The hills that circle the lonely Ettrick water are some of my favourite in Southern Scotland. Rounded and grassy they remind me a little of the Howgills further south. However the Howgills are positively heaving with people in comparison. During this four day backpack at the end of October I did not see a single person on the hills.
The approach to the head of Ettrick water by car is long via the narrow winding road through Eskdalemuir, then the single track one up the valley. You do get a sense of remoteness when driving there, the prayer flags of the Tibetan Monastery at Samye Ling fitting in against the backdrop of hills.
Moffat provides a much more accessible jumping off point for these hills via the Southern Upland Way. I found a spot for the car a couple of miles outside of town and headed east on the waymarked long distance trail.
This is the first walk in a long time where I have left my camera at home, I decided to use just my mobile phone to take photographs to see how they would turn out.
Total distance – 47 kilometres with 2230 metres ascent
The forecast for the weekend was not very promising, heavy rain and strong winds were to be a feature of this backpack. With this in mind I had planned the route so as to make use of a couple of the MBA bothies that are dotted around these hills. It was meant to be particularly wet and windy the first night so I hurried up the forestry track, keen to get some distance under my belt before the rain swept in.
The Southern Upland Way as it makes its way towards Ettrick Head passes through a large forestry plantation, not exactly inspiring walking along the wide gravel tracks. I eventually managed to escape it on another vehicle track that ascended south towards Scaw’d Law. This ended at a turning circle where I managed to locate an old grassy track that took me onto the heathery open hillside. The views once up high were typical Southern Uplands, rolling hills, forestry and the ubiquitous wind turbines.
Scaw’d Law is designated a Marilyn which allowed me to add another tick to my list. I walked a short way from the true summit to a large cairn giving great views down Wamphray Water and beyond. The clouds were beginning to gather in the west, spits and spots of rain being carried on a strengthening wind.
From the summit of Scaw’d law I descended very steep heather clad slopes to the east, a real punishment for the knees. A barbed wire fence at the bottom caused a bit of difficulty as it was just above groin height and too wobbly to climb.
The ruined farm at Garrogill is located in an idyllic spot next to a rushing burn. It would have been a beautifully wild and remote place before the forestry came and blanketed the hillsides. Sometimes I wish that I could wind back time and have a glimpse at the life people led in these out of the way corners of the country. It must have been a harsh existence.
There is a good path that ascends onto the moors to the east of Garrogill that is not marked on the map. This I was thankful for as I had envisaged a battled through the trees. From the saddle between Cowan Fell and Ewelairs Hill it was a short descent to the landrover track than runs to the head of Dryfe Water. I glanced up to the summit of Loch Fell, its top being grazed by cloud, I would be climbing it the following day.
The walk down Dryfe Water was a delight, autumn firmly in charge of the colour scheme.
Dryfehead bothy was to be my home for the night and I approached it wondering if anyone would be there. You can usually tell if a bothy is occupied by the smell of wood smoke long before the bothy comes into view. There was no such smell as I approached the back of the bothy, the chimneys smoke free.
The setting is idyllic, it has a grassy lawn and some well established trees surrounding it, the burn a short distance away.
It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the gloom inside. There is a room either side, one with a stove the other with an open fire. There is a small room in the middle just big enough for one person. I decided to stay in there, just in case a group of people turned up later that evening.
Water was fetched from the burn and wood sawed into useable lengths. The stove was soon roaring and water boiling for a coffee. I had packed some tea lights, so as night fell the room was bathed in a warm glow. With it being a Friday night I expected other people to turn up but no one came. The rain soon started and the wind picked up. I love being in front of a warm bothy fire when the weather is bad.
I only managed to stay up until 9pm before retiring to the single room to get comfy in my sleeping bag. All night the rain lashed the window and wind rattled the front door. This was loud enough to wake me up a couple of times, thinking that someone had come in. The downside to bothies on your own is your mind can play tricks, ghosts prowl lonely buildings.
It is rare for bothies to have toilets (although there are a few that do) so my first ‘job’ in the morning was to take a long walk with the bothy spade………..
The rain had cleared to a thick drizzle as I set off with the spade down the track. The burn was raging, foaming with brown peaty water. There was a constant drip of water from the trees, the long grass soaking my trousers. Back at the bothy I quickly packed up, no wet tent to contend with. Breakfast when backpacking is always bacon Super noodles and coffee, even better when you have a bothy table to sit at and a window to look out of.
The bothy was swept, the door closed and bolted and I set back up the way I had come the day before.
The track climbs high onto the shoulder of Loch Fell which meant only a short pathless climb to the summit. The weather quickly closed in, a wall of cloud bringing stinging hail and gusty winds. Wrapped up in winter Paramo I was well protected from the elements.
The route was along a high grassy ridge linking Loch Fell with Ettrick Pen. The weather was changing by the minute, clear blue skies would be followed by punishing showers of rain and hail. It was both exhilarating and hard work.
The last shower of the day was the worst, a natural version of waterboarding leaving it hard to breathe when facing the weather.
As quickly as it came it was gone, leaving a few ragged clouds under blue skies.
I had wanted to camp high to take advantage of the views, but the wind was far too strong for a quiet and comfortable night. I dropped down to the head of the Muckle Cauldren Burn hoping to find a dry flat patch, but everywhere was very wet. I followed the burn down its boggy course failing to find a suitable spot. In the end I descended all the way to where it intersects Glendearg Burn. There below a tin hut was a flat spot sheltered from the wind. The Enan was pitched in the fading light, stars appearing in the clearing sky.