While staying up in the Galloway hills before Easter, I had a spare day to stretch my legs on the renowned and spectacular Awful Hand, the famous range of five hills which runs parallel to the Rhinns of Kells. Many of the Galloway hills have fantastic names, and there is something hellishly inspiring about a line of mountains which lies spread across the wilderness like a broken fist. This is the world of the Wolf’s Slock, the Dungeon of Buchan, the Murder Hole and the Devil’s Bowling Green, where Norse words have blended with Galloway Gaelic to create a vocabulary that is suitably harsh, wild and remorseless.
The southernmost peak of the Awful Hand is Benyellary, which lies above Glen Trool and provides a gateway to the Merrick, Scotland’s highest mountain below the Highland line. North of the Merrick lies the vast and little known Kirriereoch, which runs to the heights of Tarfessock and ends with a flourish on the massive hump of Shalloch on Minnoch. These five hills are monsters in their own right, but walked together form a considerable challenge, particularly when you begin from the North and attempt to climb the almost vertical face of Shalloch from the East.
After an hour’s approach, Shalloch began to gain altitude amongst the rough grass and heather. Pipits and wheaters bobbed cheerily ahead of me as I laboured beneath the boiling sun and peered enviously over to the snow on Kirriereoch and the Merrick. Stripped almost to my underwear, I accumulated the kind of sunburn that would have made David Livingstone wince as the altitude gradually rose and the gradient with it. Pig headedly pushing upwards over the scree, I sound found that I was using my hands as much as my feet, and for a few breathless seconds I clung to a vertical grass slope and realised that there would be nothing to break my fall for over a hundred metres.
Not being fond of heights, I almost froze. There was nobody else to help within three miles and I felt my fingers dig into the shining, crackling grass like a limpet. There were perhaps only a few feet vertically up until I could claim the safety of a ledge, but it felt like a long distance indeed. A raven clocked greedily as I began to flounder. It was only with a tremendous amount of focus and concentration that I managed to close off the wider world and turn my universe into a few square inches of grass and cowberry. By slow progress and a great deal of whimpering, I soon flopped down as a quivering ruin on the first piece of almost level ground I could find.
Looking down the East face of Shalloch on Minnoch immediately below the summit does not make my ordeal look all that challenging, but finding yourself alone on that sliding grass is not an experience I’d choose to revisit. I had a mental image of a friend who works for Mountain Rescue peeling me off the hillside from the winch of a helicopter, asking me why I was stuck to Shalloch on Minnoch without a shirt on.
The summits of these hills are blasted clean and clear, and once on the tops, the walking was then more or less like a snooker table. I marched clear across Tarfessock and up another somewhat nerve-wracking scree bank onto the rounded table top of Kirriereoch, which offered some stunning views over to the Merrick from the North. The sun blazed down and the wind was wholly absent. I could hear ravens clocking hoarsely hundreds of feet above my head. Gazing over at the shocking cliffs of the Black Gairy, it occured to me that I had been walking for five hours.
Having already bitten off more than I could chew, I decided that I had no quarrel with the Merrick and decided to return via Macaterick Hill along a tangled ridge of heather and moss. I had filled and emptied my water bottle a dozen times, and the twelve mile round trip was starting to feel like a death march. Even on these staggering slopes, some poor worthy of yore had been tasked with building these dykes which still criss-cross the landscape. Many stretches of drystane wall were perfectly intact after centuries on these windswept slopes, and I wondered at the enterprise and skill of the men who had put these stones in place.
The great appeal of the Galloway hills is that, on the whole, there are no paths, steps or waymarkers to help you. You use a map and you follow the tracks that the goats and the deer have left. Deer in their multitudes stirred out of the peat, and as I paused for a second by a dark and extremely lonely lochan, I happened to look up as a cock merlin came searing over my head at extreme height, chittering noisily and then falling into a vertical plunge which brought it just a few feet away. The falcon’s shape vanished somewhere in the heather below me but it returned a minute later; the hen skimming silently away while he whipped circuits around a large loop of ground like a frantic tern; a blue body and a small brown head eyeballing me closely. I withdrew, stepping quietly backwards and turning at last to find a dark spread of water behind and below me, dotted throughout with islands and boulders; as wild and as magical a spot as any in Torridon, Caithness or the Outer Isles. I heard the distant swell of loons on the quiet water, then set my course for home again.
These hills are a world apart from the rushy expanses of the Chayne and my life in the marginal moors between upland and lowland, but there is something of home about them; a small, wild highland in the heart of the lowlands.