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.



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