13 amazing things you’ll never forget about Walking the Southern Upland Way

Published 1 April 2018

Cottages at Cove Harbour
Cottages at Cove Harbour

Let’s be blunt. Every walk is different from another walk. Two people walking down the same path on the same day could end up with two very different experiences. But there will be common themes. Oh yes, there will be themes. And on the Southern Upland Way, those themes will probably look something like this:

1. Not being able to see the wood for the trees

Piles of cut logs in a commercial forest on the Southern Upland Way
Piles of logs in a forest near Sanquar

Oh there are a lot of trees on the Southern Upland Way. On the western half of the trail, it sometimes feels like there’s nothing but trees! Forests are just everywhere. If you like conifers and pines, boy have I got a walk for you!

2. Ruined castles, towers and abbeys

The ruins of Dryhope Tower, on the Southern Upland Way
Dryhope Tower Once a fortified residence, and now ruins.

The Southern Upland Way goes through the Scottish borders. Yes, this is border country. A land where once raiders reigned supreme, picking their victims off with little regard of whether the victims were English nor Scottish. So bad was the situation that during the reign of Elizabeth I, the option of rebuilding Hadrian’s Wall was seriously considered. With the need to be constantly alert against potential attack, fortified tower hours were built by many. The remains of several can be seen to this day across much of the trail.

3. There’s leaflets, just, like, everywhere!

A leaflet box on the Southern Upland Way
Get yer leaflets here!

Oh boy, do the Southern Upland Way ranger service love a leaflet! There’s leaflet boxes placed all over the place, where you can pick up the latest accommodation guide, or leaflets about wildlife or archeaology. This is combined with regular “information shelters” that provide route maps and local historical information. If you’ve ever walked another long distance walking trail and moaned about the lack of any information on its trail, this is the walking trail for you.

4. The bothies

Bothies. A basic shelter which is usually left unlocked and is available for anyone to use and stay in, free of charge. There’s a whopping five of them on the Southern Upland Way. And staying the night in one is an experience you’ll never want to forget!

5. Being pretty much alone…

The moorland of Glenwhan Moor
No one around on Glenwhan Moor

This is a walk through one of the least populated areas of Britain. For even in the height of summer, when you’re out on the Southern Upland Way, you’ll probably be alone. This is a great walk to escape from everything during the day, whilst still being able to get a pint and a good meal in the evening.

6. …most of the time

A rare glimpse of another walker on the Southern Upland Way
A rare glimpse of another walker on the Southern Upland Way

What’s weirder than spending day after day after day walking alone, without seeing anyone, than suddenly actually seeing someone out there! Someone else with a rucksack! Someone else in walking trousers!

It’s like so weird, dude. Completely unexpected. So when it happens, you naturally need to whip out your camera to confirm to yourself that you didn’t just imagine it.

7. The remnants of lead mining in a remote village

Remains of old mining wagons, rusting in the village of Wanlockhead
Once they carried lead out of the mine. Now they gently rust in the rain.

The Southern Upland has your standard set of rural walking variety. There’s the forests, the moors, the streams, the lakes, the villages and, of course, the former lead mines.

Hang on, the what now? Yes, the former lead mines.

Wanlockhead is the place you’ll find a post-industrial landscape of slag heaps, decaying former mine buildings, and rusting wagons on rails. The village is also home to a Museum of Lead Mining, with guided tours into the old mine workings. It’s well worth taking half a day off walking and spending that time exploring what the museum has to offer. Go, stand in a mine tunnel, and spend some time yourself trying to imagine what it would have been like to spend all day there working in the near dark. You’ll look at the hills in a whole different way after that.

8. Mysterious monuments on hillsides

The Three Brethren in the Southern Upland Way
The three giant brothers

On a hillside between Innerleithen and Galashiels, three giant stone cairns stand. These are the Three Brethren.

First built in the 16th century, they were put there by the Lairds of Selkirk, Philiphaugh and Yair. The spot marks the boundaries of their lands. One column for each.

Why bother? Who knows. It’s all kind of lost in time now. But there’s something about these three giants. The way they just stand there, close together. Huddling perhaps, as if for warmth. Kudos to the people of the Ordnance Survey who decided to add a fourth, pillar in more recent years. A whitewashed trig point now stands near them, making the number of monuments add to four.

For extra memorability, approach in fog. The way the columns loom in the cloud is rather eerie.

The two giant cairns known as Twin Law, with a white trig point in between
Two giant cairns, and a trig point too

They’re not the only mysterious monuments either. Further along on the Southern Upland Way, on the way from Melrose, stand another two. These are Twin Law. Two giant cairns from the middle ages, supposedly commemorating the death of two bothers. The story goes that the Scots and the Saxons were engaged in battle and each side sent out their champion to battle with their opposite number.

Both champions fought to the death but was only after they died that it was discovered that they were both brothers who were separated at birth.

Whilst the cairns are from the middle ages, they were destroyed by Polish tanks during training exercises in World War II although were later rebuilt. So that’s all right then.

9. Relaxing by the lochside

A pair of walking boots next to St Mary's Loch
Walking boots in their natural habitat.

One of the joys of walking in Scotland has to be the fact that at some point you’ll end up walking past a beautiful, tranquil lock. There’s a couple on the Southern Upland Way, although without a doubt St Mary’s Loch is the biggest and finest. Go on, sit down, whisk your boots on and have a paddle. You know you want to!

10. Public art in unexpected places

The Giant Axe Head sculpture in Galloway Forest Park
A giant axe head

I know. You thought those leaflet boxes elevated the Southern Upland Way onto a higher level. But there’s more. For the Southern Upland Way has public art too. Yes, a remote trail visited by few people, has art dotted all over the place. It’s cultural and no mistake. When I walked it, I even found an art exhibition in a bothy that must have had just a handful of visitors a week through its doors.

One of the largest art installations are Galloway Forest Park’s Giant Axe Head – a massive polished stone slab covered with runes. It’s a monster, weighing in at 1.5 tonnes, and it just sits there, just off the path, nestling amongst some heather. It’s definitely special.

Andy Goldworthy sculpture known as the Striding Arches
One of three Andy Goldworthy sculptures known as the Striding Arches

And that’s not all, for up on the trail you’ll also find a piece by artist Andy Goldsworthy that is even bigger. Up on the remote moors, he placed three giant arches, known as the Striding Arches. One of them sits slap bang on the Southern Upland Way. From any arch you are supposed to be able to see the other two. Although perhaps not on a cloudy day.

11. And perhaps even treasure?

There’s not just big ticket art on the Southern Upland Way. Perhaps the most intriguing of all are the kists. 13 small sculptures are dotted around the trail. Some are easier to find that others. Each one holds a container where you may find secret treasure – silver and bronze coloured coins. Find it and you can take one. Find them all and you have yourself a hoard. Yes, the Southern Upland Way is basically one giant treasure hunt. Fantastic!

12. A tunnel to a hidden harbour

Lobstar pots in a small harbour
The lovely Cove Harbour

When you’ve tired all all the culture (although, how could you?) the Southern Upland Way also offers some other intriguing sights. Take the small tunnel through a hill near the eastern end of the trail. The tunnel’s all mysterious looking. Where does it go? What will you find on the other side? And whilst it’s not on the trail itself, you can help but want to make the detour.

Go on, do it. For the reward for walking through this dark, dank hole in the rock, is to appear in a beautiful, isolated harbour with peaceful looking cottages and piles of lobster pots. A gorgeous spot to sit and rest awhile before tackling the last few miles to the end of the trail.

13. Getting to the end and finding out there’s nowt to do other than get on the bus home

A bus to Berwick-upon-Tweed arrives at a bus stop in Cockburnspath
Catching a bus out of there – about the only thing to do at Cockburnspath

Hurrah! You’ve made it! Cockburnspath! The end of the Southern Upland Way! You’ve walked those 212 miles from the western coast, and probably a couple more here and there in order to get too and from your accommodation.

What to do now? Celebrate perhaps. You know you deserve that. So let’s see what Cockburnspath has to offer.

Err, that’s right. Nothing. Not unless you want your car fixed at the local mechanic. What’s that? You don’t? Oh.

Well, never mind for at least there’s a bus stop. And the bus will take you to more exciting places where you can celebrate your achievements. It’s sad that the Southern Upland Way ends in such a lacklustre manor. But never mind. It’s an achievement all the same.