Backpacking the Ettrick Hills from Moffat Dale

by backpackingbongos

With the days getting longer I thought that it was time to get in the first backpacking trip of 2010.  I am a fan of both bothies and wildcamping so with a three day window I could have a night in each.  Where to go though?

The week before I had an eye on the weather, watching the forecast change day by day.  Wales was my initial destination but was overtaken at the last minute by the Southern Uplands which promised three days of sunshine and frosty nights.  This is an area that is largely overlooked by a majority of hillwalkers and backpackers, I really cannot work out why.  The Moffat hills are easily accessed from the M74 and the journey time only takes an hour longer than a trip to the Lake District if travelling from the south.

Day 1 – 6.1 miles with 820 metres ascent

My original plan had been to start at the entrance to Selcoth fish farm but there was nowhere to park without leaving the van on their drive.  I carried on up the A708 and found a village hall (miles from any village) which had a car park without any ‘no parking’ signs.  It was past 12.30pm when I finally put my backpack on and set off back down the road.  I soon passed the fish farm and the buildings at Selcoth picking up the track that leads onto the shoulder of Croft Head.  As I started to climb there were great views up Moffat Dale and the hills to the north.

My general lack of fitness was felt on the ascent of Croft Head and a lengthy sit down was had on the 350 metre contour.  Sheltered from the wind and with the sun on my face there was no where else I would rather be.  Unfortunately sitting down is not the best way to climb a hill, so the pack was put back on for the long slow ascent of the north west ridge.  The summit was a junction of fences, one of which I followed towards Cat Shoulder.  The views towards Ettrick Head were impressive, with the hills still covered in a patchwork of snow.

As I descended onto Cat Shoulder Craigmichen Scar dominated the view with the Selcoth Burn cutting a gorge beneath its steep slopes.

A newly bulldozed path descends in zig zags to a sheepfold where I picked up the original line of the Southern Upland Way which winds its way across Scotland coast to coast.  A walk that I would love to do some day.  Along this spectacular stretch the path is little more than a sheep track as it contours high above the river.  Thankfully most of the snow had melted on this side of the valley, one slip and it would be a long way to slide in snow.  The river soon climbs to meet the path at a scenic little footbridge, giving access to the upper reaches of the valley.

I could see the markers of the Southern Upland Way climb out of the valley across steep snow covered slopes.  The snow was rock hard and pretty deep with only the top of the markers showing.  Without crampons it would be pretty difficult going so I decided to ascend Capel Fell alongside Rae Grain instead.  The slopes felt much steeper than they looked on the map and my leg muscles forced another sit down.  This enabled me to take in the geography of the upper Selcoth Burn leading to Ettrick Head.

The views from the summit were well worth the effort.  The sun was now beginning to set and the temperature was dropping sharply.  I got out my new Gorrilapod SLR tripod and experimented with a few ‘posed’ shots of myself staring wistfully off into the distance.

My extremities were soon feeling rather cold and I noticed that frost had started to form on my rucksack, time to get moving!  I crossed Smidhope Hill and started to descend alongside the Little Smid Hope into the forest where I got my first glimpse of Over Phawhope bothy.  I had my fingers crossed that I would get it to myself, this particular bothy is less than a mile from the road and can get pretty busy.  However it all looked dark and quiet and there was no smoke rising from the chimney.  I arrived in fading light and entered its cold interior by torchlight for a look around.  I quickly bagged a tiny room which had a bunk bed in it before setting about getting a fire lit.  I have great gratitute to the person who brought in the 50kg bag of coal and the stack of chopped logs, one definite plus to being near a road and on a drivable track!  The stove was soon roaring and I spent the evening eating whilst reading a good book.  Even with the stove on the go the room never got above 4 degrees celsius, the front of my legs were burning whilst the back of them were freezing.  When I went out to collect water the edges of the fast flowing stream had started to freeze…….

Day 2 – 10.7 miles with 745 metres ascent

I was warm and comfy and overslept, finally getting out of bed at gone 9.00am.  Going outside to answer a call of nature I noticed that the thermometer on the wall of the bothy was still showing minus 6 degrees celcius.  It must have been pretty chilly last night!  I have to admit that I would have been happy to spend the day at the bothy sitting by the fire and reading, it is in such a lovely spot.  Instead I had the luxury of cooking and eating from a comfy armchair before sweeping up and collecting some kindling for the next person.  A couple of photos were taken before heading off back towards Ettrick Head along the Southern Upland Way.

The forestry track was at a good gradient to warm up my muscles and it was nice to stop and chat to a couple of guys heading in the opposite direction, the first people I had seen since leaving the van.  Ettrick head marks the boundary between the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.

My first destination for the day was the summit of West Knowe which was reached via Parks Well and initially up exceptionally steep slopes.  The sort that involves grass scrambling, muttering, and a bit of, ‘I wish I had not come up this way’.  Luckily this was short lived and I was once again striding across an easy grassy hillside.

Hours were then spent strolling over rolling hills with amazing clear views in all directions, taking in Loch Fell, Wind fell and Hopetoun Craig.

The light was constantly changing to dramatic effect and progress was easy following the fence line across hard packed snow.

Just before reaching the summit of Ettrick Pen I passed the third and final person in three whole days.  As is common in remote spots we stopped and chatted for a bit before going our separate ways.  I like these hilltop exchanges, something you rarely get in the crowded Lake and Peak Districts.

The Large Cairn was passed on Ettrick Pen and I descended with views down the wilderness of the Cauldron Burns which flow for miles before reaching civilisation.  I found a great spot to pitch with access to water but there was still a couple of hours to go until sunset.  Plus the ground here was frozen solid!

The ridge was followed to the forest edge where Fauld Sike descends into the trees.  It was a nightmare descent down steep snow covered slopes, drifts at times covering the stream itself.  Thankfully just as I was beginning to question my decision and turn back I hit a forestry track which was followed down to the Ettrick Water.

In failing light I skirted over the hillside on the other side of the valley and dropped down to the Kirkhope Burn, still just about in sight of the Farm buildings.  I should have continued and been completely out of sight but I had found a great flat pitch on which to spent the long night.

My evening was only spoilt by the effect my freeze dried meal had on my stomach, I would just get warm and comfy when a sudden dash outside was needed.  Note to self to try a different brand!

Day 3 – 7.2 miles with 525 metres ascent

I managed to oversleep again, sitting up to my usual Akto Shower, the nights condensation dripping onto my sleeping bag.  The night had been cold, really cold but there was not the usual white coating of frost.  It had been cold enough to freeze my platypus and my boots were a solid block of ice.  I had to force my feet into them and run around a bit to break the icy crust, not the best way to start the morning.  I had my eyes on the sky which was starting to cloud over with a few flakes of snow, I finally packed up much later than planned.  Note to self, stop procrastinating in the mornings!

It was an enjoyable ascent of the Kirkhope Burn to its source.  I had originally planned to climb Andrewhinney Hill but lowering clouds and heavy snow put an end to that idea.  The summit of Bell Crag was reached with the fence line then contouring above the very steep slopes above Moffat Dale 1550ft below.

The ridge was followed south to the cairn on Bodesbeck Law where I was greeted with dramatic skies, shafts of sunlight piercing the dark clouds.

Descending to the col to the south a track was picked up that led to Bodesbeck farm and then the main road.  The Moffat hills on the otherside of the valley began to dominate the view, especially the great scoop of Blackhope burn.  A range of mountains that I backpacked a few years ago and somewhere I am keen to return.  A massive upland area rising to over 800 metres with only a minor road crossing alongside Megget Water.  Why go to the Lake District when there is a spectacular and remote area such as this close by?

The Ettrick hills I had spent three days crossing were not as spectacular but the feeling of remoteness and isolation more than made up for this.  Go on try a new area next weekend!

20 Comments to “Backpacking the Ettrick Hills from Moffat Dale”

  1. Great report, love the photos. That tripod seems to do the job….

    I recently discovered Galloway whilst writing routes for – it’s somewhere I’d driven past loads of times on my way south from Glasgow but never visited. I reckon a lack of train stations has led to the Borders being neglected as a waking destination – but don’t tell everyone!

  2. A fine backpack and account, and some familiar views (I didn’t know there was a bothy down there, we were pitched on the hills above it on our trip, north of Bodesbeck Law).
    Some parts of the Southern Uplands are actually quicker to reach from the south than the far western Lakes, it certainly was for Moffatt.
    The snow and clear air make for some fantastic pictures.

  3. Great report and pictures.
    While I love The Lakes I also hate them on those busy weekends when it seems to be one big traffic jam. I have looked at this area before but never actually made the effort (familiarity and all that). This year it is going to happen as even on popular weekends I cannot believe the area will be like the lakes.
    Thanks a lot

  4. Excellent report from a fine, if sometimes boggy, part of the world.
    Well done, sir.

  5. Phil, thanks the new tripod does make taking photos that much easier. Some train stations along the main west coast line would open up the area a bit more. I find it a bit strange that there are not any.

    Geoff, it was the fact that there was a bothy that made planning a bit easier as it gave me somewhere to head to just in case the weather got bad. Fingers crossed the clear air is there for both mine and your next trip.

    Kevin, I dont think that this area will ever be like the lakes in terms of people. A good place to head to on a bank holiday!

    Martin, Thanks!

  6. “A few ‘posed’ shots of myself staring wistfully off into the distance”.

    Good to see that. Good photos and good looking hills for a wild walk away from the crowds.

  7. Have you thought of using the camera system that fits to the end of your walking pole and allows you to take an image of yourself and surroundings by pointing the camera back . Bob at backpacking light has them and they do look good and fast to use and would give a new angle. The south upland way needs a bit more use from a good man with a camera and a well visited blog.

  8. Thanks Martin, it is always good to get away from the crowds.

    Warren, looks like a good idea but would then have to get my ugly mug in the shot! I will visit the Southern Uplands again this year and shout about it!

  9. I like photies, especially of the cottage – it looks homey – and of the Fence with the “Welcome to the Scottish Borders” sign, that has something.

    Next weekend a short walk for me as well, and the weekend after a two nighter – happy happy joy joy!

    • Thanks Hendrik, the bothy was very homely and the fire was more than welcome that night. Enjoy your walk, look forward to reading about it.

  10. Hello James, congratulations on getting the job. Sorry to hear about the hypothyroidism – what’s the prognosis? How effective is the medication?

    I really enjoyed your excellent account of your excursion to the Southern Uplands; the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway are very undersubscribed to by walkers. I suppose many people are attracted to the bigger hills further north or the glamorous Lakeland fells. However, this is a very good thing as far as some of us are concerned. The joy of spending a night in a bothy with no-one around, eh?

    Myself and Fiona, my girlfriend, have done a fair bit of walking in Dumfrieshire including bits and bobs of the Southern Upland Way. Like yourself, the urge to walk the whole dang thing in one go is bubbling around in the background.

    Your pictures are very lovely indeed and fill me with a hankering to take pictures almost as lovely myself. If only. What sort of camera are you using James? And, How do you take pictures into the sun? I’m a bit of a dunce with technology and I’m completely amazed that this is possible.

    Anyway, that’s enough questions: thanks James, keep on keeping on.


    • Hi Pete
      Not sure what the long term prognosis for hypothyroidism is going to be. Still at the blood test every few weeks and adjusting medication stage at the moment. Its just a bit depressing that my wellbeing is determined by taking tablets. When I am tired I am tired, no amount of excercise or healthy eating will get me up a hill if my body does not want to!

      I have to admit to prefering getting a bothy to myself, if people are in there already I often spent an hour or so chatting before deciding whether or not to stay. A couple of years ago a mate and myself met probably the most boring man in the world in a bothy who simply would not shut up, we are still mentally scarred by the whole experience!

      I have to admit that I am very much an amateur when it comes to photography. My camera should take some of the credit. It is a panasonic lumix lx3. Have just started taking photos with my own settings, fiddling with apperture, exposure etc. The photos taken into the sun were done on sunset mode with my fingers crossed.


  11. Just to add my bit about photography ( my degree subject ). The LX3 is the best and lightest camera for the outdoors. It has a Leica lens which is first rate. Shooting into the sun with a poor lens would give you flare and a poor quality image chip would not cope with the contrast either. You could use the auto bracket function into the sun to make sure that you had one good image. I put this camera in the back pocket of my cycling shirts where it gets a lot of abuse and it works perfectly – the perfect camera

    • Hi Warren,

      so what would a ‘sunset mode’ equate to? Is it under/over exposed by how much ? My camera allows me to override the standard settings and I would need to as it does not have a ‘sunset’ mode but I never manage to get the good representation of reality and am always worried about ‘burning out the sensor’ by pointing directly towards the sun (is this really a possibility?)

      Any and all thoughts appreciated


  12. Kevin. Well I would always say go and buy a LX3. But if that is not on before Xmas. The camera is always trying to expose for a mid tone skin colour. A sun set is bright sky dark foreground that only a good sensor can cope with so the sky is too bright and the subject too dark. Best compromise is to over expose so that the ground is visible or fix it in Photoshop or even iPhoto by increasing the shadow exposures to rescue an image without frying the sensor – not sure that happens these days

  13. Blimey had not thought about the possibility of burning out the sensor by pointing directly at the sun Kevin, is that really possible?

    Glad that you think that the LX3 is one of the best outdoor camera Warren. I have just started bracketing my photos when the sky looks a bit washed out, taking it down by 1/3 to 2/3 seems to make the world of difference. Dead easy to do on the joystick.

  14. Well there you are – great minds think similarly! I’ve been using an LX1 these last five years and I love the little critter – great camera for outdoor bores. I’ve always been pleased with the results – especially light and colour capture, but looking at your pictures James I can see a step-up in quality, so I think I know where I’ll go when my much-abused old LX1 pegs out.

    Going to try the ‘sunset’ mode up on the South Downs in the coming weeks. Just about got the gig from Cicerone to do a mountain-biking guide to the Downs – fingers crossed.

    Without wanting to underplay the impact on your health, what will be great help to you in terms of the hypothyroidism is your obvious ‘how can I make the best of…’ mentality. It counts for a lot.

    Like yourself, I most often prefer opening the door to a bothy and finding… …no-one there! You can meet some good folk of course, but then you do get some types. Where did you meet ‘the most boring man in the world’ – I’m hoping it wasn’t me!


  15. I dont think that you can go wrong with an LX3 Pete, it manages to do the job.
    Good luck with the new guide, I look forward to reading the Jura one when it comes out.
    Unless you live in Bristol I dont think that you were the ‘most boring man in the world’ I met! It was in a mid Wales Bothy a couple of Octobers ago.

  16. Another great account of a great trip. The Southern Uplands are really calling to me now. Only an hour further on than the Lakes? Scotland always seems so far and unreachable but maybe not… I recently burnt out the sensor in my old canon so that every shot was like I’d pointed it directly at the sun. I was actually on a route that I borrowed off you in the North York Moors. My account is if you would like to take a look 😉

    • Yeah, maybe a bit longer than an hour if off the beaten track but well worth the effort instead of a visit to the Lakes. I will pop on over to have a look at your North York Moors write-up.

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