A Journey into Scotland … Part 22
Cycling has grown tremendously in terms of numbers since 1987. Other big changes have taken the two wheeled world through more revolutions than Miguel Indurain’s front spokes. Most bicycles are now made out of carbon. Cyclists feel undressed without being emblazoned in logos and absolutely naked unless they have wraparound sun glasses. I’m not altogether in step with all of the changes that have affected cyclists but I am in favour of one: the rise of the dedicated cycle lane.
In 1987 they were something of a novelty and the one in Dumbarton that promised to take me to the shores of Loch Lomond had a special trick up its sleeve: it disappeared after two turnings.
I like Dumbarton. I like the name. I like the fact that it has an m at the end of the first syllable while the county that surrounds it is called Dunbartonshire. I like the football ground and its traditional industries of textiles, shipbuilding and whisky. I like the stories that are told about the town especially the one about the main distillery being guarded not by uniformed men with American style cop uniforms over enormous bellies, but by a gaggle of geese. (They are a gaggle when they are on the ground and a skein when flying). I like the story even more when I discover that it is actually true.
Ballantine’s Distillery is largely gone now, but in 1987 it dominated the town’s skyline. The tall grain tower setting off the practical squares and rectangles of the rest of the redbrick edifice. I’ve never liked whisky. Have always been sure that there is some sort of a joke being played along the lines of the king’s new clothes. “To the highly sophisticated palate this will evoke passion, physical pleasure, aesthetic excellence and show the person to be of an altogether higher plane of judgement and understanding. To the ignorant and the ordinary it will taste like flammable piss, will burn your throat, make you cough and splutter with small doses and make you talk Ballochs with slightly more before leading you to retch and fall asleep on any flat surface you can make stay still for long enough”.
A whisky drinking friend of my father (and there were quite a number) said that whatever you do don’t water it down. It’s sacrilege. Another, on another occasion (whisky drinkers don’t contradict each other unless they are feeling very confident), says that adding water is perfectly fine. “A good whisky can stand it and a bad whisky bloody well needs it.” It is very important to adopt the right tone when talking about whisky. Posture is important too. Well, it is for the first hour then it seems to slide somewhat.
I’ve managed quite well without it. In my humble opinion, if something takes that long to get to like, then it needs to have more to like at the end of the journey than whisky has.
Well that’s half my readership gone!
Dumbarton continues the trail of rather good musicians and songwriters from Scotland. If Ayr could provide us with Mike Scott of the Waterboys and Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian (both essentially are the band they are known by and both are bands I like a lot ), and Kilmacolm has connections with Jim Kerr, Chrissie Hynde and Gerry Rafferty, then Dumbarton has something of a surprise coup up its sleeve. Talking Heads main man, David Byrne, was born in the town. I loved the raw energy of punk but it was only when the follow up bands came along that the clattering sounds really began to mean something to me. Some refer to it as the New Wave, but the best bands didn’t fit comfortably under a catchall label, High quality, literate songwriting gave the movement depth and meaning. This was provided in England by Elvis Costello and in America by Dumbarton born Byrne.
His music definitely wasn’t punk and it wasn’t rock’n’roll. In fact, as rock journalist Andy Kershaw has pointed out, there didn’t seem to be any antecedents to what Talking Heads were doing. I saw them in 1978 supported by the altogether more conventional Dire Straits at Huddersfield Polytechnic (I was the caretaker in charge of the building and spent some time chatting with both bands during the course of the evening. I wasn’t aware at the time of the fame both bands would achieve). Psycho Killer became the most played song on the student union juke box for months afterwards.
Having lost the cycle route I take the main road to Balloch. I have a choice to make. Either to take a western turning and head for the wild hills via a place that Nicky’s father was keen for me to see called Rest and Be Thankful. I was very tempted. Or to take the road along the side of the second most famous loch of them all. The one we sang about at school and the one I have an infant’s memory of passing in the back of a big black Wolseley as my father drove a family of seven all the way from Thurso to our new home above the town of Ulverston. My memory is selective. Sometimes it is hazy but quite accurate. Sometimes it is clear as a bell but largely fictional. I choose the Loch Lomond route and the visions I had been remembering inside my head suddenly appear before my eyes. The memories are nearly a quarter century old. They are based on the observations of a five year old in the middle of a three day car journey in the backseat of a large but very crowded black car. And they might as well have been a film. This is deep nostalgia indeed!
The road is busy but the views are stunning. All of the water from all of the English lakes would fit into this one. From the southern tip with some yachts bobbing at anchor, all the way up the western shore it held me. Hills become mountains and by the time I get to the other end the mountains are the biggest I have gazed upon. I’d rather be on the other side where the world is altogether more rugged; from a previous century. On this side a major road that has been considerably straightened since 1964. Tourist cars and lorries in equal measure. I’m entranced by the waterfalls that seem to just tumble from the tops of the fell. The clouds keep covering the sun and sprinkling a shower or two. The whole glen is lit with rainbows. The trees are greener than at home. The loch is lovelier than any I had seen, and in my bag I have a letter from my father that he’d written when he found out where I was planning to ride. I have it with me now.
He wrote about himself as a young man setting off to find Scotland. Our routes combined for long stretches and this is no coincidence. He wrote that he stopped for a glass of beer at the inn at Luss. I do the same. They must get hundreds of cyclists stopping here but I was made a bit of a fuss over. The barman wanted to know my route and several regulars had suggestions of places I must see. In most pubs in England I would have been largely ignored. Here I felt a real sense of welcome. I could happily have stayed for two or three more. The company was convivial and the bar-room was by some way the most inviting I had been in for some time. The road was busy though and I wanted to get to Crianlarich by the end of the day.
The southern end of the loch had been no better than magnificent. The northern end was very heaven. The mountains began to rise above and around the loch. I had left one world behind and was moving into another that was like it, in that it had a road and scenery and sky, but it was a whole new different level of experience to be riding through. Everything I’d seen so far had been worth while but it was on this afternoon that I felt that the journey really began.