Thursday 4 June 2105. Portpatrick to Castle Kennedy, 13 miles.
Though I was far later than planned setting out, this crossing of the Rhinns of Galloway has only one section that can be classed as even remotely rough, and it presents a good gentle opener to the walk as a whole. Portpatrick itself is a pretty little place, clustered around its harbour, which with a little more deep water would surely be serving still as the ferry port for Ireland that was once envisaged; it has a couple of little shops, a pub and a tea room, in any combination of which it’s worth spending time.
The SUW itself starts at the north end of the harbour, unpropitiously at the signboard by the loos. You know it’s the start because the first of the hefty SUW signposts, which show the direction whenever a public road is met, has only one arm. This leads to a coastal section that careers from clifftop to sea level and back again several times; it’s quite atypical of the Way as a whole, but a refreshing space to get one’s limbs moving.
The turn inland comes at a lighthouse, Killantringan. From here there’s a few road miles before the crossing of Broad Moor, and you’ll encounter the first of the leaflet boxes (each with valuable information about an aspect of the Way) and the first ‘Ultreia’ waymark – a Galician word also encountered on the Camino de Santiago, roughly meaning ‘Onward’. At each of these, look out for a coin-bearing container nearby for a further souvenir (I didn’t know this at the time though I picked a couple of the specially-minted copper tokens from elsewhere later on). It’s barely a mile though over the moor before you’re back on the road, not far from the back of Stranraer. The nicest way to divert into the town would be by forest tracks at NX 080589, but wanted to put a few more miles on, so I continued to the main road at Castle Kennedy from where there is a good bus service into Stranraer – there’s a convenient stop just past the Aird Donald camp site, where I pitched my tent.
Friday 5 June 2105. Castle Kennedy to Beehive bothy, 14 miles.
I started with a drizzly hour in Castle Kennedy gardens, which are stupendously good if you like that sort of thing – even I was quite taken with the Araucaria avenue – followed by coffee and cake in the tea shop. Afterwards, it’s around three miles to the first of what I took to calling ’causeway paths’, though no doubt they have an official name. These lead you efficiently through forestry plantations, or the borders of them. These conifer forests, mostly planted many decades ago now, are planted in boggy ground that would be slow (as in one mile an hour) going to cross. Instead, the SUW uses narrow built paths, presumably made along with the planting, either within or, as in the case of the Glenwham Moor plantation, beside it. Very pleasant walking they make for too.
Shortly after, the wide Water of Luce is crossed by bouncy suspension bridge – approaching, I could hear a train on the track beside it, ironic as it’s somewhere on this stretch that cattle had prevented my train reaching Stranraer the day before. Soon after the Way crosses the fascinating Kilhern Moss, a place of ancient settlement and one ruined farmhouse; plenty of wild camp spots, were it not much too early in the day. A short road stretch past farms takes you into more forestry, this time with disinfectant and brushes to mitigate the spread of phytophthora disease. In a clearing is the Beehive bothy, unusual as having been purpose-built for the task in the 1990s. Beware the low door on exiting!
Saturday 6 June 2105. Beehive bothy to Caldons (Glen Trool), 20 miles.
Soon there’s a short detour to Craig Airlie Fell, the first ground over 1000ft encountered on the way and so a good viewpoint for the greater hills that are on their way. Below though is gravel forestry track, and soon the hard asphalt surface of a minor road leading four miles to the hamlet of Knowe. Here, I was looking forward to getting off the tarmac back through forestry, even though I suspected it might be a squelchy little stretch, but logging works forced a two-mile detour, still on the road! And when the detour was regained, the SUW takes another road mile. So that was something like seven continuous road miles: far too much. At last, the Way veers left over Glenvernoch Fell, a tiny hill but with the blessed relief of grass, and I didn’t even mind too much the boggy pasture lower down.
This led to Bargrennan, possibly the smallest village to have a village hall. It’s a little off route, but as I was just in time for a sandwich at the House o’Hill Hotel I decided on the detour. When something is called a ‘hotel’, you worry about its pretensions: would muddy walkers be welcome? Thankfully, it’s a friendly little place – where they put the residents I have no idea. Afterwards, the Way takes a southward swing into Glen Trool, leading to an intricate, winding little path over tree roots with bluebells and other spring wild flowers at their best. Coming late on a long day, with a lot of attention needed to avoid said roots, I might not have appreciated it as much as I would on a recreational afternoon stroll. Eventually though the path becomes riverside at the Water of Trool, which for me noted journey’s end. There was a campsite here once, at Caldons, and though facilities have been taken away it’s still used for wild camping. Alas they did not remove the midges with the facilities.
Sunday 7 June 2105. Caldons to St John’s Town of Dalry, 20 miles.
There’s a lot of gravel-track walking on this stage, which is a shame, for scenically it’s up with the best. It starts with a conundrum: how to cross the Trool / Dee watershed? The map shows an enticing fellside path to the north of the Glenhead Burn, but earlier maps show use of a track on the south, and my guidebook (of 2007, rev. 2013) implied a further change. From the buildings at Glenhead, the signage gave no doubt that the gravel track to the south was indeed now the official SUW. Why this should be so I do not know – it’s in fact a National Cycle Route too; maybe there was some fear that walkers might have found the path too strenuous, but surely not on this of all trails? Thankfully, there has been much felling here, so there are good views, especially south to Bennanbrack. Over the watershed, I diverted to the bothy of White Laggan, just to have a look around – from the bothy book, a number of SUW walkers use it, and indeed some had been there the night before. Soon after, the wonderful views over Loch Dee to the Galloway Hills open out.
As I neared Clatteringshaws Loch, I could see the Way took a wide loop, presumably still on gravel, and I was mused on a short cut up to the buildings of Mid Garrary. This time, the Diversion God was on my side, for this is exactly what she ordered! It was a wet and tussocky little uphill pull and a very welcome relief as well. From here, a ’causeway path’ through forestry leads on to the attractive moorland of Shield Rigg, especially enjoyable in the descent to the farm of Clenrie, until a couple of road miles, prettier than some it must be said. Eventually the path veers off, through pastureland beside Croom Brook and then up to another little hill, Waterside Hill, a great viewpoint over the destination for the day, St John’s Town of Dalry – or just Dalry, as most call it, though don’t confuse it with a more industrial version in Ayrshire. I was soon made welcome at the Clachan Inn in the village.