SUNDAY wis a braw, sunny, cauld, clear, bricht day. Perfeck fir a daunder in the hills. Tae that end it coincided wi the tri-weekly gaither-up o ma walkin pals frae Sanquhar an we ettled tae explore the northern reaches o Upper Nithsdale. Five bold walkers set oot in twa motors that we parked at Lagrae, juist abune Kirkconnel. Kirkconnel village, as ye’d jalouse, taks its nem frae the auncient Celtic saint, Saint Conal; mair o whilk later!

The valley here is pock-markt an scarred wi twa hunner year o coal-gettin in the area. Be’t the muckle bings o the lang gane Fauldhouse Pit or the wee Roger mine, else the much mair modren left-owers o open-cast mining that hae left sic unsichtly scars oan wir local laundscape.

The first pairt o oor walk wis throu ane sic raicently forleitit open-cast mine; Craigmuckloch (its nem means the Field o the Pigs). Unlike the forleitit mines o east Ayrshire, whaur a big stooshie ower the planners failure tae see that laund reinstatement bonds wir in place, led tae muckle tracts o laund bein left lik the surface o the mune; the kintraside there bides yet an ecological bourach! Craigmuckloch ithergates, owned bi Buccleuch estates, is bein verra sympathetically re-instated, wi some byordnar laundscapin an hydro an wind fairm technology aa playin their pairts tae retour the laund intae a pleasin an acceptable sicht tae local walker’s een. Heichs an howes hae aa bin smuitht oot an levelled, an re-plantit wi gress, an are nou greenin up nicely. The ae muckle hole that haes bin left frae the mine-warkins is bein turnt intil an innovative hydro-electric scheme that wull, in time, create a muckle new loch fir local bird an wildlife. Frae the main A76 this re-instatement o the laund hus verra much helped tae hide frae view the warst o ony temporary chainges tae the laundscape, an daunderin throu the site ye cuid appreciate the ongaun veesion that wull create a naturalistic tho new shape tae the surroundin area. The roads throu the mine are in guid order – great fir walkin or mountain-bikin, an thair nae dout these wull hae a twa-fauld purpose as mair wind turbines are due tae be biggit oan the site. There hus bin a big expansion this last year or sae in the wind fairms o Upper Nithsdale – an luve thaim or laith thaim, they’re here tae bide wir a while.

We follaed the auld road ower the shouther o Corsencon Hill (the Parassus o Burn’s braw luve sang tae Jean Armour “Parnassus Hill”) whaur aince in the 1800s a gravitational railway brocht wagons o coal doun the valley intil Kirckconnel. It wis kweerious tae think that Burn’s “Pegasus” wid hae rode this samen route lang syne. Ower ahint Corsencon an we wir oan the boundary o Ayrshire/Lanarkshire/Dumfriesshire – an no faur frae wir route lay Threeshire hill, whaur ye can pit three limbs in different shires! The laund here chainges character agane an as faur as the ee cuid see the feck o it wis plantit or bein plantit fir forestry. Walkin alang these forest roads we passed twa/three ruint an forleitit small-holdings an cot-hooses; Craigshiel; Lethans; Clocklowie; nems that aa hud a souch frae anither age. Craigshiel an Lethans wir inhabited in ma ain lifetime; ah’ve mind twa families, the Alison’s an the Murdoch’s, wha bidit there. Nou they wir juist dowie, sad ruins. We explored thaim an ah taen some photies o some auld rusty fairm machinery lyin in the field. A dung spreider, an an auld trailer that lauchin weans micht aince hae hurled oan. Twa shy Roe deer spied us an dairtit intil the forest.

Eftir haein a sate fir a whilie an haein oor piece, craicin anent this an that, local gossip an news, we set aff throu a fire-brek back ower intil Nithsdale. Oor quest nou wis tae fuin the auld stane cross whaur St Conal they say is buriet. The forest is an eildritch, seelent place, carpeted wi spongy green moss an bricht rid fly agaric mushrooms. A cheuch steg up the brae an we wir aince agane luikin doun the valley, oor caur windscreens glentin in the distance.

St Conal’s Cross pruived gey elusive! Local legend haes St Conal conneckit wi Glesga’s St Mungo (or Kentigern). Whan St Mungo hud tae abandon Glesga fir a while – due tae some heathen unrest – he traivelled intil Dumfriesshire an Cumbria. Oan his stravaigin he tuik shelter wi a shepherd boy, wha askt nae thenks but tae be educated. This St Mungo did – an the boy becam St Conal, returnin frae Glesga tae spreid the gospel in his ain airt in the 6th Century. Eftir a bit trauchlin up an doun the brae we eventually foun the stone cross. A sturdy wuiden fence hains it in, an it is waithert an mossy wi eild. This cross wis pitten here bi the Duke o Buccleuch in 1880, at the instigation o a local meenister, Rev John Donaldson, tae merk Conal’s restin place. It is a verra peaceful an meditative spot tae sit an view Upper Nithsdale.

A debate than ensued amang the walkers; Kenneth, John, Wullie, Stephen, Charles an masel. Legend hus it that ye can see three kirks founded bi Saint Conal frae the cross; St Conal’s in Kirkconnel; St Brides in Sanquhar; an the auld ruint covenantin kirk at St Kirkbride. The Sanquhar an Kirkconnel kirks wir plainly veesible – but we ettled ye cuidnae see Kirkbride. Aiblins anither o St Mungo’s miracles wid hae tae happen afore this trinity cuid be resolved an bi seen wi the naukit ee!

Fuitsair an tired we aince agane made oor wey doun throu Craigmuckloch an back tae the motors. It hud bin an aefauld beautiful day in the hills o southern Scotland. The sun shone brichtly an aathing wis bathed in licht an kythed tae us in loosome detail. Thair naethin better oan siccan a day than gettin a braw bit o Scotland unner yer feet!