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Picnics and Prehistory - On the Eskdale Trail

Vicky and I try to plan a weekend of stoning, picnics and glam-witchery each Hallowe'en and this year was to be no different, although we had the added excitement of also celebrating Vicky's forthcoming 40th birthday. So, this had to be a trip to remember and, having considered a number of options, we decided that a weekend in the Borders would be perfect; a day following the Eskdale Prehistoric Trail, a visit to Samye Ling Buddhist temple and a celebratory meal. Perfect.

We arranged to meet in Langholm at 10.30am on the Saturday morning, the plan being to dump my car at the B&B and head off in hers. However, the Friday night saw some horrendous weather in S. Scotland, with severe flood warnings given and so it was a cautious drive up the M6 for me at 9am the next day. The weather was appalling, with driving rain and wind making the Kendal to Penrith stretch particularly hair-raising! It was closer to 11.30am by the time we both arrived at the B&B and once we had loaded all the gear into Vicky's car and headed out of Langholm, it was already afternoon and we were talking about the possibility of abandoning the Prehistoric Trail altogether and heading for the nearest pub! However, we persevered and set off for the 1st site of the day.

Firstly, I think we need to remember that Scotland's "prehistory" lasted a wee bit longer than England's, due to the whole Romans-not-getting-there-quite-as-quickly thing. So, the first site on the Prehistoric Trail is actually a Romano-British enclosure called (rather wonderfully) The Boonies. Described as "a farmstead overlooking the Esk with "footprints" of 15 roundhouses" and surrounded by a later enclosure, this is an interesting site but not really anything to get too excited about. I am afraid I am bit of purist when it comes to these things and like my prehistory to be a bit older and a lot more stony. However, we were very impressed with the way the site was accessible, with a great interpretation panel and a laminated leaflet you can take with you as you explore. So, after 15 minutes (most of which I spent stroking the friendly horse who calls The Boonies home) we set off for the next site.

Bailiehill Fort — Fieldnotes

The weather was still a bit dodgy so the thought of heading up not one but three hillforts in an afternoon was seeming far less likely. However, we got to Bailiehill Fort and parked by the interpretation board. A very friendly, local fisherman came over for a chat and explained the field below was known as the "Handfasting Field"; I think it is the point where the 2 tributaries of the river meet, which seems rather beautifully symbolic. After chatting with him we felt more enthused about attempting the steep climb up to Bailehill so, with wellies and waterproofs on, we set off. Now, wellies are not really the best footwear for walking up steep inclines but it was pretty boggy and we eventually got to the interesting bits, albeit slightly out of breath - but what a view!
Although the skies were still heavy with rain and grey we could see straight across the valley and the colours on the hillsides were stunning. We could also make out a number of other hill fort sites on the surrounding hills as we pottered around. This site has some great thunking ramparts and I was staggered to read that is has never been excavated, so we tried to do a bit of our own "digging", poking around in some of the exposed holes but it proved unfruitful. Bah.

After a good time spent doing our usual "oooh, look at this" and "do you think this is...." and after considering the theory that these were not defensive locations at all but more a case of local one-upmanship and status ("look how high up my house is!") we rather carefully descended the saturated hillside and were ready for more

Bailiehill Fort — Images

<b>Bailiehill Fort</b>Posted by Vicster<b>Bailiehill Fort</b>Posted by Vicster

We somehow missed the next site of the trail (The Knowe) which is described as a "fortlet/farm/fortified croft" in the leaflet and instead found ourselves arriving at the parking spot for Castle O'er (or Castle Ooer, as it became known to us)

Castle O'Er — Fieldnotes

We got out of the car and set off up the wee track, just as the heaven's opened and a deluge of rain and hail came down. We ran back to the car and sat there for 10 minutes until it slowed down a wee bit and then Vicky decided to take the Forestry Commision on single-handedly, by driving up the path and onto the F.C. road which runs below the hillfort! We parked at the base and set off up the steep pathway, feeling rather rebellious and relieved that the rain had stopped and that our walk up had been reduced by her daring actions. Ha ha ha. Oh my, what a site this is! Another great interpretation board and leaflet and even more spectacular views of the valley below. We tried to get our bearings by working out the position of the sun, which was just starting to peek through the grey clouds (being the great explorers that we are) and we were truly impressed with the sheer size of this site. This is said to be the most spectacular of the remaining forts in the area and it is easy to imagine just how impressive it would have been. Weather aside, this is a great time of year to visit these sites as the colours are breathtaking, the bracken has died back and there is a wonderful sense of isolation as you get the whole place to yourselves.

Castle O'Er — Images

<b>Castle O'Er</b>Posted by Vicster

We were starting to get hungry at this point and decided it was time to crack open the picnic. Vicky and I are hardcore picnickers and we strongly believe that no stone trip is complete without a spread of food that could feed an army, so we set up our picnic table and chairs, cracked open the celebratory bottle of bubbly (it was her birthday, after all – and it was a miniature bottle) and picnicked at the base of Castle Ooer. We could not have found a more fabulous spot for our repast, although we did seem to bemuse the 2 walkers who came past whilst we were eating our goat's cheese tart and drinking our Freixinet Cava!

Once we had eaten and drunk to our heart's content, we packed up and set off for Over Rig, the next site on the trail. Having read about this site before our trip, this is the place I was most intrigued by and keen to visit and yet, ironically, it is the one that disappointed me the most. Despite excavations, there is no definite date or any real suggestion of what this site was used for. We staggered down the boggy bank, through the head-high vegetation and had no real sense of what we were looking for. We got as close to the bottom of the "amphitheatre" as the boggy land would allow and tried out a few calls and shouts, to test the acoustics – there was a pleasing echo and sense that you could hear sounds more clearly, but other than that, we were left a bit bemused by the whole thing.

The next stop should have been Bessie's Hill fort but we decided that 2 hillforts were more than enough and we wanted to head out and see some REAL prehistory, so set off for the Loupin' Stanes and Girdle Stanes instead!

Girdle Stanes & Loupin Stanes — Fieldnotes

Oh my! What a lovely pair of circles these are. We are parked at the layby for the Loupin Stanes and set out across the field. As we came across the stones, I felt a sense of elation; iron age hillforts are all well and good, but give me an upright stone in a field and I am a very happy girl. This is a lovely compact set of stones, slightly raised but with a sense of isolation which suits the location perfectly. We then set off for the Girdle Stanes, expecting more of the same.
What we weren't expecting is one of the most beautiful and mesmerising circles we have ever seen! We were completely blown away by it all; the fact that it must've been HUGE when complete (although Vicky has her own theory that it was only ever a half circle.....that was something we pondered later over a couple of bottles of wine!), the fact that it reminded us both of Athgreany Circle in Co Wicklow and the fact that it was just bloody marvellous! I really wasn't expecting to feel so enthused by this place and I have a sneaking suspicion that the Girdle Stanes have just crept into my Top 10 Circles of all time list. The whole of this river valley reminded us both of Kilmartin and we wondered what other monuments must have existed here; surely this couldn't be it? As you stand in the valley and look around, it feels like there must be so much more just waiting to be discovered – or possibly ruined and now lost to us. We walked up to the road from here and spent ages just looking back down at this circle, completely in love with the whole place. Fabulous.
Pebs had mentioned that it has rained every time she has visited these stones but I am happy to report that the sun was hovering in the sky, albeit amongst some rather grey looking clouds and we were once again thankful that the weather seemed to be on our side. The ground between the 2 circles was very boggy and it took some time to navigate our way between the two. I definitely would advise walking from the Loupin Stanes to the Girdle Stanes across the fields (there is a wooden sign post showing the way) and then walking back along the road, as it gives you a real sense of how beautiful this valley is.

Girdle Stanes & Loupin Stanes — Images

<b>Girdle Stanes & Loupin Stanes</b>Posted by Vicster<b>Girdle Stanes & Loupin Stanes</b>Posted by Vicster<b>Girdle Stanes & Loupin Stanes</b>Posted by Vicster

The last site on the Trail is King Schaw's Grave but, by this time, we were getting pretty tired and ready for some (more) food and wine. We decided to call it a day and headed back to Langholm and a night on the tiles in the Muckle Toon. Over dinner in the Douglas Hotel, we dissected the day's sites and theorised about what we had seen over a wonderful meal and some very welcome wine and whisky. We were aware that the forecast for the next day was torrential rain, so we thought we may as well enjoy ourselves and not worry too much about early starts. However, the morning dawned sunny and with blue skies, so we decided to head off to see what was left of old King Schaw's Grave after all.

King Schaw's Grave — Fieldnotes

By the time we reached the layby, the sun was blazing and we didn't even need our coats. I love an unseasonably warm autumn day in Scotland! On the map, the burial site is shown to be in plantation but this has fortunately been cut back, so we set out through the rather bleak landscape until we found the obligatory interpretation board. I love the fact that a circle of trees had been planted around the site and then cut at such a height that identifies the site, as it would be pretty hard to spot otherwise! Sadly, this once enormous cairn (said to have been in a cruciform shape) was robbed of all of its stones many years ago and all that remains is the small cist. However, it is a lovely site, with fabulous views across the surrounding hills and an amazing echo, which made our voices ring out across the land. The remaining woodland was boggy and overgrown but we thought we could make out a possible large, moss-covered stone about 50m from the site of the cist. However, we were not properly attired (our wellies were packed and in my car back in Langholm) so we couldn't check it we headed back to the car, pleased we had made it here after all and (almost) completed the Eskdale Prehistoric Trail. We now plan to return in the Spring and visit all the sites again to see how they look and feel in a different season.

King Schaw's Grave — Images

<b>King Schaw's Grave</b>Posted by Vicster<b>King Schaw's Grave</b>Posted by Vicster

From here we set off for the Samye Ling Buddhist Temple in Eskdalemuir – if you are ever in this neck of the woods, I strongly recommend a visit; it is absolutely stunning!

N.B. There is a leaflet available for the Eskdale Prehistoric Trail and further info is available here:
The whole trail is signposted and all the sites clearly marked along the roads, with fab interpretation boards and info.
Vicster Posted by Vicster
15th November 2010ce
Edited 16th November 2010ce

Comments (2)

Great Blog V fitzcoraldo Posted by fitzcoraldo
18th November 2010ce
Thanks Fitz. Tis a great day out, if you get the right weather! (and take a good picnic!) Vicster Posted by Vicster
20th December 2010ce
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