I wasn’t going to write up this adventure, but then I realised that by writing about it, it helps to reiterate to myself how very stupid I can be. And then hopefully, at some point, I might start to pay attention to my own advice and experiences.
So, after eating the last of the Christmas mince pies on Saturday evening, I realised that we were four days into the new decade and I hadn’t had a big adventure yet. After a bit of negotiation with my other half I was granted my first child-free day in ages; just as long as I was back by 4 pm so that he could watch the football in peace then I could have a few hours of freedom.
The weather forecast for Sunday looked pretty much perfect for the time of year – just 10 or 20% chance of precipitation all day, along with very good visibility and temperatures up to a positively tropical 7 or 8 degrees. I should add that my planned walk was up in the hills, but I checked the forecast for both Murkirk and Kirkconnel (which sat at each end of my route) and I figured since it looked fine in both those places, then the hilly bit in the middle must also be okay. That was my first mistake.
Anyway, I set off at 5.50 am under a starless sky and a light misty rain. I had planned this 23 mile looping figure-8 route to take in a large chunk of the first of my Upper Nithsdale Poetry Trails, mainly because I wanted to take some decent photos from the top of a couple of the hills; I have been unsuccessful every time I have walked that area before but I felt sure that today was going to be the right day for it. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
Exactly an hour after setting off, I was sitting on a stile at the foot of Kirkland Hill, listening to the annoying chorus of a million angry dogs from the cottage below me (the spot marked as 3 on the map). It was pitch black and my head torch had already died (possibly because it wasn’t fully charged cos I couldn’t find the charger), but I still had a little camping lantern and the torch on my phone so I wasn’t completely without light; it just wasn’t ideal. Anyway, feeling very sure of myself I powered up Kirkland Hill, confident in thinking that I knew this hill well enough for it not to matter that I couldn’t really see where I was going.
As it turned out, I clearly didn’t know the hill well enough – or at least I didn’t know it in the dark. Had I not learnt anything from my Southern Upland Way experiences?! To cut a foolish story short, I veered off the path too low down and came quite close to plummeting 50 foot into Glen Aylmer. It is perhaps not best to dwell on this matter. Thankfully I found one of those little bits you often find on steep hillsides where the surface has eroded away and left a little semi-circular half-shelter so I curled up there and decided to wait until it was closer to first light before I continued on. Clinging on to a ridiculously steep, wet, muddy, rocky hillside in the dark is not really a great way to spend a Sunday morning.
By 7.30 the sky was beginning to change from black as coal to an inky faded hue, until the lantern was no longer necessary; by 8 am I was off the hill in normal daylight and down onto the welcome gravel of the Fingland road. Thankfully my silly experiences on the hillside were over and another good lesson learnt: it is harder to see where you are going in the dark. What a revelation! After taking the left-hand track at the farm, signposted for Muirkirk (rather than the right-hand path which leads to Wanlockhead), an hour later I was eating my poor excuse for a breakfast in the little quarry opposite Mount Stuart and exactly an hour after this, at 10 am I was at the bottom of Stony Hill (point no.9 on the map below).
Up until this point the weather had been treating me very kindly; dry and mild and no wind – although the hill I was about to ascend was shrouded in thick mist from about half way up which was a bit annoying. Ever the optimist, I was certain the mist would clear away to reveal to crystal-cut views by the time I reached the summit – but then, just as I was tucking into a packet of Monster Munch and drinking the last of my coffee under the shelter of the trees at the foot of the hill, the rain began.
It was the thick, sucking, gloopy mud-bog on the slopes of Stony Hill which nearly made me retreat ten minutes later. But I battled on, mostly because this was the part of the walk I was most looking forward to – at this point you leave Dumfries & Galloway and enter East Ayrshire, before stepping over into South Lanarkshire if you want to; not far from Stony Hill it is in fact possible to stand in all three counties at once. My plan was to then continue up, following the county border line along the forest edge to reach Cairn Table (although I was starting to wonder whether that might be a foolish mission).
Halfway up Stony Hill I accepted that I wasn’t going to get any good views, but I figured that as long as I made it to the cairn then at least I had achieved a goal. But when I reached the first plateau, with the howling wind and the rain slashing at my face, and my feet sinking into the soggy peat with every step, the path vanished into the swirling white mist. After a few minutes of slight panic I made a very sensible grownup decision and decided that it was definitely time to descend. The hills weren’t going anywhere and I felt that I had already risked my life enough for one day. Normally I don’t like to be so defeatist but it is also a good idea to try and stay alive.
So, frustratingly I didn’t finish the whole loop as laid out on the map below but I’ll give it another go again soon, although perhaps I won’t set off in the dark next time. But, despite everything, at least I kept my side of the bargain and made it home before the football.
The whole planned route…to be finished at a later date!