This tour covers some surprisingly little known areas of Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, and Dumfries & Galloway. It includes parts of Scotland that have been shaped by heavy industries now long gone, as well as areas whose wildness and remoteness surpass just about anything you find in the Highlands. The highlights of the tour are the visits to Wanlockhead and Leadhills, the two highest villages in Scotland.
The route shown in dark blue on the map is 88 miles long, starting and finishing in Lanark. It should be tackled in an anticlockwise direction, which saves the highlights of the tour until the second half. The tour could be shortened by a few miles by taking the A73 north of Abington directly back to Lanark. This would omit Biggar and its various attractions, which would be a shame but would save time if you find yourself short of it. No excursions are recommended, unless you count the climb up Tinto, which is perhaps a slightly over-ambitious proposition at the end of a fairly long tour.
It might seem odd to start in Lanark without mentioning the World Heritage Site at New Lanark, the village and cotton mills in the valley of the River Clyde below the town. A visit to New Lanark could easily occupy an entire day, however, so we don't recommend their being tackled as part of this tour. You leave Lanark heading south-east on the A73, passing the racecourse on your left as you do so. After crossing the River Clyde at Hyndford Bridge turn right onto the A70, and continue on this road after Junction 12 of the M74 to the village of Douglas. Much of this lies in the valley to the north of the main road, and it is a fascinating place. The ruins of St Bride's Church stand in the centre of the village, while the tower of Douglas Castle stands a little to the north-east.
In Cumnock and New Cumnock you find communities largely shaped by heavy industries such as steel production and, especially, coal mining. You will see evidence of opencast coal mining in operation as you drive through the area, but the deep coal mines have all long gone, and with them the employment they provided. New Cumnock's fairly remote upland location means it has struggled to recover from the loss of the 1,500 mining jobs offered by the area's pits in 1950, and the village still shows signs of this.
Sanquhar is an ancient settlement in the valley of the River Nith and is well worth taking a little time to get to know. Its particular claim to fame is as the home to the world's oldest continuously operating post office, which opened in 1712 and can still be visited in the High Street. On the southern edge of the town are the rather forlorn and uncared for remains of Sanquhar Castle.
Two miles south-east of Sanquhar, look out for a turning on your left for the B797 to Wanlockhead. This is the start of the most scenic part of the tour as you climb into the Lowther Hills along the steep sided valley of the Mennock Water. Wanlockhead is Scotland's highest village at 467m or 1,531ft. It owes its existence to the lead, gold and other minerals that used to be extracted from under the surrounding countryside. The Museum of Lead Mining in the village is excellent, and the restored open air Wanlockhead Beam Engine is also very impressive.
From Wanlockhead you climb briefly to the watershed then descend into Leadhills, which at a height of 395m or 1,295ft is Scotland's second highest village: and an extremely attractive one. As you enter Leadhills, look out for a turning on your right which leads up to the Leadhills Station and the Leadhills & Wanlockhead Railway. This is Britain's highest adhesion (i.e. normally driven) railway and carries passengers to a halt not far short of Wanlockhead, and back.
From Leadhills the B797 descends north-east to cross the M74 just before you reach the village of Abington, now considerably quieter than it was before it was bypassed by what became the M74 in 1964. From Abington, follow the A702 north-east to Biggar. Look out en route for St Ninian's Church in the village of Lamington, whose main glory is an arch from an earlier church still forming part of the outside wall. Bear in mind that as noted above, the end of the tour can be truncated slightly, and Biggar omitted, by following the A73 north from Abington directly to Lanark.
Biggar is a lovely place, a bustling market town with an enormously wide main street and a fantastic array of interesting shops and great places to eat. Biggar Kirk is well worth a visit, and the town offers visitors two excellent of museums: the Biggar Gasworks Museum and the Biggar & Upper Clydesdale Museum. En route back towards Lanark the road passes Coulter Motte, overlooking the River Clyde. And if you are feeling truly energetic, you also pass close to the main car park used by those climbing Tinto, at 2,334ft the highest hill in the area: alternatively you might feel it better to leave it for another day.
Visitor InformationDistances: The main circular route covers 88 miles, starting and finishing at Lanark. Lanark is about 25 miles south-east of Glasgow and 30 miles south-west of Edinburgh.
Fuel: There are petrol stations open at least some of the time at a number of places along the route.
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