Northumberland’s Cheviot appeared as a vast whale-back, shining above its black outliers. The rise of the Pennines gave way to the snowy Lake District fells and past the pewter waters of the Solway Firth the darker outline of Criffel stood proud.
In the north, beyond Hart Fell and Broad Law and across the flats of the central belt, the highland hills rose in a frontier of white, their clarity only slightly distorted by whisps of muirburn smoke.
Closer at hand there were even fewer hints of springtime’s arrival. Below the frowning crags of Lochcraig Head the waters of Loch Skene were still frozen, although the tumultuous course of its Tail Burn now ran freely to form the Grey Mare’s Tail that drops precipitously down into Moffatdale.
We had followed the course of the cataract from the National Trust for Scotland car park beside the A708 Moffat to St Mary’s Loch road. Despite the cold there must have been an element of snow melt for the waterfall was impressive and the burn above it was lively, freed as it was from the confines of freezing ice that has captured its spirit for much of the winter. The cascades and cateracts could roar again, the voice of the mountain calling out to anyone who will listen.
It’s so easy to anthropomorphise elements of these wild places. We mountain writers do it all the time – poets are even worse. Indeed, Sir Walter Scott, a man who knew these hills and dales well, once reckoned that any poet, however poor his attainments, can describe a waterfall. Indeed, he described the Grey Mare’s Tail as: “White as the snowy charger’s tail,/ Drives down the pass to Moffatdale.” Mmm, sounds more like William Topaz McGonagall.
Although it’s not the highest waterfall in Scotland, the crashing sixty metres drop of the Grey Mare’s Tail is certainly one of the most spectacular, and indeed, motivated Sir Walter Scott, despite his literary theories, to pen a rather grandiose poem about those waters which hurl down the dark abyss from “dark Lochskene/Where eagles scream from shore to shore.”
I guess he used a bit of poetic license there for I doubt if you’ll see eagles there today, although you might see peregrine falcons. And once the snow melts and the ice on Loch Skene gives way to warmer temperatures then black-headed gulls will return to nest on the reedy shores and colourful displays of wild flowers will decorate the ferociously steep banks of the Grey Mare’s Tail.
Beyond the waterfall, and above Loch Skene, the south Tweedsmuir hills cut an empty, desolate quarter of Dumfries and Galloway. Rising between the Moffat Water and the source of the Tweed, these are well-rounded hills with boggy skirts that exude a very definite air of wet and wildness. The place names describe the nature of the land - Rotten Bottom lies between White Coomb and Hart Fell, and Dead for Cauld is just south west of the Megget Reservoir. I’d love to know the story behind that name, although I got a hint of it as we filmed the views from the summit of the 2696ft/822m White Coomb for BBC Scotland’s Adventure Show. A bitterly cold north westerly had me frozen as I waited for Paul, our cameraman, to do his stuff and although I wasn’t quite dead for cauld, I was relieved when we could start moving again. Television? Glamorous? You’re having a laugh!
White Coomb is the highest point of a network of ridges that lie south-east of the town of Moffat. The ridges are broad, giving way to steep-sided valleys and narrow cleughs, and can be linked to make extensive high level hill walks. The whole area is a walkers’ delight and it’s one of life’s curiousities that so many people are intent on driving past these hills on the way to the highlands, while others drive past them as they make for the fells of the Lake District. I guess the bonus of that is that these South Tweedsmuir hills are left for the connoisseur of the high and lonely places.