I had been wanting to do this walk for the last 12 months so today, Monday 19th November, I finally decided would be the day I would do it. Last year the first snow fell in this area on November 24th so I thought that if I left it any later then the walk would become impossible or just too dangerous to do on my own. I had actually attempted the same trek during more snowfall in March of this year but when I found out that the snow drifts were chest high up at the top, I decided to abandon that attempt and stick to lower ground (where the snow was mainly just knee-high).
I began my journey at Kirkland and set off just after 9am. The weather conditions were perfect – dry and not at all cold, ideal for ascending the steep incline up the shoulder of Kirkland Hill. This first 20 minutes was possibly the steepest part of the entire walk, but of course I was rewarded with spectacular views across the Nith Valley, looking down into Kirkconnel and Kelloholm – I could even just about make out the tiny speck of Rigg House from close to the top.
Once I reached the near-1500ft summit the terrain sort of plateaus out – there was still a bit of a gradient as I continued upwards but it was a lot gentler than the bit I had just done. Here the path is not so much a path, more like a sheep track cutting its way through the tufty grass so I decided to stick to the fence and follow it up that way rather than risk wandering off track up on the wild hilltops. Here I spotted the first couple of arrows carved into rocks along the path which gave me some encouragement. These arrows would go onto become regular little ‘companions’ as the walk progressed.
By 10am the path descended down to a very well-maintained farm track where I found my first proper signpost. A signpost is always a heartening sight on any walk, especially when it confirms that you are heading in the right direction! From here I turned left and continued up the track for about 15 minutes until I came to a farm at the old junction of Fingland. No sign of life here, other than sheep and the sound of a barking dog. Another signpost here gives you the option of following the track to the left, which takes you to Muirkirk, or heading to the right to Wanlockhead. Both routes are approximately 10 miles from this point.
After crossing a couple of little wooden footbridges and passing a couple of farm cottages I came to the first Direction Decision. Here the track split into two and there were no helpful signposts or stone arrows to guide me. The track which followed on from the one I was already on continued down to the left, following the route of the water, whilst the path to the right was more like a muddy sheep track up through the fields. My initial instinct was to follow the lower path by the river but then I remembered that I have a truly rubbish sense of direction and, 9 times out of 10, I am always wrong when it comes to making Direction Decisions. So, with that in mind I decided to ignore my instincts and take the steep track up and in less than 10 minutes I was rewarded with the sight of another stone arrow.
The next hour or so was definitely my most favourite part of the walk. The sun shone across the valley and onto the hills and the contrast of the golden land against the blue sky was truly beautiful. Having all that space completely to myself was utterly intoxicating – I felt like those hills belonged to me and I could not have been happier than I was at the point. There is something about being alone in that kind of environment which makes you feel as if you can do and achieve anything and it really is the best feeling in the world (although I was a bit worried that everyone else in the world was having a really crap day because I was using up the entire happiness quota). This part of the walk will be a memory which will help me though the dark, cold winter months.
Here I learnt that I was walking along the old drove road which was once a valuable route for the Covenanters – a board at Blackgannoch explains how it was at this spot where James Renwick, a prominent Covenanter leader assembled a conventicle of 200 men before heading to Sanquhar to make his famous declaration on May 28th 1685 (opposing a bishop-led episcopal hierarchy and maintaining Presbyterianism as the sole form of church organisation in Scotland). This part of Scottish history is very important to this area so it does feel quite an honour to be walking in the footsteps of the people who had such an impact on the religious and political landscape of the country. These hills and windswept moorlands are rugged enough nowadays, but back in the 17th century I imagine the terrain to have been even wilder – like the American Wild West but with different objectives and different hats.
Before too long I came to my second Direction Decision. After crossing another little wooden footbridge, the muddy path forked into 2 tracks which seemed to lead in completely opposite directions. Again, no signposts or helpful stone arrows here. So again I decided to ignore my initial instinct and instead of taking the path to the right I opted for the steeper one on the left. Soon, comforting stone arrows began appearing at regular intervals so I knew that, somehow, I was still on the right track.
By 11.30 I spot a large cairn and one of the Kirkconnel Heritage Society geology boards on a wonderful spot looking down over the route I had just walked. It was a very welcome marker to come to after the ascent to reach it.
I continue up and up, keeping to the fence again as the ground was flatter and drier here and the actual footpath wasn’t very clear. The sight of the ‘golf ball’ which looks over Wanlockhead was visible from this point which was a huge spirit-lifter. As long as I could see that then I knew I was definitely heading in the right direction. I soon spot another large cairn and geology board, although somehow I was on the wrong side of the fence. I climb over and find that the actual sign on the cairn was missing so now I’m not quite sure which way to head. Do I continue up the hills or do I head down the fields to the farm I can see which I think sits on the Crawford John road?
At exactly midday I decide to stop for a 15 minute lunch break and use the time to figure out what to do. Part of me really wanted to continue upwards but I began to feel a little bit of time-pressure and I couldn’t afford to make any major mistakes which would set me back any more than an hour. I certainly didn’t want to be still walking after the sun had set. Eventually I decided to head down to reach the road as I was sure I had read that part of this walk did indeed lead you along the B740 (the Crawford John road), but really, between 12.15 and 1.15 I was essentially lost. I turn left onto the road after cutting through the eerily deserted Corsebank Farm and follow the road upwards. I didn’t actually know if I was heading in the right direction or if I was going totally off track and it was a little bit exciting and a little bit worrying. The golf ball was no longer visible from this point so I just stuck to the rough path beside the river and continued on.
Finally, after about 20 minutes of walking up the road I spot a signpost! I was going the right way after all! Whilst on this road a lorry, a van and 2 cars went past me – this was pretty much the full extent of the contact I had with other humans during my whole 7 hour journey. The sign told me it was 5 miles to Wanlockhead – I was two thirds into my adventure and I suddenly felt a bit sad about it ending. The path lead me over a couple of concrete bridges and then up a track which was the most ‘road-like’ part of the walk (other than the actual road bit of course).
The track now leads through pine forests and recently harvested forest space. The long winding ribbon of road leads up and down, curving around the undulating terrain for 2 hours. This was perhaps my least favourite part of the walk – the views weren’t quite as spectacular as earlier sections and the harvested forest was quite a desolate and unattractive sight. But I did have a companion for this stretch – a crow flying above me, calling down during the whole of the forest walk. I chatted away to him and squawked back up to him, but then I wondered if maybe he was waiting for me to collapse so he could peck at my flesh. Perhaps he wasn’t my friend after all.
Without realising that it had happened, the forest was soon behind me and once again the golf ball atop Lowther Hill was in sight. Another cairn tells me I am now just 2.8 miles from Wanlockhead and before long the path begins to fall down towards the familiar terrain of Wanlock Water, an area I was exploring the previous day. As to be expected, I spotted a couple of gold panners down in the water, possibly the same pair I’d seen further down stream yesterday. The easy, flat path leads past the fascinating scattered ruins of various old mine buildings which I absolutely love. It was 3.30 by this point and the light was already beginning to fade rapidly but thankfully I knew I had no more than half an hour left. Although I was feeling a little tired by this point, and my feet were rather blistered, I did feel quite sad about the walk coming to an end – if it had been the lighter spring/summer months then I would have lingered and explored this area for longer.
I reached the Wanlockhead Inn at exactly 4pm, stupidly excited about having a pint – hours earlier I had actually decided to order a pint and a rum & coke as a special treat – so I bounded up the road in a manner quite unlike someone who had just walked 15 miles. Arrive at the pub to find it closed. Oh well, I still had some apple juice in my rucksack so I pretended it was cider and sat on the bench to enjoy the pretty sight looking down onto Wanlockhead village, watching the chimney smoke rising up from the cottages into the darkening sky.
Much as I was more than willing to turn around and do the walk in reverse to get back home, I wasn’t going to push my luck and I already had a lift organised anyway. And besides, I didn’t have a torch or compass so it probably wouldn’t have been wise. I’ll wait until spring and challenge myself again and do twice the distance I did today. I’ll probably end up with double the amount of blisters I have now, but I’ll be sure to have double the amount of fun.