One of the most unexpected and most welcome traits offered up by the Upper Nithsdale region of South-west Scotland is the prevalence of outdoor sculptures and artwork in surprising places. For us this is an added bonus to an already spectacular area.
One of these sculpture projects is the Striding Arches by artist Andy Goldsworthy, located in the natural amphitheater of Cairnhead on the hills between Sanquhar and Moniaive. As the Striding Arches website explains, these stunning sculptures (created out of the same red sandstone which Rigg House is built from) ‘celebrates and interprets’ the area and is a ‘powerful and sensitive meeting of art and nature, amply satisfying one of the project’s own aims – to create a sense of place – and offering the visitor to this beautiful and unspoiled part of Britain a world-class experience’.
Yesterday I embarked on a mission to cycle/walk to the first of these arches to investigate whether it is a possible day trip to recommend to our guests. I set off from Rigg House at 5.30am, under the cover of a dark star-filled sky. For the first time in a very long time I took my bike with me and although I knew my limited cycling-fitness would probably prevent me from actually cycling up the steep parts of the track, cruising down the long descents was so much fun! By the time the sun rose at 8.40, I found myself at the top of Polskeoch Burn, just before the long winding descent down to Polskeoch Bothy.
It was 9.30 am by the time I reached the bothy, gathering a bit of firewood and kindling on the way. After an hour resting by the fire, very gladly utilising my new flask full of strong coffee and enjoying a breakfast consisting of a hearty Kinder Bueno, I continued on up the track as it wound up and around Wether Hill. This section of the path is part of the Dalry-Sanquhar stretch of Southern Upland Way walking route so just after you go past the quarry on the left, it is important to look out for the SUW signpost pointing to a narrow footpath leading up the hill, also on the left. This is the first part of my route which deviated from the track so it was nice to suddenly be walking on springy grass and moss rather than the hard, stony ground I had been on for hours.
This path leads you to Allan’s Cairn, a monument errected in 1857 in honour of Covenanters George Allan and Margaret Gracie who were shot were shot by dragoons under the command of Coupland and Grierson of Lag. This is yet another reminder of the horrific so-called ‘Killing Times’ which led to the deaths of 18,000 people in Scotland in a bloody political and religious struggle where simply praying or preaching the bible anywhere other than inside a church could lead to your murder. Here I stopped for 20 minutes to enjoy my lunch and spent the time thinking about the few Covenanter’s stories that I know of and spared a thought for all those who lost their lives during these troubled times. Things might be a long way off from perfect right now, in a political sense, but at least its not as bad as it was back in ‘the olden days’.
From this point the path crosses the main track and leads you through the aptly-named Good Bog (my favourite stretch to cycle along super fast), before spitting you out of the forest to a beautiful vista overlooking Cairn Hill. Before too long a signpost appeared, pointing up to Benbrack straight ahead, or to Colt Hill on the left. These are the locations of two of the Striding Arches. My original plan had been to to head to Benbrack but in the end I decided on the closer option of Colt Hill.
It was exactly 1pm when I reached the summit and came to the first Striding Arch which made me very happy indeed. It was blustery at the top but the stunning views looking out across the smooth-topped hills all around me made the whole mission worth it. From this vantage point I could clearly see the Benbrack Striding Arch on the far horizon but I decided to leave this for another day. Another signpost at the bottom of Colt Hill pointed down the track towards another of the sculptures, the Byre Arch, which will be another treat for another adventure. A further sculpture can be found on Bail Hill, just past the Byre Arch, although I might set off from Moniaive to get to these ones next time.
After a brief rest back in Polskeoch Bothy, just after 3pm I set back up the track up Low Black Hill, crossing Pot and Polvaddoch Burns before dipping down to Euchan Water. Although there are still a few small fairly steep ascents to tackle along the way, the long descents were so exciting (and faster) on my bike! I arrived back home just after 7pm, aching and hungry but very happy to have achieved another little goal.
I must admit that it is a little bit scary being in that forest alone after dark (especially after spending the previous two evenings binge watching a 6 part documentary entitled ‘Murder Mountain’ which was set in a forest environment in California, and looked a little bit similar to the terrain I was in), but that is all part of the challenge. I don’t usually spook easily but I will say that I was quite relieved to reach my front door! And after nearly 14 hours of not seeing another human being, it was a welcome treat to see my family again. But I am eagerly looking forward to Springtime when we’ll have more lovely daylight hours for longer adventures and now I certainly can’t wait to see the rest of the Striding Arches.