The Angry Corrie 2: Jul-Aug 1991
Out and About: Windlestraw in winter
A hard day on the highest Moorfoot
Distance 13k/8 miles. Ascent 520m/1750'. O.S. Sheet 73.
The familiar drive over the Lanarkshire backroads, through Carluke and Carnwath to the broad waters of the Tweed, was a scenic delight on what was to prove the only really fine morning of an exceptionally stormy February. There was snow down to roadlevel (the car ended up looking as if it had been airbrushed with salt), and the great moment near the main east/west watershed - when Pentland, Moorfoot and Manor hills simultaneously burst into view over a rise - was absolutely stunning in the bright sunlight. Fears of black ice in the more sheltered spots never materialised, the only problem being the more manageable one of sunglare off the damp roads.
I had left home with hopes of completing the round of the four western Moorfoot Donalds (i.e. those tops above 2000': Whitehope Law, Blackhope Scar, Bowbeat Hill and Dundreich), but with the morning sun blazing down after a week of intense gales and heavy snowfall, it soon became apparent that the going would be far too soft to allow such an ambitious venture: the round required a dozen or more kilometres on the plateau alone. So instead, after a break in Peebles to study the map, I drove along the Tweed a little way, through the small milltown of Innerleithen (how some of these Tweeddale towns resemble the Derbyshire Peak!), before leaving the car at the western end of Whatstandwell-like Walkerburn.
Soon after midday I set off up the village's eponymous glen, both sides of which were planted in advance of what the map suggested. The forestry track continued a little way beyond the roofless-but-walled ruin of Priesthope - not that the former, being submerged under several inches of soft snow, was any more conducive to walking than would have been the latter to providing shelter, had such a thing been necessary.
The day's new objective, Windlestraw Law - by 8m the highest of the Moorfoots - filled the head of the glen with its outliers. With the going down below far too heavy to be sustainable, I angled upwards, quite steeply and with an eye to avalanche cracklines, onto the western flank of Scawd Law in the hope of making more energy-efficient progress. There was no real improvement however, with the drifts banked deeply even here, and although use of a ski-pole helped a little, the slog onto the plateau-cum-ridge was strenuous and sweaty.
Once on top, I was in a very different world from that down in the glen. There, despite the lying snow, conditions had almost been mild, with minimal wind and the constant, springlike gurgle of the burn eroding its way through the snowbanks. Here, at 500m, the wind ripped across from the west at forty to fifty knots, the temperature was on or about the freezing level, and - most wintery and awkward of all - a wall of spindrift was blowing across the hill at between ankle- and waist-height. Given that conditions were clearblue overhead, with the whole country basking snowily under sunlight, it was extraordinarily difficult to see where I was going.
Some help materialised in the form of a slightly less snowed-over track stretching along the ridge, north-south, beside a line of fenceposts. This appeared to be an extension of the one servicing the unmarked trees on Cairn Hill (which also carried some kind of radiomast), but in the conditions it was impossible to tell whether it was a genuine, made track or merely a set of deeply engrained tyremarks. Either way, the cross-buffeting of the gale meant that it was far from easy to stay balanced on what suddenly felt like a two-metre-wide tightrope. Losing balance and wobbling off meant toppling into the yawning void of the drifts.
There was an almost perverse pleasure in pressing on into the face of the spindrifty gale. Even the occasional rests were cowering affairs: back to the wind, squat on rucksack, feel the windblown snow wheedle its way up inside my cagoule. I pulled on leggings for extra warmth; walking through the spindrift was like walking through the bottom half of a whiteout: a sawn-off storm.
Large clusters of grouse (a sure sign of deep winter: in other seasons they are non-communal creatures) repeatedly rose from drift-filled hollows to fly off into the wind - a feat which amazed with the sheer power-to-weight ratio necessary for its achievement. Mountain hares too - waiting, waiting until the last possible moment, relying on their camouflage, then whooomph! - off across the snowfields at a pace I could only marvel at. In contrast, I must have been reduced to one mph, or less; who says Donaldbagging is easy?
Eventually a ramp-like slope led onto the southwestern, 654m top of Windlestraw, where there was a cairn, a junction of fences and a well deserved rest. The view - or as much of it as I could see through the blast of snowflakes - was so uniformly white as to be, dare I say it?, monotonous. Only the three paps of the Eildons showed any real strength of character, glinting like iced cakes above the lower reaches of the Tweed. To the northwest, the Pentlands stood sharp and monumental, looking for all the world like one of the great westcoast ridge systems.
The main top of Windlestraw lay lkm further on but only 5m higher, and, apart from a groughy section at the dip, gave considerably easier going than had the rest of the ascent. All the same, 2 hours 35 minutes had elapsed overall before I flopped down at the battered old trigpoint for my jam piece, date-and-walnut biscuit and carton of orangejuice.
Downhill was a different story altogether. I cut the corner southwards to pick up the fence leading off the Seathope Rig spur, then, by angling down rightwards to the trees and unmarked track above Caberstongrains, regained the glens within twenty minutes. Once out of the rasping wind it was spring again; the effect was invigorating, like that of returning home after a long period away. There was the proverbial skip in my step as I passed the locked holidayhome cottage of Seathope and joined the main track leading down beside the Gatehopeknowe Burn.
The final section of actual hill descent had been spent watching a farmer round up some sheep by whistling his dogs onto them from a landrover. Now he caught me just below Seathope and offered a lift down the glen - which I gladly accepted despite the sudden joie-de-vivre of my surroundings: snowburn melting into greenness, birds flitting and darting low over the banks.
The farmer proved an interesting character - Borders born and bred, and owner of his estate, Holylee, for the past six years. We discussed just how fertile this part of the country was in comparison to the lands further north - something increasingly apparent as we wound down to the wooded Tweed. His brother, also a farmer, worked a piece of land up in either Killin or Killearn - the accent was to0 thick for me to deduce which.
After paying my fare, so to speak, by opening and closing all the gates - and trying, unsuccessfully, to pat the two hardworking collies, Scott and Hope - I strolled the mile-and-a-half back along the bottom of the strath to Walkerburn, arriving just as the first of the evening's snowshowers bustled in. The drive back over the top was done with headlights on and the speed consciously kept down a gear.