open country

Annie and her friends, in the movie, Bridesmaids, go wild. In my life, Annie and her friends only go wild up hills. Although she is great at organising days out, sometimes a little more information in advance would help the psychological preparation.

On this day in late August, I was happy to join in to go up and down Queensberry Hill in Dumfries and Galloway. When we arrived at Mitchellslacks, north of the Forest of Ae, I discovered we were doing a horseshoe of three hills. On the skyline, a surprisingly large hill-scape sweeps round the back of the fields – a landscape hidden from the main roads, a secret world that seems to hold a mythical status.

James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, served time as a herd at this farm where he completed an early volume of his poetry. He must have been moved by the combination of smooth tops and crags cleft by small valleys.

Queensberry, like Tinto, is visible from several angles, having a similar impression of standing alone to Criffel, which overlooks the flat waters of the Solway. Its prominence misleads the traveller as to the nature of its neighbouring hills; Queensberry on its own is an uninspiring hump, despite rising to a height of 697m (2,285ft).

The hill is reached from the Mitchellslacks farm track that heads north and has been signposted by the landowners, waymarkers that include some jolly white bird silhouettes. The gentle grassy slopes to the summit are reminiscent of a pilgrimage, the journey involves no great excitement apart from getting to its highest point.

The perspective from the cairn looking north-west is daunting because you can see the extent of the whole route and the dips between the tops are extreme. A gentle walk down to Penbreck soon drops steeply to the eastern flanks of Earncraig Hill.

In between these two diverse hills we sat on a cushion of heather to eat our lunch. I could hear a buzzard mewling, “Bird of the wilderness, Blithesome and cumberless, Sweet be thy matin o’er moorland and lea!” I wondered if James Hogg had sat on this heather as he wrote these lines.

Earncraig Hill (611m) is easily reached from this pass by ascending Berry Rig and is the most earnest about its status as a Donald (southern hill over 2,000ft.) Its east-facing crags give the hill a sharp square edge facing into the steep rocky wall called Penbreck Slidders. Despite its stony face, it is much lower than Queensberry and Gana Hill.

From here, the ridge degrades into a muddle of hummocks and bog going west to Daer Hass, eventually reaching the south-east shoulder of Gana Hill (668m). On this shoulder, you meet a new track that stops short of the hill top.

In the late afternoon looking back at these hills, they were like a giant slumped, reclining in that most delicate of sunlight – my soul flew around the tops as I looked back again and again. “Emblem of happiness, Blest is thy dwelling-place – O! to abide in the desert with thee!”

The new track continues down Gana Shank, the south-east shoulder, and twists and dips over Hard Hill and Haggie Hill. A covey of red-legged partridges filled the sky in a fluttering veil. To avoid walking down to Locharben, north of Mitchellslacks, we picked a route out heading south-east back to our initial route on the other side of Capel Burn.

As we dropped, the clouds dropped too, making our exit a wet affair; for a short time we lost Jackie and Kim in the high bracken. Ahead of us we were inadvertently driving a group of sheep towards the river. Fortunately they turned back up the hill before we reached the bank. “Wild is thy lay and loud, Far in the downy cloud, Love gives it energy, love gave it birth.”

After seven hours on foot in the sun, wind and rain, falling into bed is more sublime. “Then, when the gloaming comes, Low in the heather blooms, Sweet will thy welcome and bed of love be!”

(The quotations are from The Skylark by James Hogg)