‘And then one day I realised, I was running just to keep up, and that I’d be doing this for the rest of my life. I decided, I had to make the opportunity to get out.’ – Nick, Dundee.
There is no feeling like the freedom of facing an open road.
Imagine waking up with only a vague idea of where you’ll sleep the following evening. Your heart is tugging you onwards, but you have only the loosest of plans about you’re heading.
You’ve set out with a couple of clues: this town or that town are said to be pleasant, and are fifty or sixty miles away. They could be reached in a day, weather permitting. Yet you have no map, nor any real need to get here, or there, or anywhere. You could travel in any direction, and lay your head wherever is quiet and comfortable. To get to these places you must talk to and ask strangers. Indeed, the characters of pubs, street corners and market places have become your only guides for travel tips, local information and insights into everyday life. It is the strangest kind of life I have ever had. I think that, despite the misfortunes and all the bloody steep hills, I’ll come to miss it.
I awake in this little bloom of a forest I found late last night. It was a midnight gamble but seems to have paid off, and only a smattering of dog-walkers pass below as I gingerly pack up my belongings. Sheep bleat approvingly below me, finding some pleasure I imagine in this strange human living and sleeping so close to them.
I set off in good spirits, following a small path east. To my left are the majestic and rolling Ochill Hills that tower above the flat farmlands to my right. I look out on fields of cattle and, further beyond, the distant matchstick lines of pylons, petrol forecourts and small settlements. The weather’s overcast but fine enough, and my little trail takes me through the small villages of nearby Alva, Tillicoultry and Dollar, threading hither and thither as the mood takes it.
I am on the King’s Highway, an ancient route that linked Stirling to Falkirk and beyond. Once Scottish kings trod along this boggy route, and I imagine the pride, uncertainty and vulnerability that these unfortunate individuals felt in inheriting such a weighty and troublesome crown. I follow their ghosts past little glens, burns and small woods like the one I slept in. Kids kick about footballs beneath the sweeping splendour of the Ochills, and each person I pass either smiles or shouts out a hello to me. It is quite a wonderful morning. A woman at Dollar tells me it’s lovely here, ‘small’, and describes the features of the area to me. She leaves, wishing me well. I am quite charmed with the place.
The peculiarities and pulchritude of the landscape are matched by the names these places take. Tilli- is a common prefix here, stemming from the Gaelic for hill. It’s hilly enough! Then there’s Scotlandwell, or Carnbo, Glendevon and Milnathort, or even Pool of Muckhart. Superb! I pass more livestock than people, and in the process, detect that the accents have changed again. Falkirk and Stirling people spoke a little slower but quite distinctly, without the kind of fuzz that I could hear in Edinburgh. By contrast, the people in these country towns speak very slowly and gently, if a little flat. I stop in sleepy Milnathort and watch the world go by. Workmen eat pastries inside their pick-up trucks. Life is lived at half speed.
Alas, the warnings of these overcast skies prove true, and rain unleashes itself on my sorry head. Without a coat, I put on my plastic poncho and get on with it. I pass the remaining façade of Burleigh castle as I leave, then weave along an A-road that cuts through the Lowlands, with Loch Leven to my right, and the Lomond hills to the left, passing small forests as I head. Compared to the hills of Clackmannanshire where I woke, the terrain continues to change in nature. Perth and Kinrosshire are flatter and more rolling, the occasional hill yielding a view of wind turbines and the distant deep blues of the Firth of Forth to my right. It’s quiet and delightful.
My road takes me to Leslie, a small industrial town where school kids on their lunch breaks hoover up fish and chips, pasties and Irn Bru. I’m tempted to comment on this but when I was 15 I lived much the same. It’s a dull town, feeding itself into the larger town of Glenrothes that follows. Despite the pretty connotations of the name, it’s an ugly place. Somehow every supermarket under the sun has opened a huge store here, and beyond a Gregg’s and boring town centre, I can’t find much more to the place. Lidl announces proudly, ‘Scotland, we’re with you’. As I pass by, I see a young man, around 18, pushing a heavy trolley full of Lidl shopping next to two young women. After some small disagreement, he suddenly erupts:
‘Why won’t anyone ever fucking listen to me?’
They look at him emptily, equally frustrated with whatever circumstance has prompted this desperation. It reminds me of being that age and having no money, and little sense of what the future held. A trolley full of groceries one can barely afford. This seems superfluous, then that, but what can you do? Debts increase, the future seems bleak. Nothing to one’s name except a string of joyless unskilled jobs. Rage without an object or release. The guy is losing it as I pass.
The road weaves on through another ugly town, this time by the name of Leven. I pass more supermarkets and bland pebbledash council houses, as ugly as poverty, as well as the usual mixture of petrol stations and squat 70s schools. Passers-by seem preoccupied and unhappy, signals of unemployment and financial struggle.
Some invisible threshold is crossed, and I enter the Kingdom of Fife. The landscape has become progressively flatter, and I start to see signs pointing to golf courses and tourist coastal paths. I pass through Lundin Links, seemingly devoted to golf, and detour off the road to Largo, where the road bends into a placid little harbour.
I have stumbled across the home of Robinson Crusoe, apparently, but this seaside village is all too ignorant of its own history, even boasting a statue of sorts of Robinson Crusoe by the coast. A little detective work uncovers that Alexander Selkirk, an impetuous, unruly and quite funny character, was born here but did his best to escape. After a series of absurd arguments with figures of authority, he found himself stranded on an unoccupied island in the South Pacific and somehow survived for four years.
A life of loneliness and self-reliance suited him quite well. As the captain of the ship which later rescued him reflected,
‘One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was.’
Of course, I don’t find this out in Largo. I’m in the dark, and so pop into the Railway Inn for a pint and a chat. It’s early afternoon. Inside, a drunk southern Englishman at the bar berates the busy landlord.
‘Haven’t you got drinks to serve?’
‘Haven’t you got floors to lift?’
A crew of local blokes hug the bar, with a background blur of live Snooker which everyone ignores. Outside, two women discuss the hidden insecurities of a mutual male friend. The gender dynamics reflect the sex segregations of the local golf clubs. I get a Clockhouse brew and absorb the setting. It’s a Scots ale: dull, heavy but distinct, yet carrying a rich, sweet if excessively self-restricted flavour. It could be nice, but some inner pride that manifests itself as stoic modesty and dignity overrules any reach for zestiness. A large appetite would be needed for such dense brews, but in bursts of occasional excess they are quite pleasant. Any broader generalisations about Scots culture based on the characteristics of local beer are yours and not mine…
As I drift away, a drunk and probably retired American storms into the bar and announces himself. I expect some local golf club’s bar has turfed him out.
‘Hi, I am an American! Where’s the men’s room?! When I come back, I’ll tell you all about myself!’
He is universally ignored. As he disappears, a taciturn local looks at me disapprovingly. Spend half an hour in any boozer’s bar and you too will become part of the furniture. It is quite a joy.
I wander out and catch sight of the pretty sea, that ‘terrible’ ocean of Lowry and Turner. I decide to chase it, pedalling my bike up to the next town, Elie, I find a very pretty beach on my arrival, and open up a pack of sandwiches from the previous day that Chris had made for me. The kindness of strangers again surprises and inspires me.
I pick at tomatoes and oranges, supermarket fruits better travelled than most on these isles. Gazing out into the ocean, I wonder how early human settlers like the Polynesians survived on their treacherous, experimental voyages from the eastern coasts of Asia to Hawaii and the Americas. What did they eat? What obsessions and beliefs inspired them to carry on with such desperate and uncertain journeys? It brings to mind Herzog’s Amazon epic The Wrath of Aguirre, and little else. On Elie beach, I peer down at the mosses and sea-grasses lodged into the soft sands. Like these ancients, I wonder at what brought it here, what caused it. Though I have a raft of suppositions about evolution and geology to assist me, I can’t help tapping into that uncertain excitement that led to such diverse and strange explanations of the origins of life across the world. They saw rocks, moss, and wildflowers; they considered the movements of the birds, and the origins of their food, and of the sun, and each wondered how. It reminds me of the standing stones I see in a field between Dollar and Milnathort, distant relics to an age of greater wonder.
Reveries over, the Fife coastal road takes me through St. Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther and Cellardyke, a series of pretty fishing towns. At Pittenweem I pass by the ripe smell of fresh fish on sale in one warehouse and, in its pretty harbour, a group of fishermen chatting about the catch. ‘A fringe of gold on a beggar’s mantle’, were James II’s words to describe this fishy coastline.
I drift on to Crail, a gorgeous seaside village filled with pretty cottages and a lovely harbour where tatty signs still advertise fresh lobster and crab. Amongst piles of lobster pots, a northern Englishmen gives gentle criticism to the paintings of a group of elderly people. In irritatingly over-confident and self-sure tones, he compares a dodgy painting of some lobster pots to Graham Sutherland. I cycle back up to the main street, past French tourists and parked Porsches. Clearly I am not alone in my love of this town.
I find a bench to take a breather, and get talking to a local man by the name of Jimmy. He tells me about the shellfish catching in the area. ‘Only lobsters and crabs!’ The area possesses a charming allure, and I ask him if it’s changed much in the five or six decades that make up his lifetime. ‘No no, hehe!’
But, pubs and shops have closed in some number. He thinks the price of goods has become too high, particularly beer, a sore spot I suspect. ‘People are struggling.’ What about the tourists? They’re only about in summer, with winters blighting the town. Despite lacking much personal experience, he blames benefits cheats and immigrants for these problems.
‘The system’s set up for those who dinnae want to work, they just come over here…’
Does he mean European bankers, or wealthy Gulf state property speculators? No, unfortunately. It’s not that common, but I do come across people who can recite with some skill the opinions of the right-wing press with some conviction.
I ask him if he knows any migrants who’ve done this. ‘No, they don’t come round here, no jobs!’ He laughs a lot, and I enjoy the conversation despite our differences of opinion. As we converse, passers-by shout to him friendlily, and it’s clear he’s popular locally. I ask him about independence. He’s firmly against.
‘I think it’s the worst thing that could happen. We’re too connected.’
He sees the recent decision to allow the vote to 16 year olds vote as a ploy. After giving me directions up the road, he laughs as I leave and says
‘I’ll see you on TV!’
‘Not if I see you first!’
Before I leave Crail, I pass by the old church here, where the remains of the blue stane rock stand outside. Some eerie myth has it that a great boulder was lobbed from the Isle of May by the devil in order to destroy the local church. As it happens, the stone split in mid-air, with one end landing here and another at nearby Balcomie beach on Fife Ness.
I head north, passing signs for Duinon, a small village worth stopping in for its sacred well, but for which I have little time. The sun is setting and the distance today has been quite severe! My path takes me north, past exclusive golf resorts and hotels, eventually slipping into the home of Golf Itself, St. Andrews. As the hill sinks towards the town, I trace six steeples in the distance, indicating the hold of the Church still on the hierarchy of the skies.
Ah, such a pretty place…? No, though this would be expected for such an over-praised little seaside town. I pass American and Chinese students showing their proud parents the older features of this little town. There’s a little harbour here, and a series of university buildings overlooking the sea. I’m more impressed by St. Andrew’s Cathedral, a dilapidated and picturesque ruin close to the heart of the town. It was once the largest building in the country during the 14th century, resplendent in gold and luxurious religious icons. Then came John Knox, our proud Presbyterian Reformer in Edinburgh. He came to St. Andrews and stirred up a great mob in 1559 to pour down the street and destroy the cathedral and all its superfluous trappings. Forty years later the place was gutted. If beautiful cathedrals can be ravaged by popular anger, what about less charming government departments today…?
I stop for a pint in The Criterion where, outside, I get talking to two friendly Londoners up in town for a spot of golf. Ben and Rich drove up the previous day to take some time out, golf about and then peruse the local boozers. It’s a pleasure to drink and chat with Londoners after a month apart, and our conversation bounces between fights outside kebab vans, the efficacy of CCTV cameras, and a long agreement about the dangers of religion. Whilst Rich tells me about Ireland, takeaways, and the pleasures of Tintern Abbey, Ben sups on a fine local malt and shares his love and experiences of the Hebrides.
Conversation flows with the same friendliness and relaxation as the beers, and they quiz me on the extent to which this mad old trip of mine is pleasurable. To what degree is it despair, and to what elation? It’s a mix of the two, like all things, but I can’t help but laugh and smile at the oddities and adventures of this wee expedition. Rich investigates my muscles – ‘you must be fit!’ – but I confess that each hill kills me, and each town ahead fills me with the same heady brew of excitement and uncertainty. They laugh at my vegetarian diet of dried fruit, grated cheese and tortilla wraps, and I share the pleasures of Scotch deep-fried grub. It’s a wonderful encounter.
I head on, passing the Old Course by the sea, and the ancient little bridge where golfers from across the globe queue up to pose on. It’s a nice evening, and the final leg of the route north sends me through gentle countryside. I stop at Forgan where, opposite West Friarton farm, in the golden sunset, an epiphany strikes my weary head. We cannot stop the motion of things before us. Bundles of energy is all we are, yet experience and reflection can train us to understand where best to apply our own motions to.
Baked and battered, I drift by the RAF base at Leuchars, where grubby semis and silent playgrounds stare out behind thick barbed-wire. I travel on, the road eventually sinking down towards the River Tay, a long stretch of sea with two bridges stretching across. I take the road, racing a couple of lads on BMXs (‘ah, you win!’ – my first successful bike race of the trip), passing the long and thin structure with Dundee spread out before me. The town looks appealing though discombobulated from a distance, and I can make out various harbour, commercial, residential and industrial sections from a distance.
I am dirty and tired, and I take the liberty of staying in a hostel for a shower and the opportunity to brush my teeth. The backpacker’s hostel on the high street suits my needs, and at £15 a bed seems fair enough. The rain returns, drizzling everything in sight, and I hurry out to a nearby Tesco for some rice and beans.
Inside, I get talking to one Polish guy doing an MA in International Politics and Relations. It’s a little random finding him working here, but as I discover, most people connected with the hostel are caught up in intriguing studies and life commitments. He’s a little worn out with study, but another guy, Nick, has come from London to develop his skills as a comic book artist. He worked as a bike mechanic in London for several years but got fed up with the daily struggle of life and rent in the city. As we chat in the communal kitchen, I come across another like-minded person of a similar age who has taken a gamble with fortunes.
Will Dundee take him anywhere that some other place wouldn’t? Well… he’s here, as am I, and each of us pursues our desires to the speed of the rhythm they impress on our hearts. Love can never ever enjoy the pleasure of the certainty of its object. Life is a continual striving, and love is the expression of its energy.
I stay up late thereafter, writing in a communal room whilst one man sinks a crate of Budweiser and laughs loudly at some dire puppet comedy DVD. It’s an odd place, but the warm bed, shower, and the pleasure of reaching a new destination to discover, is all enough for this heart.