I keep finding myself drawn back to this place. The place I’ve walked countless times. I think it’s because I feel I have to document these walks for myself. Now that I write and take photographs so that I will have some record of them. Something to look back on. This time I decided to do the Muirkirk to Kirkconnel walk using the old road.
No Greggs sausage rolls this time as it was shut not open until 0730 however the EK Deli next door was so I pulled in and got myself a big baguette stuffed full of cheese, ham and tomato, a bottle of water and a bottle of IRN BRU. I already had a few chocolate bars left over from another walk. No need to buy extra treats. It was the usual road East Kilbride to Strathaven to Muirkirk then finally Kames.
As always even all though it was early, a couple of cars could be found in the Walkers’ car park. Generally it’s dog walkers out to stretch their dogs legs but sometimes you never know someone is here to climb the hills. It was cold but not overly with a bit of a wind so I chucked my insulating jacket in my bag and opted for just my wind shirt over my shirt.
I was a little excited but also a little apprehensive. I had only just had corrective surgery on my eyes. No more glasses, for awhile at least. I hope. Excited that this would the first walk and I would get to see how good these lasered peeps would be. Not that I had any doubts. I’d spent the previous couple of weeks wondering why it had taken me so long to get it done. Apprehensive in that what if I got something dust, muck, other matter blown into them.
I fired up ViewRanger on my iPhone to record my path. No live maps on Social Hiking for me. The battery doesn’t like that. Record and upload later. That done I head towards the old road and MacAdams old tar works. I wouldn’t be climbing a hill, I was going to walk the road. All the way to either Sanquhar or Kirkconnel and get the bust back. Roughly 16 good Scots’ miles. I think folks get the impression that the old road was built by MacAdam but it wasn’t, it had been a cart road that had been there for along time. An old drove road that branches off in few directions. He just tarred and made it better or so the story goes. The road is probably even older than a drove road probably and ancient track.
Following the familiar way I set off round the back of the old institute and onto the old road. Today for a change I had on the 35mm lens instead of my usual 18-55mm kit lens for my Nikon. I was thinking different lens different view on the landscape. No zooming in and out. I would have to zoom with me feet where possible. I would have to, hopefully, think about my shots rather than just snapping away. That was the theory. The 35mm is cracking wee lens, it has a maximum aperture of f/1.8 which is great for creating depth of field. I don’t think it really works for landscape shots more of portrait, street photography lens in my head but hopefully I could get something decent with some landscape features, so the idea goes.
Randomly snapping shots as I always do I found myself at the junction of the Sanquhar bridge over the Garpel Burn. Stay on this side and you start to climb the Cairn Table, cross the bridge and you’re heading south to across Ayrshire to Dumfries and Galloway or Lanarkshire if you want. Plenty of old tracks to choose from, plenty of walks. More than I can manage at the moment. Some have been on the ‘list’ for years and some have been done a few times.
After the bridge the path winds and climbs up the shoulder of Wardlaw Hill. Every now and then I catch a fresh footprint or paw print in the path in front of me. Unusual to be on the road with others here, it’s not a circular route. As a round another corner, I find the makers of those marks. Two guys and a large dalmatian. All happed up like a pish hoose spicket. It’s not that cold and it’s dry but each to their own and it has been wet the previous few days. Hedging their bets. I stop and clap the big friendly dalmation as he bounds up to me and I speak to the guys. The usual stuff, weather and the like. Then they tell me they were trying to climb the Cairn Table. Easy done if you don’t know the walk or have a map. Usually they just up the front of the Cairn Table and back down the same path but the decided to try the other route. I tell them they would have been fine if they hadn’t crossed the bridge and continued on. All would be fine.
I left them to head back down to the bridge where they had made the wrong turn and continued on my way. The old road turns from hard packed to waterlogged peaty grass. For time, I find myself skipping, jumping, dodging and generally doing my best to avoid the worst of the stinking stale puddles. Foot suckers. Not that I’m afraid of getting dirty just don’t want to get too dirty. The shoulder of Wardlaw is saturated and soft. At time the road is unrecognisable and at others it has been chewed to bits by quad bikes or scramblers. Looking at all that water and standing on the shoulder of Wardlaw hill; I think that it’s weird but it probably isn’t, that all the water here flows to the River Ayr. The Garpel on one side runs straight into the Ayr but the other side all runs into the Glenmuir then into the Lugar then into the River Ayr away over in the west between Ochiltree and Mauchline just shy of Barskimming. Two different routes to the same place and ultimately the firth of Clyde and the sea.
It’s such a great view of the Glenmuir and not one I see very often. Most of memories are from down in the glen; fishing, camping, swimming and wondering at the ruined castle at Kyle and why would anyone build a one there. Been a long time since I’ve been down there and I was sorely tempted to change my plans and head down that way and walk back to Muirkirk round the other side of Wardlaw Hill. However it I was out solo and had left my plans with my wife she knew where I was going and when to expect me back, not a good idea to change things on the hoof just in case they go bad. I turned slowly away from the glen and my memories and continued on the road.
Past the worst of the peaty path, I was on the slopes of Pepper Hill as the road contoured round it. On the lands of the old High Shaw farm. Farm is being kind it would have been no bigger than a croft. Probably an old Scottish longhouse at one point. Now no more than a big sheep pen and rarely used at that. Much like Glenmuirshaw further down in the glen. Walking towards a large semi-ruined sheep pen. I noticed a small set of antlers and I hadn’t spooked them.
At last I somehow managed to get close to a deer. The wind blowing into my face had kept my smell away from it. The deer hadn’t a clue. I crept as silently as a ninja. In my head I was a ninja. All stealth and silence. Closer. Closer. I got as close to the old rusty fence in front of the collapsed stone wall as I dared. Holding my breath while cursing myself for not having my 18-55 kit lens. At least with it’s small zoom I would have got closer. Fortune favours the brave so the say. I moved closer to the rusty barbed wire. Inch by inch as close as I could, hedging my bets as I hadn’t been noticed. I slowly lifted the Nikon to my face. I focused on the deer and press down on the shutter. It sounded like a crash of thunder on that hillside.
That was all it need, out it launched. Fast and hard along with two other deer I hadn’t even seen lying in the long grass. The alien noise of the shutter was all they had needed. Always alert. They run this way and that trying to figure out where I was going eventually the deer realised I wasn’t running after them. They just stood a top of one of the many knowes and watched me from a safe distance.
Leaving the deer to gallop across the moor I continued along the grassy green road. Nearing the forest, the sounds changed and I could hear men at work. Heavy duty chainsaws whining, chewing, stripping and spitting out the pine trees. It was hard to tell from which direction it was coming from. Was I going to walk into it or was it at the other side of the plantation. Time would tell. On the edge of the plantation I crossed a small bridge over the March Burn, a boundary maker. Not sure if it’s between old farms or a couple of old baronies. Further down the Glenmuir is Kyle Castle and this could mark it’s eastern edge of it’s barony. Another possibility going the other way deep in the forest is Three Shire Hill. Where Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Galloway boundaries meet.
The old road here was just as bad here as over the pass into Glenmuir if not worse. Almost a large river of oozing mud. The fact it was saturated and chewed up by the forestry vehicles didn’t help. Hopefully I would pick up one of their hard packed roads. I knew the old road became road again at the other side but the tracks through here change from time to time with the planting and work going on. I was hoping the sludging would come to an end.
Soon enough I hit hard packed gravel of the forestry road, the noise of industry getting louder and closer all the time. A single tree blocked the road. I couldn’t go over it, I couldn’t go under it, I couldn’t go around it. Oh well, I just had to go through it. I managed to wedge through the branches and stepped over the trunk and out the otherside. Not that it was too difficult. Once on the other side that’s where I saw where all the noise was going on. The trees were being harvested here. There was a Land Rover Discovery facing away from and a few bits of machinery. All the work was getting done off to my right.
The guy in the Disco visibly jumped as a walked passed the passenger side door waving. Obviously wasn’t expecting anyone else there today. I waved and carried on, smiling. I was then assaulted, my nasal passages were battered by an overpowering smell of pine. Almost as strong as the cheap pine bleach in a public toilet. Not that I hang around public toilets. Ever. Needs must and all that. The fresh cut trees were scenting the air. The further along I walked the less pungent the scent got, these ones not so freshly hewn. It was actually becoming pleasant and made for a nice end to the forest section. Not long after the perfume drifted away I was back on the high muirs and the road was an actual road again.
From this section I had a view past Mount Stuart right through to the Lowthers and the giant golf ball on the horizon that is the radar station. Which I think is for air traffic control. I could be wrong. It’s definitely a radar at all costs. I had a view of it as the crow flies. I could here a few grouse squawking away in the long tussocks hiding out the way. I walked on. The weather was starting to cloud over after a fine bright morning and the wind was still constantly blowing. Blowing enough that I knew I was going to have a nice wind burned face. Good old skelpt erse.
Walking along listening to the birds sing. Minding my own business. Enjoying being there. When, woooosh! Out pops a Black Grouse from the roadside, not a foot from my face. I could feel the air rush past me as it exploded from the long grass. It was my turn to jump out my skin. Heart in the mouth. It’s a bird just a fecking bird. I think the bastards do that on purpose its not the first time a grouse or a ptarmigan has done that to me. You think they are sqwauking, that’s them laughing at you. Shouting at his buddy, “Haha look at that dick; nearly pished himself, gave him a squeaky bum”. After getting my heart rate back under control and a quick swig of the orange stuff. I started walking again. It now seemed that every few feet I was flushing out the grouse. They were all at it but that fright thing only works once. After the first one I’m expecting it. I was probably in the gamekeepers sights at that point, all those birds getting flushed into the sky.
Deep in covenanter country here; not far from another conventicle site, Blackgannoch. It’s still a wild land here and must have been wilder back then, I would think. A great place to hide. I was now heading for the for the old junction at Fingland. From there you can head to the conventicle site or Spago Bridge and onto Wanlockhead high in the Lowthers where the old gold and lead mines are. It’s part of an old drove road through the Southern Uplands. I wasn’t going that way. It’s a path I haven’t walked yet and one that’s on the list. I was heading for the Sanquhar/Kirkconnel turn. On reaching Fingland I was greeted by the barking of a dog but saw no-one. There is only a couple of in habitable houses. The others abandoned for whatever reason, left derelict. Not wanting to disturb the dog further I didn’t tarry long and head off down the Sanquhar road. The road climbs steadily or so it feels, along the bottom of the High Knypes.
It was decision time. I was at a fork in the road. I could continue on the road and head for Sanquhar or take the turn and the old path up and over in to Kirkconnel. I had been pounding the hard stuff for a while and decide to head off road again and take the trail. Back up into the hills. There was a short section after leaving the road where all of a sudden the old track completely disappears. It just vanishes into long tussocky grass. I slowed myself down and looked about carefully. Not that I was lost. Just wanted to ensure I kept to the path. I managed to pick out it’s faint trail and followed where it led. I was crossing the high pasture, summer grazing among some jittery sheep. They didn’t like me being there. There was one big tup that keep his eye on me while the others ran and gained some height and distance but this big boy just stood defiantly on the edge of knowe watching me. Almost daring me to challenge him. Either that or he was justing making sure I definitely didn’t have a bucket or two of feed. I ignored him, hopefully much to his annoyance and carried on.
It’s a cracking view from the shoulder of Kirkland Hill,looking down the Nith valley over St Conal’s Kirk, Kirkconnel itself. Up and down the river. Over to Blackcraig and up towards New Cumnock. You don’t realise that you have gained a good bit of height. Nearly 1500 ft on the shoulder of Kirkland Hill. One of those views that you can sit and just drink in. There is the odd bit of man made interference that you have to ignore, a couple of wind farms on the opposite side of the valley. The tops of their spinning blades catching the sun. Also back to the north a rather large surface mine. A big bloody scar of an opencast mine. Barring that, great view.
It been awhile since I had seen a soul. I had the world to myself but here I did notice a single solitary being walking up from the Vennel, the farm at the bottom of the hill. Farmer. Possibly. Lots of yowes in the lower fields with lambs. Maybe out checking the beasts. I climbed down off Kirkland Hill and met guy at the bottom, standing in front of an information board. Not the farmer, shock horror but another walker. I had bumped into a grand total of 5 people and one dog in nearly 16 miles and 5 hours of walking. A busy day that was. He asked where I had come from and I had said over from Muirkirk. It must have sounded incredulous as he had that look about his face. He was looking for a somewhat shorter walk. He had a couple of options, up to the trig point on Kirkland hill or follow the old path but to the junction and turn for Sanquhar, from there back to Kirkconnel. A nice circular route if a bit road weary. I left him to mull over his choices and headed for the kirkyard.
I climbed the stile over the wall and into St Conal’s Kirk. Apparently a church stood here for a thousand years, not the same original one but one of a few, growing expanding. Wood replaced by stone that sort of thing. Then along came the restoration in 1660, Charles II, the King tried to enforce episcopalian ways in the governance of the kirk. The minister here; one of many, refused and was tossed out. It was to be the start of the Killing Times, turning the South and West into a hotbed of religious turmoil. The kirk was closed and fell into disrepair and ruin. It wasn’t until 1710 that Kirkconnel had a minister again and a new church built in the village. Now here at this spot there is even less left. It’s a quiet spot. A perfect place for lunch after a long walk.
I noticed a cage in the corner of the church yard but I pay it no attention as I walked round the yard clockwise. Looking at the old headstones and burial slabs. Some are legible and others are completely weather worn with no recognisable marks on them. I walked round to the information boards and the open sheds that are holding the archaeological finds, all carved stone from different periods. Some of it beautifully cut others weathered and only hinting at their previous designs. After reading the boards I have a look in the cage, a trap crow. Not seen anything like that in years. The crow was not amused at my presence, fluttering around it’s cage and a very agitated manner so I retreated out of view back to the stacks of stone and the plinth the sheds were on for a seat and something to eat.
Enjoying lunch as I was going to be late for the early bus and too early for the late bus. You know how it goes. I had the ancient churchyard to myself, well except for the auld corbie fluttering in his cage. He had settled back down once he realised I wasn’t going to try and eat him. I leisurely walk around the ruins; reading the excellent information boards, standing within the old walls, looking at the work stone and carved masonry. I’m not one for the church, a coo in the field without a name but the place did have an ambience. Tranquil, peaceful. Haloed? Not sure but it did have an aura. It feels ancient. Maybe that’s it, its old, really old and I feel that age. It has seen everything and the stones and grass have soaked it up.
Out the corner of my eye I saw some movement. The walker I meet earlier had returned. He wandered over and sat at the far end of the platform. I asked where did go. Just to the top of Kirkland Hill. Fair enough. He asks about the crow. Was someone training it to stay put or had it been injured and was getting ready to be realised. Obviously not a country boy. In the back of my mind I was thinking of an altogether other purpose for the corbie. It was lambing time and crows are carrion. Known for pecking on weak newborn lambs or the stillborn ones. I was thinking it was being used to attract other crows so they could be shot. It is a cruel world.
Finishing up my lunch I decided to head on over the last couple of miles into town. How needs guard dugs when you’ve got geese. Honking nipping bastards. Nearly chased from the Vennel by a gaggle. They were positively angry and aggressive compared to the tup, he was all menace and trying to be intimidating. The geese were for my ankles. One for the pot would have sorted that out but I’m pretty sure the fermer’s gudwife would be none too happy. I hastily made me retreat beyond the gate and onto the road again.
Misjudging my times had left me in Kirkconnel with nothing open and a long wait for a bus. The pub was open but I was a bit filthy and I didn’t fancy nursing a half and half shandy for nigh on two hours. Not too far from Cumnock I thought I would give Auld Tookie Nae Knees a bell see if he fancied a wee rin oot. Trying the parents house phone and it ringing out; I tried his mobile, thinking if he was already out even better chance of getting picked up. After a couple of rings he picked up, “Where are you? oot?”. “Aye, where are you”. I explained my predicament; his reply, “In Ayr, out for dinner, tough, you’re stuck till the bus comes”. My response “Enjoy your dinner”. I parked my rear back on the wall to wait.
In hindsight it might have been better to head for Sanquhar at least there was a chance that something would have been opened. Them’s the breaks, just have to roll with it. It took nothing away for the walk and saved more tramping up a road.