Most people visiting Scotland head straight up to the Highlands. As they pass the Scottish border sign on the M6, celebrating their arrival in “Bonnie Scotland”, they no doubt often miss the next sign at Junction 22 of the A74 (M) which will lead them towards South West Scotland. Little do they know they are driving past the road leading them to one of Scotland’s best kept secrets...
My love of the mountains began when I was in school, we went on a trip, walking up to the summit of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon). I can remember eating my sandwiches, sitting near the edge looking down over the patchwork fields far below in the distance. I could also see the Llanberis Pass winding its way upwards and the tiny cars making their way through, it was mesmerising and I was in awe. Much later on, around 20 odd years ago, a few of my friends locally started travelling to the Lake District at weekends to go walking in the Fells there, I thought back to that day on Snowdon and a recent trip I had made with a friend to climb Tryfan in Snowdonia and realised that I loved the freedom of being in the mountains and the challenges it brought. So I joined them on one of their trips.
I started to frequent the Lake District and fell in love with the mountains there. So much that I started to complete the Wainwrights. I was a regular visitor to the Old Dungeon Ghyll in the Langdale valley. But over the years I watched as the Lake District become more and more popular, the campsites became busier and whilst in the mountains it was like following a chain of ants upwards to each summit. The Lake District seems so busy these days it is like the equivalent of London in the outdoor world.
Why am I telling you this you ask? I am meant to be talking about Bonnie Galloway, surely? Well this brings me nicely to Scotland’s best kept secret, Bonnie Galloway.
Described as a walkers paradise, The Galloway Hills are part of the Southern Uplands of Scotland, and form the northern boundary of western Galloway. They lie within the bounds of the Galloway Forest Park, an area of some 300 square miles (800 km2) of largely uninhabited wild land, managed by Forestry and Land Scotland. The Merrick is the highest hill in the south of Scotland, though at less than 3000 feet it is not a Munro. For this reason a lot of mountain walkers overlook and often sometimes snub the Galloway Hills as “just hills” I have even heard the area called “Pretend Scotland” In the absence of Munros, the mountains of 3000ft or more that attract ambitious ‘peak baggers’ and without the hoards that invade Wainright’s beloved Lake District, the Galloway Hills remain, almost totally unspoilt, thankfully!
The northern part of Galloway is exceedingly rugged and forms the second largest area of wilderness in Britain aside from the Highlands. Whilst the Galloways lack the sheer ruggedness of the Scottish Highlands they are fairly remote. It is not unusual to spend the day wandering and not see anyone else out walking, although you may bump into the occasional Stag, Red Deer, Red Squirrel, Fox and Pine Martin or see a Golden Eagle soaring high above you. A pleasant change from the busier mountain ranges of the UK.
“BE WARNED, IT’S GOING TO BE TOUGH UNDERFOOT THIS YEAR” was taken from publicity for the 1986 Karrimor International Mountain Marathon, participants thought they were in for an easy ride in the “Galloway Hills” they soon found out otherwise. It should be noted, with the possible exception of the popular tourist path to Merrick and the picturesque Gairland Burn path, clear paths are very few and far between. Deer, goat and sheep trails can often be used to advantage but all too frequently the way lies across grassy, heather- strewn, bracken covered, or rocky surfaces and the multiplicity of burns, albeit extremely attractive, can present a problem after heavy rain with the need for a river crossing not uncommon. You will need to be able to navigate well, as you will, at times be relying on micro-navigation techniques using the contours to navigate due to the lack of defined paths and features. Way of the Wild offers Navigation Fundamentals workshops based in the Loch Trool area of the Galloway Forest Park.
Galloway was long regarded as a wild and lawless place - somewhat other from the mainstream of Scottish culture, which was as much as anything to do with its remoteness and inaccessibility. The Galloway hills played an important part in this image, especially as at various points in history it was a place of refuge for fugitives who did not fit into, or defied, the power structure of their times. Think Robert the Bruce and the Covenanting fugitives.
The Galloway Hills are part of the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere. Galloway & Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere covers almost 9,800 km² of southwest Scotland's land and sea, Galloway & Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere follows the rivers that flow out of the Galloway Hills: through forests and farmland, historic villages and towns, all the way to a ruggedly scenic coast. As a region, our Biosphere includes iconic wildlife and natural habitats which are recognised as being of international importance. Galloway and Southern Ayrshire is recognised by UNESCO as a world class environment for people and nature.
The unusual place names reflect a mixture of the Old Norse and Scottish Gaelic languages and hint at the range of influences which have acted on society within the area over the centuries. The Galloway Hills form part of the Southern Uplands, but are generally contained in a fairly compact arrangement of six distinct groups:
· The ‘Awful Hand’, a fanciful name given to a range of hills in which the Merrick (at 2766ft the highest of the Galloway’s) is the forefinger. The other fingers are Shalloch on Minnoch, Tarfessock and Kirriereoch, with Benyellary the thumb. Buchan Hill, at the southern end of the range, overlooks Loch Trool.
· The Dungeon Range, which runs parallel to the Awful Hand, extends from Craiglee, near Loch Dee, to Macaterick. The highest in the range is Mullwarchar at 2270ft.
· The Kells, an undulating ridge of hills parallel to, and east of, the Dungeon Range, stretches from Darrou at the southern end to Black Craig which rises above Loch Doon, Corserine, at 2669ft, is the dominating hill in the ridge which includes 13 summits of 2000ft or more.
· The Minnigaff Group with Lamachan, its highest at 2350ft and Curleywee the most rugged, lies south of Loch Dee between the Water of Trool and Clatteringshaws Loch.
· The Carsphairn Range, situated to the north-east of the main group of Galloway Hills, includes Cairnsmore of Carsphairn (2614ft) and 13 other hill- tops of over 2000ft.
· The Solway Hills are fairly scattered along the Solway Coast-line from Cairnsmore of Fleet (2331ft) near Newton Stewart, to Criffel just south of Dumfries.
If you like a challenge then Galloway is home to The Ring of Fire, also known as the Gallo Way, a peak bagging round. 45 miles (72 km) with 13,000 feet (4000 m) of ascent, starting and finishing in Glen Trool in the heart of the Galloway Forest. I will be attempting to complete the Ring of Fire in 48 hours next May, as part of a fundraising event with Galloway Mountain Rescue Team.
The Southern Upland Way also winds through the Galloway Hills, Scotland's only coast-to-coast long distance route, running across the country from Portpatrick on the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea at Cove to finish after 212 miles (341km) at nearby Cockburnspath.
Although the Galloway terrain can be rough underfoot at times, it is worth the small discomfort to experience the vast wilderness and awe inspiring vistas a day out in the hills can offer here. Duly advised, the visitor is able to enjoy complete freedom. To roam at will and sample the delights of one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, if not the whole of the British Isles. The climate, being influenced by the warm Gulf Stream, is generally mild and compares favourably with many places south of the border. So, whether for the pleasure of viewing the wonderful scenery, observing the flora and fauna, or just for the exercise, the walkers of Galloway’s hills will not be disappointed.
The area was the first in the UK to be awarded Dark Sky status. The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory occupies a fantastic hilltop site on the edge of the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park near the town of Dalmellington in the east of the Biosphere. This publicly accessible educational observatory has some of the darkest skies in the UK and has two large telescopes through which to observe the night sky. Way of the Wild offers Dark Sky Experiences in the form of Hoshi Yoku (Star Bathing & the Stories of the Stars)
If you want to explore the Galloway Hills but don't know where to begin, get in touch with Way of the Wild to arrange a bespoke guided day out.
I look forward to welcoming you to “Bonnie Galloway” – Scotland’s best kept secret… SSSSSSH! Don’t tell anyone!