Sunday, 20 April 2008

An Ettrick Adventure

Ettrickbridge spans the Ettrick Water - a whitewashed line of cottages running down to the bridge, a leap of water in a small dark gorge, and trees overhanging the rushing, stone-filled afterleap. David Steel, the first Presiding Officer of the new Scottish Parliament, lives here in a 500-year old house above the river - Aikwood Tower, won in game of cards against Walter Scott, the 9th Duke of Buccleuch. There's a small museum to James Hogg, known popularly as the Ettrick Shepherd, a poet contemporary with Walter Scott (the famous author - not the 9th Duke). Hogg was known for his poetry, but today, it is his novel Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner that excites: a psychological thriller written decades before the genre was invented, a study of manic religiosity unsurpassed in the English language.

And we have not yet even started on the hill!

The day's objective, Ettrick Pen, is a long way from Selkirk. These hills form the watershed, and the long tail of the Ettrick prods far into Dumfriesshire, a quirk of geography draining into the basin of the Tweed, despite lying west of Annan and Carlisle. I had wanted to visit these hills for a while, mainly to look into the full length of the Grey Mare's Tail waterfall across Moffatdale from Andrewhinney Hill. But the wind blew strong from the east, and Andrewhinny and Ettrick Pen were ambitious targets for the same day in a strong east wind.

We parked at the Ettrick roadend to rushing water, rushing wind, trees rolling like ocean waves. A windy day for Ettrick Pen! A man and his wean and their dug with a cosy fire in Over Phawhope - "we were up the hills," he said, "but for my leg playing up." Steep and windy to the top of the Pen. This is the highest point to the border, visible south, and the land falls away in blocks of Sitka Spruce to the Solway Firth, with the snow-capped dome of The Cheviot east. North, the Moffatdale and Tweedsmuir fells, their corrie headwalls snow-wreathed below flat summits, Broad Law carrying a cap of snow still.

It was unpleasantly windy, and we headed west with our cold backs to it.

Annandale fell away west, beyond Croft Head: a gorge and the Southern Upland Way finding a way round the base of this hill. The Way crossed our route up towards Capel Fell, and I am glad we took a look into the Selcoth gorge. Because part of Capel Fell drops into the gorge, the regular hill slopes steepening from grass to loose rock. The rocks are eroding into infinite fins of sandstone, and on a level platform we chopped away at the friable rock to reveal fossilated looking ferns. How did sandstone form at 610m altitude? It was people asking questions like this that begat the ruination of religious orthodoxy. Perhaps Darwin and Hutton had banged away at hillsides like this, or Galileo stood on one to look at the stars.

Perhaps the Ettrick Shepherd had chiselled away at this very hillside too.

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