Taking to the hills in southern Scotland

By Richard Scott 3 June 2014
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Never mind the Highlands. Just across England’s border is Scotland’s best-kept secret – the beautiful, wild hill country of Dumfries and Galloway.

AT THE TOP of Screel Hill, in the green backwoods of southern Scotland, we’re eating caramel shortbread and sipping whisky out of little plastic cups.

It’s a clear, crisp autumn afternoon at the rocky peak of the Galloway Forest, with the hazy outline of England’s Lake District to the east across the choppy Solway Firth, and the lonely Isle of Man to the south.

We’re taking a breather, following a fairly gut-busting ascent, but our host, Galloway Holidays’ Robin Hogg, in his late 50s, looks far from weary. “Perhaps it’s that [Scottish] air,” says Robin, pouring himself a cup of tea. “Or just this morning’s porridge. But climbing these hills is really nae bother.”

Then – seemingly on cue – we spot two bandy-legged Scotsmen and their terrier bounding over the same cliff top we’ve barely just conquered. And they’re making light work of it, charging towards us. “Just taking the dog for a wee walk,” they say.
Really? It’s an unusual place, Scotland.

The open secret of southern Scotland

Dumfries and Galloway has a reputation for being Scotland’s “best-kept secret”. The region might not receive the same fanfare as the Highlands or Ben Nevis or the Loch Ness monster, yet for the outdoor enthusiast south-west Scotland is a Shangri-la of varied terrain.

From the sprawling, 780sq.km Galloway Forest Park to the expansive 380km of the Solway Coast, the region’s ever-changing backdrop of valleys, hills, glens, mountains and coastline means that a walker, cyclist or mountain biker needn’t travel far to explore a new landscape.

Dumfries and Galloway is known for its red kites, red squirrels, stags, wild geese and osprey; Scotland’s first biosphere reserve; the darkest night skies in Europe; and it’s unique history (from Robert the Bruce to Robert Burns).

So that best-kept secret status is almost baffling. But you won’t see us complaining. Nor will you have to share the region with your typical throng of adventure tourists.

Perfect walking weather in Dumfries and Galloway

We’re off early in shorts and T-shirts. Perhaps not typical attire for a British October, but it’s a glorious day with just a scrape of frost underfoot. Perfect conditions for one of southern Scotland’s greatest walks.

The Solway Coast stretches for more than 380km, most of which is walkable, signposted and well serviced. We’ve been instructed to navigate the Solway Coast Heritage Trail, from the tidal flats of Sandyhills, along the towering sea cliffs, down into the village of Rockcliffe and on to Kippford for a pint and a pub lunch. “I’ll give you a map,” offers Robin.

“But there’s no real need. Just keep walking, make sure the ocean’s on your left and try not to fall off.”

At low tide, the dark flats of Sandyhills are vast, revealing acres of slightly undulant seabed, huge wooden fishing-net frames and – strangely – a former RAF target, a remnant from WWII bombing practice.

The path (more like a goat or cattle trail, and muddy in parts) leads gradually up the cliff face, revealing spectacular views across the Solway Firth, including the silhouette of the English coast (Cumbria) and the isolated Isle of Man.

To our left, dark wooded promontories fall away to secluded stone bays, smugglers’ coves and rocky headlands. On our right is the lush green of open farmland, low rolling hills and wee coastal hamlets.

A contrast made all the more impressive by the unseasonably bright sky.

With the exception of the sharp wind, seabirds and occasional sheep bleats, it’s a very peaceful hike. We don’t see another living soul for the first hour.

Most of the walk is through privately owned farmland. We pass herds of sheep and sleeping cattle, not much bothered by our presence. We’re free to wander thanks to Scotland’s unusual – and age-old – treaty allowing walkers to go where they like. Hikers are asked to respect the “leave the gates as you found them” rule and that’s about it.

Evidence of Scotland’s often-violent history can be spotted along the way – a crumbling garrison, a solitary gravestone. But most well known is the Mote of Mark, now a blink and you’ll miss it clearing, once the site of a fifth-century hill fort.

Quaint, handmade wooden signs are dotted along the way, telling you how many miles until the next hamlet (remember, one mile is about 1.6km), but largely the track is unmarked. Do watch out for the occasional sheer cliff drop – there are no handrails.

The walk rises and falls, up along barren cliff tops and dipping down into tiny enclaves of white homes and colourful gardens. The track is relatively solid underfoot, no scree.
Even in our dry, fair conditions (the mercury hovered around 22°C), there are still boggy sections.

After two and a half hours of solid rambling, the enclaves turn to hamlets, which in turn morph into villages and the peculiar shingle beaches of Rockcliffe. Here, the temptation to buy a 99p soft serve from a Mr Whippy is too powerful to resist.

We make it just in time for a much-needed pint of Belhaven Best and a pub lunch (the kitchen closes at 2.30pm sharp) at Kippford’s Anchor Hotel. We sit outside, beside the banks of the River Urr, as it joins the Solway estuary, with the hills behind us, ploughing into a monstrously large bowl of seafood chowder.

The waterside village of Kippford was once a quiet fishing spot. But word has spread to the city dwellers and more land is being snapped up for holiday accommodation. The secret may well be out.

Today’s walk (about 6.5km) is just one of numerous hikes in this part of the world, with other destinations including Criffel Hill, the Waterloo Monument and Repentance Tower.

Passing cattle clusters in the south of Scotland

It seems there’s a castle every five miles. In fact, less than four hours after leaving London we head for a 14th-century stronghold, weaving in and out of paddocks on hybrid bikes.

The remote Threave Castle is on a tiny island in the River Dee and can only be accessed by boat. We park our bikes and ring the bell for the “custodian” to ferry us across.

Two days later we are visiting Drumlanrig, another ancient stronghold and home to the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry. But this time we’re not here to admire castles. We’ve come to do some serious mountain biking.

Deep within the sprawling 36,500ha of the Queensberry Estate, you’ll find some of the finest and diverse natural MTB trails in the country. We tear through the Drumlanrig woodlands, whipping through a combo of quite technical single-track, thin wooden structures and root-strewn berms, then more open, swooping fire trails and country roads. The course is purpose-built for all riders, with tracks graded from blue “copy cat” routes to more severe and sharper black runs.

And by “purpose-built”, I mean “by hand”, because each track here was painstakingly hand-dug (by renowned track builder Rik Allsop) to ensure the ride flows as naturally as possible. The scenery – woods, lochs and gullies – is simply outrageous, if not a little blurry. You can BYO MTB or rent one from Rik’s Bike Shed, in the grounds of Drumlanrig Castle.

Next to the bike shop, which also specialises in spares and repairs, is the Scottish Cycle Museum. Local blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan invented the world’s first bicycle nearby in 1839 and you can see a replica of his clunky-looking ride in the museum.

Riding the 7stanes Mountain Bike Trails

Dumfries and Galloway is home to the famed 7stanes Mountain Bike Trails – MTB centres in seven forest locations. Each park is enormous, with huge selections of graded track, cross-country single track, skills parks, jump parks and extreme downhill sections.

We ride out from Dalbeattie, home to the Hardrock Challenge and the notorious Slab, an ominous, sheer, granite obstacle guaranteed to snap the necks of the less experienced. We opt for the 14km Moyle Hill blue trail, starting with a gentle pedal through the bogs of Richorn Plantation on raised timber singletrack, before a steady climb up the forest road of Moyle Hill.

There we stop to admire the view.

Then we are off, careering down wide gravelly trail and fast-flowing singletrack that sends us hurtling into the forest below. Hair-raising stuff. Even on a relatively moderate course.

Eating at Castle Douglas

“People are always saying to me, ‘Och, it’s so lovely and green round here’,” says publican and brewer Jim Henderson. “I say, ‘Don’t kid yerself. It’s not green – it’s bloody mould’.”

We’re sat at the bar of the Sulwath Brewers in the town of Castle Douglas, our bikes propped up outside. Jim has very kindly let our photographer, Josephine, behind the bar to flirt and pour pints. She proudly serves up a Galloway Gold lager and a Criffel IPA, both brewed onsite, which go down a treat with a pie from the local butcher’s and a pickled egg.

Dinner that night, at the Kings Arms Hotel in Castle Douglas, continues the theme – haggis, followed by a hearty seafood mornay and the Rob Roy, an obscenely tasty sundae of butterscotch, biscuit and whipped cream.

Whisky on High at Scree Hill

Screel Hill, our destination for mountain-top whisky-drinking, is a short walk – just 6km. At 344m, it isn’t even the tallest hill in the region (the neighbouring hills of the Galloway Forest Park are just under 1000m), but it’s certainly a tough little bugger to climb.

A tidy track leads into a forest of large pines. The ground instantly becomes rougher and the ascent steeper until you emerge in an open clearing of heather and bracken. Half way up, you’ll mercifully spot a bench overlooking the infamous smugglers’ hideout of Auchencairn Bay.

Onwards and upwards – the uneven rocky path becomes so steep in parts you’ll have to clamber on all fours.

We reach a highpoint as the sun sets and an eagle circles above. The views are panoramic and jaw dropping. We are surrounded by hills with names pulled from horror movies –  Awful Hand, Dungeon Range and the Rhinns of Kells. And, if you squint, you can make out the miniature outline of Threave Castle below.

On we plod, the route becoming muddier and more slippery and boggy until we arrive at our destination, the Screel cairn. We perch on this mound of loose stones, swapping stories and munching on Robin’s light refreshments. It’s still and eerie up here.

The loneliness of the wilderness is offset somewhat by the whisky and cakes. We hear how locals once carried up a grand piano on their backs for a “good ol’ knees up”. Which is madness.

And just when I begin to feel my leg being pulled, out in the distance, we spot those two runners and Jake the Jack Russell coming over yonder hill, making their mad, presumably porridge-fuelled dash towards us…

The Essentials

Getting there:
Trains run from London’s Euston station to Lockerbie (less than four hours). Tickets – depending on season – are about $150 return. Edinburgh or Glasgow to Lockerbie is one hour. Galloway Holidays will pick up visitors at the station and transport to them to the town of Castle Douglas. Alternatively, fly to Edinburgh, Glasgow or Newcastle and make your way to Lockerbie or Dumfries by train or car.

Staying there:
We stayed at Robin and Tina Hogg’s stylish B&B, complete with a swim spa and an amazing homemade breakfast each morning. Doubles start from about $112. See summerhillbandb.co.uk.

Getting around:
Robin Hogg runs Galloway Holidays. Whether you’re after cycling, hiking, history, paddling or wildlife, Robin can create a personal itinerary for your group, and help arrange Glasgow or Edinburgh city breaks or a Highlands tour. He also acts as a tour guide and has a mini-bus for transporting visitors. See gallowayholidays.co.uk.


Where to eat:
Castle Douglas (themed as a “Food Town”) has a range of options, from pubs to upmarket restaurants. Try haggis at the Kings Arms or enjoy delicious Italian in a romantic atmosphere at Carlo’s.


When to go:
Summer is peak season, so book in advance. You can expect a high of 26°C during the day and longer sunlight hours (sunset is at about 10pm). Rain is a constant likelihood, so pack appropriate gear. We travelled in October and were blessed with mild temperatures and sunny, blue skies, but it’s always a gamble. 2014 is the Year of Homecoming, when travellers may join celebrations of traditional life.

Gear: BYO cycles and kayaks, or Robin can provide bicycles for touring. Mountain bikes can be hired from MPG Cycles, Dalbeattie. We rode their Kona and Merida 29ers.

More info: www.visitscotland.com