Waterfalls, stargazing and buzzards: the Moffat walking festival in Scotland’s southern uplands

The elegant town of Moffat in Dumfries and Galloway proves a great base for exploring nearby rewilded landscapes, beautiful gardens and wildlife – with astronomy a bonus

At the top of the gorge, strings of Tibetan prayer flags flutter between trees, a waterfall cascades over rock, the white dome of a stupa peeps through the foliage. I watch the water-driven prayer wheel, mesmerised, and nod hello to Dawa Sherpa. I may be in Scotland but it feels as if I’ve been transported to deepest Nepal.

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Craigieburn Gardens & Nursery, two miles outside the pretty town of Moffat, is just one of the surprises on a trip to this corner of Dumfries and Galloway. While part of the garden is formal, some of the woodlands have been transformed into a Himalayan scene by green-fingered Dawa, who moved here with his family having met Craigieburn’s owner Janet Wheatcroft back in 1995 (he saved her from drowning – but that’s another story).

I’d come to explore the area ahead of the Moffat Walking Weekend, taking place later this month (30 September-2 October). Launched last year, the three-day festival offers a range of guided walks, from whole day hikes on long distance trails to easy ambles around town – and includes a sensory walk to these exquisite gardens.

The gardens have a Himalayan feel.
The gardens have a Himalayan feel. Photograph: Jane Dunford/The Guardian

“Moffat is surrounded by amazing landscapes,” said Caroline Egan, festival co-founder and owner of Queensberry House B&B, my characterful, comfortable Victorian base for the weekend. “We’re on the Southern Upland Way and the Annandale Way – the River Annan runs through town. There’s so much great walking right on the doorstep.”

Like many visitors to Scotland, I’ve previously been lured by the drama of the Highlands and islands and the bustle of the big cities. Moffat, a popular spa town in the 17th century, when wealthy Scots came to take in the sulphurous healing waters, remains largely off the main tourist track. There’s still a regal air about the wide, tree-lined High Street with its independent shops and restaurants, the green of the surrounding hills always in sight.

Stunning walking at the Grey Mare’s Tail near Moffat.
There is stunning walking at the Grey Mare’s Tail near Moffat. Photograph: Roland Polyak/Getty Images

A short drive north of Moffat is Grey Mare’s Tail nature reserve. We hike up the steep path beside one of Britain’s tallest waterfalls, which plunges 60 metres into the valley below. The silky smooth waters of Loch Skeen await wild swimmers, with the peaks of Lochcraig Head, Mid Craig and the summit of White Coomb an impressive backdrop. Peregrine falcons are often spotted here, as well as the occasional feral goat, and on a clear day, views extend as far as the Lake District.

Devil’s Beef Tub, a deep dramatic hollow and local landmark five miles outside town on the Annandale Way, offers more challenging walks (and also features on the half-day Heights and History tour during the festival). A hiding place for stolen cattle during the reiver battles, the peaceful views down the valley towards England are worth the climb.

The Moffat Hills reward walkers with quietly beautiful landscapes.
The Moffat Hills reward walkers with quietly beautiful landscapes. Photograph: Jane Dunford/The Guardian

After a day out in the hills, I dine at Claudio’s, a family-run Italian restaurant in the former police station where the portions are generous and the service friendly. But for a real taste of local life, the bar at the Annandale Arms Hotel is the place to hangout – particularly on a Thursday or Friday evening when locals gather for lively acoustic sessions in the wood panelled bar. I sing along to folk ballads and clap couples who take to the tartan-carpeted floor to dance.

The next morning I’m up early to meet one of the musicians, Dave Dick, who spent 21 years working for the RSPB and will lead a birdwatching walk during the festival. We head up through the woods to Gallow Hill on the edge of town, and stop to watch a pair of buzzards circle overhead. They nest on a craggy hillside nearby and come here to hunt, Dave tells me. The mixed habitat attracts varied birdlife, from great spotted woodpeckers to jays, with flights of geese a daily spectacle heading to or from the Solway Coast in October – and there might be a lucky sighting of red kite or goshawk. Golden eagles might soon be spotted here too – they are being translocated to the area as part of the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project (the Moffat Golden Eagle festival is on this weekend, 16-18 September).

Moffat town.
Moffat town. Photograph: Alex Alfie Munro

The community took over the 33-hectare (84 acres) Gallow Hill site (also known as Moffat Community Woodlands) six years ago, thanks to grants from the Scotttish Land Fund and others, and has been busy restoring it – planting 40,000 trees since 2017. A large area had been clear cut by previous commercial owners, but now a rich ecosystem of mixed species from oak to aspen and dense new hedgerows grow healthily alongside patches of old broadleaves and conifers.

“It’s a real success story,” says Miles Hargreaves, chair of the Moffat Community Woodlands trust (and Caroline’s partner). “It’s so rewarding to see the changes happening so quickly and the community really gets involved.”

Moffat in the mist.
Moffat emerges from the mist. Photograph: Jonathan Cosens

Indeed this area of Scotland is home to several inspiring initiatives to restore natural habitats, led by grassroots action. In Moffat itself there are two other community-run nature reserves, while Carrifran Wildwood, a 10-minute drive away, is a project to re-establish a valley of native woodland, run by the Borders Forest Trust. Since 2000, 750,000 trees have been planted covering 650 hectares. It’s impressive to see how the landscape has changed – a patchwork of new trees cling to previously bare slopes and crowd dense in the valley bottom. The Trust is also restoring a vast adjacent area, Talla and Gameshope, as well as the Devil’s Beef Tub.

“There’s a big movement to help restore large areas of the southern uplands,” said Miles. “Our lands are slowly getting wilder.”

Back in Moffat that evening, another wild wonder demands my attention – the night sky. Moffat was the first Dark Sky Town in Europe and the new, unassuming looking Moffat Community Observatory – basically two cabins with a dome – houses a state-of-the-art telescope, which will start welcoming visitors on set evenings from November. During the festival a Biosphere Dark Sky ranger will lead a stargazing walk and visit the observatory too.

Area surrounding Moffat, Scotland
Caroline Egan enjoying a spot of birding. Photograph: Jane Dunford/The Guardian

Former lighting engineer Jim Patterson – who headed up the town’s bid for Dark Sky status and runs the observatory with other volunteers – gives me a sneak preview. The brightness of the full moon makes stars and planets harder to spot, but with Jim’s expertise, I’m soon gawping as I make out the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter through the telescope. “Moffat’s the perfect place to stargaze,” he says. “There’s so much to see – you just need to know how to look.”

The trip was provided by Visit Scotland. Some walks on the Walk Moffat weekend are free, others cost from £5-£15. Queensberry House Moffat is adults only and has three spacious double rooms, from £95 a night, including substantial, home-cooked breakfast (see website for special offers and news of their own walking weekends)

Contributor

Jane Dunford

The GuardianTramp

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