Posts tagged ‘Ettrick Hills’

November 30, 2015

Battered days and bothy nights in the Ettrick Hills – pt1

by backpackingbongos

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The walk down Dryfe Water was a delight, autumn firmly in charge of the colour scheme.

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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.

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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.

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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………..

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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February 27, 2010

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!