Date: 19th March 2022 (with Clare).
Weather conditions: Despite a brisk and cooling breeze, excellent.
County Top bagged: Craig Airie Fell, which is the highest point in the historic county of Wigtownshire. Some sources call it Craigairie (one word) Fell, but the OS map has the two words as separate, so I follow that usage.
The summit lies at grid reference NX236736. The OS have a spot height on the top at 1,050 feet/320m and there seems no reason to dispute this despite these same pesky ‘other sources’ suggesting 322m. (I mean Wikipedia, basically.)
Wigtownshire ceased to exist in 1974; this point is now in the modern county of Dumfries and Galloway, of which Merrick (bagged the day after) is the Top. Craig Airie Fell is therefore an historic Top only. By altitude it ranks 59th of the 91 historic Tops, and 94th on the full list.
[ << Westerham Heights, Greater London and Betsom’s Hill, Kent (45/46) | (48/49) Merrick, Kirkcudbrightshire/Dumfries and Galloway and Kirriereoch Hill, Ayrshire/South Ayrshire >> ]
Start and end point of walk: It is easiest to just provide the grid reference, NX278732. This corresponds to a point just north of Darloskine Bridge, on the minor road which leaves the B7027 north of Knowe. For information on the rather epic journey required to reach this point, see the Accessibility and Route notes below.
The walk took us around 2½ hours.
Pub at end: Unsurprisingly, nothing at the terminus, nor any nearer than Newton Stewart, but in that town there are many pubs. Over the weekend, we found ourselves at points in the Cree Inn, the Bruce Hotel, the Crown Hotel and the Creebridge Hotel. While all do food at some point in the day, bear in mind that if you want to eat or drink here on a Sunday you are best to book in advance.
Distance walked: 6 miles/9.7km approximately, from our specific parking place.
Feet of ascent: 785 feet/240m approx.
Difficulty: ★★. The majority of the walk involves fairly level walking on hard-topped tracks, but the final climb is steep and stony, meaning the initial descent is too. Because of this it is best to wear hiking boots to attempt this walk.
Ease of access: ★. Appreciate what a one-star award this really is. To reach the starting point requires the negotiation of a minor road — a very minor one — that deteriorates to a rutted track by the time any possible parking space appears; see the route notes below. From the nearest town, Newton Stewart, this is about a half-hour drive and there’s no bus service to help out even part of the way.
And all this is located in the bottom-left (south-west) corner of Scotland, far off principal transport routes. Those coming in from England by car will leave the M6 at Gretna then must negotiate the A75 for at least 90 minutes to get to Newton Stewart. This road has, mostly, only one carriageway, which you can expect to share with convoys of lorries on their way to the port at Stranraer.
It’s just about feasible that you could walk to and from Barrhill railway station to the north, but that would require a hike twice as long as the one we did, and only from Glasgow would that be a practical day trip.
Scenic qualities: ★★★. I admit the scenery was better than expected. Things were not as oppressed by woodland as they might have been. There were plenty of open sections and great views from the summit. But turbinophobes will probably dispute this evaluation.
The area: All the old historic Scottish counties were eradicated in 1974. Some of them, like Angus and Clackmannanshire, eventually returned, but others, like Kincardineshire, disappeared. Wigtownshire was one of the vanished, merged with Dumfriesshire and Kirkcudbrightshire into the modern authority of Dumfries and Galloway.
Wigtownshire’s distinctive claim was that with the Mull of Galloway, it had Scotland’s southernmost point. The next-door headland, Burrow Head, was, as all true connoisseurs of 1970s British horror movies know, where the last 15 minutes of The Wicker Man were filmed on an auspicious day in October 1973. This is the best ending of any movie ever. Just take my word for it.
This is my first proper visit to the area, and first impressions have been good ones; the excellent weather has certainly helped but this seems a beautiful part of the world, with a lush coastline sweeping up to the hills above, and a friendly welcome wherever we’ve been. I’d certainly come back.
Map: OS Explorer 310, Glenluce and Kirkcowan covers the walk, but is not necessary to pack as the signposting for the Southern Upland Way can be relied upon throughout, in both directions.
The summary map reflects the fact that our routes of ascent and descent were the same.
Route: This was an easy and relatively short walk with an excellent view from the summit that made it worthwhile. Wintry weather wouldn’t preclude it at all but I wouldn’t go up in the mist, as without the view there would be a lot less point to it.
However, it is an absolute arse to get to, and the following guidance needs to be noted. The only obvious route up Craig Airie Fell is provided by the Southern Upland Way (SUW) long-distance path, which from either the east (from where we ascended) or the south can provide grief-free and well-signposted passage through the plantations and wind turbines. From the south, the summit is at least 7 miles from the nearest road (meaning, 14 miles of walking, if that’s where you parked).
It’s a lot closer to the minor road that leaves the B7027 at Knowe, signposted to Polbae and Derry, which makes that a more obvious starting point. The SUW comes up this lane but walking from Knowe will add at least five miles to the overall distance hiked, so we drove it. But parking is extremely limited: in fact, I was starting to feel it was non-existent. In the end, we could leave the car in only one place — a tarmac ‘layby’ about 400 yards past the houses of Polbae (as pictured above). Two cars could probably park here OK but no more. Had we gone any further we would have encountered a ‘No Entry to Unauthorised Vehicles!’ sign a few hundred yards on, with nowhere to turn around. So in the end you just have to risk that the parking space will be free.
After all that, routefinding on the walk itself is a doddle. Simply carry on up the lane and ensure you follow the yellow signs of the SUW. There are not quite as many wind turbines around as we encountered on the (generally similar) walk up Corse Hill last year, but there are still plenty near and far, their gentle swishing sounds a constant accompaniment. Past the fabulously remote farm of Derry look for the point at which the SUW briefly leaves the road to short-cut up a slope.
You pass a sign, pointing across the moor, to ‘Linn’s Tomb’, a prehistoric monument. We didn’t inspect it; a cyclist we passed on the way down (the only other person seen all day), when asked if we should have visited it, said, ‘maybe, but it’d be a bit wet’ — so make your own decision.
Eventually the SUW signs point you off the forest road and up a path, which begins to rise quite steeply through the trees. This climb, which took us about 15 minutes, culminates in the neat little top of Craig Airie Fell which has both an excellent view over to the Galloway Hills (including Merrick, my destination on the following day) and a picnic table to sit and rest awhile.
The walk back down is the approach in reverse; the initial steep slope needs care but once back on the forest roads, all should be straightforward. One assumes your car will still be there when you return.
Commentary: The underlying motivation behind this project to walk the County Tops is that I find excuses to visit parts of my country that I have not seen before. Galloway, this bottom-left corner of Scotland, definitely had that status prior to this weekend. On the map, it doesn’t look like the kind of place that one passes through on the way to somewhere else, but I did manage to just pass through in 2003, when Joe was a literal babe-in-arms (three months old), so I wasn’t paying lot of attention to the scenery and remembered little about it.
Back in October, roughly, we picked out a weekend in March and booked it in as a placeholder for a trip away somewhere. The eventual destination was randomly picked, after I listed six places where a) neither of us had been, b) where there was at least one CT that I still needed to bag and c) this couldn’t be done on a day trip. Clare added d) no more than four hours’ travel time from home. We had six of these potentials written down — I don’t remember all the others but I know the Brecon Beacons in south Wales was one — and the final choice was made with a simple die roll (Joe did the honours).
An even more random factor was the weather, but whatever atmospheric dice get rolled to determine that, they came up in our favour this weekend. I type this on Sunday evening at 6pm and I don’t think we’ve seen a single cloud in the sky since arriving 48 hours ago. It’s a bit breezy — see the description of Sunday’s walk, up Merrick — but other than that there can be no complaints at all. We’ve been lucky.
Newton Stewart, where we’re staying, has been agreeable too. Doubts about whether it is somehow the ‘real Scotland’ (a position adopted out of sheer ignorance on my part) were removed when it became the only place where I’ve seen a bloke wearing a kilt in normal life, as opposed to at a wedding. The chairman of Newton Stewart FC (and yes, I unearthed the local football scene as well) affects such a mode of dress on a daily basis, we were told. Good for him. Although surely it gets chilly in the winter.
Craig Airie Fell was hard to reach, and, based on the map and what scanty information was available from online sources (it is about the only historic CT that doesn’t yet have its own Wikipedia page), it didn’t look all that promising, but this was a happy occasion where the walk exceeded expectations. The great weather helped but that’s all part of the package. It was nice that Clare came and she made a point of noting that she’d enjoyed it. How could I not report that positive assessment.
Certainly it was a good warm-up for the main event the next day, the double bill of the much higher Merrick and Kirriereoch Hill; which you will of course go and read about right now.
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