"How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills, Far mark'd with the courses of clear winding rills;"
It is strange how some things happen. Without realising a course is set and at the time you don't even realise. A few weeks back Mark Roberts (@bckpckingNorth on twitter) tweeted a link to post about an over night walk he had gone on, up the Afton. Mark lives in North America. I had replied, asking him if a Scotsman or a Robert Burns fan had named the place? For those of you that don't know I'm an Ayrshireman and grew up in Cumnock not 6 miles from Glen Afton, an area of wild country on the edge of the Southern Uplands. Known by many throughout the world from Burn's song Flow Gently, Sweet Afton. Unknown to me or to Mark at that time he had planted a seed.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I had made plans to visit my parents. I hadn't given them a time of arrival, other than I would be down to see them. Yes, I would be there for dinner. Off I went. Heading for Cumnock. It's roughly an hour travelling time in the car from where I live now, East Kilbride. I got to Auchinleck and took the by-pass for Cumnock but instead of taking the exit for Cumnock at the next round about I continued on the rest of the by-pass for New Cumnock. I've got into that habit of carrying my basic kit in the boot of the car. Hoping for a chance like this, spur of the moment. I had time, the weather was dry but overcast. I didn't look like it was going to rain. The seed had sprouted. Glen Afton here I come.
Maybe I should probably point out Cumnock is actually Old Cumnock but is younger than New Cumnock? Still following me? At one point there was just Cumnock. A loose connection of ferm touns, tower houses and of course the church. Then in 1650 it was split into two parishes. Old Cumnock where the original church stood and New Cumnock where, yep you guessed it a new parish church was built. Doesn't make much sense but we've got loads of history that gets ignored in the books and it's not just all about Robert Burns. Wallace and The Bruce wandered here, hiding from or terrorising the English and there's more besides.
Anyway I'm on the road to New Cumnock. Passing the place I got married. In and out of New Cumnock and on to the road up Glen Afton. It's not a place to linger anymore. New Cumnock has turned into an empty, sad and desolate shell. Nearly everything in the main street is boarded up and closed. The church is smashed. The whole place is dejected. An air of loss. It is place of no hope or so it seems as you drive through. It's missing a heart and a soul. A ghost town. The pits have gone and all the industries that went with it. They've been gone along time and now it appears to be taking it's toll. The reaper has moved in. No jobs, no money. A sign of the times. Old Cumnock is fairing much better.
Passing by the Robert Burns memorial and the Glen Afton Caravan Park. It's single track road here with plenty of pot holes to swallow up your car. Lots of weaving and hoping that you don't meet another car. The passing places are few and far between. There's a dam at the head of glen now. I say that like it's something new. It's been there since the 30's and it has a car pack that you can use. That was my target. Park there and wander round the loch that has been created there. Spend some time in the 'ruins' of castle William, sitting on the Cloven Stone at Blackhill. Maybe round to the ruins at Montraw, now encased in trees. For some reason I pulled up short. A couple of miles short of the dam at Blackcraig Farm. I had a sudden urge to climb my old friend Blackcraig, the highest hill in Ayrshire. It had been a while. The farm has had new coat of paint since the last time. The only obvious indication that time has passed.
There was no-one else about that I could see but I still got changed behind the car door. This is turning into a habit. I headed up the road to the farm and skirted by the buildings and the little wood that forms a wind break around it to the beginning of an old road. Not a drovers road but an old cart road. It looks like that to me but I don't know for sure. I do know that it'll take you over the hills to Kirkconnell. It feels great to be walking here again. The weather was clearing; the clouds where getting patchier, sometimes the sun was poking through and catching the still dormant heather and grass. The hills looked golden in places. When the clouds parted the sky was blue and bright. Which means it wasn't raining, always a plus for the west of Scotland. In my head the plan had evolved from walking round Glen Afton and the loch to climbing up Blackcraig, was now sprouting arms and legs. I was starting to think; Blackcraig, Greenlorg, Blacklorg, down to the dam and back to the car. A favourite of old. A great walk.
My mind set and my route locked. I tightened the straps on my rucksack and continued on the old road. I love walking these forgotten ways. It feels to me like you've been let in on a secret that no-one else knows. Following a faint and over grown trail that's long since slipped from the world's conciseness. That you are standing in the footsteps of old, ancient people and if listen hard enough you can here the rustle of feet and clip clop of the hooves from the ghost's of the past. As the old road climbs following along side the Langlee Burn until it peters out. You cross over many rills, nameless springs and small burns that litter the hillsides of this glen. Flowing down to meet the sweet Afton and onwards to the river Nith and the sea at the Solway Firth.
It's not long before you feel like you are in the wilds here. There are now some intrusions into this with three wind farms that surround the the Afton. Hare Hill, McCrierick's Cairn and over the other side at Windy Standard. Men have always been in this landscape so are the turbines any more of an encroachment? Is it not just another way of announcing our presence here? Instead of cutting down trees or removing coal and peat, creating false forest we're planting great metal monuments to the power of the wind. It is scar on the landscape but no greater or worse that I have seen here. Whole hillsides removed and altered for the want of coal to power our lives. They may take away from the view but they also add something to it. Almost monolithic like standing stones of old. Sentinels watching over the hills, an army in waiting. However here, they don't take away completely the feeling of isolation and wildness. There are no longer any of the old sheilings up this high. Just the ruins and the sheep. The farmers only come up to gather the sheep in for winter and lambing. No one lives and works up here. Trying to scratch a living. They are all long gone. No one lives here.
I was to all intent and purposes on my own. A lonely walker but not feeling alone. I have history here. It is the land of my fathers. Born, raised and steeped in this very place. Places that are mine, where I belong. This is home. A poem by Sir Alexander Gray and strangely not Ayrshire's most famous son comes to mind.
"This is my country
The land that begat me.
These windy spaces
Are surely my own.
And those who here toil
In the sweat of their faces
Are flesh of my flesh
And bone of my bone."
The land belonged to me, there was nobody else to dispute the claim. Ayrshire was my kingdom. For all the soul-less and down at heel towns that Ayrshire has, it has these glorious wide open areas of magnificent beauty but I am biased and I fear a rant but I will spare you that.
Back on the road it appears that someone. Some national body is trying to open them up. Make it accessible. I'm all for that. Following the rutted old road ever upwards, ever higher. Marker posts have been put in place indicating a right of way, a walk to some place. These are new to me and I'm excited about this but also a little sad. Sad because if you know what to look for the markers are already there. Larger stones marking the edge of the road, larger stones again marking where the road turns but that too is obvious as it follows the contour of Laglass Hill. Most obvious of all, the cairns on the knowes. Stark against the horizon; shouting, this is the way. Maybe others are discovering what I already know and maybe they need it pointed out a little clearer. I've climbed to the top of the pass, stopping to touch each cairn. Thank you, you have led the way.
Galloway, an other old haunt is in front of me, Ayrshire ends not far from this spot. The Southern Uplands are rolling away in all directions as I stand on Quintin Knowe. No man's land or the disputed land if you like. Depends on how you want to translate the corrupted Gaelic, much like Hare Hill to my left. There's a wooden post here to, but for me it's not pointing the right way. It's pointing off to the summit of Blackcraig. Not my way, not yet. It wasn't where I was shown all those years ago. To me this is leading you the wrong way. Taking you an unnecessary and steep path to the top. I continue on the road for a bit. Why make it hard if you don't have to? There's a gate and a fence where once there was a dry staine dyke that runs over the top. That's where I turn for the top following the fence. The old ways die hard, you go with what you know.
There are fresh foot prints in front of me where the track has worn through to the peat. Not by the feet of man, the sheep also walk this way. Somebody else know the secrets. More likely anither local. Ayrshire to my right and Galloway to my left is I climb up the shoulder. There's more cairns on the top, three in total and then there's the trig pillar. I zig-zag my way across the large flat top to the first false summit to touch the cairn then I make my way back to the fence and the stile to carry on to-ing and fro-ing between the cairns to the top. Dodging the boggy bits until I get to the trig point. The clouds have blown in. It seems to be my lot. Clouds obscuring my views. They blew in when I touched the first cairn. Bringing the quiet peacefulness with them, expanding distance and compressing time but unlike Tinto I've been here on countless occasions. I know where I am. No doubts creeping into my head here.
I have arrived. I get squated down into the wind break at the pillar. On with the insulating layer as it's cold in the cloud and the wind now that I've stopped. Brew time. This time I don't have to worry about a solid brick of a chocolate bar, it wasn't that cold. Cold enough though. I have great view to home now that the cloud is moving off again. There is still a ceiling of the fluffy stuff but it's now higher than the two and half thousand feet that I'm sitting at. Ayrshire is spread before me like a large patch work blanket of earthy tones. Nothing is green yet, except for the pine forests and a few of the grazing fields. Even then their green is dulled by winters grip. The signs of spring are still few. Every now and then your blessed by a small explosion of snow drops or sprouting daffodils not quite come to flower. Everything else I see from my seat on top of the world is tones of yellow and brown. Patiently waiting for the suns warm spring caress rather than this cold and unloving winter glimpse that it gives just now.
Packed up and ready to continue. It's still a bit chilly so I keep on my insulated jacket. I make my way over another stile down the other side of Blackcraig making for Greenlorg Hill. Blacklorg Hill off in the background and little higher again. Here I can see Cairnsmore of Carsphairn in the distance. Another hill that I haven't stood on for a long time. The cloud hanging on his head. You can walk all the way to Cairnsmore but that's a longer walk and one for another day when I've better planned things. As usual, I'm not far off the top and the sun comes out. The clouds float way leaving large swathes of bright blue sky. No need to be insulated now. It feels warm in the sun when the wind is no longer blowing at my back. Off with the rucksack and I deposit my jacket in there and get the sack hitched back up. It's steep and no natural path or track as such. Follow the sheep, the fence or make your best guess. I opt for the yowes. They aren't as daft as they make out, especially in the high places. They can read contours better than I can.
Having followed the track down onto the bealach. It was time to climb up and on to Greenlorg Hill, which I find a bit strange as it's not much of a hill on its own. Before; back in the mists of time, there was just Lorg hill, Slope hill. Now we have Greenlorg the green slope that leads onto the Black slope, Blacklorg. Lorg meaning slope. It's not the only one to change. Over the other side of Blacklorg stands Meikledodd Hill; big hill hill, was once Montraw Hill, the boundary hill. Monadh being hill and airbhe meaning boundary. Again it depends on your translation of the corruption. There is still a burn by that name and an old ruined farm with that name too.
Looking up to where I was heading I was suddenly aware of movement. Just a flash. Something quick. I stopped and looked. Looked hard. You know that way where you screw up your nose and focus. I'm moving my head left to right and back. Working across the hill. I was positive something was out there, I began to think that maybe it was just the sun catching the hillside. A beam poking out lightening fast as the clouds move. Fleeting. Then I see it again, this time I'm locked in on it. A Roe deer flashes it's white erse at me. Not deliberately, I don't think. It's a small group. Three in total, two females and a young buck. Not much in the way of antlers. I haven't been spotted yet and the wind is blowing my scent away across the glen. The fawn coats melding them into the long tussocky grass perfectly. Perfectly, until they turn away from me and face up hill. I can see the whites, well not of their eyes.
I would love to get a good photograph but I don't have a long lens. Haven't got the money for that, yet. I only have my kit lens. A 18 mm to 55 mm. I'm going to have to get closer. Much closer. The deer hold the high ground. I can't get above them without them catching my scent. The stalk is on. Slowly and painstakingly I make my way down hill. They haven't caught sight of me yet. I keep checking. Furitive glances up hill. White bums bobbing. I drop down a few contours and I'm completely hidden from them as they are for me. Guess work now, how far I should walk along this contour before moving back up. I'm trying to judge my pace with they're movements. Tyring not make any sudden and unusual noises. Hoping I don't clink the walking poles together, hoping that any noise I do make is carried a way on the four winds.
I'm close. I can feel it. The alarm in my head is ringing. It's time to start moving up hill. I stab the poles into the ground and place my rucksack at the base of the two walking sticks. Down on my honches, I start a crouching walk up to the crest of the contour. I can't hear them but I know the deer are over there. Not two feet from the false summit I get down on my belly. I'm now crawling, slithering forward inch by inch like a snake. I'm there, the deer are there. We're all there. I can't get the camera round. Off like the green light had come down on a formula one start. I was too close. Not six feet from them. The deer had changed direction and moved downhill towards me. They must have changed direction when we couldn't see each other. I have never been that close to deer. Never. Playing it back in my mind it was slow motion stuff like a John Woo movie minus the white doves but still so fast. Incredibly fast. The nostrils flared and the deer turned tail and made light work of running in the long grass. Up and over Greenlorg in no time at all. I turned over and lay on my back looking at the blue sky and watching the clouds run over head. Thinking a longer lens might be the better answer.
The deer were gone and I had no chance of following them any further and no photographs to boot. To top it right off and stick some icing on the cake, I found myself trapped behind a new deer fence. More trees must be getting planted soon. FUCK. How did I manage to be on this side, the wrong side. I never saw the fence from up on the shoulder of Greenlorg. Too busy focusing on the deer. FUCK. Stupid. Much cursing of my own name. I'm not sure if your familiar with deer fencing but climbing over it where I stood was not an option. Therevery flimsy. There not meant to climbed over and I can guarantee there was no stile along it's length. I was well off the beaten track, so far in fact I was probably on another reservation. Off piste walking and deer stalking are us dot com. The high of the chase and low of the let down.
There's a lesson to be learnt. Somewhere. I'm lucky I know the lie of the land so being stuck here was not a problem. The problem was getting over the other side of the brand spanking new deer fence. I suppose I could have returned in the direction I had come from and try to find where the fence had started but I was closer to the road on this side. I followed the dyke round to the upper reaches of the Craig burn and found a turn in the fence where it headed down the other side of the water. A right angle. Ideal. The large corner post would more than take my weight and the wire was tighter here. I passed my poles through the fence and tossed my ruck sack over. I climbed the fence. No fancy commando rolls over the top wire. Didn't want to injure myself. I had been silly enough today already. The plan had changed again. I don't have the time to gain the height and head over Craigbraneoch Hill to catch the path round the dam and back to the car. I'll make for the road best as I can from this side.
Now I was on the correct side of the fence, skirting round the side of Craigbraneoch. Next obstacle was getting to the other side of the Craig burn. That wasn't difficult, in these upper reaches it's nothing more that a rill. I was having more difficulty with the massive ditches that have been scored into the hillside to drain the peaty soil and make the rigs for the trees to be planted. It was the good old short ass, legs not long enough problem. I stopped for a few minutes to get my breath back after all the pole vaulting I've been doing with my walking sticks. I looked down towards Afton Glen, the sun now on it's downward arc casting large shadows on my side of the glen. The sky is a crisp, sharp blue and the view down the Afton is superb. I also notice further above me that the rigs change direction and start to run top left to bottom right in a more or less horizontal fashion. A unexpected turn of luck. It's the way I want to be heading. I scramble up and jump across my last ditch. The rig is getting wider and wider when it becomes a very new scar in the hill. A new forestry road, hard packed with stone and I can see it leads all the way to Craig Farm. Craig Farm leads to the road and the road leads back to the car. Only a couple of miles of road walking. It was pleasant walk back to the car with my thoughts turning to visiting my parents and dinner. A fine end to a great day.