Inspiring words by Sonia Rego, OmVed Gardens Schools Project Manager and Volunteer on the Southern Upland Way Trail in Scotland:
I ended up on the Southern Upland Way mostly by accident. Having never been to Scotland before, my family picked a green space on a map and moved to it from London. I was chuffed to discover that a section of Scotland’s only coast to coast trail is on my doorstep.
Winding its way from Portpatrick to Cocksburnpath, the Southern Upland Way runs 341 kilometres from Scotland’s west coast to Scotland’s east coast. Less than a 1000 people complete the entire route each year, though tens of thousands enjoy different sections*.
I volunteer on the trail because I want to develop my outdoor skills, because it brings me joy, and because our outdoor spaces are in desperate need of additional support. Conservation of our outdoor spaces is done by (amazing) underfunded staff, at a time when, more than ever, governments should be investing in the protection of our wild spaces and biodiversity. I firmly believe being outdoors is critical for wellbeing, and trail maintenance allows more people access to the paths.
Perhaps you have not been on my section of the Southern Upland Way, so let me attempt to describe the magic. There are new oak forests, and native tree projects, interspersed with broad swathes of lanky Sitka Spruce, planted for Scotland’s timber industry. The section along the Water of Minnoch, where it parts from the Water of Trool is a dark flowing ribbon, eventually leading to the River Cree, where I have heard there are shy otters, and sparling who lay eggs in the spring**. Occasionally I will hear the call of a common buzzard, and spot red kites soaring. There is a section where the path has recently been rerouted because rivers are living, breathing entities that carve away the banks. There are the lanky Scots Pine, decimated in the 17th and 18th century, and Scotland’s only native conifer and my favourite of all the conifers.
One of the things I love most about volunteering is how I get to watch the path change week by week, season by season. I cut back the bramble and bracken in summer, as a Dor Beetle trundles up the grass. I get the joy of watching Common Lizards skitter across the rocks, and tiny Common Frogs bounce off the path. I watch the leaves change in the autumn, and delight in the small buds appearing. In the winter, there is a bowed tree that I love where velvet shank mushrooms pop up, and two logs where I can always spot scarlet elf cups. I take my tools, graciously provided by the Southern Upland Way Ranger Service, and my two dogs, Karl T and Nora Ruth, who serve as my trusty trail assistants.
Walking here is different from where I grew up, on the dry plains of Texas. I do not need to carry a bear canister or worry about a mountain lion stalking me in the trees and there are no deadly-to-human snakes here. Ticks are a concern, but a manageable concern. It is still wild, but much gentler.
As I write this, it is January, and the days are short and rain-drenched. I spend less time on the Southern Upland Way, favouring the circular paths a bit closer to me. This spring, my first spring in the area, I look forward to more volunteering, and begin walking other sections of the route.
* "Scotland's networks of paths and trails: key research findings" (PDF). Scottish Natural Heritage. August 2018. p. 6. Retrieved 26 September 2018.