|Location Map ( geo)
|14.8 miles (23.8 km)
|A702, B7040, A76
|Route outline (key)
The B797 is perhaps one of the finest roads in southern Scotland, as it crosses the Lowther Hills between the Clyde and Nith valleys.
Abington - Wanlockhead
The route starts rather unassumingly at a T junction on the A702 towards the southern edge of Abington village. It almost immediately crosses over the A74(M), before curving around to the south west. The views to the left up through upper Clydesdale are already stunning, as the route winds gently between dry stone walls bordering fields and patches of woodland. A couple of cottages are passed as the route curves away from Clydesdale and into Glen Gonnar, a vast, empty landscape of rolling green hills. Down below, stone walls and hedges mark out a patchwork of fields, while above the open hillside stretches up towards the summits. There are patches of woodland, too, and a couple of larger forestry plantations, all of which make the few houses that sit in this glen look small, and perhaps further from the road than they really are. The road itself is notched into a slight ledge on the hillside, and climbs as it winds effortlessly around the contours.
The larger farm of Lettershaws stands on the roadside, and can be seen from over a mile away, although it gets hidden a couple of times by the shape of the hills. Long before the road reaches it, however, the fields in the valley floor have given way to rougher moorland, with post and wire fences almost invisibly parcelling it up. There are fewer trees too, except for a large plantation above the farm, and the small river can be seen meandering back and forth down below. The slopes above the road appear to be a single hillside, indented here and there by small streams tumbling down to the river below, but on the opposite side of the valley, the streams have cut deep between the hills, producing a series of ridges and side glens, many of which steepen as they reach Glen Gonnar - possibly a result of glaciation in the last ice ages. The slope above the road steepens as it reaches the forest, a steep grassy bank climbing up to the first trees standing high above the road.
As Lettershaws appears ahead, it is revealed as bigger than first thought, a substantial farm with several large barns and a caravan site on the flood plain next to the river below the road. It is soon passed, however, and a short straight dips across the burn before climbing into a narrower part of the glen ahead. What had been a wide valley floor is squeezed down, but just remains wide enough for the river to meander back and forth. The forestry plantation has recently been felled, opening up the views ahead, and then suddenly and unexpectedly another road appears on the hillside above to the right. This unclassified route has crossed from the B740 at Crawfordjohn to the north, and slowly drops down to meet the B797 at a sharp fork pointing south. Everywhere, it seems, is three miles from here - Abington, Leadhills and Crawfordjohn. For the next mile or so, the road snakes effortlessly up the northern edge of the valley floor, passing a few trees and a lonely cottage.
As it rounds a corner, another cottage can be seen ahead, on the far side of the stream. An old stone arch bridge can be seen opposite it, but the road dips down to cross the tiny stream on another bridge. The landscape opposite the cottage is scarred with the remains of industrial activity long ago. The leadworks in the upper reaches of the valley have rendered areas infertile, with bare gravelly soil showing up between patches of bracken. A weedy yard or floor lies along the river bank, and two, not one, derelict stone bridges cross the burn, the upper one on an embankment that almost looks like a dam. Ahead, the road steepens for a time as it snakes up the valley. Vegetation has reclaimed the slopes, but there are still patches of bare ground along the sides of the stream. It is a strange contrast, this evidence of industrial activity in such a remote and scenic landscape.
The valley floor widens again, and the road levels out, a series of rippled undulations stretching ahead towards a block of trees. As the road curves past the trees, spoil tips can be seen beside the now tiny stream, and then a glimpse of houses ahead. A series of snaking bends leads into the village of Leadhills, nestled snugly in a hollow where two valleys meet. It is a beautiful setting, and despite the obvious evidence of its industrial past, the village itself has reclaimed some beauty. The old cottages jostle for space along the roadsides, clambering up the steep slopes of the hills, and twisting round bends in straggly rows. The B7040 comes in from the left at a crossroads, having climbed up from the A702 in Clydesdale at Elvanfoot. Houses now line both sides of the road, with the village school set back in a gap. A little further on, opposite the hotel, a view across the widest part of the valley shows rows of cottages climbing up the further slope. Few of these houses appear to be new, most were presumably built when mining was at its height.
An old church stands ahead in the apex of a fork, where the short dead end to the left leads up to the village station from where a small steam engine still runs through to Wanlockhead in the summer. The B797 keeps on Main street to the right, and as the valley closes in again, houses are suddenly penned tightly to the edge of the narrowing road. The last house is soon passed, but the road is still climbing, threading its way up the now shallow valley. A house sits on its own down to the left, in the bottom of the valley although the stream is now so small to barely be found. More evidence of spoil heaps can be seen ahead as the road straightens up on the final run to the summit. The ruins of old workings are passed, and the railway line can be seen on a ledge on the far side of the valley, before it drops down into a cutting. The summit is marked by a cattle grid, 466m above sea level, and over 200m above the start at Abington.
Wanlockhead - Mennock
The summit is little more than a crest above the deep cutting of the railway line, and then the road plunges down into Wanlockhead. Reputedly Scotland's highest village, it is more spacious than Leadhills, less restricted by the steep hills as it lies in a bowl at the head of the Wanlock Water. The local community are not shy of putting forward their claim as the highest village, and elegant metal signs proclaim it at either entrance. The B797 skirts the southern edge of the village, a right turn leading towards the centre while the route sweeps left then right around a block of trees. There are a few houses along the main road, but most of them are spread out to the right, dropping down the slopes towards the little burn at the bottom. Most of the houses in Leadhills were small and terraced, but larger properties seem to prevail here, many detached standing in their own grounds. Venture further into the village, and long terraces of old miners cottages survive, but most are hidden from the road. The exception is the long row of Fraser Terrace which sits just below the main road towards the southern end of the village.
The B797 does not, as might be expected, follow the Wanlock Water downstream, but instead curves south into the narrow gap of the Mennock Pass. The road fills the floor of this tiny, steep sided pass, as it squeezes over the summit and into the upper reaches of the Mennock Valley beyond. As the road plunges down the hill, the landscape of interlocking hills opens up ahead, and soon the valley widens as a small burn tumbles in from the left. This is the Mennock Water, and after crossing it the route follows the burn downstream. The valley quickly closes in again, the road built on a ledge above the burn which is perhaps straighter than it would like to be. Old concrete posts support a metal rail, as a very primitive sort of crash barrier. Traffic is thankfully light most of the time, the local bus trundling up and down, a few delivery vehicles and locals going about their business, but at the height of summer, a confusion of tourists, bikers, camper vans and sightseers can make progress slow.
The road has no choice but to wind down the narrow valley floor, with steep slopes rising on either side. The burn is crossed again, and then there is another widening in the valley as another tributary tumbles in from the east. The descent feels fast and spectacular, but the constant winding of the valley means that the real speed is low, lower still when traffic lights restrict the road past damage caused by the stream undermining the tarmac. Left-right, left-right, down it goes, snaking this way and that between the interlocking fingers of steep heather clad hills. The stream is a constant companion, and here and there tiny parking spaces have been made when the stream leaves room, allowing people to stop and enjoy the views, although the valley can become rather crowded on a bright, warm summers day. At length, the road levels out, while the stream continues to cut a deep ravine down to the left, but having escaped the valley floor, the road starts to descend again, along a ledge cut into the hillside.
The valley opens up ahead, allowing a longer view of the road ahead, before it disappears around a long right hander. This turns the road to briefly head north west, seriously restricted by the landscape, with the stream cutting into the hillside on the other side of the valley, leaving scars of low cliffs and old landslips. A short straight plunges down, offering a tantalising view ahead of a wide valley floor, and around the next bend this opens up ahead. Suddenly, the road is enjoying a wide flat run between grassy parking areas studded with cars and campers. On a busy summers day, this part of the valley can feel like Sauchiehall Street, but outside of the peak season, it can be empty, deserted, spectacular. The rounded heathery slopes guide the road around to head south west once more, following the Mennock Water downstream, but this incredible journey is nearing its end. You may wish to turn here and head back over this stunning route.
Around a couple more sweeping bends along the river bank, the river is noticeably wider, and the hills ahead look somehow lower, greener and friendlier. A house can be spied through some trees to the left, and then a short straight through one last narrow section of the valley leads back into the real world. Tumbledown stone walls once more sit along the roadside, with patches of straggly woodland between the small fields. Trees hide the slopes, which are much lower anyway, and then the road snakes across the river on a small stone bridge. The road winds downstream through trees, the river unseen just down to the right, except here and there it is just a retaining wall away from the road. A cottage is passed, and then as a steep grassy hillside is revealed to the left, an old arch bridge carries a farm road over the river to the right. This is the last sight of the Mennock Water, as the road maintains a fairly level run south west through a wooded notch in the hills, while the river meanders off to the north west.
A short descent then drops the route down to cross the railway bridge and turn hard right onto the old A76 alignment. The new road now sits down to the left, and is quickly met at a simple T junction at the eastern end of the tiny village of Mennock. Just as the start was unassuming, so is the end, revealing nothing of the magical grandeur of the route between.
The route taken by the B797 is undoubtedly one of many old passes through the Lowther Hills, one which gained importance with the mining around Wanlockhead and Leadhills. Depsite this, it was not classified in the original 1922 road lists, although this oversight was rectified within a couple of years. A glance at the OS map reveals numerous other hill paths and tracks, including Dempster Road and the track down the valley of the Wanlock Water which have long since fallen from regular use.
It is only at either end of the route that any firm evidence of realignment or improvement can be found, and in both cases this is due to improvements to other routes. At Abington, the B797 originally met the A74 Carlisle Road at a fork junction further south. This now lies under the motorway, but the original line of the route can be traced in the short stub of Leadhills Road serving the houses on the western side of the motorway. When Abington was first bypassed, the B797 was turned to meet the A74 at a T junction at the southern end of the dual carriageway, and this junction remained when the dual carriageway was extended to the south. It can still be identified as an overgrown area of hardcore survives between Leadhills Road and the motorway. When the bypass was upgraded to motorway in the 1990s, the current line of the A797 was built, crossing the bypass to meet Carlisle Road, now the A702 as it does now.
At the opposite end, the A76 south of Mennock was realigned in the late 2000s, causing the slight extension of the B797. This seems to have been done, rather than a square junction in line with the railway bridge, due to the height difference between the new and old roads.