Untrodden hills, calm rivers and a night in a Tibetan monastery: could this be the ultimate walking escape?
You don’t need to be a person of faith to know that walking often turns the mind of the explorer to matters beyond this earth.
Everyone from John Keats to Mark Twain to Russell Brand (yes, really) has spoken of looking upwards and outwards whilst among hills, mountains or wide open spaces. Whatever your belief, or lack of, something about a big sky and an open landscape gets us thinking about the universe and our place within it.
Little surprise, then, that our wildest landscapes are full of places designed to help humans ponder the great beyond, from ancient stone circles to medieval chapels and ruined abbeys – to say nothing of the modern-day shrine to skywards science, the observatory. But few belief systems have such a firm connection to landscape as Buddhism, and that’s why the largest Tibetan monastery in western Europe can be found in a remote valley in the hills of Dumfries and Galloway.
Kagyu Samye Ling – generally known just as Samye Ling – sits in beautifully landscaped grounds amid a clump of woodland in the heart of the Eskdale valley. It’s hard to say where it’s ‘near’; the closest towns are Langholm and Lockerbie, but both are 15-20 miles away. In the valley itself, there’s very little: the tiny hamlet of Eskdalemuir, a meteorological and seismological observatory, and a huge Tibetan monastery.
It’s the isolation of the valley that makes it such a superb place for Buddhists: their prayers and meditations require calmness and clarity of thought, so if you’re somewhere that is empty, harmonious and tranquil you’re on a good footing from the start.
Empty, harmonious, tranquil: the valley is certainly that. The hills that surround it have unfamiliar names like Dumfedling, Rashie Knowe and Monkenshaw Doors. Paths feel raw and untrodden. The closest range you might have heard of is Ettrick Forest, whose larger humps and bumps form the northern horizon of the Eskdalemuir hills.
But the fact that this place feels so untouched is all part of the appeal, particularly if you come here with the intention of clearing your mind and getting away from it all. Just ask David Bowie (rest his soul), Leonard Cohen and Billy Connolly, who have all visited Samye Ling to do just that over the years.
The monastery offers the only accommodation in the valley, and Samye Ling’s simple rooms welcome visitors of all faiths and none. For a certain kind of curious walker, it’s perfect: discover these forgotten hills, then explore the serene grounds of the monastery. Experience the beauty and strangeness of the temple, and then head to bed with the trundle of prayer wheels as your soundtrack.
The best walk goes west up the Clerkhill Burn onto the broad flank of Windshiel Rigg, topping out at Grey Hill. At 1,207ft it’s not a soaring height, but the long, gradual climb and far-reaching views make it as full a day’s walk as you could wish for.
The descent via Wisp Hill and Raeburnside feels almost entirely untrodden; it’s one of those walks where the sheep look utterly confused by your presence. To me, it’s the perfect reminder that not all of Britain’s wild places are well-known and well-explored. The only other walkers I saw all day were monks from Samye Ling, their red-gold robes billowing in the October breeze.
Follow Moodlaw Burn back into the valley and you’ll soon see the golden-horned turret of Samye Ling’s temple, jutting out above a copse on the far bank of the White Esk.
It’s remarkable how well-hidden the complex is. As bright and spectacular as the buildings and gardens are up close, they are also carefully camouflaged so as not to jar with the valley’s wilderness scenery.
But how did Samye Ling come to be here? For that we have to go back to 1965, when a small group of Canadian monks rented an old hunting lodge called Johnstone House as a retreat. In 1967, two Tibetan monks came to visit while studying at Oxford.
When the Canadians decided to move back home, the two Tibetans agreed to take on the property and develop it as a monastery. Over time, they expanded the building and developed new teaching courses.
One of the Tibetans left after a few years, but the other – Akong Rinpoche – became renowned throughout the world for his teachings, and also for his charity ROKPA, which helps the poor and sick in Tibet and Nepal. Many luminaries visited Akong at Samye Ling, including the Dalai Lama.
But in 2013, the community was rocked by the murder of Akong Rinpoche during a visit to China, and today much of the complex is dedicated to his memory. His brother, Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, still serves as the abbot.
Life at Samye Ling is simple and humble. Visitors can come for a day, a week or longer, attending courses in meditation, yoga and mindfulness – or just staying to experience the place, as we did.
There is a full staff of monks, shaven of head and red of robe; some from Scotland, others from Tibet and Nepal, others from pretty much anywhere else.
Everyone eats together in the communal canteen; strong flavours are frowned upon in Buddhism, so the meal is usually a simple vegetable soup and bread. But the spirit of community is incredible; you’ll struggle to find someone who isn’t laughing with friends or quietly exuding an inner bliss of some kind. No-one will evangelise or try to convert you. They’re mostly just glad you’ve come to share the day with them.
You can walk the gardens for an hour or more, exploring the stupa (a domed tower used for meditation and honouring the dead) and the statues of gurus and deities; the cloister of prayer wheels and the quiet candle room, where an atmospheric lighting ceremony takes place each evening.
Even after extensive research, my mind resists my puny Western attempts to understand it all, but the simple experience of being here among the peace and ritual, in the freshest air Scotland can muster, is profoundly moving.
The highlight, though, is the temple itself. It’s open to visitors at most times. Slip in quietly and sit at the back, and you’ll be taken to a different place entirely by the low drone of the jok-kay multiphonic chant, the sudden explosions of noise from gongs and bells, and the beauty of the decor. You’ll have to pinch yourself to remember you’re in Scotland.
But the final enticement to come here is the very name of Samye Ling. It means ‘everything you are looking for can be found in one place’. And for some reading this, it can, right here: great walks in untrodden country; a total disconnection from everyday life; and architecture, landscaping and soundscapes you’d normally have to fly to the other side of the world to walk amongst.
You see, as much as this place makes you look up and out, to ponder the big matters of the universe, it’s also good at bringing you back to yourself, too.
WORDS NICK HALLISSEY
THIS FEATURE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN COUNTRY WALKING MAGAZINE