Southern Upland Way Day 9: Sanquhar to Wanlockhead

Published 6 February 2012

Cartoon of a sign saying 'Wanlockhead Inn.  Quality food, free camping" with rain falling all over it.

“And if you’re going out anywhere today, don’t forget to take some waterproofs with you,” advised Carol Kirkwood as she presented the breakfast TV weather report from a sun-drenched tennis court at Wimbledon. Naturally I took her advice and duly donned waterproofs before heading out into the extremely light drizzle that was hitting Sanquhar.

The trip to Wanlockhead was only a short one; a mere eight miles over a few hills, leaving me with plenty of time to check out the lead mining museum. Still it did require some climbing, with a rise of 425m above sea level. Wanlockhead is the highest inhabited village in Scotland and the Southern Upland Way gets there by some stiff uphill paths to a remote and eerily quiet moorland, before dropping down slightly to a forest at Cogshead. Cogshead wasn’t particularly quiet though as a forestry worker was busy loading logs into a hopper on the back of his vehicle.

For once the Southern Upland Way only had a brief dalliance with the forest, popping in then popping out next to the ruined house that leant the forest its name. Soon I was on the slopes of Glengaber Hill, home to a few birds and a handful of sheep clinging on to the land. Plain, empty looking moorland surrounded me on all sides and from some far off distant place the sound of a chainsaw bounced off the hills. Reaching the summit of the path brought the first sight of Wanlock Water; a small river which wriggled and writhed through the valley floor below. And then, suddenly visible, came the dominating signs of an industry that once provided so much employment in the area. Lead mining.

The scars of mining

Long abandoned mine buildings and spoil-heaps were dotted as far as the eye could see, and as if to recognise their sombre plight – to decay and collapse over time – the weather changed. The heavens finally opened and rain fell from the sky heavily. Huddling in waterproofs I walked past old cottages and then down the road to Pates Knowes.

Back in 1764 this was a smelt mill where ore was processed to obtain the valuable lead it contained. In more recent years it was excavated in an archaeological dig allowing modern visitors to see it, even if in the rain. Nearby was the giant spoil heap of the New Glencrieff mine which was the last to operate in the area; a reminder of the town’s former life.

With the rain easing a little I set off once more, past the beam engine which once pumped water out of one of the 40 or so mines that operated in the area. Beneath its gaze, rusting away, metal carts stood on a railway track which once would have been pushed by hand out of the mine, and a small embankment marked the former trackbed for a narrow gauge railway which had connected the mines with the nearby village of Elvanfoot.

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.

Sheep grazed throughout the village – a fence had kept them out until it was dismantled in World War II to help the war effort and never replaced – and I passed a sign offering free camping at the nearby pub. This kind offer was strangely not mentioned in the official Southern Upland Way accommodation guide leaflet and the lack of campsites in the area was one reason I’d already phoned ahead and booked in to one of the two B&Bs in the village, although to be honest the rain was far more of a consideration.

Just after one in the afternoon seemed far too early to be arriving, but if she was fazed by my appearance the B&B’s landlady didn’t let it show as she bustled around, bundling up my wet clothes so that she could put them near the fire to dry out. All things considered though, I wasn’t in particularly bad shape; my waterproofs had kept the worst of the weather at bay. By the time I’d freshened up the rain had cleared off, leaving the sun to try to poke through the clouds as I wandered down to the Museum of Lead Mining.

An excellently laid out visitor centre took me through a good dose of local history and the lead mining process, although the Miner’s Library was closed due to staff shortages, which was a shame as it sounded a great place. The second oldest subscription library in the world, it represented a stunning piece of village history, namely that in the 18th century all the miners and their children could read and write which was an amazing achievement for the era.

The real star of the museum had to be the guided tour into Lochnell Mine, led by a friendly and informative guide who explained to the three of us present, that when it first opened in the 18th century the miners were only able to excavate six inches of rock a day using their hand tools. The first seam of lead was some way in to the mine, meaning it must have been quite some time before the money started rolling in.

Deeper into the hills we were shown the point when the miners began to use gunpowder to blast rock away and two mannequins gave the feel of the arduous back-breaking work it must have been. To demonstrate the conditions even more, our guide turned the electric lights out and showed us just how the mine looked when lit by the few candles the miners would have had; their tiny flames doing little to pierce the deep darkness.

The Wanlockhead Beam Engine

Back outside, the tour continued at Straightsteps Cottages which showed recreations of miners’ accommodation from three different eras of history. The rudimentary shelters of 1750 with their heather roofs were a stark contrast with the wood panelled walls and ample furnishings of the 1850 and 1920 abodes. Each room was filled with either reproductions or real furniture and in one room a child’s shoe was proudly displayed, having been found in a stream some years earlier. And in each era there were books; again highly rare for the people of the time. Unlike their contemporaries of the age, these were miners with an education.

It can all be traced back to the Quaker owned London Lead Mining Company. On arrival in the area in the early 18th century the company wanted every employee to be able to sign a contract, but with most of the population of the day unable to read or write, the company knew their prospective employees would have to be taught, and taught they were. A few years later the local landowner began to fund a school teacher and soon the library was opened.

In the hey-day of the mines the whole area would have been bustling with thousands of people and there would have been lots of noise. Now less than 200 people live in Wanlockhead.

Later that evening as I sat in the village pub, the rain battering the roof, I tried to imagine Wanlockhead as it used to be. It must have been quite a sight. But on reflection I decided I preferred it as it was now; the mining remnants gently decaying as the sheep happily grazed on.

Next time, the Southern Upland Way heads up to its highest point and I cross the half way mark.

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