Post: This is Charlie’s personal account of 17 days in the Highlands. In those days one’s annual holiday only extended to one week, which was all his beloved, Jo, was entitled to have. As Charlie was unemployed and on the Dole, he had a week to try out Scotland on his own, returning to Ecclefechan to meet up with her in the evening of his second Saturday, before returning to the Highlands. Charlie and his readers (you and I) benefited from the discretion of the Trade Union official in Bolton who took Charlie aside – earlier in the year – and explained that with a ‘Vacant Card’ he could travel the country and sign on at the local unemployment exchanges once a week on the basis that he was looking for work! And it worked !
And a little known fact, never before revealed by me, earlier in that year of 1931 Charlie undertook a three day tour of Lincolnshire on his brother’s motorcycle. I think Charlie must have been encouraged or nagged to pass a motor bike test (if indeed he needed a licence in those days) because his father had a small motorbike. He certainly had a motorbike licence when I knew him because I persuaded Charlie to buy a three wheel Reliant van, (which could be driven on a motorbike licence provided the reversing gear was blanked off) when he was in his late fifties and commuting to Trafford Park and back every day to work was becoming a chore too far. Why he went to Lincolnshire we will never know, possibly job seeking. Part 1 Days in the Highlands
In the many weathers year of 1931 my whole position was more than usually precarious. I was on the register as “totally unemployed”, and along with most of my fellows I made some efforts to find work. That is, until I became convinced that seeking a job at that period was a waste of time. By that time a belated Spring had made her appearance full of the bright blush of her apologies. With my camping kit and a little ingenious arranging I turned the whole summer into a series of delightful, prolonged weekends, which made unemployment a poem of freedom and pleasure. I had no false sense of “shame”, and little worry; I was physically and mentally fit, ready for any job that might be offered, and here was a chance to get something out of life. Never was time wasted.
But I became ambitious to extend my activities. The snag was my inevitable appearance twice weekly at the Labour Exchange. My trade union secretary paved the way. For the purpose of “seeking work” in other districts a ‘Vacant Card’, to be stamped at the Exchanges on my route, was forthcoming, and as a prelude, I spent a week in the North-East. This was followed by twelve days in the Home Counties, then, as Jo’s holidays approached we fell to discussing ways and means of carrying my ‘search for work’ into Scotland. The upshot was that I arranged to start a week earlier and meet secretly across the border, on the first day of Jo’s holiday.
Leaning over bridges is a pleasant sport of mine on hot days. Great measures of ease, and contemplation that leads to all sorts of thought fall to one’s mind in this way. The Devils Bridge at Kirkby Lonsdale accommodated me in one of its alcoves. Sunday tea-time; Jo had turned homeward after we had spent a sultry weekend at Kingsdale, and I had become slave to my own fancy for a week. Time passed, gallons of swift water rushed beneath the grey arches, other alcoves emptied, filled, emptied again. Figments from my wandering mind swirled into vision, were borne swiftly away on the surface, were replaced at once. Time flies in this way. Besides, I was living cheaply. I was saving money. This was quite in accordance, for in my pocket lightly rested all the money I had in the world……… one pound six shillings and fourpence.
I tore myself away from my niche regretfully, for I was leaving behind a sound source of economy.
On that splendid evening I made my way over Shap summit and on the branch road to Orton found a green patch and a clear spring, the first essentials of a camp-site. There I had wandered by chance; chance would have to lead me to other places!
A broiling sun beat down the whole of the next day. Sometime during the afternoon I spent a period scrubbing tar off hopeless hands and cursing the Dumfries County Council industriously. Why must tar be sprayed only during hot weather – why must I have a puncture at the crucial moment!
From Dumfries a lovely road climbs through rich country into the hills, historic ground of the ‘Killing Times’. Almost every local churchyard has its Covenanters graves, usually with some harrowing description or crude rhyme chiselled on the stones. Allowing for the rough methods of that period, these iron-bound Puritans got little worse than they deserved. Their accounts of their hounding from place to place make thrilling reading, no less harsh were the troops of “Geordie” than they had been, ruling from kirk and castle, with bible and sword, the bible, as always, providing the best of excuses for the wielding of the sword. One wonders that human beings can be so hard in such a land of beauty, as that glen from Dunscore to Moniaive, the bubbling Cairn-water always at hand. The hint of ‘grey Galloway’ crept in beyond Moniaive when the road tilted and lost its tarry gloss for the rough tan of a moorland pass. The summit thrilled me – my first near view of the Galloway Highlands. Swelling moorlands with rocky peaks, and a shapely range of mountains holding the horizon.
A mile further on I pitched camp by a stream, and anon there came a shepherd to talk to me in the rich Lowland accent. “Ye are in the parish of Dal-ry”, said he, “County of Kirkcoobrie, and yonder, behind the fine peaks, I was born and bred. Right under the brow of Merrick”.
“The fine peaks” of Kells were purple just then, before the flushing sky of sunset. He and I seemed quite alone in Galloway. No sound or movement disturbed the colour, only the chatter of the stream there. My informant loved his hills. They were personal, and Merrick, his sire, was also his Lord. “Are they not the beautiful ones?” he asked, and I had to agree. I was offered eggs, milk, paraffin, anything, and the good man was concerned that company I had none. “Ye are all on your own-alone” he often repeated, and with a final shake of the head, gave me a “guid-nicht”. For a short time I stood on the bridge with a cigarette, contemplating the fading wonder of twilight over the Kells, then, with my shorts for a pillow, I curled up in the sleeping bag.
Kirkcudbright gave me a shocking road surface and wonderful scenery to Carsphairn. A lonely road by moor and stream, with sometimes a deep gorge, always with tantalising views. After Carsphairn I glimpsed Loch Doon, a long mirror of water with a magnificent bulk of mountains behind, the crowning heights of the Western Lowlands, Merrick. The valley of the Doon Water may once have surpassed; now it is ruined by the Ayrshire Coalfields, and a hard, tiresome road climbs ridge after ridge to Ayr and the coast.
Robbie Burns is vehemently claimed by Ayr. I renounce all claims. After the “Tam-o’ Shanter” Inn and the Auld Brig I lost interest. It is a holiday resort. The coast road northward, along the Firth of Clyde profoundly disappointed me. For some distance it was not along the sea-edge, but through dune-country and at the edge of sprawling industrialism. About Irvine were many huge camps in dirty fields, untidy scatterings and crowdings of a variety of tents from the big marquee carrying the stains of strenuous summers to the sack-cloth makeshifts of wandering tramps. Amongst them sported girls with flimsy attire of colours hostile to the environs, young chaps in flannels and shirts probably a virgin shade before the camp, now of a shade commiserate with the ground; hordes of youngsters to whom the camp was the fine excuse for a long summer unwashed, and more sedate groups of elders sunning themselves.
At Ardrossan Docks the Arran steamer was in, and only my slender pocket, now hardly worth a pound sterling, deterred me from boarding her. Thence the seashore, with faint tracings of the mountains of Arran high above the hazy horizon. A swim, and tea half-dressed among the dunes.
I met the cyclist at the drinking fountain in Largs. His bike was loaded with camping kit; his face had the tan of long days awheel. In conversation we discovered a kindred spirit. Now he was homeward bound to Greenock only for the purpose of ‘signing on’. Three months ago the slump caught him up, since when he had contrived to live exclusively on the road, returning only to sign the register. Up to now the weather had constantly played him false; now that a heatwave had come along he had heard that a foreman in his shipyard was on the lookout for him. He was bitter. He would slip away unseen on the morrow, the Highlands were grander than the Clyde shipyards; time enough for work when Scotland’s short summer broke down. He had the skill of trapping rabbits, tickling trout, and preparing food where many would starve. We parted on good terms.
The sun went down as I rode along the Clyde coast, and the mist lifted off the sea, revealing the peaks of Arran, fantastic summits rearing three thousand feet above the water. From Inverkip I climbed up a steep lane till the Firth was stretched below with jumbled mountains on three sides and wedged among them the narrow entrances to long sea lochs. There was lowland Cumbrae laid in the sky-white water, Bute behind, the magnificent ranges of mountainous Arran to the westward, and far behind, delicately etched, the lower hills of Kintyre. In a search for a campsite I climbed the glen of the Kip to where two bridges cross the gorge, one ancient and parapet-less, designated “Roman”. This provided me with enough space for my tent on its very edge, hard, solid ground too.
‘Business’ compelled me to visit Greenock next morning [Collect his Dole money]. I will gloss over the ride along Clydeside to Erskine Ferry, along dockland with a nightmare of railway lines, potholes, narrow places where the copious traffic stream is blocked, then suddenly released to rush madly around. Perhaps the Rock of Dumbarton commanding the northern side of this great river, a Scottish Gibraltar of other days, relieves a dull scene.
I had tea by Loch Lomond. The scene captivated me. For the first time I was in the Highlands, and, expecting little from Loch Lomondside, I was delighted. Especially with the magnetic jumble of peaks towards the head. The whole evening was crowded with beauty. I just strayed along, half bewitched, down to Arrochar at the head of Loch Long, along with wild Glen Croe, where the fantastic rocks of the ‘Cobbler’ overhang, and the quiet road winds round little promontories of rock, and the stream makes green pools and small, rushing linns. At the end, the road is jerked up to the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ stone, erected by General Wade’s troops. By building roads through the Highlands the English Government, in the surest way, broke the power of the Clans, removing for ever the danger of recurrence of the rebellions which almost set on fire the first half of the eighteenth century. A wild swoop down Glen Kinglas took me to Cairndow on Loch Fyne, and four miles round the head of it, on a lovely pitch where the air had the tang of the sea in it, I set my camp.
The great warrior Clan McMidge sorely troubled me. All travellers to Scotland speak in awe and fear of them, and I share it. On Loch Fyne they were a pest, thriving on the Essence of Lavender I had paid a shilling for, in the hope that it would keep them off.
After supper I strolled far down the Loch, and the peaceful beauty of it beguiled me. The tide was out; there was still a streak of day lingering far down the waters. Surely nowhere can one find greater camping places than those freely scattered along the sea-lochs of the Western Highlands!