A number of years ago I became involved in the local access forum, a group which is composed of a combination of access officers, land users such as walkers, cyclists and anglers, and land owners. At one meeting somewhere long forgotten I heard of a proposed Five Lochs Trail, linking five large bodies of water east of Airdrie. These are the Black Loch, Forrestburn Reservoir, Hillend Reservoir, the Lilly Loch and Roughrigg Reservoir. There is an old saying that a committee is where good ideas are taken and quietly strangled, and for one reason or another that is what appears to have happened here. A combination of lack of money and will, combined with a touch of GOML (Get Off My Land) means it is unlikely we will see an official 5 Lochs Trail in the coming years. This niggled away at me until an article in a magazine article sparked a thought. Why not do my own trail?
I’ve walked, run or cycled over pretty much all the land in the area where such a trail would exist. The task was, how do I tie up a route which joins all these expanses of water together across a variety of terrains, and make it challenging enough, while avoiding roads where possible, not to mention old mine workings. I needn’t have worried. I drew the line, the ground provided the challenge. All in all the route measures 33km (20.5 miles) has 397m (1300ft) of ascent and for somewhere sandwiched between two major east to west transport arteries, the M8 motorway and the Helensburgh to Edinburgh railway line, only around 1800m of road walking.
The question was, where to start? As a circular route there were any number of points just off the route that linked in to public transport, where you could start and finish. The route could be started from North Lanarkshire at Caldercruix by train or bus, and from Salsburgh by bus. From West Lothian it can be reached by train or bus from Blackridge, and from the Falkirk District it can be reached by bus to Limerigg. I chose to start at Salsburgh. I could reach it easily by bus, only a short drive from Airdrie, plus it had the added advantage of a pub at the end of the walk…
It was a frosty and clear February morning when I got off the bus outside the Lay-By pub, switched on the GPS to record the track, and set off, turning into Bogfoot Road and the track across the M8 motorway. Off to my right were Duntilland Crags, where I hoped to descend later in the day. How late though I wasn’t sure. I followed the right of way past the waterworks, the ground although churned up by farm machinery and plant working nearby, was solid with the early morning frost. The night had been clear and cold, and I hoped to use this to my advantage. In wet weather much of this route has the potential to be muddy or boggy, but on days like this it can freeze to a hard crust which gives enough support to see you clear of the worst parts.
Following the bed of a dismantled freight line I came to an old railway bridge, and crossed it, heading west towards Blackridge Farm. The frozen ground held for me, and as I cleared the treeline at the site of Drumbowie Farm I got my first glimpse of Roughrigg Reservoir.
Built in the 1840’s to supply drinking water to the local area and at the same time feed the Forth and Clyde Canal, it is now home home to anglers and wildlife. Instead of heading directly for the water, I set off past Blackridge Farm and it’s yelping dogs, all noise and no fury. I was now at the first stretch of road walking, Craigens Road. I walked past the “Deid Dug Quarry”, home to it’s enormous collection of sunken cars and monster truck tyres, not to mention monster carp and more pike than you can shake a spinning rod at. Turning into Roughrigg Road I couldn’t help but notice the newly dumped rubbish at the roadside. For an area which specialises in the transport and disposal of other peoples rubbish, North Lanarkshire can be filthy at times. I made a note to report it later and carried on, a small cat sprinted towards the few houses near the old waterworks as if to herald the arrival of a stranger in town…
Just past the waterworks I turned east, past the locked up car park of the Roughrigg Angling Club, and along a track to a water filled quarry where I rested a few minutes before following the disused Dunsiston branch railway bed around the loch, scattering thrushes and lapwings as I went. I diverted down off the track to the waters edge, enjoying the silence of a close season angling water. Just me, the birds and the wind.
I rounded the loch and climbed up to the signpost at the junction of the old railway and track. The bridge here is long gone, filled in with rubble. I began to climb up towards Mountcow, and its abandoned farm. At the top of the hill I stopped to watch a kestrel dive into the grass, then rise to settle in a tree, unaware of my presence.
Then it flew off, and I turned and headed across the road, through a rickety gate to skirt around the perimeter of the original Blackhill Transmitter. The mast itself is 307m high, meaning the top of the mast is around 543m above sea level. It has recently been joined by another mast of a similar height, and broadcast digital TV signals across the central belt. Crossing the fence, I made my way to the trig point. There are some some stunning views to be had from here, the Pentlands, the Lowther Hills, Arran, Stirling Castle, the Wallace Monument, the Ochills, and Munros including Ben Lawers and Beinn Chonzie.
I made my way north, downhill past the remains of Mid Bracco farm dating from the early 1700’s, crossing it’s distinctive runrigs which are so visible in aerial photographs of the area. It must have been a cold and difficult place to live for much of the year. Near here is is also one of two spots on this entire walk where you can see three of the five bodies of water at the one time.
I passed over Alice Hill, following the track to the old coach road to skirt round the wall of gorse which defends Drumfin Hill. A long time ago it was perhaps Roman soldiers who defended it, a hoard of their coins found in 1842 and now residing in the National Museum of Scotland are perhaps the only sign they passed this way. I carried on ‘roamin’ down to the Lilly Loch. A natural loch, it was expanded to supply water to the local area and its neighbour Hillend Reservoir, which in turn fed the Forth and Clyde Canal. I could carry on over the weir, the loch having been reached and technically ticked off, but that wouldn’t sit right with me. Even though I have walked round here countless times it’s always worth another circuit, so I set off around the loch, to the warning cries of the Canada geese who visit here each winter. There was only one other visitor to the loch, a poacher who took umbrage at being informed the loch was closed. Further along the loch trees had been torn down and the rocks from the dam pulled away to form crude campfires, beer cans and discarded gear a sure sign that the loch was being poached by out of season ‘anglers’, a term I apply to them only loosely.
The north side of the loch is subject to rockfall, fresh dark soil and scattered rocks were evident. A few years ago there was a serious disturbance to the rock above, with a gap appearing suggesting a slip of around 6 to 8 feet. This led British Waterways (as it was, now Scottish Canals) to lower the water level of the loch in anticipation of a serious slip which would create a tsunami type wave, destroying the dam in the process. I sometimes think it safer to pass along the top of the hill, above the fault line. In any case, I didn’t dally there, and headed over the hill on the right of way to the Owl and Trout pub to stock up on snacks and water. The beer would have to wait…
From the Owl and Trout I followed the footpath over the new railway line and along the western dam back of Hillend Reservoir. Airdrie Yachting Club has its club hut here, and you can walk out on the jetty which I helped construct with the local unit of the Royal Engineers many years ago and which I’m pleased to say is still standing. Looking up the loch the railway line heads east, and at the far end is the club hut of Airdrie Angling Club, which sits on the NCN 75 cycle path, and can be a handy stopping point if you choose to walk the southern shore. Instead, I dropped down to cross the bridge over the outflow which would bring me onto the north side of the loch. At this point disaster struck, as I realised I had lost my map case. There were two locations this could have happened, and I quickly ruled out the Owl & Trout with a phone call. That meant I’d left it at the Lilly Loch. Having GPS mapping on a small screen I was ale to carry on as I knew most of the route well, and there was only a small section I was unfamiliar with. It would be a bit more difficult as you don’t get the big picture, but as long as my batteries held out I’d be fine.
One thing I didn’t expect to find was a fully decorated Christmas tree! It certainly looked better than the tatty one erected in Airdrie Town Centre the previous year. I continued along the shoreline which showed evidence of off road motorcyclists, past Spiers Island. This was possibly named after one of the people involved in creating the reservoir. Completed in 1799, at the the time it was the largest man made reservoir in the world, and was used to feed the Forth & Clyde, and Monklands canals. I believe if the water is low enough you can walk out to it, though I’ve never managed to do so.
I passed through the angling club’s south shore car park, before wriggling under the fence and leaving the shoreline to cross the open field towards where the track goes through the trees at Shields Wood. Ideally I’d have stuck to the shoreline to Whitehill Woods and then the imposing remains of Auchengray House, but a combination of boggy ground and reports of unwelcoming landowners led me to drop this from the circuit. Instead I pass through Shields Farm and it’s collection of old vehicles. Farm yards are excluded from the Scottish Outdoor Access code, which open up the question of how to pass through. In general if someone is around I’ll ask if it’s ok to pass through. If they say no you can always bypass the farm, but it may involve lengthy detours and fence climbing. If there’s no one around and it’s safe to do so I’ll pass through as quickly and as quietly as possible. I’ve passed through here before, and as the track is a through rather than a terminating one, I’ve never had any trouble, and I’m soon on Forrestfield Road, passing trees bent and twisted by the wind which scours this part of the land.
Off to my right is a distinctive bing, the remains of Lochend Colliery and surprisingly the second place on the walk where you can see 3 of the 5 lochs from, albeit you have to turn round. I made my way along the old track, sending a small flock of sheep off over the other side of the bing as I ascended. It’s steep and requires four points of contact, so I drag myself up and take in the view. The Black Loch, the fourth loch of the day lies ahead of me. Behind Hillend, and if you look carefully you can catch the light playing on a sliver of the Lilly Loch. I’m over halfway now, and the hardest ground is yet to come.
As I round the Black Loch I can see strange linear patterns in the frozen mud of dried up puddles. What made them? The answer is soon revealed, as I am confronted with a pair of Canada geese, sounding out a loud warning of my approach, before launching into flight and settling safely out of reach on the water. I’m once more on the great Watershed of Scotland, shadowing the North Calder Water from it’s birthplace. Surprisingly the land next to the burn looks fairly flat, while that higher up is tussocky and difficult. It’s also here that I lose my footing and twist my knee rather painfully. I hobble on past the remains of an old farm, before scrambling around in my bag for an anti-inflammatory tablet which was lurking there. It would have to do, but the next seven or so miles were going to be pretty painful.
I had passed this next section only once before. From Easter Whin farm I had attempted to follow the path marked on the map leading to Drumtassie Burn and on to Drumbeg. The farmer hadn’t objected although she told me no-one had gone that way in years. As I found myself sinking up to my chest I soon realised why…
This time I decided to stick to the treeline and cross at the narrowest point, a tactic which was successful. With only a burn and a ditch to cross it was manageable, although the assistance of walking poles was required for the first time, and my concerns that the route would founder here were unwarranted. I passed quickly through Drumbeg, and over the gate to the track through Bedlormie.
Bedlormie House dates from 17th Century and us rumoured to have played host to none other than Charles Edward Stuart. I ‘m not royalty though, and it was here I found the only “GOML” of the walk. Having waved to the lady at Bedlormie House and passed through, I was called back by another lady who informed me this was a private road and asked where had I come from. She was knocked back to hear of my route, and instead wished me a good trip! As the track through here passes three properties, and breaches the curtilage of none, its arguable whether it can be accessed under the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Normally I could call on the local authority access officer to adjudicate on this. Sadly this is not currently an option, as West Lothian have ditched the post due to budget cuts. For the moment the answer remains, like the rumoured secret tunnels here, a mystery. Bedlormie can be easily bypassed, but it seems a shame not to see this ancient house and the windpump just down the track.
I crossed the A89 to the run down but somehow picturesque remains at Entryfoot and made my way over the railway bridge, before negotiating the chewed up remains of one of the construction sites for the railway and on to the track through Baads farms. As the name suggests, there are sheep aplenty!
From Baads and it’s stables, its a quick pull up to the remains of Bridgehill, with it’s East Berlin-esque high fences and razor wire. Inviting it is not. Instead I passed the cottage at the dam, and clambered up on to the dam, before making my way along the lochside. As you arrive at the trees you can either follow the shoreline along the edge of the wood or go along the north side of the woods. I thought the shoreline would be more in keeping with a 5 lochs walk, so the shore it was. Sadly the shore looked like the Monday after T in the park, cans, bottles, rubbish, old camping gear… I vowed not to use the shoreline next time.
Beyond the woods is the now disused race track, North Lanarkshire’s proposed answer to Brands Hatch which didn’t get off the starting grid. It does give a brief respite before the next section though. Crossing the road I headed uphill, Papperthill Crags glowing in the golden light, before finally arriving at the 274m summit of Forrestburn Hill. The view back the way I had come was amazing, and off in the distance, visible if you know where to look, is Arthur’s Seat, way off in the capital.
By now my knee was throbbing, and the next section was one of the most uncomfortable, and after a few hundred metres I had run out of swear words, and my teeth were tightly ground together. It was a relief when I passed by the mobile phone mast at Duntilland and made the final ascent of the day to the top of Duntilland Hill, site of the remains of a bronze age burial cairn.
Dun is an old word for fort, and I’ve often wondered just where a fort would have been located around here. I made my way down off the hill, and followed a line of beech trees, before making a beeline for the elevated water pipe at Salsburgh. But the route has one more surprise in store. Duntilland Loch, which would have made this a six loch trail, was drained as part of the work on the many railways which cross this area, and I have to cross an area of boggy ground which is all that remains of it,. It is pretty wet, and I skirted round to the eastern end where I could cross safely. In 1845 eight youngsters died in this loch, falling through the ice while out gathering heather for bedding, and it was widely reported back then in the national press. I left this last loch behind me, crossing the old Dewshill railway branch line to pick up the track at the waterworks, and hobbled back into the village.
I had covered the 33km (20.5 miles) in just over 8 hours and felt I deserved every drop of the chilled Newcastle Brown Ale in the Lay-By pub while I waited for my lift home. This may not be regarded as a classic route, but it is a surprisingly difficult one. Almost 21 miles on the outskirts of Airdrie may sound unimpressive to most people. I wonder how many would have the same impression afterwards? Any takers?