When you think walking and Scotland most hikers immediately dream of the Highlands and Islands. Further south, though, a swathe of world-class adventures await, alive with sweeping scenery and thrilling wildlife. As a travel writer I’ve yomped all across the twin regions of Dumfries and Galloway, and the Scottish Borders, on a variety of two-booted ventures. Locally they say ‘Scotland Starts Here’, and you should too. From easy rambles around rugged castle trails through to epic long distance walks that take a fortnight to tackle, there’s a range of spirit-soaring hiking adventures to be found here. Without further ado then, here’s the best walks in Southern Scotland.
Southern Scotland’s Big One
Distance: 214 miles
The Southern Upland Way is a whopper, soaring all the way from the edge of Ireland in the west at Portpatrick, right across to the North Sea and Cocksburnpath 214 miles away. You really need a fortnight to take it on – you can arrange to have your luggage carried to your next accommodation through the walk website, which really helps.
I cannot recommend strongly enough that you walk it west to east to go with the prevailing winds. Though, of course, you can easily cut the Southern Upland Way up into bite sized chunks easily if that’s your preferred way of doing things. I’ve covered the whole walk on separate trips, with the longest stretch I’ve managed in one go being Portpatrick across to Sanquhar (just under 100 miles away). The first part of this for me was the most spectacular, so I recommend that if you want a day trip option. You climb up and away from the harbour to hug the cliffs with just the seabirds for company. Then you reach picture postcard Killantringan Lighthouse, before cutting inland in search of Castle Kennedy, with its lovely castle overlooking a loch.
Scotland’s Big One
Start: Kirk Yetholm
Finish: Cape Wrath
Distance: 539 miles
The Scottish National Trail is an epic undertaking. The savage length – over 500 miles – may be off-putting, but it’s the only trail that runs all the way up the Scottish mainland from south to north. It’s the brainchild of outdoors writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish, and gets tougher and tougher as you forge north – turning pathless and shelter-less along the way.
All that being said, the section through the Borders is comparatively gentle. It kicks off pretty much where England’s Pennine Way finishes, then joins the St Cuthbert’s Way on the approach to Melrose, before doing a similar dovetail with sections of the Southern Upland Way as it pushes north to Traquair, site of Scotland’s oldest continually inhabited country house. The Trail then traces the River Tweed to the picturesque market town of Peebles before easing over the Meldon Hills in search of Edinburgh. If you want to just bite off a small piece, I suggest the scenic eight miles from Traquair to Peebles.
Head For The Forests
I’m cheating slightly here, but I think you’ll forgive me when you read about the great walking in the Galloway Forest Park. Cheating, as this is not one single walk, but so many good hikes spread across the UK’s largest forest park that it’s difficult to settle on just one. The UK’s first Dark Skies Park, be sure to linger on if you can afterwards for a grandstand view of the stars.
This oasis boasts over 300 square miles of remarkable natural beauty and the joy of it is there are walks for everyone. A swathe of the Southern Upland Way cuts through, then there are easy lochside strolls to check out the historic (Robert the) Bruce’s Stones Clatteringshaws located way. Alternatively, ascend to the other Bruce’s Stone for a sweeping view of Loch Trool. If you appreciate waterfalls then enjoy the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall, at 60m it’s one of the UK’s highest. If you fancy a hill walk challenge heft up 843m-high Merrick, the highest summit in the Southern Uplands.