ANOTHER rough tramp in the Galloway hills and another fascinating walk through history.
The Rhinns of Kells ridge runs some 18 kilometres from Loch Doon in the north, terminating just above Clatteringshaws Loch to the south.
This is the land where Robert the Bruce hid out as a fugitive before launching a successful guerrilla campaign against the English.
The terrain is complex; long, undulating ridges which provide grand high-level panoramas, but the approaches are tough, through deep vegetation, hidden rock and burns, and often interminable bog.
I had long been interested in seeing the remains of the old lead mines and village at Woodhead, so I chose to start the hill circuit at a bridge just north of Carsphairn on the A713. The route starts gently along a tarmac road, then continues as a track leading past the farm at Garryhorn and then up to the mines, a total distance of about 5km.
As you walk past the farm buildings it's hard to imagine that during the 18thCentury Garryhorn was the headquarters for Robert Grierson of Lag, a loyalist to the Stuart king Charles II, whose dragoons were notorious for hunting down and killing Covenanters.
The man known as Cruel Lag was reputed to be in league with the devil, and it's said that during his funeral parade, a raven perched on his coffin, only flying away at the moment of his burial. Legend grew around his ferocity. One story told how a chariot descended during a thunderstorm and swept his soul to Hell, others that his saliva burned holes where it fell and that his feet could make cold water boil.
Further on, the track turns a corner to reveal the remains of numerous buildings. It's always moving to walk through the ruins of a what would once have been a vibrant community. The mine opened in 1839, and during its heyday there were around 50 houses, a school, a library, and a population of nearly 300. But production had stopped by 1873, the miners and their families moved away and the village went into decline. The last house was vacated in 1954.
One of the few buildings left partially standing is the school, which had two teachers and 49 pupils, although children as young as 11 were often employed as lead washers at the mine. The youngest miner was just 12. The remains of some of the chimneys and smelters are also in evidence, and while the mine shafts have mostly been filled in, care is still needed if you intend exploring. Either that, or see if Skippy is free – the bush kangaroo's mine shaft rescue expertise could be invaluable.
The initial ascent to the ridge suggests tough going, but look carefully and you will see an atv track rising ahead. It's not easy to spot but just forget trying to find the start and take the plunge after passing through a gate in a wall and you will soon find it. The grassy trail leads directly to the top of Corran of Portmark and a fabulous vista taking in the length of Loch Doon. The next couple of hours is straightforward, a gentle walk across the tops of Bow and Meaul and finally to Carlin's Cairn, with grand views across to the Merrick range accompanying you all the way.
There is said to be a memorial on the northern flank of Meaul, a single, standing stone with a plaque to commemorate Covenanter John Dempster, who was shot in 1685 by Lag's riders, but I had no luck finding it.
There's no mistaking the summit of Carlin's Cairn, though, a massive pile of rocks which provides a sheltered lunch spot. Legend has it that the building of this cairn was attributed to the wife of the miller at nearby Polmaddy Mill – the miller was the carle, his wife the carlin – who had offered assistance to the fugitive Bruce. In return, she was granted land in Polmaddy. The Corbett, Corserine, sits across the col known as the Riders' Gap. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the thunder of hooves as Lag's men chased down another fugitive.
Reading the descriptions and having recent experiences of Galloway descents, I hadn't been looking forward to the final drop from Cairnsgarroch, but apart from some careful treading through deep grass over uneven ground, there was no problem.
The same couldn't be said for the next stretch back to the mines. I put my best tightrope walking skills to the test on a bridge consisting of two rusty girders, then waded through deep undergrowth by a stone wall to reach the ruins, always on the alert for hidden drops.
The setting sun provided a poignant finale through the standing wall of the old school, a reminder of the light that had faded on these lives here many years ago.