Running researcher crosses Scotland

A couple of years ago, inspired by a series of interviews on farms that I had previously run past, I wrote a short blog about running through the countryside. Last month I took a trip north of the border to run another long distance footpath, that has been on my ‘to do’ list for about five years now – the Southern Upland Way. I therefore I thought it might be an opportunity to reflect upon my trip, the landscape and my experiences with a short blog.

The Southern Upland Way (SUW) stretches for 212 miles  from Portpatrick on Scotland’s south-west coast, to Cockburnspath, on the east coast, a few miles south of Dunbar. It passes through a range of landscapes, such as coastal areas, arable farmland, rolling hills, moorland and small market towns. The one thing that you soon become aware of during the planning process, is that large parts of this area are very sparsely populated. This fact actually became one of the most challenging aspects of the trip, trying to break the trip down into sections that were both manageable in terms of distance given limited availability of accommodation. I was planning on using B&Bs rather than camping, and generally aiming to cover about 30 miles per day, a distance that balances the challenge, with being able to get up the next day and repeat for seven days in a row. I planned to take seven days, going West to East and with the help of the fantastic SUW website soon worked out my itinerary:

Day one: Portpatrick – Knowe
Day two: Knowe – St. John’s Town of Dalry
Day three: St. John’s Town of Dalry – Sanquhar
Day four: Sanquhar – Beattock (Moffat actual stop)
Day five: Moffat – Traquair (Innerleithen actual stop)
Day six: Innerleithen – Lauder
Day seven: Lauder – Cockburnspath

Grass being cut near Stranraer

My adventure started off well with clear blue skies and warm sunshine – in fact the weather for the next few days was looking very kind indeed, with little or no rain likely due to the presence of a large area of high pressure. The short coastal section was most enjoyable, before heading inland and through a mixture of arable and livestock farmland. The large number of cattle in the fields  looked healthy due to the lush grass that was growing. Indeed farmers were busy taking cuts of grass for silage (I assume) or in their fields with other machinery.

Once the largely flat agricultural land between Portpatrick and New Luce has been covered, the route begins to climb into the hills. The landscape changes to a mixture of rolling hills with forest plantations (some of which had recently been felled) or, the new ‘crop’ that are wind energy turbines, setting the scene for a large proportion of the route. The first 60 miles or so are particularly remote, with just a handful of villages or hamlets to pass through. Only once you reach Sanquhar, do you begin to encounter ‘civilisation’ – but this of course is all part of the appeal. On the first three days I only encountered one other person on the SUW.

View from Craig Airie Fell of wind turbines

The central section of the route passes through the Lowther Hills, which is by far the hilliest section of the SUW. Long abandoned farm buildings dotted the landscape, along with drystone walls and sheepfolds which were clearly still being used by present day upland sheep farmers. I spoke with two farmers during this section, both of whom said it had been a particularly long winter – one said it had been the longest he had known in the 40 years he had been farming. There was also some industrial heritage in the form of abandoned mine workings such as those at Wanlockhead.

A typical signpost in Glen Ettrick

As you briefly skirt the edges of an urbanised landscape around Galashiels, the route once again enters rolling but remote hills as it eases itself down towards the East coast. There was a sense of anticipation on my part during the last few miles, wondering when I would finally get my first glimpse of the North Sea. This finally occurred in the middle of another forest plantation, but it wasn’t until I got really close to the coast when I was actually able to see it properly. I found this point quite significant as it really marked the end of my ‘journey’, and I recall a similar feeling when I reached the coast on the Wainwright coast-to-coast in England. The route takes in just a short section of the coast, before heading inland slightly to the small, and mostly unknown village of Cockburnspath, where the weary traveller is greeted by a typically understated shelter indicating the end (or start) of the SUW.

The finish of the SUW

The route is generally very well waymarked with thistle signposts, and is incredibly quiet. I passed only five other people during the seven days, and met one person coming the other way. It seems that very few people know about the route, which is a shame, but also part of its appeal. One evening in the ‘Golden Bannock’ in Lauder, I was chatting with locals over a pint, and they said that most people don’t bother with the border region of Scotland. They tend to head straight to Edinburgh, Glasgow or further on up to the Highlands, something my experience would echo. The people who promote the SUW do a great job with a well-structured website to help with planning trips, and there is even a treasure hunt along the whole route in the form of ‘The New Hoard’, hand minted-coins which are hidden in 13 locations. I managed to find six of these, although I did keep my eyes open for others, I was perhaps more occupied with not falling over (mostly successful) and enjoying the scenery.

I suspect that interest in the SUW will increase over coming years, as in August there is an inaugural ‘Race across Scotland’ event organised by GB Ultras, in fact I saw some of the race marking already in place in some of the forested sections. I also believe that Harvey Maps are compiling a bespoke map for the SUW – something I would have found most useful rather than using laminated sheets I created. Hopefully these two actions will increase the numbers of people using the trail, without creating too many negative impacts.

Now I am back in the office, a colleague mentioned that having done a number of these trips, it could be an interesting PhD thesis – exploring the motivations for and experiences encountered when doing such activities. Whether this is truly feasible, I don’t know, but it did make me think about why I enjoy doing it, and some of the thoughts I had during the seven days of being ‘out there’. I wondered what people in the surrounding areas thought of the wind turbines, what might be the story of abandoned buildings I saw, how the landscape would have looked without the forestry plantations and much more besides. I know that running through landscapes in this manner offers a unique perspective on things as you are fully immersed in, and transition through it. You get to see both where you will be going and where you have been. In both instances this is not just in the short-term but can be for a number of days.

I also thought how incredibly lucky I was to have chosen a time when I didn’t need a waterproof, when my main concern was making sure I didn’t get sunburnt and I was fully able to appreciate the beautiful countryside and hospitality that Scotland has to offer.

The long descent towards Sanquhar