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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 30


There is a new tourist trail to be followed in these tightly packed islands of ours. Follow the film set. In this, Chatsworth House is where Mr Darcy lives, Alnwick Castle becomes Hogworts and the River Avon in Bath is where Russell Crowe falls to his death in Les Mis.. Newton Stewart is prime Wicker Man country. The mid-budget 1973 film is now regarded as something of a classic with Total Film magazine claiming it to be the sixth greatest British film of all time. My memory of it is watching it after Parkinson on a Saturday night of my youth. I wasn’t over-struck by it but certain scenes stay in the mind and they are not all of a disrobed Britt Ekland. I always felt that Edward Woodward’s considerable talents were directed out of the film and I’ve always struggled to take Christopher Lee (another brilliant actor in the right roles) seriously in robes.


The film centres on a Hebridean island where fruit has being growing rather better than it should, thanks to the pagan worship of the locals. Edward Woodward is the upstanding officer of the law who, in uncovering all the black badness of the place, becomes the perfect sacrifice to offer after the crops failed. He fits three categories. Scottish stories of the supernatural often have these three conditions to be met. As in Macbeth, the three are a little weak when put under close scrutiny. Birnham Wood didn’t come to Dunsinane; some soldiers brought some branches with them. Macduff was born of woman, but by caesarian section. Macbeth was right to beware the Thane of Fife. Edward Woodward’s character came to the isle of his own free will; no he didn’t; he was sent there by his superiors. He carries the authority of a king; no, he’s a policeman. And, he’s a virgin. I have most problems with this. Edward Woodward is about as likely virgin material as Britt Ekland. It’s like casting Ray Winstone to play Quentin Crisp. It lacks believability. We’d all spent the previous five years watching Callan.


I qualify on the grounds that I’ve come to the Galloway Hills and the town of Newton Stewart of my own free will. I find a town at peace with itself. It seems to be largely local Scots and happily free of relocated middle class English ex hippies who’ve come for “lifestyle reasons”. There are some tourists. They wander the main street and look in ordinary shops as if expecting to see extraordinary displays and when they don’t they choose to see the extraordinary in the ordinary; and that is no bad thing.

“Oh look. They sell marmalade. We must take some  marmalade back with us.”

Tourism, forestry and quarrying make up the bulk of the local economy. From a tourist viewpoint I’m loathe to point out just how beautiful the area is. Part of the beauty lies in the unspoilt nature which in turn is due to a lack of tourists. Galloway seems to have got the balance about right. Forestry covers vast hectares of this part of Scotland. The Forestry Commission, set up in 1919 to replenish Britain’s woodlands after the First World war, is now the country’s largest land manager. They are showing some signs of improving their practices but for much of their existence they have adopted a policy of covering the huge acreages with fast growing conifers and then harvesting whole mountainsides of them, leaving a landscape of impenetrable, rather ugly green, interspersed with moonscapes. Today there is increasing diversity, better woodland management and many recreational schemes. It’s a start. They could still do a good deal better. The quarrying is on a huge scale here but, unlike Derbyshire where some of England’s most beautiful views are spoilt by criminally ugly scars, the local hills around Newton Stewart remain outwardly lovely despite providing granite for just about every dock side in Britain.


Refreshed by my white coffee I seek out the quietest roads to Loch Ryan and am soon back in a world of such beauty that I no longer care if I catch a ferry today or tomorrow. Up here, the only blight on the horizon are wind farms and I have always found windmills things I can look at for hours. We all love the old windmills with their wooden sails. Part of what we like is the naturalness and the simple quaint inefficiency of them. We are told that modern windmills are equally inefficient but the people telling us this are people with vested interests in not going to renewable power. Care needs to be taken in how many windmills and where they are placed. The landscape around here is so vast as to make even these clusters of huge waving giants appear small and in-keeping.


The roads are narrow and deserted. Jays clatter in the trees. One of the streams I cross must be the place where the murder is committed in Five Red Herrings (I’m giving nothing away…it happens in the early pages). I pass the tree-line and am once again in the wonder and the splendour. Cycling becomes as much a matter of philosophy as physical exercise. It’s hard to determine whether the uphill or the downhill are more enjoyable. I’m feeling fit and toned. There are fabulous views, a perfect workout and the feeling that, if you take the bags off the back, I’m doing what Coppi and Bugno, Pantani and Millar did; except I’m doing it on big breakfasts and coffee.


You notice more on a bicycle. You hear the birds as well as seeing them. You notice the colour of a campion, the flutter of a leaf. Passing the stages of forestry, passing the fisherman in a boat on a loch, the dancing butterflies, the perfect late July weather, the landscapes, the soundscapes the cloudscapes.

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At New Luce I buy an ice cream and enjoy it sitting under a road sign that tells me I have less than ten miles to go. Stranraer is a world away from where I live, yet, slowly, pedal turn by pedal turn, I’ve narrowed the distance and now I’m on the verge. From where I sit, it seems to be all down hill. It’s an optical illusion.

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The roads are being re-surfaced rural Scotland style. The technique is simple and, once the road has been driven on for several years, moderately successful. A lake of molten tar is spilled onto the old carriageway and a mountain of chippings is raked over this. They would slow down a Land Rover. They make cycling very difficult indeed.

I ride over freshly laid chippings for four miles and eventually overtake the road crew who are laying them. We’re out in the middle of nowhere in a country where people tend to say hello and not one of the Boys from the Blackstuff as much as acknowledge my passage. Once past them, it gets a hell of a lot easier.

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There is a sizeable cheese factory at Castle Kennedy but after that I’m forced onto the  much avoided A75 for the last few miles. I’d left the final decision as to which port to head for until now. The words of my Northern Ireland born and raised head teacher came to me. “You’ve a choice of starting in a nice small town in the country or pedalling through miles of a city.” Stranraer would take me to Belfast, Cairnryan would land me in Larne. I turn right and reach the port just as the ferry is docking.