Southern Upland Way Day 3: New Luce to Bargrennan

Published 19 January 2012

Cartoon of a walker in a forest saying "Bloomin' forest"

The distances for the next few sections seem to sum it all up perfectly. 17½ miles to Bargrennan; 22 miles to St John’s Town of Dalry; 25 miles to Sanquhar. And that wasn’t all. Once you leave New Luce, there are no shops until you got to St John’s Town of Dalry. This stretch was going to be fun.

My plan was simple. Each of the long sections could be split by staying in a bothy. I’d alternative between staying in bothies and staying on proper campsites. For every evening spent “slumming” it, I’d get a night in a place with hot showers and a meal available at a nearby hostelry. Who could argue with that?

I was soon heading back down New Luce’s main street to rejoin the Southern Upland Way. As at Stranraer, the Way does its best to avoid New Luce, going on a large and lazy loop around the village over sheep and cow grazed moorland, pleasantly filled with various ancient landmarks just off route. One was a set of chambered cairns – or at least the ruins of them – which I dutifully poked around, and a long narrow cairn which I didn’t.

Burnt heather on Kilhern Moss

Moorland begat farm tracks and farm tracks begat more moorland before I was deposited into a sizeable amount of forest which marked a major change to the Southern Upland Way. The next few days would see commercial plantations dominate the route.

The weather was dull and low level cloud clung to the tops of nearby hills. The last weather forecast I’d seen had predicted showers and as I sat at the edge of the forest, casually trying to coax spreadable cheese onto a roll, it looked like rain clouds were heading straight for me.

But despite the weather’s hints I hesitated from setting off. The forest track looked rough, full of heather and mud, making me reluctant to leave the open moorland for the repressive repetition of endless rows of densely packed conifers. Eventually I could wait no longer, and the forest path initially proved to be everything I’d feared it would be before finally settling down to a firmer gravel and stone pathway.

I’ve never particularly liked forest walking. All sense of progression is lost as you traipse down endless avenues of tall conifers. Make a wrong turning and you may never find your way out again thanks to the complete lack of discernible landmarks. And sure enough I soon realised I hadn’t seen a Southern Upland Way waymark for ages.

Standing at a junction of forest roads with no real idea of where to go as neither was shown on my map, all I could do was look at the compass and follow the track that looked the least incorrect. Thankfully two miles down the road the Southern Upland Way popped out of the trees and joined up with me, but looking at the map I couldn’t for the life of me work out where on earth I was. The Southern Upland Way had clearly been wandering around on some narrow side path. For its reappearance I was more than thankful, but where it had been I had absolutely no idea.

The Beehive Bothy, Laggangarn

Of course forests don’t always provide only trees. Sometimes they provide clearings too, such as the one I passed through now at Laggangarn: a place with a name that suggests someone had got just a trifle carried away with the g’s. In the clearing stood two standing stones and, a short distance away, a bothy.

Known as the Beehive Bothy due to its distinctive hive shape, it was a simple wooden shelter with sleeping platforms inside. Capable of housing three people comfortably, or six if people were prepared to get a bit more intimate, it was my intended rest spot for the night. There was just one slight problem. I’d got there far earlier than I’d intended. Looking at my watch revealed how early. It was barely the end of lunch; 1:30 in the afternoon.

Sitting in the bothy, listening to it creak ominously in the wind, I read the visitors book and tried to work out what to do. I was on a roll; storming on and feeling pretty good. To stop now seemed utterly bonkers. Yet Bargrennan was still eight or nine miles off and 17½ miles from where I’d started, so I’d be getting there late and tired.

After much debate I opted to press on. There was a lot of forest to get through and frankly I just didn’t fancy sitting around in the beehive bothy for sixteen hours waiting for morning to come. There’d be a wild campsite spot somewhere.

Looking at my map, the sizeable Loch Derry was a few miles on and that might provide a possible wild camp spot, even though it would still be an early finish for the day when I got there. But the further I went, the more the forests would envelop me. There were a few clearings but little in the line of water supplies. What water there was, was sited near buildings which wouldn’t be good for wild camping unless, of course, they just happened to be in some ruined state. Which seemed unlikely, but you never knew.

Gorse lined path in Kilgallioch Forest

As predicted, I passed Loch Derry just after half three; it still felt too early to stop and I kept on going. Past the isolated farm at Derry I went, and then back into the endless forest. On the rare occasions a likely camp spot appeared by the road, there would be no water nearby. I’d pinned some hope on a clearing at Polbae and it certainly had a near perfect water supply, but there was just nowhere to pitch up. What I’d mistakenly taken to be a farm was actually a village, and what fields there were, were completely full of sheep.

Feeling weary and tired, my back aching, I kept on going with my next target being something marked “Waterside” on the River Bladnoch. And the H20 was in great abundance but as the wild camping rules in Scotland proclaimed that campers should stay away from buildings, and Waterside was a sizeable complex, I wearily headed on once more.

A short way on from Waterside I could see the Bladnoch weaving its way along slowly and happily, complete with a nice grassy bank to camp on. It looked perfect, tucked out-of-the-way where no one could possibly object. There was just one problem. It was about a quarter of a mile away and accessible only by crossing a large area of recently felled forest. Attempting to navigate my way over the felled trees and stumps, complete with lots of mud churned up by forestry vehicles, getting to the riverbank seemed to be nigh on impossible and I reluctantly headed back to the road that I’d been following.

Half a mile or so on and a forest track appeared on my right. It headed off south, and by the look of my map, it would lead me to the river. Eureka, I cried and instantly turned off. But a mile or so on it was back to square one as the road ended abruptly at another scene of forestry devastation. The whole final section of the trees had been torn down. I couldn’t even see a road in the resulting mess, nor even see the river yet alone get to it.

With my pack digging into my shoulders I returned once more to the road with a heavy heart. I knew the chances of me finding water were getting more and more remote. But passing through the hamlet of Knowe I was heartened to find a busy, gushing stream not marked on my map. I scrambled down to the waters edge and filled my spare water carrier with the rather dubious looking brown water. If I could just find a suitable spot to pitch up, I’d be all right. With a spring in my step and hope in my heart, I entered yet another area of forest.

Initially it looked promising with lots of gentle clearings. But on closer inspection each turned out to be either full of old tree stumps, or was a boggy quagmire into which my tent would sink slowly should I be stupid enough to try and camp on it. Even the path itself was falling firmly into the latter category. It was horrible; progress was slow and fiddly and when I finally got through it and entered a clearing, I was tempted to crash out there and then even if it was in full view of a house. And I would have, had I not found the land to be a field of bog soup.

Of course what I should have done was head straight to the nearest farm, knock on their door and politely ask if they had a field I could use. But I hadn’t seen any that weren’t covered in sheep and I just kept on presuming they’d say no. The thought that they may actually say yes followed by some farmer’s wife offering me home-made scones with jam just didn’t cross my mind.

Trig point at the top of Hill of Ochiltree

As I approached the small Glenvernoch Fell, with its view of Loch Ochiltree in the distance, I stared at the map and saw just how far I’d come. It was only four miles or so to Bargrennan which I’d intended to reach the next day. There was a campsite there. If I carried on I would be there by eight. But as I reached the trig point on the summit of the diminutive fell, I felt absolutely exhausted. Looking at my watch revealed exactly why. It was 6pm. I hadn’t had a proper rest since I’d left the bothy about four hours earlier. I threw myself to the ground, leant against the trig point and drew deep breaths.

With this realisation, the inevitable decision to head for Bargrennan after all seemed to perk me up. Suddenly there was a plan, even if would take ages to get there. As I stumbled down the fell, trying to make my way along its muddy and rutted paths, my mind was fixated on lying in my tent and sleeping. My legs were shattered and my mind was losing it, but buildings were finally coming into sight. I was nearly there.

“You look like a man ready to put up his tent and collapse inside it” proclaimed the campsite proprietor. I wondered how she could tell.

“I think I did a bit more walking than I’d planned to do,” I mumbled.

“Aye, it’s easily done. And many people do,” she added.

It was just after 8pm as I made my way slowly to the tent area, walking slowly with legs that seemed to have become like rubber. Eventually I got the tent up only for half of Scotland’s midge population to decide they’d like to visit. Hiding inside my tent whilst the kettle boiled outside I watched as they climbed merrily over the bright red flysheet.

Every time I headed outside, I was suddenly covered in the buggers until I scampered back inside the inner of my tent where I could watch them fly around outside, as well as occasionally eye the 20 or so who had managed to make it into my inner sanctum. At least they seemed to prefer crawling around the tent walls rather than hovering around me. As the sun began to set, I crawled as deeply into my sleeping bag as I could go and hoped they would take the hint to leave me alone.

Next time, it’s in to the forests once more, but nice ones this time. And the day does end at a remote bothy overlooking a loch. Ah, nice.


Judith miller

25 January 2017 at 9:04 pm

You’ve written a great review,planning walking& camping
SUW this year. Going to walk it in 2 stages. Would like to break the section from New Luce – Bragrennan in two!
Any idea if there would be a spot for camping ?

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

26 January 2017 at 9:22 am

Hello Judith. There are two spots. One is at or near the Beehive Bothy, and the other is at Loch Derry. Those are the only two I found that had water and land that wasn’t boggy on my visit.

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