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Mini Guide: The Galloway Hills

© Ronald Turnbull

Galloway. It's the land of bandits and granite. It's the place with more lakes than the Lake District, more goats than Goatfell, the place where the placenames are as gnarly as the glacier scraped summits of Craignaw, Mullwarchar and the Dungeon. But it's also one of the most neglected upland areas in Britain. If the wild and wooly Galloway Hills are a blank on your personal hillwalking map, then you need to do something about that. Ronald Turnbull leads the way.


The Carpathians are 1500km of woods and little streams all the way across eastern Europe; but there's one good bit, the rock towers and ridges of the High Tatras. The eastern Grampians, over on the wrong side of the A9: rounded lumps of peat and heather, soggy underfoot and covered in cloud. Again, with one good bit: the true Cairngorms (plus Lochnagar), with their gravel plateau and ice-carved crags.

Loch Enoch and Mullwarchar  © Ronald Turnbull
Loch Enoch and Mullwarchar
© Ronald Turnbull

What makes the difference? Its down to huge earth movements at the dawn of time, and upwelling batholiths of quartz-feldspar continental crust. It's down to granite.

And the Southern Uplands, just the same. A hundred miles, 150 summits – and the moorgrass and old fence posts are wildly exciting, but only if you happen to be a sheep. It's a range that's every bit as thrilling as the north Pennines or the middle bit of Wales (that's not meant as a compliment, by the way). But here again: the granitty bit.

The range has as stern a face as the Grey Man of The Merrick  © Ronald Turnbull
The range has as stern a face as the Grey Man of The Merrick
© Ronald Turnbull

The hill names are as fused-together, hardened, rugged as the ground they've been applied to

Granite resolve

Galloway: or more precisely, the Galloway Highlands, the group of two dozen 2000-footers grouped around the Merrick. A place of silver lakes, black peaty hollows, and slabs of bare, grey (did I already mention the geology?) granite rock. Robert the Bruce went on the run here, and his small guerrilla band was so toughened by abrasion against the Galloway granite that the went on to take back control of Scotland. Wild brigands lived among the small crags, murdering passers by for the sake of our fancy Gore-Tex jackets and plunging our bodies into a soggy corner of Loch Neldricken. At least according to Victorian novelist S R Crockett, and he came from Castle Douglas so he should know.

The four Corbetts – Merrick, Corserine, Shalloch on Minnoch and Cairnsmore of Carsphairn – are less than half of it. The Range of the Awful Hand is just the outskirts. It's the lochs and bogs of the middle bit, the Dungeon Range around Loch Enoch, the damp crags rising above the morasses of the Silver Flowe: here is the granite heartland of one of the UK's harshest, goatiest, granitty lumps of uncompromising mountain ground.

Little Spear from Merrick  © Dan Bailey
Little Spear from Merrick
© Dan Bailey

In the wilds of Galloway that look towards Ayrshire, up by the springs of Doon and Dee, there lies a wide country of surpassing wildness, whither resorted all the evil gypsies of the hill – red-handed men, outlaws and aliens of all this realm of well-affected men.

SR Crockett 'The Raiders' 1894

Galloway placenames

The remelting of the felsic continental crust is what formed the granite landscape. And it's re-enacted in the local language: the placenames as fused-together, hardened, rugged as the ground they've been applied to. There's a bit of Gaelic in there, and quite a lot of Gallovidian, the almost-lost language that was probably quite close to present-day Manx. All stirred together with 17th-century Scots as interpreted by the Ordnance Survey of the present day. And so we get the Clints, or knobby bits, of Dromore. The Rig, or ridge, of the Jarkness. Kirriereoch, the speckled hill, Ben Yellary the hill of the eagle, Mullwarchar the hill of the hunting horn.

A gentler side of Galloway - the Wood of Cree  © Ronald Turnbull
A gentler side of Galloway - the Wood of Cree
© Ronald Turnbull

A new National Park?

The Scottish Government has announced that at least one new National Park will be designated during the current parliament. It's part of what the Scottish Greens are getting in exchange for their support for IndyRef Two. While Nevis-Glencoe and Wester Ross are hot contenders, Galloway is one of only two that has a local activism group gunning for it.

Some may feel that Galloway's hill ground and landscape qualities, great as they are, aren't quite up there with Glen Affric and the Isle of Harris. We can't help noticing an awful lot of wood-pulp plantations along the western edges and both sides of the Rhinns of Kells. Others of us, noting how the transport/pubs/accommodation sections further down aren't as juicy as they could be, can't wait for the improved infrastructure. We're anticipating the influx of designation-driven visitors, the boost to the local economy and in particular to the sales of the area's single walking guidebook (which is by me, heh-heh!).

Loch Enoch and Merrick from Mullwarchar  © Ronald Turnbull
Loch Enoch and Merrick from Mullwarchar
© Ronald Turnbull

Galloway in a nutshell

1 Four of the Southern Uplands' 2500-foot Corbetts

2 13km ridgeline Rhinns of the Kells

3 UK's longest view, Merrick to Snowdon (232km)

4 Wild camp alongside Loch Enoch, one of the UK's remotest

5 For a walk of pure placename (that's also a wonderful rugged day out) take in the Murder Hole, Dungeon Hill, Wolf's Slock and the Devil's Bowling Green

As chunky and jumbled as the central lane of your local Lidl - this is ground where you should expect to take longer than you expected…

Carlin's Cairn from Corserine  © Dan Bailey
Carlin's Cairn from Corserine
© Dan Bailey


Five must-do routes

Woods of Trool

The bit of the 'forest park' that really is a forest, rather than a wood-pulp plantation. The Southern Upland Way, along with various paths alongside it, create a variety of circular walks between Bargrennan, Glentrool Village, Stroan Bridge with its little café, the former camp site at Caldons and the head of Loch Trool – anything between 10 – 25km. The circuit of the wooded Loch Trool takes in the ambush site of Robert the Bruce's first victory, and the car park opposite where he directed the battle.

Bruce's Stone at Loch Trool  © Ronald Turnbull
Bruce's Stone at Loch Trool
© Ronald Turnbull

The Merrick from Bruce's Stone

Not just a Corbett to bag, Merrick is one of Scotland's finest smaller mountains. It boasts the forest park's only decent hill path, and an elevated ridgeline the Neive of the Spit, with views to Arran one way and the area's granite heartland the other. The crunch comes when you decide whether to then head back through that granite heartland, first dropping to Loch Enoch and then out by Lochs Neldricken and Valley on a boggy path, or the drier way along the Rig of Loch Enoch.

On Neive of the Spit  © Ronald Turnbull
On Neive of the Spit
© Ronald Turnbull

The Dungeon Range

This is the bit in the middle, as chunky and jumbled as the central lane of your local Lidl. Mullwarchar, the Dungeon and Craignaw: barely sneaking over the 600m mark, but you'll be impressed by the glacier-abandoned boulders, the granite slabs, the peaty holes in between them, and the sparkling lochans on every side. This is ground where you should expect to take longer than you expected…

Loch Enoch and Merrick from Craignairny, in the jumbled granite heart of the range  © Ronald Turnbull
Loch Enoch and Merrick from Craignairny, in the jumbled granite heart of the range
© Ronald Turnbull

One of the more rewarding circuits in the area concentrates on the lochs between the hills rather than any major summits:

Minnigaffs

Lamachan and Curleywee, south of the Southern Upland Way, are as crinkly-charming as their name suggests. To save swearwords and spruce-needles down the neck, approach Mulldonoch from a right-angle bend in the track north-east of the summit, for a hidden trackway through the trees and scrambly outcrops from then on up.

Goat path to Curleywee, Minnigaff Hills  © Ronald Turnbull
Goat path to Curleywee, Minnigaff Hills
© Ronald Turnbull

Rhinns of the Kells

The long ridgeline is best approached from Forrest Lodge among the plantations on its eastern side. Paths through the spruce give access to the northern end, the southern end, and Corserine in the middle. The approaches may be rugged, but the going along the top is grassy ridgewalk heaven.

Corserine and Co offer superb ridge walking  © Ronald Turnbull
Corserine and Co offer superb ridge walking
© Ronald Turnbull

The Awful Hand and Rhinns of Kells in one

A huge and very challenging skyline walk around the parallel ranges the Rhinns of Kells and the Awful Hand shows this area at its uncompromising best and includes Merrick, highest summit in southern Scotland. For most teams this will be an overnighter, and it just so happens there's great camping at about the mid-way point.

Too short and easy? You could always combine the Kells with the Awful Hand, joining up the bottom along the Minnigaffs, for the rigorous and challenging 75-km 'Gallo Way' circuit. Do that on in April or May, before the bracken and tussocks rise head high from the hill slopes like Bruce's attacking soldiers.

Principal summits


Further info

Maps 

Harvey Superwalker (1:25,000) Galloway Hills is best

OS  Explorer (1:25,000) 318 and 319 (Galloway Forest Park)

OS Landranger (1:50,000) 77 (Dalmellington)

Guidebook 

Walking the Galloway Hills by Ronald Turnbull (Cicerone Press 2019) replaces a very elderly one by Paddy Dillon

Weather forecast

MWIS Southern Uplands

Met Office report for Merrick

Loch Enoch from Redstone Rig, Merrick  © Ronald Turnbull
Loch Enoch from Redstone Rig, Merrick
© Ronald Turnbull

Best bases

Newton Stewart, St John's Town of Dalry

Accommodation

House o' Hill at Bargrennan, at the entrance to Glen Trool; campsite there as well. Newton Stewart still his its Hostelling Scotland (SYHA) Hostel. St John's Town of Dalry has the Clachan Inn and B&Bs serving the Southern Upland Way

Bothies

Four within the forest park. That said, the area is a bit too close to Glasgow and industrial Ayrshire, and a bit too easy to get into along forest roads whose gates are left unlocked. Bothy booze nights and vandalism are quite common. Two former bothies have given up in despair and been demolished; Culsharg above the Bruce's Stone gets restored from time to time but will usually be found without door or windows.

Transport

Even by car the area takes a bit of getting to. Reliable bus services to Newton Stewart (still not very close); occasional buses to Glentrool village (school service); good bus service from Castle Douglas to Dalry.

Pubs and food

House o' Hill at Bargrennan; Clachan Inn at Dalry. A woodland café at Stroan Bridge near Glentrool Village;  a village café at Carsphairn, below the northern Rhinns of Kells; and one at Loch Doon, at the northern edge.

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