‘This might be a strange question, but tell me, what’s the one political change you would like to see in your lifetime?’
‘Get rid of all the Conservatives, all the corrupt politicians. Have a new lot. Ordinary people.’
‘Shoot the lot of em’.
– talking to two young people, Halifax.
I awake in Malham after a fine night’s sleep. All around me is peace. This is a quiet, teeny little village nestled in the south-west of the Yorkshire Dales. A stream trickles under an old stony bridge, pursuing the desire of its flow out into the tranquillity of wispy fields and cattle drunk on grass and rainwater. The St. George’s flag flutters on the outside of a pub, an unnecessary marker of a scene that could only be England: this village, this lawn, these dozy river verges, a newsagent who gazes out from his store at the morning rush, a postal van that struggles to navigate the gnarled and twisty roads. This is England, and nowhere is England like this. Here is the England of the chocolate boxes and packets of fudge, of the I heart London stores and the Jeremy Paxmans with their delusional national biographies. I rub my eyes to check the view, then prepare to depart the youth hostel.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.