It started in mist and finished in mist, but in between came almost every kind of conditions. And with that range of weather, came an equal variety of landscapes. For this, the second leg of the Watershed of Scotland walk started in the Southern Uplands, and finished on the slopes of Ben Lomond ridge; with a leap through the central belt and some of the least inspiring countryside of the entire venture. Variety though was the key to this section, and that in itself enriched the experience, with interest and surprises.
The first 20km were along hills that I had often admired in the past, from Wiston Lodge and Tinto on the other side of the upper Clyde valley. A ripple of rounded haunches giving a show of vivid light and shade, often seen when the sun was low in the sky. There are Dods, Cleuchs, Fells, Laws and Riggs, with evocative names like Glenwhappen and Culter and Gawky. Though some of this was shrouded in mist as I passed, when it cleared, the views were rewarding. To the East over the upper Tweed valley, Talla and Fruid reservoirs – part of Edinburgh’s water supply system were tight within their respective valleys. And the extensive aircraft communication installation on the top of Broad Law looked a tad out of place. The patchwork of hill and forest was a recurring sight. And to the west, the Clyde valley offered glimpses of Tinto – the red hill, and the odd collection of windmills over by Douglas. I bid farewell to the valleys and hills which faced south to the Solway, as the march would be northwards for a fair distance.
The going was generally good on these hills; a clear fence line to follow, often well drained, and on the left side of the fence at least, well grazed. A sheltered campsite at Holm Nick was like a secret spot in the hills.
The strangely flat areas before Biggar offered a new contrast to the unfolding picture and experience. It’s an unusual place where at time of flood, the watershed can apparently shift from Tweed to Clyde, or is it the other way? Biggar was bustling – the most pleasant settlement on the route, by far. And the chance for a bit of culinary variety; a pub meal.
Fields of sheep with young lambs became the new obstacle; one which in which I understand and sympathise with the farmer. In a later conversation with a shepherd, I heard of how much confusion and damage could be caused by bumbling through a flock – especially one with lots of twins. So occasional detour, which often added distance became necessary.
Black Mount presented a hilly interlude between the beautifully named Elsrickle and Dolphinton villages. With a welcome brew up on a bench beside the kirk there on Easter Sunday, fresh footprints in the gravel path showed that there had been a service earlier in the day. The southern end of the Pentland Hills are a dull contrast to the end nearer Edinburgh, and their intensive treatment for grouse shooting does nothing to improve them. Past the upper, rather welsh sounding Medwin Water on the Clyde side of things, a last farewell to the Tweed valley, and damp greeting to the Forth valley on the other side. Tarbrax and Woolfords followed, along with a forest track that stank of sewage – thanks to some industrial scale treatment works hidden amongst the trees. This was Easter Monday, a damp dreich day that fully matched the surroundings betwixt the back of Lanarkshire and rear end of West Lothian. Shale and coal mining which ended some fifty years ago have left their mark on the landscape. Villages that have become disconnected from their original reason for being there are only partially saved by the fact that property there is cheap, and car-culture offers the commuting lifeline. In stark contrast to all of this, though is a product which is still got out of the ground here at Leven Seat; a very pure product, with high tech application – silica sand.
I’m bearing up well at this stage of the epic; morale, the state of my feet, and equipment are all doing fine. In spite of the odd dull day, or uninspiring bit of landscape, most of the route has been filled with interest, and things to amuse me. It’s offering a particular view of Scotland, with its hills and valleys, villages and industrial past. As I moved into the area so familiar to travellers between the two great centres of population, Edinburgh and Glasgow, I reflect on the positive changes that have taken place hereabouts in the past twenty years or so. It is greener than it was, with the Central Scotland Countryside Trust having planted vast numbers of trees; it’s a softer place than hitherto.
But this is the area where East meets west in a very Scottish cultural kind of way. Edinburgh and the east, a bit aloof: Glasgow and the west with a more gallus, outgoing warmth. Parts of Edinburgh with a life expectancy well over ten years more than parts of Glasgow. It’s not by chance, that when one the great west of Scotland industrial families made their money out of the grim manufacture of chemicals in Glasgow a hundred years or more ago, they moved over the watershed and settled in the clean air of Peeblesshire.
Just north of Shotts, a piece of the watershed is missing; a huge hole in the ground near Blackhill mast, as a stone quarry has inexorably blasted its way through. There should be a law against removal of the watershed! But the name Black Loch near Limerigg was deceptive, as the spring light and breeze whipped up a dancing surface to the water. It’s surprising what a few young lambs gambolling about, some warm sun, and the odd tree in bloom can do for this scene. The mining and industrial detritus seem somehow less visible. Longriggend too was full of surprises: the church and school have closed, and the former Remand Centre for young offenders is being demolished, but in amongst some unremarkable houses in the village, are a couple of new `3 pub and 5 bed` mini mansions, complete with crow steps and balconies, with datestones.
Onwards then to Palacerigg Countrypark and its pens of Wallabies – they wouldn’t stay still for long enough for me to get a decent photo. And so to Cumbernauld! It’s a new town which seems to be maligned; largely on account of the intense dislike which folks have for the soviet style shopping centre in the middle. Yes, the view of this complex is justified, even if it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the rest of the town is fine, as New Towns go; lots of trees and greenery, and traffic well separated from folk like me - on foot. The watershed was hard to find with all this urbanisation, but I must have got it roughly correct. Treated myself to a re-stock of food in Asda, and tea and a tea cake in the Little Chef on the A80 dual carriageway (do the staff there know that there establishment is on the watershed I wonder, or would they care? Another wee detour was necessary to get round Cumbernauld airfield – thanks to an eight foot high fence, and the danger which planes might present. Across the Glasgow to Edinburgh Railway (the watershed in this area, as elsewhere, is a place of crossings), and the Forth and Clyde Canal at Banknock – stop for another brew up sitting on a lock gate at this the lowest point above sea level on the entire walk.
Farewell to the urban landscape then, and a hearty hello to the Campsie Fells. Not everyone`s favourite, I gather, but the three jovial gentlemen from Kilsyth whom I met half way up the hill, had just been across to Carronbridge for a couple of pints – their regular weekend stroll of about 4 miles each way. Friendly banter and tales of great walks in the Highlands were followed by their intention to keep an eye out for this website. Onto the ridge at Tomtain, and easy going to another high campsite, with magnificent evening views over Motherwell, Airdrie and much of Glasgow on the one hand, and the Falkirk/ Grangemouth conurbation, with the Bathgate Hills behind, on the other. If it had been slightly clearer, I would surely have seen salt water on both sides. In `Clone City` by Glendinning and Page, its seen as inevitable that Glasgow and Edinburgh with all of the settlement in between will eventually merge into one vast urban entity, such is the projected demand for housing over the next fifty years. A nightmare scenario perhaps; not for the mixing of cultures necessarily, but for the physical effect on this part of Scotland.
And so I spent my 58th birthday in these hills, received some welcome text messages from home by way of greeting, and sang happy birthday with the skylarks for audience. A grand place to pass this milestone in life`s journey. A quick turn round the Fintry Hills with a great view out over Flanders Moss and the Trosssachs – part of the next leg of this epic.
Dropping down to the lower ground, and heading west, more sheep and lambs caused the need for further detour, but Balfron soon came in sight. Pausing there for another pub meal, and camping beside a cemetery I was a bit spooked when the owls started twitting and twooing in the night. Indians House and Indians Terrace (a row of council houses) had me puzzled at what was once Balfron Station. A few more fields, a lot more sheep and lambs and another detour later found me heading for Moor Park reservoir, and then onto the moor behind – the start of the Ben Lomond ridge. But clearly this route is not on the common trail to Ben L; featureless arc of a moor, with heather knee high, and ne`re a track, not even a meandering sheep track to be found. Hard slog for a couple of hours though was rewarded by a brew up in the sun, leaning against a south facing dyke on the slope of the first hill. And then, bliss; a nap in the afternoon, with those skylarks providing the lullaby. Beinn Bhreac followed, and a glorious campsite at over 500 metres, with superb views over the lower parts of Loch Lomond, dotted with islands and more views to Glasgow. I wrote in my journal that evening, how enormously lucky I was to have this experience. I do have the feeling that this too will be a continuing theme.
Next day, and the end of this leg, in thick mist somewhere on the summit of Beinn Uird.
The walk is getting into a good rhythm. Day starts at around 7.00, when I begin to organise the contents of the tent, into my rucksack – essential to be organised and have everything in its place. Breakfast of my special muesli mix and a couple of cups of black tea at about 7.30. Finish packing, tent down and on my way by 8.00. A break every two hours is the routine, with another couple of cups of tea and a biscuit. Lunch about 12.30, of some kind of instant noodle offering, more tea, fruit and another biscuit. Afternoon tea at about 3.00 – more tea and biscuit. Pitch camp no later than 7.00 with dinner of an instant or easily heatable meal, pitta bread, hot chocolate and perhaps another biscuit. So I aim to walk for no more than 9 hours per day, plus breaks. Restocking with food on this leg was straightforward, but may become more difficult later on. The distance covered each day isn’t great – an average of around 18km per day, or 2km per hour. With a heavy pack on my back, the pace is measured, and thus far I seem to have the right formula. Did I mention my boots? Best boots I`ve ever had – kept my feet dry and comfortable for eight successive days.
This leg of watershedepic has spanned the central belt, with some splendid hills providing stepping stones across a very varied, though sometimes dull landscape. The views down into the urban areas have placed the weaving trail of the watershed on the higher ground. Scotland and what I have seen of it from the watershed is a great country, and I am enjoying the exploring of it immensely.
Nineteen days and about 350km down. Still a long way to go, but its going to get exciting.