Walking The Watershed/Ribbon of Wildness

Earlier this year while walking over Blackhill to Forrestburn something occurred to me that hadn’t when I had walked here before. As I walked down from Torrance I was aware that one panorama had been replaced by another, the view of Glasgow and out towards Arran was gone, only the view east towards the Lothians remained. I also realised that all the watercourses on this side of the hill flowed east, and those on the other side, the Roughrigg side, flowed west. I had crossed a watershed.

What I didn’t know was that I had crossed THE watershed. From the borders of Scotland to the north coast there is a continuous line from which water runs off, but not across. I filed this information away, and it stayed hidden until while in Airdrie Library I noticed a new book, Ribbon of Wildness, by Peter Wright, in which he maps out the watershed. I took it home and began to read and I found it quite interesting. Walks on Lowther Hill, Ben Alder, and the South Glen Shiel Ridge were all joined by this thin green line, part of which I can see from my window. Peter charts the route from Pell Fell on the Border to Duncansby Head on the north east coast, breaking it into five sections or ‘Marches’. The book itself is of the guide book variety, and covers a wide range of subject matter, from conservation and hill farming, to historical events along the route. The book has a section of colour photos, supplemented by black and white photos throughout. Sadly these let the book down, many come across as dark mush (Loch Laggan on p153 for example) and add nothing to the book, rather they detract from it. Another detraction is the repetitive listing of organisations responsible for areas along the route, which, for a book concerned with a watershed, interrupt the flow. That’s not to say it’s badly written, and as a guidebook it does what it is supposed to.

Ribbon of Wildness/ Walking the Watershed


I wasn’t aware of the controversy which surrounded the book, becoming aware of it on the Scottish Hills website, where it was mentioned that Peter had claimed in his book that he was the first to map this feature. Dave Hewitt, the author of the book, Walking The Watershed, then joined in with some very interesting revelations. Dave carried out his watershed walk in 1986, twenty years before Peter’s attempt.  Dave’s watershed starts at Peel Fell and ends on the North West coast at Cape Wrath. His book differs from Peter’s in that it is more personal, less facts and figures, more feeling.  It also feels like snapshot of life at the time, where he talks of his stay at Palacerigg Country Park, with it’s wolves and wildcats, all now sadly gone, the park a shadow of its former self. Mentions of shopping at ‘Presto’s’ and the elections of the time reinforce this, but that doesn’t mean it has dated otherwise. Although Dave makes reference to his camera often, there are no photographs; instead the book is illustrated by Chris Tyler, who will instantly be familiar to anyone who has read The Angry Corrie hillzine. Rather than show photos from the authors viewpoint, he shows incidents involving the author, and they fit in well with the overall feel of the book. In fact it’s the probably the lack of photographs which has helped make the book seem fresh and undated, as there are no constant reminders of how we used to dress back in the day. From beginning to end it’s a very enjoyable read, and you can do so online HERE if you can’t get hold of a copy.

Peters book does mention Dave’s effort, although it pretty much a quick reference, stating that Dave chose ‘the other (and by implication I suppose wrong) watershed, before stating his case for ‘his’ watershed, and then concentrating on that. Fair enough. However, by reading some of Peter’s posts on the thread on this thread on Grough it does become apparent that he was aware of Malcolm Wylie’s compleation as far back as 2007. To then publish the book in 2010 and still to claim to the first to map it/walk it, etc is pretty poor, and his subsequent comments appear to bear that view out. Peter also makes much of his use of the “Map Room of the National Library of Scotland, the Royal Geographic Society, Royal Scottish Geographic Society, and sundry geographic academics” in plotting the watershed. Considering Malcolm Wylie walked the same route five years before using I presume OS mapping, I’d say that was an even greater accomplishment.

I was very interested to see how both authors dealt with the part of the watershed which skirts by Airdrie. Trying to plot the local section of the watershed on an OS map almost had me tearing my hair out, so both Peter and Dave have my respect for having the temperament to do so for the whole of Scotland. Pages 104 to 106 of Ribbon of Wildness mention some local walks I’m familiar with, while Walking The Watershed does likewise on pages 53 to 55.

In this area the watershed crosses the Cant Hills, Duntilland Hill and Blackhill, which Dave’s inventory shows that he misses completely, citing mine workings and farmland in his honestly named excuses section, although he does list Stanrigg as done. Much has changed there since 1986, the old railway lines, houses and roads gone forever when the area became an opencast mine, that now gone as well.

Both books are worth reading, the former more so as a reference, the latter as an enjoyable easy going read, but after reading both the question remains unanswered: Which watershed is correct? Having a north west and a north east coast is problematic. Both authors agree that up to a point (Carn Dearg in Sutherland), the watershed is one line, wider or narrower at points, but one all the same. From here there is a definite split, one towards either coast, and both correct, dependant on how you define the finish. I fall into Dave Hewitts camp on a western finish, as to see this line heading north and then to veer sharply off to the east just seems so…untidy. Another reason is that he did so first, unswayed by anyone elses previous attempts. I do wonder if Peter justifies his route as correct precisely because Dave had already done the route to Cape Wrath. After all, few remember the second man on the moon, do they?

Anyway, it now seems to me that Scotland has a Y-shaped watershed, has anyone walked that?