Southern Upland Way Day 7: St John’s Town of Dalry to Poleskeoch

Published 30 January 2012

Cartoon of some walkers meeting each other going "Wow!  This is the first time I've seen anyone on the Southern Upland Way!"

It was what my mum used to (and probably still does) call ‘spitting’ as I walked up Dalry’s main street. The rain was light enough not to bother me, and certainly not heavy enough to persuade me to clamber into waterproofs. At some point I apparently passed the local landmark known as St John The Baptist’s Chair, although it seemed highly unlikely he’d ever sat in it. I could have sat in it. Well, had I been paying attention and not missed it completely.

The road headed uphill, eventually becoming a waterlogged grass track over wet farmland. This proved difficult to follow as its route was often indistinct in the grass.

At one point on Ardoch Hill the track split off in three different directions and a crucial waymark post had fallen over meaning I had no idea which one to follow; my map not helping as it only showed one path and wasn’t of a high enough scale to show information like walls and fences that would have helped me decide. Inevitably I chose the wrong fork which in turn led to a lengthy diversion to find the path where I was supposed to be. This was a challenge I’d complete twice again in the next few miles, all in similar circumstances. In contrast to the earlier sections of the walk where the waymark signs had, it seemed, been rather over the top in their zealousness in making sure the walker went the right way, here they seemed infrequent and not always usefully placed.

Low level cloud

From the look of the skies, rain would be inevitable at some point, and sure enough, shortly after my rest the heavens finally opened and the rain came down in style. And then, in the midst of the dense cloud, something entirely unexpected happened. Almost like a mirage, three women appeared and walked towards me.

“Are you walking the Southern Upland Way?” asked the first, with an element of surprise and wonder in her voice. “You’re the first person we’ve ever seen. Be prepared,” she added, pointing at one of her fellow walkers who was now catching up, “she’s going to want to take your photograph!”

The three had been walking the route in stages, usually at weekends, over many years and had now completed most of it. The previous day they’d walked to Dalry from Clatteringshaws Loch and today they were taking it easy. They’d been dropped off a short way on at Stoanfreggan Bridge and were now walking back to Dalry for lunch. Like me they’d seen other Southern Upland Way walkers in pubs in the evenings but they had never actually bumped into anyone actually on the route itself.

I didn’t know it then, but they would turn out to be the only fellow Southern Upland Way walkers I’d see on the entire trip.

Benbrack up ahead

The Southern Upland Way began to climb upwards as it entered yet another forest on its way to Manquill Hill and Benbrack fell. As ever it was a forest with few defining features and between that and the state of my maps, I was soon struggling to work out just where I was.

Whilst I didn’t lose the path, I was certainly getting confused as to where I was. What I initially thought was Benbrack turned out to be Manquill Hill. And what I thought was Manquill Hill turned out just to be some small green mound. In fact the fake Benbrack was a doddle compared to the real one. On the map it looked trivial, but it turned out to be a steep, unrewarding slog to the top which was not helped by rain water cascading down the narrow path.

After what felt like an age I finally hauled myself up to the trig point on Benbrack’s summit only to see that the next few miles would be firmly in “undulating hill territory.” A series of gloomy ups and downs would mean I’d have to repeat the merciless slog for a lot longer as my boots got wetter and wetter.

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

Before I had to suffer that, I could at least revel in the sight of a large sandstone arch which stood on the hill top, and admire a second one sited a few miles away.

Called the Striding Arches, they were installed in 2005 and are the work of artist and sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Out here in the middle of nowhere, with no roads and no traffic, was a giant piece of art and as I stared at it I realised just how few people would ever actually see it. It was an amazing thought to be so privileged. And despite everything I did feel very privileged indeed.

Squelch, squelch, squish, squelch. The wet ground was now really beginning to annoy me. I knew that somewhere up ahead was one of those nice gravel forest tracks; well drained and easy on the foot. But the rain-sodden, muddy morasses of Cairn Hill, Black Hill and High Countam had to be crossed first. I was tired, desperate for a rest. It had been hours since I’d last sat down but everywhere was too boggy, too muddy. If I’d rested on the grass I might have been sucked into the earth, never to be seen again. Even entering the forest hasn’t helped as the initial path was extremely narrow and surrounded by large, wet ferns.

Beautiful path on Cairn Hill

It wasn’t until I’d reached a track junction that I found a saviour. A neat pile of wooden fence posts, all piled up and ready for me to sit on.

Rifling through my bag in an attempt to find a Snickers bar that I knew to be in there somewhere, I suddenly remembered that it was Sunday. Sunday. The day of the week when locals would head out to their nearest hills and go on a walk. Yet I’d seen no one besides the three women earlier.

No sooner had that occurred to me and the silence was broken as a group of four teenage girls arrived carrying heavy rucksacks and presumably doing part of their Duke of Edinburgh Award.

“You are now walking through an area of dense forest” read the tallest, who seemed to be the de-facto leader of the group.
Yep, you are, I nodded to myself as they huddled around their map before deciding they were where they were supposed to be after all.

They were a motley crew with stoves and mats attached to their rucksacks in a rather haphazard way. The tallest looked stressed and worried as if she was carrying the weight of the whole group on her shoulder, whilst another just looked plain bored. A third had a big grin on her face whilst the fourth looked like she was in some blissful state of nirvana. Finally retrieving my chocolate, I munched away as they trudged on.

Where they were heading to I couldn’t work out from my map but as it was getting on for five I hoped they didn’t have too far to go. Thankfully I did know where I was heading, namely a bothy near Polskeoch, but first the Southern Upland Way had a little detour for me to a spot marked on the map as Allan’s Cairn. A red sandstone pillar enclosed by iron railings, the cairn marked the martyrdom of George Allen and Margaret Gracies who were shot by the Dragoon Guards. The pair were covenanters, a group of people who refused to submit to English bishops appointed over the Scottish church by Charles II. They weren’t alone. That period of the 17th century was not known as The Killing Time for nothing.

Chalk Memorial Bothy at Polskeoch

A little way on sat the tiny Chalk Memorial Bothy near Polskeoch. Despite its rather old sounding name, which I never did find out the history of, the bothy was a relatively new building; pebble-dashed with a green metal roof, sited next to a fast flowing stream and surrounded by trees. With its door wide open I was expecting to find it occupied and indeed it was, by two grey birds which had somehow got in and were now flying around the high ceiling and struggling to find the way out.

After much frantic chasing them around the bothy and waving of brooms, one of them finally found the door but the second just couldn’t work out that to escape it needed to fly down lower and continued circling the rafters of the bothy. Despite my many attempts to try to get it to move, it just kept flying high and as the evening went on it grew increasingly agitated but I knew there was little I could do. Even clattering my kettle didn’t help and as the inevitable evening chill began to make itself felt, I just knew I’d have to give up and close the door as we both tried to get a good nights sleep. It wasn’t until the next morning as I pottered around outside filtering water, it finally put two and two together and flew off into the trees.

Next time, it’s an easy walk to the town of Sanquhar which is closed, whilst the weather forecast forces me indoors once more.

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