Southern Upland Way Day 12: Over Phawhope Bothy to St Mary’s Loch

Published 16 February 2012

Cartoon of two walkers.  One says "Walking the Southern Upland Way?"  The other says "Nope!  North Coast to South Coast!".  A sheep goes "Gulp!  I mean... Baa"

Ten and a half miles to St Mary’s Loch said the sign and who was I to argue with it? A short day then, but my legs weren’t complaining. They’d felt stiff all night and I’d also spent the wee hours with my feet throbbing as well.

Anyway, there wasn’t that much of an alternative. The next village was Traquair which lay a further twelve miles on and whilst I could wild camp between the two, it would mean missing out on a pub visit and, more importantly, a shower. After two nights in bothies, I was feeling ready for a little comfort.

For the first few miles the Southern Upland Way followed a gravel track, past a derelict farmhouse at Potburn; its windows and doors boarded up tight, presumably to keep out the sheep that grazed contentedly in its former gardens. A forlorn looking set of unused telegraph poles led me from the building up to a proper road, with the old cables cut and bundled up neatly.


The road and the Ettrick river which flowed nearby meandered through the valley past a steady stream of farms and occasional cottages. Most looked like they’d been there for centuries but at Roweburn a modern looking bungalow (perhaps a replacement for the decrepit Potburn) looked slightly out-of-place. It was there that a small terrier leapt through a gap in a fence and began chasing a group of sheep six times the size of its own tiny body, yapping away and successfully herding them into a corner before breaking off and coming straight at me instead.

It yapped enthusiastically whilst searching for the hole in the wire that would let it get access to the road, jump up at me and demand a good stroke and a belly rub. Clearly the sheep were its main interest though and having had its fill of my attention, it darted off once more to chase them around the field until a distant voice called it back to the farmhouse.

The dog wasn’t the only distraction. A little further on an optical illusion provided a moment of confusion when it appeared that the river was actually flowing up hill, and this seemed as good a place as any to stop and rest. As I did I watched the skies suddenly darken and heavy rain began to come down. Given I could see lots of blue sky right ahead of me, I had this strange feeling that it wouldn’t last too long and sure enough, after a few minutes the rain had given up, but it was too late for my rest. The feet were already moving once more.

Beautiful as the Ettrick Valley was in the sunshine, the amount of road walking needed was taking its toll on my throbbing feet and I was more than happy to finally head off the road, even if it did require an extremely steep climb up Scabcleuch Hill. Deciding to have a rest I plonked myself down on the grass for an early lunch before dozing off under the blazing sun.

Sheepfold on Peniestone Knowe

It was an unusual noise that woke me. It was the sound of a carrier bag rustling and, bleary eyed, I looked up to see a fellow walker with a large rucksack travelling in the opposite direction and heading towards me. Blimey, I thought, rubbing my eyes with disbelief. Could it be that there was actually another Southern Upland Way walker out there? Or was I still dreaming? I pinched myself to check. Nope. Definitely awake. A hallucination perhaps? Caused by loneliness. There was only one thing for it. I’d have to actually ask and find out. At least if he wasn’t real, only the nearby sheep would know about my descent into madness.

“Nope! Doing the North Coast to South Coast,” was the cheerful reply from a very real hiker to my question asking if he was doing the Southern Upland Way. “Started off on the Cape Wrath trail, then did the West Highland Way before coming through Glasgow and arriving on the Southern Upland Way for a bit.” A Yorkshire man, he’d been given six months off work and thought “What the hell?” and headed off.

“Wow!” was all I could say in reply, vaguely remembering my own early plans to do Lands End to John O’Groats, and how boring and unimaginative that now felt.

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

“Seen many people here?” he asked.

“Next to no one at all.”

“Great, isn’t it? I was doing the West Highland Way, going the opposite direction to everyone else, and I swear at one point I could see 300 people heading towards me. I just stood there and thought, bugger, I’m going to have to say hello to each of them. In comparison, this is bliss.”

He was heading for Over Phawhope with the plan of staying there the night and then following the Southern Upland Way a bit longer before heading off to cross the border into England. It occurred to me that, if I’d stuck to my original plan and stayed overnight in Moffat, we’d be sharing a bothy that evening, perhaps trading old war stories about getting stuck in bog on the Pennine Way, whilst we each supped steaming cups of tea. He’d offer me a cake and I’d swap it for a slightly squashed cereal bar. But then perhaps it was better not to. Compared to this guy, my own previous exploits would probably sound tame and rubbish.

As he left to carry on, I returned to my snoozing position only to look up at a dark looking cloud that had appeared above me as if to say “Show’s over boy. It’s time to move on.”

St Mary's Loch coming in to view

The foot of St Mary’s Loch was now not that far away, although the Southern Upland Way kept it hidden until near the end and naturally required an uphill climb in order to get there. Wearily, far too weary after just ten and a half miles, I stumbled into the bar of the Tibbie Shiels Inn and booked myself on to their campsite. I found a nice spot not too far from the loch edge, put up the tent and relaxed with a cup of tea as chaffinches flew between the nearby trees.

With most of the afternoon free I pottered around St Mary’s Loch and its smaller neighbour, Loch of the Lowes. Once, millennia ago, they’d been joined together but in the intervening years a ridge had formed and separated them.

Sat watching the water, with a steady stream of tourists admiring it, stood a memorial to James Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd and renowned poet who found his fame hard to enjoy and who, despite his success, never left the sheep behind.

But perhaps the most important sight stood at the pub itself. On the wall outside was a plaque proclaiming it to be the point where, in 1984, the Southern Upland Way was officially opened for business. Whether, after the opening, the dignitaries celebrated with a pint, wasn’t recorded, but with two hand-pulled ales on the bar I knew how I was going to celebrate my progress. It had been a fair few miles since I’d supped a pint, and it was certainly time to rectify the situation.

Southern Upland Way Official Opening Plaque

Next time, the mist hangs low on St Mary’s Loch but the sun is out as I reach the more populated part of the Southern Upland Way.


Adrian Pagliaro

20 February 2012 at 10:23 am

Hmm, don’t belittle yourself – some credible acheivements here. Besides few of us measure up to Mike’s exploits!

A great bogg – looking forward to some happy hours of reading :-)

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

20 February 2012 at 12:05 pm

Oh don’t worry about me belittling myself – I’m more than happy with my Southern Upland Way achievements! It was a great adventure and makes me want more like it. If only I had the time…

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