‘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.
‘And on the eighth day, God opened his bowels and out came…’ – Russell, Orkney, on home.
A weird young man greets me on the road leaving Auckengill where I slept the previous night. In the midnight confusion, what seemed like the disused remains of a former country lane turned out to be a road drainage ditch. Once nestled inside my tent, I could hear and feel great piles of discarded plastic bottles and car debris crumpling under the thick grass. The cool morning and unfamiliar landscape is already disorientating.
He has a large rock tied to the back of his bike, and dons an old farmer’s tweed blazer and a pair of dirty jeans, several sizes too large. At first I can’t understand him. Accents have changed since Wick, gas a more lilting and Irish twang, a kind of Hollywood attempt at rural Irishness. That’s not to make light of this distinct north eastern Highlands lilt. Kevin asked me where I’d heard the best spoken English. ‘I’m not sure, everywhere I hear good and bad’, I’d told him. I don’t think there is a good model. He disagrees, and says that it’s in the Highlands. ‘Here people speak most clearly. We’re the easiest to understand, it’s our articulation’.