‘Most people will just look at the headlines of the Mail or the Sun, but not at the detail.’
‘Or where it comes from, and who is saying it.’
‘Ideas and opinions will get raised in conversations in pubs, not through the TV or reading. ‘How do you reach that, how do you influence it?
Smiles in exasperation. ‘I don’t know!’
– Baz, talking to me outside Tesco Extra, Dumfries.
I awake in a room at the Eglinton Hotel, given freely by Ray, its landlady, the previous night. Dalmellington has charmed me, and I’ve spent one of most pleasant evenings of this trip here, surrounded by warm and friendly company and glad to be out of the rain. Fatigue is kicked me over though. I’d stayed up late writing again, and end up sleeping well over my alarm. It’s time to check out, and I have to hurry out of the hotel. I pedal out, and manage to find a quiet cul-de-sac on the edge of the village where I catch my breath and watch the slow progress of the traffic out of the village. A man watches it too from a window, and we share for a moment in the most absurd of spectator sports.
The countryside leaving Dalmellington has been farmed with cattle, as has much of Ayrshire, and it gently slopes here and there with a pleasant though familiar aspect: green, farmed fields give way at their peaks to the beginnings of gentle mountains, marked with bursts of trees and shrubs. Further along, the road drills through a valley, small mountains sloping into the distance. It’s a relatively quiet road and there’s no threat of rain today. I pedal along gently, slowly building up a pace.
‘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.
‘Look, I’m an otter! And now, I’m an eagle!’ – young boy, aboard the Lochranza-Claonaig ferry.
I awake in Bill’s house in the village of Sannox, on the Isle of Arran. It’s a palace of a home, displaying the riches of a life well lived: photographs, mementos, books and random treasures. I read the motivational verses on his fridge and have a cup of coffee with some Weetabix, whilst in another room, I hear Bill’s gentle and merry voice bubbling with laughter on a phone-call with an old friend.
We breakfast together and share our plans for the day. That Viking longboat in Corrie harbour will be burnt in an Up Hella Aa celebration later today, Bill tells me, and he shares some of the histories of Arran, an island colonised by Vikings, amongst others. The Hebrides, islands of the Firth of Clyde (like Arran), and the Isle of Man once comprised the ‘Kingdom of the Isles’, a separate political entity that existed from the 9th to the 13th century, when it was absorbed into the kingdom of Scotland. Irish, Pictish and later Viking settlers arrived and each claimed some or all of the islands, but the Viking influence was more lasting, Bill tells me. I sense it in the names of places, and in the probability of its historical veracity, but unlike Shetland or even, to a degree, Newcastle, I get little sense of it on Arran. But then more recent ‘colonisation’ by retiring Glaswegians brings its own flavour!
‘The boss man’s here, watch out!’
‘Yeah, I’d better do some work.’
– Punter to a barmaid, Brodick.
Taking a week’s break from cycling has been a really good idea.
For one, I’ve been able to piece together notes with photos and get up to date with the writing. But homesickness can build up cumulatively. For some, there’s a need to express and experience tenderness and affection. Among strangers this is occasionally possible, but returning home, seeing my family and my partner, has been a rejuvenating tonic. And returning to London? Well in a funny way I love the place too, but that will require some explaining. I’ll save that for the end of this journey. Right now, I’m heading back up to Glasgow on a ridiculously cheap coach, returning to the city where I left my inspiration, along with a sleeping bag, tent, and bicycle.
The motorways are filled with delivery lorries bringing stuff hither and thither. One has skidded and slid over, the driver’s supply of caffeine from countless energy drinks perhaps failing him at some unlucky moment. The coach gets caught in one glut of traffic after another, and a mere ten hour journey stretches to around thirteen. To complete the misery, I have a hyperactive kid behind me tapping and kicking the chair. It’s the kind of testing exercise that would send a bodhisattva on a killing spree.
‘You know what the difference is? At the weekends, people in Finland go out to their homes in the countryside, they exercise, they enjoy the air. In Glasgow, they just go to the shops.’
– Tommi and Michelle, Glasgow.
Warning: Glasgow is a small universe. Capturing it in an economical amount of words has proven more difficult than any place I’ve visited. As my write-up’s turned out so long (and yet I’ve omitted so much), it’s been sub-headed into days which can be read separately. But I dare not separate them into chapters. Just like the city itself, one element necessarily informs another and interweaves with it. If reading this on a web browser, I advise for the sake of time not attempting to read in one sitting. Same goes to the around 600 email subscribers to this blog.
Cherish those mornings where there’s no need to rush. When the alarm clock states the time factually rather than coercively. Get up now, or in half an hour? It doesn’t particularly matter. The pillow has taken on the texture and proportions of a heavenly cloud. Let the morning become afternoon without us dashing around, shoving on our shoes whilst hurrying out the door in a commuter’s cossack dance. The world will continue in its same majestic and ludicrous whirl without us bearing witness to it. Placing a quilt over one’s head is a perfectly respectable way of dispelling life’s demands for another day.
It’s a pleasure waking up slowly in Glasgow at Tommi and Michelle’s. Tommi I met previously in a pub in Dornoch: he invited me to stay with him when I arrived in Glasgow, and kindly lived up to his word. I met Michelle and Nico, his wife and son, the previous afternoon. Michelle’s a native of Dumbarton, but a career in business management brought her to Finland, Norway and back to Glasgow. She’s suffered from MS in more recent years, but has used her experience and skills to assist the MS Society with its campaigns and organisation. Nico is a nineteen year old tennis maestro. As can be the case with young men, he bounds away with more energy and life than life itself can keep up with, which can lead to a kind of post-teen/early twenties dislocation where what one should do isn’t clear, and indecision paralyses. Over cereal and tea – after camping, such luxury – we talk for some time about Glasgow and Scotland. There’s no need to rush, and each topic is treated carefully, without shortcutting to received wisdom or printed opinion as so often blights much discussion of current affairs.
‘Och, you’ve not even had it that long!’
‘Well, I’ve been travelling around Britain!’
‘Oh have ya? Well, I suppose we’ll let you away with it then, hehe!’ – Kimberley, Glasgow, on the death of a digital camera.
Violently, I’m forced awake after a couple hours’ sleep. Some vicious freeze has crept inside my clothes. My chest and legs feel like they’re dead. Some internal thermostat has clicked down to warning level and my mind’s frenzied with the adrenaline. The tent has acquired even more rainwater than before. The wind has blown over most of the coversheet, exposing the tent to the cruelty of the elements. And it is a fucking cold night out there.
It takes immense mental effort to lift myself up and move. The consequences of not moving and falling back asleep will hurt bad in a few hours. This is the worst situation I’ve ever been in physically.
What to compare it to? The despair one feels as a teenager, puking up a night’s self-abuse into the bottom of a toilet cistern, unsure if those stomach convulsions will ever end? Or the panic of losing a bag of personal belongings, a phone, a laptop, your ID and bank cards, in a public place, and that moment of realisation that you may not possibly find it again. Mentally, physically, you’re getting there.
‘I might go home. Nah, I’m not sure.’ – Pissed man in Aulay’s bar, Oban. His accent becomes increasingly foggy in correlation with pints of Tennents’ lager consumed.
I awake on a grassy plain beneath a sloping hill, hiding me and my tent from a nearby farmhouse and its insistent signs not to camp on this pretty spot. Stubbornly and stupidly I have refused, and my reward is a delightful beach, and a constitutional stroll among a small herd of goats and sheep preoccupied with their Sisyphean task of keeping the grass short. It’s a sunny morning, and the fresh dawn light skitters a gold veil over the surrounding grassland.
Time to pack up and jump aboard my transportation device. I am leaving Iona happy with a heart relieved of its concerns, and a mind refreshed and ready for future misadventures. Passing the pretty abbey and the surrounding village, the conviction grips me that I’ll see this place again, some sunny day. It’s a happy-melancholy feeling, sad to be leaving such a tranquil place and the state of mind achieved within it, but energised and yearning to reach home, albeit along the most scenic and strange route available.
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’
– Mary, reciting William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, Carsaig.
Stillness… peace. The tide laps against the jetty of Carsaig pier on the southern tip of Mull. It’s an untroubled morning, and a gentle breeze carries the sighs of the seas into earshot. I’m camped just by an old Victorian boathouse with the words ‘virtue mine honour’, the motto of the local Clan MacLean.
In the distance, a smart little sailboat bobs about untended. I’ve allowed myself to sleep in, and the only other tent on this remote pier-side stretch of grass and rock has disappeared. I have this wondrous place all to myself.
I pack up with the luxury of slowness and start to cycle back up the steep and narrow track. It’s excruciating work, a near vertical ascent across the most rough and basic of roads, and my heart feels like it might burst under the strain. Eventually I reach halfway up the hill, catching my breath by a most improbably-placed telephone box beside a raging waterfall. Quite defeated, I decide to call in to a little cottage by the impressive-looking Carsaig House.
‘Time, it doesn’t matter’ – Bill, the ex-lighthouse keeper, Ardnamurchan Point.
In a remote and rainswept tent, on a most remote and windswept peninsula, I awake after a night of strange and intense dreams. A combination of oscillating emotions, fatigue, and heavy intake of cheddar has shaken up my psyche.
I’m surrounded by ferns, their delicate fronds flickering in the morning’s easy breeze, but little else: a farmhouse in the far distance, a telegraph pole behind me, and the slither of a road ahead. I pack up and follow the single-track trail I’ve slept nearby, somewhere between Kilchoan and the very end of the mainland, a place called Ardnamurchan Point. It’s a bumpy track that passes the occasional field of sheep but otherwise rocks along an ancient landscape, unspoilt by KFC drive-throughs or Argos distribution centres. Occasionally some rallying bit of graffiti appears on the broken road: ‘nearly there!’ ‘go go go!’, remnants of some fun-run once? Otherwise the landscape is wild yet peaceful, a pleasure to rove up and down in the gentle and dry morning.
The narrow road eventually reaches its an end at the foot of a lighthouse and a traffic light, one that feels almost like a sarcastic joke in this most remote and undisturbed of places. It ensures that in the extremely rare event of two vehicles attempting to pass each other on the bridge to the building, no accident ensues. Well, caution is the aim here. Ardnamurchan Point is the most westerly point of the British mainland, and a small visitor centre by the lighthouse makes the most of this fact. Inside, a local girl from nearby Kilchoan sells me a ticket of admission and tells me of her enjoyment of life here. Her accent is sweet, soft and light, much milder than those one hears elsewhere in the Highlands.