Walk of a Lifetime: Merrick and Loch Enoch
If you thought the Southern Uplands were tame, think again. The wilds of Glen Trool will test your mettle, says Jeremy Ashcroft.
T he Southern Uplands is a rather dismissive name for the mountain range that straddles Scotland’s border with England. The title sort of suggests mere moors and hillocks, and this view is reinforced if all you ever do is scoot past on the A74. The wide-open nature and sheer amount of landmass the peaks cover skews perspective and makes the range look tame because they are so spread out. This gentler visual profile leads you to believe that walking among them would be easy, but nothing could be further from the truth! The real facts are hidden within the interior; it’s a wilderness as wild as it comes in Britain. It hides granite and metamorphic crags of seriously impressive heights. Its extensive flats are liberally splattered by a myriad of lochs in all shapes and sizes, surrounded by heather and coarse grass wetlands drained by burns, either raucous and fast flowing or deep, dark and intimidating. This landscape pattern colludes to give some of the most challenging and rewarding walking in Britain, so much so that once you’ve given it a go you’ll be perfectly acclimatised to take on any mountain walking Scotland has to offer.
The focus for many people who visit the area is Merrick, the highest peak. The standard route to its summit is a fine undertaking and you get a superb overview from its summit, but as the path is well trodden and relatively easy it really only scratches the surface of what’s on offer. A fuller experience can be had by first heading out into the wild hinterland of the Dungeon Hills and then skirting around the head of Loch Enoch, via the lonely summit outpost of Mullwharchar, to finish with a traverse over Merrick. This route has long been a classic, but not in terms of well-trodden paths and lots of people. It’s a classic for its raw landscape and for the sheer joy you feel when you venture off the beaten track.
NX415803 If you have an interest in history you should pay a visit to Bruce’s Stone just to the east of the car park; it commemorates the defeat of the English by Robert the Bruce in 1307.
NX418804 From the road, a well-trodden path leads east down a hairpin for 400m to a junction. Turn left at this junction and follow the path as it climbs east-north-east then northeast across steep hillside to join Gairland Burn.
NX434817 At the top of Gairland Burn, the path eases around the western end of Loch Valley. This loch suffered badly from acidification from the 1850s onwards, however it is now in the process of recovery.
NX437819 Above Loch Valley, the path on the west side of Mid Burn is followed up to its outflow at the mouth of Loch Neldricken.
NX438830 Around the western side of Loch Neldricken is Murder Hole. No one died here, but it was made famous in The Raiders by S R Crockett.
NX442825 Cross the Mid Burn at a twin row of stepping stones (these can be impassable during spate conditions) then work your way around the southern shore of Loch Neldricken.
NX452829 A grassy gully system on the southern (right) end of the Black Gairy crags leads onto the southern shoulder of Craignaw. If you come across any metal components these are the remains of an American F111 fighter that crashed in the vicinity in 1979.
NX458833 From Craignaw head north-north-west along the broad open ridge passing the weird granite slab and boulders of the Devil’s Bowling Green to the prominent cairn-marked col of the Nick of the Dungeon.
NX453844 A short steep climb north leads to the subsidiary top Craignairny, and then eastnorth-east to Dungeon Hill. The view south-east from the summit is over the remarkable feature of the Silver Flowe, a National Nature Reserve. This almost impenetrable area is remote and boggy, so care should be taken if you attempt to cross it. NX458851 North-west from Dungeon Hill, the route crosses a broad open col to tackle the southern flank of Mullwharchar. This lonely outrigger is a truly wild and untouched place although, in the mid 1970s, its stable granite ground was looked at by the Atomic Energy Authority as a possible site for an underground storage facility!
NX448855 The mysterious Loch Enoch is nearly 40m deep and is massive for its altitude, particularly when you consider it has only one visible feeder burn. It also has the novelty value of having an island in it with its own loch – a loch within a loch.
NX435851 The big ascent of the day is up Redstone Rig from the western shores of Loch Enoch. As height is gained, the ground underfoot tends to relent until easy close-cropped grass marks the final approach to Merrick’s summit trig point.
NX427855 The descent from Merrick is a little vague to start, and lies in a south-easterly direction, however as height is lost the path becomes more defined until, over Benyellary, it’s an easy-to-follow highway.
NX415821 The bothy at Culsharg is a key landmark on the last stage of this route. It was refurbished in 2012 and is usable but there’s no guarantee you’ll have a peaceful night if you use it as it’s only a short walk from the car park.
Heading for Merrick, Murder Hole and Craignaw.
High on the Rig of the Gloon, with Galloway Forest Park behind.
Heather and coarse grass surround Loch Enoch; granite grit sand on its beaches was used to sharpen knives.