Six climbs in Southern Scotland

by Sara Barton, 10th December 2021
The Merrick | Dumfries & Galloway
Six climbs in Southern Scotland

Do you know your Munros from your Corbetts? Your Grahams from your Donalds? These Scottish hill classifications offer a great place to start a new outdoor adventure. Why not make it your goal to ‘bag’ or climb all those of a certain type? You can start here with six of our favourite climbs in southern Scotland. (And if you are still scratching your head over the Scottish hill name classifications, scroll on down to the bottom and read more!)

If you are heading out into the hills, remember that the weather can change quickly as you progress upwards and it is always best to be well prepared. Take provisions, dress appropriately, ensure you have a map of your intended route and tell someone where you plan on going and when you should return. Remember you may not have a mobile phone signal during your hike.

And now that we have the basic preparation out of the way, let’s discover some of the most famous and popular peaks across Dumfries & Galloway and the Scottish Borders.

The Merrick: the highest peak

Height: 843m; Corbett
Distance: 13.25km / 8.25 miles
Time: 4-5 hours
Car park: at Loch Trool; visitor centre with café and shop

The Merrick is the highest peak in southern Scotland and offers a good day of walking and climbing. The ascent path is fairly straightforward but it is pretty much all uphill through the Galloway Forest Park. But once you have mounted Benyellary, it is a ridge walk to the summit.

And the views at the top are well worth it, with Ailsa Craig, the Isle of Man and Northern Island all visible.

Before you start though, take a quick detour from the car park to see the Bruce’s Stone at the head of Loch Trool. This cairn commerorates Robert the Bruce’s victory over an English cavalry five times the size of his own army in an act of guerilla warfare on the shores of Loch Trool. Then join the path, signed the Merrick Trail.

Stunning views from the highest peak in Southern Scotland, the Merrick in Dumfries & Galloway

Three Brethern: Spectacular historical cairns

Height: 465m
Distance 9.25km / 5.75 miles
Time 2.5 – 4 hours
Car park: Glenkinnon car park or Philiphaugh side

The Three Brethren are a trio of massive, solidly built cairns dating back to the sixteenth century. Today they are still visited each June by the Selkirk Common Riding. Despite the relative lack of height, the scenery and views are stunning and they are a popular objective.

There is more than one approach. If you tackle the route via the Yair Forest side, rather than going up the usual Philiphaugh track, you’ll park up at the Glenkinnon car park near Peel, where you have a chance to see the 500-year old Glenkinnon Oak – one of the Borders’ Heritage trees. As you climb, watch for local wildlife, and especially sparrowhawk.

Climb up to Three Brethern on the Southern Upland Way for a wonderful view of southern Scotland.
Three Brethern cairns on the Southern upland Way. Credit: VScotland, David N Anderson

Cairnsmore of Fleet: Wildlife and art

Height: 711m; Donald/Graham
Distance: 12.25km / 7.5 miles
Time: 3.5 – 5 hours
Carpark: Visitors’ centre; toilet facilities

Get a feel for the Galloway Hills by starting with the most southerly 2000-foot hill in Scotland, Cairnsmore of Fleet. At 711.0 m (2333 ft) this offers an excellent introduction to hill walking and sits in the marvellous Cairnsmore of Fleet National Nature Reserve. (There are two other Cairnsmore hills so be sure you’re headed to the right one.)

The reserve is situated about Wigtown Bay and at the summit you are rewarded with a view of the Cree Estuary and the Solway Firth across to the Isle of Man. The reserve itself is within the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Unesco Biosphere. Hikers will encounter a wonderful mosaic of upland habitats through wood and forest paths as well as open hill ground over moorland. The final approach to the summit can be boggy, so be prepared!

En route, enjoy wonderful wildlife sightings including peregrine falcon! Listen for the cackles of the red grouse hiding in the undergrowth. Alternatively, and easier to spot, look out for the sculptures by local artists dotted about the heath.

Photo © G Laird (cc-by-sa/2.0)
You’ll pass the Cairnsmore Viaduct which featured in the 1935 film The 39 Steps.

Eildon Hills:  Literary connection

Height (MidHill): 422m; Marilyn
Distance: 9.5km / 6 miles
Time: 3 – 4 hours
Car Park: Nutwood car park, Melrose; Public transport: Bus to Melrose

Sir Walter Scott called these the delectable mountains and the three volcanic-like summits make for a classic half-day steep hill walk from Melrose. The igneous rocks of the Eildon Hills have associations with ancient Border folklore, but scientifically provide evidence of volcanic activity in the Scottish Borders’ long distant past (circa 350 million years)

The Eildons were known as Trimontium to the Romans, who also used the name for their fort nearby.  The three conical peaks, North Hill, Mid Hill and Wester Hill overlook the gorgeous scenery of the valley of the River Tweed with Melrose at their feet.

Climb the Eildon Hills in southern Scotland for wonderful views of the Borders.
Eildon Hills known as the delectable mountains by Sir Walter Scott

Criffel: Good for beginners

Height: 569m; Marilyn
Distance: 5km / 3 miles
Time: 2.5 – 3 hours
Car park: Ardwall car park, 1.5 miles south of New Abbey

Criffel’s modest altitude belies its prominence, rising as the highest hill for miles around and dominating the Solway coastline. The ascent is short but steep and climbers are rewarded with stunning views of the Solway and its estuaries and across to the English Lake District fells including Skiddaw and Blencathra. 

Reward yourself after the climb with a visit to the picturesque village of New Abbey. Overlooked by Criffel on one side and the imposing ruins of Sweetheart Abbey on the other, a wander makes for a perfect end to an active day out.

Climb Criffel and look down on the ruins of Sweetheart Abbey

Rubers Law: Iron age hill fort

Height: 424m; Marilyn
Distance: 10km / 6.25 miles
Time: 3 – 3.5 hours
Car park: By Denholm village green: Public transport, Denholm on Hawick to Kelso bus route

Rubers Law (law meaning hill in Scots) rises as a prominent cone over the countryside east of Hawick. The summit has been variously an Iron Age Hill Fort and a Roman signal station. It is also thought that Alexander Peden may have preached to illegal conventicles of Covenanters from a place known as “Peden’s Pulpit” among the summit rocks. Hikers and hill walkers will quickly understand why the hill has drawn in so many over the centuries: It offers a superlative viewpoint north to the Eildon Hills and east towards the Cheviot.

The walk up is a mix of tracks and hill paths which can be rugged in places. You can go up from Denholm and return via Gilboa Wood for a longer, more varied circuit.

Rubers Law
You’ll discover an Iron Age hill fort atop Rubers Law – as well as stunning views.

And as promised… Scottish mountain classification

By way of introduction, hills in Scotland have different names depending on their heights and in some cases their drops. These names are applicable only to Scottish hills except in one classification: You’ll find Marilyns across the UK and Ireland, while Munros, Corbetts, Grahams and Donalds are specific to Scotland.

The highest of the hills, the Munros, are the oldest list, having been compiled by Sir Hugo Munro in 1891. The first Englishman to complete all the Munros, John R Corbett, then went onto create a list of the next highest Scottish hills. Then the lowest of the hills, the Marilyns, were named after Marilyn Munro in a humourous nod to their higher counterparts, the Munros. Creator of the Marilyns, Alan Dawson, also came up with the Grahams and took on the task of simplifying the classification of the original 1935 list of Donalds.

Munros: Mountains over 3,000 feet (914 metres)

Corbetts: Hills that are between 2,500ft to 3,000ft (762-914m) in height and with a drop of 500ft on all sides.

Grahams: Hills between 2000ft-2500ft (610-762m) in height and with a drop or prominence of 490ft (150m) on all sides.

Donalds: Hills in the Scottish Lowlands with a height of 2000ft (610m) and over and with prominence of 100ft or more.

Marylins: Any hill in the UK and Ireland with a drop of 150m on all sides

Climb southern Scotland; view from the Three Bretherns on Southern Upland Way
Wherever you decide to climb, the views will reward you. Credit VisiScotland David N Anderson