Myself, The Lovely Fiona and Dougal the Labrador went to Dumfriesshire at the weekend with a mind to do some walking in the Lowther Hills. We’ve walked in the hills around Durisdeer many times, but decided it was time to broaden our horizons. I recalled James at Backpackingbongos extolling the virtues of Queensberry and the nearby bothy at Burleywhag. On consulting Ronald Turnbull’s excellent guidebook to the area, I was convinced of its merits – especially as it provides unrivalled views across the Southern Uplands and across the border to the Cheviots and the Lakeland Fells.
Queensberry at 697 metres is highest of the Lowther Hills and qualifies as a Marilyn, a Donald and a Graham for collecting purposes. It was named many years ago for the Marquess of Queensberry – the local landowner – who in the self-agrandising manner that is so unappealing in the rich and powerful, had the biggest hill in the locale adorned with his pompous moniker. Still, I don’t want to sound bitter.
Saturday morning dawned a little murky, but we weren’t going to use that as an excuse to stay at home. We drove through the fine little market town of Thornhill then followed the sinuous single track road winding its way beneath the whale-backed Lowther fells. We parked up at the small collection of farm buildings and houses comprising Mitchellslacks and set off along the path leading out along the Capel Burn. We noticed a couple of other cars parked up, including a stereotypical Mazda boyracermobile with ‘aerodynamic’ foil and gold hub caps. I’ll let you in on one of my little prejudices: I see someone driving one of these, I instantly, shamefully, jump to the conclusion that they must be a complete twat. It looked somewhat out of context here, deep in rural Dumfriesshire and I began to wonder if it’s occupants might have headed off to nearby Burleywhag bothy for a weekend of getting wankered. Hmm. Burleywhag is a short enough walk for even the most callow and recalcitrant youth to manage. There has been a problem in recent years with people using bothies – especially in the Southern Uplands – for drinking and drug-taking benders, usually trashing the place in the process. There have been some horror stories of walkers turning up at a bothy off the hill to find the place taken over by lairy hooligans. Backhill of the Bush being the worst example.
Anyway, I filed my concerns away for the time being to concentrate on the business of route finding. We had decided to approach Queensbury via the summit of Wee Queensberry (512m) and so left the main track by The Law, a small rounded hill standing sentinel at the mouth of the glen. In truth the walk up Wee Queensberry was a bit of a ball-ache as the ground is very tussocky, but we gamely battered our way up the flank of the hill looking on to the cloud-shrouded summit of Queensberry. It was looking like those famous views might elude us on this occasion.
There were plenty sheep around so Dougal had remained on the leash, his interest was definitely piqued though. When descending from the summit of Wee Queensberry, I was stepping gingerly sideways down a slippery slope when several woolies were startled up nearby. They ran and Dougal tore off in pursuit, wrenching the leash from my hand. My hold must have been relaxed while concentrating on staying upright. I bellowed after him and tumbled down the slope in time to see him in pursuit of a lone sheep. ‘Oh fuck’ I thought. Dougal had soon caught up with the sheep and, game over, he trotted proudly back towards us. He stopped twenty yards short and sat down with an audible gulp when he clocked our expressions. Fiona called him and he came bounding back, reassured that he wasn’t in trouble. Tricky. He came back, so should you tell him off? He showed no intent to have a go at the sheep, but another time? I felt that this was a lucky escape and not a scenario I want to repeat. I made a series of displeased noises and gestures and we continued on our way – the Hideous Mutt’s leash firmly in TLF’s iron grip.
There’s no way of dressing it up, the climb up the tussocky flank of Queensberry in the murk was very dull indeed. Even Dougal’s tail dropped and he mooched along like a sulky teenager.
The only relief from the tedious uphill slog was the occasional picturesque cairn. Ronald Turnbull advances the theory that the cairns dotted around these parts were built by shepherds who, having finished their work early would build these cairns rather than return to the farm where they’d be given another job, which would detain them after hours.
Whatever their provenance, I thought they were reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy’s cairns – perhaps the shepherds’ cairns had inspired him? After all, Mr G lives in these parts and several of his sculptural works are dotted around the environs, like this cairn at Penpont:
It was so murky on Queensberry that I couldn’t be bothered to take a picture. We had planned to do a horseshoe taking in Penbreck and Earncraig Hill from Queensberry, but decided that in the conditions we’d just bail out and descend to the glen to have our sandwiches at the bothy. We took a bearing and descended west through the murk.
As is often the case, when you make a descision about your route due to conditions, the murk lifts, the rain goes off and the sun shines as soon as it’s too late for you to change your mind. While this wasn’t exactly the case, when we emerged from beneath the murk, we could see that our putative route across Penbreck and Earncraig was clag-free. Ho-hum.
It was too late to suggest contouring around to Penbreck to Fiona who was in full ‘lunch mode’ by now. We picked a good line down to the glen and soon Burleywhag was in our sights.
As we drew close we saw a figure emerge from the bothy to have a wee. I suddenly remembered the boyracermobile! Bugger. Would the bothy be full of skanky louts trashing the place and, therefore, would I have to tick them off in my slightly-posh-sounding (I really am not) Home Counties accent, thereby making myself a target for their opprobrium and ridicule?
Two other figures emerged, pulling on rucksacks. Phew! They were leaving – how about that for timing? If the place was a mess I could rail manfully at their despicable behaviour with ony TLF and Dougal as my audience. We met the three lads as they crossed the burn on a rickety bridge. They looked shocking. Pale, puffy-eyed, shifty and – worse of all – one of them was wearing a Rangers shirt. They’d obviously had a bit of a night at the hooligan juice. One of them was pulling a trolley(!) which clinked and clanked with empty bottles and tins. Hmm, Neds with a conscience? ‘Hiya, the stove should still be warm for youse’, announced the one member of the party who still looked capable of speech. We watched them trudge off down the squelchy path and steeled ourselves for a look inside. It was immaculate.
There you go, there’s a parable in there somewhere.
Dougal enjoys the warmth of the stove in the immaculately tidy bothy, so thoughtfully and considerately looked after by the nice young people:
We had our sandwiches and headed off down the path back to Mitchellslacks. On the way we picked up a series of tins, bottles, batteries and packets that was obviously leaking from the lads’ rubbish trolley, but we agreed that it was the thought that counts.
Next morning, there was a wonderful mist clinging to the valley floor and the low sun lit the trees in golden hues. It looked the more promising day by far. We had decided to drive up the glen along the Scaur Water, surely one of the loveliest places on the entire planet.
We parked up by Glenmanna and enjoyed the rare experience of a path marked with a signpost. We followed the track road through Glenmanna Farm and out along the Glenmanna Burn before climbing along the flank of Peat Craigs on an actual path!
Searchlight beams of sunshine arrowed through the fast moving clouds, lighting up the valley floor behind us.
Up onto Peat Hill (455m), ATV tracks eased our path through the tussocky moor grass. Soon we were out along the broad ridge with a wonderful vista of the Nithsdale, Lowther and Carsphairn Hills around us (I think that’s right, James?!).
What a wonderful day it was turning into. Dougal certainly thought so when an inviting lochan suddenly appeared near the summit of White Knowe (463m). Being a Labrador he can’t just jump into every body of water that presents itself, no, he has to retrieve something that’s thrown into the body of water for that express purpose. Other than my lunch there was nothing to hand. Hmm. I soon found a fossilised sheep turd and threw that in.
Dougal needed no further inducement and diligently retrieved the rehydrated turd from the lochan. Good boy!
Luckily for this wee frog, the Hideous Mutt completely overlooked him. Lucky for me too as I didn’t fancy trying to extract half-chewed frog from his jaws.
We continued on our way following the line of a fence along to Ox Hill (472m). The ground had become very squelchy indeed and was largely composed of football-sized tussocks.
Still, the views were grand and we didn’t mind too much. Or rather I didn’t mind too much, TLF and Dougal were looking pensive and not least because lunch stop spots weren’t presenting themselves in abundance.
I chose to ignore their menancing glances in favour of battering on across the picturesquely named Yellow Mire following the fence to the summits of Countam (476m), Fingland Shoulder (486m) and then Blackcraig Hill (500m). Soon enough we were beginning to descend towards Dalzean Snout, with fine views as far as the radar station and masts on the summits of Lowther Hill and Green Lowther to the north.
Arriving above Glenmanna Burn once again we made a steep traversing descent to the floor of the glen and found the perfect picnic spot at some rocks by the side of the lovely wee burn. This cheered TLF and Dougal up immensely and we were soon walking out along the burn to the farm and so back to the car.
It was an excellent outing, but we enjoyed perfect conditions. In murk, wind or rain – or any combination of the above it would make for a hellish expedition. Just so you know.