Comb head-Cold Moss-Lowther-Green Lowther-Peden Head-Dungrain Law
SUW sign at Over Fingland
I like to look into the origins of the names of the places I visit but I haven’t been impressed by suggestions that Lowther takes its name from words meaning a bathing place, trough, basin or channel and related to the passes running through these hills. None of the passes are named Lowther.
Given my experiences on this walk I find this definition apposite:
To LOUTHER, v. n.
1. To be entangled in mire or snow.
2. To walk with difficulty.
An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, John Jamieson 1818
On the 1843-1882 series OS maps all the Lowthers are Louthers: Louther Hill, East Mount Louther, Short Louther, and Green Louther.
The worst of the weather was over, but since minor roads might still have been blocked, I didn’t want to go too far afield or too far from major roads. My previous visit to the Lowther Hills had been from Wanlockhead, so a visit from the A702 seemed a good choice.
I had thought this would be a walk of three thirds: 5km up, 5km along, 5km down; one third of exertion, then two thirds enjoying the scenery. In different conditions that might have been the way of it. As it was, I was to spend much time louthering.
There is a place to park, big enough for a couple of cars, near the SUW sign where the SUW leaves the A702. There is a discernible track heading away from the SUW sign, but this is what is left of the Roman road rather than the SUW so I climbed up by a fence, through characteristic tussock-in-bog terrain, to the remains of a wall running along Laght Hill. I had been tempted by several snow enhanced tracks apparently running to my left towards Laght Hill, but my perseverance in heading for the wall was confirmed as correct by an SUW way-marker post. I was now out of bog and onto easier terrain, though any hollows were filled with snow.
On reaching the Laght Hill ridge I was greeting by the panorama in the first photograph, showing my entire route for the day. It was then a gentle climb up Laght Hill, following the fence and occasional way markers, but made more difficult by some deep snow drifts. These sometimes held my weight but I sank to my waist in one and found climbing out quite difficult. My reflex response was to push down with my hands as I would when climbing out of a hole, but of course my hands just sank into the snow.
Steep south slopes of Comb Head
I’ve seen this section of the SUW described as a roller coaster, and would have to agree. The first 5km included 160m of descent as well as the 530m of ascent. The first big dip is between Laght Hill and Comb Head. Someone else had come the same way so I followed the footprints. At first the descent was gentle but the convexity hid a steeper section. The snow there was soft enough to form steps easily but hand prints beside the foot prints in the snow suggested that my predecessor had the same experience. You can see my tracks in the photo below.
Laght Hill’s snow covered slopes
The first 100m up Comb Head was steep, requiring several pauses to look at the snow topped Durisdeer Hills, but then it eased a little. Once on Comb Head itself the views opened up to show white topped hills in all directions. Steygail, which remains on my to do list, looked particularly inviting though its steep sides are clearly not designed for icy conditions. Comb Head is obviously a minor hump on Cold Moss, though it sits within its own 2000 feet contour on older maps.
Deep snow on Comb Head
The wee dip between the Comb Head and Cold Moss was filled with snow and as you can see in the photograph above it was deep enough to cover the fence. I paused on Cold Moss to savour the feeling of a New Donald struck from the list, then turned my mind to the remaining dip of the roller coaster.
The dip into the col between Cold Moss and Lowther Hill was also hidden by the slope’s convexity. In poor visibility I would have followed the fence down but I spotted an SUW post over to my right. The SUW here diverts about 250m NE from where it is marked on the OS map and dips below the col into the upper reaches of Loch Burn. I couldn’t get a view of the col itself until I was on the slopes of Lowther Hill. I don’t think that steepness is the problem. The col was mostly filled with snow but I suspect the SUW diverts to avoid an area of badly eroded peat
Approaching Lowther Hill
In contrast, the climb up Lowther Hill was gentle and there was a more defined track that looked to have been used by vehicles. The snow was deeper in these tracks but they were a guide at least. As I climbed I looked to my left, and wondered at the naming of East Mount Lowther, the most western of the Lowthers.
SUW post in a snow drift on Lowther Hill
Just below the NATS buildings on Lowther Hill I came across the drift in the photo above. I’ve also shown a picture of myself next to the SUW post on Cold Moss for comparison to show how deeply the post is buried.
I had hoped that the drift would be firm enough to hold my weight but not all hopes are realised and crossing this small drift proved to be a major calorie burning exercise. Beyond the snow drift the SUW reached its highest point and then began to lose height so I decided to leave the path to head directly up to the compound. This meant a little more slogging through the snow but I was at the NATS fence soon enough. Then rather than walk through snow drifts to the gate I climbed the fence and got onto ground with only a couple of centimetres of snow. Here I glimpsed the only other person I saw on the hills all day, a chap on walking skis.
Road to Green Lowther
A road goes from Lowther Hill, past the buildings at Green Trough, to Green Lowther, so at least the walking was easier, but the wind was now unpleasantly cold. Green Lowther at 732m was the highest point of this walk. Its buildings have a strange post-apocalyptic deserted look about them, though I presume they remain in use. The scaffolding-like structure, though permanent, looks like something for a temporary event like a concert. And amidst all the snow the trig pillar on Green Lowther, sheltered by the surrounding buildings, stood on a mound of green grass. I sheltered between the buildings for a coffee, but found it too cold to loiter for long.
Dungrain Law, Tinto in the distance to the left
Green Lowther is the end of the road but a faint track heading NE was visible over short stretches. I had previously climbed Lowther, Green Lowther and East Mount Lowther from Wanlockhead in snow with poor visibility, so it was good to be back in better visibility. The views were extensive and the gradient on the ridge easy enough to be ignored. I am sure that in summer weather the walking here would be very easy. I included Peden Head and Dungrain Law so that I had visited all the humps on the Lowther ridge. My original plan had been to then head back along Horsegrain Dod.
As I returned from Dungrain Law, however, I noticed a track heading from the col across onto Riccart Law Rig and decided to follow that rather than climbing back over Peden Head to Horsegrain Dod. The track contoured above Craigs Grain, which looked much steeper than it does in the photo. I actually climbed a little higher than the path at times to keep away from the edge.
I had seen hare tracks in the snow several times earlier in the walk and there were more tracks along this path. Indeed when I left the track I found that the hare prints were there as well. It eventually dawned on me that it would be quite a coincidence for that to happen. More likely there were lots of hare prints. Once I had reached Riccart Law Rig proper there were a great many mountain hares running about in their winter coats. Their prints criss-crossed the whole area and patches of snow were stained orange with their urine. Since all the urine spots were this colour I presume it is normal rather than a few sick hares.
Big animal prints
I had seen some small dog-like prints earlier in the day which I presumed were made by a fox since there were no human prints nearby. Then I came across the big prints above. They look like prints of a large dog but I presume they are fox. It must have been a big one.
Riccart Rig Law proved to be an unexpected challenge. Walking along the rig looking at paw prints I thought I was in the final easy third of the walk. The dip before Stowgill Dod was filled with peat hags, and the eroded areas filled with deep snow. I decided to cut the corner onto Shortcleuch Rig rather than follow the fence but found my way blocked by an un-named cleuch, which I will call Snowy Cleuch. (P.S. it is Black Grain on older maps)
Snowy Cleuch was uncrossable, the snow of the far bank had sheered leaving a near vertical wall of snow 2-3m high, so I had to climb back up above the start of the gully to cross to the other side. My plan was to get down into Riccart Cleuch but the snow on the convexity of the rig was pure white, no vegetation showing through. There was no way I could go across that, especially having seen the sheered snow wall in Snowy Cleuch.
What a predicament. My map showed a track on the other side of Snowy Cleuch and though I couldn’t see it, the slopes there looked safe, so I headed back up to cross Snowy Cleuch again. Luckily I found a section at about 450m where I could cross. From there my snow related problems were behind me. In retrospect I should have stayed to the NW of Snowy Cleuch.
Hidden bridge Riccart Cleuch
I had worried that Riccart Cleuch might be a boggy mess but despite the rushes it was not too wet. The burn itself was probably within my leaping limit but the banks were overhanging so I went upstream in search of a better crossing. There was a rotten log across the burn but nearby was a small hidden bridge. From there it was just a few metres up onto the lower slopes of Langcleuch Rig and along to the vehicle track.
Lowther in the distance
The vehicle track wound around giving impressive views of Cold Moss and Lowther Hill. Unfortunately the track crosses Potrenick Burn at a ford. I took the ford challenge and was defeated having applied insufficient correction for the refractive index of water. Had the burn been fuller I would have made my way further upstream to the farm buildings where there is (certainly used to be) a bridge.
I saw several brown rabbits amongst the undergrowth of Riccart Cleuch. Terry Marsh in On foot in Southern Scotland describes rabbits exploding from the heather here so I was not completely surprised when something erupted out of the grass beside me as I walked along the farm track. But it was another white coated hare that then ran up the northern slopes of Laght Hill.
This track leads back to Overfingland but passes a couple of ”Private No Public Right of Way” signs, one of which was 400m from the buildings which didn’t really reflect the spirit of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.