‘No, but where are ye heading?’ – Richard, Montrose, asks me this repeatedly and keeps forgetting the answer, over many beers in the Royal Arch pub.
Now I knew Scotland would be quite special, but these landscapes are starting to take the biscuit. Aside from the jerry-built crassness of the occasional industrial satellite town and its barrack-like social housing, the terrains and built design are unremittingly beautiful and spell-binding. There are houses and public structures built to last, not built to pass, and by some magic spell the misguided callousness of 1960s town planning has largely been avoided.
Even Dundee, a town that people on the road have struggled to report much good about, comes along with many a pleasant surprise. The previous evening I swept over the wide River Tay, immortalised in the bloody awful poetry of William McGonagall. I’m alert to distant lights on the other side signalling a harbour and a bustling town dense with life. Time in the hostel threw me against the diverse stories of Dundee’s visitors and, after a pleasant enough sleep in a dorm full of student backpackers, I get up and wander about the town’s high street.
‘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.
‘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.
‘I’ve been skiving for like, the whole week!’ Young teen to older brother, Tollcross, Edinburgh.
Every part of me had started to ache: knees, legs, heart and head. I needed a few days rest with my partner in some cosy, lovely and friendly town, surrounded by wonderfully sunny weather and friends old and new. Edinburgh has therefore been a gentle delight.
It’s also a city of contrasts. Its historic Georgian town centre just about conceals large and troubling social problems cast out to the suburbs. Its confidence in displaying its own past is undermined by an uncertainty about its future. And for a town that some remark as being the ‘most English’ Scottish town – on account of its seeming gentility perhaps? I’m not sure – the built scenery often reminded me of a Scandinavian or German town, pleasant if somewhat sterile. I’ll try to relay what I’ve found, and I encounter visions of its past and future quite at odds with each other.
‘London? Too full of people.’ – heard twice in an hour, Berwick.
It’s a deliciously sunny and golden morning in sleepy Berwick, and I gaze out at the empty pier and lighthouse in the distance. Sat next to me is the ghost of L.S. Lowry, occasionally peering up from his easel as he converts the glory of the morning sea into one of his characteristic Berwick seascapes.
I am on the threshold between two countries, England and Scotland, one which lacks any real idea of its own identity, and another which realises it, and recognises the importance of political independence.
In truth England does have a kind of identity, one that belongs to upper middle-class London and the south-east. It has been aggressively normalised through school education, the centralisation of financial and political power in the capital, the Received Pronunciation of the BBC, the London-centric bilge that passes for popular journalism, and decades of casually ridiculing and economically depriving other regions of England. But this is not England, and the different regions I’ve travelled through have either quietly asserted their identity (like Yorkshire, or the West Midlands) or cried out for one (like south Essex).