The Southern Upland Way is a remarkable cross-country route that stretches all the way across Scotland, from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea
Ask most ramblers to name a long-distance walk in Scotland and they will usually come up with the famous West Highland Way. It is, indeed, a first-rate adventure, but to the south lies another world-class walk: the Southern Upland Way. This less-heralded sibling is no poor relation, as Scotland’s longest walking route cuts from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea, taking in a swathe of sea cliffs, rolling hills, shimmering lochs and pretty villages on its epic 21-mile journey.
Since the Southern Upland Way celebrated its 21st birthday in 2005, there has been a concerted effort from its dynamic organisers to bring in more walkers to ‘Scotland’s other big walk’. They have coined the catchy ‘Scotland’s Ultimate Walk’ tagline, really jazzed up their website and made booking simple. Two of the main criticisms levelled their way – that accommodation is hard to source and transfers are tricky to organise – have been addressed, as they now organise whole packages.
Like most walkers on this route, I chose to hike from west to east and not to tackle the entirety in one, taking on just short of 100 miles and leaving the rest for another trip. The start at Portpatrick is a hard one, purely because this charming seaside village is so difficult to leave, with a clutch of pubs on the waterfront serving great seafood as well as an excellent fine dining restaurant. Then there are the views that stretch out across the water to Northern Ireland.
An information board heralds the start of the walk: a striking 13-mile section that lifts you up away from the busy harbour over a clutch of craggy rocks and around sand-strewn bays, as the waymarked path follows the coast north towards the Killantringan Lighthouse. In the distance, I could make out the rugged hulk of Ailsa Craig, an unmistakable rock skyscraper with its old lighthouse and ruined castle, shining like a beacon right out of the Atlantic.
After Killantringan, I cut inland on winding country lanes before scrambling across Broad Moor. Soon the port of Stranraer popped up in the distance and I spent most of the afternoon circling around it without actually ever going in. The day’s finale was a spectacular one, at Castle Kennedy, where a castle that Disney would be jealous of splits the glass-calm White and Black lochs.
The first night is spent in a simple hotel in the village of Castle Kennedy. Most of the accommodation en route is comfortable rather than luxurious, though there are some luxury options for those wanting to splash out. All are well-versed in the needs of walkers, with dinner either available on site or close by and picnic lunches available for collection after a hearty Scottish breakfast the next morning.
The next stretch covered Castle Kennedy to New Luce, a distance of 11 miles. By now I was starting to appreciate how few walkers were on the route. This was a gloriously sunny June and I had seen four walkers on day one, four more than I saw on day two. The first few miles really tested the calves for the first time, though I was pleased not to have to use my compass across the moors, as my guidebook had warned, due to swirling mists.
The impressively sunny and hot weather (up to 28°C) continued on the long leg from New Luce to Bargrennan, a real 17.5-mile slog, much of it through thick forest. There were numerous highlights, though, with the Laggangarn Stones making an atmospheric place to enjoy lunch in the shadows of ancient ancestors. Craigairie Fell at 320m offers a great 360° panorama, taking in the Mull of Galloway, Luce Bay and even Ailsa Craig and across to Northern Ireland on a clear day.
With limbs still smarting after the long stretch, this would have been a good time for a rest day. I pushed on, though, bound for Clatteringshaws, another 17.5 miles away, cheating slightly by taking a transfer to start a few miles up the road to Glentrool. The walk up and out of Glentrool is one of the Way’s most spectacular, opening up sweeping loch and hill views as you escape the crowds drawn to cycling or picnicing by the loch. Loch Dee is something special, too.
Unusually for a linear walk, I then stayed for two nights in St John’s Town of Dalry, one of the few real towns on the western half of the Way. I was picked up at Clatteringshaws and then dropped back there the next day for the eight-mile walk back to my base for a second night. Starting just north of the impressive stretch of Clatteringshaws Loch, I climbed into Garroch Glen through the oak woodland. The views should have revealed themselves as I reached the top of Waterside Hill, but visibility was down to a few feet and the afternoon turned into the only one swallowed up navigating. By late afternoon, though, I made my descent into the welcoming arms of St John's Town of Dalry and its cosy pubs.
The last day of the trip was one that really stretched the legs; a real finish in style. It covered the 18 miles from Stroanpatrick northeast of St John’s to Sanquhar. Gone was the mist, and in its place the sort of sunny summer’s day when you would not want to be walking anywhere else in the world. The afternoon opened up expansive views of the Southern Uplands stretching out on all sides as I rumbled up and down 400m peak after 400m peak.
Sitting enjoying a wee dram in Sanquhar at journey’s end, I reflected on traversing a good chunk of Scotland’s forgotten long-distance walk. It may never boast the massive popularity of the West Highland Way, but this is something of a moot point as all it means is that you get to enjoy the experience undiluted by crowds.
Southern Upland Way organisers
The savvy organisers of the Southern Upland Way have an excellent website where you can check out all of the walk options, including the various possible legs.
The beauty of this route is that the walking distances are determined by how you want to cut them up. If a stretch looks too big you can reduce it and arrange transfers to and from where you are staying. The whole 212 miles could be covered by someone very fit in around two weeks, but don’t underestimate the Southern Upland Way. It may not be the Highlands, but there are plenty of hills and tough stretches.
The Southern Upland Way is suitable for everyone, with no technical climbing skills needed or specialist equipment bar the usual clothing and supplies. At least one of the group should have tried-and-tested navigational skills in case of reduced visibility.
Maps and guides
All sections of the Way are well covered by Ordnance Survey maps. Note, though, that it often seems like the planners of the route tried to make sure it covers as many different maps as possible. Many walkers eschew a flurry of Ordnance Survey maps in favour of the collated maps in the official guidebook to the route. The Southern Upland Way by Roger Smith (Mercat Press Ltd) covers the walk in detail and includes collated maps, which make navigating the route a lot easier. The book also comes in a waterproof case.
Walking west to east is the best plan, as you are usually walking with the prevailing winds. Although numbers are still low it is sensible to book accommodation early, particularly on the western section of the Way, as options can be limited, especially at the height of summer.