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A Journey into Scotland … Part 18


I’ve always had a fondness for verse. I cannot clearly remember anything before the age of four, but have ghostly recollections of being much smaller, and hearing nursery rhymes for the first time. I don’t mean the first occasion on which I was told the magical poems that are part of everybody’s cultural heritage. I mean hearing a poem that began with Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall and not knowing what was going to come next. It could be that I am remembering these verses being told to my younger sister but I don’t think so. I was pretty sure by that age that once we’d got Humpty onto the wall the end wasn’t going to be particularly happy.


There was a book of verse that was so thumbed that the cover eventually came off. I’d love to find a copy. It’s the sort of thing the internet makes possible but I’ve had no joy yet. It had The Jumblies and The Quangle Wangle Quee by Edward Lear. I loved them and went out on more than one occasion in the expectant hope of actually finding a Crumpety Tree. There was a poem of a street vendor selling “‘ot fried fish” and a warning against talking to strangers on the way to school in a poem called “Meet on the Road”. It was my introduction to what an examination board (and absolutely nobody else in my research) called aptronymic characters. (Characters whose names reflected their dominant traits or functions in the plot). I used to take the book to bed with me and read it until sleep took over. It did as much as formal schooling in teaching me to read.

Later I remember being moved by Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar. I was nine and possibly more open to accepting an extended metaphor than I became after a few more years of schooling. I was told that Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner was the longest poem in the world. I looked it up as a challenge and found instead one of the most wonderful adventures I had read. I wasn’t reading beneath the narrative. I didn’t need an understanding of symbolism or an awareness of allegory to enjoy it. (I was also disappointed to find out that it is far from the longest).

I read poems as often as I read prose as a little boy. I never considered it odd and still don’t. But it was only when I uncovered To a Mouse that I actually fell in love with a poem. I’d lived in Scotland. I understood the Scottish accent and to some degree the dialect. I liked to say this one out loud. It was probably just as well that I spent a good deal of my childhood in the countryside. We were a fairly happy-go-lucky bunch but I was wary of sharing my love for reciting verse with too many others. In fact I kept poetry secret. This isn’t unusual. Even in these days when I’m prepared to send prose out into the world to earn its keep, I am private about my poetry. When I read poems at school (especially from age 9 and upwards) I did it in a different way. I’d make notes and pick up the points that the teacher made. The poem rarely spoke to me out of a schoolbook. I became, with poetry, the way most students become with music. They love the music they listen to and play at home or with their friends but fail to make any connection with the badly taught twaddle coming at them in music lessons. Oh I dare say there are decent music lessons where students connect in a significant way. It’s just that I have never experienced them.  Poetry lessons became the same for me. We came to an understanding of what a poem meant but had no grasp of what the poem was. The poem may have had a meaning but it mean’t nothing. It mean’t nothing to me anyway.


On my own, poems opened out and spoke to me. I liked anthologies best. Probably wasn’t up to reading too many by the same poet until I came to Burns. He was this slightly wicked voice. A keen observer and pointer out of the flaws and pretensions of those around. I got the same feeling reading Burns as I later got working with the perceptive working class subversives who taught me more than teachers ever did. There’s a great wisdom in the rhymes and a silver tongued pleasure in the telling of a tale or the making of an observation. It is small wonder that he was regarded as good company by those with a wit and as dangerous by those with something to hide.

He was a major reason in making this trip up into Scotland and the sole reason for choosing a western route to the top. I’d cycled through the lanes where I learnt to read and recite as an infant and I’d cycled through the lakes that drew Southey and Coleridge and held Wordsworth and Norman Nicholson. And then I’d crossed the border. From Dumfries to Ayr I was in Burns Country. These were the hills that he knew. These were the views that were familiar to him. As I approach Ayr itself, I wonder if any of these fields could have been the one he was ploughing when he turned up the mouse’s nest and sent those best laid plans agley.

I book into the youth hostel. I want to be in the town and don’t think the good folk of Ayr will be as tolerant of a tent on their green as the people of Dalry. Once there I unpack and ride a strangely wobbly bicycle (without heavy bags it is almost like having to re-learn how to ride) on the route taken home by Tam O’Shanter from his chummy boozing in the centre of town out towards the kirk at Alloway.

burns memorial

It’s a beautiful ride to make. Ayr isn’t the handsomest of towns but it has handsomeness. As I ride down the Esplande I have large areas of mown grass on one side bounded by turreted houses that say nineteenth century Scotland even to a fellow wobbling along on a bicycle. To my right is the sea. A clean sandy beach and then the grey waters extending down towards Ailsa Craig in one direction and out and across to the mountains of the Isle of Arran. It’s a special piece of coast. It’s a rare combination of really lovely seaside in a proper full sized town that has other things on its mind than making sandcastles and staring over the waves.

burns cottage Alloway

Eventually the Esplanade runs out and I come a little inland. The only real difference, is that I now have to look over the grass to see the sea. It’s a good view until I realise I’ve been so seduced by the sea that I’ve ridden into a cup-de-sac. A few twiddles and I find myself on the main road south. It’s Doonfoot Road so I presume I’m on the right lines. The beauty of plain grass is now exchanged for the landscaped contours of a golf course. This is golf country. There are probably more golf courses on this bit of coast than anywhere else in the world and a number of them are world famous. Both Troon and Turnberry hold the British Open Championships (or The Open Championship for pedants) and the first ever Open was held at nearby Prestwich. I’m not over impressed. Even up here a golf course looks like an otherwise attractive piece of countryside with an overdone makeover.

Once I get to Alloway I’m not disappointed. Nothing much is open. I take a picture of the cottage where the poet was born and wander around the memorial gardens. Both are pleasing and the early evening quiet adds to the mood. It is the bridge that catches me by surprise. The watery sunshine lights it like a candle. I didn’t connect the bridge with the poems. To me it was just an extraordinarily lovely old bridge over a perfect Scottish river. While photographing it I get accosted by a man who has imbibed heavily during the day. He wants first to tell me about Burns and how ridiculously over-rated he is and then, on hearing my English accent, he wants to tell me what a pile of bastards we all are. He’s quite a tour guide. Burns would have loved it.