For family trips to see relatives in Dumfriesshire there is always the big decision – ‘Which road today? Biggar or the Tub?’ Or put another way – the A702 or A701? Controversy then ensues – factors such as weather, the best ice cream and which road is quicker come into play. Forty years on I still don’t know which road is quicker but on a decent day the A701 always wins. (Not so on foggy nights – I can still remember pea-soupers when cat’s eyes plum in the middle would be confused with sheep’s eyes at the side of the unfenced road!)
Both routes follow old coaching routes and are steeped in history – for me the green border hills and the glimpses of the past at the old coaching inns made the road to the Devil’s Beef Tub the more interesting.
We head south from Hillend through Auchendinny and on to the current Leadburn Inn, site of one of the original coaching houses which sadly destroyed in 2005. Here as we lose sight of the Pentlands our journey through the gentler green border hills begins. On through the marvellously named hamlets of Romanno Bridge, Mountain Cross (no obvious sign of either mountain or junction!) and Blyth Bridge to the village of Broughton – for Buchan and beer. Near here was the ancestral home of the author John Buchan who undoubtedly used the landscape as the backdrop for Hannay’s flight in the Thirty Nine Steps. The nearby Broughton brewery is also connected to Buchan through one of its range of beers – Greenmantle.
At this time of year, coming out of winter, we are looking for our first spring lambs and wonder how tough life must have been for the hill farmers as they tramped the snow covered hills which feed the sources of the rivers Tweed and Clyde. Shepherds and travellers alike used to take shelter at the Crook Inn. The ‘Crook’ dating from 1604 is one of the multitude of hostelries that vie for the ‘Scotland’s Oldest’ title. However it is more surprising is to find, tucked in these hills, a classic Art Deco building which grew out of refurbishment of the hotel in the 1930s.
Sadly business for the Crook declined and it closed in 2006. However the good news is that after a lengthy campaign it has been secured by the locals who have plans to turn it once more into the hub of the community – please see www.savethecrook.org.uk. I look forward to stopping for steaming soup and a sandwich again in the near future.
The road follows the fledgling Tweed for a few miles at this point before starting to wind up into the hills at the Dumfriesshire border. Again there is a reminder of harsh winters passed at the cairn to postmen James McGeorge and John Goodfellow who perished in a blizzard having abandoned their coach to try to carry the Dumfries to Edinburgh mailbags on by foot.
The cairn is just north of the most dramatic view on the road – the Devils Beef Tub – a dramatic 500 foot hollow formed by four hills and so named because of it past use as a hiding place for stolen cattle by local reivers. These days the only living things are the hardy sheep that from the roadside seem to cling onto its sides as if attached by Velcro. Here as we look south the valley of Annandale opens out below us and we can just about glimpse the Solway Firth at the edge of the farmlands.
Now we are on the downhill stretch towards the town of Moffat and we pass over a small bridge that was part of grisly murder story which gripped the nation in the 1930s. Dr Ruxton of Lancaster had murdered and dismembered his wife and their housemaid and proceeded to dispose of them in newspaper parcels – the area is still known as Ruxton’s dump. His downfall was due to pioneering forensic science at Edinburgh University and the use of his local newspaper.
Moffat grew from a small village into a popular resort when its sulphurous waters were believed to have healing properties and during and Victorian luxurious hotels were built to accommodate the increasing numbers of tourists. Moffat remains a pleasant town and tourist still abound taking advantage of its many cafes and enjoying the tangy but sweet boilings known as Moffat Toffee.
I hope if one day you too take the road trip to Moffat you might enjoy some of these sights on your way – and an ice cream when you get there!