Scottish Holidays Part 4

Scottish Highlands     Part   4

We awoke to twilight fog, though my watch betrayed morning well advanced.  Geldie Burn chattered past; the northerly wind brought the endless drizzle, and only bog and spears of coarse moorland grass lay to the near limit of our vision.  Over a humble breakfast of stewed raspberries and custard we studied our Ordnance Survey and found we had over-run the path we wanted.  Ahead lay Geldie Lodge; a short walk over the footbridge revealed it dimly snuggled in a fold of the hills, deserted.  A little cairn of stones some yards back gave us the clue, and after that the path barely existed; tiny cairns were spaced, each within sight of the next, and between them reeking stretches of bog.  We thought ourselves the only beings there till a herd of deer suddenly came out of the mist not twenty yards away.

Their leader, with a quick toss of antlers, roared a warning, and in a flash we were alone again.  We missed the cairns, groped about bewildered over crumpled hillocks intersected by innumerable streamlets, finally picking up our route again by the River Feshie flowing in our direction.  The impetuous torrent of the swollen Eldart barred our path, thigh deep, and desperately difficult to ford with the laden bicycles.

From that point the scenery took on a new aspect.  The valley deepened, narrowed, the river turbulently entered a gorge, and rowan trees clung to crannies in the rock.  We came to the brackish foot of a fine waterfall, though the stream provided another tardy crossing.  Indeed, the noise of water came from every side; cataracts flinging themselves out of the mist, the Feshie water plunging along the bed of the ravine, and every streamlet brawling along impulsively.  A slanting curtain of heavy rain sweeping up the glen was the last; behind it sunlight filtered through the vapours, and the mist rose to higher places, to wreathe bulging crags, to hang like steam in the rock-choked corries.  Beauty and grandeur crowded together.  Beneath scarred cliffs tall red spruce trees were dwarfed, and the green carpet of turf sprang easily underfoot.  An added touch of the wild came to us as a great big bird with hooked bill and massive beat of huge wings rose suddenly and sped into the wastes above.  We are sure it was a golden eagle; we like to think it was.  Sometimes where long-forgotten storms had wrought havoc amid the trees, the path was hard to traverse.  In one place a hundred yards of rock had collapsed across the path, and we had a rough time getting across.  In Glenfeshie forest we saw men with guns, and we knew then the reason for the hasty departure of the herd of deer on Cnapan Beag.

Loch Tulla

Amongst the pines near Feshie Lodge we explored a derelict chapel, an unpretentious place, but on the crumbled plaster above the fireplace was the figure of a deer, the remnant of a painting by Landseer.  Glenfeshie forest, a shaded parkland of fir and spruce, with wonderful turf, was a pleasant place for lingering.  A footbridge close by the large garden-embowered Feshie Lodge, saved a contemplated struggle through the swollen river, and a firm, real, road was reached close by the Lodge gates.  There was a fork-road towards Kingussie – ‘the mountain road to Ruthven’, with a couple of deep fords which no longer troubled us, and a backward view which must inspire in clearer weather.  We saw the mists once more creeping down from the Cairngorm heights to fasten Glen Feshie and the grim bogs of Geldie in premature twilight.  Ahead the richly wooded Spey valley curved towards the brown Monadhliath barrier.

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We tumbled down past the old barracks of Ruthven, relics of General Wade’s day, and on a good road came to Kingussie.

Our stores were quite depleted, and two shillings are little enough to build up further supplies.  Luxuries had to be ruthlessly cut……… I went smokeless.  Jo haggled over the price of plums – we still had custard powders, and with bread and milk, and paraffin for the stove, were assured of one good meal.  That was as far as we worried.  With one penny left we swaggered out of Kingussie, after a talk with a Wigan clubmate en-route for Perth and home.

From the next village of Newtonmore, still beside the Spey, we had a lovely run past the old battlefield of Invernahavan, past deep woods and winding about high rocks to Laggan Bridge, where branches the old Wade road, tracing the higher reaches of Spey on its ruined way over Corrieyairack Pass.  One day we mean to cross the wild, bulky hills of Monadhliath.  Into Strathmashie our road led us as evening came, and we found a perfect camping place at a waterfall where the Mashie water crosses the road.  There we dined well on our simple fare, and spent the idyllic hour of dusk at the edge of the fall, careless of the whole world.

The next morning we were up early and soon awheel again, as, to put it mildly, our breakfast was not sufficiently complicated to dally over the cooking or linger at the eating.  We soon reached Loch Laggan – and the first of the road gangs.  The men worked with muslin over their heads to keep at bay the attacks of McMidge, which came in clouds to pester the life of, and put to flight anyone who dared to stop for a moment.  The state of the road was shocking; in the process of neglect prior to being reconstructed, which work was in progress in places, but nowhere far enough advanced to make travel easier.  So we crawled along the great length of Glen Spean, eyes glued to the awful surface, blinded and choked by dust from passing vehicles, with ever and anon the noise of road gangs in our ears.  At Spean Bridge Jo urged me to go on ahead, for the possibility of early closing day (Wednesday) at Fort William had dawned on us, and the idea of waiting penniless on the doorstep of a locked post office until the morning did not appeal.  She would follow, she said, and practice en-route the subtler and more appealing notes of the songs we were to sing, should the remittance not materialise.  On the earlier part of the morning’s ride we had achieved some measure of harmony, which might – or might not – induce the wily Scot to part with a copper or two, if only to see the last of us.  The extra bits – the ‘down and out’ appearance, the shuffle along the gutter, would come with experience no doubt!

In a race against time I crashed over the remaining few miles into the town of our hopes, entered the Post Office with bated breath on the stroke of twelve, tore open feverishly the waiting letter, from which tumbled twenty-five shillings.  We were saved again!  The business of the Employment Exchange was concluded, and when Jo came down the street the sight of me with a cigarette at once assured her.  There and then we bought a great supply of food, with a few delicacies to celebrate, went beside the sparkling waters of Loch Linnhe, and had such an orgy that it dissipated our new stocks.

The level road alongside Loch Linnhe had the gloss of new surfacing, heavenly to ride after Glen Spean, while across the water the many headed hills of Ardgour and Sunart were superb in the clear air.  Our troubles however, were not over.  My front tyre, badly weathered in a summer of wandering, swelled enormously, until at Onich, just beyond Corran Ferry, I could go no further.  A garage man gave me a large piece of old tyre which I stuffed inside, and thereafter rode with a constant bump at every circuit of the wheel.  We crossed the Ballachulish Ferry, a wonderful spot near the foot of Loch Leven, with the salt tang of the sea in our nostrils, and in our eyes the panorama of the Lochaber giants heading the loch, the wild Glencoe peaks ahead of us, and the sunlit hills of Ardgour across the water.

Glencoe, too, was in the throes of reconstruction, again nowhere advanced to give us much comfort.  There would be a short bit of broad, finished asphalt, then a plunge back to the steep old road, now a hundred times worse from the heavy traffic engaged on the building of the new road.  We realised, too, that again we were foodless, and many rough miles from the next village, but down came a van which we stopped and obtained ample supplies.  Eggs were obtained from the wife of a road worker, and she refused to take the pay.  As we mounted higher, great clouds sailed above the precipitous flanks of the pass, and the sun, shining at intervals, played search-light fingers into the hollow.  A wild, desolate place, Glencoe!

At dusk we reached the summit of the pass and sought thereabouts for a camping place, but not a green, firm patch could be found in all that waste of rock and bog; even the wild head of Glen Etive, which we traversed for some distance, had nothing to show.  Casting about, we eventually found an exposed patch on the Loch Rannoch trackway quite close to Kingshouse Inn.

The magnificence of our site was more apparent the next morning when the rising sun reddened the bulging cliffs of Buchaille Etive Mor, and before the heaving Moor of Rannoch around us was properly clear of the dawn, all the craggy peaks were bathed in brilliant warm light.

The new road-to-be across Rannoch Moor had not yet been commenced, and the old road, gone all to pieces under the burden of traffic far beyond its capacity, was a hopeless rut or a mass of stones over which we jolted the whole day, over Black Mount and Ba’ Bridge to Loch Tulla, the few trees about the Loch intensifying the wastes of Rannoch which rolled east in bog and water as far as our horizon.  There were five peaks across the Loch as high as Snowdon; behind us, west of Black Mount the group dominated by Stob Ghabhar and Clach Leathad rose higher still in the blue sky, dividing our attention between fore and aft and the rutty road.  At Bridge of Orchy the civilising influence of a railway line sobered the road a little, which took us into sedate Strath Fillan, by Tyndrum to Crianlarich.  Hitherto the places had been hardly more than names on the map, but Crianlarich had a hotel, a church, houses, a railway station, and more than these things to us, a good road down green Glen Falloch back to Loch Lomondside.  We were weary of the perpetual gyrations and skids of the old tracks, a little anxious for our tyres, particularly my front one, which was bulging again in an alarming manner.  In the afternoon we fared better – slightly – on Loch Lomondside, the entrancing, unspoiled beauty of the upper parts, a fine farewell to the Highlands.

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Just below the foot of the loch, at the beginning of Clydeside’s environs is a place called Alexandria, where my tyre finally gave up the ghost, and a convenient cycle shop fitted me up with a Dunlop ‘Champion’ for three shillings and sixpence.  Our exchequer was again beginning to rest lightly in my pocket.

For the third time in a little over two weeks I was at Erskine Ferry again, and once again I tried to find the ‘recommended’ route to Carlisle (avoiding Glasgow), this time with more success, and dusk found us near Strathavon, at a farm where we were readily given a pitch for our tents.

The southerly wind, which had given us such a doughty tussle on our way out veered north during the night, and we had the dubious pleasure of facing it once more across the rumpled central plain, by Lesmahagow, to the pleasanter Clyde country, and the original road to Crawford and over Beattock, sometimes in a wild flurry of rain.  At our first campsite together at Ecclefechan we had left one or two superfluous articles, and we called to recover them.  The woman of the house was very pleasant.  Would we like a drink of tea?  We agreed but did not expect the relatively sumptuous feast which was brought to us.  With our feet under a table for the first time for a week, we decided that the good lady deserved a fair return for her efforts, and I went to foot the bill a little anxiously.  The three shillings she charged was very reasonable………  but how slender was the remaining burthen!

That Saturday evening we prowled round Carlisle market, seeking out the lowest possible prices for our supplies, and as we slowly left the City behind, boring into a golden, windy sunset, the bulk of our food-bag was bread, and a little oatmeal.  There was a pound of plums for stewing too.  Plums were remarkably cheap that season.  The usual, inevitable custard we would have to forego.  Aslant of one of the interminable hills towards Penrith lies the village of High Hesket, where we obtained a camping site, and where, from sheer lack of money, we had to thank the farmer profusely next morning, and beat a hasty retreat before any thought of payment entered his mind.  In fact, High Hesket hill was topped in grand style, almost before our last word had reached him!

This last day was boisterous, with sharp storms, and, it seemed, ever so slowly, we lifted ourselves over the altitudes of Shap Fell into our home pastures.  For the final meal near Lancaster we enjoyed bread and jam without even butter, and our journey was completed with the same two half-pennies as on that rough ride between Kingussie and Fort William.

At the height of a great industrial depression I had completed a round trip of about 1150 miles, half of them with Jo.  Between us, our total funds had not been more than three pounds ten shillings, yet the ubiquitous bicycle had taken us through the heart of the Scottish Highlands, into a wilderness where yet the snow lingered on the mountain tops, a country far removed from the stagnant, crowded life of the great industrial regions of Britain.

We had for the first time in my life, been introduced to that land of Bens and Glens which in the future was to give us to give us our happiest days together.  In those years then unborn we were to look back to that week when the borderline of complete penury never marred our complete happiness, where our unity and freedom were treasures of which we had ample store.

[ Footnote]   As the reader will appreciate, the last paragraph was added years after this tour.   Charlie and Jo spent many holidays in Scotland, and, with the colour transparencies which he was one of the first to start taking immediately after the war, sustained his magic lantern shows through many a winter clubroom night. To this day they rest in my house loft, unseen for thirty years, thousands of them.  Scotland’s magic, in the high and lonely places, never faded for Charlie and his wife, and we must be grateful to him that he was minded to set it all down for posterity.  Charlie died in 1968, Jo some seven or eight years later.

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Scottish Highlands Part 3

Part  3     At the Edge of the Cairngorms

 We were camped just outside Ecclefechan, in August 1931.  Under Mrs McCall’s hospitable roof we had lingered out the last remnant of daylight.  A cyclist from near Lanark had beguiled us long with deeply interesting talk of his own romantic Lowlands.  In darkness we had found a campsite in a field at the edge of the village.

During breakfast we consulted our pockets and pooled our resources.  I had come away from Mrs McCall’s with just a shilling; now Jo turned out twenty-seven shillings and fourpence, which did not seem such unbounded wealth, especially if the prospective remittance at Fort William did not materialise.  Jo had also brought a pound each of butter and bacon and a few dainties – the only ones we appeared likely to get.  To add to our embarrassment, we were charged two shillings for the site.  We departed far more angry at the over-charge than we were concerned at our poverty.  Lightly enough we faced the strong wind which promised us a difficult passage all day.

Trouble was lagging at our heels, and eleven miles from Beattock caught us up.  With a great sigh my rear tyre sank to the rim.  A great hole the size of my fist spelled ruination to it.  At a road-side counsel we gleaned the information that a garage lay two miles ahead, so off I went on Jo’s bicycle with the exchequer sitting already too lightly in my hip pocket.  I was out of luck; the sterile Scots Sabbath was on the place.  Returning to Jo, who sat patiently waiting beside the ruin, we debated afresh.  There was a sporting chance at Beattock, if only we could limp the distance.  Jo discovered a large piece of canvas in her kit, and this we stitched on the old cover, mended the puncture and slowly proceeded.  The bulge was painfully apparent ere we had gone far.  At length we reached a tiny cycle shop with the very tyre we required in the window, but the people refused to serve us.  It was the Sabbath; the Sabbath must not be broken.  No matter how desperate the straits, how urgent the need, your true Scot will not disturb his delicate sense of religion, nor endanger his soul by thought or deed.  At Beattock a garage-man had less compunction.  Ten minutes later we were jovially pushing forward up the windy glen of the Elvan Water, a new tyre below me, and in pocket only eighteen shillings and ninepence separating us from a tinker’s existence.

A slow dour fight over the water-shed and through Abingdon led us into Clydesdale, and as evening approached, Lanark, my campsite of last night, was regained.  Soon after Lanark, Jo fell lame with knee trouble, a legacy of two day’s struggle against long odds.  A valiant attempt to keep up the pace petered out, stabbing knives seemed to tear at one knee, and it soon became clear that she could travel little farther and that little, slowly.  To add to this we ran into a black part of Lanark industrialism, coal, iron and brickworks.  It was irritating country inasmuch as we were often led into believing we had made open country by a growing spaciousness of fields and estates, when the climbing of a ridge would reveal a skyline of pits and chimneys.  The people themselves were no more than half savage, shouting suggestive remarks and laughing offensively at Jo’s shorts.  A girl may walk through the Wigan coal-field clad in the scantiest summer clothes, but there is no embarrassment caused, but here the men hailed us, the women screamed abuse, and the children set up catcalls.  The limit was reached when they began to throw sticks and stones.  Meanwhile Jo’s knee became almost unbearable.  At a point near Newmains, where a single colliery stands amid green fields, we found a farm where the people were very kindly, allowing us a pitch where-ever we wished, and afterwards engaging us in converse for a long time.

Monday morning was nothing to enthuse about.  We awoke to rain, a raging wind dead east, and as cold as any February day.  The rain stopped later, but black galleons of cloud raced in succession across the bare width of sky, promising nothing but the likelihood of bad weather.  There was not the shadow of a mountain nor the green livery of a wood to relieve the low horizon – drenched ricks of hay, a thin, wind-beaten hedge – that was all.  Jo’s knee was stiff and an early recurrence of the pain was feared.  The scenery alternated between colliery and green fields, and once, on the edge of a big town – Airdrie – we crossed the harsh highway between Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Riding carefully, walking the long hills that began to appear, the stiffness gradually wore out of Jo’s knee, and in ten miles she was riding in fair comfort.  The threat of rain passed off, and with it the brutality out of the wind, leaving a naggy headwind with a glorious broken sky.  Our hearts were lifted at a view of the broad Vale of Forth with Stirling crowded below, and behind the graceful Ochil hills.  Far away to the west the Highlands stood, those fine Trossachs peaks, Ben Ledi, Ben Vorlich, Ben Venue, barely scraped by the layered clouds – a thrilling gateway to the wild Beyond.

We reached St. Ninians and had to go to Bannockburn, to the stone where the Bruce raised the standard of a united Scotland, there sending the English Henry flying back.  There is a high flagstaff with a standard unchallenged, a little hut at one side where picture postcards are sold, and a man tells the tale of that gruesome affair – for a consideration.  We saw him eye us over, and so, five hundred and seventeen years later, came a second English flight!

I like old, historic places like Stirling, because they make me dream on the uneasy past, and I become thankful that I live in modern times when the chances of torture and sudden death lie only along the highway.  In Jo and I there are no illusions about the ‘good old days’.  Heroics are fine – on paper, read in a snug armchair; we are all for the present when one’s opinions are only silently suppressed, one’s politics, blood red though they be, are ignored, and religion need not interfere with one’s love of wholesome worldly pleasures.  The most a man may lose with his tongue is his job, and that needn’t cause bitter tears to flow.  Stirling was the distributing centre for raiding parties as well as the bone of contention ‘twixt Highland and Lowland.  The gibbets never lacked their gruesome, swinging loads; the sanitary arrangements were left to themselves in the streets; the common folk were under the heel of a feudal system that enslaved them mind and body to the whim of the Laird.  Stirling was building itself up in blood and misery for the days when curious tourists could pry around and pay credulous coin to hear history moulded to suit their delicate senses.

Jo went shopping.  The peculiar feminine delight of alternating from shop to shop, pausing in uncertain contemplation of half a dozen variations of one desirable delicacy is beyond my accounting.  I should have rushed into the first shop and concluded the business in a couple of minutes.  I am told that all this philandering about is for motives of economy, but when I recalled the purchase of four twopenny  postcards for tenpence halfpenny I was told I did not understand.  I don’t.

Bridge of Allan was dull.  With a mind full of Banks of Allan Water and Miller’s Lovely Daughter, with whom I had sorrowed for many a long year, my dream was found to be shattered.  Most fond illusions break thus.

This is the land of battlefields.  There was Bannockburn, and Stirling Brig, where Wallace defeated the English in 1297, and a little way along the Perth road we passed close by Sheriffmuir where the Earl of Mar met Argyle in the rising of 1715.  There was a battle, a sort of comic opera engagement, in which both sides got badly scarred.  Some wit has improved the occasion with rhyme:

‘Some say that we wan,

Some say that they wan,

Some say that non wan at a’ man,

But one thing is sure,

At Sheriffmuir

A battle there was that was fought man’

At Gleneagles, nearer to Perth, international battles of golf are fought nowadays.  The going was hard to Perth, a nagging wind and rolling road, with ever glimpses of the blue Highlands westwards.  At the summit of a final ridge we overlooked the winding kinks of the River Tay, Perth below, and the tidal sands eastward towards Dundee.

We saw little of the clean, nicely built town.  A small shop supplied our stores; a supper bar lined us for a further few miles, which was the Blairgowrie road, first by the broad Tay on whose surface floated gaily a high proportion of Perth’s younger populace.  The sun was setting; behind the mountains the colours were sprayed from deep red through infinite shadings to gold, and into the pale blue of a clear sky.  The mountains were in indigo contour.  The wind had fallen.

Jo’s knee began to crook again, and so, eight miles out of Perth a turfy hollow by a stream screened from the chilly night winds of these northern latitudes attracted our attention.  There we pitched.  There was a wholesome smell above the primus stoves at supper time.  Stewed plums and custard; coffee and rolls.  Conversation.

The Lairig Ghru was now a practical impossibility, for even now we should have been camping in the jaws of the pass, at least forty-five miles further on, with the highest road in Britain between.  Obviously something else would have to be planned, shorter, less arduous.  In any case Jo’s knee would not stand the tremendous strain of hours of struggling across the debris and scree of that high remote pass, which splits the heart of the great Cairngorms.  We turned in, deciding to let the morrow take care of itself.

We had decided to re-model our mode and, by getting away early, camp earlier in the evening, enjoying a more leisured sunset hour.  At 6am we startled the sleepy cattle by the stream, and loud in brief ablutions, hurried towards breakfast.

Very shortly we came to Bridge of Isla where the road runs beneath a great hedge of beech trees, a hundred feet high, a third of a mile long, and planted in 1745, a memorable planting in such a time of uprooting.  Approaching Blairgowrie we were struck by the number of encampments, tinker, bastard gypsy, and individual tents and caravans.  Raspberries are cultivated extensively here, and we saw many at work among the rows of succulent berries.  At a stream men stood bare-legged, scrubbing barrels out.  The neat little town of Blairgowrie gave us entrance to the glen of Ardle Water.  The sun shone, a gentle zephyr replaced the high wind, and all the promise was of a golden day.  Jo’s quick eyes spotted wild raspberries growing along the hedges much as our English blackberries do.  For an hour we worked along a hundred yards of hedge, in our enthusiasm crossing a derelict fence, to berries that never grew wild.  With only five shillings left, we packed our panniers with the nucleus of a good meal.  Pink jelly oozed through the bags, our hands were stained for days, and when, a little higher up the glen Jo complained of tummy ache, I learned why we had collected so many berries for one meal.

The scenery became grander as the road climbed higher, with a wooded ravine below and glimpses of rapid waters.  At Bridge of Cally in six miles the Ardle stream bent westwards with the Pitlochry road, and we entered Glen Shee, a barren depression along which the river chattered on its stony course.  By the hamlet of Persie we had riverside lunch, nineteen miles behind us, thanks to our three pounds of raspberries steadily dripping themselves away.  With the typical uncertainty of the Highland climate there came a gust of wind, grey mists blew over the peaks and crept down the glen, gradually obliterating the landscape.  A touring cyclist, dawdling along, joined us in a hurried dive into capes, and with us struggled along the tilted road.  The rain passed, but the mist held fast, hiding the high peaks about us.  Our new companion, a Londoner with three weeks ahead of him, a last fling ere he got married, he confided, caused heartaches to my partner who was silent for some time in rapt visualisation of what we could do with such a holiday.  With unseen mountains edging closer, we passed the Spittal of Glenshee at 1,118ft, climbed higher and harder into a cold northerly wind, mile upon mile until, in a final upward convulsion round the Devils Elbow we reached the summit of Cairnwell pass.  This is the highest main road in Britain, 2,200ft.  For twenty miles we had been climbing, for twenty miles the scene had been changing from the green beauty of the glens to the grey mists swirling over brown and black wilds.

On Cairnwell summit the northerly wind screamed in our faces and on it came sleet, cold as a winter gale.  The vaporous abyss of Glen Clunie yawned below, yet in spite of the fierce down-grade we pedalled hard to hold our own.  For a few brief moments the mists broke, and far ahead, through the ragged frame, we caught a glimpse of great mountains and the white streak of a snow-filled Cairngorm corrie.  The vision of moments, the treasured memory of years!

The teeth chattered with genuine cold all the way down the wide desolation of Glen Clunie.  There is an old Wade bridge by the new road, spanning a river in spate; lower down Clunie Castle stood in a thin belt of trees like a tall man half naked.  The rain ceased, the wind died away, the road became dry, and we entered Braemar in the Dee valley, ‘Royal Deeside’ some say.

Scottish Holidays007           Braemar is the kind of place that breeds snobbery; amongst very expensive things in very select shops are a few very cheap things like the magnificent viewcards at a penny each.  After the purchase of our humble necessities we dashed our ship of economy upon that stall, until only a wreck was left to us.  There was a magnificent limousine outside a hotel.  Presently there emerged from the place a vast bundle of furs which moved with infinite poise infinitely slowly to the waiting car. A very servile chauffeur arranged a luxurious pile of cushions and humbly placed my lady amidst them.

This opulent parasite must have become aware of our contemptuous grin for we were given a haughty stare calculated to freeze us.  The stare went wrong; we had to laugh at her.  Jo suggested we kidnap her and force her to cross the Cairngorms afoot with us, sharing for food the remains of the raspberries which still shed their lifeblood steadily.  She would have reached the Great Glen a better woman for it.

The Lairig Ghru was out of the question of course, and except for turning back, only one practical course remained if we would make for Fort William – a long trek through the moors of Geldie Burn and Glen Feshie to Kingussie.  We calculated the distance to be about thirty-three miles of which only twelve or so are rideable, leaving a central distance of twenty-one miles to walk, scramble, get over as best we could.  Too much of a conjecture for our London friend who said goodbye and fled down the Dee valley in search of the luxuries of life.  We had our kit, the time was 5pm, and we had laid in stores for the night – iron rations for two nights if need be.  There were two shillings left.  A hundred miles away, at Fort William, was the possibility of a remittance.  Failing that, well, we would have nearly four hundred miles to go……  And both of us were quite unconcerned.

To the Linn of Dee our road ran through thin belts of pine amongst which the timid deer flitted nervously; across the river the mists brushed the pine-tops of Glen Quoich.  In spate, the Linn of Dee was almost terrifying, boiling under the bridge and flinging its white foam into a sheer sided chasm.  Thereafter the bridle road emerged into the wide moorland basin where the Tilt and the Geldie Burn join the peaty Dee.  White bridge crosses the Dee in a setting of austere wildness, magnetic to the mountain lover.  At this point the narrow defile of Glen Dee comes down from the heart of Cairngorm – the Lairig Ghru itself stretched into the twilight mists.  Jo was affected; I was saddened.  A thought cherished for years, three attempts, and twice so near – she found it very hard to leave – for how many years?

In the gathering darkness the road was not worth riding.  We passed a ruined clachan, grimly set above the chattering Geldie.  The track was interminable, running level in a monotonous wilderness.  Grey tongues of mist curled; nights shadows hung overhead, hesitating to fall; and the light mountain rain fell steadily.  We sought a camping place but bog, rock, and gullies where peaty water spouted was all we could find.

Desperately weary, we reached a footbridge over the stony burn, and there, at 1,650ft we found enough hummocky grass to pitch our tents.  At midnight there was still grey light, but in half an hour, when we turned in, black night had closed and even the noisy stream half a yard away was invisible

Scottish Highlands Part 2

But the next morning I was literally chased away by clouds of ferocious midges.  I became a fugitive as surely as were I a fleeing Jacobite of the unruly ’45.  The weather too, had changed with the shifting of the wind from east to south-west, bringing a mist to the mountains and a stifling dampness to the glens.

The road down the western side of Loch Fyne was in a shocking condition.  Repairs were in hand – the beginnings of a movement for better roads that has since become widespread.  Beauty, however, was not lacking, nor romance either, where Dundarave, the ‘Castle of the Two Oars’, on its rocky point, made a picturesque feudal relic of the departed MacNeills, and again where the road made a crook round Loch Shira, and the damp mists rolled up Shira Glen, a home of the dubious MacGregor, Rob Roy – on the rare occasions when he was at home.  And picturesque Inveraray, tiny capital of huge Argyll, where once the Campbells dispensed a kind of irregular justice, vacillating betwixt the English George and the Scottish Jamie or Charlie.  The justice of the Campbell Court was least in doubt when a Campbell happened to be right.  Now that those rough clan days are no more than an oft-told tale, Inveraray has rebuilt itself, taken on a quaint odour mingling with the powerful odour of its staple industry, the fishing, and yet keeps the consciousness of its own lovely surrounds as a bait for the siller [sic] of the tourist.

Below Inveraray, in the brackish growth of the Lochside, six or seven cannons pointed useless muzzles toward the sea.  Rusted, with fangs of them happily drawn, they were still a grim reminder of the panic days beginning 1714.  I can’t recall how many miles I rode down to Lochgilphead, mostly by the shore, once inland over a lovely little glen, and once round an elbow of the inlet called Lochgair.  Again, I lunched on a grassy mound by Otter Ferry, with a superb view seaward down the widening waters.  Another great sweep round Loch Gilp brought me to Lochgilphead where I ought to have bought supplies, but didn’t, and went on, with not a crust, along the Oban road, beside the Crinan Canal which makes the great arm of Kintyre into an island.  In six miles I turned off to the hamlet of Kilmichael where my road at once became grass-grown and climbed steadily into a mountain region cradling little Loch Leathan.  The hills were half out of their mists, and the sun shone at intervals, so that there was beguiling beauty there, heightened by wandering Highland cattle.  There was a startling likeness to the framed prints of Highland scenes common on our English walls.

The track dwindled, became a mere path by a cascading burn, with a loch called Ederline gleaming through trees, and just as I was wondering if my map-reading had gone awry, and to what wild adventure I was rushing, I came to a road – and Loch Awe.

When I think to describe the twenty-four miles I covered by the shore of Loch Awe, my head becomes bewildered and nothing clear comes from it, but such a succession of pictures as to take me back to a delightful mental ramble all along that loveable stretch of white road.  I hesitate at the writing, as I hesitated so many times at Fincharn Castle, Innis Channel, a dozen surprises, until my inattention to the very bad road led to a tyre burst.  In the mending of it I discovered a very real hunger, with empty saddlebag and never a shop in miles.  I climbed a long hill behind a man who wore the kilt of his clan and carried a scythe on his shoulder.  On the summit the head of Loch Awe lay below, a fine assembly of peaks, close on a dozen over 3,000ft, dominated by Ben Cruachan, whose head was buried in a single white cloud.  I forgot the hunger tumbling down to Cladich fork-road, where better sense prevailed only after a mental struggle.  The forward road would have led me into the heart of Cruachan, but I must needs turn southwards towards a rendezvous with Jo.  I climbed hard, feeling the warning knocks of hunger all the way.  The descent that followed wound down a moorland pass with the young river Aray growing in sound, down into Glen Aray and bewitching woodlands which reached magnificence in the grounds of Inveraray Castle. Never had I seen fir and pine of such girth, such spreading stateliness.

It was past eight – seven hours since my last meal – when I reached Inverarary again, and all the shops were closed.  There are side doors to every shop, however, so I went nothing short in the packing.  But I was past my tea, unable to eat, though not feeling too strong.  Back round the head of Loch Fyne, by Dundarave at sunset to Cairndow, this time continuing along the lochside, steadily climbing, steadily loosing the power in my legs.  At the summit I was nigh completely whacked, with nine hours and sixty-five Highland miles behind my lunch at Otter Ferry.

Night was upon me.  The darkening silver of Loch Fyne placidly fading into distance below; the shadowy outline of the Loch Awe giants barely visible.

I turned into a rift in the hills and descended fiercely at a careless speed, heedless of the awful surface, heedless of anything.  Hell’s Glen.

Hell’s Glen is a savage place of rock and crag and a wild desolation about it.  I pitched my tent hurriedly by a roaring burn that came in a leap from a tottering corrie.  A ledge of rocky earth tilted steeply was my bed.  During supper a little wind grew into half a gale that fitfully whined and howled up the glen, shaking the little tent like a leaf.  What a place!  Beneath a gash in the cliffs; a rushing stream below, desolation without a tree or habitation; the howling wind buffeting and mingling with the chatter of water.  A place that might grip the imagination and let that imagination people it with other-worldly things.  But I was tired and went to sleep.

A very strong westerly wind brushed the mists across the cliffs of Hell’s Glen.  The tortuous road bumped me down its defile, awe-inspiring in the daylight, utterly deserted, to its confluence with the steep glen that runs down to Lochgoilhead.  Here the road made a double hairpin through a wood scene of great beauty.  The road up Glen Goil was no better in surface, a walk uphill for the most of an hour, if one includes the many stops to look back towards the woods and uprearing crags.  Then I was suddenly back at the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ stone, with a hundred mile circuit behind that was hard to leave.

By Loch Long I lunched while the Cobbler peak was pushing its splintered head through the mist.  There was sunshine all the way down the lakeside; a summit view down the narrow fiord before I branched to Garelochhead.  The ‘promenade road’, seven miles along Garelochside to Helensburgh was not striking, except in the large numbers of steamers anchored, silent and deserted in this backwater of the Clyde – out of a job like me.  Now the other bank of the Clyde by Dumbarton to Erskine Ferry again.

There is a ‘recommended’ route to Carlisle avoiding Glasgow, by way of Paisley, Clarkston, East Kilbride and Strathaven, a string of small places, and in following the route I went wrong, coming to my senses in a village on a plateau called Eaglesham, so I provisioned for the night and plunged into a network of lanes which got me to Strathaven at dusk, a ‘down-in-the-dale’ sort of place liberally plastered with signs ‘Carlisle 79’, which reminded me that England was only seventy miles away, and the Highlands definitely behind.  Anyway, with only four shillings to my credit I could not have stayed on much longer.  Tomorrow’s rendezvous with Jo was only fifty miles away, so I should have camped at the first opportunity had not a local cyclist whirled me away with ready talk on his lips and braggatio in his tone.  Amused, a little interested, I rode with him through half a dozen grimy Lanark coalfield villages, on another blind crazy way, while darkness came with neither in possession of a lamp.  I rebelled at last in the glen of the infant Clyde, just below Lanark town, where lay nothing but fruit farms and occasional collieries, said good-night, and was given a campsite at the nearest farm.

These estates are very big, and their main products are peas, beans, black-berries and raspberries, cultivated in the open, whilst in huge glass-houses tomatoes are grown on the grand scale.  The farmer employs three or four permanent men, and in the picking season augments his labour with youths and girls recruited at low wage-rates from the slums of Glasgow and its satellites.  At this farm were about twelve boys and eight girls, each sex housed in separate army huts, spacious enough but very dirty.  A ragged crew, treated, it seemed, not as human beings, but as some inferior type of animal; this treatment being reflected in the foul language freely used by the females.  The boys came to talk to me, and I was interested in their outlook and work, but felt very uncomfortable as they persisted in a tone of humiliation and ‘respect’.  This to an unemployed foundry-man!

Another change took place in the weather that night.  Much rain fell, while the wind veered, blowing hard from the north-east.  My comfortable breakfast was jarred by the thought of Jo, who even then must have been fighting the wind for hours, on a hilly road, 128 miles long.  What rare pluck, what enthusiasm, to start in the small hours and face the wind and rain, the better to get a start with me!  Few men would do it, let alone a woman.

With a large, complimentary bag of tomatoes, I turned into Lanark.  The wind was behind; the fine, sweeping highway under the shadow of Tinto was a ribbon of ease.  A lashing storm of rain was my first since last Saturday.  Beattock Summit was child’s play, and soon after noon I found myself within a few miles of Beattock.  A lane up the hillside called Greenall Stairs crossed a fine section of limestone scenery  to the Devil’s Beef Tub on the Edinburgh road.  This deep fissure or pit is a single example of the Yorkshire Buttertubs.  There the wind blew fierce and cold, but put a fine effect of cloud and sun sweeping over the moorland peaks towards St Mary’s Loch.  I trysted for Jo at the very same spot in Moffat where I had checked and fed our Albert Mather the day he broke the Liverpool-Edinburgh record all but five years before.

Jo was an hour overdue; I rode out to meet her, but met instead her sister and beau loaded on a motor-cycle camping trip.  Jo was a long, long way behind, struggling against the wind.  I swept the 18 miles south to Ecclefechan, waited there until 7pm then went to Mrs McCall’s.  Anyone in northern cycling circles will know Mrs McCall.  In her cottage is a vast table groaning with fare.  Her variety of Scotch cakes and pasties is endless, and the price is absurdly low.  A favourite rendezvous for Glasgow lads, but just a bit too far from Aberdeen without a meal en-route!  It is said that the roads from Aberdeen to Ecclefechan are strewn with cyclists fallen by the wayside.

Thither came Jo, at last, utterly tired.



Scottish Highlands Part 1

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



Scottish Holidays001 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.

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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.

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‘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!

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