Travel

Walking the Southern Upland Way – our guide to this coast-to-coast footpath in southern Scotland

Southern Upland Way sign Melrose

There are hundreds of routes to follow across the UK, and some of the best and most popular are in Scotland. We've written previously about routes like the Coast & Castles, the Borders Abbeys Way, and the Kintyre 66 which are probably best explored on wheels, but in terms of walking routes in Scotland the absolute best is probably the Southern Upland Way. This epic 214-mile route was actually the first official coast to coast long distance foot-path in Scotland, and has remained a firm favourite with experienced walkers since it was established.

We wanted to publish a guide about this route for 2023 to highlight some of the top things to see and do along the way. There is plenty to visit so you'll definitely want to set aside time for some sightseeing! Let's get into the guide:

Where does the Southern Upland Way start and end?

FireShot Capture 1783 - Portpatrick to Cockburnspath TD13 5YG - Google Maps - www.google.com

The Southern Upland Way is a coast to coast route, and it literally takes you from one side of Scotland to the other. Typically, you start in the West and finish in the East (we'll explain why when we break down the sections individually), but you could tackle it any way you like. You can also dip in and out of the route as you like, there are no rules! The official route starts in Portpatrick on the southwest coast of Scotland and ends in Cockburnspath. You won't encounter any summits above 3000ft, but it is worth mentioning that there is plenty of hill walking along the route so this is something to consider before heading onto the route.

What sections are there?

Typically the route is split into the following 10 sections:

 

Portpatrick to Castle Kennedy - 13.5 miles (21.5 km)
Castle Kennedy to Bargrennan - 26.5 miles (43 km)
Bargrennan to St John's Town of Dalry - 26 miles (42 km)
St John's Town of Dalry to Sanquhar - 26 miles (42 km)
Sanquhar to Wanlockhead - 8 miles (13 km)
Wanlockhead to Beattock - 20 miles (33 km)
Beattock to St Mary's Loch - 21 miles (34 km)
St Mary's Loch to Traquair - 12 miles (19 km)
Traquair to Lauder - 27 miles (44 km)
Lauder to Cockburnspath - 32 miles (53 km)

As you can see, the sections are fairly even in length, however there are some shorter sections which are good for families who might like to walk part of the route rather than all of it.

What is there to see and do as you walk along the Southern Upland Way?

As you can imagine there is quite a lot to see and do within 214 miles, and you won't have time to stop at every interesting point along the route. However, we thought it would be worth including as many as possible in case you're deciding to tackle this route across a weekend and you are happy to take plenty of stops along the way. Let's take a look at each section:

Portpatrick to Castle Kennedy

This section is deliberately short to ease you into the route. From Portpatrick you walk along the coast which immediately provides you with stunning views out onto the North Channel, including views of Knock Bay and the coastal cliffs to the north. At Black Head, the route turns inland towards the outskirts of Stranraer and towards Castle Kennedy. Here you can visit Castle Kennedy Gardens, which is a stunning hidden treasure. Explore the 75 acres of beautiful gardens situated between 2 lochs, but as tempting as it'll be to wander around these gardens for hours try to keep in mind that you'll need to reserve some energy for the rest of the route!
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Castle Kennedy to Bargrennan

This is the first of the long sections, and is where things start to get serious. Typically ths section would be broken into 2 days with a night at New Luce (pictured). You'll notice that the route starts to head into less populated areas and passes through forestry as well as open moorland, which is why it is so important to be dressed appropriately and to be prepared for anything. New Luce is small but you've got a few accommodation options, obviously, we'd recommend booking well in advance so as to avoid any disasters.
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Bargrennan to St John’s Town of Dalry

If the last section was where things start to get serious, this section is where the wheat is sorted from the chaff. This section is long at 26 miles but what makes it really challenging is the remote country you walk through without any facilities. Obviously this also means that this section is very quiet and peaceful, and also features some of the best views of the entire route. You'll start the route along the River Cree and you then follow the river up the Minnoch and the Trool until it reaches Loch Trool. The path then heads up onto the hills where you'll get those amazing views of the Southern Uplands. The path then heads down past Loch Dee and back into forest area past the White Laggan Bothy (pictured). You then head towards Clatteringshaws Loch and then back up the hills for a bit before heading into St Johns Town of Dalry. Definitely a hilly section, but plenty of lovely views to enjoy.
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St John’s Town of Dalry to Sanquhar

This is another long stretch which is typically completed across 2 days. You'll head from St John’s Town of Dalry the Way towards Ardoch Hill and then up 580m towards the summit of Benbrack Hill. This might sound like the last thing you want to do after the previous hilly section, but the 360-degree panorama from the top is amazing and the best way to see the Galloway Hills. You then head down briefly into woodlands and to the Chalk Memorial Bothy at Polskeoch, before heading back up into the hills and into the Nith Valley and eventually, the town of Sanquhar. Sanquhar is a great place to explore as you've got plenty to see and do including Sanquhar Castle (pictured), and for any stamp enthusiasts seeing the oldest Post Office in the world is also a good bit of fun.
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Sanquhar to Wanlockhead

You've earned a shorter section, and luckily this is! Most people should expect to complete this section in half a day, which could give you the morning to explore Sanquhar a bit more (or at the very least enjoy a hearty breakfast at one of the great cafes). This also gives you time to look around the village of Wanlockhead, which has a very interesting museum of lead mining (pictured). The section is pretty straightforward, aside from a climb up the hills after the Black Loch. Cogshead just a little further on is a nice place to stop for a bite if you didn't have time in the morning. Overall, a gentler section but still not totally easy.
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Wanlockhead to Beattock

Hopefully you enjoyed the slower pace of the last section as this is another long and tricky section which should probably be spread out over 2 days. As you leave Wanlockhead you're immediately met with a steep climb up to the top of Lowther Hill, which is where you'll find the iconic and slightly odd-looking golf ball radar station (pictured). This is the highest point on the Southern Upland Way and offers amazing views of the surrounding countryside, so make sure you set aside time to take it in properly.  You then have a few descents and ascents before descending for a final time and crossing the Dalveen Pass. This takes you around Daer reservoir and then into Ae Forest, passing the Brattleburn Bothy on your way. As you leave Ae Forest you then head down into Beattock, which is just a village but does have some nice places to stay and places to eat including The Old Stables Inn.
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Beattock to St Mary’s Loch

This is another long and tricky section so you'll want to be well rested and fed. From Beattock you cross the motorway and then 3 rivers before climbing up into more forestry before heading onto the hills towards Ettrick Head. You then join a track which follows the Ettrick Water until Scabcleuch where it again heads up into the hills and heads towards St Mary’s Loch. It sounds pretty straightforward but it is fairly remote and the terrain is mixed so definitely be prepared for a tough slog.
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St Marys Loch to Traquair

This is another shorter section which is a welcome bit of relief after the intense last few sections. The best part of this section is that it can be completed by most in about half a day which gives plenty of time to explore Traquair where there is plenty to see and do (including Traquair House, pictured). If you've made really good time then you could head further along and into Innerleithen which is als good for visiting. The section does involve some hills and takes you down into the Tweed valley, but after that part it is just a minor road into Traquair. If you wish to head towards Innerleithen it is just an extra 1.5 miles walk or a bus journey.
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Traquair to Lauder

This long section is typically split into 2 days with a stop at Galashiels or Melrose, which gives you time to look around these historic towns. We'd probably choose Melrose as you can explore the stunning Melrose Abbey and amazing Abbotsford. From Traquair you follow the route up onto the Minchmoor ridge which descends into the tweed through Yair forest (pictured).  From here there is another climb over the hill to Galashiels and then on along the Tweed to Melrose. After you cross the Tweed again you then have a slow climb onto a long low ridge before dropping into Lauder.
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Lauder to Cockburnspath

The longest section of the Southern Upland Way is right at the end, which is a little bit cruel but it is quite an epic way to finish! Again, you'd normally split this into 2 days with a stop at Longformacus. The first part of this section is quite hilly with a winding walk through the Lammermuir hills. However, compared to some of the hills you will have tackled on the route so far these are pretty tame. Once you're out of Longformacus the route takes you through farmland towards the coast before heading into Cockburnspath, and the end of the route. Dunbar is only a few miles along the road - we've written previously about what a great beach Whitesands Beach is to visit, so that could be a great place to grab a well-earned beer by the sea.
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What should you be aware of before heading along the Southern Upland Way?

As you can probably tell, this 214-mile route is by no means straightforward and should be taken very seriously. There are large stretches of the Southern Upland Way through unpopulated areas, and if something goes wrong you want to be prepared for the worst. Bring food and water, camping equipment such as a sleeping bag, and spare mobile phones as well as whistles and other emergency equipment. Always book your accommodation beforehand and let the hotels and B&Bs you're staying in know about your plans as they can contact the emergency services if you don't turn up in time for your booking. This is a hugely enjoyable and beautiful route, but also one to take seriously and be prepared for. If you want to make sure your health is in the best condition possible before following this route then we've published guides about a number of supplements that walkers may find useful, from greens powders to protein powders.
The route also takes you through some of the most midgie-dense areas of Scotland, so it's best to be prepared for that. It can be uncomfortable to wear a midgie mask while you walk, but you may want to take one with you if you are camping anywhere along the route. You should also bring a good insect repellent as well as a warming balm such as Deep Heat or Tiger Balm for any muscle aches.

What are the best things to see and do in Portpatrick?

The Southern Upland Way starts in Portpatrick, a lovely seaside village where you may wish to spend some time, as there are a few things worth seeing and doing. Here are some of the highlights:

Dunskey Castle

This castle is ruinous, but as you can see from the image, the setting on the cliff is very dramatic and makes for a stunning photograph. Built in the mid-16th century, Dunskey Castle belonged to the Adairs of Kinhilt but only lasted for around 100 years, and was left neglected after this. You can't actually get into the castle, but you can admire it from the outside, and of course, take plenty of photos. You can reach Dunskey Castle by following the coastal path from Portpatrick.
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Sandeel Bay Beach (Port Mora)

This sand & shingle beach near Portpatrick is a lovely and tranquil area to visit before you set off on the Southern Upland Way, particularly on a sunny day. If you have time to walk around the bay, you might stumble across the lovely little waterfall and some interesting caves.
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Grab a bite to eat

If you want to fuel up before you set off on the Southern Upland Way, you'll find a surprising amount of great places to grab a bite to eat in Portpatrick. The Port Pantry is excellent for a coffee and a filled sandwich or toastie, and the lunch at the Dunskey Golf Club is really great, plus you can enjoy amazing views while you eat.
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Hopefully, this guide has inspired you to tackle this epic route. We've also got guides about other cycle routes in Scotland, and routes in England like the Coast & Castles route, the Borders Abbey Way and the Exe Estuary Trail. We also have a guide about the very underrated Scottish Gallery Trail. Happy travels!

Finn is the editor of You Well and has been writing about travel, health, and more for over 10 years.

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