A Journey into Scotland Part 62
From Tay to Forth to Tweed
My thoughts as I left Perth were to try to get south of Edinburgh. I was in the heavily built-up and once heavily industrialised central belt of Scotland. Country lanes were at a premium. Getting anywhere in anything approximating to a straight line without going on a motorway took some planning. The B996 runs parallel to the main route. It’s a simple two lane road that was quiet for much of the journey. A strange feeling to be pedalling along an empty road with the roar of traffic in my ears. When cars and vans shared my road they did it in pairs from opposite directions. It seemed up to the cyclist to get out of the way. Valuing my life, and looking forward to breakfast, I took evasive action.
It’s amazing how quickly Scotland changes. I’m only about forty miles from Pitlochry and the gateway to the Cairngorms. Until Perth everything had been green and lovely. You pass Milnathort and you’re in a different landscape. This is urban Scotland. In 10,000 square kilometres you can find 3.5 million people. This is approximately two thirds of the population of the country crammed into a seventh of the space. Much of the reason for this is geological: there was an awful lot of coal under the ground. A fair bit of iron too. Central Scotland ranked with the Black Country, Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire as an industrial powerhouse in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By 1987 many of the factories, mills and mines had closed and many more were to follow. The area looked tired. Even the wide expanse of Loch Leven looked weary. I’d passed Bridge of Earn, Glenfarg, and Kinross. I was approaching Kelty with a plum name on the horizon. We English may have known the names of all the Scottish football clubs, and identified that they seemed to pair up, but we didn’t know where they were. Rangers always went with Celtic, Hibs with Hearts, Dundee and Dundee United. All of these have a strong geographical connection; most of the pairings didn’t. East Fife paired with East Stirling though they had little other than a prefix in common. Dunfermline were always paired in our minds with Dumbarton even though they were on different sides of the country. Finally Stenhousemuir and Cowdenbeath were forever joined on the simple fact of the unbelievability of their names. To the modern mind this logic was more evidence of insular thinking on our behalf and, to that, I think we will enter a plea of guilty.
I was delighted to be cycling through Cowdenbeath. So much so, that I did a couple of laps of the town; which didn’t add very much to my journey. It wasn’t a large town but it was a true mining town and could easily have been twinned with many a Yorkshire settlement. It felt very familiar. There were some buildings that evoked civic pride and there were some that failed to flatter the architects. But it felt like a town. It had been built around the mining industry. Before the first shaft was sunk the area had been known simply as Beath and Cowdenbeath was the name of a farm. The town had grown so fast that in the 1890s it acquired the nickname of the Chicago of Fife. A delightful use of light-touch irony surrounds several local names. The town may have grown rapidly, but at the end of this period of expansion the population was still under 10,000.
One real delight was to find the famous football ground practically in the centre of town. There is no irony in it being called Central Park: but there is considerable incongruity in the club’s nickname which is “The Blue Brazil”. I asked a man in the car park if he knew why they were so named. The accent was difficult to comprehend but I think he said “It’s to do with the mining in’t it?” And I suppose it was.
In those days I was never sure how traumatic a bridge crossing was going to be. I’m not all that keen to go out of my way to cross big bridges in a car. I have suffered paralysing vertigo from adulthood. On a bicycle it was sometimes a matter of taking it in my stride at others it was plain terrifying. I’ve contemplated long detours as well as catching trains to get me from one side of an estuary to another. In the back of my mind is the voice of the aversion therapist. “Face up to your fears and they will go away. It’s an irrational fear. There’s no more chance of you falling off this bridge than there is of you falling off a road.” Yet still I wobble.
And then there is the wind. I understand the basic physical and meteorological reasons why bridges are windy places. In these cases knowledge and power do not go together.
The fear factors for this vertigo sufferer are several. The height. It is only when you get out on these structures that you realise just how high they are. Second there is the fact that once you set off you know that you have to keep going. This eventually becomes a comfort but until you reach half-way, it is a torment. Wind is a factor. Not just the strength of the gale but the noise it makes through the structure of the bridge. The stirring waves of cold swirling grey/brown water seems to draw you. (there are some who suggest that bridge vertigo is more of a fear of throwing yourself off than an actual fear of heights. I’m not sure that’s the case. I’d happily be strapped to a safety cable. Then there is the fear of looking stupid. In your mind you are horribly aware of the childishness of not being able to cross a bridge that thousands cross every day. Again awareness contributes to the fear rather than rationally diminishing it. The fear of being laughed at is also present but most times you’re preoccupied with everything else that this doesn’t become a factor unless you are in company.
On the plus side, The Forth Road Bridge is iconically beautiful and offers views that make the beating heart and the jelly legs and the liquid stomach worth while. They started building it the year I was born and opened it the year we got our very first telly. For years it was one of the iconic images of Britain and people had debates over whether it was more beautiful than the Forth Bridge (as the cantilevered railway bridge is correctly named). In 1964 I favoured the modern lines of the suspension bridge. Today I still like the road bridge but think the older bridge one of the most beautiful on the planet. In 1987 I gritted my teeth, tightened my sphincter and pedalled like fury. On feeling terra firm beneath me again I felt like the first man to cross the Hindu Kush. In fact I was the 1.7 millionth person to cross the bridge that month.
Having got this obstacle out of the way I knew the road south was now clear and I wanted to cover as much ground as possible before nightfall. Edinburgh was there in front of me. It was almost harder to miss it than to go right through the middle. With hindsight it would probably have been quicker to take in some sights. When I began this paragraph I was struggling to remember and justify why I skirted one of the most glorious cities in Europe. Then, and this is the power of writing as a spur to memory, it suddenly came back to me just how much I was missing my family. I had a wife I wanted to see and a three year old daughter and a one year old son. I wanted to be back with them more than I have ever wanted anything. I knew I’d be back to Edinburgh one day. As I write that day still hasn’t arrived. It could wait. My love for my wife and children couldn’t. The view of the city over the sheet metal boxes of industrial estates and ring roads isn’t the best but the castle and Arthur’s Seat still look pretty enticing. I was heading for the Pentland Hills and, far beyond that, The River Tweed and England.