A Journey into Scotland … Part 16
It was a lovely early autumn evening as I parked my bicycle outside the The Clachan Inn in St John’s Town of Dalry. I was hoping for a place where I could put my tent up but I was willing to be persuaded into a pint of beer. The welcome was as friendly as I can remember receiving in a public house. It was well appointed, in fact rather posh, and ties seemed to be expected. I was in jogging bottoms and a fleece and the sole of my training shoe was flapping loose. I stood out like a sore thumb but was made very welcome.
The landlord was of the old school when the position of innkeeper held considerable rank in a small town. He was well made and had that Scottish trait of a head of hair that had aged much more slowly than the face it accompanied. He reminded me of rugby commentator Bill McLaren. Both probably opted for this particular haircut when they were twelve or thirteen and neither had seen any reason to ask the barber for anything different for the next fifty or sixty years.
The first thing I had to get right was the name of the town. The “Saint John’s Town” part was easy. It was also disposable. Like the “in Furness” part of my own hometown it was only used when talking to people who didn’t really know the place. I was welcomed in so rapidly that I was encouraged to call it Dalry. It’s difficult to give a phonetic spelling without seeming to insult the town. Dull Rye but only the slightest amount of the first diphthong is sounded. Maybe Dll- Rye would be a better effort. Very important to roll the r slightly and the final vowel sound can linger for anything up to a second. There is beauty in the name and poetry and music in the pronunciation.
I can’t remember if it was explained to me, or if I had a sudden realisation, but I came out of that bar with an enlightenment as to the distinction between Johnstone and my own name, Johnson. My name is easy. It’s a viking legacy to the English language. All names ending in son are of Scandinavian origin and simply mean son of. In my case son of John and so on with Williamson, Nicholson, Wilson and Davidson. We are a fluid multi cultural country these days but you will still find a significantly higher percentage of people with this name ending in the old Danelaw parts of England than in Saxon strongholds.
Johnstone comes from the town of John and will refer to the church. That is why it so often has a saint attached. The Scottish football team from Perth, St Johnstone are really called St John’s Town (of Perth) in the same way as I am in St John’s Town of Dalry. Johnson’s are named after an ancestor while Johnstones are named after one of the Christian evangelists.
Conscious of the fast fading October daylight and the need for a campsite I was determined just to have the one pint. Half a dozen regulars had adopted me though and the landlord was their leader. I was given two separate histories of the town. One ancient, involving Covenanters and uprisings and brutal executions. The other over the number of new people who had moved into the area and the worrying trend that so many of them came from Glasgow and Edinburgh. No-one, it seemed, had arrived from south of the border. I appeared to be the only Sassanach in Dumfries and Galloway. And they were working very hard to help me acquire a Scottish twang.
It was generally agreed that the old bowling green was a very good place to put a tent.
“Won’t I be in anybody’s way?”
No, they assured me in chorus. (I began to feel like the American oilman in Local Hero). The green hadn’t been used for bowling for three years or more. It seemed some dispute over who had authority for it had left it of no use to anyone. The pig that has two owners will die of hunger. The bowling green that everyone insists is theirs will grow lush and green and make a lovely campsite for the English cycling fellow. I was guided down the street and two of my new found friends helped me lift my bicycle and my bags over the gate
It felt a bit odd to be pitching camp right in the middle of a small town but they assured me that they were pleased to have me. I offered to pay my way but they wouldn’t hear of it. They later let me buy a round of drinks at the bar and chuckled merrily at my Anglisised mispronunciations of ‘heavy’ (Scottish bitter beer) and uisge beatha (whisky) which they assured me meant water of life. I think they were having more than a little fun at my expense. Dalry is not a noted centre for Gaelic speaking. I enjoyed three pints of tangy malt beer with them and retired to my tent where I spent the early part of the night expecting to be asked to move on. In fact I was left in peace and eventually fell into an untroubled slumber and awoke to find myself the first man abroad in the village.
My accomplices had topped up my water bottles so breakfast was enjoyed with a second an then a third mug of tea. Each mug serving to clear the clouds from last night’s beer.
I wanted to stay long enough to thank everyone for their kindness but , after an hour, there was no sign of anyone stirring. I loaded up the bicycle and pedalled quietly out of town in the direction of Ayrshire.
Dalry is located on one of the loveliest and most worthwhile long distance footpaths in mainland Britain: The Southern Uplands Way. We English tend to think Pennine Way if we think long distance walking. Two of us walked the Two Moors Way over Dartmoor and Exmoor to pass our mountain leadership course at teacher training college and one or two hippy friends have walked sections of The Ridgeway with crystals and ley lines to keep them centred. We don’t often think of taking our boots north of the border to walk in the same way as we do to climb. The Southern Upland Way crosses Scotland from coast to coast from Cockburnspath in the east to Portpatrick on the Mull of Galloway. For much of its route it follows the border but it also stays nicely up in the clean air with views and historic sites aplenty. I would like to walk it one day.
The route takes me into the glories of the area. The Rhinns of Kells have one of the most tantalising of names and the large rolling grassy hills look splendid under the mixture of bright sunshine and passing cloud shadows. These are hills that have walking and picnics writ large.
The problem of passing by places, so lovely that you want to stop and explore, has to be faced. I only have three and a half weeks for this journey. I’ve worked out where I’m going to stop every night and I keep to this schedule right up to the northern coast. I cannot afford to stop but it isn’t easy just to cycle on by. My usual compromise is to wheel my bicycle far enough away from the road that I feel completely cut off and to brew up a mug of tea. I still have the primus stove. Alongside my bicycle and my first decent guitar it is about my oldest possession. They are probably my most valued.
The map says I’m about to enter an area called The Glenkens. They sound delightful. As I turn a corner and go over a rise they come into view. They don’t disappoint.
I had to make sure that the photograph of the church was taken in Dalry so I checked it on Google. Someone has decided that it needed sprucing up. Sometimes wind and weather has a better effect on old buildings than whitewash and good intentions. It took me quite a few minutes to realise it was the same church.