous posts. I tend to kick the arse out of the walk from the get go, and I spend all day working harder than I really need to, in an effort not to be late. Today however, I’d timed things quite well. I anticipated my pace would be slow up the climb, but I reckoned my usual pace along the most flat road walk at the end of the day would even things out. I’d allowed 6 hours for a 16 mile walk. As I joined the tarmac and slotted easily into my metronomic ‘good pace’ stride, I checked Memory Map on my phone and it showed my ETA as 2.58.
The road walk through the glen was quite hard on my feet, especially at my slightly elevated pace. Despite the La Sportiva boots being brand new, they’d got waterlogged while I was walking through the heather and my socks were soaking wet. It did at least offer some good views and I watched some quite interesting machinery working on a steep hillside, to dismantle a pine plantation.
I didn’t stop along this section and arrived at Scabcleugh at exactly 2.58pm, exactly the same as my lift arrived! Perfect timing. I had an interesting chat with Kevin as he drove me to Hartleap B&B. He asked if I minded if he stopped to pick up some ladders along the way, and I said of course not. He just happened to stop at a house opposite a pub, so I took the opportunity to pop in for a drink. I didn’t want to take the piss though, so I settled on buying a couple of cans of Diet Coke to wash down my illicit evening meal.
We had a great chat as we drove to the B&B and I was greeted warmly by Lindsay at the door when we arrived. I was offered tea and scones and I hoovered these up, even before I went for a much needed shower.
And so I sit here, on my bed, feeling tired, a little bit sleepy, but quite relaxed (although my heart rate is still in the low 80s, when my normal resting rate is mid 40s) and my watch has just told me to ‘take a breath’ because I’m still stressed apparently. After getting several heart rate warnings on the steep climb this morning, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be wearing it. Perhaps I just need to tune out some of the warnings.
I’ve arranged a 7.45 breakfast with Lindsay, with a view to being back on the trail by about 8.30 tomorrow. I have about 19 miles into Innerleithen, but no deadline to walk to, so I can take it easy and arrive when I arrive.