‘Freedom isn’t free’ – Jamie, Stirling.
After a good night’s sleep in Edinburgh, I get up and potter about the high piles of intriguing books in Chris’s flat. In one, I find the words of George Borrow, that
‘There are no countries in the world less known by the British than these selfsame British Isles.’
Before I left, me and my partner spent a few hours trying to learn the counties of Wales and Scotland. Almost all of them I had never heard of. Can you locate Ceridigion, Angus, Clackmannanshire or Rhondda Cynon Taf? Whilst much of the towns and landscapes of England have been familiar to a degree, as I look out on the map of Scotland, I feel nervous and excited. Education and popular culture has woefully underprepared me.
I read in another excellent book, The Isles by Norman Davies, that confusion still remains over what we even call ‘British’ or the ‘UK’. In actuality, Britain is not an ‘island nation’, but made up of many. Unless it depends what we mean: is Britain a shorthand for the political state of the UK, or the geography of Great Britain (as I most often use it), or the ancient Britons, or some historical aspect of the British Empire? Most often, it’s not spelt out. Speaking of the British people as a historical entity is also confusing, particularly when the union has only been around for about 300 years. Popular history often takes the Tudors to be British, when in fact they were monarchs of England but not Scotland. Based on the lessons of the national curriculum, few if any of us could name or explain the life of a Scottish monarch.
England and a certain south-eastern, upper middle class presentation of ‘Englishness’ have been sold as the norm. Davies writes that
‘Fifty years ago all children learned the history and development of what they called ‘England’ – tat is of the United Kingdom with its empire and colonies. They learned it in a spirit of pride and patriotism, being regaled with accounts of kings and queens, heroes and heroines, victories, glorious defeats, and national achievements.’
He thinks that the decline of patriotic history has left a void behind. ‘A generation has been educated without any basic historical awareness.’
I think he’s mistaken. Intensive study of the British state’s contribution to the two world wars does lead itself to the opinion that ‘we’ fought for freedom and won, against the totalitarian horrors of the Nazis or USSR, which make up much of the rest. New myths are being passed on. Ask a St. George’s flag sporting man why he’s proud to be English, and he’ll often give a historical example, usually related to the Second World War. If the past is like a foreign country, then it’s not just the terrain of these isles which is subject to so much myths and mass ignorance.
Chris awakes, and we talk more about Scotland, and about my plans. His pal Ian comes over to help pack away the kitchen. Many years too late, Chris is finally getting a kitchen refurb from the local council after they got one digit in his phone number wrong many years back. Rather than writing or visiting, they waited until finally the pipes rusted through and flooded the person downstairs. As I help them pack papers and books, Ian describes the hitch-hikers he’s met on the road and many instances of a ‘Scottish welcome’, of everyday acts of kindness. We listen to Gaelic songs as we do, the vocal harmonies swooping and flowing at different speeds in a way that feels so far removed from anything European. We talk about the civil rights Scotland has secured for itself, like free prescriptions, free university education, and good care for the elderly.
‘All these things, they’re at the heart of the Scottish psyche. When I look at the situation in England, it’s much much worse.’ The rapid privatisation of the NHS is particularly alarming, and no political party shows any will to restore public ownership. Chris sees some hope.
‘I could see that we could live in a more inclusive, fair and equal society’.
It’s possible. As I leave, Chris hands me a note to open later and a full bag of lunch. I have set off quite late, around 4.30, and am unsure how far I’ll make it. I pick up some bungee ropes at The Edinburgh Bargain Store, re-attach my baggage, and in the process, make a grave error I will pay for later. I then drift out, struggling to find the best road west out of the city. Eventually after bobbling all over the cobbles of Cowgate, I find an A-road that takes me past the zoo and towards the airport. I’ll miss Edinburgh certainly, but not the potholes and the tourists.
The road gets very confusing by the time I reach Gyle, an immensely large and non-descript non-place on the western outskirts. Bicycles are banned from the road, and so I wander about among featureless business parks and supermarket car-parks, science parks and corporate headquarters, utterly lost, eventually gambling on leaving the city to the south and rejoining whatever road is heading west thereafter. The whole area has been put out To Let. It is the most featureless and disorientating landscape I have come across so far, full of no entries and no exits, and yet another layer of contradiction to Edinburgh.
After a while I find a canal path that will take me west, indeed, all the way to Falkirk, my day’s destination. I follow it for around twenty minutes when I discover that my Harrington jacket has fallen off. Overcast clouds loom over the canal, and in desperation I chase back up, hoping it’s nearby. But no avail. I can barely recall what odd roads I have passed along in the two hours since I left. It’s bad news.
I decide to head on without it. I reason to myself why: the jacket wasn’t waterproof, and had been sent to me free by a company after the previous one I’d bought broke apart. The company traded off its British brand but in the process of dealing with them, I found out all their coats were made in China. None of this would make me any warmer though.
Fortunately the canal path to Falkirk is so long, bumpy, and at times hair-raisingly dangerous that I’m kept quite warm and alive. The runners and cyclists I pass announce ‘Hi!’ to each other, and the cheery egalitarian nature of these greetings gives me heart. Without a working map on my phone, I become reliant on directions. Some are breezy: ‘Falkirk? Just follow the path!’, for who knows how long. Another cyclist is quite distressing in his (luckily) inaccurate instructions: ‘It’s very long, forty miles! Four hours! Phe-ew!’
The canal path here is extraordinary in places, and would make a pleasant day-trip for Edinburgh people. It flits by sleepy fields and long, damp and spooky tunnels. There are plenty of pleasant places to stop and take it all in. There are also white and grey pebble-dash council estates on a regular basis, and I’m surprised that the Scots have out-done the English in the ugliness of their social housing. Two young male and female teens on the path by Broxbourne tell me that the place is alright, ‘plenty of green spaces to walk the dog!’ They give detailed instructions on how to reach the nearest football ground with a friendly sincerity. Further along the path, two older lads rage along the path on dirt-bikes. After that, the path is quite empty, except for the occasional unlucky fisherman failing cheerily to catch tench, carp or perch.
My, how long is this path? Despair starts to nibble at my ears. Will I get to Falkirk before dark? What if my bag falls into the canal? Should I turn back for that bloody jacket? Eventually signs for Falkirk appear, around 8pm, still light. I follow a path where, to my left, I pass the remains of some old battle. I can’t tell which, but let’s suppose it is the Battle of Falkirk, which resounded in a sad defeat for William Wallace by Edward I on 22 July 1298. Wallace would later give up his command of the Scots and would be captured and executed seven years later. Or perhaps it was the later and inconclusive Battle of Falkirk Muir, a victory for Jacobites in January 1846 that Bonny Prince Charlie failed to do much with? Either way, Falkirk can be associated with a kind of Scottish defeat. I’ll write and explain more about the Jacobites in the coming days.
Near the old battle-site are the very few remains of the Antonine wall, a later Roman successor to Hadrian’s wall. Antoninus had it built in the 1440s from Old Kilpatrick by the Clyde in the west, to Bo’ness by the Forth of Firth to the east. Though around 3 metres high and guarded by sufficient Roman legions, it was abandoned after only twenty years and overrun by the freedom-loving Caledonians.
I follow the path, and eventually stumble across the shut-up sign of Santa’s grotto and, a little later, the most extraordinary and strange thing on a canal I’ve seen. The Falkirk Wheel is a space-age mega boat lift that links the Union Canal that I’ve been following with the Forth and Clyde canal. In the sleepy Sunday sunset it is silent, and the fluttering cries of birdsong are all that disrupt this unlikely scene.
The nearby park is locked, and I struggle to chuck the bike and bags over a fence, before heading into Falkirk town. It’s an odd mix of a Victorian market town and more recent builds, and the town is quiet and incoherent. Takeaways rub up against To Let’s. I talk to one man in the street who has lived here for most of his life. ‘It’s alright!’, is his answer, a common one as I’ve found elsewhere. He tells me that it’s quiet, good for someone like him who is ‘not a city person’. He tells me about the bars, and that
‘There used to be around seventeen factories open. Now there’s one!’
Chemicals remain the main industry over at Grangemouth, but despite his contentedness with the area, he struggles to explain its strengths. I’m a little surprised, as I’d heard a rumour that Falkirk had been voted Scotland’s prettiest town. The town had found fortunes once through its canals, becoming a centre of iron and steel, and later publishing. Today, like many of the towns of the north and north-east, it relies on shopping and ‘services’, with a smattering of tourism, alongside making large vehicles for Dennis. But it has little coherence or sense of itself to my mind.
I’m somewhere in the middle of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and I take a road further west, grateful for the unlikely sunlight. The further north one travels in summer, the longer the light lingers. I pass a PFI hospital at Larbert that could be anywhere, though it being surrounded by a field of cows draws out Scotland’s homeliness. Next up, Plean bobs up, an ugly industrial village of pebble-dash council semis like those of Broxbourne and Linlithgow I pass earlier. It’s a bit of a grim place, where its very popular chippie sits next door to a run-down health clinic and tiny library. ‘You’ve tried the rest, now try the best’ offers the sign.
Inside, I queue with overweight young people. Feeling famished and perverse, I ask what a ‘pizza crunch’ is. The unhappy assistant lets out a cheeky smile and tells me. I order a half with chips, whilst others queue along, requesting sweet chilli haggis, huge bottles of Irn Bru, and great portions of chips, cheese and curry. The smug flatulence of Q.I. blares on in the background, a most unlikely interruption to a hard-working, three-worker line chippie specialising in premature heart attacks, diabetes, angina and heart disease. ‘What would you like hen?’
I eat my pizza crunch on the bench, a deep-fried cheese and onion pizza coated in grease and salt. My fingers quickly become slime. It’s bland, sickly and deeply excessive, and the eating experience feels like a slow self-inflicted death. Nausea kicks in but I soldier on. Next to me, overweight people cram chips into their bodies in a car covered in tribal racing decals.
The unpleasant experience makes me wonder whether this kind of food should be banned. It is a form of malnutrition, in the same way that the cheap bread-and-jam diets of the working classes that Orwell recorded in the 1930s was also malnutrition, and very bad for the people’s health. Such malnutrition is based on poverty, of both a low incomes (chips are much cheaper than a fresh filling soup or stew) and of living in a small community where cheap healthy ingredients, like those of a large supermarket, aren’t to be found.
There is no sign that food banks will disappear, or even reduce in scale and size over the coming years, as no political leader has the guts to make a progressive and sympathetic comment on welfare after years of media demonization of the poor. Yet as I found in Newcastle, most referrals to food banks are down to benefits sanctions, often incorrectly or unfairly applied. I am troubled and sickened by this dodgy dinner in more ways than one.
Feeling leaden, I push my heavy body up a hill towards Bannockburn, a small and bland suburb town near Stirling. I’m two days shy of the 700th anniversary of the battle here where the Scots, led by Robert I, beat the English and secured an almighty victory in their war for independence. It’s a beacon of Scottish pride, and I want to ask local people what they think of the place and date. I spot a visitor centre on the outskirts but avoid visiting it, as historians continue to disagree on where the actual battle took place. Safer bets are about a mile north-east or east of the city. I’m not interested in its intricacies, and drift through the run-down area left today, but passing only one pub, The Empire, proudly boasting its imperial past with countless union jacks. It’s not quite the right place for such a discussion, yet I find little else about. Disappointed, I drift onto nearby Stirling.
The town is much prettier and has far more to interest the visitor than Falkirk, and its combinations of old buildings and statues to Rabbie Burns, Rob Roy and other national luminaries is stirring (and only a little offset by a nearby hall promoting a Ken Dodd gig). It was once the capital of Scotland, and possesses most of its most triumphant and proud national monuments. I think of the words of Rob Roy here,
‘My foot is on my native heath, and my name it is McGregor.’
I take in the proud if reserved exterior of the Church of the Holy Rude, and look up at the curious figure that dons the top of Cowane’s hospital. A nearby old jail has been converted into a youth centre, but it is now around half ten and to late to check in. I wander about the castle for a little, peeking down at the proud Wallace Monument. It overlooks the wider area and sits near Stirling Bridge, where William Wallace won the first decisive victory of the Scots against the English in the first war of Independence in 1297. I pop into the Portcullis pub, quiet at this time, and start conversing with the bar staff. We quickly get talking about Bannockburn and the Yes campaign.
‘I think there’s a lot of people who aren’t talking who will not vote yes. The yes campaign has been much more vocal. People don’t want to look anti-patriotic.’
Jamie’s comment reminds me of the many Yes stickers I’ve seen, but none of the Nos. I ask about the Bannockburn commemorations, and the staff are equally uncertain and unenthusiastic.
‘I think it’s getting out of hand, commemorating yeah, but celebrating and reenacting peoples deaths, I find distasteful. I’m proud to be Scottish, but I don’t know, I can’t find the right word…’
They tell me about a group of drunk men they threw out the previous night. After getting heavily tanked up, they decided together to march down to Bannockburn with whatever saltires and Scots flags they could find. They’re not sure what happened to them, but it seemed to reflect an uncertainty about what the Yes campaign could deliver beyond pride. They felt that there had been no clear explanation about passports, or currency, or the NHS. Jamie seems to favour a No vote, but for all his reasons, still seems unsure. At the same time, I hear of a suspicion about the Bannockburn commemoration being on the same day as Armed Forces Day. Provocative? Uncertainty’s the mood.
As I leave, refreshed by a couple of fine Tenents’ Embers, I’m given some instructions about leaving the town to the north. I’m recommended to camp out on a site where witches were thrown off a cliff, but that seems too spooky to me. Stirling has enough odd legends. According to one, when Stirling was under attack from Viking invaders, a wolf howled, alerting the townspeople in time to save the town. The last wolf in Scotland was apparently killed here too.
I leave to the north. It’s about midnight and now quite dark. I drift towards Alloa in desperate hope of finding a place to camp, but all I just about see is farmland filled with livestock. Eventually I chance it up a long road that drifts off towards a cycle path. It’s pitch black and I am up a hill path in a small forest. Spooky’s not half of it. As birds cry and nearby sheep bleat, curious as this stranger with his tent, I pitch up. I have no idea where exactly I have camped. After glugging the last of my whisky, I gently fall asleep.