There have been several false starts to spring here in Galloway. The weekend before last temperatures were in double celsius figures and there was a 1cm gap of bare leg between the top of my bike socks and the bottom of the knee warmers. Once only as since then temperatures dropped and we bought in more logs for evening fires and again we are dressing for a cold ride of just above freezing.
Still there are signs of Galloway tilting more towards the warmth of the sun. Daylight is stretching out beyond 6, and Jackdaws are searching every unguarded chimney pot. A winter storm may have taken the cowling away and in a couple of days you can have a dozen bin bags of sticks choking your fireplace and a fire refusing to draw and your house filled with thick smoke. Out working on the bikes and twice in an afternoon I hear a bee close by. I can tell from the sound it is big and heavy, the first and second of the year and they will both be large and very hairy female solitary bees. We end a morning ride with a quick forage of wild garlic, so despite the forecast for snow this weekend it is now SPRING and there are reports of frog spawn and Sand Martins.
There is no longer the rush to ride in that thin slither of light between dawn and dusk that limits winter rides to 6 hours. I remember a ride from last autumn beyond Clatteringshaws and an inviting left turn that headed away down the River Dee glen before it turned to the north on off our home patch into the high moors of the Galloway Forest. I looked it up on Bing Maps and made a note in ridewithgps of a possible track we could take. It looked like a wonderful route and gave access to the area under southern Scotland’s highest mountain – Merrick. It appeared to come to a dead end after 6 miles or so with a 600 meter gap until a track linked to the north. If you could close the loop it looked like I could make a world beating gravel day ride of 56 miles linking the lochs and hills of The Rhinns of Kells and Glentrool before turning for home. There were rumours of a way through and some even claimed you could drive through with a car. It was certainly worth a look.
We set off from the southern end of the Raiders Road with the Garmin telling me it was 1’c in the shadows. It was going to be a steady climb of 20 miles with enough workload to make you overheat and have frostnip fingers at one and the same time. Not a soul around and possibly just a handful of people for dozens of miles in every direction. Birdsong the sound of burns full of storm waters and the sound of two riders on gravel bikes with wide tyres cutting into the loose track and climbing the Raiders Road.
Around the end of Clatteringshaws Loch on NR7 and we headed for Glentrool but take the southern upland way crossing of the River Dee – a point we could have missed as all the trees are now – GONE, but were kept on route by the Garmin. Over the bridge – where we had 11 o’clock second breakfast before turning left and entering new landscapes for us.
We rode along the Brishie Burn for a few miles with astonishing views ahead and off to the left. Snow, not much of it but enough to give a feeling of epic and Oregon but without the carbon footprint dump of getting there.
Ahead and just off the track to the left there is a white building. The lonely shepherd’s house of Backhill of Bush was one of the remotest cottages in southern Scotland, being 6 miles from the nearest road. Few places in Scotland are more remote. Everything had to be carried in and out, despite this it was occupied up until around 1949. There are many tales, some more reliable than others but one of the former was of a pony that carried supplies to the cottage. He would be led part of the way and then left to find his own way towards Dalry with a shopping list. A shepherd would buy the provisions and then pack the ponies bags and turn it for home. Bigger trips required the pony to pull a sledge over the high moors from Dalry.
Another story goes, that during the 1930’s there was a Shepherd and his wife who lived there with their toddler. One day the child came rushing into the house screaming with terror that there was a ‘big beastie’ coming up the burn. The big beastie turned out to be another human being! To this child in this remote location, there was only his mum and dad in his universe.
Yet another story was told to me by a forester and told before that by an even older forester, Robbie to him. Once a shepherd’s wife died at the Backhill of the Bush and she was taken by coffin to the Forrest estate by horse sled . As it was crossing over the 2000ft ridge of the Kells range it was caught in a blizzard and the sledge and coffin had to be abandoned for the people to get off the hill quickly. It was a very cold winter that year and it was early spring before the coffin and body was recovered.
And a final story from the same source is about an Ayrshire ceilidh band. They walked to the Back Hill of the Bush in the 1930’s to play a wee gig! A good number of Galloway shepherds , from all over were invited to attend. Each shepherd would have two or three working collie dogs with them. Robbie told me it was quite a site to witness – as the all male ceilidh went on there was a collection of over thirty dogs patiently waiting outside…
The cottage is now a bothy under the care of Forestry Scotland and suffers more than a bit of equal measures neglect and misuse. This is one of the darkest skies in the UK and a night here under a clear sky must be a thing to witness. We continued along the track a short way to check the route for a future loop ride. Today the miles back to the car were quite enough for winter legs, but it had been a magical ride with so much to see in just 42 miles of riding.