I’d been looking for a nice summer walk, something for a warm day that would still get me a good day out and would give nice views. A quick bit of Googling later and I discovered a little hill in Dumfries & Galloway that I’d never heard of: Criffel. Perhaps you haven’t heard of it either. The hill sits overlooking the Solway Firth and is by far the largest point in the surrounding area: offering spectacular views of the Lake District and the Isle of Mann, it sounded great. At a mere 1,870ft Criffel is a ‘small’ hill, situated at the exquisite village of New Abbey just a 17-minute drive to the south of Dumfries. So on a beautiful July day I headed off to explore New Abbey and to see what the views would be like at the top of Criffel.
New Abbey (voted Best Small Village in Scotland 2012) contains a hotel, village shop and a tea room and really is a beautiful countryside village. White cottages, rolling fields, a little river flowing over a humpback bridge in the centre of town. It really is an idyllic countryside village. New Abbey is most famous for the wonderfully named ‘Sweetheart Abbey‘ which is a Historic Environment Scotland visitor attraction. I parked at the Abbey, which is currently closed for masonry work, in the large car park (which has toilets!) and I couldn’t resist taking the chance to explore this historic building.
“In 1268, Lord John Balliol died. His grieving widow, Lady Dervorguilla of Galloway, had his embalmed heart placed in an ivory casket. She is said to have carried it with her everywhere.”Historic Environment Scotland
Established in the 13th century, the Abbey was founded by Dervorguilla of Galloway in memory of her husband John Balliol. He was an English nobleman and Balliol College in Oxford is named after him. Their son, also named John Balliol, would have a short reign as King of Scots from 1292 – 1296. The reign was miserable, with John a glorifed puppet of Edward I of England. He was forced to abdicate and afterwards the Wars of Scottish Independance began.
The red sandstone Abbey is striking, as it domintes the skyline of the village and despite it being closed Historic Environment Scotland had kept the grounds open which allowed me to stroll around the outside of the ruin. Visitors were roaming around the grounds just like I was, taking photographs and pointing out features and details of the building to each other. There is usually a charge to properly visit the Abbey, so I was delighted to get this free ‘sneak-peak’.
“Sweetheart Abbey’s origin as a shrine to human and divine love is as appealing as its setting. The graceful ruin nestles between the grey bulk of Criffel and the shimmering waters of the Solway Firth. Its blood-red sandstone walls are vivid against the lush green grass.“Historic Environment Scotland
Heading Off To Bag Criffel
Finally, I decided I’d better leave the Abbey and bag Criffel. It was around midday and a lovely, warm July day. I was enjoying myself, having seen the Abbey I was now walking through the quiet little village, peeking through windows and admiring the old cottages. After a short stroll I passed by the Abbey Arms Hotel (I was already imagining what a cold beer would be like…) and onto a little back road that passes the ‘Mill Pond’ which…wasn’t much of a pond as it had completely dried up!
The little road winds upwards and soon I was high above the village, with views of rolling fields and hay bales all around me. The view of the village with the spire of the Abbey rising high into the sky was beautiful. The road was heading towards Criffel, which was looking like quite a big, steep ‘lump’ of a hill that wasn’t looking like the puny ‘1,800ft wee walk’ that I’d intended on this day being.
Did I mention it was warm?
The road eventually ended with a well sign-posted route to the top of Criffel pointing me in the direction of a little track that entered some pretty dense woodland. The soundtrack of a little burn was making the walking very pleasant as the track wound through dense ferns. As is a regular occurrence on my walks, I managed to see some sheep: this time in a small paddock adjacent to a lovely little white cottage that was nestled in the trees. The sheep were busy relaxing in the shade under some trees and didn’t mind as I snapped a few pictures of them.
“It IS warm” I thought to myself as I walked on. “Lying in the shade is probably the best thing on a day like this” went through my mind as I glanced upwards at the rich, blue sky with a huge, warm sun high in the sky. I couldn’t see a single cloud. It was the sort of weather that was perfect for blog pictures…and not so great for climbing mountains!
Before I knew it I was on nice, wide Forestry Commission tracks and was still easily following the signs for Criffel: the whole walk is very well signposted and it will allow you to focus on the views and the walk rather than worrying about the route. A little side-path broke off from the main logging track and I was suddenly in dense pinewoods on a very well put together path. This little path goes all the way to the summit and is very easy to walk on. I’d read reports of people saying the route up and down Criffel can be exceptionally boggy and unpleasant but this is no longer the case.
A £210,000 grant from the Scottish Government Rural Tourism Infrastructure fund in 2020 has paid for the nice new path and the nice signage that I was following. I’m not sure what it will be like in torrential rain in the middle of October but on this sunny July day, the path was making it a pleasant walk.
As I climbed the little steps up through the pinewood I encountered my first human of the day. I watched in disbelief as he approached me.
He was jogging.
I have no idea how they do it at the best of times (who runs up a Munro!?) but in this heat I thought he must be mad. I stood aside to let him pass and said “Hi” and we exchanged plesantries about how lovely a day it was as he jogged past me.
“Nice guy. How is he not dead?” I thought to myself as he disappeared down through the trees below me.
Regardless, I pushed on and emerged from the woodland onto the moor below the sub-summit of Criffel Knockendoch. I was getting a bit warm by this point and stopped for a break. It was at this point I noticed the amazing views behind me now that I was above the treeline. I could see over the entire vally, the river Nith flowing into the Solway Firth, and all the way to Dumfries. I knew immediately that the views on the summit would be incredible.
I’d just have to get there.
I carried on, at a much slower pace. Now that I didn’t have the cover of the trees the heat was really hitting me. I think some people don’t realise that climbing mountains can be incredibly warm and it is very, very easy to get sunburnt. As you climb, you are getting thousands of feet closer to the sun. Keeping hyrdated and bringing suntan lotion are essential steps.
I’d forgotten to bring any suntan lotion.
I also noticed a couple walking ahead of me…but they were progressing at a slower rate than I was. I was now moving at a glacial pace, taking pictures and taking plenty of stops to gain my breath in an attempt to cool down. I noticed the couple had disappeared, perhaps they had sped up while I was taking pictures of the view?
Nope. I came over a small ridge and found them sitting in the grass.
“Hi” we said to each other. “Warm isn’t it?” the guy said to me.
“Roasting!” I replied. At this the woman piped in with “I didn’t think Scotland got this warm!” I noticed they were English and assumed they might be up on holiday.
“I’m Scottish: we aren’t used to this kind of heat!” was my exasperated reply. They both laughed and explained they had planned on bagging Criffel but the heat was too much and they were turning back…once they’d had their seat.
I couldn’t help but feel my heart sink at this news. Sort of like in a movie when a wounded character tells the others to “go on without me”.
I would bag Criffel this day but I’d be the only one to do it on this route! (Well…except for that crazy runner)
I pushed on from the couple and decided the best course of action would be…to also have a seat. I found a nice big rock and had a rest and a drink. I was almost on the summit of Knockendoch and I knew once I was it’d be an easier walk to the summit of Criffel. I was eagerly looking forward to the views and I knew even from the wee sub-summit they would be great.
It took longer than I’d care to admit but finally I came over the ridge and saw the little cairn (what a wonderful feeling) and I took in the views. I could see all the way to Dumfries and beyond, looking south I could see the Lake District hills. The path before me was a curved route, up the northern shoulder and onto the summit.
For the first time in quite a while the going levelled off and was easier and I started to make steady progress towards the summit of Criffel. I could see people on the summit and I couldn’t wait to join them.
I had a green apple with me that I was really looking forward to.
Eventually, I came over the ridge and arrived on the big, flat summit of Criffel. There were two cairns, a large stone-pile cairn and a white trig cairn. I always like to physically touch each one and headed towards the stone carin (a family were enjoying lunch at the trig), getting my breath back and enjoying that wonderful feeling of accomplishment that comes from summiting a mountain. I’d climbed Corbetts and Munros that had been easier than Criffel purely due to the intense heat.
Thankfully, my efforts to reach the summit were very well rewarded.
The views were absolutely stunning in all directions. Before me lay the northern mountains of the Lake District, lying just across the Solway Firth. I was excited to see the ridge of Blencathra, which is still one of my favourite mountains.
To the south-west was the Isle of Mann, with the staggered Galloway coast below. It was a beautiful view and maybe the best view of the Isle of Mann I’ve had. I could hear the other people on the summit muttering similar feelings.
Looking back, I could see Dumfries in the distance and the rolling fields below. Due to the prominence of Criffel, it didn’t matter how ‘small’ this summit was: I felt on top of the world!
“It is 570 m (1,870 ft) high but appears higher because of its great isolation and high prominence.”Wikipedia
I eventually had the summit to myself and (after touching the other cairn) I took in the views a little more, had some water and an apple and slowly headed off on the main track back to New Abbey. It was pretty steep going and it took me longer than I expected to descend (which had been a theme of the whole walk!).
After some knee-destroying descent, the track drops into the forest once more and I followed the easy-to-follow signs past Loch Kindar. There was to be one last highlight of the walk: a field of cows who were trying to stay cool. Most of them had decided to stand in the loch and I envied them as I took pictures. The water looked so inviting.
As I strolled past I seemed to disturb this last batch and they lazily got out of the water. My mutterings of “no, no it’s alright…I’m not doing anything, stay where you all are” did nothing to assuage them and they got out of the loch. One straggler at the end stared at me as if to say “we were enjoying that, you know”.
I hope they got back in once I left.
I crossed through a few more fields and I was back on the last stretch of track that would take me back to New Abbey. I stopped for one last look at Criffel and carried on back to the village.
Route Length: 8 miles
Parking: FREE in New Abbey