Southern Upland Way Day 13: St Mary’s Loch to Innerleithen

Published 20 February 2012

Cartoon with someone saying "And because you're a hiker, you get a free hot shower!"

It had been raining overnight. My tent was a trifle soggy and a bit of drizzle was still coming down as I made breakfast and packed up. The loch lay in front of me, shrouded in low level cloud, and I wondered if it would clear by the time the Southern Upland Way reached higher ground on the other side of the loch. Sure enough, three miles on, just as I was about to leave the loch-side, the clouds slowly but surely began to lift.

Near the loch end stood Dryhope Tower, standing a short distance off the main path but a sign promised that fine views could be seen from the top and that was too good an offer to ignore.

A crumbling 16th century fortified house, the three-storey building was once home to Wat Scott, one of the many notorious Border Reivers who raided, robbed and rustled from the English side of the border. Similar Reivers based on the other side of the divide, did likewise in Scotland.

Often indulged or even encouraged by their respective governments, the Reivers era lasted around four centuries until King James VI of Scotland took the English crown and began to clamp down on their activities. Dryhope Tower was a victim of James VI himself after Scott fell out with his monarch and the king attacked the tower in 1592. Whilst Dryhope was rebuilt by 1613 it soon began to fall into terminal decay. And there it stood, crumbling away until 2003 when a gantry and staircase were fitted to the building so that walkers and wandering tourists could step inside, swiftly avoid the decaying dead rabbits that littered the ground floor, and climb up to the top floor and admire the view.

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

Given the tower’s position near the foot of the loch I’d expected to see the water from the top of the building but the views to the east were mostly blocked by hills and trees, with the “fine views” promised by the sign outside being mostly of the very hills I was about to head for.

The Way cut through a gap in the hill line, along a section known as Hawkshaw Doors, and the grassy path was never what you might call taxing. With few distractions I felt my mind switch off. There was no need to worry, and little to think about. Navigation was clear, simple and easy. Such times were something I’ve always appreciated about walking. The stresses and worries of life quickly fade away and become irrelevant when you are out on the hills, and all my thoughts and cares floated off my mind like the white clouds that were drifting aimlessly over the horizon.

Further on I passed another ruined tower sat in the grounds of Blackhouse Farm, this one in far worse condition, and I headed into another forestry plantation. It had been getting progressively warmer as the day had gone on, the air cooled only by the way of a sharp wind that had been battering me on and off all morning. But in the shelter of the forest things were becoming almost tropical which, when added to the fact that I was heading steeply uphill, saw my motivation levels begin to wane. Feeling a little weary I plodded on looking for a rest spot that I doubted existed in such a forest, only to have a hallelujah moment.

St Mary's Loch in the distance

For several days I’d been grumbling to myself about the fact that no one seems to consider that walkers might occasionally like a seat; perhaps an elaborately carved old tree or something, although frankly anything would do. And lo, I turned a corner to see, with much delight, a sturdy wooden bench nicely sited at a viewpoint where you could look out through the trees and just make out the loch in the distance. This was fortune beyond belief, especially as it was lunch time, and with much delight and celebration, I heaved myself down on the bench’s robust form.

‘Five miles to Traquair’ boasted a sign post, Scottish Borders council having realised something that Dumfries and Galloway clearly hadn’t: that walkers sometimes quite like to how far they’ve still got to go. With a flourish the Southern Upland Way popped out of the forest and over Deuchar Law and Blake Muir, along another gentle, grassy path.

Over to one side, a few metres away, I saw what looked like a boundary stone which seemed a little odd given I’d seen nothing like it anywhere else in the area. Nothing was mentioned in my guidebook either, so I wandered over to take a closer look.

Closer inspection on one side revealed what looked like an ancient engraved symbol in the form of multiple concentric circles, but another side featured a thistle in a hexagon, also known as the standard waymark symbol for Scottish long distance paths. Moving round again all was revealed by a hearty engraved “Ultreia”. I’d known there was a kist somewhere in the area but having seen no brass plaques advertising the presence of one, I’d not been paying much attention.

Underneath the engraved Ultreia was a circular motif and on a whim I pushed it to reveal, as I’d thought it might be, that it was a flap to access treasure. It also revealed that the kist wasn’t stone at all, but fashioned out of metal and coated to look more rocky. It was a fine job indeed, and I could celebrate too. I was getting far better at this kist hunting thing and as I plucked the coin out and pocketed it I realised I’d found five out of nine kists I’d been past. I’d now got a majority of them and if I kept my eyes sharp, I’d hopefully make the percentages even better as the walk went on.

With the village of Traquair and the nearby town of Innerleithen coming into view in the valley below, I slumped on some heather, my legs very grateful for the rest. Dark clouds were covering the sky and it was incredibly muggy. Still a rest was a rest and the heather was comfy even if the clouds made everywhere look gloomy and morose.

Innerleithen in the distance

A sign in a red triangle told me “Public Road Ahead” and sure enough the Southern Upland Way abruptly joined the B709. A mile or so of road walking would take me to the tiny village of Traquair, but as it had few (well to be honest, zero) facilities I needed to head a mile or so further on to reach Innerleithen and its campsite. Wild camping would be all well and good but I’d accidentally left my new box of matches out overnight and they’d gone soggy and wouldn’t light. With no way to light a fire and cook food, a diversion into town was compulsory.

A steady stream of cars, motorbikes and cyclists passed me as I walked down the rather dreary road that led in to the town. Bikes in particular were in extremely high numbers and just outside Innerleithen I found a car park with some kind of biking event on. Mountain bikers were rushing in and out of the parking area whilst others stood drinking cups of tea and admiring displays of fluorescent Lycra-based clothing that cyclists seem to love so much.

The campsite itself seemed to be right at the other end of town, and reaching it required me to walk down what felt like every street and side street in the area. Even when I got there, the walking wasn’t over as most of the place was full of static caravans with tents relegated to the very far corner.

“It’s nine pounds a night, but as you’re a walker you get a free shower!” I was told by the lady on reception. “Not that you smell, but because you’ve no car,” she hastily added.

“Ah, but I do smell,” I mumbled by way of reply.

“Yes. Anyway, we have a bar and it does meals until 8pm,” she went on, swiftly changing the subject.

I’d originally planned to cook something but not having seen a decent grocers anywhere and not being particularly in the mood for the single packet of Uncle Ben’s rice that was my sole food supply I’d been thinking of other options. I’d vaguely, and rather optimistically hoped there’d be an Indian takeaway or something nearby but I’d only passed by a Chinese instead.

A bar on a caravan site didn’t sound particularly promising in its dining opportunities but after seeing a sign outside offering “home made chips” I decided anything was possible. As if to seal the deal, just as I’d started getting hungry, it began to rain. And hey, no one likes cooking in the rain now, do they? There may well have been a lot of blue sky over in the distance, and this may well just be a shower. But hey, it might last long enough for a swift half pint…

Next time, day 14 sees me arrive in civilisation as I arrive in the sizeable town of Galashiels


Howard Brooks

11 April 2020 at 11:41 am

Andrew – this is a great blog!
Others may have told you by now, but you can dry matches by putting them in your hair. Or just under your hat. I have done this in the past, but baldness now prevents….

PS my Derbyshire grandma was a Bowden

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

11 April 2020 at 7:00 pm

Dry matches under your hair Howard? Good tip. If only I had some hair these days!

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