Words & Photography David ‘Sanny’ Gould
Sanny heads to the deep south west of Scotland and steps back into its bloody past.
As part of the ominously named ‘Range of the Awful Hand’ (almost as unappealing as Peak of the Fungal Athlete’s Foot), the Merrick stands some 2,766ft tall, which makes it a Corbett and no, there are no four candles nor ’oes involved. It isn’t a peak that you happen upon by accident. There is no turning of the corner on a highland road that brings a big reveal like the Buachaille. You have to make the effort to seek it out. Despite its relatively gentle slopes, it is no benign presence and many a walker or mountain biker has been caught out by the peculiar microclimate of this imposing peak in an area defined by its history of glaciation and guerrilla warfare.
Joining me for this little adventure in pastures new were long-time riding buddies Mark and Lyndsey. A combination of moving house and life doing that thing of getting in the way meant that we hadn’t turned a pedal together for over two years. As they’d moved down towards New Galloway, I had a perfect excuse to meet up with them. With a fair wind behind us and a forecast of sunshine and clear skies, a plan was hatched. We were go for launch.
Of course, this being Scotland where the weather can kindly be described as somewhat eclectic, the blue skies and sunshine I drove through from Sanny HQ in Glasgow took fright and left, being replaced by ominously dark storm clouds and a stiff westerly wind. Oh arse!
I want one of those!
Being something of a mini tourist honeypot for locals and visitors alike, Glen Trool is easily navigable with an excellent café at the trailhead and well signposted routes to follow. For Mark, Lyndsey and me, the Southern Upland Way along the southern flank of Loch Trool was to be our route of choice, though not before we oohed and aahed over a Unimog parked nearby. Forget your Land Rover, a Unimog is what you need if you want to try proper off-road driving. “Look at the size of those spare petrol tanks!” exclaimed Lyndsey. They were almost bigger than my car. “Aye, that’s so when they drive to the petrol station, they can fill up on the way to get them there!” remarked Mark dryly. At four miles to the gallon, he probably wasn’t wrong. I still want one though!
Beauty with a dark history.
Cutting onto the trail at the handily placed National Cycle Network, which was installed as part of the Millennium project, we had barely pedalled a few yards before we ground to a halt. To our right, some seriously impressive white water was taking full advantage of the liquid sunshine and was roaring down the river in a mass of brown, peat-rich liquid with white topping. To all intents and purposes, it looked like a river of Guinness. From there, the path followed the shoreline, snaking in and out of the trees before crossing the Water of Trool. It is not hard to imagine that on a sunny day, the vistas would be little short of breathtaking. Sun dappling through the trees. Skylarks singing in the distance. Cotton flax blowing gently in the breeze. Of course, we had none of those but it is nice to dream. However, thoughts of rural idyll were short-lived as we happened upon the ‘Martyr’s Grave’. It was here that six Covenanters, those who did not believe in the Crown being the spiritual head of the church, were murdered while at prayer. The grave had something of a sobering effect, a feeling compounded by the dark skies above.
The history of the Covenanters is one written in blood, although seeing the grave reminded me of the quip when there was a terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport several years ago to which one wag responded ‘Why are they trying to bring religious battles here? We’ve had sectarianism for far longer than them!” Religious intolerance isn’t anything new. We Scots have a very long history of it.
Leaving behind the somewhat maudlin scene, our spirits lifted as we found ourselves climbing the path on the banks of the loch. What was once deep forest has been clearfelled. While not exactly pretty, it is a reminder that these are working forests and clearfelling does a fine job of opening up the views. On a clear day the Merrick rises above the surrounding hills like a mighty giant, but today it was shrouded in low cloud. No matter, the trails made for easy pedalling with only one steep set of steps to negotiate before reaching the head of the loch where we dodged a heavy shower by taking shelter in the trees. Talk turned to rides we had done together in the past – trips to Switzerland where a mutual friend had worn out his brake pads, but had thrown such a strop about it and been so generally grumpy that none of us let on that we had spare pads; getting caught out in a gale on the icy summit of Ben Chonzie where Mark and I experienced the worst hot aches ever; Mark being spaced out on unbranded South African painkillers near the summit of Lochnagar after an off that bent back one of his fingers. Hmm, there was a bit of a record of adversity here. I glanced up at the summit and hoped we wouldn’t be adding another memorable disaster to the list.
“Didn’t he do well?”
With the rain easing off, we found the bridge we were meant to cross. I say ‘bridge’, if you can qualify as such two eroding concrete plinths with an old tree jammed up against them by the force of the river. It may have been at one time, but not in this century. Thankfully, an intact bridge could be found just a little upstream and a dunking could be avoided. From there, we had an easy amble along a fire road to the trailhead where we could turn off for the climb up to the summit of the Merrick, although not before stopping at Bruce’s Stone. A sign details the bloody history of the area from the time of Robert the Bruce.
However, being Bruce’s Stone, our thoughts turned to the passing the day before of showbiz legend Bruce Forsyth. “Eighty-nine… Didn’t he do well!” quipped Lyndsey. “Oh, wasn’t that a shame,” I responded, channelling my best Brucey impression a la Play Your Cards Right. I wondered out loud if he would have a cuddly toy on the conveyor belt should he be cremated. “Good game! Good game!” chimed in Mark. “You’re my favourites!” I quipped back. Poor Brucey. He’ll be burling in his grave with these terrible gags. As homage, we adopted the Brucey pose. It seemed fitting tribute to the great man.
Any way you want as long as it’s up.
From the stone, several hundred metres of hike-a-bike follow until the trail levels off. Reaching a small gate, a picture postcard scene awaits.
With the river tumbling down rocks on the right and with Loch Trool and the Glen below, it’s hard not to want to stop and take it all in. However, with conditions against us and another heavy shower brewing we hefted bikes over boulders before remounting when the trail improved for a gentle spin to Culsharg Bothy.
Open to all, Culsharg is in a pleasant location. However, the relative proximity to civilisation means that it is somewhat the worse for wear. With only one small fireplace intact, a sleeping platform that looks like it was a Heath Robinson reject, and altogether too much graffiti, the bothy casts an unloved, forlorn feeling. That said, we were glad of it as the heavens opened, which saw us joined by a couple of walkers, one of whom was doing the best impression of a drowned rat I have ever seen. “How was the summit?” “Wet and windy and I couldn’t see a damned thing!” his response. Coming hot on the heels of the previous couple who had described conditions at the top as “Ken, it’s a richt f###ing scutter!” (I have no idea what a scutter is but in the context of the delivery, I determined that it wasn’t a good thing.) And then, with two runners who arrived and regaled us with a tale of one of them getting lost at the summit and being helicoptered off the previous November, the Merrick’s reputation was laid bare before us. No matter, we were enjoying ourselves, and a bit of wind and rain weren’t going to stop us, I kept telling myself as if I almost believed it.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends.
The bothy now a distant speck on the horizon, the path took us up through the treeline. On the fat bike, I revelled in winching my way up sections of it that looked barely rideable until deep rain ruts defeated me. Clearing the trees where a stone slab marks the boundary between forest and mountaintop proper, we’re met by an unrelenting wind. Up here, there is no hiding from the weather with the Merrick taking the full force of wind and rain as it blows up from the Irish Sea to the west. However, a lot of time, money and care have gone into building an excellent path up to the 650m mark. It ends with an abrupt stop, leaving you to follow a well-worn, albeit at times muddy, path along the line of an old stone dyke.
With a little bit of pushing and carrying, we reached the top of Benyellery and the brilliantly monikered Nieve of the Spit (nieve meaning fist, spit meaning rainfall – it probably translates as bike riders shaking their fists at yet another bloody rain shower!). Below us, the Rig of the Gloon which predictably translates as ‘gloomy ridge’. I made a mental note to pay more attention to old Scots place names from now on. Daft these ancestors weren’t. Despite us being blown more sideways than up, the odd break in the cloud gave us a glimpse of our surroundings. The landscape is littered with waterfalls and picturesque lochs.
On a clear day, it would be nothing short of stunning. As it was, we had to use a bit of imagination. However, even in the gloom, it had a hardy beauty to it.
Leaving the saddle behind, the combination of a slowly deflating, worn-out 4.8 inch fat tyre and a thin patina of water on greasy rock and mud made the going harder than it needed to be. Having left my own pump in the car park, I had to resort to borrowing Lyndsey’s mini pump. I thought I was going to get ‘the claw’ by the time I finished reinflating the tyre for the second time rather than change the tube. The nearer we got to the summit trig point, the more the wind made its presence felt – at times we were leaning into it and fighting the front end of our bikes to maintain a straight line. At one point, a lapse of concentration saw me shoot a good five yards to the right. The path was easy to follow. Sticking to it was anything but. Character building. That is what I would call it…
The longest view in the UK – allegedly.
One of the Merrick’s claims to fame is that on a clear day you can see all the way to Snowdon, some 144 miles to the south! As it was, we were lucky to see our hands in front of our faces. Mark and Lyndsey did not seem convinced by my tour guide performance. A quick snack inside our bothy shelter and we turned tail before the weather had time to worsen and deposit a plague of locusts on us. Despite the now howling gale, the descent was a joy. The soggy nature of our adventure was doing nothing to dampen our spirits. The side wind merely added to the fun as we made short work of what is a long descent. Reaching the shelter of the trees, the wet exposed bedrock made for gigglesome fun. Who says you need good weather to have a good ride?
Zipping past the bothy, the subsequent singletrack section of trail was despatched in double quick time, while the seriously eroded boulder section made for some carrying on the way back down, but not so much as to spoil the ride. Regrouping at the car park beside Bruce’s Stone, we relived our near misses and occasional hits on the descent. All that remained was for us to follow a clearfelled path along the north of the loch before retracing our steps back to the waiting cars and the just-closed café. As rides go, it was as much about the company as the ride itself. We saw precious little of the views and were now wetter than an otter’s pocket. On a clear day, it would be a terrific proposition which could be easily extended with a ride out to Loch Dee and Clatteringshaws Loch along the Southern Upland Way.
Old-school brilliance for those who like an adventure.
Total Distance: 17.5 miles (adding on the Loch Dee extension which goes out on fire road and back on the Southern Upland Way adds a further five miles and approx. 750ft of climbing).
Elevation Gain: Approx 3,400 feet
Time: (depending on fitness) 4 to 5 hours.
Maps: Ordnance Survey Landranger 77. 1:50,000 scale
From Glasgow, you can take the A77 down past Ayr and then via the B7045 (single-track road) down to Glen Trool Village from where the Forestry Commission car park is well signposted. From the south, leave the M6 at Gretna Green following the A75 through Dumfries all the way to Newton Stewart before heading north on the A714 and the B7045.
Car parking costs a mere £3 for the day. For our southern readers, this will seem like good value. Unfortunately, some of my fellow Scots adopt a ‘can pay, won’t pay’ attitude. All the money goes into maintaining the facilities and trails, so don’t be a cheapskate!
Eating and Drinking
As you would almost come to expect from a Forestry Commission facility, there is a café at the trailhead which does a good line in sandwiches, coffee and cakes. If you crave more substantial fare, the House O’Hill Hotel at Bargrennan comes highly recommended.
Nearby Newton Stewart isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis of hipsters and artisan coffee baristas. However, there is the family-run Kirkcowan Cycles which operates out of the Old Red Cross Hall and who offer sale, hire and repair services. A further couple of miles along the road by the Kirroughtree Seven Stanes visitor centre is the Breakpad bike shop. Between them, you’ll be up and running in no time if you manage to break your bike, forget your shoes, run out of energy bars, etc.
kirkcowancycles.co.uk – Tel: 01671 401 529
Victoria Lane, Newton Stewart, DG8 6DA
thebreakpad.com – Tel: 01671 401 303
Kirroughtree Mountain Bike Trail Centre, Palnure, Newton Stewart, DG8 7BE
For a small place, Newton Stewart and the surrounding area has a good range of accommodation from bed and breakfasts right through to five-star hotels. All budgets can be accommodated.
Finding trails and bike hire
This being Scotland, where you see a trail, you can be pretty much guaranteed that you can ride it. If you want to be spoon fed, Glen Trool offers waymarked options. However, as we discovered, taking a map and doing it the old-school way can be very rewarding. Kirroughtree is within easy driving distance so can be combined into a full weekend of riding.