A runners perspective

I hope this blog is of use/interest to walkers, runners and cyclists living in or intending to visit Scotland. Most of my entries below are described as long-distance runs - just because that's currently what I enjoy doing...

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Glen Isla, Kilbo and Jocks Road

Distance: 42.8 miles (69km) Ascent/Descent: 1970m/1720m
Start/Finish: Blairgowrie to Braemar Terrain: 45% road, 35% trail, 20% forest path
Transport: Buses serve Blair and Braemar
Route: Map | Garmin Course

View towards route of Kilbo Path, taken from 'Glack of Balquhader'


This was a quick tour of the Angus glens, starting from the lowlands and finishing in the highlands. Jocks Road and Kilbo Path were the highlights.


It's been a ridiculously mild November. The hills were still snow-free, and this weekend's forecast assured me I had little to worry about weather-wise if venturing out into the hills.

Looking NW over Strathardle from Bonnington Road
Musty autumn leaves, Drimmie Woods
8:45am, at a gravel car-park on the A93 by Blairgowrie, standing not too far from the car, feeling a bit nervous (but in a good way), and as usual waiting for the Garmin Forerunner to get GPS reception. My dad and Lesley had just dropped me off and were soon to be on their way up to Spittal o' Glenshee where we'd meet back up and spend the night celebrating my dad's birthday. I was already looking forward to that part of the day.  Maybe not so sure about this first part, which had been a great idea after a few pints, but not quite so great at 8:45am wearing inadequate clothing in a carpark and about to start. Of course by 10am it was making sense again, as is usually the case, once mind and body has transcended into that parallel universe of ultra-running that doesn't expect stuff to make sense anyway.

A Wintery 'Den of Alyth'
The pack was heavier than usual as I was traveling self-sufficient including emergency stuff for the hilly bits ("proper" waterproofs, spare dry layers and a space-blanket). At least I didn't need to lug around lots of water though - part of the beauty of getting out of the glens and up the Scottish hills is there's usually no shortage of good water supplies!

The climbing started immediately, up Bonnington Road which rises out of Strathmore onto the foothills of the Grampians. The sun was already trying to shine from behind banks of mist, and the air was still, carrying that Autumnal smell of damp decaying leaves and vegetation.
After a couple of miles along the hilly lane, I turned sharp right onto a gravel track through the dark Drimmie Woods where I stopped to remove the thermal and gloves - immediately feeling a lot better and enjoying the cool fresh air against the bare arms and hands. Happier.

I've done plenty running and cycling on these wee lanes around Blair and part of me wanted to push the pace early because as always my interest is in exploring the unfamiliar, or at least less familiar, which today meant the more mountainous second-half of the run. The foot of the glens are still a nice enough place to be though, best enjoyed on a bike. As I dropped back downhill to the Den of Alyth, a red squirrel scurried across the road and made a sporadic rush up a tree-trunk.

Looking up Glen Isla from track N of Kilry
My route continued to follow the empty roads around the Hill of Alyth, first N, then W, before dropping down into Glen Isla and briefly joining the route of the Cateran Trail. Having run length of the Cateran Trail before I wasn't too bothered about following its extra-curricular loops up the hillsides, opting to stay on the tarmac so I could get up to the 'real stuff' sooner. This meant heading for Kilry on another hilly lane.

Beyond Kilry my route rejoined the Cateran Trail N towards Kirkton of Glenisla (ignoring the climb up Druim Dearg) then missing my turning for "Freuchies" and ending up continuing up the Cateran Trail as far as Loch Shandra.  No harm done.  "What's an extra half mile in the day's grand scheme?" I thought.  Probably a better route anyway, less time spent in plantation forest.

With a not-too-shabby easy 15 miles done, I was finally stepping onto new turf (okay gravel) where I'd be heading N through miles of plantation, gently climbing towards a pass (title photo) into the head of Glen Prosen.   Time to celebrate with some tunes.  It was quite a boring stretch, but at least I knew I was getting ever closer to the nice bit.

Symmetry courtesy of Loch Shandra
After an initial climb to 400m the forest road curves around a vague pass and almost doubles-back down into Glen Finlet, where a left branch continues the journey N.  Much of the forest here had been felled.  3 miles later the track finished and a bog with bootprints in it continued into thick spruce, following the course of a burn.  It wasn't long before I was questioning my route, it was that shite, but thankfully after a bit of pussy-footing beside and over the burn, and awkardly negotiating a fallen tree, there was a stile.  Out back into the open, heather abound, a tall sign letting me know I was on a right-of-way.  550m, the top of the pass was another 50m above, I found a vague path heading directly towards the lowest point of the pass, and was glad to finally be able to see the slopes of the Munros 'Driesh' and 'Mayar', between which the onward route of the 'Kilbo Path' climbs.

Looking back down Glen Finlet
Took some water onboard at this pass - adding some energy power to it, and scoffing a banana as I descended down to the River Prosen - picking up traces of path then losing it.. There's a bridge across the river, but I couldn't be arsed going down to it and ended up just walking through the river which turned out to be surprisingly pleasant.  Then took to an estate road just N of a small plantation hoping it would be less muddy than the true 'Kilbo' route that zig-zagged through the plantation.  I was still struggling for traction and getting frustrated as the muddy track headed up the steepening open hillside to a lump marked on the map as Kings Seat.  From there it was less muddy, more grassy and so easier going.  I kept an easy run going all the way up into the clouds, and was surprised when I found myself on the 830m summit plateau and approaching the ex-signpost-now-pole.  The cloud broke briefly then closed back in as I turned more E past the signpost then N again slightly too soon, ending up on the crest of the "Shank of Drumfollow" instead of on the good path descending its E side. The cloud cleared and I decided it had been a nice mistake to make as the views down into the corrie were impressive.  Unfortunately I can't show a photo of this because my camera had become wet (oops) and wasn't working too well.

Descending into the forest along the Munro-baggers path I saw my first walker of the day, a girl who had lost her glove, and then I passed the group she was with waiting further down, and then another group after that, and people walking dogs etc.  Yep I was in Glen Doll.

Descended to the bridge beside the Lodge to get to the start of Jocks Road proper, 14.5miles to go to Braemar, and feeling good.  Although it would be getting dark in an hour.

Jocks Road was what I'd really been looking forward to today - sure I've done all the Munros around it many years ago but never had a chance to experience the pass as part of a point-to-point route.  And running!  I'd been inspired by my dad's photos of when he did this route (jb-greyhairrules.blogspot.com), something about the path climbing up the side of the valley into the clouds.

It didn't disappoint.  I took on a cereal bar and more water as I climbed, it was an excellent trail for running and the scenery was nice and rocky.  I made the same mistake as my dad had on reaching the first crest past the 'Shelter', and continued along the boggy flat trail that headed for the riverbank instead of climbing up to the right towards the true plateau.  Someone had thoughtfully put a line of stones across the path to make people aware, and I thoughtlessly chose to ignore them.

Well not entirely - I think I did start climbing up, the way seemed to be petering-out, and my tired legs and mind conspired to cut back down to the easier option.

My Garmin soon let me know my mistake, and I soon let it know what I thought.  I was still thinking I was on the right path because it was so obvious, and the route I'd drawn from the map was wrong, not the route I'd taken. The cloud level rose above my head for a moment and I could see the wild river glen I was in - just the bottom of it - and then decided it was time to stop the denial and start climbing up the rough hillside and find the real route.  The slope up into the mist wasn't steep but the terrain made it hard work as I tried to angle my way back up to Jocks Road.  After 10 minutes of this I felt the need to take my first and penultimate walking break of the day - only starting to jog again once the heather receded, replaced by wind-clipped tundra, and I knew what that meant!

Indeed I seemed to have reached a stony crest, and was soon back upon Jocks Road.  Having discussed this with my dad since I'm guessing I'd pretty much retraced his footsteps to where he'd celebrated by taking his "Invisible Man" photo.  I found the 920m summit of Crow Craigies, and a few minutes later was following rusty old fenceposts through the mist, then taking a sharp L turn along traces of path in search of the head of Glen Callater.

It was a great boost to descend back under the cloud and see the way ahead - the very long way ahead, Loch Callater in the distance, and the very low sun highlighting the hillsides below.  Although it was downhill from here, the first bit was rather awkward, and I felt safer walking after a couple of slips on mossy rock.  I think my GPS route was a bit too far N towards the slabs.

Once safely down on the E side of a tributary I found traces of path, which was improving all the time as I progressed down the valley, and when I found myself on stepping stones across a marshy bit I felt like I had reached the outpost of civilisation!  7.5 miles still to go, and daylight fading.

Stopped to take on some more water at Loch Callater.  I hadn't seen anyone since Glen Doll, and wasn't going to.  I always think there's something special about witnessing nightfall in places like this - no streetlights or cars or noise, just heather and hills.  I enjoyed this as I descended down the 4 miles excellent track towards the A93, stopping briefly to put the headtorch on for when I got to the road.

Fortunately I'd checked with my dad about this next bit - getting to the "back road" into Braemar on the W side of the Clunie Water.  Otherwise I'd have screwed up for sure.  There's no way I would have found my route in the dark, and would have had to endure a dodgy 2 miles along the A93.  The instructions were basically to head up the glen (i.e. the wrong way) on the A93 along the deer fence until it finished, that's about 200m, where a feint track heads off into the heather then doubles back towards a bridge.  Once over the bridge, the path follows the bank of the river upstream again for another 200m before cutting uphill onto the road.

From there, it was an easy 2-and-a-bit mile coast down towards the lights of Braemar. The church bells tolled 5 times as I approached.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Southern Upland Way - Bargrennan to Portpatrick

Distance: 40.1 miles (64.5km) Ascent/Descent: 750m/700m
Start/Finish: Bargrennan to Portpatrick
Terrain: 40% gravel/surfaced road, 35% boggy track/trail, 25% easy trail
Transport: Buses
Route: Route Map | Garmin Course [Coming soon]

Southern Upland Way Stages: Prev [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] 6

Port Kale, near Portpatrick

There's quite a lot of road walking/running on this section, but there's also a lot of bog to make up for it. In spite of the area being heavily forested, I was pleasantly surprised how open the route was. The first 20 miles does feel very remote, even when "on-road". Towards the end its very different - farmland and country lanes. The best is left to last though - 2 miles of coastal path between the lighthouse and Portpatrick are possibly the best 2 miles of the entire way (in my opinion at least)!

Near the start, looking back towards Galloway Forest Park

We stayed the Friday night in Newton Stewart, and in the morning I could tell my dad was excited for me as we drove the 8 miles North to where the Southern Upland Way crosses the A714, near Bargrennan. The weather added to the excitement - it was the kind of weather you dream up when planning these crazy things. Pale blue sky, crisp still air, wisps of mist above the ground vegetation that was white with frost. Midgies wouldn't have a chance!
I was running by 9am, the terrain immediately proving a challenge for muscles that hadn't warmed up yet! Feet submerged in bog within minutes, and ankles getting a good workout. The first two miles involved ascending "Glenvernoch Fell", a modest lump but with a good panorama from its summit trigpoint.
I was nicely warmed-up by the time I was at the summit, photographing the new vista over Loch Ochiltree. To the West I could see mile after mile of forest, and that's where I was heading. Although not exactly a dramatic view, I was inspired by what I saw. The vastness and remoteness of it I guess, and that feeling of having part of the world to myself for one day!
After a fun, gentle descent I was routed onto a decrepit road (which my poor dad had driven over earlier!), and after a mile and a bit of this I was off into the woods. It was fairly tricky going at times but also great fun. At one point a fallen tree disguised the route ahead. This forest section was fairly short and I was back onto another deserted road, passing Northwards through a scattering of houses called "Knowe". A fingerpost sent me off this road onto an equally deserted road, and so I was heading West once again.
My dad and I were experimenting with a new way of keeping me fuelled and watered today! Instead of him having to commit to leaving my car somewhere at sometime, we were using 'drop bags' at planned locations, which meant he could have a lot more freedom to do his own exploring in his own time (or just go to the pub). The first of three drop bags was along this minor road, tucked in the bracken beneath a tree, and having shown me a picture of exactly where he was going to put it I had no problem finding the goodies!

Was a bit surprised when a car came along - I'd catch up with the occupants later as they were walking along the Southern Upland Way to check out the "Wells of the Rees". The road downgraded into forest track for a few miles. At one point I stopped, unplugged the music and indulged in a few moments of absolute peace and quiet. Even the gentle North West breeze didn't penetrate the trees around me. A couple of miles later, back in open terrain, thistle posts lead me off the gravel and up a grassy/muddy path to ascend Craig Airlie Fell. The views remained open all the way to the top, and although I wasn't moving forward very quickly I certainly felt I was climbing well, not wanting to walk but not wanting to burn myself up either. I knew from recent training that my fitness and endurance was back to how I like it, and it was moments like these which made it all worth while.

The path almost doubles back as it descends down into the forest, but soon I was standing at a fingerpost marking a short diversion to the "Wells of the Rees". Can't find much info about these curious things, but another mile down the path there were the "Laggangarn Stones" which did have a small interpretation notice. Unfortunately it explained not a lot was known about these either - other than they vastly predate the Christan symbols inscribed on them.
From the stones, a short way down a fire-break took me to the wooden Beehive Bothy! The location was a bit more interesting than I'd imagined - sure it was surrounded by forest, but it was quite open with a burn flowing by, looks like the site of an old farm. I couldn't resist going into the bothy (it was colder indoors than out!) and checking out the logbook, the last entry being nearly 3 weeks ago.
The trail from here was quite good, briefly, then merged onto a gravel forest track, before leaving this to take in a few more swamps. In fact most of today I was either bounding along road or up to my ankles in either moss, mud, bog or water. I've got photos of each flavour below. I didn't moan about it. At first.

I was really enjoying this run in spite of the difficulty, and the miles had flown by. I wasn't counting them - but I did know that once I had "escaped" the forest and descended the moors down to a road by the river, I'd be approaching halfway, and my second drop bag of the day.

After a mile of two of road, the route of the S.U.Way climbed back onto moor giving me this view back over the way I had come (2nd drop-bag had been down by the river).
According to the map this elevated area is known as Kilhern Moss, and the route upon it was a long, straight, muddy and puddle-filled track with a herd of cows beside it. I imagine some S.U.Wayers bypass this section and stick to the road using the village of "New Luce" as a staging post. Once off the "Moss" and down into the Valley of the Water of Luce, it was back to lusher grazing land - the waymarker posts taking me across a couple of sheep-filled fields to "Huftanny" bridge over the river, then up and over a railway line which takes a parabolic route from here to Stranraer. A rough section followed though trees, contouring the muddy hillside with rocks to trip me up now and then, and afterwards I was back into shady pine forest before re-emerging onto a well-engineered trail that reminded me how comparatively tough much of today's off-roading had been! This part of the route skirts "Glenwhan Moor" (which I guess might be called "Glenwhan Forest" these days?) before briefly joining a minor road. A vista opened out to the West and it was clear I had a bit of descending to do, down into a new landscape of arable farmland!
Descending down the fields towards Castle Kennedy, I felt the waymarkers were a bit scarce, but the GPS course I'd taken from the map gave me the re-assurance I needed.
The route does a brief rendezvous with the gardens of Castle Kennedy then arrives at a main road with a conveniently located petrol station and spar shop. Time for some full-fat coke! I was very happy at this point - the scenery was fairly plain here but I was still enjoying my running with only a half-marathon to go. The first stretch from Castle Kennedy was along a nice bridleway through trees, and I had to hold the pace back and try focus on the moment again rather than just "getting to the finish". Then out onto some backroads winding through hedges, with the occasional farm track or horse-churned path. Two of the "bog photos" above show that even down in these relatively tame and cultivated lands, the Southern Upland Way manages to find mud and water to play in.

I was aware that there'd be a final climb before I got to see the coast (and hopefully Ireland beyond!). As I've commented before, there always is a "final climb" on any section of the way. To be honest, this one did start to get to me, not because of the gradient, but because of the subject of one of those "bog photos" above. The worst one. The one with my hand and leg-prints clearly shown. Hardcore cross-country training!
The final hill of the way (or for most, the first hill of the way) was reached - a green lump with a view over the water, and yes Ireland was clearly visible today. As was Arran. From here I managed to get lost for the second time of the day in spite of the GPS - running to a dead-end and back which was a bit cruel given I was so close to the finish! Eventually got onto the correct track, briefly joined a backroad, then a right turn down a lane to Killantringan Lighthouse on the coast. Here followed what was the nicest piece of running this splendid day, and I was both surprised and grateful to have arrived there well before darkness. The coastal trail was good and firm, and the scenery was particularly pretty in the light of the setting sun. My dad had walked this bit earlier, and I let him know he'd picked the best part my day's journey - if not the entire Southern Upland Way!
My GPS told me I only had about 1.8 miles to go, and as I attacked the final hills I had a sad realisation that this was the end of what had been a great little adventure, a project that had started back in January this year, and here I was on the final couple of miles, and they were stunning. I slowed myself down, wanting to savour this, and indulge in the fact I still felt so good considering how far and quickly I had travelled. The sunset to my right was a fine metaphor for the moment.

Portpatrick became visible around the corner, and lived up to the expectation of being a great setting for a finish.

My dad and I had a fun evening in "The Crown" with some fellow runners who were down for today's Stranraer 10k. Yes I had plenty to drink. As promised.

The next morning, on the start of the long drive back home, we both commented on how it seemed a shame it was over. Obviously it wasn't all about the running - it was the fact that these weekends on the Southern Upland Way had forced us to explore parts of Scotland neither of us had really visited before, and stay in towns like Newton Stewart, Dalry, Moffat and of course Portpatrick. We made a point of making the car journey as much a part of the weekend as the running, deliberately taking different routes home.

So, I guess we'll just have to find another project.

Southern Upland Way Stages: Prev [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] 6