Last week, myself and the lovely Fiona spent the week at our friends’ house near Moniaive in Dumfrieshire. Fiona was busily putting the finishing touches to her novel and I was supposed to be writing as well, but I just couldn’t settle to it. Eventually, to Fiona’s relief, I thought I’d better go for a good long walk and she was more than happy to drive me ten miles to drop me off beside Dalwhat Water at Glencairn. I’d decided to embark on a walk around Andy Goldsworthy’s Striding Arches – three hill-top red sandstone sculpture/monuments that ‘stride’ around the natural amphitheatre of Cairnhead above Dalwhat Water. These arches and a fourth at the Cairnhead Byre are part of a collaborative project interpreting the historical connection between the land here and the people – many of whom migrated during the 19th century. As Mr Goldsworthy himself has it:
‘The stone is a potent symbol of the Scots who went abroad… of the tremendous upheaval they made, or were forced to make, when they left Scotland… I would hope that collectively these arches are a celebration and monument to the Scottish people and the travels they have made, and that they will act as a connection between those who have left and those who have stayed here.’
The first of the arches on my itinerary sits atop Bail Hill. There is no marked footpath up to it – not that I could find anyway – but the map shows a fire-break in the forestry plantation on the hillside below leading directly up to the monument. Couldn’t find that either. Instead I thrashed and bogged about zig-zagging up through the marshy plantation, thankful for my compass, until I emerged above the tree-line not too far from the arch. The time-consuming nature of my ascent served me well as just after I arrived at the arch the rising sun cleared the low cloud and lit the arch and surrounding landscape with golden hues.
From Bail Hill, the other arches atop Colt Hill and Benbrack were clearly visible though distance rendered them minute. I set off for Colt Hill, five or so kilometres distant, along the ridge formed by Green Hill, Wether Hill and Mulwhanny, following the tumbled dry stone wall that cleaved to the watershed. The views across the Southern Uplands were fantastic on such a lovely, clear morning and the walking was relatively easy, though the ground was very boggy in places. walking in this area on wet, windy days with low visibility is not a lot of fun.
From the top of Mulwhanny, the ‘path’ plunged down a boggy, forested declivity before swarming up the flank of Blackcraig Hill on the other side. From the top of Blackcraig it was a further kilometre on a gentle incline to the top of Colt Hill and the second Striding Arch.
I snapped a few pictures before heading down the ‘path’, which was now furnished with route markers, to the intersection of a forestry track with the Southern Upland Way long distance path. A signpost pointed in the directions of Colt Hill, Benbrack and The Byre; Bail Hill, so it seemed, is somewhat out on a limb as far as paths and signage are concerned . I headed off in the direction of Benbrack on a well trodden, though frequently boggy path that swooped around the curve of Black Hill, Cairn Hill and Mid Hill en route to the third arch on its hill-top fastness. The path was also regularly punctuated with way markers for the Southern Upland Way – wooden posts with a white thistle symbol and yellow directional arrows. When visibility is a bit murky these signs are indispensable as the path can be vague at times.
I was soon atop Benbrack, admiring the last of the Striding Arches and its splendid location with some magnificent views north-east and east across Cairnhead, west to The Glenkens and the humpbacked, bowheaded bulk of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn and south east to a phalanx of wind turbines rotating in a stately manner. I had a sandwich, checked the time – midday – and decided that as it was such a lovely day I might as well yomp the 13 kilometres down the Southern Upland Way to St John’s Town of Dalry. This proved a good decision and inspired the notion to attempt this 212km long distance path, which runs between Portpatrick near Stranraer on the west coast and Cockburnspath on the east coast south of Edinburgh, in the not too distant future.
For information about the Striding Arches visit: http://www.stridingarches.com
For information about the Southern Uplands Way visit: http://www.southernuplandway.gov.uk/cms/