Exploring the highest villages in Scotland
If you were to guess the location of the highest villages in Scotland, I bet your first thought probably wouldn't turn to somewhere south of Glasgow in the heart of the Scottish Lowlands. Yet, not only does Wanlockhead in Dumfries and Galloway hold the claim to fame as the highest village in Scotland at 1531 ft above sea level, it is also the next door neighbour to Leadhills, the second highest village in Scotland, situated just across the regional border in South Lanarkshire.
Both settlements developed and grew thanks to the discovery of the most important lead-zinc deposit in Scotland which brought mining and jobs to the area, with gold and other rare minerals also found locally. Although mining no longer takes place, the evidence of it is everywhere, from the visible heaps and shafts to the libraries, cottages and museum.
Easily reached in less than an hour on the M74 motorway from Glasgow, a combined visit to Leadhills and Wanlockhead makes an ideal day trip. This is an area that definitely doesn't get the attention it deserves on the Scottish visitor trail despite having plenty of history and numerous unique attractions.
As heading off the typical tourist route in Scotland is my speciality, I decided to leave Glasgow behind and head south to make a day of it among the beauty of the Lowther Hills. To say it was a unique adventure is an understatement and the locals I encountered were as friendly and passionate about their area as they come.
If you're looking for a day out with a difference, I highly recommend the short detour from the motorway to visit these two distinctive Scottish villages. If you still need convincing, here is a summary of what I got up to along with a few more ideas for exploring these underrated regions -
Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway
My first stop, and one of my main reasons for visiting Leadhills, was to take a trip on the Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway. It is Britain's highest narrow gauge adhesion railway at almost 1500 ft above sea level and was built on the original track bed of the Caledonian Railway which closed in 1938.
During the summer months you can take a 25 minute rail journey to the village of Wanlockhead, although disappointingly on the Saturday that I arrived there were no trains running. Despite checking ahead as advised on social media and on the website there was no mention of a closure and there were several other disappointed visitors that turned up while I was there. I'm assuming this is down to the fact that the railway is run by volunteers, so just be aware that checking ahead does not guarantee the train will be running when you get there.
However, I did enjoy looking around the small station and the signal box, there is also a rather unique toilet which is basically a shed on the platform with a toilet inside! If all had went to plan, the train would have taken me on a journey along a line that connects Scotland's two highest villages, passing the disused Glengonnar Mine along the way.
Leadhills Railway is an interesting wee place and the train journey is still something I would love to do so I'll try again at some point in the future and report back with more info.
Hopetoun Arms - the highest residential hotel in Scotland
As Leadhills is Scotland's second highest village it might not come as a surprise that it is home to the highest residential hotel in Scotland at 1297 ft above sea level. As my plans for the day had gone awry, I decided the Hopetoun Arms was a good place to get a cup of tea and reassess my itinerary. I hadn't actually made any real plans for the day other than taking the railway to the mining museum, however the hotel staff came to my rescue and provided me with a leaflet for the Leadhills Heritage Trail. It piqued my interest and I decided that it would be next on my agenda, but not before I finished my generous serving of tea.
The Hopetoun Arms is a family run hotel with a homely atmosphere, with historic charm and period features. This year it has also won the Scottish heat of the 'Window with a View' contest after a guest submitted a photograph from his bedroom view overlooking the village and the surrounding Lowther Hills. You'll have to book a stay and decide for yourself if the hotel has the best view in all of Scotland.
Leadhills Heritage Trail
Thanks to the Leadhills Heritage Trail leaflet, I spent the next hour on an interesting saunter through the village. If you don't manage to pick up a leaflet, there is a board with a map of the route just opposite the hotel, although it doesn't have as much information on it.
The circular trail is marked with 9 points of interest and one of the more notable sites is the grave of John Taylor who is recorded as having died in 1770 at 137 years of age! There were poor birth records at the time and his age was calculated by his personal recollection of an eclipse of the sun in 1652. Accurate or not, he sounds like an interesting character and his story has made him a local legend.
Other attractions along the way include the Leadhills Miners Library (see below), the village square and the curfew bell which was rung to inform minors of shift changes and accidents.
The Leadhills Heritage Trail is an easy walk and helps to bring the story of the village to life. It also encourages you to explore some of the backstreets and historical objects which you might otherwise miss.
Leadhills Miners Library
One of the attractions on the Heritage Trail is the Leadhills Miners Library and it was a real treat to explore some of the old books that nestle inside. The Leadhills Miners Reading Society was founded in 1741, making it Britain's oldest subscription library. Of the 23 founding members at Leadhills, all were miners except the minister and the schoolmaster. It was also the world's first library for working people and today it is still used by the local community and is also open to visitors.
I enjoyed browsing through the various resources including historic photographs and records of the day to day work carried out in the mines. There are also some interesting old books on display including a copy of The Scots Magazine dating back to 1739, and a variety of local minerals, some of which are rare and unique to the area.
The volunteer on duty (I didn't catch her name) was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the history of the local area and it was a treat to hear her memories of how life was in the village years ago when she was growing up and the changes that have taken place over her lifetime.
The library has limited opening hours but visits can be arranged by appointment. If you're interested in the local history of the area or Scottish history in general, I definitely recommend it.
Teddywood Bear Village
I can honestly say I'd never had a local history lesson told through historical teddy bear characters until I visited Teddywood Bear Village in Leadhills and funnily enough I've not had one since. This place is about as unique and quirky as attractions come and visiting was the most fun I've had in ages!
The shop, bears and miniature village are down to the passion and imagination of the owner, Lee Stewart Gilmore who couldn't have been more friendly and welcoming. I had no idea what to expect before I popped in to her shop and after my unique history lesson, I went outside to explore Teddywood Village. Lee is a creative genius and the minature village is a labour of love which has been built by her own fair hands over the years. Walking around the colourful little houses and following the wacky signs is guaranteed to make you smile whatever your age. As the village is a work in progress, I can't wait to see what eccentric additions Lee dreams up next!
I loved my wee historical bear-themed adventure and it definitely goes up there with the most unusual attractions I've visited in Scotland which is why I highly recommend you put it on your must visit list. I guarantee you will not experience anything quite like it and you will leave with a surprising amount of knowledge about the history of Leadhills and maybe even a bear or two!
Museum of Lead Mining
It makes sense to combine a day trip to Leadhills with a trip to Wanlockhead and vice versa. Originally I had planned on taking the short railway trip between the villages but since that fell through, I hopped back in the car and headed for the highest village in Scotland which is a mere 2 miles along the road. The short journey also took me across the regional border and in to Dumfries and Galloway, which is one of my favourite areas.
Wanlockhead is home to The Museum of Lead Mining which is the best place to learn about the history of mining in the area. The museum itself has lots of information about the story of local mining, however the highlight for me was a chance to head underground on a tour of one of the old mines. This really gives you a taste of the challenging conditions that the miners had to work in.
Going back a few generations, my own family was heavily involved in the industry so there was a real personal interest for me and experiencing the gloom and claustrophobic surroundings, I do wonder about the harsh life they endured, not to mention the constant dangers they faced.
The tour also takes you to Straitsteps Cottages, which has been furnished to show what it was like to live as a miner in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is also an opportunity to visit Wanlockhead Miner’s Library which is the second oldest subscription Library in Scotland. Unfortunately I ran out of time and didn't manage to visit on this occasion but I did enjoy a stroll through the village, past all the quaint little cottages and left feeling that I had gotten to know this historic part of Scotland quite a bit better.
Other things to do in Leadhills & Wanlockhead
Other things to do nearby
I've written a few other blog posts with ideas of things to do in the surrounding area that you might find of interest including -
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