29th July 2023: Scabcleugh pickup to Innerleithen – 18.5 miles
Even before starting the eastern section of this walk, I was of the opinion that the Southern Upland Way was the jewel of Scotland’s Great Trails. If I thought I had the mental stamina for 15 days away from home I would have quite happily started from Portpatrick again. The last two days have just reinforced that opinion. The quality of the path far surpasses any of the other SGTs I’ve done! I would go as far as to say it makes the Rob Roy Way look like a rather pathetic joke, being played on walkers by the powers that elect walks to be included in the list of SGTs. The West Highland Way is a lovely track, but there’s almost no soft surfaces along its whole length, and let’s not get started about how ridiculously popular it is. The Southern Upland Way has a real remote feel to it, it’s primarily grass tracks and it’s wonderfully quiet. Everything I hope for in a long distance path.
In terms of tarmac, which was one of my major complaints about both the Rob Roy and the Speyside – of the 19 miles I did today, only about the last 2.5 miles were on tarmac, the vast majority of the rest was done on high grassy paths across the fells, or on a lovely rocky path beside St. Mary’s Loch. It’s been an absolutely brilliant day and although my feet know I’ve done a walk, I put that mainly down to the piss poor waterproofing on the La Sportiva boots. The boots were overwhelmed by wet grass within a mile of setting out and I’ve been slowly drying them out for the last 18 miles.
I had an excellent night’s sleep at Hartleap, I was out like a light long before 10pm and although I awoke a couple of times in the night, I felt refreshed and alert when I finally came fully awake about 6.30am. The view from my bathroom window, as I was performing my morning ablutions, was of the mist covered hill behind the house and it all looked a bit grim and grey. It had rained heavily in the night, I remembered that from one of my wakeful moments and when I checked last night, the forecast has been for showers most of the day. By 7.30 however the scene had changed for the better and the mist had burned back to reveal blue sky and bright sunshine. I checked the forecast again and it now suggested I’d be OK until about 4pm, when the chance of rain was about 60%. Bit of a result I thought!
I did nearly all my packing before I went down for breakfast at 7.45. The idea being to get out the door as quickly as possible after I’d finished and be back on the trail for about 8.30 all being well. I was their only guest, as they only have one room, and I was down waiting for Lindsay bang on time. The cooked breakfast options were a little limited – not sure when vegetarian sausages became part of a traditional Scottish breakfast (especially as they were the only non-fish related meat on offer) – I’d gone for fried eggs on toast and they were OK. As much as I enjoyed my stay at Hartleap, and as much as Lindsay provides an absolutely invaluable service to Southern Upland Way walkers who are not prepared to backpack the route, I’m glad I didn’t have the evening meal, as I imagine that would also have been veggie only. Don’t let my prejudices put you off staying there however, it may be the only option, but it’s a loooong way from being a poor B&B and I’d stay there again without any qualms whatsoever!
Kevin drove me back to the farmstead at Scabcleugh and he wished me well as he drove off and I faffed with knee braces and started my various GPS devices. I did think that if the farm at Scabcleugh converted a building into a bunk barn, they’d probably do quite well out of it. Not withstanding the fact that even after then end of day 2, I’ve still not seen another soul on the hills once I leave the villages behind. Something that I also experienced 10 years ago. This is a very quiet path, and isn’t likely to become any more popular with the lack of accommodation in various key locations.
There is no walk-in today, it’s just straight up the side of the hill, on a good grassy track that had soon soaked through the non-existent waterproof membrane on my boots. It wasn’t too steep though and I didn’t get any heart rate warnings today, although there’s more ascent than yesterday, it’s all fairly steady and that’s how I took it…. slow and steady on the climbs, and my usual pace on the flat sections.
The sun was out as I climbed up to Scabcleugh Moss, beside the burn of the same name. It was warm and I soon had a good sweat on. I started out in baselayer and shirt, with my coat easily accessible in the top of my pack. The path is a delight, as it climbs up beside the burn and the views improved as I ascended, not just up the cleft of the beck that runs between grassy slopes on either side, but also behind me. Pretty soon the burn side path brought me out at the head of a wide glen, the path running on ahead, hugging the northern slope and climbing up to Pikestone Rig with fantastic views all round. This route shares so many similar views with the Pennine Way it’s almost uncanny, although there’s probably more pine plantations on the Southern Upland Way.
The temperature dropped at some point around here and I picked up a slight tail wind. I was still fairly comfortable in my shirt though, and didn’t even need to roll down my sleeves. I passed through a couple of unusual deer fence gates as I descended towards Riskinhope Hope, the gates were hung at an angle off the vertical so I had to push them open and then let them fall back closed behind me. I suppose it saves on gate catches and there’s almost no chance of them being left open, but it felt very odd. I also remember being pestered quite badly by flies along this section, something that had bothered me in a couple of places yesterday too. Huge clouds of ‘normal’ size flies (not midges or cleggs) that would hover around me as I walked. I got quite frustrated at one point and spent a good minute waving my hands furiously around my head trying to clear them. I must have looked a proper sight, shouting incoherently and flapping my arms as I walked along. It didn’t help of course, but I’d soon left them behind, or I just stopped noticing them maybe.
I was soon dropping down to St. Mary’s Loch, on a good forest road, with a wide grass strip down the middle so not too hard on the feet. I decided not to divert to the café, I wasn’t really in need of a drink and I reckoned I’d find somewhere quieter to sit beside the loch if I needed it. The path beside the loch is lovely, initially through a little wood with encroaching undergrowth on either side, where I think I picked up a tick on my arm. I’d been flicking flies off me all morning, so when I spotted the insect on my right arm I automatically flicked it off too. It left a little spot of blood behind and the quick glimpse I got of it, was of a pale body rather than the usual darker body of a fly. If I’d been more observant I’d have removed it properly, but no point crying over spilt milk, it was gone and even now as I write this up, there’s no obvious red spot, but I’ll keep an eye on it. I checked myself properly before getting in the shower a few minutes ago and there’s no other hangers-on that I can see.
I found a bench at about the 6 mile mark and sat down for a wee break. I reckoned if I broke the walk into three, 6 mile sections it would be easier than thinking of it as an 18+ mile walk – it worked on the Speyside last year and it mostly worked today (with a couple of caveats). I didn’t fancy the sausage roll, so I settled for a couple of Kit Kat Chunkys and part of my juice. It wasn’t the warmest spot, so I was soon back on the move, feet feeling only slightly less abused for the short break.
The last mile or so of the loch side path is actually along an access road for one of the houses beside it, but this quickly led to a rather rough looking campsite at Dryhope Haugh and an even rougher path beside the outlet river from the loch, that leads over a bridge and joins the main road to Selkirk. I passed a family out walking here, not along the Southern Upland Way, but heading for the ruins of Dryhope Tower. I’d already decided to skip this small diversion and the likelihood of sharing the visit with half a dozen others confirmed my decision. The path climbed gently again now, around Mid Hill and the twins of North and South Hawkshaw, still on good grassy tracks and with increasingly impressive views of the surrounding hills. I had to stop for another break, on a handy stile after about 10 miles, so much for my 3x 6 mile sections! I was flagging a bit so took on some fluids (finished my juice) and ate a couple of Wagon Wheels. I tried to eat the sausage roll, but it just wasn’t doing it for me.
I think there’s a kist around here somewhere, near the buildings at Blackhouse (which is all a bit of an eyesore if I’m being honest), but I never saw the Ultrea plaque and I guess I’ve missed it. The mile or two beyond what I suspect is a derelict building at Blackhouse was one of my favourite sections of the day. I entered the forest and joined a thin soggy track that climed gently through the trees, which were hard up against the path on both sides. There were no views at all, other than the gloom of the plantation on both sides, but I loved this bit. The path bent ever so slightly away up the hill through the trees, it was warm, windless and quiet as a tomb – you don’t get much bird life in a forest like this, and despite all this I was really enjoying the long climb. I found a bench a short distance from the point where the path leaves the forest and I took advantage of the sheltered location and had another short break. I took my boots off and aired my tired feet, ate some Jelly Babies and soaked in the quiet and solitude.
Out of the forest the path began to climb again, up to Middle Rig and then Blake Muir. The open views were a lovely change from the forest and I took a lot of photos. I almost shit myself too, turning to take a shot of the way I’d come, I came face to face with a cyclist puffing up the hill behind me. I’ll bet there’s a nice little heart rate spike on my watch from that brief encounter. I found a strange, what looked like a boundary stone, just to the left of the path up here. It had Ultrea ‘carved’ into it, but when I inspected it a bit more closely it’s some sort of cast item secured loosely to the moorland. I couldn’t see any opening and although it moved easily enough it didn’t hinge open or reveal a kist of any kind. I assume it’s a kist, but I didn’t find any waymerks. I left feeling frustrated, I was going to be at least one coin short of a full set.
The path ran through a sunken channel for a short distance here, with banks of heather on either side and the sun came out for a bit, just to enhance the scene. A little further on and I got a view of Innerleithen in the distance. The path began to descend gently towards it. It reminded me of the path that runs down into Sanquhar, but a lot less soggy. All too soon it met the road and I put my head down and plodded it out. I put my headphones in and listened to the final couple of chapters of The Satsuma Complex, by Bob Mortimer – an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone. It feels slightly autobiographical in places, but it’s very enjoyable, funny in places and co-voiced by Sally Phillips.
It finished just as I approached the outskirts of Innerleithen. It also started to rain gently, just as I was passing the Traquair Arms, which seemed like some sort of message, so I stopped in for a cold drink. There was a table right beside the bar, so I sat down with my pint of Diet Coke and asked for a menu. The feeling of ‘a day well done, and now I can chill’ that I got yesterday in Hartleap was fresh in my mind. I reckoned I could eat here now, it was about 3.15pm and I’d only had a couple of chocolate biscuits since breakfast, have a couple of drinks, pop into the Co-op on the way to the B&B and then just chill for the evening. Within 5 minutes of sitting down I could see the heavens open and the rain came down in buckets. I’d timed my arrival perfectly.
I had a chicken and ham pie, two pints of Diet Coke and a very reasonable pint of Edinburgh Gold. By 4.15 the rain had stopped, so I paid up and headed to the Co-op for some supplies for tomorrow. As I was leaving there the rain began spitting again, but it had stopped by the time I reached the B&B. I’m writing this while I’m in bed and it’s not even 8pm, that’s how chilled I am right now (it’s also a bit chilly).
I’ve ordered breakfast for 8am, I initially asked for 7.30, but the earliest they will do is 8, so that’ll have to do. I have another 19 miles to do tomorrow, so I was hoping for an early start. The B&B feels like a hotel and my room is quite small (so is the single bed, and it has a footboard!) and it’s on the ground floor beside the front door, so I hope I’m not going to be kept awake by people coming and going all night.
All in all another great day, and I was so lucky with the weather! I doubt that will continue, but let’s see eh?