White Coomb is the highest peak in Dumfriesshire and it is also one of the region’s most accessible. Whether heading north to the Highlands, or south to the Lakes on the busy M74, it is worth setting aside half a day to escape the hectic highway and savour a Corbett that, despite being so easy to get to, actually feels rather remote when you are stood on the summit.
White Coomb is about 20 minutes’ drive from the motorway, via the bustling market town of Moffat. The ascent, from the National Trust for Scotland car park, incorporates the famous Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall but while you may find the initial stage of the route up from the visitor centre cluttered with sightseers, they rapidly thin out as the wilder high ground looms over the horizon, leaving the landscape to those prepared to venture off the well-trod tourist track.
It is possible to launch a quick there and back assault on White Coomb. But a much more satisfying upland circuit weaves in neighbouring Firthhope Rig, Donald’s Cleuch Head, Molls Cleuch Dod and Lochcraig Head, the latter a shapely peak whose plunging petticoats of crags and scree enliven little Loch Skeen, one of the highest lochs in the Southern Uplands.
Descend to the shoreline and you will find a calm, tranquil, almost desolate, stretch of water nestling in a great glacial basin of rock. Once home to golden eagles, it is now frequented by peregrine falcons, a bird of prey that reigns supreme in the Moffat Valley. Keep an eye out for them soaring overhead as you dip your toes in the cool water ahead of the descent through the Tail Burn gorge.
Head for the small National Trust for Scotland visitor centre at the back of the car park and join the tourist path for Loch Skeen. The route crosses the Tail Burn by a footbridge before climbing steeply at first and then more steadily up the right-hand side of the gorge. The path is well constructed and offers great views of the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall as it whips down through the ravine. The main fall – the fifth highest cascade in the UK – is 61m (200ft) high. The path climbs above this and there are various smaller tails of white water. Above the last of these, look out for a tumble down drystone wall coming in from the left, on the opposite side of the stream.
Cross the Tail Burn. Above the top fall it is possible to hop over the stream on rocks, depending on the water level. Alternatively, a crossing may be made below the top fall, although this leaves a steep grassy bank to clamber up to gain the end of the wall.
Once over, follow the wall west across an open slope of grass and heather. A narrow path runs parallel with the dyke and the ascent at this point is fairly undemanding. The wall leads towards the top of Upper Tarnberry where it curves right, dipping ahead of the climb on to White Coomb. The path stays close to the wall as it picks a course through little crags, leading to easier ground higher up. The gradient gradually eases as the tabletop summit is approached. A cairn – thought to be Bronze Age in origin – with a small moat which tends to gather rainwater, marks the high point.
Walk north from the cairn to a fence, go right and follow it to its corner. Turn left here and stay with the fence (and an accompanying wall). The route dips into a shallow col – where the ground can be marshy – before rising on to Firthhope Rig. Sheep are common on the moor here, but they share their grazing with more illusive feral goats, shaggy brown and grey horned creatures that you may just spot as you go.
Head north from the top of Firthhope Rig. Again, there’s a wall and a line of old fence posts to assist with navigation here. A bracing stroll over open moor with fine views across a patchwork of rolling hills and deep gullies leads on to the unremarkable mound of Donald’s Cleuch Head and then, 1km on, the better defined Firthybrig Head. A detour can be made northwest from here on to Molls Cleuch Dod. It is a distance of just over 2km there and back.
Descend east into the col that separates Loch Skeen from the Talla Water. The path runs parallel with another wall, dipping into a soggy stretch of ground ahead of the final uphill section of the route, the ascent of Lochcraig Head. The summit sits a little way to the north of the wall. Once visited, it is worth venturing out towards the southern edge of the summit plateau for here there are the best views over Loch Skeen.
Descend east, following the wall down a steep grassy slope. The route curves south and flattens off in due course, negotiating a course through heathery peat hags and marsh to reach the southern end of Loch Skeen. Pause by the lochside to enjoy the desolate peace and tranquillity of the spot before joining the tourist path for the hike back down the valley to the car park.
Distance: 9 miles/14km
Time: 3-4 hours
Start/finish: Grey Mare’s Tail Waterfall car park (GR: NT 186145)
Maps: Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 Landranger sheet 79 or OS Explorer sheet 330
Information: Moffat, 01683 220620
Public transport: None
Route: as outlined above