19: White Coomb, Dumfriesshire

White Coomb summit
The summit of White Coomb, and of Dumfriesshire.

Date: 18th September 2020.

Weather conditions: Very good. Sunny and bright, with a slight haze high in the sky that kept it from being too warm.

County Top bagged: White Coomb, the summit of which is at grid reference NT163151 and is 2,694 feet/821m above sea level. Until 1974 this was the highest point in the historic county of Dumfriesshire. The county was then combined with two others, Kirkcudbrightshire and Wigtownshire, in the modern region of Dumfries and Galloway. This means that White Coomb is not a modern County Top, as Merrick, further west and formerly in Kirkcudbright, is seventy feet higher.

White Coomb above Loch Skeen
White Coomb above Loch Skeen.

It is one of three ‘White’ CTs, the others being Whitehorse Hill in Oxfordshire, and the White Man in Knowsley (Merseyside). By altitude it ranks 20th of the 91 historic tops and 23rd of the full list of 196.

The walk takes in a few other named summits, with Lochcraig Head, at 2,625 feet/800m, being the most prominent. The others (Firthybrig Head, Donald’s Cleuch Head, and Firthhope Rig) are named on the map but could easily go unnoticed on the ground.

[ << Holly Hill, Medway (18)  |  (20) Saxby Wold, North Lincolnshire >> ]

Start and end point of walk: The car park for the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall, which is on the A708 about 10 miles north-east of Moffat at NT186145. The walk took me about 4 hours and 15 minutes.

Wind turbines
View north, and the only real sign of human habitation seen today.

Pub at end: Nothing at the terminus. There is a pub called the Tibbie Shiels Inn a few miles up the road but this is in the wrong direction for anyone whose home is down south. Moffat has several pubs and hotels, and the Black Bull served a good pint of real ale (a product not guaranteed to be served in Scottish town bars) and had a pleasant patio out the back. According to its web site this place dates from 1568.

Distance walked: 7.5 miles/12km approximately.

Feet of ascent: 2,375 feet/725m approx.

Difficulty: ★★★★. It’s not quite as hard a walk as Burnhope Seat, where I also awarded four stars. But it does have tough ground underfoot in parts, and plenty of climbing, some of which is steep. There is one passage of grim peat bog which takes careful negotiating and the ground between the bottom of Rough Craigs and the Tail Burn also leaves a lot to be desired.

Peat hags
Peat hags ahoy. And the helpful wall/fence combo.

Although this walk would be safe in mist (as you follow either a good path, or a fence and wall, for almost all of it), don’t do it after a period of rain: firstly it would make the bogs even more difficult, but mostly because you do need to ford the Tail Burn at some point, and if it is in spate, this will be difficult or impossible.

Ease of access: ★★. This one needs a car. Even if you can get to Moffat by public transport (requiring a bus from Dumfries or Lockerbie, which have train stations), the starting point is still 10 miles away up the A708 and no buses ply this route. I did see a representative of Moffat Taxis drop a couple of tourists off at the car park, so this is another option.

Scenic qualities: ★★★★. The hills are not dramatic, but the landscape is a wild and lonely one. In all the vastness of the view from the summit, there is no sign of human habitation, with the exception of a few wind turbines. Add to this the bonuses of the Grey Mare’s Tail, a 200-feet high (60m) cascade of water, and Loch Skeen, and four stars are deserved.

The valley of the Moffat Water (and the car park which is the walk’s starting point).

The area: Dumfriesshire is not a part of the world about which I knew much prior to today, and as I came on a day trip, I still don’t know much about it. Moffat seemed a pleasant little place though, and busy. It only has 2,500 inhabitants but is clearly the centre of economic and social activity for a wide area. Dumfries itself is quite a sizeable place but most of the rest of the county is sparsely populated and well off the beaten track.

The vicinity of the walk is a geographically significant spot. Much of my route lies along the main east-west watershed of Britain. This is marked by the border between what is now Dumfries and Galloway, and the Scottish Borders. On the D & G side, the streams run into the Moffat Water, and eventually, via the River Annan, into the Solway Firth and the Irish Sea. On the other side they run into the Tweed, and thus the North Sea at Berwick.

High Street, Moffat. (With tractor.)

The interesting thing is that the watershed is twisted round here so at one point, it is the streams flowing west that end up in the North Sea to the east, and vice versa. And also that White Coomb, despite being the highest point in the vicinity, is not actually on this line — all its streams run into Moffatdale. So although it is the County Top it has no hydrological significance.

Map: OS Explorer 330: Moffat and St. Mary’s Loch was worth looking at to scope out the walk, and without it I wouldn’t have noticed the watershed phenomenon just discussed. But I did not really need it on the day.

Added entertainment can be provided by some of the hill names on this sheet: a quick scan reveals such beauties as Carrifran Gans, The Wiss, Dead for Cauld, The Strypes, Hass of Macrule and the Crown of Scotland (a very insignificant hill). Not to mention Rotten Bottom, at the bottom left of the map below.

On the summary map here, the car park is to the bottom right, and I went round the circuit anti-clockwise.

Map of walk 18

Route: Despite occasional difficulties and one section that is somewhat dull, this is a good walk with  definite highlights, worth the seven hours’ driving time on the day. I would try to reach the starting point as early as you can: by the time I got back down in the afternoon, the car park was full and the paths below the loch quite crowded. But the rest of it was done in blissful solitude, bar the party of walkers I met on the summit.

Paths head up both sides of the Tail Burn from the Grey Mare’s Tail car park, but the one on the left, as you look at it, is a dead-end and used only for viewing the falls. So cross the bridge and head up the right-hand side. This path has a steep drop on one side — see the picture — and although it is quite safe, anyone lacking a head for heights might not enjoy this (particularly on the way back down).

Ascent path
The ascent beside the Grey Mare’s Tail.

As you ascend above the falls, and the route flattens out for a while, scope out White Coomb on the left. Note the remnants of a wall coming down and see if you think, as I did, that a later crossing of the Tail Burn would be difficult where the wall meets the stream. And remember that if the burn looks too dangerous to ford at any point then you will have to change your plans for the day.

The path eventually brings you out at Loch Skeen, the first sight of which will be a highlight. On the day I visited this was an almost totally placid sheet of water, utterly silent and beautiful. (Whether it will be the same when all the day-trippers turn up, I know not.)

Loch Skeen
The first sight of Loch Skeen. The hill ahead is Mid Craig (not visited on my route).

Unfortunately this also marks the end of the good path. A peaty track continues through the heather for a time, but at some point you need to head off it to the right, aiming for the fence that is not too far away. This fence marks both the border of Dumfriesshire (or, nowadays, Dumfries and Galloway) and the watershed, and you will be following both for the next few miles.

There is one problematic bog to negotiate before beginning the ascent of Lochcraig Head. This climb is steep and tiring, though not difficult and redeemed by the views that open up. On a clear day it is remarkable how much can be seen: both the Solway Firth (see picture) and, in the other direction, the Eildon Hills, near Melrose, are in view: the distance between these two points must be at least 60 miles. The cairn at the top of Lochcraig Head also has a good view of Loch Skeen below. (Technically this is not the summit of this hill, which lies more to the right, over the fence, but unless you are a Corbett-bagger, never mind.)

Solway Firth
View to the Solway Firth.

Keep following the fence, which goes down to the cleft of Talla Nick — remember you are right on the watershed of Britain here, and marvel at how well-defined it is at this point — and then climb again, in the day’s last significant ascent. The ridge which follows is a bit dull, but allows fast progress along decent ground as far as Firthhope Rig, where turn left at the junction of fences and walls: this is also where the watershed is left behind. The fence and wall keep each other company until just before the summit of White Coomb. At the point where they separate, the top is a few yards up to the right.

To descend, follow the remnant wall down. Where the steep slope of Rough Craigs flattens out, recall your earlier inspection of the Tail Burn and make your decision about where you want to try to cross it. I bore left away from the wall, down a sketchy path through the heather that crossed awkward ground, but led to a fairly easy crossing of the burn.

Once back on the tourist path, just descend to the car park.

Heather and the GMT
Heather and the Grey Mare’s Tail.

Get-out-before-house-arrest-returns commentary: Technically I should have been at work today but the weather forecast was way too good to ignore and, what the hell, I am lucky in that I have a flexible job. I was determined that today’s trip would see me a) get out of England, b) get up above 2,000 feet at least and c) not take place in woodland.

Addressing a), I did consider some of the hills in north Wales, but in the end it was southern Scotland that won. I left home in West Yorkshire at 6.15am, and after a decent drive up those bits of the M6 that no one really uses that early in the morning and a 20-minute tea break in Tebay services, was at the Grey Mare’s Tail by 9.30am, and then back home again by 6.15pm, thus being out for exactly twelve hours.

Lochcraig Head
Looking back to Lochcraig Head, from the ridge.

And a fine (and tree-free) day it was — although that’s probably the limit of what I’d be prepared to do as a day trip, at least by car. But although it’s still my preference to travel by public transport, using a car does open up many possibilities, as up to half of all the CTs can probably be reached in a similar driving time from home.

My next Top? We’re heading back to Scotland in late October, as Joe has a university open day (which at the moment is still being advertised as on campus), so there’ll be another Scottish CT of some sort at that time I am sure. I’ll probably wait until then, but if another good forecast arises, I will see if I can make use of it.

Wall, loch and White Coomb
Summary shot of the walk’s key features: White Coomb, Loch Skeen and the wall.

Cowering at home waiting to get ill is not an option. Hey ho, just like when I went to Thurrock at the end of July, a CT walk coincides with an announcement from the moronocracy that Calderdale is to enter ‘local lockdown’ again. Which, like the last one, will make no difference to anything other than someone’s public image. Whatever happens, I hope to Christ that there is no more of the stupidity which a few months ago was casting hiking as ‘unsafe’. How can getting out for healthy exercise, miles away from other people, be anything other than a boon to the general mental and physical health of the population? I shall be continuing with my walks.


13 thoughts on “19: White Coomb, Dumfriesshire

  1. Hope you get to continue your walks. With the latest restrictions it looks like I’m stuffed for the rest of the year. Had hoped to get another trip North before they put us all under house arrest again but it’s not looking likely.

      1. Well my sympathies Tessa. When these new restrictions were first discussed I feared that it was a bad move to start playing regions off against each other — and even neighbours, if one lives on the boundary of a zone. I think the arbitrary nature of them is now far more visible to people, too (e.g. they can’t go to the pub with another household but they are expected to pack their kids off to school regardless). There is no planning evident, no medium- and long-term thinking. That is what concerns me the most. Plus the fact that those of us who have had it (and I have) a) wonder when our enhanced level of resistance might be taken into account and b) know that for the great majority, while a discomfiting experience (I totally felt like crap for two weeks), Covid is not life-threatening.

  2. Totally agree. I had to can a lunch with a friend who lives slightly outside the M25 and is therefore in tier 1 despite the infection rate being higher than in Bromley. Pubs have a pretty low rate of transition.

    It seems that unless you are very old, very ill already or very unlucky you don’t die of COVID but all sorts of other things are being missed instead. I got a DVT towards the end of lockdown probably as a direct result of reduced activity and was lucky that my doctor thought it was worth seeing me in person – then sent me straight to hospital. Outcome could have been nasty.

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