Intent on adventure, trail runner Sean McFarlane explores an untrodden path in his Scottish homeland
I thought I had run in most areas of Scotland. I’ll admit that my memory’s not great, but I was confident I’d at least dipped my running toes into pretty much all parts of my homeland. Yet, on closer consideration and map perusal, it turns out that there is a sizeable chunk of Scotland that for no obvious reason I seem to have missed out. I suspect many a reader has done the same regarding this particular location. The Galloway hills in south west Scotland have been off my radar for far too long. I recently went for a little taster of what’s on offer here and came back hungry for more, a lot more.
Being married to an Englishwoman, I do drive the M74 quite a lot on visits to the in-laws. Cracking road as it is, it does bypass lots of things. Fair enough, as that’s usually a good thing when it comes to efficient motorway progress, but if you like your trail running, don’t be too hasty bypassing Galloway. It’s a huge area with lots and lots of space. Space of a rolling, green and very inviting nature. There doesn’t seem to be any desire to build things next to or on top of each other and the relaxed landscape very much mirrors the feel of this whole place. Like many of us, I’m getting more and more frustrated with the lack of available and affordable accommodation during school holidays, but there’s plenty on offer here on that front. Luckily for me, trail running does have a handy knack of combining well with a family holiday.
The Galloway hills are a seriously impressive collection of big bumps. At 843 metres, Merrick is the highest and there are some very big days to be had here. The OMM has visited it on several occasions. Not knowing the area particularly well, I did what I usually do in such circumstances and hooked up with a friendly and knowledgeable local. Kenny Livingston was a local runner and, from an initial phone conversation, his pride and enthusiasm to show me what was on offer was clear. Perfect. After a discussion about possible routes, we opted for a “taster” run. I already knew I’d be coming back soon. Our run would be a circuit taking in Screel hill. At 344 metres and in the southern edge of Galloway, Kenny felt this would provide the perfect shorter outing to entice me back. He wasn’t in any way wrong.
Meeting Kenny at the small forestry car park, a mutual “we’ve picked a great day for it” exchange was a good start as the November sun beamed down on us approvingly. The temperature was low now, but we were sure to warm up quickly. So, with perhaps too many layers but a very stretchy rucksack, we headed off, up through the trees at first and then out onto the wide forest track. Kenny had that great outdoor humbleness – he assured me he just did a “wee bit” of running – but I could see from his well-used kit and his ability to chat with no hint of being out of breath that this wasn’t entirely true. We chatted about the area, the history and Covid. Like many of us these days, I only really knew about the latter.
We were now heading up steeply into the trees again and I could see various forms of human activity had used the trail. Mountain bikers, runners and walkers all seemed to co-exist. As I climbed steeply on an out-and-back section of our route, I already knew I would leave it to my local running partner to do the descent justice. When I need to use all four limbs to ascend, it doesn’t make for a rapid reverse direction return, for me at least. The trees eased back and were quickly replaced by heather and views to our east and south. We stopped and Kenny talked me through what we could see. Hills, trails, sea and very few buildings other than the occasional farm. An awful lot for us to explore.
We did now seem to be reaching a top of sorts and we popped out on the eastern edge of the summit ridge. Wow! The whole world seemed to be on display here. To the north those magnificent Galloway hills dominated the view. Screel isn’t actually classed as part of them, but they looked close by, and we had the perfect viewing platform. Southwards and over the Solway Firth, Skiddaw looked surprisingly nearby. Several of the other main peaks of the Lake District were now on show, though I left it to Kenny to identify them. I merely added the odd agreeing “yup” or two. There were Gables and Pikes and lots more in between. To the right of our view of the Lakes and over the Solway Firth was the Isle of Man. Some impressive peaks there as well. Our adventure-plotting minds were in danger of blowing a fuse. To the east, the nearby hill of Criffel at 569 metres looked well worth an outing, yet you can say that of so much here. Our gaze turned westwards and over to a whole lot more of undiscovered (by me at least) Galloway. Kenny politely reminded me we were not actually at the summit yet, so we ran across the ridge on the singletrack path through a combination of mud and rock. If you don’t like this sort of stuff, I do feel you have to question your interest in trail running! It was utterly magnificent and, with the sun beaming down brightly on our lofty status and Kenny enthusiastically bounding everything in our way, it was very, very hard to beat.
We reached the summit cairn and Kenny clambered up it, clearly proud of all that was on display, and I couldn’t fault the sentiment at all. What a glorious place. The nearby peak of Bengairn was 50 metres higher and looked inviting. That was for another day, but I’ve already lost count how many times I’ve said that. For now, reluctantly we were going to head down. Southwards at first to form a circuit along the grassy singletrack. I couldn’t help gazing once more at that southern view and the Lakes, but I needed to pay attention as there were a few rogue rocks which were frankly more deserving of that gaze for now. We then re-joined our ascent through the trees and that well used run-cum-mountain bike downhill track. The now gazelle-like Kenny left me for dead as I used my hands as much as my feet to eventually pop out onto the forest trail and flatter terrain.
Confident that my brain didn’t now need to be fully engaged with foot placement, we chatted once more about exploring Galloway by foot and by bike. And with wetsuits – although Kenny informed me he was going for an open-water sea swim the following day without one. Yes, it was November in Scotland. I knew he was one of them. A brief moment of consideration by me was soon replaced by a need for neoprene and the warmth of summer before I considered taking a dip.
Back at the car park we continued our discussion on future running routes. This place just cries out for return visits, plural. There’s so much to do and surprisingly few people doing just that.
I can’t figure out why. If you do, let me know and, if you can’t get hold me, I’ll probably be up a hill in Galloway.
Follow in their footsteps
Routes and tips for the best runs in Galloway
The new website scotlandstartshere.com is really helpful with lots of resources, and also has an associated app. The walking section is huge and provides great running routes with plenty of choice.
We took this route up Screel: komoot.com/tour/619654214?ref=wtd but there are several options and, once on the open hill, there are lots of trods so, with the sea to the south being a good orientation point, this is a good place to explore. A more circular route taking in Bengairn can be found at komoot.com/tour/619657523?ref=wtd.
Three other routes
Merrick The highest peak in the Galloway Hills is Merrick. The classic route is an out-and-back effort on a good solid track, turning to grass nearer the summit.
Cairnsmore of Carsphairn Cairnsmore of Carsphairn is a great hill and the highest in that area. Find a route at komoot.com/smarttour/1338124?ref=wsd. Don’t confuse it with Cairnsmore of Fleet or Cairnsmore of Dee, but if you end up on either that’s no bad thing!
Ring of Fire If you’re feeling like a serious effort, check out the suitably named Ring of Fire. More information is here – gofar.org.uk/ring-of-fire-galloway. It was previously rather tamely called the Gallo Way. At 45 miles with 13,000 feet of climbing there’s not much particularly tame about it but it gives you an incredible tour of what’s on offer here. Pack a lightweight tent and some sandwiches to give yourself the ideal mountain marathon preparation.
Other things to do
There’s lot of really good off-road cycling to be had down here. Check out the trail centres of Kirroughtree, Ae and Dalbeattie as well as the gravel riding on offer in the huge Galloway Forest Park.
Main pic: Andy McCandlish