Hiking out to the striding arches at Moniaive have been one of my ‘must-do’ walks in Dumfries & Galloway for quite a while and I recently found time on a cold (I stress, cold!) January day to see these quirky artworks.
What are the Striding Arches at Moniaive?
Probably best I explain what these arches actually are. Landscape Artist Andy Goldsworthy designed 4 Arches which were created from Dumfries sandstone. One of the arches sits at the carpark at the end of Dalwhat Glen, about 7 miles from Moniaive. The other 3 arches sit high on the hills surrounding the glen.
Andy has also created the arches abroad: in the USA, New Zealand and Canada and they are intended to represent Scots emigrating abroad over the past 200 years.
An added perk of the walk is that you can stop off in the very pretty little village of Moniaive, which even has a country music festival! HERE is a link to the website of the village, which has information on the arches.
Bagging 3 Arches
“Wait, just 3?” I hear you ask. Well, yes and I would suggest you decide which way you’d rather do the walk. There is an arch at the car park, an arch on the summit of Colt Hill (1962ft) and an arch on Benbrack (1,906ft). The 4th arch is on Bail hill (1702ft) and is quite far away from the others, which will extend the length of the walk and potentially change where you park. Bagging the 3 arches makes a lovely walk which isn’t too difficult.
My intention is to return in the summer and make a film of the bigger walk for my YouTube channel but if you aren’t looking for a large walk, I’d suggest just bagging the 3 arches.
Terrifying. Potholes you could lose a terrier in, loose gravel (where I am pretty sure local farmers have tried to fill potholes in) across the road, narrow with infrequent passing spaces and steep drops at the side of the road. Once you finally reach the end of the ‘road’, you will be greeted with a closed gate which, once you have opened it, driven through and re-closed it, then leads to a pure shingle/gravel track to the carpark.
I drive a 4×4 Jeep and I was uncomfortable driving along this track. And I am very used to driving on the terrible minor roads in Scotland. I’m not trying to put you off but merely warn you: once you leave Moniaive and start driving through Dalwhat Glen the road only gets worse and worse.
At one point I saw the remains of a shredded tyre and I wasn’t a bit surprised. If you told me this road hasn’t seen a council roadworks van in decades I’d believe you without question.
Cairnhead and Setting Off
As I pulled into the large carpark at the end of the glen (and once I unclenched my white-knuckled fists from the steering wheel) I let Messi out of the car and took in the wonderful atmosphere. I’d wanted to do this walk on a cold winter day but what I hadn’t counted on was the snow. Everywhere was white.
And it made the whole day even better.
One thing that surprised me was that I wasn’t alone: a small hatchback had somehow made it into the carpark. A woman and her wee son were heading off along the track and I marvelled at her bravery for driving a hatchback along that road.
Our first objective was to bag the first arch, which is just above the carpark, embedded in an old barn. It’s the ‘Byre’ arch and only takes a few minutes to walk to. I was enjoying getting a look at the first arch when it became apparent that the barn door could be opened! Make sure you have a look at the arch from both the outside and the inside of the barn.
Messi was having far too much fun since he had gotten out of the car (though he seemed unimpressed with the arch) and was sprinting about in the snow, doing figure-eights and generally being daft. In contrast I was enjoying the silence and the small snow flakes that were floating down from the tree branches around us.
Back down to the carpark, and a little read of the information boards that are there, and we were off along the track. The pure, soft snow was fresh and the only prints were from the woman and her son (along with some animal tracks).
The track winds through the woodland and we walked in absolute silence. No car engines, no people, nothing. It was beautiful. It’s a typical Forestry Commission track and the walking was easy.
Deer tracks and the odd fox track were scattered around in the snow. I made the mistake of mentioning how it wasn’t that cold despite the snow and low temperature (famous last words).
As we headed up along the track we caught up with the woman and her son. She was lovely and they liked Messi (who was very happy to introduce himself to them). We took over and headed up the track, eventually breaking above the treeline to a sign at the top of the track.
The sign points to the arches, specifically ‘Colt Hill’ and ‘Benbrack Hill’. I suggest doing Colt Hill first as it’s a shorter walk. We got a picture at the sign and headed off to climb up to our second arch of the day.
We started climbing, the snow got thicker and I immediately noticed something.
It was bitterly cold.
Remember how I’d mentioned down in the wood that it wasn’t that cold? A laughably optimistic observation that had been shattered without the protection of the trees.
The views were getting better and better. Stretching for miles in every direction, we could see all the surrounding hills like Merrick and Corserine.
The summit was absolutely freezing, with a cutting wind. The walk to the top, however, had been relatively easy and on a summer day (without snow!) it’d be quite a pleasant stroll.
I’m not sure what I enjoyed more. The arch or the views. The arch itself was big and impressive and it really stands out on the bare summit as you approach. The interior of the arch was coated in ice and Messi seemed absolutely baffled by it, as he circled around it. He is very familiar with summit cairns but nothing like this!
Winter walking can make even smaller hills more challenging and makes views to distant hills even more dramatic. I was loving the views to Merrick, Corserine, Cairnsmore of Carsphairn and beyond. There aren’t many hills in the area I haven’t bagged and yet, from the summit of Colt Hill I was getting a wonderful new northerly perspective.
We departed from the summit, heading back down towards the sign.
I suspected the views from Benbrack Hill would be even better and I was right.
Descending from Colt Hill, I once again saw the woman and her son, half-way up and stopping to take in the views. Messi wasted no time in re-introducing himself to his new friends. Once again in his element being made a fuss of.
After another nice chat, we headed off back down to the path. I’m sure Messi was distraught at the thought of them being unable to finish their lunch and him not being there to help.
Before I knew it, we were back down at the sign on the track and I was once again looking uphill. This time, the route was to Benbrack Hill.
The route to Benbrack Hill is longer and follows a lonely fenceline that curves over the open moorland. It’s a lovely, remote feeling place.
It was also, slowly, becoming blizzard-like. It wasn’t snowing, but the strong wind was whipping up the snow from the heather, creating a beautiful, bleak picture.
What had started as a lovely walk through gentle forest tracks under the winter sun had suddenly started feeling like an arctic adventure. Messi, out in front, kept glancing back at me as if to say “this is going to plan, right?”.
As we trudged through the snow, I put my camera away (just in case) and I was pondering what I’d say to Sir Ranulph Fiennes if we bumped into him. The little fence we were following arrived at a lonely walk marker, pointing us to Benbrack Hill.
I was relieved to reach the little marker, as we had climbed to the top of the moor and the blizzard-like conditions eased up and it was back to just being bitterly cold. We still had a wee while to go as the moorland curves south to the foot of Benbrack Hill.
The walk was a little boggy at points and more than once I yelped as my foot crashed through the thick snow into a frozen, deep puddle below.
We eventually approached the summit with the lowering afternoon winter sun, draping the hills in faint golden light. It was really, really cold with a biting wind buffetting us constantly. The lonely summit of Benbrack Hill was bleak and lonely and beautiful.
The views in all directions were gorgeous and my choice to do the walk in winter had really paid off. What is no doubt a pretty landscape of rolling hills in summer, was a dramatic, desolate scene in winter.
The Rhinns of Kells ridge in the distance was beautiful and I could see the Colt Hill Arch through the Benbrack Hill arch. I’d decided not to bring my mountain gloves and my hands were turning a nice shade of pink as I took as many pictures as I could before deciding I’d better stop.
The last thing to do was to touch the cairn on the summit, take one last look at the views and put my camera away. Heading home, I was delighted to get moving (as was Messi) and get warmed back up. The return walk was far easier and before we knew it we were at the little sign between the two hills and descending back into the forest.
Walking back through the woodland, in silence, with the last remnants of daylight was a lovely end to what had been a great day out.
The Striding Arches at Moniaive is a unique walk, that is perfect for either a summer stroll or a cold winter hike. The village is pretty and the arches are a unique piece of outdoor culture that are well worth the effort to see.
Just be careful when you drive along the road!
Distance: 11 miles