Published 19 March 2012. Last updated 25 April 2013
Southern Upland Way
Length: 212 miles, 341 km
Time required: about 3 weeks
Region: South Scotland
Start: Portpatrick, Dumfries and Galloway
End: Cockburnspath, Scottish Borders
Of all the walks I've done, it's the Southern Upland Way that I'm most proud of completing. It was a true adventure, walking across a part of Britain that few explore but which is well worth a visit. There's something quite amazing about spending the day knowing that there's so few people out there; that you're probably the only person enjoying these views.
Due to several long stretches without accommodation it's also an ideal walk if you want to try wild camping or staying in bothies, but thanks to the wonders of the motor vehicle it's not compulsory. You can easily arrange to stay in a nice B&B and pop to the pub every night too. All it requires is a little organisation.
The Southern Upland Way is a varied walk, with a wide range of scenery. The walk includes moorland and some river and loch-side walking. The western section does include a lot of forest walking, whilst the eastern side passes through the towns of Galashiels and Melrose which adds a different slant to proceedings, whilst the former mining village of Wanlockhead provides an interesting set of industrial scenery. As you'd expect from a coast to coast route, it also involves cliffs and the sea at each end.
Although it passes through two towns, much of the walk goes through a quiet and isolated part of the country and it's not uncommon to spend a day walking without seeing another person.
For the most part the walk is not particularly difficult. There aren't many steep climbs, and accommodation can usually be found at intervals deemed reasonable for most walkers. There are a couple of sections which are too long for most people to walk in a day, however lifts can be arranged. The quality of the paths can be varied, with several muddy and boggy sections. Whilst well waymarked, the ability to use a map and a compass is essential.
A great way to do the Southern Upland Way is camping. This gives you a wonderful level of flexibility, helped by the fact that wild camping is legal in Scotland.
However if you're not planning on camping, you'll probably want to work out an itinerary. This is made slightly more complicated because there are several long stretches with no accommodation en-route. There are a couple of ways to break up these long sections, and these are detailed later.
Unless otherwise noted, each town/village has, at very least, a pub and a shop. Locations with a railway station are marked with a *.
|2||Stranraer *||New Luce||11¼||18|
|4||Bargrennan||St John's Town of Dalry||22||34|||
|5||St John's Town of Dalry||Sanquhar *||26||42|||
|8||Beattock||St Mary's Loch||21||34|
|9||St Mary's Loch||Traquair||12||19|||
|15||Ellemford Bridge||Abbey St Bathans||3||5|||
|16||Abbey St Bathans||Cockburnspath||10||16|||
To do the Southern Upland Way all in one go requires about three weeks and, let us be honest here, not all of us have that amount of free time to dedicate to one walk. If you can, you'll get a great sense of achievement by doing it that way, but if you can't then it's possible to walk the whole route in a couple of stages.
If you want to break it into two stages the best bet is to break at Moffatt, which is nearly half way along. From here you can catch a bus to
To split in to three stages, break first at Sanquhar, and secondly at Galashiels or Melrose.
Sanquhar has train services to Carlisle and Glasgow, both have excellent rail connections for services across the country. Both Galashiels and Melrose have hourly bus connections which will take you to either Edinburgh and Berwick-upon-Tweed, and naturally both of these have excellent rail links with connections across the UK.
Unless you fancy walking twenty file miles for two days in a row, you'll want to break up the long Bargrennan to Sanquhar section.
How you do this depends on whether you plan to use vehicle support or stay in bothies, or are using vehicle support.
If you're planning to use vehicle support from SouthernUplandWay.com (or potentially from your accommodation provider) then this section is split over three days, passing through Dalry. You will be picked up and dropped off at two pick up points, and will stay in Dalry for two nights. Each pick up point has a wooden sign (attached to a standard Southern Upland Way finger post) which says "Pick Up Point")
|Bargrennan to Sanquar using vehicle support|
If using bothies you can split the section up over four days. Distances here are approximate.
|Bargrennan to Sanquar using bothies|
|1||Bargrennan||White Laggan Bothy (Loch Trool)||11||17½km|
|2||White Laggan Bothy||St John's Town of Dalry||11||17½km|
|3||St John's Town of Dalry||Polskeoch (Chalk Memorial Bothy)||16½||27|
|4||Polskeoch (Chalk Memorial Bothy)||Sanquhar||9½||15|||
If you're walking for a week or more then you're probably going to want to factor in a few rest days here and there and use the time to check out some of the local tourist attractions whilst resting your legs. The obvious places to do this are:
Whilst the Southern Upland Way tends to avoid going through villages and towns itself, it does pass near a reasonable amount of accommodation. For the most part, there is usually plenty close to the trail itself, however the far eastern section has a serious shortage of en-route B&Bs so you may need to travel a few miles to get a bed. In this section it is especially advisable to book accommodation in advance.
The trail officers publish a comprehensive accommodation guide every year. This can be viewed on the Southern Upland Way website. Printed versions are also readily available, either from Southern Upland Way leaflet boxes en-route, or from local tourist information centres.
For those preferring hostels, you are not in for much luck as the SYHA has, over recent years, closed most of its hostels on or near the route. From February 2012 only one remains. Broadmeadows is inbetween Innerliethen and Galashiels. The SYHA announced in November 2011 it's intent to close Broadmeadows hostel, however it was given a temporary reprieve for the 2012 season. As of October 2012, no announcement has been made for the 2013 season.
You may find references to hostels at Abbey St Bathans, Kendoon, Melrose and Wanlockhead however these have all closed.
Bothies are simple, unlocked and unmanned shelters and there are six of them on the Southern Upland Way, concentrated on the western section.
The bothies are either maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association or the Southern Upland Way ranger service. Staying in one is easy - just turn up and let yourself in. You may have the place to yourself, or you may have to share.
You'll need a sleeping bag, cooking equipment and food. Each has an excellent water source but you'll still want some way to purify water (a good, cheap option is the Traveltap by Drinksafe systems - see our video review.) None have toilets nor running water so you will need to be prepared. If you need some advice in that respect, there's a handy book available [link to book]. Bothies are normally marked on maps, either by name or just by "bothy".
The bothies (and their Ordnance Survey grid references) are:
You may find references to Manquill bothy on some web pages, however this is now a private property, so keep on going to Poleskeoch.
When using bothies, do so responsibly. Leave the place clean and tidy and always take your rubbish away with you - these are unmanned buildings, usually maintained by volunteers and they don't get a bin collection. Something that not all bothy users seem to realise...
If you fancy being more flexible in your itinerary then the Southern Upland Way is ideal for camping. There are regular camp sites along the route, listed in the Southern Upland Way accommodation guide.
Unlike in England and Wales, wild camping is completely legal as long as you follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, and because the Southern Upland Way goes through plenty of wild and remote areas, it is an ideal route to try it.
From personal experience however, finding a wild camping spot can be difficult due to livestock grazing, nearby buildings (you should always camp out of sight of buildings) and lack of water supplies. If you're prepared to wild camp away from a fresh water source or a short way off the trail then you'll have more options, however if (like me) you like to camp near water and on the route, here are some ideas of good places I spotted whilst walking:
If you've any additions or suggestions, let me know in the comments box at the bottom of the page.
Frankly getting to and from the start and end of Southern Upland Way is a bit of a faff.
On the west coast, Portpatrick has no railway station. The nearest station is 10 miles away at Stranraer. Hourly buses run between the two. Trains to Stranraer run roughly every two hours from Glasgow, however intervals do vary. Ferries also come in to nearby Cairnryan from Belfast.
On the east coast, Cockburnspath has no railway station. There are hourly buses alternately run by First Edinburgh and Perrymans buses. These connect the village with Edinburgh and Berwick-upon-Tweed. In each case the journey takes roughly an hour. Both Berwick and Edinburgh are on the East Coast Mainline and have excellent rail connections with the rest of the UK. Note that when I travelled, the First Edinburgh bus ran as "exact fare only" with no change given. Their website says that services in the Borders do give change, but this was not my experience.
In between Portpatrick and Cockburnspath there are only two railway stations on or near the route. One is the aforementioned Stranraer, and the other is at Sanquhar. Sanquhar has services to Edinburgh and Carlisle. In the future the line to Galashiels will re-open, but it's not there yet!
All information on railways can be found on the National Rail website.
The official guide book to the Southern Upland Way is published by Mercat Press. Published in 2005, it could do with a little updating in some areas (including its list of youth hostels!) and it doesn't include detailed text instructions. The size and weight of the tome mean it's not easy to keep in your pocket, so is most useful to use to find out about the local history and information. The book also includes a wide range of shorter walks based on the route.
The guide book comes in a plastic cover which also contains with two maps covering the whole route. These are based on the Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 scale Landranger maps. They're not particularly durable, being printed on glossy paper, so be advised to have some sticky tape in your pack to effect repairs! I certainly needed to.
In my experience, the official guide book is very difficult to get hold of in shops - after an extensive trawl of booksellers in London and Edinburgh (including renowned travel book shop, Stanfords) I finally tracked it down in Blackwalls in Edinburgh. Thankfully you'll find it online at Amazon.
There is also a Cicerone guide book for the route, which is equally difficult to get hold of.
If you'd just prefer to use maps, well I'd suggest buying the guidebook anyway as you'll need 8 Ordnance Survey Landranger maps to cover the whole walk, and 13 at the higher Explorer scale. The maps that come with the guide book will take up far less space. Not deterred? Well these are the ones you'll want:
The Ranger Service publish a wide range of leaflets (some of it based on the contents of the official guidebook) and these are available in tourist information centres and in leaflet boxes on the route. Along with information panels, they tell the walker about history, geography, wildlife and geology. You'll find much of the information on the official Southern Upland Way website.
And if you fancy some lighter reading, you can catch up with my own exploits on the walk in The Secret Coast to Coast, available for Kindle, and in ePub and PDF.
A free competition certificate is available from the Southern Upload Way website.
Because the official guidebook doesn't really have any text based instructions, you're going to be reliant on signposts and maps to get around. The waymarking on the Southern Upland Way is generally excellent, and the route usually very obvious, however maps still are a must, especially when traversing moorland or trying to find your way to accommodation.
There are several online guides like How To Use A Compass and Getting to Know Map and Compass, and you may also find training courses in your area - many YHA hostels host them for example. Check local press for details.
Knowing how to use a map and compass together will really help you and will (hopefully!) stop you getting lost.
When I was out on the Southern Upland Way I barely saw anyone, and those that I did were mostly day walkers. This was a real shame because the Southern Upland Way is an excellent walk that deserves to be better known.
It goes through some stunning scenery, through one of the least populated regions of the UK - seriously, there's not many people in the Scottish Borders.
To top it all, it has to the walk that has the most impressive examples of public art on a long distance footpath. When you stand beneath Andy Goldsworthy's Striding Arches and realise how few people ever see them, you feel very special indeed.
So go on. The Southern Upland Way is something special adventure. Get your plans made and your boots on. You won't regret it.
And if you've any questions about the route, just use the comments box below.