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Wanlockhead: Scotland's Highest Village

Discover the secrets of lead and gold mining in 'God's Treasure House'.

Distance 3.7 miles (6km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 525ft (160m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Footpaths, hill tracks, hillside and old railway lines, 1 stile

Landscape Hills, mining relics and village

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 329 Lowther Hills, Sanquhar & Leadhills

Start/finish NX 873129

Dog friendliness Keep on lead near livestock

Parking Museum of Lead Mining car park

Public toilets At car park

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1 With the museum to your back turn left and join the Southern Upland Way. Head uphill on steps then, at the top, cross to a stone building with a large white door. Turn right on to a rough road, cross the main road and take the public footpath to Enterkine Pass. Follow this to the front of a white house.

2 Turn left on to an old railway. Follow this, cross a road then go through a long cutting to reach a fence. Go over a stile to Glengonnar Station then follow the narrow path that runs along the left side of the railway tracks from here.

3 Eventually the path runs on to a rough road and in the distance you will see two terraced houses. At the point where the telephone wires intersect the road turn left at the pole on the left-hand side and follow the line of the fence down to some sheep pens. Turn right at the end of the pens and walk out to the main road.

4 Turn right then almost immediately left on to a hill road. Walk uphill on this until the road bears sharp right and a dirt track forks off to the left. Turn left on to the track and keep on it until you reach a gate. Cross over then veer left on to a faint track. Follow the track downhill to the point where it comes close to the corner of a fence on your left.

5 Cross the fence and go straight ahead on a very faint track picking your way through the heather. Eventually, as the track begins to look more like a recognisable path, you will reach a fork. Go to the right here and cross the flank of the hill passing through some disused tips.

6 The path at this point is little more than a series of sheep tracks and may disappear altogether but that is not a problem. Ahead of you is a large conical spoil heap and, provided you keep heading towards it, you know you will be going in the right direction.

7 Towards the end of the hill the track heads left, starts to make its way downhill, then passes behind a row of cottages. Veer right, downhill, after the cottages to join the road. Turn left and continue past Glencrieff cottages then turn right, leaving the road and heading downhill again. Cross a bridge and climb up on to the Southern Upland Way. Turn left along it and follow this route back to the car park.

A unique combination of changing pressures within the earth's crust several million years ago, led to the formation of rich mineral veins in this part of the Southern Uplands. Everything from gold to zinc and copper has been found locally, but it was the rich deposits of lead that resulted in the establishment of Scotland's highest village. By the 17th century a permanent, if primitive, settlement was established. Accommodation consisted of one-room cottages with often as many as eight people living in them. They cooked over the open fire in the middle of the room and smoke was vented through a hole in the roof.

By the late 19th century, when lead mining was at its peak, some 850 people lived here in much improved cottages. These cottages were bigger, with an attic room and a proper cooking range. In 1871 the miners founded a co-operative society, bought all their supplies there and received a share of the profits. Amazingly this continued until 1971.

The miners valued the little leisure time they had and were very active in forming local clubs and societies. There were curling, bowling and quoiting clubs, a drama group and even a silver band. The Library, the second oldest subscription library in Europe, was founded in 1756 by the minister and a small group of villagers. Wanlockhead fared better than most libraries with a donation of books from the local landowner the Duke of Buccleuch. Buccleuch also allowed the miners the use of land to keep cattle and grow vegetables and, in 1842, he funded the building of a new school and the salary of the teacher.

The miners' children learned to read, write and count and could also take lessons in Latin and Greek. A government inspector visiting in 1842 was so impressed by the standard of learning he concluded that '?the children of the poor labourers of Wanlockhead are under as good, or perhaps better system of intellectual culture than even the middle class children of South Britain generally.'

As the price of lead slumped, and mines became exhausted, the miners gradually drifted away. The last of the mines, Glencrieff, closed in 1934 and the village went into decline until only 30 people remained. In the 1960s the local authority offered to re-house them elsewhere but they resolutely refused to leave. Thanks to their determination, an influx of new blood, renovation of houses and the opening of the Museum of Lead Mining, Wanlockhead has survived as a community into the 21st century. But it almost vanished, like countless other mining villages, which are now just names on the map, a few ruins, fading memories, old photographs and tales.

Where to eat and drink

The café/tea room attached to the museum is geared towards families and has a splendid menu of light meals, sandwiches, snacks and delicious hot soup. It's a light and airy place conveniently situated where the walk begins and ends. Occasionally in the summer local musicians play traditional music here.

While you're there

A visit to the Museum of Lead Mining before you start will greatly enhance your understanding of the area and your enjoyment of the walk. The entire history of gold and lead mining in this area is covered and the admission fee includes a visit to a former miners' cottage and a trip into one of the mines (wear warm clothing). During the summer there are gold panning demonstrations and courses. The museum is open from April to October, daily.

What to look for

The Wanlockhead beam engine was used in the 19th century to drain the Straitsteps mine. It worked by using an ingenious arrangement that filled a bucket at one end with water, thus pulling the beam end down and lifting the piston at the other end to expel the water from the mine.

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