The Galloway Hills

The view west from the black shoulder of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn, including the Merrick and Corserine. (Click for full size)

With a bank holiday looming and little in the way of sporting shooting on offer on the Chayne, it seemed like a good idea to head up country and do some hillwalking. Of all the hills you can see from the Chayne, Cairnsmore of Carsphairn is perhaps the most dramatic. Just shy of 800 metres above sea level, Cairnsmore of Carsphairn’s exposed eastern crags often hold their snow long into April and early May, and the spectacular dual mounds of the hill are clearly visible from almost every vantage point on the moor.

Driving up to Carsphairn was a great opportunity to see Galloway in the first throes of autumn, with loaded rowan trees and purple heather sweeping up from either side of the road to Ayr. The hill itself is a fairly straightforward climb, and after several miles of increasingly steep ascent, I reached the summit and soaked up the view. A clear day meant that I could see from Goatfell on the Isle of Arran to Snaefell on the Isle of Man, and every detail was picked out with astonishing clarity.

One of the great pleasures of Galloway for one who was born and grew up here is the fantastic and unique range of local dialects and place names which have become attached over the centuries to wild and remote corners of the county. I was a student of Scottish language at Glasgow University, so I can’t help indulging myself a little in mentioning the linguistics involved. After all, in a land where I am trying to conserve wildlife, human experience adds another dimension to meaning of the place.

Galloway was its own country until the late thirteenth century. It became absorbed into Scotland at around the same time that Wales became absorbed into England, although our sense of national identity has withered and died away where the Welsh continue to remember their origins. Originally made up of a cocktail of Irish, Welsh and Manx celts, Galloway existed as an autonomous region for many years, even fighting bloody battles against both the Scots and the English to retain its independence. Although few people remember Galloway’s history today, there are still clues which point towards our own unique history, and they can be found across the length and breadth of the county in the form of names.

A strong Norse and Viking influence in the area gave us names like Criffel, which when mixed with Galwegian Gaelic names like the Merrick and Millfire and the old Scots dialect words Curlywee and Cairnharrow creates a landscape as varied and unique as its history. High up in the Galloway hills, twenty miles to the west of the Chayne, you’ll find fantastic places with names like The Wolf’s Slock and The Black Garpel, both of which cower beneath the collected heights of the Dungeon of Buchan and the Murder Hole of Loch Enoch. Nowhere else in Scotland will you find such a rich and exciting mixture of dialects and place names, and knowing something of the region’s history makes a walk in the hills really come alive. Even when I reached the summit of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn, I had to peer over the shoulder of Craigenputtock to see the Chayne. Now there’s a name I envy.

On the descent from the cairn, I had the rare luck to watch a merlin hunting wheatears along the back of an old drystone dyke, then saw two others rise from the boulder fields below to join it. As the old saying has it, time in the countryside is never time wasted.

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