Bordering on Lunacy
(Revised Digital Edition)
By Adam Colton
With additional material by Roger Colton
A father and son’s crazy quest for lighthouses, haunted castles and an arcane border in Southern Scotland
Paperback edition originally published by United Press Ltd 2012.
Shakespir edition copyright 2017 Adam Colton
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Table of Contents
THE SCOTTISH LOWLAND COAST
Forth to Linlithgow
Leith Police Dismisseth Us
Breathless in Berwickshire
THE BORDER COUNTRY
Judders and Jedburgh
About Adam Colton
Yuk – (noun) fictitious brand name for any make of pink, brown or yellow milkshake. An essential stimulant after long walks to lighthouses
Arriving at the idea for this book was no mean feat.
My father had toyed with numerous projects ranging from a drive from London to Hong Kong in a clapped out white van, to compiling a book on disused railway tunnels imaginatively titled ‘A Shot in the Dark!’
Recalling John Masefield’s poem ‘Sea Fever’ which begins with the line ‘I must return to the sea again, the lonely sea and sky’, my father then suggested a similar project involving visiting isolated spits, the title being the slightly less poetic ‘Spitting in the Wind’ or even ‘Spitting Blood’, which sounds more like a book of our thoughts on trying to compete with the cut-throat British publishing industry. Enough said.
Leaving such notions of the funeral pyre of a slightly over-active mind, we decided to return to our first love – lighthouses.
Our first mission around the coast of England and Wales had took us to some pretty remote spots and had trained us well in the art of walking, an ancient practice that is anathema to many modern Westerners, but in order to reach the isolated lighthouses that we planned to visit on this trip, a secret weapon was required – mountain bikes. These would prove invaluable, as many of the Scottish lighthouse structures are several miles from the nearest road.
However, pedal cycles don’t fit too well into a small hatchback, so my father traded in his beloved red Hyundai for something a little more utilitarian. Indeed, this was to be our biggest challenge yet, considering our lack of resources; no subsidies, no camera crew in tow, not even a cycle helmet between us. Was this not ‘bordering on lunacy’?
And so we found ourselves acquainted with the ‘Yukmobile’; an off-white Ford Escort van, nearing the end of its useful life, but with plenty of space in the back for bikes, boxes of our first book which we hoped to flog ‘oop north’ and industrial sized crates of ‘Yuk’ (our term for all branded milk drinks that invariably begin with the letter ‘Y’). The clinching factor for my father trading in his reliable motor for this rusting relic was the seemingly personalised registration plate for milkshake lovers; the last three letters being ‘YUK’!
Thus we set off on our expedition, heading for the western side of the lowland region to begin our journey, which would be a clockwise circle up the coast to the Clyde, across the Antonine Wall to the Forth and returning via the east coast and border, with Dumfries as the ‘Greenwich Meridian’ from which we venture and return.
THE SCOTTISH LOWLAND COAST
The journey from Southern Kent to the Scottish Borders is a very long way indeed, especially if you are travelling in a knackered van. Driving to Hong Kong? You must be joking!
The continual noise from the diesel engine tended to reverberate around the metal interior, generating a sound not too dissimilar from the white noise used to extract information from suspected spies in interrogation chambers. On top of this, the radio was a ‘no go’, as any music containing drums ended up sounding like somebody thrashing around with a collection of paint tins in a echo chamber.
Ever enterprising, my dad had brought a talking book with him, but introducing a third person trying to recite Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ over the top of the continual rumble was not a good idea to me. Classical music was similarly unedifying with the quiet bits completely inaudible, giving the loud bits an impact that would stop a state-of-the-art pacemaker. This left the following options; ‘the sound of silence’ (and I don’t mean the Simon and Garfunkel album) or Frank Bourke.
We opted for latter, this being a cassette that my dad had picked up on a recent excursion to the Australian outback. Frank plays ‘Scott Joplin’ style rags on a lone piano and sometimes accompanies them with smoothly-sung lyrics that are often quite amusing. Apparently this was the latest hit sound in the Queensland bush.
So you find us bombing up the A1, with accompanying music that didn’t quite fit the white van man stereotype.
I noticed that the number of derelict cafes and redundant garage forecourts had increased dramatically since our last journey northward. In places, the ‘Great North Road’ is now a kind of business graveyard; a place where the first generation of highway services go to die! With so much of rural England groaning under concrete, it seems about time that these unsightly hulks were put out of their misery and removed. But then maybe it is good to remind ourselves of a less competitive era, when you didn’t need to own a national chain to serve bacon sandwiches to lorry drivers.
This roadside clutter brings me neatly to the A66, which had been declared one of the worst roads in Britain on TV prior to our trip, presumably because of its high accident count.
We took a break in Bowes, once strategically important as a stronghold for Henry II to retain his grip on recently regained Cumberland and Westmoreland from the region of Strathclyde. Today, the village is bypassed by the main road and serene, with grey stone cottages and an isolated castle.
Having consumed our pork pies and ‘Yuk’ in a typically rural spot at the edge of the settlement, we returned to the A66, which becomes rather more bland after the scenic dual carriageway section to Brough. Referring to the old Rolling Stones track, I asked my dad if he was ‘getting his kicks on route 66’, but it was clear from the fact that he was beginning to nod off at the wheel that he wasn’t!
Soon we were on the M6, heading across the border into Dumfriesshire. The road briefly drops its motorway status to bridge the River Esk and resurfaces beyond this ‘Cumberland Gap’ as the mighty M74. Gretna Green passed by in a flash, a little like most of the marriages that are made there, I would guess.
Differences in law between England and Scotland are something that would intrigue us time and time again. In this case, the point in question is a slightly more liberal attitude to youngsters wishing to tie the knot at sixteen. In England parental consent is required; in Scotland it is not, and with Gretna being the first place in Scotland, it is obvious to see how this lucrative little matrimony business evolved. Personally, with the average life expectancy at around eighty these days, I can understand people wanting to do this at such a young age as much as I understand the appeal of bungee jumping!
We slipped the bungee of the speedy A75 at Annan, a busy little town with a wide main street, well endowed with shops and a plethora of flags on display. Taking a little lane beyond the town, we crossed flat, pastoral land towards Newbie, on the north side of the Solway Firth. A large industrial building dominated the otherwise pleasant but unspectacular scenery.
We parked to the west of the point where one of our old atlases was showing a lighthouse, and my dad inhaled some tar and nicotine while I went on a little exploratory mission on push-bike. Much as on England’s ‘Route 66’, he had still not ‘kicked’ the habit.
The inventor of the bicycle, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, hailed from nearby Dumfries. This breakthrough took place in 1839/1840, although the pneumatic bicycle tyre would be another 48 years coming.
The gravel track ran for a mile or so along the firth, to a large mound covered by bushes and bracken, and encircled by a tarmac road like a halo. Take the right turn and you reach a compound containing several large cylinders which I am told have something to do with effluent; take the left turn and you can reach the beach, where a pole with a cone upon it marks the outflow of this effluent into the sea. Nice!
The ‘lighthouse’ is located on top of the mound; a mere beacon on top of a metal frame looking more like a transmitter aerial. Upon returning to the van, a passing elderly couple explained that the original wooden lighthouse had burned down in the 60’s. Our modern(ish) road atlas was clearly several decades behind the times.
After this ignominious start, we continued to Dumfries, a town where gothic sandstone architecture dominates. Particularly distinctive are the churches, with their spires dominating the skyline. All the buildings have a reddish-brown appearance, and the pedestrianised High Street has an interesting clock tower, like a block-shaped island in the centre of the flow of shoppers. It would be this that would eventually call us back to Dumfries to conclude our mission, but for now, we passed it nonchalantly in search of a hotel; everywhere being full or demanding a king’s ransom for a night.
Settling for a hotel near the station, it was time to hit the bar and grapple with the local ales. Up here, ‘light’ beer is dark and ‘heavy’ beer is light, in colour at least. This prompted my dad to break the habit of a lifetime and order a bottle of Chilean wine, which was flamboyantly served in an ice bucket. Perhaps this high level of service came as a reward for me ordering the haggis parcels as my main course.
After eating my deep-fried Camembert starter and idly watching the action on the bowling green across the road from our restaurant, the haggis arrived, and I must say that this was a pleasant introduction to the Scottish spicy meat speciality. Ideally, I would have liked to have seen its entrance heralded by a piper and presented on a tartan cushion, but this was not to be. So what exactly is it?
The traditional ingredients are as follows:
Liver, lungs and heart of sheep.
Salt, black pepper and stock.
Usually served with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) and washed down wi’ a wee dram.
A word about whisky now:
Scotch whisky has no ‘e’, but in Ireland the drink is ‘whiskey’. As with many watering holes in Scotland, there was a small water-dispensing tap upon the bar for those who like their whisky diluted. Generally, a single malt (as opposed to a blended whisky) will have the age of the whisky before it was bottled and a brief description of its palate shown upon the list, just as a bottle of wine does. They like it up here, you see.
Note also, that the whisky is ‘Scotch’ (a word used for specific products like broth, eggs, pine, mist or terriers), but the people are referred to as ‘the Scots’, and something that belongs to Scotland (including its people) is ‘Scottish’.
And while we’re discussing etymology, I will move on to Scottish place names.
With these, it is important that the stress is placed on the last syllable. For example, AnNAN, DumFRIES (say ‘freess’). This is because, in England the generic part of the word comes at the end (‘ton’ ‘church’ ‘ham’ ‘chester’ etc.), whereas in Scotland it comes at the beginning (‘glen’ ‘dun’ ‘glas’ etc.).
That’s probably more than enough linguistics to be getting on with for now so I’ll return to our story…
After dinner we ventured out to find another successful conquest by a national pub chain. The ‘Robert the Bruce’ is a conversion of an old church. At the time, this particular chain was considering a ban on swearing. I wondered how this would be enforced; after all, everybody’s list of what is and isn’t a swearword is slightly different. For example, will we or will we not still be able to order a Bloody Mary?
It is at this point that I must interpose with a piece of Scottish history. To my father’s mind there are two key dates to remember, AD 1018 and 1306 (for England if we had to pick two it would be 1066 and 1649; the Norman victory at Hastings which changed the administration forever, and the execution of King Charles I by the Parliamentarians which put a bridle on the divine right to rule by monarchs).
It was on a dark day in 1306 at Castle Street, Dumfries that Robert the Bruce stabbed to death one of his rivals for the throne of Scotland (John the Red Comyn) and promptly declared himself King.
This whole bloody situation (and I’m not swearing) came about due to uncertainty as to who would ascend the throne from a lack of children in the existing Scottish royal family which dated back pre-Macbeth to the aforementioned 1018. The last of the line, Margaret the maid of Norway, died aged seven in transit from Norway during 1290. There were initially 13 candidates for Edward I (King of England) to choose from, but after a few had been already picked off, Robert the Bruce reduced the odds in his favour a little further! Edward I was not amused. Having recently disposed of the English descended renegade William Wallace (Braveheart), autocratic Edward thought that the time for Scottish kings was over and so begins 250 years of blood soaked history.
Allegedly inspired by a spider tenaciously climbing the wall of a prison cell, Bruce led the Scots in battle at Bannockburn (near Stirling) in 1314, ultimately preventing Edward’s son (Edward II) from taking over, repelling the English back to the border.
My father interjects that this history is ‘bloody murder’ and making his head hurt, but I am wondering if this was not merely the fruits of the wine and beer mixture he had imbibed.
After supping his Deuchars (Edinburgh) IPA and declaring it to be excellent, we returned to our hotel bar, where we honed in on the southern accent of a young man who had recently moved here from Essex. A reasonably wise move I think, as the locals here seemed welcoming and relaxed, with a mellow enough manifestation of the Scottish accent for a southerner to understand. Unfortunately, the seagulls were less charitable, having given my dad an aerial bombardment along the way. Some people say that if a bird leaves a deposit on your head it is lucky without even the slightest sense of irony.
The famous Scottish poet Robert or ‘Rabbie’ Burns had lived out his final days in Dumfries (1791-1796), and although he had written ‘Ode to a Haggis’, I don’t think he has ever written anything about being dive-bombed from a great height by a seagull. Perhaps it’s just as well.
3)LITTLE ROSS* (flashes every 5 secs)
In this first part of the book, which is primarily concerned with our attempts at reaching lighthouses, the luminaries visited will be listed at the start of each chapter, with an asterisk indicating all those that are operated by the Northern Lighthouse Board.
This organisation is a kind of ‘Trinity House’ for Scotland and the Isle of Man, maintaining all the major lights around these coasts.
‘What initially attracted us to lighthouses?’ you may ask.
As we will see, these towers are increasingly becoming outmoded, particularly with regard to their high maintenance costs, so we simply wanted to visit them while they are still in use, or in the case of the redundant ones, still there. In the 21st century, ships no longer need a flashing light to tell them where the coast is, as GPS (Global Positioning System) can now pinpoint their exact location to within a few metres, just like one of those devices that tell you to drive up railway lines when driving in your car. My father of course, had his son to navigate and tell him to do this kind of thing!
Each lighthouse has its own flash sequence, informing the mariner as to which lighthouse he is passing. Where known, we will list these too.
Unfortunately, items of clothing don’t yet come with in-built GPS. This would have been handy, as somehow during the night, a pair of underpants managed to disappear into thin air. I had no wish to find out how my father got around this situation, but it did remind me of an old Scottish hit song – ‘Donald, where’s your troosers’.
At breakfast, it was more a case of ‘Waitress, where’s my fry-up?’ with five or six disgruntled Yorkshiremen continually making comments about it taking half an hour to cook and another ten minutes to serve. The young waitress appeared unrattled by these (relatively) southern ‘softies’.
In contrast, we ate our breakfasts meekly and quietly, receiving a much faster service as a result, and soon we were on our way, heading south along the pretty Solway Coast.
The morning was cool and bright, with the deep blue estuarial water of the River Nith to our left. At the village of New Abbey, the main road that runs between the hills and coast becomes constricted a little, and shortly afterwards we turned off down a lane across a mile or so of green flatlands to Southerness.
This is a single-street village, with the lane leading straight to a beach consisting of tufts of grass sewn amongst the sand and a rocky shoreline. The tall, white, square-towered lighthouse is directly at the end of the road. The front three vertices (that’s ‘mathematician-speak’ for corners) taper in at the top to become rounded, like the red balcony around the light chamber. The glass consists of Georgian style squares. The rear corner of the tower remains a perfect right-angle of white brick all the way to the structure’s black top.
You may have gathered that, in the absence of pictures, when it comes to each lighthouse, you will need to use your imagination a little. I am told that this is good for you, so I hope you’ll close your eyes each time, and manage to envisage something along the lines of what we saw without requiring the aid of illegal pharmaceuticals!
Sorely in need of information, my father got chatting to a bait digger who was waiting for the tide to go out. He postulated that this 1812 structure was the oldest lighthouse in Scotland. Like Scottish porridge, we took this with a pinch of salt, for the oldest working light, as far as we know, is actually at Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire (1787). Later on we would glimpse the old structure of Inchkeith light in the Firth of Forth (1804) from Leith. The even older redundant light on the Isle of May (1636) and its replacement would be beyond the scope of our magnification lenses however.
Southerness lighthouse was built by an eminent name in lighthouse construction – Robert Stevenson, whose greatest achievement was the offshore light at Bell Rock (1811). Between 1797 and 1938, Robert and his descendants built most of Scotland’s lighthouses; his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson received greater fame for his literary works.
There is a holiday camp in Southerness, no doubt doubling the population at this time of year (early July), and today there was a boot fair taking place, so the population would have probably been doubled again. We spotted a hotel/pub called the John Paul Jones which seemed like an entertaining place to stay, but it was time for us to leave. The name commemorates a founder of the US navy who was born in 1747 at Kirkbean, three miles north of Southerness. Had Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones been around tuning up his bass guitar for a gig, we might just have stuck around.
The problem with the Scottish Coast with its deeply indenting rivers is that reaching the next lighthouse-adorned promontory always means detouring dozens of miles to reach the nearest bridge. As the crow flies or ship sails, these distances are greatly reduced.
So continuing along this south-facing flank of Scotland, we passed through Caulkerbush with its little church seemingly located in the middle of nowhere. We saw some smartly dressed people on their way to worship. Our ‘B’ road climbed steadily through the wild looking hills and before long we were at Dalbeattie, which seemed a fairly pleasant little town.
We found our way around the ‘A’ roads that half-heartedly bypass various bits of the place and eventually came to a garage. We had been worried that we would have to return to Dumfries, as the fuel gauge was reading ‘panic’ and we were heading further and further away from civilization on a Sunday – a day of rest that may just still mean something in these parts.
Sunday shopping is something that has always baffled me. The British public has only a limited amount of cash to spend, so surely opening all week just means spreading a shopkeeper’s income out over seven days instead of six? He is effectively working an extra day for nothing. Where does the money come from to make this worthwhile? Presumably the same ‘nowhereland’ that my father’s undergarments had disappeared into!
Economics is a strange thing to me. The movie ‘Zeitgeist Addendum’ explains how it works (an educational film which I think, like ‘Fahrenheit 911’ and ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, should be shown in schools).
Apparently, we have a system where the banks produce dosh from nothing every time they loan out money for mortgages, businesses or whatever we might need it for. The actual money deposited at their bank by customers remains in their possession all along while at the same time it is being loaned out to borrowers. Having loaned out this hypothetical money, borrowers then have to pay it back with interest. And just where does the money to pay off the interest come from? Of course, more has to be created and loaned out so people can pay it straight back to the banks.
Because this manufactured debt just increases year on year and can never be paid off, the system demands that more and more has to be produced. Thus, you find us trashing the earth, exploiting the poor and creating goods that are designed not to last. Anybody can see that a system that enables one man to own more than he can spend in a thousand lifetimes while half the world starves is a failure, yet if we dare to criticise it we get branded as ‘commies’ or worse. Is this really the best humanity can do?
What’s more, the banks who already have everything loaded in their favour are not even good at what they do. Their reckless gambles resulted in the economic crisis witnessed in the late noughties (as I believe fashionable people call that particular decade), and who picks up the bill for this while the bonus culture rolls on and on?
And to top it all, we are asked to support massive public spending cuts while they laugh all the way to the… Well, I think you know what I mean. No wonder the very word ‘banker’ has become something of a euphemism!
I think our society’s values are illustrated very well by the choices of illustrating Charles Darwin and Adam Smith on the reverse of the £10 and £20 note. Here we have ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘the invisible hand’ in economics – the two tenets most often used to justify this frenzy of greed. Enough said.
Anyway, juiced up, we waited at the lights to cross the narrow bridge over the River Urr, leaving the main road at the attractive village of Palnackie. Finding our way onto the lanes, our conduit grew narrower and narrower as we moved down the peninsula between Rough Firth and Auchencairn Bay (no I don’t know how to pronounce it either). When we reached the inevitable ‘No Unauthorised Vehicles’ sign, it was time to get the bikes out.
My father is not renowned for his prowess on a bicycle. It is not his first choice of transportation, so it was with some trepidation that I watched him mount my sister’s mountain bike, kindly loaned to him for this trip. It has been recounted to me that some thirty years earlier he was challenged by my uncle-to-be to do a circuit race of our own Hamstreet village, which contains one short, sharp hill. On his eventual return, tailing by several minutes, he looked in need of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, such was his breathlessness and inability to speak.
Things had obviously improved a little in the thirty years that followed, and he seemed to take the five-mile round trip to attempt to catch a glimpse of the lighthouse on Hestan Island, in his stride. First there was the steady gravel-track climb and then the haul over a couple of gates, beyond which was a broad-leafed forest. Careering with gay abandon downhill through the leafy woods, watching my father in front was like a scene from Spielberg’s classic film ‘E.T.’
The pieces of gravel gradually got bigger until eventually we were riding on stones and then chunks of rock and brick, sending all sorts of reverberations up through the frames of our bikes, with my video camera swinging violently, hooked over my handle-bars. After this nerve jangling descent, the terrain mellowed and we eventually found ourselves at a sandy bay with a couple of sailing boats gently bobbing upon the waves.
Crossing the reedy marshland, my dad ditched his bike before a steep and narrow climb through a forest of fern. Finally, we came to another bay where a young couple were enjoying what they thought was going to be an isolated, peaceful picnic until they were interrupted by a pair of lunatic pharophiles! We tried to round the headland by playing ‘stepping stones’ with the rocks (not easy, as I was still carrying my bike), but the dark green presence of Hestan Island still seemed a mile away. With the tide slowly creeping in, this was as close as we were going to get.
Our maps showed a causeway to the island but upon enquiring of the young couple, they doubted its existence saying that they had never seen anybody walk across. The lighthouse is situated half way along the island, and the bottom half of the tower was hidden by the terrain. All we could see of Alan Stevenson’s 1850 construction was the top of a thin, cylindrical, white tower. Alan was the son of the aforementioned Robert, and his most credited work is the 158-foot offshore lighthouse at Skerryvore – Scotland’s tallest.
At the far end of Hestan Island our map showed ‘Daft Ann’s Steps’. We thought that trekking as far as we had done was quite daft enough and set about our return. I doggedly cycled most of the hills and consequently had a little rest waiting for my dad to finish walking them. After my mother’s tale of his cycling woe, I wondered if he would return at all, but before long we were back in the trusty van and I was eating a very salty macaroni pie as we waited patiently for a herd of sheep to cross the lane. They seem to like things salty up here!
I don’t remember much about the journey west to Kidcudbright (like Dumfries, another traditional county town), except that for the last few miles we could glimpse the lighthouse on Little Ross, another island, at the end of Kidcudbright Bay whose scintillating waters were reflecting the bright afternoon sunshine.
Having driven through Kidcudbright, we had to do a U-turn as we’d conveniently missed our discreetly signed turning after the town centre. The ‘B’ road led to our lane, which was eventually relegated to trackway. As we neared Ross, with a few scattered homesteads, the bizarrely busy dead-end lane rounded the bay. We parked at a farm at the end of the road and surveyed the beach. Our best chance of a view would be to cross the hillside on foot. Thanks to the Scottish right to roam, we would not find ourselves staring down the barrel of a rifle or torn apart by Alsatian dogs. A sign even warned roaming ramblers that cows protecting their young may become aggressive. Such consideration.
Yes, you will find no public footpaths or bridleways marked on an Ordnance Survey map of Scotland simply because they are not required; you can walk where you jolly well like. There has been much debate as to whether to adopt this policy in England, where a man’s home and land are presumably his castle, yet bizarrely you must keep your house in compliance with health and safety regulations just in case a burglar decides to pay you a visit. You wouldn’t want him to stub his toe and be forced to sue you for loss of takings, would you?
Such differences in law can be accounted to the fact that English law is more closely aligned with the Norman system whilst Scotland’s laws remain descended from the Anglo-Saxons/Danelaw. Every Englishman knows about the Norman conquest of 1066, however the Normans and their descendants were unable to conquer Scotland. Edward II tried of course, but was seen off, as every Scotsman knows, by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. His father, Edward I, viewed Bruce as a usurper, but he had expired in old age whilst en route to sort him out and his supporters were subsequently routed.
Nevertheless, the Normans being a rather greedy bunch, were very adept at obtaining land on both sides of the border, with intermarriage with the locals being a popular means of doing this. Daughters often found themselves betrothed to heirs in landowning families, with a title always being viewed as a bonus. Thus, it is obvious that the Normans were a little protective of their English turf, and conversely you find us free to roam this steep grassy hillside in Scotland in 2003.
A large black bull was padding around at the top of our hill like a Norman guard, so we hastily climbed the thoughtfully provided wooden steps over the dry stone wall and descended the other side to where Robert Stevenson’s 66-foot, 1843 lighthouse could be seen across The Sound (a short channel of water), located on the island’s highest point. This was Little Ross light.
The round tower was surrounded by green scaffolding at the time of our visit. There is a series of little keeper’s buildings around the base, all with their individual white chimney stacks.
Turning ourselves around, our thoughts turned to The Rhinns (or Rhins) of Galloway – a 25-mile-long hammer-head of land just a few miles wide at its thickest point, ‘stuck’ onto the far west coast at Stranraer. Because of its strange shape, as if tacked on to this south-west corner of Scotland as an afterthought, and its proximity to Northern Ireland (the closest point on the mainland), it still contains four working lights and just a few redundant ones. Lovely jubbly!
Centrally located Portpatrick seemed the best place to seek lodgings, and the A75 made mincemeat of the fifty-mile journey, bypassing every settlement that dared to get in its way and slicing through hills with its sweeping curves and long straights. By the time we were passing through Wigtownshire, I was beginning to nod off.
It would seem to me that these modern trunk roads have rendered to disservice these once important little towns. In an area struggling to retain its population, tourism and its associated employment opportunities would be about all that could be offered to attract some extra cash into these tiny townships, but now you blink and you are past them without even realising it.
Portpatrick is a pretty place, also of scant population, spread around a once important small bay/natural harbour, reinforced by a barrier of rocks at the northern end. The different pastel-shaded frontages of the buildings vary from light blue to pink, giving the place a slightly Irish feel. There are also a few hotels and houses scattered like an ‘upper circle’ upon the low hills around the bay.
We parked along the pristinely kept seafront behind the sea wall.
Once our eyes had adjusted to the pleasant July sunshine, we were able to see all the children happily playing. However, our perennial problem was about to rear its head – accommodation. We had left England before the summer school-holidays and had begun our journey without taking into account that in these more northern climes the holiday season begins several weeks earlier.
Thus, the prices were jacked up to their maximum (£80 per night) and availability seemed to be by financial negotiation. So instead, we decided to walk towards the stone lighthouse. This didn’t help us gain a bed for the night but it did pacify us for a while.
The structure is located beside a grey flagstone building with red window-sills and peripheral brickwork, now named the Lighthouse Pottery Shop. The lighthouse itself is built of ‘bog standard’ red bricks and has a white-painted balcony and white light chamber with a lattice window on top; it is perhaps 40-50 feet tall. This now redundant harbour light shines a diffused beam across the picturesque town as a feature, perhaps to remind its visitors that during the 19th century this was the main seaport for Northern Ireland. The lighthouse is surrounded by a chunky plinth with a few steps leading to the door.
Then, ‘corn in Egypt’, (as my grandmother used to exclaim in a more gentle era), we managed to find a reasonably priced hotel at the centre of the gently curving bay. This stood beside the humble nadir of the A77, a road which begins at this point not even meriting white lines, yet by the time it reaches its zenith in Glasgow has transformed itself into a motorway.
We were spoilt for choice when it came to eating establishments, with numerous hotels and restaurants all serving high quality foodstuffs drizzled in ‘jus’. One restaurant even offered a balsamic reduction (a discount if you come from Balsam, perhaps?).
After a beer in a corner of our own bar where everybody was very ‘English’ and reserved in manner (read ‘boring’ if you wish), we popped across the road to a pub with just a handful of people. Here one tall male in his late thirties was shouting every word that passed his lips in the way that a trained tenor might sing to a packed opera house.
Upon asking for somewhere quieter to sit, we were informed that there was a separate room just along the road for dining. There were two types of brew on offer here, both brewed by Bellhaven; ‘70/-‘ and ‘80/-‘. Being a young upstart born in 1975, I had no idea how to ask for this; ‘A pint of seventy slash hyphen’ sounds more like an Internet address than a request for a flagon of ale. However, my knowledge of antiquated monetary systems was good enough to know that we hadn’t been charged seventy or eighty shillings, thankfully!
After our meal at a neatly laid table, it was time for a stroll, and for some strange reason we soon found ourselves patrolling a graveyard. In the cool of the evening, the sun was beginning to set, inviting the pale-blue sky to turn to azure. As we wandered the graves, we noticed a round tower. I poked my head inside and was a little startled by the flutter of wings. This place was packed to the rafters with pigeons, all cooing randomly. I added my laughter to the musty air, which echoed eerily inside this old tower, disturbing a little detritus in the process which sent us promptly homing back to our inn.
Those who stay in hotels regularly will know that if you open the bedside drawer, you will more than likely find the comforting sight of a Gideon’s bible. I always call to mind Paul McCartney’s amusing lyric in the Beatles’ song ‘Rocky Racoon’ – ‘Gideon checked out / he left it no doubt / to help with poor Rocky’s revival.’
‘Gideon’ in fact was a 13-year-old named John Nicholson, who promised his mother that he would read a portion of the bible every day for the rest of his life. He did this, and in 1899 he founded the association that has placed the scriptures in myriad rooms since.
What was left for our revival was quite different of course; the only thing that stuck out from the row of stale old hardbacks on the complimentary bookshelf outside our door was a novel by Irvine Welsh entitled ‘Trainspotting’. On the cover was a quotation stating that it deserved to sell more copies than the bible. Yet my ‘southern softie’ upbringing meant that I was unable to view this tale of heroin addiction told in the language of the Scottish urban street, as the modern classic it is often hailed as. The whole idea of placing it in a Scottish hotel room didn’t seem particularly savvy. After all, its depiction isn’t exactly the ‘Scotland’ that most tourists would be hoping to see!
Being serious for a moment, it does seem that in all forms of creative endeavour from films, to music, to books, we are seeking out ever more extreme and disturbing material. Such a view may sound prudish, but subtlety is a lost art. The problem is that everything has been done before.
It often seems that all the great films have been made, all the great songs have been written and now we don’t know quite what to do except push the boundaries further and further. Once we were entertained by things that were simply ‘nice’. Then we wanted realism. And finally in this vacuous modern age, we want to be shocked, until the ‘shocking’ becomes the ‘norm’ and it takes even more to shock us! How about 400,000 volts? Yet, who can seriously argue that the latest satanic death metal is as entertaining as the simple joyous music of the Beatles?
Sometimes I wonder if something more sinister is afoot. As people become more and more desensitised to extreme violence (the ‘Saw’ series of films being a prime example), are we not being brainwashed into accepting sadistic violence as an unavoidable part of life, making us tolerant of whatever wars and consequent loss of life the economic greed of the elite might force us into fighting?
All in all, ‘torture as entertainment’ reminds me of the final days of the Roman Empire. And look at what happened to that!
Returning to ‘Trainspotting’, I remember my sister being asked to study Mr Welsh’s book as part of a college course in ‘performing arts’. Surely this graphic account of heroin abuse isn’t what Tony Blair meant by ‘Education, education, education!’
‘If only Mr Welsh’s characters had discovered ‘Yuk’ instead’, we thought!
5) MULL OF GALLOWAY* (white flash every 20 secs)
6) CRAMMAG HEAD (white flash every 10 secs)
7) PORT LOGAN (disused)
8) KILLANTRINGAN / BLACK HEAD* (was 2 white flashes every 15 secs – inactive since 2007)
9) CORSEWALL* (5 white flashes every 30 secs)
Warning – this is a lighthouse-intensive chapter. If you are not a committed pharophile (lighthouse fanatic) you may feel weighed down by the bulk of information on offer. Please persevere, ‘lighter’ days will follow!
The staircase down to the bar and breakfast room was a spiral with a green column at the centre. My dad mentioned that if it were a lighthouse, there would be weights going up and down inside this. An elderly gentleman bade us a cheery ‘Good Morning’ as we sat down.
Having cleared our plates, the dining room emptied and the small talk about the weather, which invariably prefaces any conversation between two strangers in the UK, progressed into research. Here was somebody who had grown up and was schooled in Portpatrick in the days when stagecoaches used to travel here all the way from London. The town’s railway station closed in 1950, with the harbour branch being axed some eighty years before that, but we must allow for this affable gentleman’s nostalgic reminiscence, for he was here on a sentimental journey having lived ‘down south’ for many years.
The town, although still small, had apparently doubled in population since the 1920s, and its main source of employment has changed from fishing to tourism; this change, no doubt brought about by over-fishing, for there were once huge cod-fish stocks to be found here.
There was once a trinity of lighthouses too. As well as the structure we visited yesterday, there used to be another one upon the south pier, which has amazingly been rebuilt in Sri Lanka, and yet another located out beyond the rocks at the north of the bay. Apparently at low tide a stump can be seen where this once stood.
We had been correct in our assumptions about an Irish influence here too. Legend has it that St Patrick once visited Scotland, landing at Portpatrick. The tale goes that he walked across The Rhinns to Stranraer and then up the west coast as far as Glen App. Here, he met a brigand who promptly cut off the saint’s head.
‘Okay so far? Now this is the Irish part…’ our friend intoned.
St Patrick, in response to this, picked up his own head in his teeth (as you do) and carried it back to Portpatrick, where he dived into the sea and swam back to Ireland. Quite how you carry your head in your teeth I am not sure, and I think only a liberal dose of the kind of substances mentioned in ‘Trainspotting’ would make us any wiser, but it’s a good story all the same.
As we left Portpatrick, a sign stated ‘Haste ye back’.
‘That’s not Gaelic’, I thought, but it is ‘Lallans’ (language of the lowland Scots beloved of Burns) and the sentiment was correct in our case, as we were booked into our hotel for a second night, and we would use today to explore The Rhinns (which means ‘cape’) and the rest of its lighthouses.
The Rhinns were my favourite part of the lowlands. Apart from the port town of Stranraer, where one can catch a ferry to Ireland, there is a real sense of isolation here. Portpatrick is slap-bang in the middle, on the west coast. The one road leaving the town is lined with trees, but as you climb into the gently rolling hills, the landscape becomes more barren in both directions. The territory reminded me of the location of the Irish-set TV comedy ‘Father Ted’. Like Craggy Island, this is a rugged landscape, consisting of scattered farm buildings dotted around windswept, undulating fields, with the sea never more than a mile or two away.
We began at the most southerly end – the Mull of Galloway. Heading south, the land narrows until the sea can be seen on both sides. The lane winds downhill before climbing erratically onto this bare, green headland which is Scotland’s most southerly point. At the top of the headland is our lighthouse.
The is light is operated by the Northern Lighthouse Board and therefore the buildings are painted in the colours that we would come to associate with the board. Everything white, with the odd touch of pinky-brown in the same way that Trinity House use green paint on the English lighthouses.
The tower itself is white and is the standard tall, round structure with a balcony that you would probably naturally bring to mind whenever somebody says ‘lighthouse’, but there is also a flat-roofed semi-circular building at its base which has been treated to a splash of colour on its window-sills and a strip around its top and base. The tops of the various chimney-breasts also share this colour scheme, with the black tin of paint being reserved for the lattice window around the light, and the top of the row of cottages behind the tower. The stone walls that compartmentalise the grounds are also white with a line of brown paint.
As I videoed the information board, my dad began to reel off a list of facts in an almost Dalek-like voice; ‘Light established – 1830. Engineer – Robert Stevenson. Flashing white light every twenty seconds. Range – 28 miles. Height of tower – 26 metres [85 feet]. 114 steps to the top of the tower. Cost of construction – £9,000. In today’s money that’s £9 million….’
One final fact. The five-ton lens, which every lighthouse fanatic knows is the huge revolving glass that refracts the light in and out to create the characteristic flash sequence, was replaced in 1971.
There is also a redundant moveable foghorn located further down the cliff.
The visitor centre was, as ever, closed on the day of our visit, and I seem to remember a building with colourfully illustrated information on the walls about the geology and fauna of the area.
It was time for us to move on. Our next lighthouse was that of Crammag Head, around four miles north along the west coast of The Rhinns. The terrain became very hilly and exposed, with rocky outcrops and just the odd farmhouse visible. Our narrow lane descended steeply to a tiny hamlet of just a handful of such buildings. Still a little wary about exercising our ‘right to roam’, we parked up and tentatively left the yard to tramp our way across the fields. It soon became clear that we were the wrong side of a stream that separated us from where we wanted to be by means of an overgrown gorge way too wide to leap.
The undulation of the terrain made it hard to assess the landscape. Corners of fields seemed to dive off in such a way that it was hard to map the area in our minds at all.
Returning to the yard, we crossed the stream and tried again. This time we were followed by some pretty imposing cows. I mean – these bovine species were huge. We had been told that the large cows were bred for meat and the small ones for milk. We had wondered if these ‘giants’ were Aberdeen Angus, but it is more likely that they were crossed with European breeds, Whatever they were, the quickening pace of the herd following us across the field was more than a little unnerving.
Somebody once told me that if a herd of cows chases you, the best thing to do is run with them. However, if a group of bulls is stampeding towards you, you are better off laying flat on the ground allowing them to sniff round you while you sweat and palpitate. This is not a theory I would like to experiment with; one could easily end up as flat as a cowpat. My natural inclination when it comes to fields and charging mammals of any kind is to run like merry hell!
Thankfully, cows cannot jump fences, and as we climbed steeply, the unspectacular lighthouse came into view. To be honest, it looks as though somebody has taken a butter knife to this round, white-painted metal cylinder and lobbed off the light compartment, for the top is completely flat with a handrail around it. The tiny lantern sits at the front and one wonders if there ever was a proper light chamber here. The top half of a ladder hangs down on the side, should any twenty-foot-high person want to climb up there.
Beside this fairly short tower stands a wooden shed, exactly the kind of self-assembly thing you might have in your garden. An orange life-ring is attached to the side of this, and it shares a concrete square overlooking the rocky shore with the lighthouse.
I seem to remember a mattress and some old clothes somewhere in the vicinity. Going back to my ‘Father Ted’ reference, I could well imagine a Father-Jack-like, elderly tramp returning across the fields clutching a bottle of whisky. Or in his case should that be ‘whiskey’?
Next on our list was Port Logan, perhaps another four miles up the west coast, but as ever, we had to detour almost to The Rhinns’ east coast to get there.
Our ‘B’ road gently descended to this village, which seemed like a ghostly version of Portpatrick, with the last remaining habitations hanging on for dear life around its curved bay. There were no hotels, no pubs and no shops.
As with Portpatrick, the lighthouse is located on a jetty at the southern end of the bay, but this round, rocket-shaped stone hulk is completely empty. An open doorway allowed us to step inside. The windows in both the tower and the light compartment were just square holes in the stone. A rope hung down from above. In humour my dad threw this around his neck and made a deranged noise that sounded less like somebody being hanged and more like the call of a pterodactyl!
Some steps led up the jetty wall to another open doorway half way up the tower. I must say that there was a real sense of bleakness about Port Logan. Indeed, there was once a famine here, and a slope was constructed with a grate and blow-hole. This would allow water in and entrap the fish as a precaution against future starvation. We were now thinking along the same lines, and returned to Portpatrick for some life-saving ‘Yuk’ which we consumed along a lane to the north of the town, overlooking the cliffs, with the sound of Rolf Harris emanating from the tape deck. I’m not sure quite what the locals would have made of his rendition of ‘I Want my Mummy’ screaming out from the tape deck, but I can well imagine it reverberating across the hills, sending petrified sheep scurrying into the ditches. [Author’s note added in 2015: And not without reason, it would seem in hindsight.]
Moving on, our lane was another dead-end, but it did lead us to another lighthouse (at Black Head), and this time we had cattle grids and some rather stubborn wild sheep to contend with.
Parking outside the wall around the Killantringan Lighthouse, we heeded the ‘private grounds’ sign and I began to take a few photographic shots. This lighthouse had ‘Northern Lighthouse Board’ metaphorically written all over it, and there was a nice symmetry about the dwellings, which were flat-roofed. The middle section was two storeys high. The staggered brickwork around the windows was painted the usual pinky-brown colour, as were the chimney-stacks and all the vertices of the building.
Beyond this, stood the 72-foot-tall, white, round tower, with a black topped light chamber and a second balcony beneath a short brown-painted section. The building of this ‘David Stevenson’ light, commissioned in 1900, was a final death knell for Portpatrick as a maritime port, as Stranraer had already been designated the major packet venue for Northern Ireland.
This light saw action in 1982 when an 800-ton container ship ran aground and the entire area had to be cordoned off with a temporary light taking charge for 6½ weeks.
A lady returned from a shopping trip with her teenage daughter; the building was clearly privately owned. My dad tried to make light conversation and vainly tried to extract some information before we moved on. Meantime, things were about to get stranger and more barren again, for our next port of call was around eight miles further north, as one of our atlases suggested a light at Dounan Bay (west coast).
Once parked, it was time to get the bikes out again. We freewheeled down a steep hill and turned right at the bottom. This track passed a farmhouse and thereafter disintegrated into grass, leading to a low, open, rocky shore. We abandoned our bikes by a fence, confident that there would be nobody to steal them, and decided to walk across the grey speckled rocks. Somebody had thoughtfully erected a few steps to make things easier at one point, and rounding a low headland, we glimpsed the remnants of Craig Laggan or Ebbstone light – a mere stump, several hundred yards out to sea.
We watched a huge high-speed vessel pass behind this round, grey cylinder. In two hours time, its occupants would be in Ireland, Larne to be precise. In two hours time, we would be at the port they sailed from – Stranraer.
But first we had to reclaim our bikes and face the hill back to where the van was parked. As ever, my dad walked this.
Our final light on The Rhinns is a couple of miles further north, almost at the top of the ‘hammerhead’, at Corsewall Point. The former keeper’s cottages and ‘block’ building are now converted into a hotel and the thought of a Guinness in a snug bar spurred us onward.
This one was easy. The lane ran straight into the car park of this stately looking place to stay, which was another exercise in symmetry; two storeys high with a chimney-breast at each end and single storey blocks added on. The window-sills and staggered brickwork vertices are the usual colour scheme – this 1817 Robert Stevenson built lighthouse was a classic!
We walked around the side to stand beneath the round, white tower which musters a height of 112 feet. The usual chamber and balcony can be seen at the top, and the bottom section resembles the turreted ‘castle’ piece in a game of chess. The shaft in between has round, porthole-style windows in its upper section, and the red foghorn points assertively out to sea in front of the tower.
Across the water, we could see the surreal outline of Ailsa Craig, a good twenty miles to the north. This rock-island towers 1113 feet above the water and looks pyramid-like from all directions. It too has a Stevenson lighthouse but we would not be able to see this at any point on our journey. After all, it is a relative pygmy, with a tower of just 34 feet in height.
Rather opportunistically, we wandered inside, and asked if we could get a drink at the bar. The reply was that the bar was too small, (for two ten stone blokes?) but we were happy to purchase a couple of pints of Guinness and relax upon the sofas in the white-walled lobby, with the sunlight streaming through the patio doors in neat lines. I browsed the ‘whisky menu’ and chuckled at the thought of drinking something with overtones of ‘tobacco and leather’. It sounds like the kind of bouquet that somebody like Father Jack would appreciate.
Not wishing to come across as some kind of ‘food and drink Philistine’, I have to admit that I am equally baffled by the average dinner menu these days. It seems that even in your local ‘greasy spoon’ a PHD in culinary terms would be helpful to avoid appearing ignorant. For example, meals don’t have ‘sauce’ any more, they have ‘jus’, a word that I have heard pronounced ‘joo’ or even ‘jwee’ (soft French-sounding ‘j’s please). This ‘jwee’ is invariably ‘drizzled’. In the olden days if something was offered to me in a light drizzle I would be concerned that it had been left out in the rain.
Presentation is also a big selling point. I have seen such phrases as ‘served from a metal trivet’ and ‘presented on a wooden service board’ used in fanciful menus. Such statements remind me somewhat of Basil Fawlty cantankerously asking a guest which wood he would prefer his breakfast tray made out of – ‘Rosewood, mahogany, teak?’
You will also come across lots of adjectives and verbs in your menu, as well as French-sounding words that make simple things like ‘slice’ or even ‘lump’ sound like a piece of classical architecture. Instead of good old ‘steak and chips’, you are far more likely to come across something like ‘delicately griddled tranchette of sirloin, drizzled with Hungarian fungi jus, served on an iron grate with pomme frites juxtaposed at ninety degree angles!’ And I didn’t even mention the ‘beefsteak tomato’, did I?
In contrast, I was amused to witness the antithesis of this on a trip to Gibraltar. People were tucking into beans on toast as though it was a gourmet meal. Delicacies such as ‘spaghetti hoops and ‘Bernard Matthews’ turkey burger’ took pride of place on the menu.
Well, that was it. We decided to return via Stranraer, just in case there were any structures at the port we were unaware of. The body of water that separates the east coast of The Rhinns from the ‘mainland’ is known as Loch Ryan, and its pastel shades of blue framed beneath the hills beyond made this a very pleasant drive. But do not be deceived by the serene appearance of these waters, for they hit the headlines several months after our visit, when a small boat capsized claiming several lives, turning an outing into a disaster.
We parked briefly in Stranraer, sharing a large tarmac rectangle with coaches, an HGV and a handful of cars. There were no lighthouses to be seen here, so we negotiated the straight, rather flat roads out of the town and returned to our hotel.
Our evening didn’t provide us with a great deal of mental stimulation. We found a pub along the bay and I had a mediocre steak while my dad picked away at a ‘basket’ meal and a man in his fifties in a bright green jacket provided entertainment for his mates. He seemed a little like somebody who had missed his vocation in life, as he gesticulated his way enthusiastically through a variety of anecdotes. Seriously, this man should have been on the stage, be it Butlins or a blockbusting West End musical. Or was it the last ‘stage’ from Portpatrick?
With a distinct lack of interest from the locals, we returned to our lodgings and climbed back up that spiral staircase with a feeling that we had at last learned something about the place we had come to think of as ‘Craggy Island’ – its cows were more curious than its people!
It was with this thought in mind that sleep crept over us as the diffused beam of the old harbour light brushed lightly across our bedroom window.
10) CAIRNRYAN* (two red flashes every 10 secs)
11) GIRVAN (two green lights vertically aligned)
12) TURNBERRY HEAD* (while flash every 15 secs)
13-15) AYR HARBOUR LIGHTS
16) TROON (harbour light)
17) ARDOSSAN (harbour light)
It was farewell to The Rhinns today; we would be heading north along the west coast of Southern Scotland.
Our first stop today was to be Cairnryan, a lighthouse several miles north of Stranraer beside Loch Ryan.
Parking in a windswept gravel car park, we wandered along the shore, being careful to avoid the broken bottles (and used syringes á la ‘Trainspotting’?), ending up clambering over rocks to get the perfect view.
The 49-foot, round tower was a standard, white affair with a balcony painted in ‘Northern Lighthouse Board’ brown. Behind the tower is a compound enclosing a number of diminutive white buildings. It is possible to walk around some of the disused bits. If you like role-playing the ‘rat in a maze’ part, invariably you will be caught in a dead-end.
This lighthouse was brought into service in 1847 and its location played a major part in the Second World War in becoming a military port and back-up base should Edinburgh or Glasgow be bombed. At one point there were 4,000 personnel based here, and Old House Point, to the north of Cairnryan, was used to construct part of the floating Mulberry Harbour used in the D-Day landings.
Since the war, it is deconstruction that has been the focus here, with the Royal Navy battleship Valiant being taken apart on site, as well as the aircraft carriers Eagle and Ark Royal and even three Russian submarines – a kind of nautical breakers yard. It is hard to imagine today, but the water in front of the lighthouse was graced with a pier, cranes and even a railway in its more industrious heyday.
We gleaned this information from a board before resuming our northward course on the A77, which heads inland through the Vale of Glen App (where St Patrick reputedly lost his head!), before climbing up out of it over the ridge.
Ah, I’ve just come up with an idea for a gruesome blockbuster:
Just up the road from here in Ballantrae, a fourteenth century Edinburgh-born Scottish cannibal called Sawney Bean settled down with his wife in the mile-long Bennane Cave. They proceeded to have children and their children grew up and had their own children in this same cave. As everybody else that came near was promptly murdered, hung on hooks, smoked and eaten, you can see that this was not a normal family in more ways than just cannibalism.
This carried on for about 25 years until King James reputedly led an army of 400 to the cave to track them down and arrest all 48 family members, who were punished in a suitably grizzly and protracted manner at Leith (an area we would visit later on our journey).
There is even a folk song recalling this barbaric tale. We merely pushed it out of our minds and enjoyed the great view of the pyramid-like island of Ailsa Craig which can be glimpsed between the large rocks that line the shore.
This 1113-foot-high mound of black basalt rising out of the sea some nine miles away, automatically draws the eye, with its NLB lighthouse nestling at its eastward-facing base. For a lighthouse obsessed driver this can be a little disconcerting, but concentration was restored for the steep descent to the little town of Girvan.
Parking beside an indoor swimming pool, we walked out onto the concrete jetty to reach a rusty, white-painted cylinder at the end. Although marked as a beacon on the Ordnance Survey map, I think it merits inclusion as a lighthouse, with its flat top guarded by a rather unprotective looking rail and two green lights on a pole one above the other.
There is an additional orange beacon further in towards the shore here.
Upon returning from the quay, my father found an alien set of keys swimming around in his pocket. Forty miles north of our previous night’s accommodation was not a good place to discover that we hadn’t handed the room-key back. Like St Patrick, we were losing our heads!
So, the next thing on our agenda was to find a post office and send them back via the Royal Mail. This we found at Turnberry village, where we left the A77 to head for the golf course. This little store provided us with all the nourishment we thought we might need after our next cycle ride.
With the powers that be continuing to reduce funding for the Post Office, one wonders if little shops like this one will survive the next few decades. It is nothing less than the ravaging of rural Britain, putting more money into the swollen hands of the supermarkets, galvanising their oligopoly. And wasn’t the whole idea of taking services away from the Post Office about creating ‘healthy’ competition? And when all the local shops are gone, what is this going to do for our carbon footprint? QED.
A similar conclusion can be drawn from the ongoing reduction in funds for the railways. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that above-inflation fare rises will eventually sheer the prices away from affordability. I mean, has nobody in Government ever seen an exponential curve? No of course not; if they had, they would understand the seriousness of climate change and a whole host of other issues.
As a result of all these policies conflicting with the rhetoric, the toughest decision many have to make on election day is whether or not to turn up to register a protest vote.
Speaking of which, whatever happened to the Natural Law party? I seem to remember the crux of things involving a lot of bouncing around cross-legged. This so-called ‘yogic flying’ was their policy for education. Come to think of it, it was also their policy for health, transport, defence, in fact everything!
Now, our bicycle ride was an easy jaunt along the well-maintained path through the middle of Turnberry golf course. Scotland has over 500 courses devoted to this sedate sport, and this one was created in 1946 by Mackenzie Ross. Whether or not the game itself originates from Scotland is an emotive subject, and seems to be an issue where the Scots don’t concur with the French, unlike relishing an English soccer defeat (he says with tongue in cheek).
Within a mile, we had reached the 1873 lighthouse at Turnberry Head, engineered by David and Thomas Stevenson (Alan’s brothers and Robert’s sons). It has a 78-foot white tower with the usual light-brown balcony. There is a substantial dwelling next to the lighthouse, with its chimney pots and window ledges given a splash of ‘Northern Lights’ colour also.
At the time of our visit, the building was looking a little forlorn. As we peered through the black metal fence at the boarded up windows, this was clearly a case of ‘the lights are on but there’s nobody home’.
Trying to avoid getting our heads knocked off by golf balls as we wheeled jauntily back across the links, it was now time to continue north into Ayrshire, which proudly declares itself ‘The home of Burns’, who was born in a cottage in Alloway, just south of Ayr.
As a typical Englishman I am more familiar with the works of Robbie Williams than Robbie Burns, but we do recite his paean to Auld Lang Syne at least once a year, even south of the border. This is probably much more often than we recite anything by Tennyson or Wordsworth after all. So Robbie has his annual celebration every 25th of January. And why not?
There is plenty more to commemorate in Ayr as well as this, for it has produced more than its fair share of innovators, being the birthplace of both William Murdoch who discovered coal gas and John Loudon McAdam who revolutionised road travel with his tarmacadam surface.
The first tarmac road, laid in Paris in 1854, 96 years after McAdam’s birth, was the culmination of his work which began with broken stones laid in perfect symmetry, moving on via crushed stones bound with water, and leading to the bitumen based surface we know and love today.
I am going to dare to wade into some very dodgy waters here now, for what immediately strikes me is not so much that most of these inventors and poets were Scottish but that they were all blokes.
In an era when certain newspapers devote columns as long as Nelson’s to rubbishing the male gender as uncultured buffoons, not to mention the ‘blokes are only good for one thing’ variety of television adverts/programmes, I see no harm in expressing a bit of pride for a change.
We are supposed to be pretty spot-on when it comes to navigation too, but my father and I were failing to live up to this stereotype on this particular day, for you now find us getting increasingly terse in negotiating Ayr’s one-way system, which is shaped like a dumb-bell incorporating the bridge over the river.
My father was showing obvious signs of stress as we tried to pinpoint the location of the harbour lights and find a suitable route to reach them in a befuddled kind of manner. We eventually found ourselves surrounded by industrial units and signs stating that any advance beyond an imaginary line would be met with prosecution. Or was it ‘death’?
So we stood in front of a large open concrete surface, afraid that if we stepped forward we would be either bawled at through a megaphone or picked off by a sniper. The reason for this restriction is that the area is owned by Associated British Ports. I trained my trusty video camera’s zoom lens onto the bright red lighthouse, which although behind a metal fence was as clear as the day.
At around 20 feet high, this typical tapering tower with a white top looked like a lighthouse built on one-quarter scale. A yellow JCB and some Portakabins framed the vista.
In spite of the security, we did manage to get out onto the concrete quay without any hassle. At the end of this stands a white-painted metal cylinder, perhaps only 20 feet high again. This was another rocket-shaped structure with a white box on the side looking like a booster rocket. However, just in case anybody thought it was going to blast off into space, somebody has kindly daubed the proclamation ‘This is a lighthouse’ onto the side. Who said that graffiti can’t be informative?
The front of this tower has two oblong windows each comprising of triangular panels (imagine two Toblerones fitted together). The top window faces westward out to sea, while the one half way down faces south. This rusty structure looked a little forlorn against the stunning Arran skyline across the water.
There is also a framework beacon on a block at the River Ayr’s egress, but upon turning around to face inland, another proper lighthouse appeared as though it had suddenly got bored with hiding from us. This brown, brickwork lighthouse towers above the red one which itself must be merely a leading light. This means that mariners entering the port merely have to line the two lights up so that they appear one above the other to know that they are on course for a safe entry.
Closer inspection was required of this more majestic structure, necessitating a quick return to our transport to park again north of the river. I wandered along the back of a workshop to get a better view of this chubby, 72-foot tower with its white light compartment on top. The all-important camera shot completed the triumvirate of Ayr lighthouses.
The coast up from The Rhinns had been a delight to drive, but from here all the way up to Ardrossan, things were not so rustic. The A78 takes over the coastal route, whipping it up into a dual carriageway that bypasses various pockets of urbanality (urbanity + banality; and you thought it was just a spelling mistake!).
Soon we were passing Prestwick Airport, a terminal rather cheekily adopting the name ‘Glasgow’, for the city remains unmoved at over thirty miles away.
Down in Kent we have an airport with similar ideas in naming itself ‘London – Ashford’. Ashford is 17 miles away and London a whopping 75 miles. I merely know it as ‘Lydd Airport’, one of several being considered as an expansion hope for the airline industry. The powers that be really don’t get this whole climate change thing, do they? Isn’t it strange that the one form of transport that they choose to make ‘cheap as chips’ and promote to the point of obsessionalism is the one that does the maximum damage to the environment?
Humans are the only intelligent life that we know of in the universe; it took around 13 billion years to get here, yet we are content to set into motion something that may be so unstoppable that it could return the planet to the primordial soup that life emerged from.
I mean, now that that plonker Bush is out of the White House, what are we waiting for? It’s time to stop beating about the bush, if you’ll excuse the pun. The W stands for Walker, by the way!
Instead of getting to grips with reality, politicians just bang on and on about the economy and ‘evil nations’ overseas that we might like to blow up. Why not reduce worldwide inequality so there will be less to fight about and simultaneously lead the way into a green revolution? That way, the beloved economy gets to trundle on and we also have a habitable world for our kids. Unfortunately I still get the impression that the predominant attitude to climate change is best summed up in a phrase from Paul Simon’s unrelated song, ‘The Boxer’ – a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
Will it take another 13 billion years for supposedly intelligent life to end up on this planet again just to say ‘Those Homo sapiens were a right bunch of ‘nanas weren’t they?’
Well, that’s quite enough hot air for now, so keeping a ‘Lydd’ on my deviations, you find us at Troon, which has a fast ferry operating a service to Belfast and a golf course, which, created in 1878, is a lot older than the one at Turnberry.
This time, our light was secreted in the ferry terminal, which was as inviting to lighthouse spotters as ever – metal fences, forbidding signs, that kind of thing…
A mini one-way system operates around the port and we felt as though we were being watched from all directions as we circumnavigated it. These ports always pose a problem for voyeurs like ourselves, so we parked up and decided that the only way to view the lighthouse would be to climb down onto the beach from the stone jetty upon which the port rests, and wander along to a suitable gap to climb back up and feast our eyes.
Well, it wasn’t so much of a feast as an appetiser, for this was a fairly standard white harbour light – an anonymous round structure in two halves, the bottom half being very slightly wider around. Not really anything to write home about.
As we wandered back along the beach, we could see the long, flat strip of Lady Isle just across the water, with its own more substantial lighthouse located at the highest point.
Our next port of call was another rather uninspiring harbour light at Ardrossan, although the little port here is positively welcoming. Here, we could sit and consume our Scotch pies and ‘Yuk’ unhindered. It was certainly about time, as these comestibles had now journeyed as far as our hotel room-keys had travelled that morning.
Here, the ferries depart for the Isle of Arran, now much closer than it was at Troon. Three fishermen sat beneath a ‘No fishing’ sign, providing us with the kind of photo opportunity you could send into Esther Rantzen on ‘That’s Life’, or whatever its modern day counterpart is.
We merely wandered out to circumnavigate the rusty, octagonal, white tower, sitting upon its black block at the end of the concrete quay. There is a sense of serenity restored here, after the frenetic pace of Ayr and Troon. To the north, the coast becomes more rural again, and we left Ardrossan via a dead-straight street of considerable width, lined with long terraces of Edwardian pink-facaded houses – a typical northern scene as though viewed through rose-tinted spectacles or as on a sepia Edwardian photograph.
As we pressed on ever northward, I realised that at every moment I was heading further north than I had been in my entire life, having never been jetted to Lapland to see Father Christmas. Had I made such a trip, I might just have asked for something abstract like a solution to climate change. And then that would be the flight home knackered!
Soon we were passing a series of coal terminals, with their jumble of conveyors juxtaposed at 45-degree angles. This reminded me of some artistically arranged chips in a meal I’d once had!
And beyond, across the water were two islands: the uninhabited Little Cumbrae Island, which has two lighthouses (old and new) both out of view, and Great Cumbrae Island which boasts one village, two ‘B’ roads and most importantly, Europe’s smallest cathedral at Millport. Completed in 1851, it seats 100 and has a 123-foot-high steeple.
The dictionary definition of a cathedral is ‘the principal church of a bishop’s see.’ This isn’t relevant in Scotland though, as episcopacy is a subject of much dissent. Do we want to go down this road? I think not, for the history and development of Scottish religious thought is a little like Little Cumbrae’s lighthouses – beyond the scope of this book.
Some might argue that this cathedral’s presence makes Cumbrae’s only village a city, yet the dictionary definition of a city is merely ‘large town, especially one created by royal charter and containing a cathedral’. So city status and having a cathedral are not always synonymous. England’s smallest city is of course Wells in Somerset, but then you knew that, didn’t you?
From here on, the body of water to our west forms part of the Firth of Clyde, bounded by the Isle of Bute on the other side. Way beyond this hangs the Mull of Kintyre, dangling down from much further north like a deflated balloon. Its principal settlement of Campbeltown is on roughly the same latitude as Ayr. This landmass was famously venerated by Paul McCartney’s group ‘Wings’ in the late 70s.
Onward and upward, we continued via the coastal settlements of Largs and Wemyss Bay (pronounced ‘Weems’). Strangely, the railway that runs parallel to the A78 has a missing link, for the line up from Ardrossan terminates at Largs, whilst the line that comes across and down from Greenock makes it no further south than Wemyss Bay. This is probably due to the fact that rail access would have been needed for the massive coal and power generating centre three miles south of Largs, whilst to the north rurality returns with the A78 hugging the coastline of the Firth of Clyde beside steep hills inland which would have posed a challenge to rail construction.
Wemyss Bay looked interesting, the sort of place where we might find a hidden lighthouse or even a nice, comfortable, reasonably priced hotel. Our minds now turned to such matters, as it was now late afternoon.
From past excursions we had become too familiar with the rising panic that sets in upon finding the best value lodgings fully booked and being forced to consider stratospherically priced accommodation whilst scurrying around in the gathering gloom, a little like our aforementioned rat in the maze.
Ultimately Wemyss Bay proved disappointing, and once the caravans petered out, the large houses set in. I suppose we did have a fallback option for sleeping in the back of the van if we cleared out the bicycles if things really got desperate.
So next we tried Inverkip, now bypassed by the A78, ‘dual laning’ on its seaward side. We decided that this pretty single-street village would be a nice place to rest; the suggestion is inherent in the name after all.
As well as being a slang term for ‘sleep’ that us southern softies like to use, ‘kip’ is also slang for an untidy or unpleasant place – a dump or hovel if you like. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Inverkip’s only hotel wa spacious as well as sensibly priced and our twin-bedded room was bordering on opulence, with two double beds, furniture that looked like mahogany, a bathroom big enough to swing an albatross and complimentary sweets and ‘Highland Spring’ mineral water. Wow, we had struck lucky here.
I polished off my H2O with gusto, and once ‘gusto’ had left the room, I asked my dad if he was going to drink his, hoping for a second bottle of refreshing mineral water. There was a definite reluctance in his voice and he appeared to be going into comatose mode. Or was it rigor mortis? He swears that these power naps are an essential bodily function, but I put his reluctance to spring to life at the thought of a healthy glass of water down to the fact that it didn’t contain any alcohol, caffeine or tannin. Ditto for the sweets.
I had a tendency to do my own recharging while car-bound with my father at the wheel. Many times on later trips he would be prompting me for directions, only to discover that I had briefly diverted into the land of nod. He referred to this habit as ‘narcolepsy’, evoking the name of a condition where sufferers can be chatting away quite happily one minute and then just drop off mid-sent….Zzzzzzzz!
Well, after my dad’s brief power nap, it was time for dinner. We had not yet seen any other guests, so we envisaged a quiet meal on our own in a modest eating area. Yet, down half a floor from the lobby was a veritable Aladdin’s cave; a restaurant heaving with lively, happy diners, and as we walked along, the room dog-legged into another section as big again. The atmosphere was buzzing, as one would expect at a banquet. I opted for the steak and juxtaposed French fries (cow’s backside and chips) while my father tried a concoction using so many different ingredients that he can’t even remember what it was.
Yes, I had a lot of steak on this trip. However the environmental impact of excessive meat consumption is now clearer to me, so vegetarians, I hope you can excuse the rather blatantly carnivorous activities documented in this book as part of life’s learning process.
Heeding the old saying ‘after dinner rest a while, after supper run a mile,’ we ventured out into the light summer evening for a wander. Just like our hotel with its cavernous restaurant, Inverkip itself had a surprise second half. As we crossed the A78 by footbridge expecting to find only fields and streams flowing with ‘Highland’ water, we discovered that there was a marina that looked as though it could have been lifted out of any coastal resort in Southern England and plonked up here on the Scottish Coast.
It was that ‘National Lottery’ dream that most of the population have twice weekly all over again. But at odds of 14 million to one, only the bookmaker could afford to live here.
Yes, these were modern apartments for wealthy professionals, each with enough space to park six luxury cars, and their own small channels in which to moor the obligatory yacht. ‘Soon all British coastal towns will be like this,’ my father intoned. Heaven help us!
The construction of this gentrified zone was ongoing at the time of our visit, with plenty more surrounding land ripe for the picking. This was a far cry from Irvine Welsh’s depiction of the Edinburgh street; this was ‘affluence-on-sea’. So we left the abode of the babbling classes, passed the babbling brook, crossed that bypass again (which is consequently more of a through-pass these days), and as the sun began to set we wound ourselves down for a good night’s… wait for it… KIP.
Forth to Linlithgow
18) CLOCH POINT (white flash every 3 secs)
19/20) PORT GLASGOW (river lights – smaller one shows fixed green light)
Travel Tavern – (proper noun) Fictitious name for any hotel in a national chain, offering limited amenities in an out-of-town site. Origin: the Alan Partridge TV series.
Today was to be a day of surprises, many of them disappointing.
However, things started very pleasantly with a stroll along Inverkip’s main street for a newspaper in the cool, morning sunshine. We were startled by the impressively comprehensive opening hours of the little shop, and returned to our plaster-fronted hotel for a fine breakfast in the wooden-floored dining room.
This room had a regal feel, as upon its walls hung numerous black and white photographs; the kind of thing you often see in theatres. The difference was that these weren’t of Russ Abbot, Billy Connolly and the like, but of ordinary local people from the village – the unsung heroes of a rural community. I liked this.
The majority of lives come and go with barely a ripple left behind them, so this seemed a nice thing to do, particularly in our wealth and celebrity obsessed society. To me money, fame and status are the goals of people with little imagination; but still, most of us would like to have our memory preserved in some way. People enter dreadful game shows like ‘Big Brother’ to obtain their five minutes of fame, yet a monochrome picture on a hotel wall somehow seems far more permanent and dignified.
The time to leave our mark is running out for all of us. In one’s mid thirties, one begins to get a notion of just how brief life really is. I suppose it is logical that each year seems a little shorter than the last, for at the age of two a year represents half of everything you have ever experienced, at five it is only a fifth, at twenty it is only a twentieth, and so on. As a child, it is easy to picture life stretching ahead for infinity, with ages like 70, 50 and even 30 almost unimaginable.
If you have the patience, keeping a diary is a neat trick. Writing something down every day means that life is less like water trickling away down a drain and more like water trickling into a reservoir. At a younger age, one is almost fearful about how much could happen in the vast space of a lifetime. ‘I used to worry,’ an old uncle of mine always used to say when recalling his younger days. Still, all that angst didn’t do him any harm; he lived to the ripe old age of 101.
There was just enough time for us to pay Inverkip’s railway station a visit before we moved on. There was no ticket office, just a long, gently curving platform beside a single, gently curving track. Overhead cables indicated that the line was electrified and the timetable indicated a more frequent service than we get on our local diesel line down in Kent.
We waited around ten minutes to see what the trains were like, and were duly impressed with the clean, cream and brown coaches that pulled in and swallowed up the handful of people from the platform before trundling off, leaving the scene as quiet as when we’d arrived. Now that’s what I call ‘trainspotting’.
Our route branched away from the A78 and continued along the Firth of Clyde on a recently resurfaced ‘A’ road. Black tarmac; no lines. Far more interesting than this was the view when the road reached the riverbank. Across the blue rippling waters we could see the hazy apparition of the hills beyond, with the houses of Dunoon piled up along the riverside as if trying to escape from this isolated location. For although the ferry was just a mile away, to reach Dunoon by road is a journey of some ninety miles. This seemed more like the bleak mysterious ‘Scotland’ of roomy castle halls and dense forested hills that we are so used to seeing in films.
Back on our shore, Cloch Point lighthouse is sandwiched between the road and the river, as if both were pushed there by the wooded hills in a quest for space. The round tower is 46 feet high and white with a thin black band around the middle. Established in 1797 and managed by Clydeport, it has a balcony, and behind the lighthouse is a cluster of roofs and chimneys belonging to the associated white buildings. We looked into the grounds from the stone wall beside the road, and noticed the remnants of some older buildings without roofs, doors or windows but clearly divided into rooms. ‘Get Tony Robinson and ‘Time Team’ up here’ I thought.
To the south of the lighthouse, a conservatory has been bolted on to the flat, square building; its white PVC obviously fitting the colour scheme!
The next part of our journey was one of transition, first into Gourock, a reasonably quiet seaside-type place (and of course the ferry port for Dunoon), and then Greenock, which is both the birthplace of James Watt (who developed the steam engine) and the beginning of the A8, which soon whips itself up into an urban dual carriageway to pass through Port Glasgow. Oblong blocks of flats began to stack up around us and the pavements started to sprout traffic lights. Every major city has a ‘grip’ according to my father, who maintains that London’s grip covers everything within a sixty-mile radius. We were now clearly within the grip of Glasgow.
Hidden somewhere along the crane-lined industrial shore were two lighthouses. We parked close to the shopping area (which resembled that of a London suburb) and crossed the main road on foot to tramp across a green to reach the riverside. The buildings we passed were remnants of the area’s great shipbuilding days and this reminded me of Roger Waters’ controversial Pink Floyd lyric, ‘If it wasn’t for the Nips / being so good at building ships / the yards would still be open on the Clyde.’ Apologies to any Japanese readers, but rock stars never have been bastions of political correctness. I wonder if Roger knew that the waters he was singing about form the UK’s 9th longest river, running for 98 miles.
This tune in my head was broken by two gentlemen communicating in a dialect of which I could not understand a single word. Well, actually there was one particular four-letter word I could pick out being used very frequently indeed, but we won’t print it here! Nevertheless, the accent here is hard and fast, reminding me of one of Russ Abbot’s characters.
Whilst staying in the US, I noticed that television subtitles are provided whenever any British person from north of Watford speaks. The sheer diversity of accents in the relatively small area of Britain always amazes me.
I always comment that down in Kent we have three distinct accents all intertwined:
First is the traditional accent. This is slightly broader and a nod towards the accents of Hampshire and The West. Nowadays this is mainly heard among older country folk.
Then there is the ‘posh’ accent, generally used by rich folk who dwell in country manor houses and people in offices that want to make an impression. The latter group are prone to lose this accent after a few drinks!
And finally, we have ‘estuary English’. It came from London, it crept along the Thames and now it is spoken by almost every person below forty in the county’s larger towns. Younger patrons tend to omit all consonants, speaking in a slur of vowels as though drunk, giving the impression that this whole ‘speech’ lark is really just too much effort altogether!
A recent ‘export’ from Kent (although some may argue that it originated in Essex) is the term ‘chav’. As with all things that gain national prominence, many towns now claim to be where the word first hailed from. In Chatham some people assert that it is an acronym for ‘Chatham Average’. In truth, this much-hyped noun has been used for a long time to mean ‘child’ and is sometimes used in place of ‘mate’. I am guessing that it originated from the Romany dialect.
Back here in Port Glasgow, we found the lights to be as interesting as the linguistics. The more easterly structure is actually part submerged by the river itself at high tide. This white topped tower has a black balcony and resembles a draughts board, being painted in a striking black and white checkerboard pattern. It sits upon a plinth of concrete ‘steps’ and is 23 feet high with a range of nine nautical miles.
Its partner, high and dry upon the shore, also has this pattern but is 16 feet taller and thinner, with a black light chamber, looking a little like a helter-skelter without the slide.
Both structures were constructed by Clydeport but only the smaller one still operates.
Our maps had let us down again, as both were shown as mere beacons, but things were about to get tougher. All of our atlases indicated that there was a lighthouse out in the Clyde about six miles further upriver. A string of green markers indicate the presence of a bank here, but which one was the designated lighthouse and would we be able to adequately view it?
We took the last exit before the Eskine Bridge and found our way to a golf course. Here, we got the bikes out of the ‘Yukmobile’ and freewheeled gently down the lane through the fields. At the bottom was another lane parallel to the riverbank, perhaps half a mile inland. Our only hope of reaching the water’s edge was via a totally overgrown trail, a veritable jungle of long grass and weeds. With my dad’s pollen-inflamed eyes streaming like some salty tributary of the Clyde, this did not seem a sensible option.
So it was back to the van and over the Eskine Bridge to try to glimpse the thing from the other side of the river at Dumbarton, once the capital of Strathclyde. Today we think of Strathclyde as the region around Glasgow, but until the mid-eleventh century it ran all the way down through Cumbria and just into modern-day Lancashire. It’s eastern twin was Bernicia, a region which ran from the Forth and Edinburgh (Lothian) right down through Northumberland and County Durham to Middlesbrough. The area to the north of these kingdoms was the territory of the Vikings who mingled with the indigenous Picts.
Both Strathclyde and Bernicia disappeared in 1018, when King Malcolm II of Scotland and King Canute of England (more famous today for his ignominious attempts at rebuking the sea) established a border along the River Tweed as a result of the Battle of Carham – a place we will briefly visit in a later chapter.
The toll to cross the Clyde was 60p for the van, one of the cheapest we had ever seen, laying to rest all prejudices about Scotland and money. The bridge flew over Old Kilpatrick (the area from which the Antonine Wall commenced) and deposited us on the A82.
A sign on this dual carriageway amazed me in giving a distance of 125 miles to the isolated town of Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre. It seemed phenomenal for a place with a population of six thousand to be given such prominence. In contrast, the first distance encountered for London (population six to seven million) when travelling down the A1 at the time was ‘121 miles’.
Unfortunately there were no signs for a lighthouse though. Once again, our maps showed a structure that didn’t appear to exist. This one was supposed to be on the north bank of the river near Bowling. From the other side, we had glimpsed a red structure and a church in the vicinity but neither could be reached, as the only access seemed to be down a derelict looking concrete track, guarded by a manned gate.
So we continued into Dumbarton, where the scene was similarly grim. We ended up in a zone of desolate factories and warehouses, walking beneath redundant conveyors, and stumbling across a slowly burning pyre, like a second rate brazier, smoking, forsaken on the concrete. I wondered if the workmen here ever gave a thought for this fire. Where had it come from? Who lit it? How long had it been burning? But no, it was just there. My dad lit his fag to add to the combustion and we returned to the van.
The redeeming feature of Dumbarton is its castle, located high on a towering rocky mound that juts out into the Clyde – an ideal place from which to survey the waters and their markers. A notice board warned us that William Wallace was incarcerated here in 1305, before being taken to London for his trial and execution. Suddenly trespass didn’t seem such a good idea!
Wallace, now a household name thanks to the film ‘Braveheart’, is famous for rallying the Scottish clans against the increasing influence and power of the occupying Norman baronages in 1297.
Apparently, this rock has the longest recorded history of any fortification in Britain. Beyond the mound, the River Leven flows into the Clyde. Along its banks the Cutty Sark was built and launched in 1869. This only survivor of the clipper fleet now resides in Greenwich, but then you knew that didn’t you?
Crudely daubed in permanent marker over the notice-board were the words ‘Welcome to the hole’. I have deliberately left out the essential scatological reference so that nobody will mistake this book for a ‘modern classic’. Anyway, I doubt that William Wallace liked it much here either!
We hauled our bikes over a kissing gate designed to deter cyclists, and pedalled nonchalantly along the hard-surfaced ‘foreshore walk’ that hugged the shore eastwards, marooned from the rest of the town by rail lines. Leaving my dad behind, I dragged my bike across the sand from the point at which the path disintegrated, to wander through the boggy grasses in search of a definitive viewpoint. This I found, but all I could see was that same series of stumpy green beacons we had studied through squinting eyes earlier. There was a taller cylindrical green beacon near either end of the line and a red buoy-like marker somewhere around the middle. The verdict? – No lighthouses. Disappointing.
Returning to the A82, we decided to console ourselves with some ‘Yuk’ from a petrol station.
The ‘grip’ of Glasgow is a particularly tenacious one, for as we negotiated a series of ‘A’ roads to the north of the conurbation, the scenery was still largely suburban. Things seemed briefly a little more pastoral beside the river between Milngavie and Kirkintilloch, but soon we were on the A80, a truly frenetic road bypassing Cumbernauld, recently voted number one in a book on Britain’s fifty most ‘crap towns’.
Cumbernauld was given a run for its money by Kingston upon Hull in second place. The band, The Beautiful South who hail from Hull even joke in one of their songs, ‘You feel like London / but you look like Hull!’ There is also a folk song with the refrain, ‘From hell and Hull and Halifax / Good Lord deliver me.’
I was amazed to see the pleasant Kentish town of Hythe in fourth place in this book, for it has a nice beach, a quaint High Street and one of the most picturesque stretches of urban canal in the country. Maybe the author just had an irrational fear of septuagenarians.
Next on our agenda was a historic interlude to try to obtain a glimpse of The Antonine Wall, the course of which we had mainly been tracking since leaving Dumbarton, although it is predominantly buried beneath concrete for much of the west of its extent. Built in AD 142-143 by Antonius Pius, the wall ran for 37 miles from Bridgeness on the Forth to Old Kirkpatrick on the Clyde. This was a kind of sequel to Hadrian’s Wall, and like most sequels its success was limited. This northern barrier of the Roman empire was designed to withhold the Picts, the wild men of The North. They could do whatever they wanted as long as they did it beyond this strategic line.
We pulled out of the rat race onto a wide, straight road that served a series of modern office units and parked. The ‘Yuk’ was great, but the accompanying pasty was quite frankly dire, with a lump of gristle the size of a small stone, a distinct lack of chicken or bacon and a taste not too dissimilar from grinding on a mouthful of peppercorns.
Perhaps it was this disappointment that made my dad finally snap, insisting on a change of cassette in the van’s tape deck. Rolf Harris huffing and puffing his way through his repertoire with accompanying wobble-board had finally proven too much for him.
Putting all this behind us, we wandered up the road, which dramatically constricted itself into a narrow lane with a double-bend beside the ‘wall’. The only evidence of this historic structure is a tree-lined bank with a dip behind it filled with reedy grass. There is, however, a ramshackle collection of old stones at the top of one of the slopes.
Of course the reason that so little remains of this ancient structure in comparison with Hadrian’s effort is that the terrain it crosses is far less rugged, so the land was first cultivated and subsequently urbanised. There would have been little regard for a structure such as this, and even today the information signs are well hidden. Perhaps the Scots just wanted to forget this particular period of history.
Continuing in the van, we realised that the Picts would have had a tough time storming this wall; for having descended from the mountains to the Kelvin Valley, they would have faced a gruelling climb up to the boundary in full view of the Roman guards who would be fully prepared for conflict.
Crossing the railway and the Forth-Clyde canal, we were soon on a triumvirate of motorways, which swung round past Falkirk to Grangemouth. We had reached the east coast – the Firth of Forth, which is just a tiddler of a river really, at only 64 miles in length and 23rd in the ‘UK’s longest’ ranking.
We parked to the north of Grangemouth and wanted to follow the raised bank of the River Carron out to the Forth. Out came the bikes once again.
The south bank of this tributary is largely industrial, whereas the only peril that the north bank posed was the possibility of hay fever from the fields of long grass. Luckily for us, we discovered a track, but right at the end it veered away from the Carron’s bank and left us stranded beside the muddy edge of the Forth among weeds as tall as ourselves.
All we could see from this point was a white cylinder about a mile further out on the south bank of the Carron, seemingly beside the huge drums of the oil refinery. My dad said it looked more like a Portaloo and used this as an excuse to return, jaded, to the van.
All we wanted to do now was find a hotel and get some rest. South Queensferry was our first choice for this. Sandwiched between the impressive road suspension bridge and the truly historic Forth Rail Bridge, this little town has a lot of buildings that date from the seventeenth century. Some are raised way above the cobbled High Street, along with an elevated pavement.
The prices seemed to be pretty elevated too, with both of the hotels we tried commanding a ransom of £85 for the night. We muttered something about coming from the impoverished South-East and moved on.
And so we headed for the nearest Travel Tavern. This was rammed to capacity, so we asked the helpful receptionist to ring around. Consequently all other branches of that particular chain of hotels within fifty miles were also packed to the rafters.
Backtracking to Bo’ness, the steep descent to the riverfront was pleasant but the lodgings as ever were full, full and fuller.
Finally, we tried Linlithgow.
Initially attracted by the historical vibes and finally transfixed by a sensibly priced room, we settled in a three-storey hotel. Could it be coincidence that the 1720 statue in the town’s main street states ‘Saint Michael is Kinde to Straingers’?
The shreds of my father’s nerves slowly regrouped while I relaxed on the bed. When I awoke, a relentless stream of cuss-words was emanating from the bathroom. The catalyst for these colourful linguistics? Heat.
On a summer’s day that was about as warm as it ever gets in Scotland, we had the only bathroom with a workaholic radiator, which was throwing out heat at a rate of knots with no cut-off switch or means to disconnect it. Yes, we’d forgotten to bring the wire cutters! Closing the bathroom door, we decided to think of this as our en suite sauna instead. The following morning I refused to shave, wishing to spend the least amount of time possible sweating profusely and consequently concerning my father that I was not presenting myself in a suitable manner for a successful author. Who was he kidding?
Once revitalised my dad enjoyed a stunningly tender piece of Scottish beef while I tried not to exhibit signs of tension waiting for him to finish. When we eventually escaped to the High Street, we discovered that its 20mph speed limit is completely ineffectual. Yes, the boy racers have now made it as far north as the Romans ever did.
Like our day had been, the birthplace of both James V and Mary Queen of Scots appeared to be a town of mixed fortunes, for there is a peculiar mish-mash of historic buildings and cheap 1960s pebbledash flats here.
The most affable bar we could find was The Four Marys – perhaps named after the Scottish folk tale recorded in the song ‘Mary Hamilton’. This pub, with its a traditional feel, did nothing to subdue our conversation which resembled a verbal boxing match about a road-sign.
Some years ago, we had visited Land’s End and paid a fiver to have the distance to our village put on the wooden fingerpost there. At the time, we were planning on eventually travelling right up to that other famed extremity, John O’Groats.
Assuming there would be another opportunity there to put our locale on the map, the discussion was as to whether we should put the village of Hamstreet on the sign again or the town of New Romney where my father now lives.
I expect you now have an image of us arriving at the sign, one of us getting in first and the other taking a hacksaw to the wooden ‘finger’ and throwing it off the cliffs! Little did we know that our route would take us no further north but would eventually become a circle back to where we began in Dumfries.
Debating aside, for the first time in three nights, I was enjoying my evening vittles, and thanks to this discussion which was almost as heated as our bathroom, I had soon forgotten about the weedy riverbank, lights inaccessible and the nasty pasty. Tomorrow things would pick up.
Leith Police Dismisseth Us
21) BEAMER ROCK (QUEENSFERRY) (white flash every 6 secs)
22) INCH GARVIE (white light, 2 secs on, 3 secs off)
23) HAWES PIER LIGHT, QUEENSFERRY (redundant)
24) GRANTON (converted to alternative use)
25) NEWHAVEN QUAY (LEITH)
26/27) LEITH HARBOUR (one redundant, one working)
28) FIDRA* (4 white flashes every 30 secs)
My dad awoke muttering the words, ‘Leith police dismisseth us.’ At first I wondered if he was suffering from heatstroke after spending too long in the sauna, but apparently anybody over a certain age would remember this phrase as a test of sobriety used in pre-breathalyser days. Today we would visit Leith docks, a coastal area of Edinburgh.
From our bedroom window, we could watch the electric trains effortlessly pull in and out of the railway station. The top of a line of red and white carriages came to a halt on top of the stone bridge as I began a new video tape. Yes, we were ‘trainspotting’ once again!
Before saying farewell to Linlithgow, we took a wander up to the station to analyse the timetable and were once again impressed by the service which ran every ten minutes. After a few more photographic shots of the street, we were in the van on our way back to Queensferry.
Now, out in the middle of the Firth of Forth are two lighthouses. My dad had come up with the idea of cycling the A90 road bridge in order to get a reasonably close glimpse from the middle. Yet, when we finally spotted the cycle-path curving steeply up onto the bridge, he had a change of heart. Black clouds were gathering steadily.
Instead we darted down a residential road beneath the bridge to Port Edgar, and eventually we came to a car park next to a marina filled with small boats. A sign warned that this was private ground and anyone wishing to use photographic equipment would have to seek official permission. As I neared the beginning of the jetty, I asked a young workman who was painting the side of a vessel with tar if this sign meant anything.
This forthright gentleman, in an accent I could just understand, informed us that taking a few shots of the lighthouse wouldn’t be a problem and ushered us through the wire-mesh gate onto the jetty.
The briskness of my pace increased as the doom-laden heavens prepared for a deluge. People were still out sailing obliviously in their yachts; they must have surely felt vulnerable beneath such crepuscular skies. At the end of the pier was a bland, white block with a small red light on top – clearly a beacon; but out in the waters on a tiny ‘island’ was something more impressive.
Located on Beamer Rock (a colloquial term for a BMW down south), this white, slightly tapered, round tower has a red band half way up and appears to have had the light compartment removed and a small light placed in the centre of its flat top.
This makes its inclusion as a lighthouse slightly dubious. It is not alone though, as it shares its meagre space with a white block that is almost as tall.
As we filmed, the sun was shining upon the ‘beamer’, but we were enshrouded. The wind howled and droplets began to spatter, but we weren’t returning to the van just yet, for this would also be our best opportunity to view yet another light out in the estuary, just off the end of Inch Garvie rock, virtually beneath the Forth Rail Bridge. Our view wasn’t great, but the structure appeared to be built at the northern end of a short raised plinth. The plinth, black base, middle section and white light chamber all account for roughly a quarter of the 33-foot overall height.
I folded up the tripod, shielded the camcorder with my wax jacket and broke into a jog back to the van. When things got really serious, my dad broke into a jog too, and finally a full-scale sprint, having loitered for too long watching the small boats desperately trying to make it to safe moorings, several of which deposited their would-be sailors into the Forth.
We made the van just in time, and sat with relief as the rain pounded upon the hollow roof like a tin drum, wrapped up like Arctic explorers.
It always amuses me that down in Kent, even in the harshest conditions there is always some buffoon who insists on walking around without a shirt. I am not sure how one becomes so insensitive to climatic variations, but it could be hammering down with rain and sure enough a tattooed belly goes gliding past on the grounds that ‘it may be raining but it’s not cold.’
Seriously, if I went on ‘Family Fortunes’ and was asked ‘Name the last thing you would expect to see on a winter’s day,’ exposed nipples would be fairly high on my list, but no – it may be March and there may be frost on the ground, but still the public are treated to this exhibitionism on grounds that ‘it’s a bit cold but at least it’s sunny!’
So what do these young (and sometimes old) men get out of this semi-naturism as they swagger down the road trying to disguise their shivers? For a start it can’t be at all comfortable for them, and secondly the public, as far as I am aware, aren’t greatly impressed either. Rather than think ‘Wow. This guy is really cool,’ they are generally thinking ‘This guy must be [insert expletive of your choice] freezing!’ or even ‘This poor chap needs help getting dressed in the morning. He seems unable to gauge what clothing is suitable for the weather before leaving the house’ or maybe even ‘For God’s sake put it away. Your tattoos look ridiculous and you don’t look anything like Sylvester Stallone did in the 80s!’ Or how about ‘Why don’t you get a job performing at hen nights and get paid for looking silly with minimal clothing’ for constructive criticism?
So once we had finished cowering from the rain in our tin can, we negotiated our way to Hawes Pier, just west of the famous rail bridge, via Queensferry.
The rains subsided, and we ventured out of the ‘Yukmobile’ like Eskimos emerging from an igloo. The area seemed to be working hard to become a tourist attraction, for there was ample parking for coaches along the waterfront road, and at Hawes pier we even found an amusement arcade, presumably for those waiting for the Inchcolm ferry to fritter away some more cash in return for a dazzling display of flashing lights and rotating effigies of fruit.
Inchcolm is a tiny island located a good three miles east of the bridge on the northern side of the firth. Its principal attraction, for those able to escape the hypnotically scrolling gooseberries and cherries to actually board the ferry, is its Augustinian abbey.
Our concrete jetty sloped gently into the water, with a skeletal beacon of yellow struts marking where the submerged end was.
But we had stumbled across something far more interesting – an old lighthouse, situated beyond the ticket office, presumably built with the pier. We wandered as close as we could to the chunky, hexagonal, brick tower, which was adorned with six square glass panels surrounding the now-empty light chamber, the top of which resembled a conservatory roof. The sides have stately arch shapes built into them, and I have probably made this ‘worse for ware’ remnant sound far more impressive than it actually is.
The Forth Rail Bridge, on the other hand, is a true marvel. Instantly stunning from the first glance, it comprises of three huge diamond shapes of reddish metal struts, striding confidently across the water. It even features on the reverse of the 2004 pound coin. The joining sections between the ‘diamonds’ give an indication of the sheer scale of things. One only has to watch the trains leaving the cliffs, high above the shore, to feel a sense of awe at 1890s finest achievement, which spans 1710 feet.
Our next port of call was the port of Leith. Our journey here was quick, for we took in none of the sights of Scotland’s capital, not even a glimpse of its castle or the famed avenue of Princes Street, which is a little like Lothian’s answer to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. I felt a little cheated as my father whipped us past some of Scotland’s most celebrated locations in search of a manky old dock!
We then backtracked along the coastline to Granton.
Right beside the road, some 200 yards from the sea stands a building with the word ‘lighthouse’ written on the side in that square ‘space age’ lettering normally seen at the beginning of any ‘space themed’ television programme in the 60s and 70s. The door was open, so I stepped inside to inquire, half expecting a dalek made out of old loo rolls and sticky back plastic to be sitting obediently behind the desk.
I discovered that the building was used as a rehearsal room for bands. I believe the tenants also arranged gigs and events. This was a use for a redundant lighthouse that we hadn’t come across before, but as a keen guitarist, it was music to my ears.
The reddish-brown brickwork tower rises from the north-west corner of this Georgian looking building, with triangle shapes easing the transition from the square corner of the building to the round light compartment at the top, which has a black-framed lattice window. From along the road it looks as though the tower has a black helmet on. Perhaps it really was going into space!
There are two regimented rows of three white-framed windows one above the other in the tower at the front.
A short journey in the van eastward towards Leith brought us to a jetty, which strides out into the Forth, away from the gently curving suburban houses that line the road.
The edges of this jetty looked smooth to walk on, but this seemed much too close to a fall into the brine for my liking, for there was no handrail. The middle was filled with randomly sized stones and boulders. After several trips and stumbles, this pier took a turn left, and near the end a few vertical struts of wood made a feeble attempt as a barrier.
We were standing on this rickety structure in the middle of Granton Harbour because our atlas showed two lights here. Thank goodness a squall didn’t blow up now!
In front of our barrier, stands an white, oblong-shaped block with a door, looking like a Tardis to whip us away from this blustery location.
It would have been handy to step inside and find ourselves emerging relocated beside the lighthouse at Oxcars, just off the island of Inchcolm, for we would have been able to properly view this round, chubby, white structure with a black band around the middle, instead of glancing longingly at it from across several miles of choppy water.
Knowing our luck, the Tardis would have taken us to the end of Granton’s western breakwater instead; a barren looking affair with grass growing over rough stones. There was nothing to see here.
Alternatively, we could have been transported to the apron of land between the two breakwaters where there was a beacon resembling a malnourished lighthouse, with its light compartment perched atop a tall white pole.
Uninspired by all this, for the area was completely deserted, we left the sailing boats to mill about beside the port buildings and warehouses and returned to the van to continue eastward into Leith itself, the setting for Irvine Welsh’s critically acclaimed book. The ‘hit’ we were after was a glimpse of another lighthouse.
Like so many marinas, Edinburgh’s port was in the process of being ‘doshed up’. Exclusive residences now fill all the spaces not already taken by huge entertainment buildings and out-of-town megastores.
You wouldn’t guess it from here, but Scotland’s population is declining and slipped below 5 million inhabitants following our visit. This amounts to roughly a tenth of the population of England with three fifths area to put them in (England = 50,366 square miles; Scotland = 30,415 square miles). In the light of this, perhaps my questioning of huge house building plans for The South-East don’t seem quite so NIMBYish – just common sense!
But of course, if plans for sea defence against rising sea levels prove insufficient, vast areas of South and East England will be underwater, so the whole surge of population may turn northward, neatly alleviating this imbalance!
In order to encourage the population back to the land of the thistle, there has been a call for the many famous names that eulogise about their birthplace to return (Sean Connery has a strong ‘bond’ with Scotland I understand). Yet, it is estimated that there are three times as many people claiming Scottish ancestry but not actually living there.
Having parked up, we wandered around to Newhaven quay. A square of water is almost enclosed by the jetty that heads out into the Forth and a horizontal quay, which has a tall, white lighthouse tower at its end. At the time of our visit, it was surrounded by scaffolding and workmen walking the boards several floors up, assessing it for shot-blasting and painting. Through the jumble of poles, we could make out an octagonal balcony with white railings around it. The base of the lighthouse was a rusty red colour and the tower was simply rusty. No doubt, this has now been remedied.
There were two more lighthouses in the vicinity, but without satellite guidance it would be nigh on impossible to work out how to reach them. While most people opted for a coffee, a hot dog and another opportunity to become transfixed by rotating images of oranges and plums in the arcade, we took our chances wandering along the side of the building to reach the sloping sea wall. An iron fence prevented us from venturing further.
A local dog walker informed us that it was possible to breach this fence, but judging by the construction work that was going on beyond it, such action would probably have found us accompanying Leith police to the station in cuffs for trespassing!
The zoom lens on my video camera was a godsend in capturing the redundant white lighthouse further along the wall. The luminary, if you could call it that, has an empty light chamber on top and a flat-roofed block behind it about a third as high – roughly the size of your standard public conveniences! The structure itself has open squares in its design.
Out behind this, a long breakwater runs out from the eastern side of Leith. At the end of this is a similarly unimpressive structure, but one that is still in use, comprising of two equal halves – a red light chamber (looking a little like a crown) on top of a squat body. At this point, I will just mention that the island of Inchkeith also has a lighthouse, located at its highest point. This island is a similar distance as Inchcolm is from Edinburgh, but in a north-east direction.
It was then that my camcorder battery finally gave up the ghost. I was lucky to get the essential five second shot of each of these ‘lighthouses’ onto film, for I would have never remembered what either of them looked like without it, so minimal was their impact.
By now we had fixed our sights upon reaching North Berwick by the end of the day, and once we had negotiated our way out of the network of new roads that have sprung up around Leith, we found our route via seaside settlements like Portobello. We muscled our way through Musselburgh, pressed on through Prestonpans and I can think of no appropriate alliteration for our passing through Cockenzie, thankfully.
The rural scenery beyond was pleasant in a modest kind of way. We felt that we had left the urban grip of Edinburgh behind and our minds turned, as ever, to consuming a calorific milk drink.
A small ‘bargain’ food store in North Berwick provided our ‘fix’. This little town has a long, narrow High Street parallel to the coast, and the bunting that criss-crossed it gave the place an upbeat feel. It seemed a nice place to stay, and a good base for viewing the lighthouses on the two islands, just offshore to the east and west of the town.
We settled for a ‘bed and breakfast’ in a quiet spot along the coast to the east.
‘Go up the stairs, turn right and your room is on the left,’ our host intoned.
There was then a strange reversal of roles; I wanted to just chill out on the bed and my father wanted to get straight back out and look at the lighthouse on the Isle of Fidra. This gallop around the lowland shores had become a somewhat frenetic mission, and sleep seemed to be increasingly squeezed out in favour of ticking yet more ‘must sees’ off of our list.
Psychologists refer to this process as ‘transference’, where the counsellor ends up with the symptoms of the patient who walks away confident and well. Was this my father’s ulterior motive for these trips? To return revitalised and youthful while I reverted to the sleep patterns of my 101-year-old uncle?
I had no intention of becoming my father’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray,’ aging mercilessly while he led a life consisting of one long, debauched, ‘Yuk’-addled lighthouse frenzy, so I hauled myself off the bed and back onto the lighthouse trail for one last time today.
To view Fidra lighthouse, one must travel a mile or so west of North Berwick to Dirleton. A dead-end lane leads into Yellowcraig nature reserve, where evergreen trees mingle with open heathland. Robert Louis Stevenson (who was born in Edinburgh in 1850) was very familiar with this area, often staying in North Berwick. He had a particular fondness for the islands of the Firth of Forth, and some even believe that Fidra formed the basis for his most famous work, ‘Treasure Island’. He was the grandson of Robert Stevenson, the head of the ‘lighthouse’ family.
The ‘treasure’ for us was merely a glimpse of the 1885 lighthouse.
Constructed by the Northern Lighthouse Board and engineered by David A Stevenson, it was made electric in 1970, etching its name into history as the first lighthouse to become fully automatic, with its keepers being made redundant in April 1971. A boatman from North Berwick now maintains the light.
Fidra itself looks like two large horizontal rocks joined together. It is believed to have been used as a retreat connected to a nunnery founded in North Berwick in the twelfth century.
The light is situated on the more westerly ‘rock’ and is of classic ‘Northern Lights’ design with a 56-foot, round, white tower with a beige balcony and a flat-roofed block with chimneys.
Our cycle-ride to the best viewpoint was a short one, and we returned to the town, stumbling into a hazy pub full of drinkers who appeared to have been practicing their crapulence all afternoon. Emanating from the jukebox was a heavy-metal version of the Bob Dylan song that Jimi Hendix made famous – ‘All along the Watchtower’. I had never heard this version before. My dad never wanted to hear it again!
Our nutrition tonight came courtesy of a Thai restaurant that was peculiarly popular with Norwegians. We sat beside a brown marble elephant. Two red candles burned beside us as Scandinavian conversations washed all around.
It was early evening and still daylight outside, so after eating we took a wander down to the attractive curving beach of golden sand. The sky was blue and bright, but this didn’t negate the chill wind that was coming off of the water. Even those exhibitionists down south would think twice about levering their shirts off here this evening!
Red and white buildings surround the bay, with their doors opening straight onto the sea wall. Some had wooden steps running straight down onto the beach. My dad seemed paralysed by the tranquillity while I was just paralysed by the cold!
So we returned to our comfortable room and I flicked on the television, randomly settling upon a documentary about Paul Gasgoine. Unlike most soccer players, my dad was keen to hit the bar (boom boom), but I was transfixed watching the increasingly eccentric behaviour of this once-great footballing talent.
‘You’ve never shown an interest in Gazza before!’ my dad remarked, as I vowed to join him for a beer at the end of the programme. He was of course right.
When I found him in our cosy little bar, he was about half way through his first pint. All the other people in the room appeared to be friends of the lady who owned the B&B. The conversation appeared to be about one thing and one thing only – money. I quickly realised that we weren’t going to witness any Gazza-like mayhem tonight, just frugal speculation concerning property prices and savings schemes. Yawn!
As an aside, I suppose it is fitting that the founder of the Bank of England came from Scotland. William Paterson came from Dumfries in fact. Recalling the crazy monetary system I described in an earlier chapter they can keep him!
After another pleasant beaker of ale, we glanced out of the window, casually spotting several distant flecks of different coloured light winking at us from across the dark velvety expanse of water. Bass Rock, which we would visit tomorrow, to the east, was the brightest. There was Fidra to our west, and we could make out the light at Sauchar Point, directly in front on the other side of the Forth, and the twinkle from the Isle of May, some 10 miles distant.
This mellow sight made a tranquil end to our day, and sleep came easily tonight.
Breathless in Berwickshire
29) BASS ROCK* (3 white flashes every 20 secs)
30) ST BALDRED’S BOAT BEACON (disused)
31) BARNS NESS* (redundant in 2005, was white isophase every 4 secs)
32) ST ABB’S HEAD* (white flash every 10 secs)
Today’s early starter was the king of all breakfasts; this monster made your average ‘full English’ look like a few wet lettuce leaves on a plate. Not only was there bacon, eggs, sausage, fried bread, beans, tomato and all the usual staples, but an industrial sized portion of black pudding and a gargantuan block of haggis.
After a slightly longer period of cogitation in our room (as you would expect after this ‘gutbuster’), we dragged our bloated selves into another new day, unsure as to whether haggis for breakfast was a good idea or just plain silly.
During the 10,000 miles of travelling undertaken for our first book, it was the ‘Kilroy’ show that had gently eased us back onto the road at this point on most mornings, but after an outspoken invective in a national newspaper, this mouthpiece for the grey-haired host was promptly terminated.
However, we were beginning to miss the topical debates of the former programme, which were replaced with a discussion show of the ‘my uncle dated my sister’s budgerigar’ genre.
Instead of a calm debate about pensions or something, from now on we would regularly be treated to the sight of an obese woman and a shaven headed man (or vice versa) screaming vitriol at each other, using a limited choice of offensive phrases as a medium to express their primal emotions. Like the gruesome ‘Saw’ films I mentioned in an earlier chapter, maybe it is a morbid curiosity or even a form of smug one-upmanship that makes people want to watch these tortured souls slug it out in the name of entertainment.
I was trying to imagine how a simple quandary that was familiar to my father and I might be dealt with on such a programme. For example, take the simple matter of deciding which structures to include in our tally of lights and which to dismiss as beacons:
‘It’s an effing lighthouse’.
‘No, it’s not, it’s an effing beacon!’
‘It can’t be an effing beacon because the tower is too effing wide. It is a construction of a scale where a person could safely ascend a wooden ladder within the confines of its inner wall, you…’
I have occasionally heard this now popular conversational style referred to as ‘effing and jeffing’. Quite how one ‘jeffs’ remains a mystery to me to this day!
Now, near the entrance to Tantallon Castle, east of North Berwick, we found a lane descending to the shore and abandoned our van. This was peculiar terrain, with rocky cliffs surrounding us behind a considerable swathe of knee-high weeds. I waded through the foliage in order to get a proper look at the caves, hoping for a glimpse of a modern day Sawney Bean before he got a glimpse of me.
Deciding that the risk of personal injury was greater than the risk of cannibalism, I declared the cave to be too dark and dangerous and returned to the comparatively sensible business of studying the lighthouse.
Bass Rock was further off-shore than Fidra had been, but its ominous presence made it seem somehow closer. This is a giant rock, 360 feet high and one mile in circumference, with the obligatory lighthouse precariously positioned half way up facing the mainland. This is presumably why an additional beacon, located on rocks almost submerged by the water, was required to exhibit a light for ships out to sea.
Interestingly there is an underground tunnel right through the rock, which can be accessed at low tide.
The ground below this ‘David A Stevenson’ lighthouse appears to have been shored up with concrete to provide a stable base. The round, white tower is 65 feet high and first shone its light in 1902.
There is a long, flat-roofed keeper’s building to the left of the tower which apparently shares the rock with a chapel, consecrated in 1542 and dedicated to St Baldfred, who reputedly had a ‘cell’ on the island and died in the year 606AD. I use ‘cell’ to mean ‘small group’ just in case there is any doubt!
As for the additional beacon, this is a light brown, tapered tower built out of brick-like blocks, now redundant and crowned with a cross, giving it the feel of a memorial. It is located at the eastern end of the bay, at an area marked on our Ordnance Survey maps as St Baldfred’s Boat. The sweeping sandy beach gives the whole area an idyllic hideaway ambiance.
Ensconced safely in our white van, we then negotiated our way down to the A1 via some fairly flat farmland. We were only on the UK’s longest road (407 miles) for a very short burst before detouring to take a look at Dunbar.
This coastal town has a similar feel to Berwick-upon-Tweed, just over the border in England, with its wide main street of tightly packed red and brown buildings. Dunbar has a long blood-soaked history. Prepare yourselves for another historical headache.
There has been a settlement here since the Roman ‘exploitation’ period, and the town was part of the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Bernicia, when in 858ADKenneth MacAlpin, the King of the Picts and Scots burned down the castle. At this time, Bernicia (a sort of elongated Northumbria, which stretched from the River Tees to the Forth) was being ravaged by the Vikings. The coastline was indefensible, and this was going to lead to the split at the Tweed between the Lothians and Northumberland at a later date.
In 1072, Dunbar was granted to Cospatrick of Northumbria. His descendants managed to hold onto it until 1435 when James I of Scotland confiscated the town following a very turbulent period in which Dunbar Castle was of great strategic importance, giving command of the Great North Road.
All of the first three King Edwards (of England) discovered Dunbar to be a particularly hot potato (excuse pun). Edward I invaded Scotland and besieged and took the castle in 1296, Edward II took refuge here, repelled by his defeat at Bannockburn by the aforementioned Robert the Bruce, and finally Black Agnes (the formidable daughter of the Earl of Moray) defended the place a short while later, as her husband was absent at the time, battling against the advances of Edward III.
Bombed out with it all, we stood on a windswept vantage point beside the harbour for which Oliver Cromwell granted £300 after the Roundheads defeated the Scots here in 1650. The castle is now in ruins.
Passing the site of Cromwell’s battle, we had to negotiate our way around the modern A1 to find an access route to Barns Ness – the location of our next lighthouse. Phew!
A long straight access road with speed humps led us towards the thin, 121-foot-high tower, which rises triumphantly from the flat scrubland over which it presides. This svelte tower has three windows evenly spaced above one another and the colour scheme, as ever, is ‘any colour as long as it’s white’ apart from the ‘NLB brown’ light chamber. The single storey keeper’s cottage is now a private residence loomed over by a nuclear power station. They love siting these alongside our raison d’être.
This light was first shown in 1901, and like its neighbour on Bass Rock, it was built by David A Stevenson, who became the longest serving engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board. He was the son of David Stevenson who built many lighthouses with his brother Thomas. Hopefully I have given you enough information to draw a family tree by now.
This particular light also provides us with a glimpse of the very latest chapter in lighthouse history, for in January 2005, the General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK reviewed the navigational aids of the entire coast. Barns Ness light was discontinued on October 27 that same year on the basis that it now only serves as a waymarker.
I seem to remember passing a dazzling field of poppies as we moved on towards our final lighthouse in the Scottish Lowlands. Such a sight usually arouses one of three associations in people; thoughts of the war dead in the serious, a scene from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in the childlike and a connection with opium in the cynical.
St Abb’s Head, perhaps fifteen miles down the coast from Barns Ness, was to present us with another cycling challenge. As we embarked on this five-mile round trip, a golden field of oilseed rape provided a colourful backdrop, just as the bright red poppies had done.
The lane, which wasn’t open to vehicles, wound its way steeply into a valley carved out by a stream. After changing its course 180 degrees to avoid plunging over the edge of the cliff into the deep blue sea, our route ascended steeply to reach our final lighthouse of this particular mission.
At the time of our visit, one of the keeper’s cottages was minus a roof, for these buildings had burned down during a period of renovation. Arson was suspected.
The light itself is situated a little further down the 300-foot cliff face. To get a reasonable side view, we had to wander around the compound and along the grassy cliff-top. Established by David and Thomas Stevenson and completed in 1862, this structure musters a mere 30 feet in height and has a black topped light chamber with a lattice window all the way round. It sits upon a small white building, which has the planning ‘footprint’ of an arch shape. The top and bottom are neatly adorned with a line of ‘NLB brown’, a bit like a picture rail and skirting board. Like all Northern Lighthouse Board lights, St Abb’s Head is automated and operated from the control centre in Edinburgh.
There is a black handrail running down the cliff further to the small, white foghorn building, where the horn, redundant since 1987, points ever-expectantly out to sea.
Returning to the lane, we could see people relaxing with cameras and books some several hundred feet below us, no doubt observing the bird life, completely oblivious to the potentially fatal drop at the bottom of the sloping grassy hillside.
And so we turned our attention to Eyemouth, just a few miles down the road, with the hope of finding somewhere suitable to stay.
At this time, there seemed to be major construction works taking place along the road entering the town, the purpose of which I failed to deduce.
Our look around was brief. Any further down the coast and we would be back in England covering old ground at Berwick-upon-Tweed, so we decided to head inland along the ‘B’ road via Chirnside. Serendipitously we found ourselves in Duns, an attractive little town that became the county town of Berwickshire in 1551. The county is now of course defunct, being part of the larger Scottish Borders region.
At the edge of Duns was a stately looking hotel with no vacancies. We eventually found a B&B in a terraced house located along one of the town’s peripheral streets. Its proprietor was very welcoming. She had lived in this house for her entire life, and although she would have experienced many changes during the twentieth century, the population wasn’t one of them, for this had remained static with around 2,000 inhabitants for all living memory.
I must admit, for a place of this size, it seemed extremely lively, compared to the similar sized village that I come from in The South-East. There are around eight pubs in Duns and we would find most of them packed to the rafters later this evening. My dad, realising that there had to be something going on, asked why the town was so busy. It turned out that it was down to something called the ‘Festival of the Reiving’.
This meant little to us, and we struggled to establish exactly what a ‘reiver’ does. Initially we assumed that it was something along the lines of going across the border and plundering those ‘Sassenachs’ further south. We had visions of cattle being hauled into Scotland across that invisible line with their owners in hot pursuit, only to find themselves stranded at the border because English law couldn’t touch the marauders once they were back in the land of the thistle.
In truth, there were a large number of ‘reiving’ families located along the border, which swore allegiance to neither country and were generally out for whatever they could get, plundering the wares on both sides and even from each other, engaging in murderous activities to get it.
I questioned the morality of having a weekend to celebrate this (not out loud of course) and I tried to draw comparisons. In Kent we try to gain tourist kudos from the activities of ancient smugglers, hauling their illicit brandy across the misty plains of Romney Marsh. But then there are tales of smugglers and customs men sitting amicably together in the local pubs. Hardly what you’d call a bloodbath!
Then again, I suppose we commemorate an attempt to blow up parliament every 5th of November. But ultimately Guy Fawkes’ plans were foiled, and although most of us would dearly love to see a rocket put underneath the majority of babbling politicians, this still seems quite tame compared to a ‘reivers’ festival!
Well, I wasn’t going to criticise, and my father reminded me a little of television’s Louis Theroux as he innocently glided on to the next emotive subject – the Scottish Border and Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Knowing the passion that this arouses around these parts, I cringed a little upon hearing him prize open this hornet’s nest. It had always seemed to me that the Scottish position is generally that the border with England should be marked by the River Tweed and that Berwick, being on the north side of the river, should belong to Scotland and claim its position as the county town of Berwickshire.
But it is not that simple. The town has changed hands between the English and the Scots no less than fourteen times, the last of these being in 1482. Recently, a referendum was held for Berwick’s inhabitants to decide once and for all where their allegiance lies. The result was more or less unanimous, in that they wanted to be English.
Our hostess responded with a hearty, ‘They can’t seem to make up their minds so England can keep it!’ Here ends the battle.
Moving swiftly on, we were then informed about Jim Clark who hailed from Chirnside, perhaps the most famous person to come from the area, being world motor racing champion in 1963 and 1965. Not bad for a Berwickshire farmer, hey?
Satiated with facts, my father decided to retire to the conservatory just along from our room to relax with his copy of The Times. On the wall of this room, awash with afternoon sunshine, hung a teacloth listing a variety of Scottish inventions and their origins. This proved to be an invaluable source of info in compiling this book!
My father in his customary way began reading aloud random stories that caught his eye. The first was about an offer to dine with the 2nd richest man in the USA. The fee for this ‘honour’ was a cool £100,000, meaning that the only person likely to want to do this would be the richest woman in the USA. As they say, money goes to money. And as Basil Fawlty once declared, ‘I know how important money is to you Americans, but you must remember there are things that we British think are far…’
How things have changed since 1979. Right here in blighty there now seems to be a pathological obsession with wealth, status and fame. There is even a term for it – affluenza.
Like a dose of the flu, I don’t think this is healthy, after all not everybody can be a TV celebrity or a managing director. Most will have to settle for a gossip column on Facebook and a highfalutin job title! Whilst I think it was noble to try to send 50% of school leavers to university (a prospect seemingly shattered by so-called 'austerity measures'), I do wonder what kind of positions await the majority of graduates - we will still be looking for plumbers, electricians, drivers, builders, shopkeepers, reivers…
Er… how did that get in there?
With such inflated ambitions, it is little wonder that depression is something of a modern epidemic in The West. Nobody can live up to the expectations that society encourages us to aspire to. Maybe, I have even succumbed to this at times myself in hoping to see ‘England and Wales in a Flash’ next to Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes from a Small Island’ in Waterstones.
Perhaps there is a set upper limit of how much happiness each person can have, and that we in The West are now discovering that all the gadgetry and gimmickry in the world won’t change this. And whilst we like to believe in a fair crack of the whip for all, in truth those with influence are keen to keep it in the family. The Norman system still ultimately rules, and if we try to prize anything out of the hands of the rich the scene is not too dissimilar from that screamed rendition of ‘I Want my Mummy’ we’d subjected ourselves to earlier in our trip. Or should that be ‘money’?
The second newspaper article that my father picked out for my edification concerned burning a huge quantity of tyres to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne. Is it me, or does screwing up the environment seem to be a prerequisite for any form of celebration these days?
Yes – requisites; it was time to hit the town.
Wandering down into the busy central square, which was draped with people as though dropped into a painting by an artist, we were drawn to a pub with frosted windows and an ambulance parked outside. As we entered, it had the feel of a working man’s club, except that a few women had been allowed onto the premises. This seemed the kind of establishment where elderly gents might pop in for a swift pint of real ale during the nightly ritual of walking the dog. At this point, somebody who had collapsed was being carried out on a stretcher.
We managed to locate an unoccupied table at which to quaff our brews. Comfortable though this was, we spurned the option of food here, deciding to try our luck with a larger establishment across the square. Opening the doors to this second bar was like entering a vortex into another universe. It was bursting at the seams with well-fuelled revellers.
Pushing our way through the pulsating masses, we reached the bar and obtained our drinks. We dared not to move from our position hugging the counter, for fear of ending up in the centre of the room being jostled by elbows and drenched by carelessly handled pint glasses. My dad had convinced himself that there was an aura of menace, although I couldn’t detect this myself. Maybe the suggestion of things turning nasty had been put into his mind by that unfortunate soul being carried out of the other bar on a stretcher. Whatever it was, his perception of malevolence was building. This culminated in him glancing at the bar to find that, horror of horrors, somebody had moved his glass.
The pent-up frustration finally spilled over into rage and he loudly announced ‘I am NOT a southern softie’, doing a pretty good impression of Patrick McGoohan’s ‘I am not a number’ speech in the classic TV series ‘The Prisoner. This was followed with a hearty declaration of ‘And I am NOT drinking in any more bear-pits!’ and with that, he downed the rest of his beer and hurried to the door.
This new anti-bear-pit stance presented us with a problem; we hadn’t yet eaten and we were fast running out of pubs in Duns to try. My father had now consumed too much alcohol to drive elsewhere, and just to narrow the options down further, he tossed in a third emphatic statement along the lines of ‘And I’m sick to death of drizzled jus.’ This instantly eliminated the option of going to any of the more salubrious establishments to eat, should we find any.
Our next watering hole was a total contrast.
Being located on the road that runs around the outside of the square, we immediately doubled the number of customers by stepping inside. Although we enjoyed a pint in relaxed surroundings, food was not on offer here, so we found ourselves in a beer-addled search along a back street.
Eventually a proprietor took pity clocked our weary appearance and ushered us into his quiet establishment for dinner. The menu was in plain English and the quality cuisine that was presented to us eased away the tension. We reclined in reverie of our mad night in Duns, happily leaving the revelling reivers to stew in their own ‘jus’!
At approximately 3am, I awoke wheezing like a drain (what a strange cliché), and I tell this tale for the benefit of any non-sufferers who might think that having asthma is some kind of ‘doddle’.
Before long the strained breaths and spluttered rasps awoke my father, giving me an excuse to turn the light on, an action which immediately halves the agony of any ailment.
After fifty minutes, I turned it back off again and finally nodded off for a grandiose ten minutes. I then suffered in silence for another hour before finally declaring ‘This is ridiculous!’ So I got up and dressed while my dad was still asleep and let myself out of the front door, deciding to take a soothing walk in the cool early morning sunshine.
As I ambled up the hill, I was instantly away from habitation and surrounded by fields – very pleasant but full of pollinating little plants – an asthma sufferer’s minefield. Like the field of rapeseed we had observed yesterday, plants were flowering much later here than down south.
Ahead of me was Duns Castle, a private dwelling that seemed more like an English stately home.
In truth, many Scottish castles were actually built by the English. Living in a Scottish castle was once the ultimate in status – the nineteenth century equivalent of owning a BMW, I suppose.
I followed a path beside a large lake, with swans gliding gracefully upon the placid waters and flies buzzing around the reeds and rushes. A gentleman walking his dog greeted me with a cheery ‘Good Morning’, and my path eventually wound its way into woodland.
It was all very serene, but my lungs were getting worse again, so I did a U-turn and heaved my way back to our B&B, where breakfast was being prepared.
My father arrived downstairs just in time to join me and ponder over that same newspaper as we ate. Our hostess wisely recommended a visit to the doctor’s surgery, so this would be our first port of call before embarking on the journey home.
Now, just one puff on a small, blue inhaler was all that I required to instantly lift me out of this bronchial purgatory. The steroid in the spray relaxes the tensed up walls of the respiratory passages and breathing once again becomes pleasantly unnoticeable. Unfortunately things were not that simple; my own GP would have to give them permission to dish out the reliever and without a current prescription this would be futile. It wasn’t as if I was asking for heroin or something (although casting my mind back to ‘Trainspotting’ perhaps that would have been easier to get). The sound of my wheezing was not sufficient proof that I wasn’t faking it to get hold of half a kilo of ‘class A’ Ventolin to sell on the black market!
So, that was it. I braced myself for an eight-hour wait as we began the long journey back to the brown, sun-baked fields of The South.
It has often been said that ‘It’s grim up north’ but at this warm time of the year, it is much fairer to say ‘It’s green up north!’
Just beyond Coldstream, we crossed the border, which at this point follows the banks of the UK’s 11th longest river – the 96-mile Tweed.
The A697 beyond is a genuine 60mph road most of the way down to the A1 near Morpeth, the county town of Northumberland. As we skirted the densely wooded Cheviot Hills, we marvelled at the views almost as much as we marvelled at how small villages were signposted from distances of some thirty miles or more. In densely populated Kent, five miles is the arbitrary council imposed limit. Meanwhile the tightness in my chest had begun to physically hurt.
And then a miracle happened; suddenly the air changed.
As we reached areas that had enjoyed the warmth of the sun a month or so earlier, the pollen cleared. The soothing effect of this was not as instant as a quick blast of Ventolin would have been, but I was thoroughly relieved that I didn’t have to suffer for another seven hours.
With normal bodily functions resumed, we reach the end of the first part of this book.
Our lighthouse tally for the lowlands is by no means exhaustive, but by mentioning the lights that we missed we hope it becomes so.
A browse on the Internet will reveal additional structures worthy of the name ‘lighthouse’ which I now list in clockwise order:
There is a 13-foot, square, white tower on the Isle of Whithorn (not a proper island, but the entrance to Kidcudbright Bay).
At Dunure Harbour there is a disused, 13-foot, stone cylinder.
At Maurice Clark Point (Greenock) there is a squat, round, green structure of 13-feet.
Then at Clydebank (far deeper into the ‘grip’ of Glasgow than we had dared to go), a 33-foot green cylinder with a balcony can be found.
There is another lighthouse west of the Forth Suspension Bridge at Port Edgar, located on top of a 13-foot, white, round equipment shelter.
Somehow at Leith we missed a 26-foot, white quayside structure known as ‘Burntisland East Breakwater’ light (relocated at Leith), deep in the marina complex.
Slightly more tenuous, there is about 17 feet left of a ruined 31-foot tower at Grangemouth, and a light is also displayed from the gable end of a building in Eyemouth.
The next section documents our trip along the border itself, beginning from where we left off. The aim: to try to discover the reasons behind its twists and turns. In the mean time I have some urgent business to conduct with an illicit consignment of Ventolin evohalers!
THE BORDER COUNTRY
The ‘Yukmobile’ died somewhere between coming home from Duns and setting off again to roughly where we left off, at Wooler. You now find us cruising around in a bright green hatchback. To explain how we arrived at this situation, I will take you on a guided tour of the book trade.
I think the hardest challenge for any author who doesn’t yet have an agent or major publisher backing them is the prospect of hawking one’s wares around bookshops.
The most common refrain that will come at you from the larger stores is, ‘We only buy from our wholesalers,’ chanted out like a mantra.
‘Just exactly whose books do these wholesalers wholesale?’ you wonder.
If you ask to speak to the manager, nine times out of ten he (or she) will either be at lunch or on holiday, when of course you know that the person you are trying to reach is holed up in their office like some heavily guarded Mafia boss!
Even in some of the smaller stores, the buyer will peer at your paperback from over his glasses like a frustrated schoolmaster, examining every line in minor detail, itching to scrawl red marks over the slightest grammatical altercation. Then graciously looking up and momentarily making eye contact, you will receive a nasal ‘Yeeaarss. We’ll have a copy on sale or return,’ which is all well and good, except that you have just travelled forty miles to cast your net upon the waves of such indifference, going against your altruistic concern for climate change (as well as your fuel bill) for this ‘honour’.
‘How about twenty books on sale or return?’ you venture.
‘No, most of our shelf-space is paid for by the big publishers.’
And so it’s back down the slippery serpent on the ‘publishing’ snakes and ladders board to square one.
Sometimes, a shop will take a handful of books from you and three months later you will go back to see if they have been sold. Glancing around the shop, there is no sign of the books on any of the shelves, so you begin to feel a little optimistic.
Half swaggering up to the counter, you announce ‘You sold them then?’ with a slight sense of ‘I told you so’. It is then that you are informed that your books have spent the last thirteen weeks safely below the counter.
What on earth is the point of this? It’s not as though a few paperbacks with a picture of a lighthouse on the cover are on a par with John Lennon’s nude album cover and have to be served to people in a brown paper bag! At this point I will state that I have always liked Mr Lennon’s response at a press conference when the Beatles set up their company ‘Apple’, stating that they did it so creative people ‘don’t have to go down on their knees in somebody’s office. Probably yours!’ He had a point, you know.
Anyway, I hear you asking ‘What has this ultimately self-defeating rant got to do with the demise of the van?’
Well, in a moment of blind optimism, my dad decided to try his luck around the bookshops of Yorkshire. Things began to go wrong on the journey up, with the prized white van boiling its radiator dry.
Overheating whenever the pace of traffic slowed to a crawl meant that driving into congested town centres was not an option. So, parking at least a mile away, my father trekked into the commercial heart of a small town and promptly found a bookstore. Using the usual plaintive begging techniques, he acquired a sale of two books. Pushing his luck, he suggested that they might like to take three, but the very notion seemed to fill the assistant with abject horror as if she had been offered something grossly indecent!
When my dad said that they would get the usual 35% trade discount, that look of terror returned, so he swallowed his pride yet again and reluctantly agreed to give them a 40% cut.
‘I’ll be back in half an hour as I’m parked some distance away,’ he then informed the assistant.
Returning to the van, he picked up the brace of books, noted the traffic warden pacing menacingly up and down the road and turned 180 degrees to return to the shop.
But this time he found himself in some kind of alternate reality, where the young assistant had gone to lunch and one of those stern managers had taken her place stating emphatically, ‘I decide what gets bought in this store, and we only do sale or return’ – as though driving all the way from Kent to Yorkshire to collect £11.40 would have been economical.
My dad explained that it was a verbal agreement and that he’d walked three miles and spent an hour and a half pursuing this paltry sum, but the manager wouldn’t budge.
It was at this point that six months of pent up aggression was released and a torrent of words far too liberal to be printed here issued forth. Beguiled customers looked up from their books, and my dad soon found himself wandering around in a daze outside the store, muttering Anglo Saxon phrases about the ‘book trade mafia, Cosi Nesta family’ under his breath like some deranged psychopath!
On top of this, there’s always that nice little slip of paper tucked under the windscreen wiper demanding money to come back to, with the added bonus of taking your beloved ‘Yukmobile’ to the scrap-yard when you get home.
Surely this was bordering on lunacy?.
We had passed through the Northumberland village of Wooler on our way back from Duns. Now we were returning to take a jaunt along the border of England and Scotland, continuing our circuit of the lowlands from where we had left off.
Wooler is located in a blissfully quiet spot around 25 miles south of Duns and 15 from Coldstream and the border itself. As we sped along the pretty ‘A’ road, my father was getting in the mood by repeatedly singing ‘Wooler, Wooler, Wooler’ – a phrase he’d misheard in a well-known song from the musical ‘Grease’.
Our room at the Ryecroft hotel had been booked prior to our stay, eliminating the usual aggro which might make entertaining reading, but really isn’t a lot of fun. This peace of mind came courtesy of a special deal in a newspaper.
Our stately looking brick building overlooked the main road from its walled vantage point beside a junction. Our room had a fine pastoral view across the roofs of the houses towards the hills that run in pastel shades of green and brown from east to north.
Unfortunately, my recollections are somewhat sketchy of the whole Wooler experience. I put this down to being mesmerised by the seemingly endless A1 on a journey from which all I can recall is an area of services clustered around a ‘car and coach park’ in which we consumed a pork pie. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
Still, it was a cool September evening and once we were suitably settled, it was time to check out this pleasantly ostracised village, initially wandering up the hill beside our hotel in the hope of a finding a back-way across to the village centre. As the houses thinned out into countryside, some people out gardening glanced at us in a bemused fashion. It was clear that we were on a wild goose chase, so we did a ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ and marched back down again.
I then felt myself strangely compelled to take a video shot of an old studded road-sign which I knew to be a fine example of the pre-Worboys variety. For those not in the know, Worboys was the bloke responsible for the standardization of British road-signs.
Similarly, few people think twice about the numbers of the roads they drive on, but the system is actually quite neat once you realise what’s going on.
The first 6 roads (A1 – A6) radiate clockwise from London, ending in Edinburgh, Dover, Portsmouth, Bristol, Holyhead and Carlisle respectively. The next three (A7 – A9) radiate from Edinburgh to Carlisle, Glasgow and Thurso. Road numbers beginning with a 1 are predominantly located between the A1 and A2 (although the Thames Estuary is actually used as the boundary), those that start with 2 are mainly between the A2 and A3, and so on. Thus in Wooler, you would expect the main road to begin with a 6, as it is located between the A6 and A1, and you would be right – the historic road-sign reads ‘A697 Edinburgh’. Just over the border in Scotland, the roads are still sixes between the A1 and the A7, but clockwise from there the system is just the same.
As with all rules of thumb there are exceptions, and since the numbers were first dished out in the early 1920s roads have been moved, superseded by motorways (which seem to have an independent numbering system), reclassified or have had big chunks taken out of them, so the whole thing is much messier these days. But then nobody notices things like the huge gaps in the A41 and A34, do they?
The only gap we noticed at the moment was in our stomachs. Luckily we found the village centre just up another lane, providing us with a picture-box view of the square-towered church of St Mary (which dates from 1746) as we climbed; a scene which wouldn’t have seemed out of place in good old Kent, where all the road numbers begin with a ‘2’.
The village centre was well endowed with little shops, (no evidence of the nationwide Tescopoly here), and we soon found ourselves sampling a local brew in one of the pubs, a busy establishment complete with juke box. Upon inquiring about getting some nourishment, we were directed up an alleyway to a nearby restaurant. This was even busier, and we were served a drink in a holding area for diners awaiting a free table. Those sitting close to us seemed very middle class in manner. Tally-ho old chap!
The lady in charge of the operation seemed extremely busy but coped very well. Heeding that old saying ‘after dinner rest a while, after supper walk a mile’, we took a gentle wander to the other side of the main road and nosed around a small industrial estate looking for evidence of the former station on the Alnwick to Coldstream railway line.
This whole region was once criss-crossed with rail lines. Unfortunately, the sparse population couldn’t sustain the services. We would see evidence of several such routes over the next few days.
Before bedtime, a visit to our hotel’s own bar seemed in order. This back-room was bustling with groups, each comprising of around half a dozen people. Naturally, we felt a little left out, but the local beer seemed consolation enough.
Tomorrow we would be hoping to sample the local spirits instead, except these were not the kind you find dispensed from an optic. We would be off in search of Scotland’s most haunted castle.
Judders and Jedburgh
Today our exploration of the border country really got under way.
Leaving the hotel, we headed north-east on a ‘B’ road which, of course, began with the number ‘6’. To our left we admired an impressively large humpback bridge on a lane crossing the River Till.
Our road climbed steeply and I remember passing a few cyclists who were out enjoying the hazy sunshine as we headed towards the village of Chatton. Turning right, we were heading for Chillingham Castle, a stronghold for the feuding nations of England and Scotland with a view to the ever-changing border. It has been continuously owned by the relatives of the Earls since the thirteenth century.
Chillingham is reputedly the most haunted castle in Britain. The website (which hopes to capitalise on this reputation) states that the most famous ghost here is that of the ‘blue boy’ who cries out in pain at midnight and is said to appear surrounded by light. Apparently the bones of a young boy were found with fragments of blue clothing behind a wall.
Another ghost, thought to be Lady Mary Berkeley, merely rustles past you in her dress on the turret stairs. Meanwhile the library is said to have mysterious voices, the conversations of which you can never quite get the gist of.
I guess we all have our favourite ghost stories to tell and the village of Pluckley, just a few miles from our home in Kent, is reputedly the most haunted village in England. Such is the popularity of this place on Halloween that the parish has taken active steps to discourage the annual influx of ghost hunters. Pluckley was also the location for Pop Larkin’s rural antics in TV’s ‘The Darling Buds of May’, but I digress.
When I moved into my present home – a Victorian terrace dating from the 1870s, a previous owner stated that his children had been talking to ghosts upstairs and I have also heard tales of an apparition of an old lady sitting at the end of the bed.
I am ever-sceptical of such stories and the mind is prey to all kinds of suggestion, particularly when the lights are out. Yet occasionally, I have felt distinctly uncomfortable when trying to get to sleep, as though I am being watched. However I generally put the regular sound of five rapid footsteps down to somebody running along the pavement outside or the neighbour’s boiler firing up.
The plot thickened somewhat when a friend from Mexico came over to stay. During the next morning she asked me if I had ever experienced anything supernatural in the house. I replied ‘No’ and it became apparent that she had thought my mother had popped into the room and was trying to pull down the quilt on her bed, but upon realising that it couldn’t be my mother, she was gripped with fear. Insert own jokes here!
Not wishing to be outdone in the spooks stakes, my father was once looking after an ancient inn in the village of Eastry in East Kent and swears blind that he felt the presence of an elderly woman in one of the corridors. I immediately put this down to alcoholic intake, an explanation that he vociferously denies!
I suppose it is not inconceivable that there are things out there that science has yet to explain, and that our primitive way of thinking rationalises what we experience as being a spirit or other supernatural force of some kind. Take the connection between aliens and crop circles for example.
For me, all credibility for these was blown out of the water when a giant two-word phrase appeared overnight on a hillside in Kent. This vulgar expression of defeat (four and two letters for all you crossword fanatics) could be seen for miles around, and must have taken some considerable organisation to produce. Compared to this, tramping out a Spirograph-style pattern would be child’s play (or ‘student’s play’ as was the case here in Kent).
I remember chuckling as I read in the local paper that in response, the farmer had stated ‘I wish they had trampled out something more positive like ‘KEEP BRITAIN FARMING’’ Was he for real? It would have taken them all night!
The moral in all of this is not to pay too much attention to anybody claiming supernatural influence. Mediums, tarot readers and even presidents and prime ministers who claim that God has spoken to them saying ‘go to war’ all fall into the same bracket to me.
Speaking of primitive things, Chillingham Castle, (the name is rather apt don’t you think?), also boasts a torture dungeon. Here you can view such delights as thumb screws, leg irons, a stretching rack and an Iron Maiden – nothing to do with the heavy metal band or even Margaret Thatcher, but a metal casing for a live body. Here we are back in the domain of those hellish torture films again!
The sheer ingenuity of humans when it comes to devising methods of inflicting pain onto other humans is truly staggering. I remember stumbling across an Amnesty International booklet in the library at my secondary school one lunchtime and being truly horrified at some of the brutal and sadistic experiences described. It was a kind of ‘welcome to the real world’ moment for a thirteen-year-old whose only real concern was getting enough money for a packet of wine gums at the school tuck shop!
I used to hope that one day humans will evolve beyond what seems to be a default state of war and violence; it clearly won’t be in my lifetime.
Still all this isn’t getting us any closer to witnessing a haunting. Unfortunately, such aspirations were flawed anyway, as the castle wasn’t open that morning and our schedule did not allow us to wait around. Instead, we peered inquisitively at a round tower in the middle of a field just up the road, which could have been a lost lighthouse (!) but was far more likely to be a fortification built by reivers to prevent ill-gotten gains from being taken by neighbours or retaken by their owners. Such Peel or Pele towers (derived from the word palisade) are manifold along the border.
Passing through Wooler for a third and final time, we were now heading west on a ‘B’ road along the northern edge of Northumberland National Park, an area famed for red squirrels, which have been virtually wiped out by the grey variety in most of the UK.
There are a total of 15 national parks in the country: three in Wales, ten in England and surprisingly just two in Scotland, which you may remember covers two thirds of the area of England. At the time of writing (2010) it is expected that The South Downs will be added to England’s tally in the next few years tipping the balance (or imbalance) further still.
Majestic hills rose up to our left, while on our right the River Glen was eking out its course. Bridging this near Thornington, we turned northward and soon found ourselves gawping at the historic Flodden Field where James IV of Scotland invaded England across the now established border of the River Tweed, and was ultimately defeated by England’s hastily raised second army in 1513. The English fought uphill, and their victory may be partly down to the fact that this invasion was not even popular among James’ own countrymen, 30,000 of which deserted before the battle. Thus the Flower of Scotland perished.
The single-track lane took us into the village of Branxton, with its scattered dwellings running in a line at the bottom of this large wheat field. The crops were broken by a swathe of green grass, deliberately left unplanted to show the battle line. 4,000 Englishmen and 10,000 Scotsmen lost their lives here, and there is a stone cross erected in the north-west corner of the field to commemorate them all. We reached this windswept memorial via a left turn in the village and a short climb on a footpath from an isolated car park.
Because the outcome was basically ‘no change’, we have decided not to cite 1513 as an important date in Scottish history, favouring 1018 instead. This was the date of the Battle of Carham, the location of which we sought next.
Passing beneath an impressively high rail viaduct, we reached the ‘B’ road along the south bank of the River Tweed. The bridge belonged to one of those ghostly, lost railway lines that I mentioned earlier – a remnant of the Coldstream to Kelso line, which met with Dr Beeching’s famous axe in 1964.
Heading west, we passed through the little village of Wark, beyond which there was a large defensive mound beside the road; the motte of an old ‘motte and bailey’ no doubt. Briefly abandoning the car, we decided to climb this grassy earthwork to gain a glimpse of the substantial River Tweed and the fairly flat, agricultural Scottish Lowlands beyond.
A little further along the road we came to Carham. It is at this point that the border leaves the riverbank and dives sharply southward at a right angle. As you will have guessed, this was established at the battle of Carham, when King Malcolm II of Scotland decided to press his claims to sovereignty over the Lordship of Bamburgh, while Canute (or Cnut), the King of England, was conveniently in Denmark. The Northumbrians were having none of this and as far as we know Malcolm consequently gave up on expanding his kingdom to the south of the river any further east from this point.
Now what better way for us to wander across the border, which from this point runs north-south, than to check out that old railway line?
Taking the next turning left, we came to rest in a gravelly recess beside the lane at the site of a former level crossing. The remains of the old westbound platform at Carham station could clearly be seen. Behind was a private dwelling with a well-kept garden. As we wandered the grassy trail which trains would have once thundered along, the owner started walking towards us.
Were we in England we could have expected a reprimand for trespass, but we were just west of the border on the Scottish side and therefore merely exercising our right to roam. Instead of berating us, the man politely offered us some plums. Being our first taste of food since breakfast, this was an offer we couldn’t refuse.
Ambling on further, we passed a lime-kiln and then through a cutting until the trail, although still very clear to follow, became an overgrown ‘no man’s land’ between two fields. Returning to the ‘station’, we then checked out the opposite direction, and armed with an Ordnance Survey map, we were able to work out more or less the exact point at which we had passed into England and had instantly become criminal trespassers!
Much as it was tempting to continue (illegally) along this trackbed back past Wark, to discover if one could actually walk across the impressive viaduct we saw earlier, we had to move on. So it was back into Scotland, back into the little green hatchback and back onto the main drag to continue to the town of Kelso.
My father was already intent on getting the next night’s board sorted, so we drove right into the centre which seemed to comprise of a congested square. The parking situation was not conducive, so we bridged the river again and pressed on to Jedburgh.
To our left the border now runs close to, and often right over, all the peaks along the northern edge of the Cheviot hill range; The Curr (1850ft/564m), The Schil (1985ft/605m), The Cheviot (2680ft/816m), Wyndy Gyle Hill (2035ft/620m) and Hungry Law (1640ft/500m) out to Carter Bar, where we would find ourselves tomorrow. The only way to really scrutinise its course would be ‘extreme rambling’. If this is your cup of tea, may I recommend the excellent paperback, ‘Mud Sweat and Beers?’ The author is an awfully nice fellow, you know.
Jedburgh proved to be an interesting town which welcomed us with its colourful shop frontages of red, orange and blue leading up to the main square, the centrepiece of which is an ornamental fountain. Magnetised to the nearest pub, we relaxed with a beer until a mobile phone rang. A man nearby answered the call and was seemingly spurred into some kind of begging mission. We were his first targets, as he desperately needed a small cash injection to get home.
Being tight-fisted Englishmen, we didn’t respond in the desired way. The next minute the England cricket match that my dad had become engrossed in was turned off. I don’t think the two incidents were connected, but you never know!
Personally, this didn’t bother me. Much as I like to see cricket being played (it is after all the quintessential English sport) I tend to hop to the ‘slow-drying emulsion’ channel whenever it appears on television.
I think modern concentration spans have done for our national game as much as anything. Why spend all day out in the field when you can have a game of soccer and be back in the bar in ninety minutes? I can’t say that I am any different, in fact I’d rather skip the football match as well and get straight to the real ale.
Draining our glasses, we were led through a hatch in the bar and up two flights of stairs to assess our room for the night. Once we’d moved the car into the private parking area which was accessed via a narrow archway under the upper floor, the first thing my dad did was turn the cricket back on.
My own energy levels seemed to be quite high, and a period of ‘comatose’ watching England get whipped in slow motion did not seem appealing, so I decided to take a solo wander round Jedburgh.
As I emerged into the great outdoors, I vaguely remember a sign along the lines of ‘Sir Walter Scott woz ‘ere’ on one of the buildings. The author of ‘Ivanhoe’, who hailed from Edinburgh, extensively travelled the border country, so this was highly likely to be true.
The architecture in the main north-south street is of the more traditional stone kind, and there is a steep climb southward to a church that gazes back down into the heart of the town from the summit. I walked all the way up to the front door to maximise my overview of the place before turning around.
Doing a ‘Grand old Duke of York’ again, I wandered back to the inn, where my father was now ready to return to the wheel and head for the ruins of nearby Cessford Castle. The reason for this little excursion was that a Scottish drinking buddy of his down in Kent had regularly stated that this is his ancestral home. Like a macaroni pie I once had, we wanted to know if this should be taken with a pinch of salt.
We took the lanes eastward out of the town in the direction of the hills, traversing bleak, open countryside which resembled moorland. A veil of drizzle hung in the air, and we left our automotive cocoon to follow a track with a central line of grass to get as close as possible to this large, square, stone relic which stood in the centre of a field, surrounded by scaffolding.
An information board informed us that its construction was probably begun by Andrew Ker circa 1450. The Kers were basically a reiving family (whilst the Kerrs, another branch of the family, eventually became dukes as a result of shopping their plundering relatives).
Henry VIII wasn’t a great fan of all this reiving lark, as you would imagine. He was having none of it, and English forces attacked the castle in 1519 and finally brought about its demise in 1545 just to reinforce the King’s stance on buildings financed by ill-gotten gains. In contrast today, its renovation is the result of a heritage lottery fund grant.
As for this chap’s claim to this historic structure down in Kent, I will allow that debate to take place over the bar at his Romney Marsh pub.
We drove along to the little village of Morebattle, and though it did have its own pub, we reneged to Jedburgh choosing to dine in the familiar surroundings of our inn.
There were two dining rooms, one ‘smoking’ and one ‘non’. When asked where we wanted to eat, my dad responded with the former before I could so much as squeeze out an ‘n’. Having ordered our haggis and gravy with ‘neeps’, we merrily supped our beer as people began to drift in. My father wasted no time in pointing out that the ‘fresh air’ lounge was empty.
Now, our visit was some months before the smoking ban came into effect. Quite how much the decline of pubs has been caused by this, and how much it is due to supermarket offers, modern ‘social networking’ lifestyles and the general economic downturn is hard to assess.
The sad fact is that these days people are far more easily lured by a cheap deal in a multi-national chain than they are by the ancient art of conversation. In Scotland a levy of 40p on every unit of alcohol regardless of its initial price is being considered. In early 2009 a similar motion was dismissed as being too damaging to the already crucified pub trade in England.
I have always been bemused as to why tax policies have been so harsh on pubs (generally a controlled environment for a social drink) compared to supermarkets (wa-hey, let’s take this stash home and get sloshed!). My mind, ever affable to a bit of conspiracy theorising, can only deduce that it’s because pubs are places where people can speak about issues such as politics. Whilst they can’t stop us expressing anti-elitist sentiment, they can make it jolly difficult by taking away the one place where it is socially acceptable.
So come on people – get off that keyboard, learn to make conversation and support your local. Giving up social interaction because you have to pop outside for a cigarette seems to me to be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Here endeth the lesson.
And while you’re at it, get a wee drop o’ haggis down you whenever you can. You canna beat it, man!
The day began with a wander round Jedburgh. As my father had eschewed the notion of exploring the town in favour of watching the ‘leather on willow’ thing yesterday, this was his first real look at the place.
Taking in the ruined abbey, we observed a two-tiered line of arches along its longest wall and an ornamental circle at one end, which would have no doubt been filled with stained glass in the halcyon days of it having a roof. There was scaffolding beside the square tower at the opposite end, so at least some restoration was taking place.
The abbey was founded by David I of Scotland and built with Saxon co-operation in 1118 and, in spite of its decline brought about by the attacks of Henry VIII in 1523 and 1545, it was used as the local church until 1875. Some of the aforementioned Kerrs are buried here.
Another site of interest in Jedburgh is the former lodgings of Mary Queen of Scots. It was in 1566 that the tragic queen stayed in this house which was owned by the Kerr family.
And so it was time to bid this charming border town goodbye and head south on the A68 towards Carter Bar, where the road climbs steeply, winding furiously with its course contorted by the gradient. At the highest point of the pass is the all-important layby, with the obligatory bagpiper squeezing out Highland anthems beside a large stone adorned with a single word – ‘SCOTLAND’.
This was a far more impressive entry point to the country than either Gretna Green or the A1 above Berwick-upon-Tweed, for the scenery here is truly wild, with stunning panoramas on both sides. Today the views were tinted a hazy blue by the grey, cloudy sky.
There is a beacon here in the form of a black metal basket atop a cylindrical pole (not suitable to be added to our lighthouse tally!). This was constructed by engineering students at Border College as part of a chain of beacons to mark the advent of the single European market. Just as yesterday’s peace-loving hippies are today’s money-mad ‘fat cats’, these students may well be members of the SNP today (read ‘UKIP’ for those from south of the border)!
This beacon was lit on Hogmanay in 1992.
My dad noticed a gap in a wooden fence nearby, with the long grass flattened on either side. He wittily declared this to be ‘the reivers pathway’. Little did he know that an ‘official’ footpath called The Reivers Way actually exists, running predominantly in a north-south direction throughout Northumberland.
We certainly wouldn’t have been mistaken for raiders though, because we had our passports. Yes, an enterprising charity for a community hall had produced pocket-sized blue ‘Visitor to Scotland’ passes containing a Burns-esque piece of prose about a Scotsman’s pride in his kilt. Other verses imaginatively depicted haggis wandering free at night-time and eulogised the ‘pleasures’ of the bagpipes and ‘whisky without the e’. The notion of watering down the ‘national drink’ with lemonade or ginger ale was dismissed as ‘pollution, substitution and only fit to scorn’. Wow.
Having contributed a small sum to this cause, we were now honorary Scotsmen, but whilst I was happy to be photographed by the ‘Scotland’ stone, my father’s half-Yorkshire blood made him to insist upon posing next to the less crowded ‘England’ stone instead.
From here, the border itself continues its rugged route over Carter Fell (1945ft/593m) and Peel Fell (1975ft/602m) to be crossed by just one lane that we would find ourselves driving along later.
For now, we continued south-eastward on the main A68. Our next port of call was to be the largest forest in Britain, and one of the largest man-made forests in the whole of Northern Europe. Its name is Kielder.
We found ourselves traversing a completely uninhabited gravel track, which ran uninterrupted for around 14 miles. Although this was hardly akin to venturing into the Australian outback (where things become so bleak that even the car radio fails to pick up any signals), we were glad that we had exchanged the ‘Yukmobile’ for something a little more reliable. Indeed, if we were to break down half way along the track’s south-west-bound course, it would be a two-hour walk either way to reach any kind of habitation.
As we motored into the evergreen forest, the trail climbed and then descended panoramically into an area of heathland, which resembled an oasis of barrenness fenced in by distant swathes of dense conifers. As the gradient took hold of the car, my father proudly proclaimed that we had just broken 25mph as though we had just gone supersonic!
Such terrain is not something we are used to in this country, and a friend of mine informs me that he was sent on a 100-mile gravelly detour of this kind whilst touring the north-east coast of Australia. This was as a result of Route 1 (which wends its merry way right around the world’s largest island and smallest continent), being closed. If you can imagine breaking down fifty miles deep in the jungle, you’ll see that there really is no comparison at all.
After twisting around some isolated farm buildings, we found ourselves among a network of lanes around Kielder village, which is something of a tourist attraction, with its picnic spots and castle served by a series of terraced car parks. Finding our way to a little shop, we purchased a Scotch mutton pie, to be broken in half and shared, plus of course, the standard issue milk drink – you just cannot beat it!
This small village is something of a dead-end, perched at the north-west end of the largest man-made reservoir in Western Europe – Kielder Water. The only through route runs on the southern side of the lake and is numbered ‘C600’.
Now, ‘C’ road (and indeed ‘D’ road) classifications are only used by local authorities and therefore the numbers don’t follow any national system, so these are doled out arbitrarily by councils. Coming across such numerical codes on a map or signpost is the road-hunter’s equivalent of striking gold!
Containing our excitement, we noted that this particular route was a faster conduit than your average ‘C’ road, with swooping curves cutting through the foothills around the waterway, and a width that would make most ‘A’ roads green with envy. However, at either end of the reservoir it reverts back into a single-track lane. You could say that it has the tarmacadam equivalent of bipolar disorder.
The more modern part of the road dates from the time that the area was flooded, putting paid to the railway which ran straight through the heart of the forest. This would have been a completely different line to the redundant trackbed that we looked at yesterday, for we were now a considerable distance further south.
We drove slowly over the dam at the east end of the reservoir and admired the view of the North Tyne river valley below. Leaving the car and diving up the bank into the trees, our actions must have appeared more like an emergency call of nature. Our aim was merely to search for evidence of the old rail line which once ran up here from Hexham. Neither of us were convinced that the dead-straight trail through the evergreen forest was it.
Returning to the C600, we retraced our route past the reservoir and then bypassed Kielder village. Beyond this we were immersed in a rugged landscape of grazing land and lonely farms. The old railway trackbed was much more obvious here, as it tackled the undulating terrain on a modest embankment to our left.
Crossing back into Scotland, our bleak little lane curved southward to run parallel with the border to our left, now hidden from view by the peaks of Loch Knowe (1322ft/403m), and further on, Wilson’s Pike (1355ft/413m). The border eventually settles along the course of Kershope Burn, (a burn is a stream), to meander past the relatively meagre Bunkbonny Height (900ft/275m) and flow into the River Esk, all the way out to Solway Firth just south of Gretna. However, the delineating line has one final trick up its sleeve; it doesn’t follow the river all the way out to sea but heads westward along The Scots’ Dyke, giving the Anglo-Saxons a little more land than would seem logical. We would attempt to assess this later.
Back in deepest Scotland, the trackbed crosses our lane and runs parallel, on our right-hand side as it attempts to climb out of the valley, looking somewhat precarious half way up the bare slope. It is hard to imagine trains thundering along this route without images of them plunging down the hillside as a flurry of juxtaposed carriages.
Ahead was our return to civilization, turning south onto a ‘B’ road towards Newcastleton.
This village is strung out along a dead-straight street, with all the side-roads perpendicular. After the incessant winding of the lanes that we had been using all day, it seemed obvious that this place was different. The reason? – It is a ‘new town’.
The layout reminded me of an elongated version of Winchelsea in East Sussex, a hilltop settlement of 600 inhabitants which claims to be England’s smallest town, with streets consisting of small lanes laid out in a grid pattern, like a Mediaeval prototype of Milton Keynes. Newcastleton’s birth was much later however, in 1793, as a planned town by the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch.
This little town was buzzing with activity due to a country fair taking place just up the road. Lured into a hotel, we soon found ourselves ensconced in a light, airy conservatory bar. Ambient music wafted from the speakers, as the people, seated at unnaturally high round tables, rushed the barman off of his feet. As there clearly wasn’t a free minute for him to show us a room, we did what any sane person would do, and bought a pint.
Gradually the mélée died down, and eventually we were shown a suitable room with twin beds, a television and a door leading to a mysterious staircase leading downwards. This appealed to two lighthouse fanatics who had recently become ghost hunters.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but once we had transferred our baggage from the car, I felt compelled to investigate, stepping tentatively down the dark stairway into the ether. Pushing the door open at the bottom, I discovered nothing more exciting than a boiler room!
This open-plan arrangement was still a little disconcerting though. It seemed unlikely that the only access to the boiler would be via our bedroom, so being accosted in the middle of the night by a member of staff who had quaffed one whisky too many and stumbled up the mystery staircase seemed just about possible. Worst still, I could imagine being rudely awakened (and I emphasise the ‘rudely’) by some wannabe Gordon Ramsay who had strayed in there from the kitchen during an expletive-ridden tirade.
As an aside, can you name any other civilian job where it is considered acceptable to ‘F and blind’ at your underlings apart from working in a kitchen? Me neither!
I once had to chauffeur an infinitely more polite TV cook, (famed for a programme called ‘Two Fat Ladies’), to a literary festival from Folkestone railway station in Kent. She was understandably not over-enamoured with her epic train journey down from Edinburgh.
My mother pointed out to me that in the following week’s Western Daily Press, there was a small paragraph about the book she had clearly been there to promote, whilst the humble driver had secured a double-page-spread on his tome about visiting lighthouses. ‘Little victories,’ as Fletcher used to say in ‘Porridge’.
When the smug satisfaction had died away some time later, I had a dream. It was a peculiar scenario involving catching a train back home to Kent from Thurso – the most northerly station in Britain. And who should be on this train but Clarissa Dickson Wright? Yes, the only ‘haunting’ this ghost hunter was going to experience was by TV cooks in my dreams.
Anyway, I digress. It was time to examine that irascible border again.
Driving southward into the open countryside, the road began to reintroduce curves into its course after the first mile. We hit the A7 at Canonbie, glimpsing at the River Esk snaking around to our left. Shortly after crossing the border into England, but not the river, we hooked a right, into an area of flat, unremarkable farmland. A rusty signpost at the end of the lane enticed us with arcane sounding destinations such as ‘Englishtown’ and ‘Tower of Sark’.
Hanging another right, we passed a graveyard, but by the time we were entering a small hamlet, we knew that we had crossed back into Scotland and had completely missed The Scots’ Dyke. Usually spelt ‘dike’, this is a three and a half mile long earthwork constructed in 1552 to mark the border.
An old man was pacing towards the churchyard with his dog, so we made a U-turn and followed him. Helpfully responding to our peculiar request to see The Scots’ Dyke, he led us into the graveyard, which he referred to as Church Bank Head. Large musty looking stones protruded from the rough grass in a ramshackle fashion, and the dull sky gave this eerily quiet place an air of mystery. At the side of the graveyard behind a metal rail was a tree-lined embankment.
So was this unspectacular bank The Scots’ Dyke?
Looking at our maps we weren’t too sure, but our friend’s unrelated story was interesting nonetheless. Apparently a gravestone had recently appeared from out of the ground bearing the name of the head of one of the border clans. He mentioned a depiction of an arm on the stone, so we assumed that it belonged to a late member of the Armstrong clan. This tale of a grave long-buried by the encroaching grass suddenly pushing itself up to impress its name upon future generations seemed like a modern day Celtic legend. We felt as though we were back on the supernatural trail once again. An interesting bit of history for you now:
Johnnie Armstrong ran a string of protection rackets but came a cropper in 1529, when he was invited to the court of James V of Scotland, only to find himself hanged along with 36 others.
Later in 1603, the Armstrongs decided that a raid south into Cumbria would be a fitting way to celebrate James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England. King James was unimpressed and ordered the Armstrong towers, which covered this area of Southern Scotland to be pulled down.
Returning with heads full of ghostly ideas, we regained our bearings from the road atlas and followed a lane from Evertown back towards the A7 just north of the border, but there was nothing that really resembled a dyke or a clear delineation between the two nations. We simply got stuck behind a tractor, diminishing any chance of us attending the fair back in Newcastleton in order to make use of the WC before the exodus of revellers began.
So you now find us pounding the streets of Newcastleton on foot again in search of a lavatory. Funny how things always get back to scatological intentions!
During these wanderings we were reunited with the old trackbed, for the line used to run behind the village on a tree-lined embankment.
Back at the central square, just off of the main street, we eventually found ourselves seated at a pub bench outside an inn near our hotel.
A gang of noisy young people on the next bench along ventured inside one by one to try to secure an illicit drink. Like all good fairs, it seemed that Newcastleton’s was followed by a community booze up, and these youngsters didn’t wish to be excluded by some petty age restriction dreamed up in Whitehall! Whether or not they achieved their aim is a matter for conjecture.
Our aim was now ‘food’ and we returned to our hotel to place an order. We soon discovered that we were in esteemed company. We had learned a little about the Scottish Border clans today, and sitting next to us were members of the Elliot clan who were staying here with a view to attending a family church service in an old castle several miles up the road the next morning. And very welcoming they were too. Indeed, they were the friendliest people we had met on our Caledonian travels.
Meanwhile, seated around a table by the window were a large group of young females who had crossed over from Gretna, sharing a jug of some brightly coloured concoction, no doubt containing the energy stimulant Red Bull.
For dinner we were ushered into a quiet room. If my memory serves me well, I recall tucking into a fine medium rare steak and enjoying a glass of Rosé with it.
Having spent half an hour in soundproofed seclusion, we returned to the bar to take our place with the Elliots, some of whom were now sampling the whisky the only way that one can do sensibly – with long dry pauses in between.
Clambering up to our room, I began thinking about the secret passage again, and wondered if it might be wise to copy James Bond in the film where Sean Connery plucks a hair from his head, moistens it and places it over a closed door, returning later to check for any evidence of an intruder. To my mind, the hair would have dropped to the floor as soon as it dried out anyway, but I expect a paragraph about the science of surface tension in moisture would have spoiled Ian Fleming’s story somewhat!
No, there would be no such subtlety in guarding against some erroneous chef stumbling up the mysterious staircase to our room; I simply placed a case in front of the door. Should the sound of the door hitting this awaken me, I would be ready to grab my PPK from under the pillow and fire a few silenced shots at the intruder across my father’s bed.
When I finally got to sleep, I recall muttering something out loud at the tail end of a dream. My father made a half-asleep acknowledgment to this and returned to his own dreaming. The case hadn’t moved.
The night passed without further event.
At breakfast, the Elliots were all clad in their own distinctive tartan, in readiness for their family gathering. My father, impressed by the easy-on-the-eye light-blue shade, broke the ice with them, using an introductory phrase that you don’t hear all that often, namely ‘That’s a nice tartan.’
Having cleared our plates, we popped outside so he could inhale some nicotiana horribilis while I took the healthy option of a single extra strong mint.
As we sat on the bench, a lady was sweeping the path nearby with a bucket of water and a broom. It then became clear precisely what was being swept away – vomit! Perhaps those loud youngsters had managed to get their hands on some alcohol after all.
Moving swiftly on, we decided to follow the Elliots, as the castle where the ceremony would have been taking place seemed worth a visit. I say ‘would have’ because the service had now been relocated elsewhere due to inclement weather. A relentless drizzle hung in the air, and as the castle is sans roof you would be hard pressed to get an entire clan into the spirit of praising the Lord here today.
Hermitage Castle resembles an imposing stone block built in the fourteenth century. It was a border stronghold for 400 years. Today there is no threat of hot coals raining down on you over the parapet, providing you pay your £2.50 to enter of course.
The Elliot connection with Hermitage involves this reiving family being imprisoned here in the 16th century. The 4th Earl of Bothwell, who later married Mary Queen of Scots, was wounded by Little Jack Elliot who was resisting his arrest. Mary was to visit Bothwell at the castle in 1566, hence her journey via Jedburgh and consequent stay there.
The exterior reminded me of the castle in the closing scenes of ‘Monty Python’s Holy Grail’ – a ‘grail’ film that may just contain more elements of truth than Dan Brown’s recent blockbuster ‘The Da Vinci Code’.
Presenting refutable ideas as facts within a story always seems a little sinister to me, but you could argue that it has been going on for several millennia. Oh sorry, I forgot that some of our readers in the States still take the Adam and Eve story literally, and may even think that dinosaur bones were merely ‘planted’ to confuse us. And as for the ‘end timers’ who seek to agitate worldwide tensions in order to accelerate ‘the end of the age’, if you had a brain you wouldn’t be dangerous! These fruit loops have a worrying level of influence across the pond. If they get their way, it really will be a case of ‘Stop the world. Armageddon off!’
I first recall encountering fiction presented as fact in a gangster film which had an opening title sequence stating falsely that all the events depicted were true. Apparently the director later justified this by saying ‘They may as well be true.’ So that makes it OK then!
Then again, does anybody believe Max Bygraves when he states ‘I am that soldier’ at the end of his old hit ‘The Deck of Cards’? Enough said.
There is a large arch which fills one of the walls of Hermitage Castle and one can wander around freely inside. The modern steps onto different levels had less of an impact on the historical vibes than the green plastic sheets surrounding renovation work.
There is even a corner which was used as an oubliette. Captives were thrown down into this small square and simply left to rot. Given that there are no en suite facilities you can begin to imagine how unpleasant this might be. Couple this with John Cleese leaning in and declaring ‘Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries’ and that’s about as grim as things can get!
From here, our quest today was to return to where it all began – Dumfries. Thus, we would complete our circuit of the Scottish Lowlands and return to England enriched and invigorated.
Saturated by the rain, we took our seats in the car and headed off along a narrow lane which runs through a pass, out onto the A7. At this more northerly location the cardinal route was far more scenic than the short section we had traversed yesterday.
As we plunged southward again, the mountains melted into mere hills. We branched westward at Langholm, reaching Lockerbie shortly after. The urge to micturate became a pressing concern again, drawing us drawn towards the industrial estates on the southern side of the town in search of a lavatory.
Although our visit was brief, Lockerbie seemed a pleasant place in spite of the obvious associations it has with the Pan-Am plane disaster.
Our route continued to Lochmaben, which claims to be the birthplace of Robert the Bruce. A statue of him takes pride of place at the centre of the town. More about him later…
A few miles beyond, the ‘A’ road wound down from the hillside providing us with panoramic views of Dumfries. We back on familiar turf.
With car parked and video camera at the ready, the intrepid explorers ventured forth into the main shopping street. It was Sunday, but you would never have guessed this from the bustling folk wandering from store to store, armed with laden carrier bags. This was a far cry from that sabbath we had spent in more isolated longitudes west from here.
Empty consumerism couldn’t have been further from our minds, for we were here to check out something we’d missed the first time around – a plaque at the centre of the town giving distances to various Scottish towns as well as Carlisle, London and Huntington. This latter choice of destination may seem slightly bizarre, but it is purely down to the fact that the Earl of Dumfries inherited land in the Cambridgeshire town which is perhaps now most famous for being the constituency of former prime minister, John Major.
It was relatively simple to track down this black sign with white lettering, located on the wall of a square clock tower, which forms an island in the middle of the High Street.
Those distances are as follows:
I had at last been confirmed in my suspicion that if a place appears on a direction sign from an unusually long distance, somebody influential is bound to live there.
Unsatiated by a mere list of distances on an old plaque, my father was now in search of what he regards to be a pivotal moment in Scottish history. He had heard that a commemoration exists at the spot in Castle Street where Robert the Bruce stabbed the Red Comyn in 1306, but I imagined this to be a slightly contentious subject. Daringly, my dad sidled up to an elderly gent and asked if he knew of any such thing. The answer was ‘no’, but he did know the story about Robert the Bruce observing the tenacious spider in prison. Who doesn’t?
Our friend rather emphatically declared this inspirational tale to be a myth, and it was with this rather uninspiring conclusion that our mission was accomplished.
We had come to Scotland, first in search of lighthouses and secondly in search of ghosts, castles and old railway lines. Consequently, we had tried to learn much of the rich and bewildering history of this country, with both its struggles with England and the relentless agitation of the border clans and reivers. My father almost gave himself a nervous breakdown trying to find some kind of unifying thread in all of this, but I think, like life itself, history doesn’t always follow a simple course or provide easy answers.
We zipped along the A75, over the border, over the River Esk and onto the glorious M6. We were back in England.
Our final night’s adventure was to take place in the Cumbrian town of Penrith, located almost thirty miles deep into England but nevertheless far enough northward to have been plundered by those omnipresent reivers. As a final thought on the matter, so widespread was this nefarious activity that it took 200 years to put a stop to it.
We used the A6 to reach the town for the simple reason that motorways are, to put it bluntly, very boring. This particular section of Britain’s joint second longest road (289 miles long, just like the A9) is a pretty expedient, traffic-free single carriageway.
We found a guest-house on the south side of Penrith town centre overlooking the A6, and as soon as were we settled in our room the cricket went on, and for once, England were about to beat the Aussies in the Ashes (this was 2005). This is not a joke or a misprint or even a falsehood presented as fact for entertainment; it really did happen! It was the last leg of the final test and this result insured that my father was in a positive frame of mind for the evening, in spite of it being bank holiday weekend and therefore very busy.
The town was warming up, with boozy youths gathering in the streets, like vultures waiting for their moment.
Our first pub was a split-level establishment that had the feel of a chain pub. We reclined on a settee beneath a picture of Richard III, observing the young revellers until it was time for lunch. I ordered the moules mariniere (that’s mussels to you), prompting my father to state that this wouldn’t be very filling. Unperturbed, I was soon hooking the fishy morsels out of their black shells with gusto. Yes, he was back!
Back outside, the alcohol fuelled street-life had reached a new level of noise, so we took a thorough walk to assess things. My father dismissed a pub I spotted down a little alleyway, declaring it a bear-pit on account of it having people in it!
While I stood looking longingly at the quietly happy throng inside, my father walked stoically onward and into a serene looking hotel.
The décor here was nice, with wooden staircases and walls lined with books, but the ambience was too much like a library for me. The low murmur of well-to-do conversation was all pervading. There was not the remotest chance of anybody as friendly as the Elliots lodging a few words into our tired reverie. My father described this as ‘de-stressing’; I described it as ‘sterile’ (although admittedly it did have the edge on a Travel Tavern). Stifling my yawns, we sat in virtual silence, proffering a few words every now and again at this somewhat low-key conclusion to the border country adventure. Our fragmented words vainly attempted to formulate themselves into something concrete, but it was pretty clear that all the action was taking place outside.
Young people from the ‘what you looking at?’ generation were now gathered around Penrith’s central square, shouting indecipherable words at the top of their voices.
Anthropologists have characterised the post-1946 generations as consisting of the baby-boomer generation (including lapsed hippies with dollar signs in their eyes), followed by generations X (cynical), Y (technological) and Z (even more technological). Without wishing to tar everybody with the same brush, it seems to be ‘generation Y’ (born early 1980s to mid 1990s) that appears to currently have the strongest penchant for antagonistic introductions such as ‘What you staring at?’ ‘You want trouble?’ and ‘What’s your problem?’ Maybe it’s just a rite of passage, along with shaving all your hair off!
I have never quite understood this trend either. I mean, you’re going to spend the second half of your life practically bald, so why waste valuable hair when you’re in your prime?
Being born into cynical old ‘generation X’ (born early 1960s to early 1980s), the hostility of both sexes leaves me wondering how on earth anybody since the baby boomer generation has managed to form relationships, especially in England where the only accepted forms of breaking the ice with a stranger are commenting on the weather, asking for directions or complaining about public transport (read Kate Fox’s book ‘Watching the English’ for further insights).
Observing my contemporaries now branching into married life, I am often left wondering if there is a secret sub-clause in British behaviour that allows for a more lengthy exchange that I am unaware of. Just how did my old school-mates bridge the gap from ‘Nice day isn’t it?’ and ‘This train’s been late for three nights running’ to wedding bells and everlasting bliss?
When you are effectively playing ‘catch up’, negotiating the intricacies of human interaction is not made any easier by the deafening media onslaught of love songs, ‘couples only’ events, movies where the only single characters are either figures of fun or deranged psychopaths, ‘single supplements’ for hotel rooms, more love songs, family orientated Christmas marketing for one third of every year, supplements to go on holiday, everything packaged in portions for two or more, even more bleeding love songs, and to top it all, a day designed purely to irritate us – the 45th day of every year – yes, I am talking ‘Valentine’s Day’.
In the spirit of political correctness I now suggest the renaming of this day as ‘Singles Awareness Day’.
Perhaps the biggest comfort for those whose lives don’t quite follow the ‘standard model’ (apart from the fact that my uncle who never married made it to the age of 101), is the Milgram psychological experiment.
This involved people being asked to administer a series of electric shocks, progressively increasing in voltage, to somebody in another room for each incorrect answer given to a series of questions. The wrong answers were given deliberately by actors, along with increasingly terse shouts in response to the imaginary shocks. The frightening thing is that the vast majority of people continued to zap the actors even when they were informed that the voltages were reaching potentially fatal levels, purely because they were instructed to do so by a man in a white coat.
For me, this is justification enough for all my thoughts on conformity, both political and social – conclusive proof that it’s good to question things and it’s not so unhealthy to be different.
Indeed, had I gained the usual set of appeasements early in life (career, marriage, kids, consumerism…), I, like most others, might have dismissed my father’s offer of a jaunt around Scotland’s lighthouses and boundary as ‘bordering on lunacy’ and you would be sitting there reading Dan Brown or something instead! Is that what you want – what you really, really want?
And with that thinly veiled allusion to one of the Spice Girls’ hits, there really is no place to go but back to our hotel room to reflect on our Scottish adventure and dream of a life more ordinary.
But then again, I’m not so sure.
A life more ordinary?
That wouldn’t be very English, would it?
Our journey back to Kent the following day continued down the A6, over the high point of Shap, where there is a stone commemorating those who had died building this road. And, for the sheer hell of it, we used the M62 as our chosen conduit between the M6 and M1. This enabled us to see the highest point on the British motorway network and also the house stuck forever between the two carriageways as an act of defiance dating back to when the road was constructed. Compulsory purchase orders obviously weren’t quite so robust in those days.
We made the entire journey home in one epic sprint, with Scotland seeming like a distant, sparsely populated land once again in just a matter of hours.
To conclude, it is a nation proud of its traditions, as well as the inventions it has given the world. The quintessential commodities like tartan, haggis and ‘whisky without the e’ seem to give the country a distinctive identity. Looking at the lowlands, these are perhaps not as immediately obvious as they might be further north, but those in search of Scotland here can still find them with ease. The majority of tourists will of course head for The Highlands.
You could say that both the lights and the ruined castles we encountered mark a frontier, be it with the sea or a border ever in dispute. But whilst the castles tell of a history of division, the lighthouses illuminate a period of unity, where beacons for navigation performed a vital function for the trade that powered the industrial revolution on both sides of the border.
Since then, times may have changed again, for at the time of writing, there is much talk of Scotland becoming an independent nation, and I wonder how she would compare to European countries of similar populations like Belgium or Holland?
It was on a later trip with my father that I discovered the existence of coffee flavoured ‘Yuk’.
As ever, I ripped the lid off of this delicious milk drink and took a hefty lug. This was followed by a hearty sigh and the staccato exclamation ‘That is good!’
Had we encountered this delicious mix of fair-trade caffeine and Great British milk earlier, this whole mission could have turned out so much different. There would have been no periods of comatose / rigor mortis / narcolepsy for either of us. And with increased concentration, there would have been no missed turnings and definitely no missed lighthouses.
But then it wouldn’t have been quite the same, would it?
As I downed the last dregs, I put the lid on both my empty container and the lighthouse challenge itself.
Indeed, we had ‘milked it’ for all it was worth!
‘The Guinness Book of Answers’ by Norris McWhirter
‘A Traveller’s History of Scotland’ by John Burke
Various websites, notice boards, leaflets and a teacloth!
About Adam Colton
Born in 1975, Adam Colton is a writer of humorous travelogues and short stories from Kent, UK. His first paperback documented an attempt to visit every lighthouse on the mainland coast of England and Wales undertaken with his father, Roger Colton, who published and contributed to the book which was featured on the BBC news to mark National Lighthouse Day and became the subject of a question on the quiz show, University Challenge.
Since then, Adam has straddled the line between documenting his lightly philosophical UK travel escapades and mind-blowing fiction. One of his stories was short-listed for the HG Wells festival’s short story competition. He is also a writer of topical songs, performing as one half of the duo Adam and Teresa, whose song ‘Fat Cats with a Death Wish on the M25’ received airplay on BBC Radio Kent.
If you have enjoyed this book please review it on your favourite online bookstore. Details of other books by Adam Colton are listed below.
England and Wales in a Flash (father and son jaunt around the mainland coast in search of every lighthouse)
Mud Sweat and Beers (two friends hike across Southern England from Kent to Somerset documenting their adventure)
Conundrum (collection of short stories set at iconic Kentish locations with dark twists and dystopian undertones)*
Stair-Rods and Stars (enjoy the positive vibes as our roaming cyclist relishes the rail trails, ale trails, ridgeways and waterways of Southern England)
The father and son team who visited every mainland UK lighthouse in 'England and Wales in a Flash' embark upon a circuit of the Scottish Lowland coast, attempting to repeat the feat north of the border. As they traverse the coastline, they become drawn to the history and heritage of the area and turn their mission inland, along the battle-ridden Scottish border. With comedic and often impassioned musings about modern life, and even the odd bit of conspiracy theory, this humorous adventure should appeal to modern travel readers, looking for a slightly different take on the genre.