Grahams: Beinn a'Mhanaich
Date walked: 28/03/2022
Sub 2000s: Larriston Fell
Date walked: 11/09/2021
Time taken: 48 hours
I was in the proverbial position between a rock and a hard place and I was going to the hard place with great reluctance. Flashbacks of horrendous tussocks, waist-high clumps of heather interspersed with hidden boggy mires in hot humid conditions and threatening rumbles of thunder as I made an ungainly snail-like progress with heavy rucksack unbalancing me whenever I leant too far in one direction were all to vivid. Ian Crofton in his book "Walking the Border" describes the terrain between Scotch Knowe and Deadwater as “Even the level ground was barred by bollards of grass and reeds or clumps of deep heather or felled branches. Sometimes there was a mixture of all three.” He made similar slow progress to me 1.5 miles in 2.5 hours. For various reasons the rock was going to have to wait until late September or October and I had a few days to squeeze in the hard place, those few miles where the Scottish Watershed, having poked its nose over into England at Peel Fell, turns back into Scotland for a last 9 tussocky miles (14.5 km) before exiting for good at Hobbs Flow. A report of my last abortive attempt at this small section can be read here https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=103192. I have Dave Edgar to thank (or to curse) for revealing this part of the Watershed which is missed from all other accounts that I have read.
There are limited photos on this trip as I had to conserve my phone battery due to an issue with my power pack. I include a few from last year for illustrative purposes. Normally there is a soundtrack running through my head as I walk but on this occasion the batteries must have been flat there as well as none came although “Crossing the Border, Layin it on the Line, Crossing the Border.” could well have.
The forecast was favourable if a tad on the warm side as I caught the first bus of the day from Hawick. This friendly service is run by Telfords and is very useful for anyone wishing to start the Scottish Watershed from Newcastleton with just a few miles walk in. The alternative is to miss these miles and persuade a friend to drive all the way to Deadwater and walk to usual start at Peel Fell from there. I reminisced with my 2 fellow passengers about my last trip down to Newcastleton when one of the passengers jumped out to catch an escaped piglet. It turned out that the piglet rescuer was also on the bus today but no piglets re-enacted the escape and the journey passed without incident.
It is a toss-up between getting off the bus at Hermitage Bridge or Steel Road both equidistant and with similar height gain from the mast where I would re-join the Watershed. I was deposited at the Steel Road end and I think that this is the preferable route as it is a quieter road with better views. The first 4 kms are on road and then a further 4.5 km of forestry tracks and I was at the “roundabout” at the mast in time for an early lunch.
Mystery roundabout (related to RAF exercises apparently) by Seal54, on Flickr
This, I knew was the easy part. A couple of work vans and a forestry truck had passed me on the track and a brief conversation with a power worker was the last human contact for a couple of days. All too soon I had to leave the mast and attempt to find the ephemeral path to Larriston Fell. I was now on the Watershed but I had completed this section last year.
Looking over TP at Larriston Fell to Deadwater and Peel Fells. by Seal54, on Flickr
The path came and went and although very vague it was at least better than the surrounding terrain. Beyond the trig point I hit the fence and then a few posts in figured that I was now on new territory. The fence and vague path follows the ‘Shed route more or less for a little over 1 km then just past where the forestry used to abut the fence line it shoots off to the east and around the elbow of Rampy Sikes. To be a purist Watershedder, by rights I should have hopped over the fence and stayed on the highest ground but there lay tussock hell and I wasn’t going to lose the will to live for the sake of being a mere ½ km off the ‘Shed at the most. It also meant that I could top up my rapidly diminishing water supply from Rampy Sike. On my left I could make out the summits of the Watershed as it headed westwards from the Maiden Paps over Greatmoor Hill and Cauldcleugh Head to Tudhope Hill. The weather when I had crossed them in 2017 had been vicious with hail and wind, today was warm and sunny and I dared to hope I could do this.
Fresh Watershed ahead. Peel fell on left of fence in distance (Deadwater Fell in centre of photo) by Seal54, on Flickr
The view to the Watershed as it trends westwards by Seal54, on Flickr
View back to Larriston Fell by Seal54, on Flickr
The Watershed is over there. by Seal54, on Flickr
I finally “jumped” the fence just below Foulmire Heights trig point battling through 150m of reeds, grass and heather clumps. There may be a technique for this but I have yet to find an easy way of walking through the at times waist high vegetation, unable to see where to place my feet (invariably finding all manner of holes to trip me up), tangling my poles up with the vegetation but needing them for balance so reluctant to stow them and seriously doubting my mental state.
Making the trig point brought a sense of short lived triumph. I had been slow but I had made my minimum objective for the day and my legs still had some strength left for tackling tussocks.
Foulmire Trig Point, looking back to Larriston Fell by Seal54, on Flickr
Foulmire Trig Point. Watershed follows gap in the trees by Seal54, on Flickr
I have learnt in the years of my journey along the Watershed not to count the Watershed miles before they are done, the unknown terrain ahead can throw up all sorts of nasty surprises but so far (albeit less so the last 150 m) had been rough but I had made progress. Another 1/2 km of difficult terrain saw me through a firebreak in the forest, over another fence and onto not a path but a track and a grazed hillside with another good view of the Watershed. I could just make out the mast at Wigg Knowe and mouth watering memories of Macs home made parsnip and apple soup at Note o'er the Gate came flooding back.
Watershed ahead. by Seal54, on Flickr
I had collected a cloud of flies that descended on my sweaty brow. I couldn’t figure out whether these flies stuck with me all day or whether they acted in relays and constantly replenished with new individuals. I had also been more blessed with a breeze that cooled slightly as the day wore on. I felt that I deserved a bit of a break and whilst the flies feasted on me I feasted on oatcake, cheese plus apricots and a snicker bar and drank my fill. Just as I was about to start packing away, the flies multiplied 100 fold, perplexing me momentarily before I realised they weren’t flies but flying ants, crawling over and into everything including my rucksack, hair, sleeves. I could hardly see for them in my eyes so dug out my midge hat which gave a barrier of sorts. They didn’t bite but had descended like locusts, perhaps I had disturbed a nest or happened to be in a flight path but whatever I made haste to get out of their way. Once moving they disappeared as soon as they had arrived. At the time I thought it was fortuitous that I hadn’t disturbed a wasp nests but they weren’t the last swarm of insects that I encountered on this trip.
The track made the going easy around the edge of the plantation to Thorlieshope Pike and I could see the buildings of Deadwater (clue as to where the Watershed is hereabouts). The Border came up to near the Watershed just round the northernmost edge of the plantation and life might have been easier if I had headed down this but I was lulled by the easier grazed terrain so decided to stick with the Watershed, aiming to join a track from an old quarry that led through the barrier of a forestry plantation and out onto a disused railway line ½ km south of the Watershed. Unfortunately, the fencing that went along with the grazing proved problematic (rylock and barbed wire) to cross and I ended up following the easier option of tracks that took me through the fences and out to the railway track at Fairloans, ½ km north of the Watershed. I walked along the railway line to the Border and found these two signs (note the Scottish advice!)
Two contrasting signs. by Seal54, on Flickr
I was not about to return the way I had come, regardless of the advice (I don't think the intention was to sound unfriendly).
There was a strong path along the border line and over the minor road. This was marked on the 1:25,000 map as the Kielder Stane path. This goes close to the Summit of Peel Fell so I had high hopes despite the fact that on the map it disappears as it approaches Deadwater Rigg. Sure enough the same happened on the ground. My map showed a bridle path leading from Deadwater farm up to the plantation so I decided to follow that but it has long since been swallowed up. I was tiring by now, amongst rough ground with high vegetation and no suitable camping spot. The wind had dropped and the midges appeared on mass. I was willing to sell my soul and more for an easy path and there it was, not so far away across a bit of a dip (more like a deep gash holding the Deadwater Burn). I was off and struggled through the remaining rough ground and up a steep bank of brash before beginning to regret my rash decision particularly as it became clear that there was no obvious camp site amongst the brash. The one possible site was down by the very sheltered burn and I wanted every bit of breeze that was blowing. I was way off the Watershed and now could see what looked to be a track, back across the steep sided burn. No matter I found a small patch of relatively clear ground and settled down, midge hat in place for a disturbed nights’ sleep, waking up at times with sticks and branches attacking me. The midges gathered above me but by and large left me alone behind the midge hat.
Evening sky at camp site by Seal54, on Flickr
There was a heavy dew overnight so everything was damp but the day was full of promise. I was eager to be away before the temperature rose to unbearable. I packed up quickly having apricots and oats as a quick breakfast, I would have a proper breakfast at the top of Peel Fell. I figured that I would be quicker staying on the forestry track which would eventually bring me back to the Watershed at Rushy Knowe. This would take me almost 1 km off the Watershed but I was very persuasive in telling myself that this was alright as I could see it most of the time (evidence that I had surely sold my soul). I was to pay for this lack of commitment at Rushy Knowe when the track ended and there was no sign of any path along the side of the border fence. I could also see that if I had stayed on the west side of the Deadwater Burn the previous evening, I was not far from a forestry track that would have kept me much closer to the Watershed and been a shorter route. Too late now.
At Rushy Knowe I wasn’t tempted to go over the other side of the fence (probably a mistake) so I struggled up the clear felled area of brash barricades and tree stumps with lots of sweary words and grunts, stopping every few steps to check my progress and to see if I was any nearer the fell side above the tree plantation edge (no). All bad things have to come to an end and a gap in the wall beckoned me through and as if by magic out of nowhere a path appeared. Further up it had faded indicator signs, presumably the Kielder Stane Walk of old and maybe it still exists through the forest (and along the Watershed). Should I return one day and find this? NO! or at least not until the memory of this dies away. The path eased my journey to the summit of Peel Fell. Today the conditions were far better than on the last occasionI had been here at the start of my Watershed journey 4 ½ years ago on 18th March 2017. I did look remarkably cheerful then. poor deluded woman!
[Selfie at Peel Fell 18/03/2017 by Seal54, on Flickr
Sleeping bag draped cairn at Peel Fell by Seal54, on Flickr
Looking towards Deadwater Fell by Seal54, on Flickr
Back in 2017, I thought walking the whole ‘Shed would take me about 9-12 months (oh how deluded I was). For now, I had completed (well mainly) this 14.5 km rarely (hardly surprising) walked section of the Scottish Watershed. I looked on to Hartshorn Pike, the way on to the rest of the Watershed that would eventually lead to my current northerly position up in Assynt.
I now had just 11 km of similar terrain before reaching Carter Bar and the one bus-a-day to Jedburgh. Before then I was going to have an extended break in the beautiful, breezy sunshine. I strung my sleeping bag and bivvy bag from the fence post stuck in the cairn and made not one but 2 cups of coffee and ate more breakfast and lots of oatcakes, cheese and apricots. It was not midday, I felt relaxed. I had aimed to get the bus at the earliest on Thursday and this was still my plan. Even if the next 11 km were pathless and tussock ridden I could make that and if not there was always the bus on Friday.
My sleeping bag was well and truly aired and as I removed it and the bivvy bag I noticed a wasp crawling about the cairn, then another and another and then they started to stream out from under the stones. I grabbed both bags and retreated a few metres to my rucksack. The wasps left me alone but I couldn’t help wondering if I had summoned them by thinking of the perils of disturbing a wasp nest whilst out, miles from anywhere. I turned both bags inside out and made sure that no strays were hitching a ride. I packed up and left the wasps in peace. 50 metres down from the cairn I turned and looked back and saw a figure at the cairn, I hope they didn’t upset the wasps or vice versa but heard no screams as I headed down the border to the Kielder Stane.
The Kielder Stane by Seal54, on Flickr
I was concerned that the path would peter out beyond the Stane which was impressive so I decided not to investigate too much as I felt a need to press on. Sure enough although a faint path continued It disappeared when the Border followed the Black Needle burn. Perhaps I should have stayed high but I made the mistake of dropping down to the stream and struggled along for 300 m. I did climb out of it at one point but thick bracken drove me back down or rather I mis-stepped tumbled down head first sustaining a severe injury to my pride. Then I came across a rather fine pool, far more tempting than the Kielder stane. I swam from England to Scotland and back again a few times discovering grass-of-parnassus flowering on the bank. A (dark green) fritillary also made and appearance and memories of tussock trials and brash barricades faded.
swimming pool by Seal54, on Flickr
Thereafter I made reasonable progress over mixed terrain despite a newly constructed deer fence without a stile that had to be climbed. Maybe I was getting used to the tussocks but there was nothing too taxing and I reached the Trig Point at Carter Fell in the early evening. The bus from Carter Bar wasn’t until 15.23 the next day. I pondered that anyone strolling up Carter Fell on an evening’s jaunt for the sunset may not take too kindly to finding me ensconced in my bivvy bag but the summit was broad enough to take us all. Unfortunately, sunset views were obscured as a hill mist rolled in and stuck.
Back to deer fences by Seal54, on Flickr
Carter Fell Trig Point, looking back to Peel Fell by Seal54, on Flickr
Carter Fell Trig Point by Seal54, on Flickr
In the morning I discovered that I had managed to expose the top part of my sleeping bag which was sodden from the mist. I was hopeful that once the mist burnt off it would soon dry. Meanwhile I had a long leisurely breakfast in bed putting off getting up until the mist cleared. I read my book and waited… and waited …and waited. Eventually around 11 the mist appeared to be lifting and once or twice there were breaks in the cloud. I finally broke camp, tried to dry the sleeping bag a bit (at least I wouldn’t need it tonight). I set off from the summit with poor views, knowing that by the time I was down at Carter Bar the view would be great (it was). I made the bus in plenty of time only for it to sail past without pulling into the layby. I discovered later that it is (but not advertised as such) a request stop only. The people at the burger bar came to my rescue and called a taxi out from Jedburgh. £20 is a small price to pay especially as it got me to Jedburgh in time for the last bus back to Hawick and my van.
Border fence leading way down to Carter Bar. by Seal54, on Flickr
I then spent a gentle couple of days visiting trig points and having a beautiful late afternoon walk over the Eildons something that has been on my “to do” list for long enough. I stuck to paths and avoided insects whilst I looked back on those tough Watershed miles with a deal of satisfaction knowing that they are behind me. Now for the rock…
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- Pub: The Creel Inn Catterline
- Mountain: too many to name
- Place: My own home
- Gear: Pacerpoles
- Member: John Muir Trust
Scottish Wild Land Group
Friends of Knoydart Foundation
Association of Lighthouse Keepers
- Ideal day out: A walk, a scramble, a ridge and a dip
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