Day 57: Uplands
Melrose to Innerleithen. 19.7 miles. Miles to date: 858.1.
When I left well-to-do Melrose this morning I was still trying to work out why yesterday’s walk did nothing for me.
I'd been pondering it over my woeful veg burger for dinner last night and over a mean-sized breakfast this morning.
I was still considering it as I started out along the flower-banked Tweed, watching fly fisherman cast into the wide, clear waters.
And I was still thinking it through it as I walked over the A6091 bridge connecting Tweedbank and Galashiels.
Then, as I left a pocket of woodland on Hog Hill and the Southern Uplands opened before me, I realised what it was.
After walking the best part of 800 miles to reach Scotland, I wanted Scotland. And what yesterday's walk offered was a few villages, lanes and pastures that could, if you closed your ear to the accent and turned a blind eye to the new banknotes – have been pretty much anywhere in Britain.
As today's miles rolled by and the hills became mountains, and the fragrance of heather and pine filled the air, my smile returned.
This was it. This was what I’d been waiting for.
Bench with a view.
Walking beside the Tweed.
The St Cuthbert’s Way, which I'd followed for 40 miles from Kirk Yetholm, terminates in Melrose. So today I switched allegiances and joined the Southern Upland Way, Scotland’s equivalent of England's Coast to Coast Walk. It runs from Portpatrick on the west coast to Cockburnspath on the east, sticking largely to wild country for 212 miles.
My first hour on the Way was awkward. Instead of following the lovely Tweed as it curves between Darnick and Tweedbank the Way opts, instead, to visit the tourist honeypots of a business park and Tweedbank railway station. On the sprawling outskirts of Galashiels it performs all kinds of drunken navigational jiggery pokery as it tries to find its way back into the hills. You got the feeling that while the trail’s creators loved their mountains, towns caused them headaches. I followed Robinson's pleasant Gala Hill diversion instead.
Nevertheless, the moment it got up high the Way's throttle opened and wow, was it good.
How did I never know about this area?, I wondered, as I romped through pine forests, along heather ridges, over meadow and moor. Streams tumbled down valleys into the sparkling Tweed that snaked the valleys far below. On terraced paths bilberries were in full fruit while foxgloves, honeysuckle and rosebay willowherb flecked pinks and orange onto the landscape. On the moors curlews called. On the floodplains oystercatchers chatted as they picked for worms.
It didn't matter that the skies were – again – heavy. Nor that on the high point of Minch Moor clouds were drifting through the pines. Instead the weather gave drama to the mountains, that receded for mile upon mile, in a hundred different forms, into dewey mist.
Discovering new parts of the country was one of the reasons I set out on this walk. But I hadn’t anticipated discovering an entire mountain range en route.
Crossing the Tweed (there's a lot of that as you walk through the Borders). The hill behind is Eldon Mid Hill.
There were seats all along the walk giving tired legs ample opportunity to rest.
First view of the hills ahead.
The landscape is predominantly either grazed moorland or forestry. There are trees everywhere (yay!).
These, then, are the Southern Uplands – the first of three Scottish geographic bands the LeJog walker reaches (in the next few days I'll pass through the Central Lowlands and shortly after I'll enter the Highlands).
The Uplands form a wide belt of hilly rural countryside from the Atlantic to the North Sea, stretching 40–50 miles north of the English border. Villages are few and far between, towns even fewer. Mountains define the landscape.
Sure, these aren't the dramatic Munro heights and highlights of the northwest. But standing on Lucken Head all I could see, in every direction, were hills. In the southwest the peaks got higher in steps until they were lost in cloud. This swathe of mountains contains numerous ranges – the Moffat Hills, the Ettrick Hills, the Moorfoots, Carsphairns and Scaurs to name a few – and over 120 Marilyns. If you had the time and inclination you could walk from here to the west coast on high ground. And what a walk it would be. Not only that, you’d avoid the Munro-bagging crowds: during eight hours on the hills I saw just one other walker. And he wasn’t the chatty kind.
Over the Tweed (again).
Stiff climb into the Forestry Commission's Tweed Valley Country Park.
Not a soul, a farm or a village to be seen.
The paths were all beautifully maintained and dry underfoot.
The Three Brethren – a trio of massive, solidly built cairns dating back to the 1500s that mark the meeting of the estate lands belonging to the lairds of Selkirk, Philliphaugh and Yair. A new fence has been built that isolates each 'brother' – to stop them bickering?
Retrospective of the Eildon hills – which seemed always to be on the horizon.
By the time I sat down for lunch I was back in the LeJog swing of things.
It wasn't just that I was pleased to be back in the mountains. Or that this was my first long-awaited taste of upland Scotland. More than that, it's impossible for walkers in these parts not to feel like they're welcome.
I felt it on St Cuthbert's Way and it was clear again today with every waymark and every mile of carefully maintained trail. So good is the ground underfoot I was doing a quicker pace than I do on tarmac – with views 20 times better. There were small details too: benches placed along the trail that gave weary legs a chance to rest and – even better – picnic tables above Yair Bridge that could only have been placed there for walkers.
Clear signs everywhere.
Towards Minch Moor.
Mountains: as far as the eye could see.
Here’s the thing.
For the walker the biggest change when you cross the border and enter Scotland isn’t the addition of congealed blood to cooked breakfasts. It’s the fact that when you look on your map there are no public rights of way. No comforting green dotted lines that show you where it's OK to walk.
This is because the legislation governing access is different north of the border. And far better.
In England the public has the right to use public rights of way. On maps these are shown in green. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000) enshrined the additional right to roam across parts of the countryside in England and Wales that are defined (and shown on maps) as open access. These tend to cover mountains, moors and commons.
One of the first major acts legislated by the devolved Scottish Parliament was to enshrine in law the right for the public to access almost all land – including farmland – unless it’s around a private house or building. As a consequence Scotland has some of the best access rights in the world.
This freedom is at the same time intoxicating and bewildering; if you can walk anywhere, where should you walk? So you start reading the maps differently. Instead of looking for dotted green lines you look instead for dotted black lines – paths, instead of rights of way. Geographical entities instead of legal ones.
And while in parts of England I was faced by a wearying array of attempts to deter the walker (vandalised waymarks, locked gates, electric fences over paths, bulls in paddocks, ploughed fields etc etc etc), so far almost every footpath and track in Scotland has been a pleasure to follow.
'Point of Resolution' – a piece of 'living sculpture'. Apparent circles that, on the ground, are not circles at all but large oblongs. All slightly odd but hats off to whoever's investing time and money in creating points of interest on the Trail.
Descending towards Traquair you come across a ruined stone gateway, overgrown by bracken, decorated with dozens of slate plaques commemorating horses. Some slates contain just names ('Player', 'Old Man', 'Stormy Weather'), others have inscribed memories of clearly much loved horses. It is another art installation, this time by Catriona Taylor. I found it rather moving.
The drove road descent to Traquair.
As the walk comes to a close the trail leads down the shoulder of Minch Moor over Archean's Bog, past Pipers Knowe and towards the hamlet of Traquair. In this area of long-ago felled forestry, the hillsides are budding with new life – birch, juniper, rowan and Scots pine give shrubby canopy to fern, heather and foxgloves.
There's no accommodation in Traquair so I head off route and north to the hillside habitation of Innerleithen, flanked on all sides by high fells, including dramatic Pirn Craig – locally known as 'Rocky'. My AirBnB host is kind enough to walk out and meet me halfway to her house for what becomes an impromptu town tour.
It's a good end to a good day in which the welcome – on the upland trail and in the valleys – has given this weary walker something to smile about again.
Thank you Scotland.
Quair Water and Traquair.
Another crossing of the Tweed. Innerleithen can just be seen below the hill on the left.
'Shroom of the day.
Next: Day 58 – Innerleithen to Peebles.
Previous: Day 56 – Jedburgh to Melrose.