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Cycling on the Merrick

Follow in the cycle tracks of Davie Bell, the original mountain biker.

Distance 9 miles (14.5km)

Minimum time 5hrs

Ascent/gradient 2,339ft (713m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Hill tracks, section to Loch Enoch can be very boggy, 1 stile

Landscape Hills, lochs and trees

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 318 Galloway Forest North

Start/finish NX 415804

Dog friendliness Keep on lead at lambing time and near stock

Parking Bruce's Stone car park

Public toilets At car park

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1 From the car park at Bruce's Stone head east along the narrow road, across the Buchan Bridge. Continue a short distance then turn left and go uphill to cross a stile. Follow the path along the wall, then veer right and head uphill to rejoin the wall. Go through a gate and turn right on to a path. Follow this up the valley of the Gairland Burn with Buchan Hill on your left.

2 To your left is the ridge of Buchan Hill and to the right is White Brae and to the farside of that the Rig of the Jarkness. Do not cross the Gairland but keep going on the path to reach Loch Valley, skirting it to the west and then continue beside the Mid Burn to reach Loch Neldricken.

3 Head for the far west corner of the loch to find the infamous Murder Hole featured by S R Crockett in his novel The Raiders (1894). The story is based on a local legend that unwary travellers were robbed on these hills and their bodies disposed of in the loch.

4 From the Murder Hole head north, crossing a burn and then a wall. Pass to the east of the Ewe Rig and tiny Loch Arron and eventually reach the south side of Loch Enoch. Don't worry if the track vanishes or becomes indistinct, just keep heading north and you'll eventually reach the loch.

5 As you approach Loch Enoch you will see the outline of Mullwarchar beyond it and to the right. When you reach the loch go left and cross another wall. The slope in front of you is the Redstone Rig and although you have 1,000ft (305m) to climb it is not particularly taxing.

6 From the summit cairn of Merrick head downhill towards a narrow ridge called the Neive of the Spit to reach the summit of Benyellary, the Hill of the Eagle. From here follow the footpath downhill beside a dry-stone wall then turn left and keep going downhill, into the forest, to reach the bothy at Culsharg. From there continue downhill to return to the car park.

A 1940s photograph shows a group of young men gathered round the cairn at the summit of the Merrick, south west Scotland's highest mountain. Nothing unusual there, except for the fact that they all have bicycles. It's an amazing record of the successful outcome of a challenge from a newspaper editor and a tribute to one of Ayrshire's cycling pioneers.

David E T Bell (1907-65) was born and educated in Dumfries, then he moved to Ayr where he worked as a gardener. Health and fitness were his passions and when he was introduced to cycling he saw it as a means to achieve both. But Davie Bell was much more than a sportsman. He was a keen local historian and an outdoor man with an eye for nature. He had a wonderfully descriptive writing style, which ensured that thousands followed his adventures as 'The Highwayman' in his weekly column in the Ayrshire Post.

One week the Post published a letter from a reader who had gone to the summit of Merrick on a pony. He closed his correspondence with the challenge, 'It only remains for someone to make the ascent on a bicycle.' The Highwayman rose to the bait and, with four friends, set off through the mist covered Minnoch Valley heading for Merrick. Riding and walking, sometimes using a sling to carry their bikes, they progressed slowly up the hill, some of them collapsing and gasping for breath, while Davie's pal, Harry Fairbairn kept up a constant monologue, 'Jings this is smashing. I never saw anything like this.' Eventually they reached the summit and took a photograph to record the feat. Then followed the descent of the sloping ridge of the Neive of the Spit to Ben Yellery 'one hectic mile of crashing and bumping that smashed my back mudguard.' From Ben Yellery they covered another 2,000ft (610m) at a slower pace to finally descend through granite boulders to Loch Trool.

Davie Bell continued with his passion for 'rough stuff' for the rest of his life, making journeys to remote bothies like Back Hill of Bush or hauling his bike to the summit of the rocky island of Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde. On each journey he took his readers with him, producing a weekly column for 30 years. When he died in 1965 subscriptions poured in from friends and admirers and a memorial cairn was erected at Rowantree Toll on the Straiton to Newton Stewart road.

What to look for

From the corner of Loch Enoch come back a little way to the south west, heading towards the summit of Buchan Hill and look for a large outcrop called the Grey Man of the Merrick. It's a well-known landmark in these hills and resembles the face of a man.

While you're there

Take a trip to Whithorn where Christianity first arrived in Scotland towards the end of the 4th century. This is where St Ninian founded his early church Candida Casa, the White House, from where the name Whithorn comes. Once a popular place of pilgrimage, and a thriving community until pilgrimages were banned under pain of death after the Reformation, it is once again receiving attention because of recent archaeological discoveries. You can visit the interpretation centre, the dig and the old priory.

Where to eat and drink

Well this is the Galloway Hills and a pretty remote area. Not only is a picnic a good idea but by the time you've conquered Merrick you will feel in need of sustenance. The other options include a visit to the Stroan Bridge tea room and The House O' Hill at Bargrennan.

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