The Scottish National Trail runs from the top of the Pennine Way at Kirk Yetholm all the way to Cape Wrath, around 470 miles in total. This post covers the southernmost section as far as Glasgow.
When I arrived at Berwick upon Tweed on April 10th 2017 the town was glowing in warm spring sunshine and gleaming with thousands of daffodils.
This was nice, but scant compensation for missing the bus to Kirk Yetholm, something I’ll probably never shut up about for the rest of my life. Rather than enjoying an evening yomp over Wideopen Hill followed by a chilly night’s wild camping somewhere west of Morebattle, I was forced to hole up in the beautiful and friendly Duncan House BnB at Kelso and spend a pleasant evening mostly in Rutherford’s Micropub. How annoying.
I walked the Scottish National Trail because I wanted to learn about Scotland, and as it turned out I couldn’t have had a better start than Duncan House in which there is an extensive library. Most of the books are, admittedy, about fishing, but Scottish culture and history also feature. I learnt a lot more from an unintended night in Kelso than I would have done from my intended walk and wild camp.
Just behind the BnB is a small plaque to Sir William Fairbairn, one of Victorian Britain’s most eminent engineers, President and Gold medal winner of the Royal Society. Whereas everywhere in Scotland the most tenuous connection with Robert Burns, the popularity of whose poetry I find inexplicable, merits an expensive statue and probably a festival, men like Fairbairn who built the modern world are modestly commemorated, if at all.
George Rosie confirms this in the book The Manufacture of Scottish History (Donnachie & Whatley (eds) 1992, Polygon), observing that as well as fetishising Burns, Scotland’s burgeoning heritage industry typically majors on industrial memorabilia, militarism, royalism and highlandism while conspicuously ignoring both the strange, potent and often terrifying story of Scottish religion and this small nation’s quite extraordinary contribution to science and technology.
Now more justly celebrated, not before time, is Scotland’s food although all too often in the form of copycat gastropubs peddling cheffy, fiddled-about-with ‘fusions’ instead of authentic dishes done well and interestingly. It was hard in the Borders to find a simple, inexpensive meal in a pub; however, I found the edibility of even quite pretentious pub food there generally higher than at home, not least because Scottish produce is so good not even a chef can ruin it. Given the obsessive neophilia of the modern foodie, I suppose in the absence of a diverse indigenous cuisine to major on doing innovative things with the superb indigenous ingredients is a cunning plan.
One authentic dish the Scots are rightly keen to celebrate, with ever more competitions, awards and innovative variations, is the Scotch Pie. Another compensation for being stranded in Kelso was that it’s basically pie heaven. Best of all, on my third visit in nine months to Foston’s Fine Meats I finally obtained one of their legendary steak, haggis and drambuie pies. I ate this delicacy after it had been in my rucksack for half a day, by when the poor thing wasn’t really worth photographing, but it was stunningly delicious.
Day 1. Crailing to the Eildon Hills. On April 11th I picked up the St Cuthbert’s Way just outside the village of Crailing, on the bus route between Kelso and Jedburgh. This waymarked entrance into a narrow strip of woodland full of Celandines and freshly unfurling fern croziers corresponds to the last line of Section 6, Day 1 of the Walk Highlands directions.
Two unexpected things were immediately apparent. My previous experience of The Borders being confined to the hills around KY, in my English imagination I’d pictured the whole length of Scotland from border to cape as a bleak wilderness of pine and heather. Instead, here was deciduous woodland bursting with fat buds, lush, green, full of flowers and ringing with birdsong.
From similar deficits of insight and exposure, I’d envisioned the said wilderness underlain by a continuous knee-deep morass, the trail lashed daily by wild wintry storms and awash with teeming swamps. Instead, I found myself walking over what had evidently been deep mud until quite recently – as little as a fortnight ago, I’d say – but was now pretty much bone dry and very easy going.
I found my confidence cautiously rising. Might it be I was going to get lucky with the weather? Might it be that to walk the length of Scotland one might not actually need the waders that had been suggested, not entirely in jest, back home in Norfolk?
At Jed Water the alliums started and I’m now convinced the Tweed Valley is the most oniony place in Great Britain. For miles and miles the same Three-cornered Leek Allium triquetrum I’d seen in small patches on the Llyn had completely taken over the woods and riverbanks. Between its narrow, strap-like leaves, the broader Ramsons Allium ursinum were pushing through, ready to take over as purveyors of sulphurous aromas to the trailwalker, once the Leeks had died down. In gaps among this onioniferous onslaught, other typical plants of damp ground got a look in where they could, Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, Lady’s Smock, Comfrey, Butterbur. I was pleased to spot the not at all common Common Toothwort Lathraea squamaria along the trail, beneath Hazel on which it’s parasitic, then a little further on Purple Toothwort Lathraea clandestina – a garden escape but glamorous. All in all, the Scottish National Trail was proving amazingly floral.
Waterways are a big feature of the SNT too; the trail along the mighty Tweed is scenic and occasionally even dramatic; across wobbly suspension bridges, through gorges of red sandstone and among hanging woodlands along steep riverbanks.
The woods around Monteviot are managed and manicured for family leisure, the cafe at Harestanes is large and busy but there’s a home-made ice cream place in the corner of the courtyard that does tea, as an alternative. Also ice cream, obviously. St Boswell’s seems bereft of facilities at first sight but although The Main Street Trading Company is easily mistaken from outside for yet another pastel tat emporium, inside it is in fact a nice bookshop and cafe and in the latter capacity well worth a visit as although it looks a bit twee by trailwalker standards the coffee is good and hot and the staff friendly. The chippie opposite doesn’t open until teatime but don’t lose heart as there’s also a small supermarket and, even better, a small craft butchers that does excellent pies down the hill opposite the bus stop, at which there’s also a very useful toilet.
I’d planned to camp by the Tweed and there was indeed flat ground where I’d carefully examined the contour lines. What I’d failed to anticipate was that it was completely covered with Three-cornered Leek, so camping there would have been like lying in a dish of chopped raw onion. I didn’t fancy being marinaded and would probably have had nightmares that I was being softened up for a cannibal feast of Longpig a l’Oignon. I decided to camp higher up in the Eildon Hills which now seemed deceptively close at hand. Several hours later, and by now in a strong westerly wind, I stumbled out of the tent-unfriendly but sheltered forest onto the breezy and disappointingly heathery bealach.
All the way up the ground was very swampy but eventually, more or less at the top and a little out of practice, I found a stony but flattish spot on a small path leading to a sunken area in which I found several bunches of flowers and written expressions of mourning. It seemed I was about to sleep at a spot favoured for the scattering of ashes. Luckily I’m not afeared of ghosties and I managed to hitch the tent guys to the heather before feasting on pie and Irn Bru. My first night on the SNT was very windy but otherwise undisturbed.
Day 2. Eildon Hills to Minch Moor. Melrose is dismayingly posh, along the whole high street I couldn’t find one sensible-looking cafe. At the bottom of the hill was a butcher (even the smallest town in Scotland still seems to support at least one of these, if no other traditional retailer) and I went in to buy a pie and ask advice, recalling sentimentally that in the good old days butchers always knew the best cafes. ‘No call for them’, he snorted, ‘nobody wants a mug of tea and a bacon roll these days, it’s all paninis and capppucinos’. He seemed upset, as if I’d raised a sore point and implicitly criticised his town to boot. I was upset too, my whole vision of Scotland (not to mention of a mug of tea and a bacon butty) crumbling. I felt a fool, my haggis and neep pie burnt in my hand; obviously only a silly tourist would buy such a thing instead of a nice panini.
I tried to redeem the encounter by admiring his meat, which even a vegetarian would have to admit was cut and displayed with consummate craft and artistry. Knowing full well a backpacker wasn’t about to buy five pounds of Pope’s Eye, he gave me short shrift: ‘Not worth doing. Sits here a day then goes in the pies. If it wasn’t for cooked food I wouldn’t have a business. Nobody makes a living now selling perishables, all people eat at home is convenience food from the supermarket van’. I slunk round the corner and hid from the drizzle in a generic trendy ‘bar and kitchen’, where I bought a breakfast panini and a latte from a hip young man of unidentifiable east european ethnicity. To be fair, they were pretty good.
The St Cuthbert’s way ends at Melrose, where you start to realise the extent to which the SNT is a mash-up of other trails. Inauspiciously the Southern Upland Way at first leads you through industrial areas then along the Borders Railway which old guidebooks will tell you is disused – it’s now very much in use again. You then negotiate the schools, nursing homes and sports fields of Galashiels, ending up in the Gala Policies, an extensive and beautiful wooded park, full of wild flowers. In Scots a ‘policy’ is an ornamental estate, park or pleasure ground. Another thing I quickly learnt about Scotland was that I was absolutely in another country, one in which words I’d previously taken to be standard English are often used in different and surprising ways.
Soon after Gala the SUW crosses the now smaller and wilder Tweed at the frankly scary Yair Bridge, after which those of us who missed the bus to KY will encounter our first bit of proper hillwalking. A pretty steep climb, in fact, up to the Three Brethren.
Eccentrically, the SNT includes just two proper summits, this one a couple of days in, and Ben Dreavie near the end. I don’t count Brown Knowe as a proper summit, and it wasn’t much of a campsite either being completely exposed to a wind so bitterly cold I swear it had ice in it. I camped further down in the relative shelter of a pine plantation. Where I pitched my tent on the ancient Minch Moor Road, Montrose’s beaten cavaliers had retreated from Philipshaugh and, much earlier in the 13th Century, Edward I’s victorious army had marched across Scotland. I hope they all had warm tents, it was perishing up there. There used to be a bothy somewhere near here but a notice at Traquair village hall the next morning told me this has recently been destroyed, having become allegedly unsafe to use.
Day 3. Minch Moor to Peebles. I couldn’t see any facilities at Traquair and the famous old House is some way off the route, so I pushed on along roads and woodland trails to Cardrona, spotting my first Swallows of the year. The Cardona Village Shop is now Nashy’s Coffee House, although Nashy still helpfully keeps a small selection of basic groceries for sale in the porch. The food here is top notch and the breakfast especially magnificent; after a very cold night in the tent I lingered here in convivial warmth for a long while. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cardrona acquires more facilities before long, it seems to be rapidly suburbanising with several new housing estates near completion.
From here it was a short stroll into Peebles, where I’d booked a pitch on the Rosetta campsite, thinking I’d need a shower by now and that as it was Easter they’d be full. In fact they’d only just crept out of hibernation and were still very quiet. This is a friendly site with a bar and small restaurant (neither really up to speed in early April!) and it has the big advantage of being directly on the trail – you literally walk along the pavement past the entrance.
Peebles is bigger than most towns in Norfolk, and seems prosperous, being something of a dormitory for Edinburgh. There’s a Wetherspoons for budget-friendly ales but don’t succumb to the temptation of eating there if you like fish and chips as just a few doors away is Jim Jack’s Chippy where I enjoyed one of the best fish suppers (or fish teas, as they’re known in Scotland) I’ve ever eaten. The most useful shops are on the way out of town north of the river, heading towards the campsite – a rather good outdoor gear shop and a Co-Op supermarket.
Day 4. Peebles to the Bore Stane. Sleety drizzle enlivened my walk through Peeblesshire which has been sheep country for centuries; the farming here is intensive and the ecology consequently depressing, lots of ryegrass and very few birds.
Cloich Forest is dark, damp and mysterious; the fells beyond have, as observed by WalkHighlands, a wild and remote feel despite being barely twenty miles from Edinburgh. Apart, that is, from the patches that have been ‘improved’ by sheep farmers – in the picture below you can see a bright green area of fertilised ryegrass on the skyline left of centre.West Linton is a quaint place with a few shops including a tiny but optimistically hip sandwich bar. The first facility you encounter here is the tearoom in the old tollbooth, which is quirky and small enough inside to prove awkward I should think if there’s several of you with large rucksacks. The menu is minimal too but this friendly little place is still well worth a visit and has a useful toilet. The Allan Ramsay Hotel at Carlops is also friendly but very expensive, offering instead of Scotland’s otherwise ubiquitous tea and a scone, a pricey range of frankly unattractive ‘gateaux’ and ‘patisserie’. It’s a relief to escape from the pretension and the busy road up to the North Esk Reservoir which is privately owned by some very lucky and evidently very decent people who manage it thoughtfully as a nature reserve.
The brisk westerly wind was still very much a feature, but close to the Bore Stane was a perfect campsite sheltered by a junction of stone walls. There was ice aplenty in the tent the next morning, but the night was quiet and comfortable.Day 5. The Bore Stane to Ratho. It was a pretty frosty start up there in the Pentlands, but then, as I hunkered out of the wind behind a small fir plantation to eat breakfast, quite suddenly and loudly the first Willow Warbler of the year started to tune up directly above my head. This became a heartening theme of my long walk south to north among an unfolding spring – I felt as if I was bringing the summer birds and flowers with me as I went, kind of a harbinger, like.
Balerno is a dormitory for Edinburgh with what to a man from Norfolk seems a quite incredible number of buses. The Co-op on the way into town is now the only shop and this well-stocked and useful supermarket with its hot drinks and great range of picnic grub for walkers is roundly blamed by the locals for having killed all the others. Even the Post Office has become a cafe, the excellent but not obvious Letterbox Bistro (I initially walked past it and had to be kindly redirected). In here they were for the time being still operating the Post Office among the cappuccinos and (rather good) breakfast baps, but told me that shortly the supermarket would be taking over the franchise for that too, exactly as has happened in my own home town.
At Balerno the SNT forsakes hills and now leads you for several (eventually rather interminable and surprisingly footsore) days along waterways. Just out of town you turn off the road down onto the Water of Leith, then follow a mostly very pretty path along this scenic and well-conserved river towards the city centre.
At Slateford you negotiate a busy road and a patch of urban dereliction to find the Visitor Centre with its friendly staff and educational displays, not to mention tea and buns. The must-see here is the unobtrusive plaque commemorating the grand opening of the SNT in 2012. A selfie is compulsory, of course. Try to adopt a determined and sensible expression, unlike mine.Ascending the impressive aqueduct (while from it admiring more urban dereliction and a large Sainsbury’s which could be handy in extremis) brings the SNT-er onto the Union Canal which, for its time, is an astonishing miracle of civil engineering, surveyed and routed so ingeniously there isn’t a single lock until Falkirk. The towpath is nicely restored, easing you through the outskirts of Edinburgh and negotiating motorways and industrial areas with aplomb. Be warned, though, its main users are urban cyclists of the kamikaze persuasion. The sun came out and it became unseasonally warm. This was handy as, craving vitamin C, I’d bought salad in the Balerno Co-Op for a very un-Scottish picnic lunch. Salad is horrid in the rain, and in my opinion not that great any other time.
The Bridge Inn at Ratho was busy and noisy, it being Easter Saturday, but they were kind enough to squeeze me into a little corner. In consideration of this kindness, although I hadn’t planned to eat there I fell to the temptation of their not inexpensive but very delicious food. As I’d previously enjoyed a not inexpensive but very delicious brunch at the Letterbox Bistro this was turning into an extravagant day, even more so as, again because it was a holiday weekend, I’d made a firm booking at a legitimate campsite called Linwater Park.
Lacking detailed mapping, I made the mistake of leaving the canal too early to find this and trudged a couple of miles along boring roads. In fact you can follow the canal all the way to what WalkHighlands calls the Almond Aqueduct, which even though it goes over the Almond is called the Lin’s Mill Aqueduct both on the map and on the ground.
Still on the east side of the river go down the aqueduct steps and head south, passing the car park and along a little lane. Spot further steps down from the lane on the right, these take you down to an easy path southwards along the Almond Valley to the back entrance of Linwater Park Caravan Site (via their dog walking route, complete with poop trowels). This is a large site but friendly and reasonably priced with good showers, hot drinks and a minimal but useful grocery shop for those whose budget couldn’t stretch to The Bridge Inn. Credit cards are indeed a mixed blessing.
Day 6. Ratho to Falkirk. More of the same, really, with aqueducts, flowers, cyclists and another lavish brunch at the lovely Park Bistro right on the towpath at Linlithgow, where they were astonishingly friendly to a lone walker, considering they were gearing up for Easter Sunday lunch, and their breakfast bap plus coffee deal was absurdly good value.
The area around Broxburn is famous for the bings. These are spoil heaps from the shale oil extraction industry that thrived here for a hundred years or so until 1962, as usual making a few people very wealthy while employing lots of others for not much in terrible, toxic conditions, and creating these vast heaps of pinkish-red crushed rock. Some have been levelled and landscaped but those that remain are now being preserved, I understand, not just out of historical interest but for their fascinating and unique ecology – they’re being re-colonised by plants and animals in amazing ways. A Willow Warbler was singing lustily from the scrubby trees halfway up this one (below).
At Falkirk I’d booked long in advance into the singular and good value Rosie’s BnB, it being Easter. It was a dull walk down into the not especially prosperous-looking town, but worthwhile as, despite it being 6.30 on Easter Sunday, Lidl was open. Evidently Scotland doesn’t have the same Sunday trading laws as we do. On top of their usual strange and random selection of Eurogrub, Lidls north of the border carry an impressive range of authentically Scottish provisions and convenience foods – I notice they don’t bother making any similar effort for us benighted English. Rosie kindly provides a microwave and eating gear so I enjoyed a vast but economical Scottish-themed supper. In bed.
Day 7. Falkirk to Twechar. A deliberately short day, not just to make the most of the breakfast and lie-in at Rosie’s but to allow a proper visit to the Falkirk Wheel.
Again, it being a holiday week, I’d made a firm booking at a legitimate campsite along the canal. Again, this turned out to have been completely unnecessary; when I managed to clamber hazardously off the towpath into a road to find the Spotty Dog campsite at Twechar I was the only person there. This included the owners, who’d kindly e-mailed the gate code and left me a bottle of drinking water. The only facilities on this site were a chemical toilet in a small wooden shed. You camp in a mowed patch among a thicket of Japanese Knotweed, next to a Biffa waste transfer station. The owners are great, outdoor instructors trying to diversify their business, and deserve support but don’t expect lavish amenities here.
Day 8, Twechar to Glasgow. It was a perishing cold night, and I left Twechar not long after dawn as it was too cold to sleep. By the time I got to Kinkintilloch I was speechless with cold and was just fixing up to brew a hot drink by the canal when a dog walker who turned out to be a retired gamekeeper from the Angus glens assertively but kindly led me to the nearby McDonalds instead. Here I warmed up and ate a large amount of their disturbingly cheap but strangely palatable food.
As I approached Glasgow it was becoming progressively more impossible to understand anything anybody said to me, and my dog walking informant was no exception. Faced with my drowsy incomprehension he ultimately took my arm and led me to what in his opinion is the best, prettiest and most interesting walking route to Milngavie, the signed start of which is conveniently right next to the Kirkintilloch McDonalds. This route is called the Strathkelvin Railway Path and it does look great, but it was necessary this time for me, after thanking my guide, duplicitously to elude him and sneak off back to the towpath, as I’d previously arranged to stay with friends in Glasgow and wanted to get there by lunchtime.
Rather than follow the official SNT route around the city, which sounds to be honest pretty tedious, I simply strolled along the towpath right into the north end of the city itself. There’s lots of historic infrastructure to admire along this route, also an astonishing amount of litter, Tennents cans in particular were more numerous than the stars. I was cautiously pleased to encounter several gaggles of authentic Rab C. Nesbitt types drinking strong lager at 10 am on the towpath and conversing in an animated but incomprehensible argot that may as well have been Serbo-Croat. Generally though the canal is very tidy and civilised, Glasgow is a lovely, friendly city and at Bearsden there’s what to a man from Norfolk appears an utterly amazing abundance of public transport, both into the city centre and back out to Milngavie.
Next day I had a jolly nice rest, enjoying many among other diversions the set lunch at very swish Rogano’s, allegedly Glasgow’s oldest restaurant. Naturally I had to choose the pudding that was closest in concept and components to a pie.