‘He said, “we’ve got to call out the assessor”, and I said, “nae yous fucking won’t, that’s my horse!”’
– Ray, Dalmellington, on calling out the fire brigade to rescue a beloved 30-year old horse, neck-deep in a quagmire.
I awake after a reasonable enough rest in a youth hostel in Port Charlotte, on the north-western edge of isle of Islay. The island’s shaped like the three legs of the Isle of Man, a triskellion that points in three different directions. Port Charlotte sits on the left foot, Port Askaig on the right, and Port Ellen on the bottom. In the centre is Bowmore. The shape of the island corresponds surprisingly like the Celtic symbol for birth, beginning and nature, three swirls that connect. Perhaps Islay truly is a wild and magical isle.
The morning sun adds some evidence to the hypothesis. The bay is gorgeous, the golden light of the rising dawn skittering against its gentle flow inland. I’m also pretty sleep deprived, which adds its own intoxicated edge to perception. Writing up my notes takes me deep into the early morning hours. Lorna, the hostel manager, asked me how I can manage the cycling, drinking, conversations, and then writing it all up in the same day. I’m unsure either.
Either way, people are becoming increasingly perceptive of who I am, and more quickly grasping the reasons why I’m travelling, or the necessity of re-exploring and re-defining the cultural and social history of these islands. Maybe I’ve dropped my guard, or maybe it’s something about the random fortunes of who I’ve met, or something special about Scotland. I can’t decide.
The plan today is to return to the Scottish mainland and head south-east towards the border. I plan to head off early and not rush, but I spot Grant and Anthony in the reception and we get talking for a little too long about our plans. Lorna tells them about this blog, and conversation hinges on the uses of travel writing, but a quick check of the clock spells bad news for us all. I race out back towards Port Askaig, getting a ten minute headstart on Grant and Anthony who, in fairness, cycle a lot faster than me.
It’s a bit of a sprint, some fifteen miles back through pretty Bruichladdish, then the beautiful bay with Bowmore in the distance, back round to Bridgend, and up into more hilly and rural country. I pass a ruined cottage with great foliage spilling out its windows and doors, a memento mori to the transience of human life, and over into the more dull drizzle-coloured pebbledash of Keills. I’ve got three miles and fifteen minutes. Aided by panic and a helpful wind behind me, I make it to the ferry just in time. As I catch my breath, I spot Grant and Anthony board just as the ferry sets off, seemingly carried here by a cloud.
It’s a sunny and pleasant day. Grant tells me about the Five Ferries route that he and Anthony have decided to join from Kintyre. It’s a circular route over land and sea from Ardrossan, to Arran, to Kintyre, to Bute, back to Wemyss Bay on the mainland. It’ll be a longer route than I’d planned to take, and involves going up a small mountain, but I’m intrigued, and I’ve enjoyed their company, so I decide to join them. Fatigue’s kicking in, but I’ve got coffee and water on my side. It doesn’t sound like much, but bring it on.
We disembark at Kennacraig on Kintyre, but in order to catch the next ferry we’ve got to dash again. There’s fifteen minutes to get to Tarbert, some five miles away, and we race away. Kintyre’s relatively featureless. We sweep by some gently flat hillsides, richly green in places but without the abundance of wildlife, of natural sprawl that I’ve loved cycling alongside elsewhere. There’s some land given over to sheep, and holiday cottages here and there along the undulating hills, but we pass little until we reach Tarbert. It’s a pretty fishing village on the bottom end of Loch Fyne which I’d passed earlier on the way out of Inveraray. It once made its money in the herring trade, but today tourism seems to be the main income. The sea-facing promenade of shops is multi-coloured and cheery, reminiscent of Tobermory on Mull, but a little scruffier. We whizz through and just catch the ferry in time to Portavadie on the other side of Loch Fyne.
There’s not much here at all, just a series of new houses. Grant tells me that they’d attempted to set it up as a new port with a marina but ‘I’m not sure it’s been a success’. Now, at last, there’s no need to rush, and there’s a nice long road ahead of us around the Isle of Bute. The weather’s starting to look menacing, but we take the ride gently, and get talking about children. Grant tells me about his two children. His son’s nearly 17, and he’s nearly 50.
‘I’m glad we get to do things like this’, he says, as Anthony races ahead in the distance, the pair of us struggling to keep up. He’s unsure how long these kinds of holidays together can last. The passage of time separates parent from child, one comes up with the assistance of the other like the pedals of a cycle, and in turn must push to assist the older through more difficult years. I share that Anthony’s lucky to have a parent who takes him out on adventures like this. Grant smiles. ‘Having children, it just enhances your life’. He asks me about my life, and about my marriage. As with many people I meet, he laughs that I married recently then disappeared off on a bicycle. ‘Doesn’t she mind?!’
I’m lucky, more lucky than I could ever deserve. I’m with the most wonderful human being I’ve ever met, a person I’ve shared the last ten years with. She’s mad enough to be fully behind this venture, and back home, as I discovered, I’ve been partially replaced by a rescue cat named Anthony. We get talking about leisure at home, about exercise, and about boozing, of which I do a great deal of, as any reader can quickly gather. He comes from a family of social workers and tells me ‘if someone said ye couldne drink any more, I’d be alright with it’. I’m not sure I could do the same, though it’s hard to determine whether once one starts to control something, it starts to control you. Again, I’m unsure.
These conversations correspond with the contours of the Cowal peninsula and its climate. The weather is changing from sunny to a confused, overcast grey. I feel a dampness in the breeze which suggests the onset of rain, whilst the road undulates here and there but along a relatively dull rural countryside, the drama of other parts of Scotland missing, though at least lacking in traffic. We reach the small village of Tighnabruaich, and part ways again. Grant has a friend who lives here, so we exchange farewells. I’m warned of a steep mountain directly ahead.
The road tugs up into the mountains, and sticking on its trail proves tough, but not impossible. The scenery becomes more interesting up here, with rugged metamorphic rocks snagging the road, with trees and shrubs growing improbably overhead or between. A mysterious papier mache model of a man with devil horns has been placed near the top of the road, a kind of tribute to a cruel avatar who stalks this land perhaps. It must have some uncanny and malevolent power, as a few moments after passing it the rain begins to fall with intense ferocity.
I am in a monsoon. Everything rapidly becomes soaked through, and it becomes near impossible to see ahead of me. But once you’re soaked, what can you do? Were to find shelter, though there is none, I would quickly freeze. It’s the most intensely torrential rain I’ve experienced, and doesn’t relent for about an hour. I manage to make it up along the hill and through a thick forest, before snaking back down towards the village of Colintraive, where the next ferry on the trip awaits. There are more hills to ascend along a relatively bare and desolate stretch of rugged hillsides and forests. After all that, I am truly shattered. My shoes are squelching.
The rain stops at Colintraive, and I spy Anthony racing in the distance. They’ve somehow managed to catch up with me again, despite being at least half an hour behind me. Grant even has a puncture. I must be a very slow cyclists! We’re all just in time for the next ferry, this time a brief hop to Rhuabodach across the water.
With the aid of a sewing needle and camping fork I lend them, the pair manage to pick out a thorn. But it’s another sprint ahead, and wisely they suggest I start on ahead whilst they fix the tyre back on Grant’s bike. It’s a nice coastal route, flat with pleasant views of Loch Striven to my left, with the interior of the land hugging my right. I pass through Port Bannatyne, a genteel looking Victorian fishing village with a number of derelict boats sitting at its front like a family’s ornamental souvenirs. In the distance I see Rothesay, a large Victorian seaside resort, a little like Great Yarmouth, with large dour houses sitting on a promenade and an old jetty. It looks grand and a little imposing ahead, far larger than I would’ve possibly expected in these surroundings.
Sadly the rain starts hitting hard again. It feels unfair. Everything I own is already soaked, and I’m freezing cold. Point proven! Can I just dry out? But no, the moods of the weather have no regard for human convenience. The town arrives without any fanfare and represents a faded dream. There are plenty of ice cream parlours and fishing shops, and a compelling art-deco Pavilion built for a once aspirational holiday resort. There are old rain shelters and pleasant greens that border a wide promenade and an unfrequented road. The town merits exploration, but we’ve got to catch a ferry. There’s just time to inspect the grand Victorian toilets by the ferry harbour, plush and neat with ornate details. As I take a piddle in one of the luxurious cubicles, well worth the 30p entry, a coachload of French tourists land and take documentary photographs of every feature.
At last, our final ferry of the day. We sit aboard the ship to Wemyss Bay, tired by the rain, the sprints and the hills. Grant and Anthony are planning to get the train back home, and I’m unsure what to do. By the time we arrive it’s half five, and according to my original plan, I’ve got around fifty-eight miles to cycle. Heavy rain storms are forecast for the next few hours, and I’ve nowhere to sleep. It’s tricky. If my tent and clothes get soaked through, it’ll be another night without sleep or comfort, and I’m already exhausted.
So, I could either cycle through the rain and book an expensive hotel perhaps in Ayr, or further south? It’ll be expensive, but at least I’ll be able to dry out. Or, I can catch a train to Ayr, some thirty miles away, stay inside until the rain calms, then cycle out into the night and find somewhere dry to camp.
What would you do in my situation?
Grant and Anthony suggest I take the train. As we stand inside the extraordinarily grand and ambitious train station, I’m easily tempted. Is it cheating? Probably. But I’d sooner cheat and be able to manage a full day of cycling the following day without getting ill. These are journeys and not self-punishments after all. So I board a train inland to Paisley, where I get the chance to read a book, for the first time in many weeks.
I should make it clear that in my conversations with strangers, I never take the role of a scientist or anthropologist, impartially documenting with Dictaphone the lives of unusual specimens. With each person I exchange stories. For each person who tells me about their life, I tell them all about mine. I don’t see it worth recording that side of the exchange here, but I want to note it.
When Bill on Arran found about my interest in democracy, he pulled out from the palace of his mind a quote from Winston Churchill:
‘Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’
Bill adds a more withering thought. ‘Do we actually live in a democracy?’
‘Well no, of course not. People have no real say or consent in the kind of government they have, or the decisions it makes. It’s the donors to political parties, the lobbyists. But that doesn’t rule it out. Just because we’ve not yet had an adequate democracy, doesn’t mean we couldn’t.’
‘But could it work?’
‘Well yeah, what about Switzerland, with the number of referenda they have…’
‘Yes, but Switzerland isn’t a democracy as you imagine it either. Only a very small number of people vote. And the power is held up among a small number of people, in the cantons. I’ve worked there. There’s a lot of problems.’
I have these thoughts in mind as I leaf through Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void, a book I’d picked up in London along with a collection of Thomas Paine’s writings. Both are now completely sodden by the rain, pages all stuck together, but remain just about legible. Mair died before finishing the book, but its argument is that the age of democracy is passing. With the decline of support for political parties, and a corresponding decline of interest and engagement in electoral politics, governments are becoming increasingly representative of an elite.
‘The age of party democracy has passed’, he begins. Parties are disconnected from wider society, and elections are little more than a staged competition ‘that is so lacking in meaning’. The people have become ‘non-sovereign’, lacking any ability to influence political decisions. Power is being taken away from the people, and its effect is the apathy and poor voter turnout lamented today. In its place, theorists and thinktanks are hailing ‘stakeholder involvement’ over ‘electoral participation’, reasoned debate over popular disagreement, and ‘efficiency, stability or continuity’ – usually of privately-held wealth and property – over the desires of the people. ‘If democracy made a difference, they’d make it illegal’, as the wry saying goes. So it seems.
Mair’s main example is the European Union, a body set up by national leaders to ‘evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy’. Its decision-makers and their discussions remain largely unaccountable to the individual populations that comprise its member-states. If one country makes a decision that goes against its imperatives, like the Irish did in their referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008, they’ll be asked to vote again. People have responded, generally, with a vote of frustration for Eurosceptic, right-wing nationalist parties.
This shouldn’t be understood as representing a growing xenophobia or racism on the part of populations, I don’t think. Nor should a declining vote suggest that people are less politically aware or interested. Both are signals of frustration. The disenchantment with democracy evident in Scotland, with its contempt for the ‘London rule’ of bankers and warmongers, or England, with its melancholia for lost political opportunities and retreat into consumer narcissism and personal greed, suggests a frustrated desire for democracy again. And having tasted just a bit of that democracy, having flirted with its possibility, that desire cannot go away. But what will form will it take?
I arrive into Ayr, a small town in a county that bears its name. The ride into Irvine, just north of here, gave the impression of cycling through the countryside of Surrey or Kent in the south of England: rural yet entirely given over to farming, gently undulating and sober, lacking drama or character yet retaining a general specificity in its rich and vivid greenness. One won’t see countryside like south Ayrshire or south Kent in any other country in the world. The town itself appears large but a little run down. A dour and seemingly derelict station hotel towers over the exit of the station, and in the distance is a very shabby Odeon cinema, and a series of chip shops and pubs. I get some chips and head down towards the long high street, a grand parade of Victorian mercantilism. Today the odd Seventies’ Seifert-shite office block interrupts the pride of the place. Young teens in skinny black jeans and hoodies laugh, shriek and chase each other. An old feller tells me that there’s music on in the town tonight, some kind of festival occurring. I press on.
People shout and curse in the street. A group of teenage girls giggle as I approach with my strange lines of questioning. ‘Aye, we like it here. I’m from a small village, it’s not like this. There’s lots of pubs, things to do. And it’s full of crazy people!’ I head into Tesco for some evening supplies, then pop out to scan the surroundings. Most shops are closed, but not closed up, and there’s no obvious sign of decline or poverty here. A man in his early twenties sucks away on an electronic cigarette outside the store, eyes gazing into the limit of some troubling and lonely conundrum.
‘What’s life like here?’
He tells me that he’s on the dole. His conversation is sharp, frustrated and brightly intelligent. He reels away arguments, ideas and facts with impatience but also difficulty, uncertainty. It is as if he is trying to lift and unroll a huge tape-reel of repressed internal dialogue, locked inside the archive of a life paused and in-between. He tells me about recently turning down work in a call-centre in Kilmarnock, the only job he’s seen going recently.
‘There’s not many jobs here. … But that’s the same across Scotland, the effect of Thatcher’. There were mines and some industry here, he tells me, but these are long gone, beyond the memory of his (or should I say, our) generation. The place has a Conservative MP, but he says many of the ‘working class young’ are more left-wing and involved in Yes campaigns. His friend pops out of Tesco and joins in. He suggests that the national polls on No support, usually given a narrow majority, are under-reporting the scale of support for independence. ‘Do you know anyone who’s been polled?’, his mate asks him. ‘No’. But then, I pose, aren’t there many people who will say they’ll vote yes, not wishing to seem anti-patriotic, but in the privacy of the booth, retreat back into the most pathetic, selfish and base fears about income tax increases?
We totter on these conundrums, and part ways. I head out towards Ayr’s seafront, a grand Victorian thing that matches the high street. There are dozens of old Victorian hotels that haven’t lost too much of their splendour, and the place carries a little more grace than Rothesay. It’s been dry since I’ve arrived, but the drizzle starts to return. Not wishing to wash away in it, I head out of Ayr towards the south-east. I’m not sure where to stop, but a degree of dusk is settling down.
I pass a hospital to my right, but the road towards Patna can mainly be characterised by its abundance of strewn rubbish. McDonalds waste and plastic wrappers have been thrown everywhere along the grassy verge. I’ve spotted this problem all across Scotland, from the pretty lowlands that reach up to Stirling to the peaks of the Cairngorms. It’s a shame that such a genial, sharp and sociable people are so loath to hold onto their rubbish until they get home. The road passes through farmland filled with cattle, and behind them, the skies perform another dramatic twist, plunging the valleys and plains into a delightful golden sunset.
Eventually the road reaches Patna. Looking at this small and dull-looking cluster of streets that crudely comprises a village on Google Maps, it seemed that a spot of green might be a forest worth camping in. But it’s still a little light, so I decide to head on. The road’s starting to approach the Galloway Forest. Surely there’ll be somewhere there?
The next settlement is Dalmellington. The gloaming’s starting to slide into a dark and drizzly night. I decide that come what may, I’ll find the first pub in the village and explain my predicament. ‘Cold desperate cyclist seeks dark woodland to pitch tent in. No angry farmers or nearby weirdos.’
I’m also starting to feel uneasy about not telling people about my project. Shouldn’t I tell people straight away that I’m a writer, and that I’ll probably document in some form the conversation we’ve had? Yes, of course. I usually do, but towards the end of a conversation, once familiarity’s been built up. Tell someone you’ve put out a book or plan to write another and they become guarded, put on airs, start to report things with less surety in their power or relevance of their voice.
Dalmellington appears, a small mining village situated in a valley. A little after Patna, I’d passed a couple of white stones with ‘in memory of unemployed 1921′ on one, and ’22 23’ on another next to it, suggesting the area’s industrial past and decline. There’s an open-cast mine just outside the village which I pass to my left, but little sign that it’s still in use. I follow a road in, and spy a big feller smoking a cigarette outside a pub. I pop into the Eglinton Hotel in search of information and a can of Irn Bru.
It’s a noisy and lively carry-on inside. The pub is small and cramped, but the figures around the bar smile as I come in, and service is quick. Karaoke plays on in the other room, and it’s clear that everyone’s been here for some time, enjoying the craic together and the possibility of a lie-in the next day – the Scots have an extra Bank Holiday which the English can only dream of.
I fill up my flasks, and the friendly barmaid tells me to ask Billy, another big feller stood next to me with a pint of McEwans in hand. ‘Ooh’, he pauses to think. He tells me of a place ten miles ahead, but with the night falling, I don’t want to push too further. ‘Well, there’s a lay-by two miles ahead. That’s your best bet. Can you afford a B&B?’ ‘No, no. It’s camping for me.’ He gives me detailed directions and, as I gulp down a can of chilled and delicious Irn Bru, we quickly banter about Dalmellington and why I’m passing through.
I’m fitting the flasks back onto the bike when a lady comes out and addresses me. Billy must’ve told her about my book project, and about the Trussell Trust, which, if you’ve seen the About page of this project, is the charity I support. I’m not doing the ride just for charity, as this is a personal and political journey, and not one that corresponds with everything that charity stands for. It’s for me. But I’ve told people about its work as I’ve passed through places, and I’ve done my best to direct financial support for my project towards good causes like that instead. If you support what I’m doing, please donate to them.
Her name is Ray, and she’s the landlady of the bar and hotel. They’ve been renovating the rooms upstairs and work is continuing. ‘Fuck it,’ she says with a cheeky smile. ’There’s a bed there if you want it, free’. I’m stunned, and delighted. I’ve not been offered such a massive gesture of friendliness or generosity by strangers like this before. I don’t know what to say, as it’s entirely unexpected, but I can’t help smiling, and laughing, and thanking her excessively, and coming back in. People smile at me and, after changing into some dry clothes in the cosy and comfortable room upstairs, head down to the bar with this wonderful local family of friends. The Eglinton Hotel is a superb place, and well worth calling into.
Billy’s friend Alan asks me what I’m going to sing for the Karaoke. Fortunately I’m aware enough of my awful singing voice, and manage to bow out, but the locals provide plenty of musical entertainment. I get a pint of Caledonia Best and start chinwagging. Shona, Billy’s daughter, tells me that ‘we’re like a big family, people care for each other, we know each other, we look out for each other.’ I get that sense here.
It’s a warm and lovely place. Ray tells me about the history of Dalmellington, a village that grew up around the mine and pit once situated here. Both closed in the late Seventies, but the memory of the place remains in the minds of Alan and Ray, both in their mid-fifties. Alan’s dad warned him ‘I don’t want you going down that mine’, and he followed his advice. Ray remembers visiting the place as a child. ‘The lift, it were terrifying. So dark.’ ‘I don’t know how people managed to work like that. For years they did it’, chips in Billy. ‘Aye, and they were kids, some of em.’ ‘But think about the pit ponies. When the pits shut down, they came out, but they couldn’t see a thing. It was too bright,’ Billy replies. Despite the loss of jobs, the town remains a strong community, aware of its own history and its place in the present. Ray tells me about the local Craigengillen Estate, owning 300,000 acres of land. And tarmac? The inventor of the modern road surface hails from this village. Robert MacAdam created the stuff, and gave it the name Tarmacadam, or tarmac today. It’s a shame the family didn’t create some kind of local bursary to maintain the roads in and out of Dalmellington, which are quite pocked and rough!
I spend most time talking to Billy, the older feller who first befriended me here. He tells me about cycling in his younger days, and the triathlons he’d compete it. ‘Cycling, it can be tough. You’ve got to be a loner, you’ve got to have that mindset’. ‘Being self-sufficient you mean, able to face all kinds of circumstances?’ ‘Aye’. He tells me about his bicycles at home, about growing up in Glasgow, and about his work today as a fireman. He pops out for a minute, then returns with a very large black t-shirt for me, with the fire service logo on its sleeve. He gifts it to me. Such kindness! I ask him more questions about his work. Being friendly, warm and deeply practical, he then invites me next door to the fire station for a look around. This is turning out to be an amazing evening.
In the station, Billy guides me round and shows me how everything work. There is the fire cat, a kind of fax machine that prints out an address and information whenever the local fire service is needed. Two teams work at this station made up of locals paid on a small retainer, a kind of semi-voluntary role that is heavily underpaid for the work it entails. Billy leads one team, and each take it in turns to serve the station. With Shona and her friend Leonie, we try on the very heavy fire-jackets and hats. It is rather like wearing an astronaut’s costume, and the weight is unbelievable. It gets very hot and suffocating in such gear, and that’s before extra layers like a gas mask, breathing tanks and a gas costume are added. I don’t know how firemen even manage to walk.
We look around the fire engine, and Billy explains what the hoses, shovels, defibrillators, first aid kits and heavy cutting machinery do. These firefighters do not simply squirt water at flames. They are often the first to arrive at car accidents, farming accidents (including livestock getting stuck in mud), suicides, gas leaks, airplane crashes, and much more. The engine itself carries 3000 gallons of water which is stored in a tank that makes up most of its bulk. The interior of the vehicle looks like something from Robocop, two black benches with gas tanks attached to the back. Computer screens inside detail topographies and even the locations of hydrants. It’s such vital and important work, yet these firefighters are paid very little, and are struggling to recruit new people. It requires a degree of physical and personal strength that is rare in many. I know I couldn’t do it (and requiring glasses means that I’m already excluded).
‘I’ve got to be ready all the time, I’m always on call’, he tells me, but he’s done this for twenty-sx years. Shona agrees. ‘People don’t realise, we’ve had family birthdays, Christmas dinners interrupted cos of it. Even in the middle of the night, as kids.’ It all sounds very hard. He smiles. ‘You’ve got to have a weird sense of humour’. It reminds me of nurses I’ve met and worked with, and the dark sardonic humour and strange take on life and death their conversation usually evinces. He like nurses I point out. With the briefest and most suggestive of mentions, he tells me that ‘I’ve seen all sorts of things, difficult things’.
We return to the boozer, where the party’s continuing. There’s plenty of conversation flowing, and I feel like I’m among old best friends. It’s just so nice here. Such kindness, generosity and friendliness in Dalmellington, at the Eglinton. I’m going to miss Scotland. They say Dalmellington’s ‘a village in the stars’. They’re quite right.