A Journey into Scotland … Part 14
Rain pattered onto the tent throughout the night. All tents are designed to amplify the sound of rain but this is a good tent. A small, properly made, one man mountain tent. Inside the sleeping bag, inside the tent feels snug and warm and dry. I have no intention of setting off into the wet and mirk of the morning. Today was going to be the day when I learnt a very important lesson about cycling. Like most important lessons it was a simple one and one that might seem banal to the inexperienced. It has stood me in good stead in many circumstances since and it is this: once you are wet, you cannot get any wetter and most rain then becomes friend rather than foe. Obviously it doesn’t stand up to cold rain. Being cold is tolerable. Being cold and wet isn’t.
By nine o’clock it was obvious that it wasn’t going to stop. The tent came down and I delighted in packing an entire camp site into the bags on a bicycle. There is something tremendously satisfying about carrying everything you need for the journey with you. My efforts and my efforts alone are going to see me round Scotland. I’ll camp about half the nights and use youth hostels for the rest. I didn’t mind the youth hostels at all. Met all kinds of fellow adventurers and wanderers but found something even more special on the nights I put up the little tent and fired up the primus stove.
Returning twenty five years later I hoped to find the place where I had camped. I couldn’t even find the road. Not even on a map. I know I was there. I have the memories and I know that by ten o’clock I had cycled the few miles needed to take me into Scotland. I’d heard stories about the old blacksmith’s shop at Gretna Green for years and hoped to be able to find it. It wasn’t difficult. It is on the main road. It is just about the first building you come to. There was a Scotsman in full kilted regalia blaring out a tune on the bagpipes.
My first taste of Scotland was of a tourist kind. The shop was there to cash in on an image of the country that has been exploited for a long time. Piles of Arran sweaters and tins of shortbread. Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor songs playing away in the background. This was all Scotland decked out for the English. I was to spend the next fortnight in the country. I never again came across this sort of “White Heather Club” Scottishness until I once again came close to England.
It did feel good to have crossed the border and it felt good to have tracked down my first intended sight. I was pedalling again before long. The rain slowly soaking everything I wore and deflating my spirits. It was a genuine test of resolution. There was a main railway line at Carlisle. If I was going to abandon I’d be better off doing it now. There wasn’t another station until I got to the Ayrshire coast. The rain washed away my spirits, it washed out the views (I had taken off my glasses, after conceding defeat to raindrops and condensation, and my eyesight isn’t the best without them). It even washed the lubricant from my gears and gave the back wheel a rather annoying squeak.
And so passed the early villages of Scotland. And then, quite suddenly, while passing through Annan I realised that I was now soaked through to the skin. I couldn’t get any wetter. It was like being in the shower. The falling rain suddenly became something that could no longer harm me. The drops felt sweet and my spirits lifted. I think I may even have opened my mouth and tried to catch raindrops on my tongue. I can clearly remember starting to sing as I crossed the countryside between Annan and Dumfries and by the time I arrived in that city the rain had stopped and a watery sunshine was trying to break through.
I rested long enough to eat a Mars bar by the river and to get encouragement from a fellow walking his dog.
“Thurso. Now that’s a good long way. Couldn’t you have persuaded your parents to have moved you up to Kilmarnock? Would have saved you the best part of a thousand miles on this trip of yours.”
I patted his dog and we marvelled at this new fleece material. My trousers were soaking but the fleecy jacket had completely dried out while pedalling.
He took my picture down by the River Nith. I arrange it so you can just see the floodlights of Queen of the South football ground in the background. I have a quaint desire to locate some of the wonderfully poetic names from the Scottish football league. Putting real places to go with the poetic results recited every Saturday on the radio by James Alexander Gordon. I manage to detour my route enough to take in Cowdenbeath and St Johnstone, Inverness Clacknacudden and Brora Rangers. Football has always meant a great deal to me. I don’t want to visit the big cities on this tour but the odd venture towards Forfar and Stenhousmuir can only be a good thing.
I had no sense in those days. I’d ridden most of the day on main roads and found myself on the A75 coming out of the town. I’ve ridden little bits of this road recently and it is one heck of a monstrous, murderous stretch of highway with the full force of the Northern Ireland lorry fleet thundering by. I have very few memories other than of turning the pedals and making my way. I cannot remember the lorries or the cars. I can remember the squeak from the back wheel which was annoying me so much that I pulled into a little garage near Crocketford and asked if I could use the oil can. I was embarrassed asking but the man didn’t mind at all. Thought it was quite natural.
And so, with the clouds lifting and the weather brightening I finally got off the busy road and found a route that I can remember. This was why I had come here. There was no landscape like this one in the whole of England. The fields were bigger, the tree lines more marked and even the buildings suited a different clime. Remote, single storey whitewashed cottages. It was called an A road on the map but it didn’t feel like one. Cars were few and far between. The road continued upwards for a long time. It wasn’t high country but the road seemed to have been engineered by MC Escher. I never seemed to be getting any higher but I never stopped climbing.
Farms, the occasional cluster of houses, the odd church or chapel. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of rejoicing. I was only on my third day of the expedition and already I was somewhere that felt like a different world and I knew that I had made the right decision to make the journey by bicycle. I was still a drinking man and a smoker back then. I sampled a fair number of Scottish pints on my way around the country, smoked a good few packets of cigarettes and ate an awful lot of the type of food that has given Scotland something of a reputation for unhealthy diet. At the same time I was puffing out my cheeks, sucking in the Caledonian air and feeling fitter and more free than I had experienced for some long time.
I was pedalling through the hills of Dumfries and Galloway and the journey was beginning to feel very special indeed.
Note: I’d very much welcome thoughts on using black and white photographs for this post. I’ve done nearly 250 posts now and this is the first time I’ve used monochrome. It is merely an experiment to see how it works. It felt time to try something a little different.