The Scottish National Trail (part 1): the Lowlands

All hiking posts, Hiking, Scotland, Scottish National Trail

I hiked the length of Scotland last Autumn. These Scotland blog posts are dedicated to Old Alan, a Scottish family friend who died after my trip.

“I’m going to hike all of Scotland!” I say suddenly to Chris. “Do you want to come?”

“No…I’ve got lots of work to do…”

“Me too! But I’m going to do it anyway!”

Once I decide to do a hike, there’s no talking me out of it. Chris decides that he will join me “when it gets more exciting in the Highlands”.

Like many trails that I decide to do, this is quite last minute. I spend a few days reading Oldie Outdoors‘ invaluable blog to prepare myself. And then I use up all of my Dad’s ink, printing out the trail notes and Ordnance Survey maps for the whole 864km.

I buy a waterproof case for my phone, a waterproof case for my maps, and waterproof trousers for myself. I am expecting rain, and lots of it.

I then shit myself a bit, wondering if I’m experienced enough for this hike. The Scottish National Trail links up lots of different multi-day hikes and finally joins the toughest trail in Britain: the Cape Wrath trail. This section is unmarked and traverses the boggy highlands. I need to have very good navigational skills. Are my map and compass skills up to it, I wonder?

And then before I know it, I’ve hitchhiked up to Scotland.

**

“Welcome te Scotland! What ye drinkin’?” Old Alan says.

“Well, actually, I don’t drink…”

“I said, welcome te Scotland! What ye drinkin’?” old Alan repeats.

It’s my first day here, and I find myself in the pub with my Mum, my Scottish step-Dad, and their friends. I sing along to 80s and 90s songs on the jukebox while everyone else gets happily drunk.

My mum tells her friends about my plan to walk the country. They look at me in disbelief. From their pub seats, they will get regular updates from my proud Mum about my whereabouts over the next month.

I then leave Mum with wads of maps and trail notes, which she will post to different post offices on route for me to pick up.

Three buses and a hitchhike later, I find myself at the start of the trail.

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The token trailhead photo

**
Day 1: Kirk Yetholm ->  close to Morebattle (8km)

I arrive at the trailhead in Kirk Yetholm at 4pm. It’s drizzling with rain, it’s windy, and dark clouds fill the air. I look longingly inside the local cozy pub, zip up my waterproof jacket with a sigh and begin my hike. This first part follows the St Cuthbert’s Way.

I hike uphill through sheep fields (sheep will be my constant companion on the first half of the Scottish National Trail), before camping in a field of cows near the village of Morebattle.

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Goodbye cozy pub, hello trail

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Optimistic on day one of hiking Scotland. Rain and wind won’t stop me! Only 863.5km to go!

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Fields of sheep…this sums up southern Scotland

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I might get altitude sickness at this height!

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Day one’s camp

Day 2: Morebattle -> a couple of km before St Boswells (30km)

I wake up to a soaking wet tent, and decide to sleep in to see if it dries out. Of course, it rains more instead. I emerge from the tent to see a bull sniffing a female cow’s genitals.

I spend the morning walking on dreaded asphalt, passing agricultural fields. I explore the ruins of Cessford castle and wish that I had camped there.

There are some lovely wooded areas today. As I look in awe at the mighty old oaks and beeches, I feel a massive sadness. This land would have once been covered in old forest. Little am I to know that this sadness will remain with me throughout the whole hike, as I traverse this mostly-treeless country.

I get annoyed as I pass a stately home called Monteviot House. The injustice of some rich people having so much whilst others have nothing makes me angry. I wonder about my rights to camp here under Scotland’s laws, and think about squatting in their vast gardens. But it’s only lunchtime, so I continue onwards. I pass Harestanes (which is the the start of section 2 in the official trail notes).

“Fuckkkkkkk!” I scream as I snap one of my hiking poles when trying to open one of the million gates on the SNT. “Now I’m going to fall in the fucking bogs!” I shout in frustration.

Later in the day I reach the big, beautiful river Tweed. This river is set to be one of my highlights of Scotland. I set up camp on the riverbank on the outskirts of St Boswells, and spend the evening watching the ducks, herons, and a bright blue kingfisher.

That night, I email the Ramblers Association and ask about whether I can camp in rich people’s grounds. They reply:

“Access rights apply to most land in Scotland (and inland water) with just a few exceptions, such as quarries, airfields, school playing fields when in use and private gardens. The question of how far a private garden extends has been tested in law and doesn’t mean the entire grounds of a large house, but rather the area close to the house where lawns are mown, there are flower beds, etc… The test in law is that people IN the house shouldn’t feel UNREASONABLY disturbed – ie, not people in the garden and no absolute privacy.”

Scotland’s access rights mean you can camp in a field if you don’t disturb crops or farm animals. In this Borders region, I find it almost impossible to find a field that’s free of animals or crops.

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Asphalt and rain

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Cessford castle…potentially a nice camping spot

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Ooh, more asphalt

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Treebeard

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The tranquility of the Tweed is slightly ruined by industrial agriculture

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Beautiful Tweed river

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Day two’s camp: at the banks of the Tweed, a couple of kilometres before St Boswells (I recommend this spot!)

Day 3: St Boswells -> to the hills just after Galashiels (22km)

I pass through a few villages and over the pretty Eildon hills. I’m amused that someone’s organising a button exhibition in Bowden village…are people really interested in buttons, I wonder?

I stop for lunch at a pub in Melrose. I just want to sit silently, but of course people want to chat. A man tells me about how he shrank all his expensive hiking gear in the washing machine..another tells me how he’s walked almost every trail in Britain.

Melrose is also the start of section 3 of the official trail notes, and joins the Southern Upland Way. I walk along the beautiful Tweed again, before reaching a depressing town called Tweedbank. I pass its sewage works and am thankful that I don’t live here.

My camping spot for the night is tucked on the side of a hill in an empty sheep field, a good few miles beyond Galashiels. I almost shit myself when a vehicle drives up here at 11pm. I hear men and see flashlights. They don’t seem to see me, and drive off again.

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Up on lovely Eildon hills

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Melrose

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Oh, I love you, Tweed river

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Ooh, sheep! Quelle surprise!

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I camp close to this rock cairn

Day 4: From the sheep field -> Peebles (33km)

I wake up to blue sky! I can’t believe it! I climb up to the Three Brethren, munching on wild bilberries as the sun shines down and mauve heather glows around me.

The wind whips around me as I meander up and down across moors.

And then I come to the Cheese Well: a lovely little spring where people make offerings to fairies. I love that this traditional Celtic culture is still alive. I offer the fairies some bilberries, although I’m sure that if fairies wanted bilberries they could just take some themselves from the bushes!

At Traquair I munch on apples from a tree and begin section 4 of the trail notes. This section begins with dreaded road walking. A man sprays glyphosate herbicide all over the verges of the street.

“You really should wear a mask, doing that,” I say, whilst covering my mouth.

“Nah….It causes cancer, apparently!”

“Exactly!!”

Later on, I pick more wild fruit as I walk through giant ferns and raspberry bushes (I think the fairies are looking after me…so much fruit!)

In Cardrona, a private estate’s signs shout ‘PRIVATE SHOOT. THIS PROPERTY IS PROTECTED BY INTERNET CCTV’ at me. Another sign in a field screams ‘YOU ARE BEING WATCHED’. Are these landowners so scared of hikers slipping over their walls and erecting their tents for a sneaky sleep?

I continue along an asphalt cycle path, awful on my tired feet. I swear at the giant golf course that’s stolen acres of land. I swear again at the men playing golf  in those diamond jumpers that only rich people wear.

Thankfully I join my beloved river Tweed again. A local woman suggests a wild camping spot by a castle, one kilometre along the river beyond Peebles, so I camp there, under a grand old pine tree. I spend the night shivering, despite my decent sleeping bag. It’s damp and cold by the river.

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The Three Brethren

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Offerings to the fairies

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Pine forestry plantations are a common fixture of Scotland

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That would have made a pleasant camping spot…

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Golf courses blight Scotland

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Did I mention that I love the Tweed? ♥

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Day four’s camp, a 1km detour, under a castle on the river Tweed

Day 5: Peebles -> Halfway between West Linton & Balerno (32km)

I grow quickly tired of section 5 between Peebles and West Linton: fed up with the constant farmland of sheep and cows, and tired of the asphalt.

My feet are pounding by the time I arrive in quaint little West Linton. I can’t possibly walk any more. I check out the price of the B&Bs in the area and decide that, actually, I’d rather get battered feet than pay the prices they’re charging.

“I wish I’d done what you’re doing when I was younger,” a woman says to me in the West Linton tea room. “The biggest mistake I ever made was getting married!”

At 5pm I drag my weary body out of the tearoom and begin hiking section 6.  I get a new lease of life when I reach a beautiful reservoir with a large grey heron perched on the dock. A stunning, scared roe deer leaps away from me. I continue up through heather moorland and then I catch a glimpse of my first milestone: Edinburgh!

I camp with views of the distant city.

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Reservoir

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Heather moors

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Drying out my tent at my camping spot. Edinburgh is on the horizon

Day 6: to Slateford & detour to Edinburgh (25km)

The sun is shining! Today’s section is a lovely stroll on the Leith walkway. I detour off the trail and take the union canal all the way to Edinburgh. The asphalt is a killer on my feet, though.

I’m grateful that I have already planned to take a week off of walking here. I have pushed my body too hard, done too many miles each day, and it ends up taking days for my feet to recover. I meet Chris in Edinburgh, who has been spending the last week going to vegan cafes and enjoying the city.

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Leith river walk

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Union canal

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Reunited with Chris, who hears me complain constantly about my feet for one week

** I began this trail 26th August 2018. It’s taken me a while to write up my notes!
See part 2 of my hike here. **

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