Eagles scream from isle to shore;
Down all the rocks the torrents roar;
O’er the black waves incessant driven,
Dark mists infect the summer heaven.
Through the rude barriers of the lake,
Away it’s hurrying waters break,
Faster and whiter dash and curl,
Till down yon dark abyss they hurl.
The eagles may be gone now, but Sir Walter Scott’s poem still captures the dramatic beauty of his “Loch-skene”. This weekend I decided to pay it a visit.
Distance: 8 miles (round trip)
Time: 5 hours
The weather was quite changeable, starting in the sun with a thick haze, clouding over and becoming quite dark, then returning to sunny skies for my final descent. Care should be taken in adverse conditions, but some sections – particularly the crossing of the Tail Burn – may be difficult or even impossible.
Setting off from the car park, the start of the walk is only a short distance away. Avoid the lower path, which is blocked after a short distance and no longer in use, cross the small wooden bridge and climb the stone steps to begin your ascent. Before long, the first sight of the day appears – the Grey Mare’s Tail.
This spectacular waterfall is formed by the Tail Burn plunging 60m from the heights of Loch Skeen into the gorge below, and is the fifth highest cascade in Britain.
The steps continue to climb for quite a distance before changing into a firm stone path. As this route is used for both ascent and descent, be ready to stand to one side to let people pass – just not too near the edge! Keep going up past the waterfall, and follow the course of the burn with hills opening up around you.
Once you reach the top, Loch Skeen suddenly appears before you like a little bit of the Highlands remade in the Lowlands. Enjoy views across the water of Mid Craig and Lochcraig Head, and to your left the summit of White Coomb (which we’ll be coming to later!).
For now, head along the path to your right that skirts the edge of the loch. Soon the stone gives way to grass and mud, crossing the heather and leaving the lochside. It can get boggy in parts, but eventually you’ll reach a boundary fence that, as you follow it along, is replaced by an old dry stone dyke. You’ll get to know this wall quite well for the rest of the journey. Follow the wall along as it heads across the peaty land towards, and then up, the first hill of the day, Lochcraig Head.
The climb isn’t particularly strenuous, and you’ll soon reach a sharp bend in the path to reach the top. The true summit is further to your right on the other side of the wall, but head to the cairn on your left for sheer views out over Loch Skeen below.
Head back to the path, and continue down into the slightly boggy col of Talla Nick and up the other side to the top of Firthybrig Head. This made a nice spot to stop for some lunch, sheltering behind the wall to escape the wind.
At this point the path turns sharply to your left. Follow it along the forgivingly flat ground of Donald’s Cleuch Head until you reach a stile. You’re now standing on Firthope Rig, the summit of which is marked by an insignificant looking pile of stones that lies a little further ahead on the other side of the wall.
Once back at the stile, follow the wall towards White Coomb for the last climb of the day. The path continues straight, crossing a stile just before the summit itself, then veers right to reach the cairn. At 821m (2,694 ft), White Coomb is the third highest hill in the south of Scotland. When you’re finished enjoying the view at the top, head down the other side of the summit to rejoin the wall. The descent is quite steep via the rocky Rough Craigs, with stone steps cutting a path through to the heather below.
Continue onwards across Upper Tarnberry (passing slightly below the summit) until you reach the Tail Burn once more at a small waterfall. Cross the burn – I opted to for a stony section just above the fall itself – and rejoin the stone path from earlier in the day. All that remains is to retrace your steps back down past the Grey Mare’s Tail to the cark park below.