The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

Dad never took to classical music, in the early days of television the BBC would make much of orchestral music, well they had to do something with all those musicians in the BBC Orchestra. Something that seemed synonymous with male classical musicians, they would let their hair grow long, at a time when short back and front was the order of the day. This led to dad calling classical music, ‘long hair music’.

My day of departure.

I had gone up the town to buy a couple of gas cylinders for my camp stove. Returning along South Street I passed the hairdressers, devoid of costumers, do I have a haircut, the first since the start of lock-down, or do I buy a fiddle? I went for the haircut. All now ready, van packed, I set off in glorious sunshine, I had picked the time of my departure well, I thought.

I filled the tank before crossing the silver Tay for Dundee, then I followed the coast out to Arbroath intending to set up camp on the promenade, there is nothing like the sound of the sea to soothe and calm the spirit, gee it’s busy here today, best move on. I set out for Brechin and then the B966 for Edzell,

The entrance to this little village is a bit special, once through the arch you are into a street twice as wide expected,

However with Edzell Castle nearby this was possible a very important and busy town in its day. And I believe stagecoaches, required a big turning area.

Edzell had other claims to fame, during the First World War an airfield was established then disbanded in 1919. During 1930 it operated as a civilian airfield, then the RAF moved in once more during the Second World War as a serving and maintenance unit. In the late 1950s I remember the airfield as a car racing circuit, and although I did not see it myself, Jim Clark, the future double GP world champion, won here in June 1959.

The Yanks then moved in, 1960 United States Navy established a global High Frequency Direction Finding, (HFDF) network. 3,000 personnel were station at what was called RAF Edzell, this was at the start of the Cold War. The station closed in October 1997. then came the bill, £4 million from the Central Fund over the next three years by Angus and Aberdeenshire Council to support Edzell and strengthen the local economy following the withdrawal of the US Navy.

I joined the B974 at Fettercairn and climbed up onto Cairn o’ Mount for the night. Tonight was a dark moon and the skies up here were magnificent, stars so close I felt I could have easily reached up and touched them. Orion’s belt shone out bright as did the Plough, called the Big Dipper in the US, and I suppose it does look much more like a big ladle than a plough.

All along the horizon to the east, a band of light from the street lights of Stonehaven and the towns and villages all the way up to Aberdeen, although the towns themselves were out of sight, still their light had found me. With clear skies there was no reflection of the cloud, restricting their light to a bangle of shining silver light. Only a few years ago this would have been bright orange, sodium light, streets lamps are mostly Led light now.

The night was warm so I decamped my fold-up camp chair outside the van and enjoyed this spectacular sky, my camp stove brewing up numerous hot cups of tea. This was most reminiscent of my day’s hillwalking in Scotland’s, big mountains, and big skies at night. A camper van pulled up into waste ground behind me and an ever so friendly dog bound up to me, much to the owners panicking calls for her to return, after a sniff around she bounded off home once more. Next day when I was leaving I saw a child buggy outside the van.

Day two,

Banchory to Bridge of Gairn, this is along the valley of the River Don, and today the river was shrouded in the morning mist, as I travelled on to Tornahaish. climbed upwards was like being in an aircraft bursting through the cloud and into the clear cold, empty skies. I stopped to take a picture of my favourite AA Box.

Dropping down to Cock Bridge once more I saw the mist lying in the valley bottom, lifting as Scots mist will, a willow the wisp at the appearance of the sun,

now you see it now you don’t.

It is a 20% climb out of Cock Bridge and all the way up onto the Lecht. The ski slopes were totally devoid of any snow. All the equipment gave an ugliness to the hillside, out of keeping with natures beauty all around.

I pulled into the little car park at the Well of Lecht, there were two camper vans already here, one still shrouded in blackouts. From the other a Shetland Collie announced my coming, barking madly until admonished by his owner.

The lead mine was established near to the Well of Lecht, between 1730 and 1738. The York Mining company established workings here, on land forfeited (Stolen) by the English government following the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. The ore, both ironstone and manganese ore was taken from the mine by packhorse over the hills to Culnakyle (near Nethy Bridge), there it would be smelted using a plentiful supply of timber from of woodland there. In 1840 the Duke of Richmond reopened the mine, purely as a manganese ore mine, this time the ore was sent down to Newcastle for use in the bleaching trade. At its peak, it employed 63 people, closing again in 1847 when cheap imports of manganese were coming in from Russia.

“Far yi fae?” the elderly man asked me from the window of their van.

“St Andrews” I replied, “And no need to ask where you folks are from”.

He told me they never travel far from the door, but like to get out into the country for a bit, I knew exactly what he was saying. His wife appeared from inside and took her seat, we greeted then their goodbyes. I went on to explore on foot, the old mine, lade and the spill heaps.

Tomintoul, Last time I was up this way I had parked up at the dedicated picnic area just outside the village, I was all on my lonesome, and spent time bathing and feasting and just chilling out, today I would have had difficulty finding a place to park, where had all these camper vans come from. Some old but many brand new and belonging to hire companies, according to the lettering on their outside. More worrying was the English registration plated, Oh No! Could this be an English bank holiday.

On now to Grantown-on-Spey, where I picked up the A95 and went zooming off to Dulnain Bridge and from there I was able to cross over and pick up the A9 for Inverness.

Inverness my old hunting grounds, I parked the van out by the estuary and opposite the docks for my stay over. The bike could now be pressed into service really for the first time apart from in Arbroath when I went into town to do a bit of shopping. Inverness was busy, but there is no better way to get around the town than by bike. I was still very unsure about going into a cafe or restaurant, so just bought some vitals for cooking back at the van.

Day Three,

Up with the larks and headed off down to Drumnadrochit stopping off at Urquhart Castle for breakfast,

Time was my friend as I looked out over the still waters of Loch Ness. I continued my travels along the lochside, turning off at Invermoriston onto the A887 for Kintail, where are all these camper vans coming from? I ask not for the first time.

The A887 takes you all the way along the north side of Loch Cluanie, which is in fact a reservoir, I have never seen the water in the loch so low as today. This is a beautiful road with unrestricted views across the waters to Adnach and Sggurr An Lochain then the mighty mountains beyond. On now past the Five Sisters of Kintail, the road was unusually busy, and every place possible to park had parked vehicles on them was it simply the fine weather that had brought them out in their hundreds, all glad like me to be out of the house and FREE?

At Dornie, the car park at Eilean Donan Castle was full to overflowing with cars, camper vans and motorcycles by the dozens, I crossed the river to the centre at Ardeive, and spend some time just enjoying this superb weather, finding a public toilet that was open was a big bonus. A tour bus pulled in whilst I was there and about half a dozen geriatrics stumbled out, coronavirus has certainly affected the bus tour industry hard, but seems to have worked wonders for the camper van hire industry.

I was determinant to visit Kishorn and Bealach Na Ba so pressed on to Rassal Tornapress where I took the single track road for Bealach Na Ba. What a disaster this was, stopping at ever passing place or simply squeezing passed hire camper vans, whose drivers dare not go to close to the edge at passing places, (thinking of their lost deposit, if the van suffered damage). Rows of cars with cycle carriers had been left down at Rassal Tornapress, with their owners intent of climbing the Bealach Na Ba, mostly on road bikes whose gearing was far too high for comfort on such a climb, most were already red-faced and this was only the start.

It may help to understand why my time at Kishorn was so memorable. The country was in a bad way in the 1970s, and just when oil was discovered in The North Sea. What should have been the bonus of a lifetime for the Labour Party and kept them in power for a generation was handed to Thatcher on a plate, with a no-confidence vote. Maggie would make sure not the unions or anyone else would stop her using the power that came from the oil revenue to shape the country to her Tory ideology of a market-led economy and the devil take the hindmost.

I was lured to Kishorn, with an advert in the Construction News, offering tough men, wages of £300.00 per week (equivalent in today’s money to 2,000.00 per week) for a tough job. Yes, that is how bad wages have become, we made more per hour in 1970 than today’s worker ever will, and no matter how bad things were we did not have food banks. I was still only starting into my thirties at the time, hard work not a problem, I headed north.

It was 1975 when the 150-meter wide dry dock was constructed to build the first layer of the Ninian Central platform, a big concrete saucer-shaped of steel reinforcing and concrete. The work would continue around the clock, 24/7 and for 52 weeks a year. I was working a permanent night shift, two weeks on two weeks off, this suited me fine.

Once the saucer was constructed it would be floated out into the deep waters of the loch, for when completed Ninian would weigh in at 600,000 tonnes and would stand 200 metres tall, but as the structure gained in weight and high it sunk below the water, so only a small part was ever above water. I remember when the saucer was about to be floated out, no one believed it would float, but when the gate was opened to the sea it did floated fine, and was towed out to the deep sheltered waters of the loch. Or 16-hour shift would now start and finish with a half-hour ferry ride.

In the picture you will see a collar around the top of the structure being constructed, that was a moving shutter. The shutter moved constantly and once the pore had started it could not be stopped for anything. And there were times when we had to stay on a few extra days at the end of our two weeks stint, for this reason. So many stories can be told during my eight years spent at Kishorn. We worked hard in all conditions and were well paid for that. It has always stuck in my head if you pay people well they will get the job done. Money has always been made round to go round if you give money to workers s/he will spend that money in the economy, and help the country by giving a big bite of their hard-earned cash to the government by way of taxation. A great economy starts with good wages, alas since Maggie Thatcher all that changed to her market-driven economy, trickle-down economy and the Tory ideology of ‘work old horse and you’ll get corn’ but only in the quantity we begrudgingly give you.

I tried to get into the Dry Dock at Kishorn, just for old time sake, but only managed as far as the gatehouse, ho-hum. Still climbing the Bealach Na Ba, I was able to stop and looking down snapped off a couple of pictures of part of a rig being dismantled in the dry dock. My photographs are not the best, my camera does not do long-distance shots.

This was crazy the amount of traffic going up and down this road. At the top, I stopped made lunch and when there was a lull in the traffic made my escape back down to Rassal Tornapress. From here I travelled up Glen Torridon, passing the mighty Beinn Eighe. At Kinlochewe I had intended to head up the beautiful Loch Maree, but nothing could persuade me to spend another minute in this traffic jam, with an ever conceivable place to park, even the smallest car of the van, now taken up by tourists to the area today. Is this the start of England’s most recent invasion of Scotland? I headed East once more and parked up by the Cromarty Firth, I freed myself from the driving seat and prepared food. How to time the perfect boiled eggs, simply put on a Roberta Flack CD and listen to her “killing me softly with his song”. After egg and salad, I headed out on the bike for a bit of exercise, thankful for a bit of peace and quiet.

Homeward Bound

It was looking as if there might a change in the weather but still very warm for the time of the year, very much an Indian Summer. After breakfast I tided up, which is difficult in such a confined space, dismantling the camp bed did help and tucked it away for another day. Made everything secure and hit the A9 for Perth, two hours away. Off at J9 and onto Aberargi and Abernethy and all the way into Cupar and home.

The trip was not the one I had planned, I had not expected the traffic that was on the roads, and still have no idea if it was an English bank holiday or just that so many people having been cooped up for so long, had taken advantage of the fine weather, they like I, just wanted to get away, and now that travelling abroad was a no-no, they had all decided to come to Wester Ross.

I can only imagine how bad it must have been in Skye. Maybe Oor Nicola should reimpose the bridge toll (at around £50) for all but inhabitants and deliveries to the island, it it did not curtail the flow, at least it might pay for the damage the tourists are doing.

The trip was a strain and tiring for me, I pushed on where at another time I would have dilly-dallied, simply because of all the tourists. But for all that, when I returned home, showered, shaved, made myself a proper cooked meal, I felt refreshed. I was now able to catch up with the news, which had not changed much since I went off, other than things are not getting any better.

I think the Tories will hang it all around the neck of Boris Johnston, like an Albatross, and try telling the public it was all the fault of an incompetent leader, but all is now well, ‘Under New Management’ with the band playing ‘Believe it if you like’.

Strange when I lay in bed that first night back it felt like I had just returned from a sea trip, I was still in motion. I slept sound until 10 am the following day and felt so good the next morning, refreshed and reinvigorated. I believe I had been suffering a little from the isolation during the pandemic in that I was frightened to go out of the building, other than on my own with my bike, I have always worn a mask outside the building from the earliest days of lockdown, even if only going up the street to the shops. Shopping was always early before the shop officially opened (Aldi lets us oldies in half an hour before opening time, gives us a chance to wander around, wondering what we came in for). Sadly I see no hope of this pandemic coming under control anytime soon. So many people out in crowded streets, in close proximity to one another, no attempt at social distancing and no mask-wearing in evidence. Someone is going to have to get a grip of the situation or this is going to spread like wildfire once more, the country in lock-down by default.

It’s all the fault of themessempee, the Unionists will cry.

 Seems the long-distance weather forecast was spot on, so I will be leaving for Wester Ross today for a week cycling and sightseeing, therefore I will be off the radar for a few days. I still wish to cycle to Cape Wrath (which is Danish for a turning point, I have been told), but this will be dependent on whether I can get a ferry over the Kyle of Durness, fingers crossed. Still, there is much more to see, up that way, Smoo Caves for one, the first abseil I ever made was here at Smoo Caves, some of the caves have collapsed in on themselves, so you can drop into them from the top, great fun. Then Ben Hope, the most northerly Munro in Scotland, I have walked from Ben Hope to the most southerly Munro, Ben Lomond, lost a good few ponds on that trip, I was so hungry all the way, since I was burning up calories quicker than they could be replaced.

Torridon, Loch Maree and the great Beinn Eighe. Dropping down to the Applecross peninsular, I just have to ride the Bealach Na Ba.

I spend almost eight years up here at Kishorn, in the 1970s we were constructing the Ninian Central Platform, the biggest, movable, floating concrete structure in the world at that time. The conditions at first were harsh, but once the camp was up and ready for us it was the best job in the world. I was working 16-hour permanent night shift on a two-week rotation (some time we worked past that dependent on the pour) but the pay packet made it all worthwhile. I was now able to full-fill a lifetime ambition to buy a brand new BMW R80RT and on my downtime take off for Europe and travel extensively, living it up in B&B no roughing it in those days.

Eilean Donan Castle, Glen Shiel and the Five Sisters of Kintail, it was over a Christmas holidays that myself and two others took on the sisters, we ascended at the hill of the Spanish Mercenaries to reach the ridge and walked west, bad choice it was blowing a gale up there and into our faces. The rain was horizontal at times, I found an old plastic fertilizer sack, cut three holes in it and pulled it over my head and stuck my arms through the other two holes, helping to keep out that lazy wind, you know the one, so lazy that did not bother to go around you.

So many memories I wish to re-kindle over this autumn break, sadly my camera is little use at big landscapes, then no camera will recreate the beauty of the highlands. So that’s it, see you all when I return with stories aplenty to tell. Keep well and keep the peddle turning.     

I listened to Martyn Whittock who has written a book called ‘Trump Puritan’ he was telling us – ‘at first Americans was seen as only supporting Israel, now America see themselves as aligning with destiny by supporting Israel’ and explained to us why Trump is seen, by Americans, as a king from the Old Testament. It is all in their DNA we were told, from the time of the second generation that came to America after those on the Mayflower, 400 years ago, and set up their New Jerusalem. Really interesting thesis, I will get the book and try to understand it more. If I have it right, what Martin was saying, many in America see Trump as their saviour, really. I have said all along don’t write Trump off for a second term.

Been out of the picture for a day or two, all down to me walking the Fife Coastal Path, well a wee bit of it anyway. The Fife Coastal Path, can not be ridden and in places it is not even possible to walk it. When I lived in Elie, Tim and I would walk the path in that area most every day. Either out to St Monance and beyond or west to Lower Largo, then to Upper Largo, where we would catch the bus home. Although these days seem like only yesterday, I am not the man I was 10 years ago, something I found out to my cost on the very first day out.

I caught the X60 to Leven and walked back to Elie (around 10 miles by road) on the first day. X60 back home. Next day Elie to Anstruther (Around 6 miles by road) on my third and last day Anstruther to Crail (10 miles by road) from there the bus home. I did intend to go back down to Crail today and walk into St Andrews (10 miles by road) but my body said enough is enough.

I enjoyed it but it was a gruelling task, however it was for a purpose. When I go off on my next adventure I intend to go walking in the foothills to see some of the beauty of Scotland that can not be seen from the road, this will require a bit of serious walking. It is one thing walking on metaled road and pavement, quite another along heather tracks.

I had even contemplated climbing a Munro, just for old times sake. Getting up there would not be the problem, getting back down again would, my knees take it ill out going downhill these days. No more running off the hills for me.

The weather was good to me little wind, although this is less of a problem when walking, still it is always better to have the wind on your back whatever you are doing. I loved being back down by the shore, I never tire of that. When I reached Kincraig I did intend to traverse the Chain Walk but the tide was coming in fast so it would have been a bit foolhardy. In past blogs, I have spoken much about this coast so no point in repeating myself here. It is not a strenuous walk by any stretch of the imagination for anyone reasonably fit, and for us others, well we just have to take it at our own pace.

My list of things to do before I depart is growing longer, gas for the stove, check over and wash the van, fill up with fuel, water and don’t forget the tyres. Set up the solar panel to re-charge the battery that will power my laptop, DVD player and ………….. the number of things that need to be on charge these days. Strange in the 1940s-1950s poverty was going without meals, patched clothing and having to wear shoes you could feel stones through the soles ……….. (I remember my Roman Catholic friend telling me how, when they were children, they would make a game out of seeing how many people had holes in their shoes, when they knelt to pray). In today’s world poverty is defined as living without a washing machine, television and a mobile phone. “If I give you the sun, would you then want the moon and stars too?”

Late to rise, rushing out the door to catch my bus, with no time to get on the internet first thing this morning.

My menaces has always, and will always be headwinds, the older I get the more troublesome they become, so when the weatherman told us that the winds of the past few days would decrees, no one was happier than I, plans were made.

Earlier today I stowed my bike in the hold of the Glasgow bus and pressed my bus pass into service once more. Less than one hour later I was disembarking in Glenrothes, the start of today’s foray into the Lomond hills. It was an easy ride over to Leslie then onto a little unclassified road that takes you over the bealach between west and east Lomond. The road up is not all that steep and with many false summits you get a chance to draw breath on the little flats as you clime. The day was not the best for sightseeing and since most of those sights will be behind you anyway, you have little option but to just to keep pressing on ever upwards. I stopped half way up to look down onto the Ballo and Holl Reservoirs, before plodding on. As you reach the top of the pass the woodland become thicker an although clear felling has taken place here in the past new self seeded trees have grown up to take their place. As you reach the hollow between the peaks there is a car-park and what looks like toilet block, here numerous signs pointing you onto paths taking you either onto the east or west Lomond Hill. Over the top, now if you are familiar with this road I’m sure it would be a big weeeeeeeeeeeee all the way down, what is a much steeper side of the hill, and all the way into Falkland, but I was devoid of such knowledge and the road was narrow, potholed and dank, so I was taking it carefully today.

Falkland is like no other town in Fife it has that Brig of Done feel about it, its ill-shaped homes spilling out and encroaching at every angle into the narrow streets. All finding their way into the town square, dominated by a church and then the Palace itself. There was a castle here before the palace, that was home to the Mac Duff family, whose head was the Thane, later Earl of Fife. The town and palace are worth spending time exploring, however today the Palace was closed to visitors.

Out of Falkland and on into Freuchie (don’t you just love that name), all I remember about Freuchie is that it had a great cricket team at one time and played for Scotland in some championship or other. I carried on the road to Langdyle, turning left just after the farm and heading along the ridge road for Craigrothie, it is years since I was up this way and I had forgotten how hilly it is. Down into Ceres, Pitscottie and home.

I have always been known as a hill climber and endurance rider rather than a sprinter, but alas I have added a few stone since those days.

I no longer really enjoy driving, it is a convenient way to get from A to B and the van will give me shelter for the night, and that is about it. There is so much I still wish to see, and travelling by bus with the bike in the boot works well for me. However, I can only do so on the big intercity buses the small rural buses are a no-no. Now that coronavirus looks to be with us for a wile, I am seriously looking at a lightweight folding bike that I can easily carry onto bus or train. And one in particular has caught my eye, it is made from carbon fibre and is a true featherweight, and of course, since it is the one that I fancy, very expensive, ho-hum.

My ride today was not all that far in miles but a lot of hard work went into climbing up hills and down dales. This is what makes it so worthwhile for me, awaken that sense of achievement, and like Oliver, will always leave me asking for more. Keep the peddles turning.

 I do grieve the passing of the working men’s clubs. They were a very integral part of our society, bringing people together, places for picking up gossip and where important information was shared, they were also the kindergartens for new bands and artists. The banter was very special too. Stories were told that may have been events of the day or a special memory of an absent friend, When the clubs went so did the heart of the community.

One lad, I remember well from those days was an ex-soldier called Dave, he had a heart with a dagger driven thought it tattooed on his upper arm. Dave, you see, had been a member of an elite commando forces during the war, and the teller of the tallest tales you ever did hear.

“Well, you all know I do a bit of fishing”, he began.

“I was fishing this day in a favourite spot of mine, I shan’t tell you where that was, a good fisherman never does, when I heard this voice behind me so I turned around. There was this gentleman half running towards me. He was dressed in plus fours, tweed jacket and had a fore and aft cap on his head. He was in a right old state waving his crummockck in the air and shouting”.

“Hey, you there, I say you there” he was calling from the distance, “you can’t fish here” he told me.

“Well I put my rod down and came over to meet with him, and I told him. Me, fought in two world wars, up to my eyes in muck and bullets and you tell me, I can’t fish here?”

It was then I took out my packet of cigarettes, and as I would for anyone, I shook one from the packet and offered it up to him.

He had stopped his carry on by now and happily took the cigarette from the packet, then he asked,

“Have you always smoked Woodbine cigarettes?”

“Oh yes, a great little cigarette” I told him.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked

“No,” said I, “I don’t believe we have ever met before”

“Well let me introduce myself” and he stuck out his hand for me to take, “I’m W.D. and H.O. Wills” he said.

“And you know what he told me? I can come and fish there anytime I like”.   

 I was sitting at my computer on Wednesday when a message popped up on the screen from Elie weather, to tell me that not only would it be turning colder but the weather would deteriorate over the week, so better get your skates on.

Thursday morning I stuffed the bike in the boot of the Glasgow bus from St Andrews and pressed my bus pass into service, for a trip to Halbeath park and ride.

The sky was overcast but the thin cloud cover seemed high, more unwelcome, was the low bank of fog around Lochore Meadows as we passed.

The air was cold and I was glad of my woolly hat pulled down over my ears as I set off for Hill of Beath then onto Kelty where I joined the B996 for Kinross. By the time I had reached Lochleven’s lochside ‘my tiny hands were frozen’ but no Rodolfo singing ‘Che gelida manina’.

I would have like to go out to the island where Mary, Queen of Scots, was held prisoner but was foiled by coronavirus once more. I chained up my bike at the boathouse and set off along the path for Queen Mary’s Gate,

a family of swans were preening themselves by the jetty where Mary landed.

Mary made a lot of bad choices in her life, mostly in picking husbands. The end came at Carberry Hill, near Musselburgh, east of Edinburgh. Not much of a battle really, the two armies, that of the Confederate Lords and Mary’s troops were about equal in number. Mary was indecisive, neither side really wanted to fight and kill their own countrymen. Mary decided to negotiate with the Confederate Lords rather than risk a battle which would have resulted in significant bloodshed. In the end, all she did was traded her freedom for Bothwell’s.

Mary had expected to be treated with respect by the Confederate Lords, not a hope in hell, Scotland at that time was much like Afghanistan today, a collection of greedy warmongering war-lords. Mary was taken back to Edinburgh where she was greeted by a jeering crowd rather than the cheering crowed that she might have expected.

Mary was a most unlucky queens, married to a week sickly child (king of France) with a built-in, watertight prenuptial agreement. When he died, there was not a lot going for her in France, so she came to Scotland to claim her rightful inheritance as Queen of Scotland. Alas, she was Catholic in a country that had given up the old religion. She also had a strong claim to the English crown, therefore danger from both camps. But what were the Confederate Lords to do with Mary, after all, she was still their queen. Mary was taken to Lochleven, where they shipped her out to a small castle on the island, out of sight and out of mind, and crowned James V1, king of Scotland.

Mary already knew Lochleven castle well, it was here in 1563 she confronted John Knox, hoping to charm him, not a hope. Knox vehemently objected, not only to Mary retaining her Catholic faith, but objected to any female ruler. Knox did not budge one jot from his extreme anti-Catholic and misogynistic views.

If I had reached the island this is what I would have seen.
What I did see, from a long way off.

Mary’s womanly charms may not have made her any inroads with Knox, but she had better luck with young George Douglas, son of her gaoler Sir William Douglas, and young Willie Douglas a relation of Sir William, and in his care, following the death of his parents. They would help in any way they could in adding Mary’s escape.

Mary spend just over a year in captivity in Lochleven Castle, she had already made one failed attempt, disguised as a washerwoman. But her dress could not disguise her beauty, her tall slender form and her French accent. The boatman would not be fooled, she was never going to pass as anyone other than the Queen of Scots.

Opportunity arrived on the 2 May 1568, Lady Douglas, the wife of Sir William, had given birth and the garrison was too preoccupied with celebrating the occasion that they took their eye of guarding Mary. As Sir William was eating and no doubt a little drunk, young Willie Douglas managed to steal the castle keys. Mary changed into old clothes and made her way down to the landing stage via a postern gate. Then together with Willie and a servant woman they made their way by boat across the loch. Meanwhile, one of Mary’s Ladies-in-waiting dressed in Mary’s clothes and making sure she was seen from time to time, and at a safe distance so that it appeared as if Mary was still in the castle. When they reached the shore at what is now Queen Mary’s Gate, George Douglas, was waiting with a party of supporters, they would escort Mary to Niddry Castle, (now a private home), where she spent her first night of freedom. From there she found sanctuary with the Hamilton family, in central Scotland, There support was never freely given, Hamilton wanted to control Scotland by having control over the queen, or by marrying her into their family. (Never trust a Hamilton, that would be my advice).

All that was left for me to do was head back to the park and ride and board my magic (stagecoach) carper for St Andrews, It ain’t half hot in here mum.

I just love this stuff, it is better than any novel of fiction, you could not make this up, no one would believe you. I have already started exploring Mary’s Scotland, with a book by Ian Douglas, of the same name, Exploring Mary’s Scotland.

Most enjoyable day out, sad that there was no ferry to the island, seems daft, I could travel in a bus but not on a boat and I had forgotten just how cold it can get on a bike, wind chill and all that technical stuff. Keep safe and keep peddling.  

P.S. winds picking up to 40 mph (Elie Weather).

When British troops were introduced into one city after another in Northern Ireland, what turned out to be a solution to the problem became a very large part of the problem. Several attempts were made to establish a power-sharing governments, most notably in 1974 following the Sunningdale Agreement, but all were opposed or thwarted, by Republicans and loyalists alike, until 1998 the Belfast – aka Good Friday Agreement: ‘Sunningdale for Slow Learners’ as Seamus Mallon, the inaugural Deputy First Minister of the Legislative Assembly dubbed it.

Thinking of this reminded me of sitting in the classroom with the instructor trying to teach us navigation. As the morning session drew to a close, and lunch break becond the instructor ended his lesson by asking the class,

“If I were to tell you to meet me for lunch at fifty-three degrees, thirty-five minutes north and zero point zero four degrees west, where would I be?”

After a long silence a voice pipped up,

“Eating alone.”

Slow rescue,

The Royal Naval Ancillary Fleet, had two boats stationed at Rosyth Royal Dockyard, their main task was the removal of ammunition from the naval ships before they entered the dockyard for re-fit and the re-storage of them when they departed the dockyard. Other duties included collecting and delivering ammunition from depots in and around The UK. One other important duty was to dispose of obsolete munitions at sea. One such dumping grounds was an area three miles due east of the May Island in the estuary of the River Forth.

Our story finds ‘Enfield’ on such a journey and once on station the crew rigged a set of rollers from the hold, along the deck that continued three feet over the port bow. Boxes of torpedoes were being unloaded and sent along the rollers. The crew waited until the boat rolled to port then they gave the heavy boxes a good push, sending it on its way to Davy Jonha’s Locker. Timed right it would take little effort for them to go cascading over the side.

As one of the boxes was sent on its way, a freak wave caught the box as it entered the water and smashed it against the bow with such force, that the box broke open and the torpedo exploded on impact blowing a gaping hole in the side of the ship, and just on the waterline. Crash mats were quickly dropped over the hole and the force of water entering the ship did the rest forcing the mat tight against the side of the ship and over the hole, this helped reduce the flow enough for the ships pumps not to be overwhelmed.

An SOS was sent from the ship to Rosyth, ‘Eveready’ would steam to their aid. Although ‘Enfield’ was listing badly and down at the head, she made slow passage back up the Forth. As she entered the breakwaters at Rosyth dockyard ‘Eveready’ – now renamed by the crew of ‘Enfield ‘Never-Ready’ coming to their rescue.

There’s a large milky ball in the sky tonight,

Surrounded by a hallow of pure burning light,

Not a whisper of cloud to darken her face,

Only stars in accompaniment,

As she tracks across space.   

I watching ‘The Bridge’ from behind the sofa, into the early hours of Sunday morning. This drama has possibly single-handedly ended tourism to both Sweden and Denmark. Not only the inhabitants of these countries but those working within the police force itself are certainly strange. This is real compulsive viewing, as compulsive as Reacher in a Lee Child book. The main character, (a female detective) makes Spok look postpositively human. What an actor this girl is, to pull this character off so well along with all her idiosyncrasies. And that is possibly why this drama is such a success, the characters are so real and believable, even if they are a bit off the wall. can’t wait until the final episodes next Saturday, then it will be withdrawal symptoms for weeks after that.

A beautiful day, clear blue skies from horizon to horizon, there was a chill in the air, and the winds were light and out of the west. September – October seems to shaping up to their reputation as very settled months, certainly we are blessed today. I set out with the intention of going over to Falkland Palace, a big favourite of Mary (Queen of Scots). First thing I noticed was the amount of traffic out on the roads, thankfully all Sunday drivers so giving cyclist plenty of time and courtesy, and there was a good few of us out today. As I approached Ceres I thought why not go via Scotstarvit Tower,

I did but the door was firmly bolted against me, does not bow well for Falkland Palace.

I dropped down onto the A914 and travelled through Pitlessie, Balmalcolm and Kettlebridge for the Muirhead round-about, then on the A912 for Falkland. As I came upon the Putin Hill road, I decided to head up onto East Lomond once an important Pictish fort and settlement.

The local cycle club use to run the Purin Hill, Hill Climb up here, so I turned off and headed for the top. The object of the exercise was not to break any records but just cycling all the way up without humiliating myself by having to get off and walk, so that was my goal, an achievement in itself, a gold-winning medal effort and no mistake.

Problem one; cars coming down, a constant stream on what is a very narrow road only a car width at best. Problem two; potholes, some that could swallow up my front wheel with room to spare.

You find this all over the country, money is found to construct car parks at places of interest, or natural beauty (East Lomond is both). Pretty information noticeboard erected and picnic area provided.

Then the once beauty spot becomes a victim of its own success, and falls foul of foot and vehicle traffic, (check out Skye). The roads leading there become potholed and all but unable to drive on with anything other than an all terrane vehicle.

Slowly but surely I twiddled my way towards the top. It is not that it is all that steep, it is just that it seems to go on forever, I was staring out the front wheel long before I made the summit. Give that man a coconut, sorry we are out of coconuts, you will have to have a Bounty, hey, you bounty like them. I sat overlooking the Forth Estuary and the lands below, well worth the climb for this view alone, drinking my energy drink and eating my Bounty bar, they are moist and sweet. Just what the doctor ordered.

A good number of people were climbing up the footpath to where the fort had once been, at the top of East Lomond, (424m above sea level, the A912 is at 50m above sea level) me I had done enough climbing for one day, so just soaked up the day. The hill at this level was covered in heather and just starting to colour up.

If Scotstarvit Tower, was closed Falkland Palace likewise would I’m sure be closed (or possibly only the gardens open to the public). On my return down to the A912 I turned right and not left and headed for home, this time via Cupar and Guardbridge. It was a fine day out, a journey of around 35 miles, in glorious weather, the only complaint, if there was one, was the heavy traffic, bring back the coronavirus lock-down, please.

Whilst in his third year of an apprenticeship a young electrician made a visit to the doctor with a chest complaint. The doctor after examining the lad diagnosed the problem as stemming from damp and dusty conditions, that he was being exposed to down the mine. The young lad went off to the chief electrician and asked if he could be transferred to the main workshop for health reasons, whereupon he was asked to put his request in writing.

He did, and his request was granted, he was transferred to the workshop.

Unfortunately, his condition returned and once again he made an appointment to see the doctor. This time the doctor’s diagnosed the problem as him having an allergy to a substance he used daily in his work.

Again the lads went to the chief electrician requesting that he be exempt from handling such a substance, and again the chief asked for him to put his request in writing. The lad wrote,

“The doctor told me that I should not work with *******” Obviously he meant to write aerosols.

Change is in the air,

If you were to ask me what is the biggest change I have seen in my lifetime, I would have to say women coming to the fore. I don’t know how many of you would have listened to Michelle Obama’s speech from Regina Mundi? Anyone who lived through the 1970s and listening to her speech would, like me have had the hairs on the back of their neck rise, it was both inspiring and inspirational.

I marched on the streets of London against apatite in South Africa and in support of those women who marched on the parliament buildings in Pretoria. There they stood, defiant.

“Hit a woman and you hit a stone” was their war cry.

These words have stuck with me from that day to this.

I thought Michelle Obama would have gone farther in political life, believing she could have been a voice for change, even president. I feel it is such a pity that we can not choose the person, rather than a party leader, that we would want to run our country and not the failed political system we have at present, that puts the power in the hands of a person so few actually voted for. (I believe even Maggie Thatcher only received something like 12% of the total vote, that gave her absolute power, turning her into a duly elected dictator).

In May 2021 Scotland will go to the polls to chose who will govern Scotland and will be asked the question, do you want Scotland to choose its own destiny or have a foreign country (England) making these decisions on your behalf? If Scotland chooses to be governed by people voted into office, and not people they did not vote for, then for the first time since Mary Queen of Scots, will Scotland have a woman as its head. Now there’s a thought.

“You should always keep the backside’s of your politicians as close to the toe of your boot as possible”.  

Painting by Wlodzimierz Kmieck foot and mouth artist.

Autumn is already spilling into early winter, the Holly tree in the garden is festooned with berries, they are now putting on their winter red coats.

The students are back in town, with the cloth hire shops doing a roaring trade, for yesterday evening I saw many in the street, dressed I formal highland dress.

“School days are the best years of our life”

I am not sure how the coronavirus will affect numbers coming to study in Scotland this year, and then of course we have the dreaded Brexit to contend with, putting a lot of foreign students off coming to study at St Andrews.

On board a runaway train going down the track,

A one-way ticket, and no way back.

We have had some very strong winds over the month of August so the miles peddled have been curtailed. However the weatherman tells us that things will improve by next week, I’m certainly looking forward to the still clear frosty mornings.

Autumn is indeed a magical time of the year, for as the days draw in and the nights lengthen we get strange dawns. In the poem Sea Fever, John Masefield, the poet tells us,

And the grey mist on the seas face,

And the grey down breaking.

He is talking about the false dawn, we have all seen it but often overlook its presence, it just happens, nothing to write home to mummy over.

But Maisfield did notice it for if you are at wheel of tiller of you boat you will know that time well, when you see objects but they are difficult to make out.

In The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the poet speaks rather puzzling of ‘Wolf-and-Sheep-While, again he is talking about a false dawn, a time when it is hard to distinguish one from the other.

And in France they say entre chien et loup, (our dog and wolf).

This effect is caused by debris in the atmosphere, in the northern hemisphere we see it after sunset in spring and before dawn in autumn. ‘Red sky in the morning shepherd’s warning’ makes sense if you can not distinguish Wolf from Sheep. Thankfully we simply can just enjoy the majesty of the false dawn in autumn.

Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night,

Has flung the stone that puts the stars to Flight,

And Lo! The Hunter of the East has caught,

The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

Soon we will be into November and the American Presidential elections, although from what I can see they never stop campaigning for some office or other in America. I read an article in the Times, way back in 2010, if memory serves, it was about people spending vast fortunes running for various offices. Meg Whitman was running for Governor of California and sunk 120 million dollars of her own money into her campaign, a campaign that cost 145 million dollars. She was unsuccessful. Maybe she would have been better saying to the people of California, “If you vote me into office I will put 120 million dollars into helping solve some of the problems in California”. Would have been a much better (win-win) outcome for both parties concerned.

Just returned from a walk along the West Sands at St Andrews, there was a strong onshore wind against an outgoing tide, turning the waters into a carpet of dancing white horses.

A ball of playful boisterous fur,

The pup runs after a lone seabird,

Kicking up such a joyful din,

Engaged in a game he can not win.

The dog jumps up high into the air,

To catch a gull no longer there,

having floated upon effortless wings,

To land only yards in front of him.

Keep safe and keep those peddles turning.

The Torch’

When I was out in America there was this advert for a torch, but this was no ordinary torch this was a super-duper torch. This torch had been dropped from an aircraft, run over by a truck, and taken to the ocean floor, yet still worked. This torch was indestructible, according to the manufacturers, and to back up their claim it came with a lifetime guarantee. Well not quite, in the small print it read, “The guarantee does not extend to babies under 18 months old”.

Turban Johnny,

Following hard on the heals of depression and two world wars the 1950s was an affluent time for my mother. With her husband home from the sea and in permanent employment in one of Fife’s coalfields, mum for the first time in her married life, had herself a new council house, a steady wage coming in and a disposable income, but, with eight of us still at home, all would need fed and watered there was no rest for mum.

As the girls grew up and went off to work and boyfriends started to come around the house, dress awareness became more important to them. Although none were making great wages as yet, they did want to look their best going out to the dancing.

Door to door salesmen were a common sight around the doors in the 1950s, they sold everything from, vacuum cleaners to encyclopaedias to assurance policies. One salesman, in particular, was a regular at number 48 Wardlaw Way, I never found out his name but dad always called him Turban Johnny. You see Johnny was as a Sekh, very tall, and I suppose he would have been called handsome, by grown-ups, with his neatly kept beard and looking very regal in his blue turban. He came up from Manchester once a month by train and bus to our village, carrying his wares in the biggest suitcase you can imagine. It bulged in every direction and was only prevented from exploding open by two thick leather straps around its girth. His line was ladies clothing. Johnny had arrived at our door just as we were coming in from school on that his first visit, he asked,

“Is mother at home?”, which was his salutation at each and every visit.

Mum invited him in and after showing her a selection of his clothing she suggested he come back when the girls were home from work. Twin sets were very much in vogue at that time, but these were cashmere and very expensive. Not a problem Jonny would offer them credit up to a set amount, they could pay him on each of his visits.

Johnny always managed to arrive when the girls were home, so our living room would them be transformed into an impromptu fashion show, and once the girls had made their choices, the plead would be,

“Can I have it mum?”

That was a signal for Johnny to take out his book and do the sums, the cost against any money still owed, my sisters would wait with bated breath, then the magic words would come,

“Your daughter will look very beautiful in that mother”.

Johnny would become a regular visitor to our house in those years, although he did not always get a sale, for these clothes were special, and not for every day ware, they were looked after, hand washed and laid flat on newspaper to dry, then folded away in tissue paper in a drawer.

At each and every visit his greeting to whoever answered the door would always be,

“Is mother at home?”

One day it was dad who had answered the door to Johnny, and dad being dad called back into the house.

“Maggie, your son’s at the door”. Mother was not amused.   

Christmas, it would seem gets earlier every year. Already the adverts are appearing, telling us about bargains for Christmas, or buy now and delivery guaranteed by Christmas. I have always been against the commercialisation of Christmas. now we have the dumbing down of Christmas. No Christmas decorations in the streets that promote Christmas as a Christian festival, that is somehow, not politically correct, for it is offensive to non-Christians in society. Yet go down to Bradford and you will see Moslem festivals and Hindu festivals taking place, no one seems to object, in fact, they are welcomed in our multicultural society. This wee story came from such thoughts.

The girl sat on a stool her class of wide-eyed children in a semicircle at her feet, she retold the narrative, passed on by countless Sunday school teachers down through the ages, how Mary and Joseph arrived at Bethlehem to find ‘No Vacancy’ signs at every inn. A sigh of disappointment went up from the children as their teacher closed her book and announced the story would have to be continued next week.

Tommy was the first through the door the following Sunday and stood before his teacher, fingers fidgeted nervously. The young girl looked down kindly at the small unkempt lad in front of her, before asking “Yes Tommy?

“Please Miss has that man got a hoose yet?”

A smile broadened across the girls face, “No” she replied “But don’t worry Tommy, it will all turns out well in the end”.

Despite her reassurances Tommy was first to arrive the following Sunday, and the next and the next, only to ask the same question of his teacher.

“Please Miss, has that man got a hoose yet?”

The girl was preparing for the arrival of her class when an excited, breathless Tommy burst in through the door and announced,

“Miss! Miss! That man’s got a hoose”.

“Slow down Tommy”, she implored the breathless boy, words gushing from his mouth like a noisy babbling brook. “Take a breath and tell me once more what you are trying to say?”

“Its one of those wee prefabs down Wardlaw Way Miss, I was passing and saw a big furniture van outside number 17, that’s next door to Mrs O’Rourke, and Mrs O’Rourke, she said to the man in the van, Christ have you come to bide here noo?”

What happened to Christmas?

Look Jean what I bought in the Christmas sale,

This hat with a ‘drop dead gorgeous’ veil.

Oh, Joan! You really have gone quite mad,

Ever since they gave you that new plastic card.

Jean! Why must you be so mean?

Just look outside at the Christmas scene.

Outside the cafe the Salvation Army band played,

Sung carols and the nativity tale relayed.

Jean, would you listen to that din,

Wouldn’t be so bad if they could sing,

Anyway, why do they have to bring religion into everything?

Russia, was an ally of the British during the Second World War. For the duration of the war they would have on loan, two warships form the British navy. In the early 1950s these ships were returned, and made their way up the River Forth, and anchored in the channel, just of Rosyth Royal Dockyard. Jimmy and Laurimer were both now serving with the Royal Naval Ancillary Fleet, and based down at Rosyth Dockyard. Having volunteered themselves for Fire Picket over the weekend the lads had been ferried out to one of the ships now swinging at anchor.

As soon as the barge left on its return for the dockyard the two set to work searching every nook and cranny of the ship. Their search proved fruitless, not even an old pair of boots did they find on board the ship.

“Have you ever seen a ship so devoid of plunder Jimmy, not even an oily rag in the subs store?”

“Aye, your right there Laurimer, all those Ruskies have left us is dust, lets try the bridge, we may have better luck up there”.

Up on the bridge, there was a cupboard with a padlock securing it closed. “This is looking better, hand me that jemmy, Laurimer, ill soon have this open” offered Jimmy, his mood lighter now at the prospect of something worth a few bob in the cupboard.

before either man was able to make a move, there came a loud cough form the companionway, both men turned to be confronted with a young naval officer.

Clearing his throat lightly, he said in his clear educated voice,

“Those who steel from the Navy are bloody roughs, those that don’t, are bloody fools”

and with that he vanished almost as quickly and silently as he had appeared.

The padlock was jimmied off the locker but just like the rest of the ship, there was no booty to be had.

Members of the Royal Navy were able to buy duty free cigarettes, commonly know as ‘Ticklers’. These cigarettes came in round tins of fifty and clearly marked ‘Not For Resale’ however they were freely bartered around the dockyard. The practice was illegal, but the dockyard police as a rule turned a bind eye, well, many were themselves complicit in the practice. There was however one policeman, John Brown, these were contraband and low betide anyone caught with ticklers in their possession.

Enfield was one of two boats used to discharge and reload ships with ammunition, from naval ships before and after refit at the dockyard. The crew of Enfield were sitting around the mess table chewing the fat when the alarm was raised, “Brown on board”. All headed off to their respective quarters to hide any contraband that may have been left in plane sight.

Big John entered the mess, and cast a keen eyes around its small, bare confines. Jimmy looked up from a paper, that he appeared to be deeply engrossed in only seconds before, he greeted Brown with a nod, neither man said a word. The policeman move out through the mess and into the sleeping quarters. Nothing to be found, he left. As the boys settled back around the mess table, Jimmy lifted his cap from the table and asked “Anyone for a fag?” there under his cap was an unopened tin of 50 ticklers.

One day whilst pottering around the deck of my old Folkboat, a boat I had bought a few years off retirement, and spent nearly two years renovating. I had managed to change one or two planks, sister a few ribs, re-corking and make her shipshape and seaworthy once more. The intention had been to move to France and live onboard. From there I planned, over time, travelling across the canals of Europe all the way to the Black Sea, for this I would have to find a like-minded crew member along the way.

It was then I was approached by Fred for the first time. Fred then told me he had purchased one of the boats for sale in the marina. There were always boats for sale around the marina, and had even managed to negotiate to keep the mooring it was on, so few would have even realised that it had in fact changed hands.

Fred had purchased the yacht as a retirement present to himself and wanted to know how to lower the mast to fix a problem he was having with the wind direction and speed indicator attached at the masthead.

“Why lower the mast?” I asked, “I have a roll-up ladder that fits in the mast’s sail grove, you simply haul it up on the mainsail halyard, tether the foot and climb on up, it’s there if you wish to borrow it”.

Fred was not keen on climbing the mast so I went along and we soon had the wayward instrument firmly reattached. He then asked if I would mind accompanying him out, on what would be a maiden voyage for him as the skipper of his new charge, made sense, you really needed at least one another crew member to take lines as you passed through the locks.

“Great, I would love too”, since it was a smart 27 footer with all the toys onboard, more a case of hold me back.

I notice that although Fred managed the boat well under power, navigating the harbour and locks with ease, possibly much better than I could have, once the sails were set he had no idea what was going on. That first trip was a short four hours trip, ‘in and out’ on the same tide and once made fast we retired to my boat, Maggie. I lit the stove and we sat and blethered, whilst lubricating our throats, first with a pot of tea, then a glasses or possibly three of the water of life. Somewhere in the conversation, we arranged a weekend sail over to Bridlington. Now since we were both recently retired it made sense to take one boat and share the expenses. I would phone ahead and book us into the sailing club for the following Friday night, the club’s accommodation although basic, charging a very basic tariff, three-pound per night, great value, a hot shower always appreciated at the end of a trick. Fred would buy the provisions and diesel; I would pay the harbour dues and our fee at the clubhouse in Bridlington, a rather wayward tricycle and I headed for home.

Royal Yorkshire Yacht Club - Home | Facebook

With an early tide and a fair wind we were soon rounding the Chequers Buoy and out of the estuary and into Bridlington Bay. On leaving the river the boat danced a lively tune of North Sea swell and as the wind picked up our mast bent as the sails strained in the strengthening wind and the standing rigging sang a melancholy song, we would make good passage for Bridlington.

Fred spent the hours down in the cabin frequently sticking his head out of the companionway to ask if I wanted another cuppa, chicken sandwich, or was I ready for another bacon roll? The boat well-founded had all the modern equipment on board, I loved all the electronic gadgets and the one I wish I had on Maggie, was the one that gave relative wind so you could make the best of it. Happy as Larry I sat at the tiller the boat tooting along at a cracking pace, spray flying from her bow.

We managed Bridlington with enough water to enter the harbour and tied up for the night.

Being a Friday the club bar was doing good business. We found ourself in the company of a small mixed group, who had taken up residence in the far corner. I was in good voice and gave them my rendering of ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, then to get everyone singing ‘The Wild Rover’ and that great anthem form Alabama. ‘We Shall Overcome’.

Norma, was pitit with bottle-blond hair, cut close to her head. she flirted with me in her tomboy playful way, that was very infectious and flattering to me.

“Crab-apple” I told her.

“What! What was that you just said?”

“Crab-apple, you washed your hair tonight and you used crab-apple shampoo, am I right?”

She did not answer but leaned over a little closer than she really needed too, and pretended to sniff. “Lifebuoy”, you smell nice too” she teased

“We are only here for the one night” I come back at her.

“I’m drinking as fast as I can” she replied, pretending to be coy.

“Will you be staying on board tonight?” she whispered, taking a liberty and nibbled my ear lobe as she did so.

“Oh no, I’m far to scared of the dark – now if I had company….”

“But I’m a good girl” she returns, again putting on that shy face that made her even more attractive.

The incoming tide slapped ourhull, rocking me awake, and as the tide lifted and righted the boat from the mud of the harbour, I tried to come to terms with the strange surroundings. My head fuzzy, my eyes still heavy from lack of sleep, it was then she moved and I heard her whispered,

“I told you I was good”.

Breakfast, was much later and a sombre affair, with heads still suffering Friday night’s jollities. Fred came on board around 10 am and made ready for our departure and clearly had no desire to take the tiller, so we travelled our homeward leg with me once more at the helm and Fred on galley duties.

The passage back across Bridlington Bay was against a foul tide and unhelpful wind, I had been on autopilot for the last two hours and the buoy that marked the Canada wreck was a welcome sight. When we once more entered the Humber River, east of the Binks and west of the Chequer Buoy, it was already dark, but the wind was much more favourable. I set the boat on a course just outside of the shipping lane’s marker buoys, and asked Fred to take the tiller; I was going below to put my head down for half an hour and asked him to wake me when we made the fort. “Just follow the buoys,” I said as I pointed out the a buoy over the bow and a more distant one over the stern, “If you loose sight of the buoy just keep her heading west, you will soon pick up the next one, but don’t stray into the shipping lane” I warned before disappearing below.

I was asleep before my head hit the bench cushion. I woke with the boat rocking violently and the sails flapping. On coming up on deck, the land had vanished from sight and glancing at the compass it was clear that we were far out in the estuary and heading, for as far as I could make out, Holland. Instead of holding the boat on course Fred had simply let the boat take control, whatever way the wind wanted to take her. I furled the headsail and started the engine and set us back on a westerly course before handed back the tiller, we would motor sail the rest of the way in. I curled up on the cockpit bench for the rest of our journey and dozed to the steady beat of our boat’s engine. The lines of a long-forgotten poem came into my head,

What know you of harbours,

Who sail not on the sea.

We did many more trips under sail in Fred’s boat, and for all the miles and hours at sea Ted never understood the principle of sailing. I would sit by him and tell him what was going on but Fred was always keen to disappear below deck and leave me with the helm, not that I was complaining. 

Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.  

 

Knoydart, is a peninsular on the west coast of Scotland and east of Skye, separated from the island by the sound you can not hear, the Sound of Sleat. Knoydart is very remote but such a magical place, you really have to take time out in the long summer days to do it justice. The first time we visited it was winter and the days were short. We had organised a drop-off by landrover at Arnisdale, were we had arranged for a retired shepherd to take us in his small open boat to the other side of Loch Hourn. During our time away he would spend his time visiting with the folks at the Glen Arnisdale estate. The first time we visited the estate boasted a young unmarried gamekeeper. A forester, his wife and two children, and since there was no school a retired school teacher lived in a car-a-van in their garden. On the second visit, the young gamekeeper had taken a wife. Our over ambitious route that day would take us first up Ladhar Bheinn then on to Luinne Bheinn, but as the old shepherd was concerned about crossing the loch in darkness we only climbed Ladhar Bheinn, even then it was getting dark when we hit the shore, where the boat awaited our coming.

We crossed the loch without incident, arriving outside the shepherd’s cottage, he and his wife lived in one of the houses strung out in a row along the shore. His wife welcomed us in to the snug and warmth of her home, a big fire was burning in the grate and after tea and fresh-baked scones and fruit cake, my eyes were closing, the heat was getting to me it would not have taken much for me to drop off to sleep in the big armchair.

There were televisions in Scotland at that time but here in the highland getting any kind of signal was near impossible, so the radio was their ear on the world. I was asked where I was from and when I said Dunfermline, the old boy was able to tell me the name of every member of the Pars (Dunfermline Athletic) football team and certainly knew more about the outside world news than I did. Then he asked,

“Will any of you lads be going near a big town, you see I need a new valve for my radio, I’m lost without it?”.

“Are you sure that it is a valve?” I asked.

“Oh, yes” he assure me “They all light up but that one”.

I checked the radio over for him and jotted down the chassis number, when I returned to Kinloss I went to the stores and asked for two of each valve for that chassis packaged them up and sent them off to Arnisdale. When we were leaving we tried to press money into the old boy’s hand, but he would not hear of it, so instead, we left him with a five-gallon jerry can of petrol and a used 150-foot climbing rope for his boat, his face light up as if we had just told him he had won the football pools.

We did very little, in climbing terms, but that was an unforgettable day, a trip that will live with me for the rest of my life.  

Crossed wires.

I was chatting with a lad the other day and discovered he had been an apprentice electrician in the colliery in the early 1960s, and this was his story. The colliery manager lived in a company house and his wife wanted a pair of wall lights installed at their home. The chief electrician gave the job to the two newly qualified apprentices.

“We were not all that happy about being chosen for the manager’s wife had the reputation of being a bit bossy”, he told me.

Arriving in good time we soon had the lights installed and before heading back to work, we reported back to the manager’s wife, asking if that was all she wanted us to do?

Inspecting our work she seemed pleased enough with the work, even offered us an apple each by way of reward, which we both refused.

“You have done such a sterling job she insisted, I feel I should give you something, what about a half?”

Well, that’s more like it, a wee glass of whiskey would work wonders, almost in unison we accepted her kind offer. Off she went into the kitchen and returned, not with two glasses of Single Malt Whiskey, but a plate with an apple, now sliced into two equal halves.

Window, window shining bright,

In the early morning light,

Cygnet’s sails once white as snow,

Now billow red in the morning glow,

Off we fly, wild and free,

On tireless wind, on endless seas.

A ministers sage advice.

It was always customary for the minister to give advice to newlyweds at the wedding breakfast. I’m sure we have all heard most of this wise advice over the years. This one came to me as I sat chapping away on my keyboard.

The minister advised a young couple, to never let the sunset on their wrath, and never let a dispute get out of hand. Better if one or even both go off for a long walk and when things have cooled down even the insurmountable will know a solution. A cool head, he assured them, will always find a compromise.

It was many years later that the minister met up with the husband again, he had returned to the village to visit with his elderly mother. On recognizing him, the minister had asked how married life was suiting them both.

“Very well, thank you minister” he replied “we have had a very enjoyable, open-air life”.

The pony that could count.

In 1842 an Act of Parliament was passed which prohibited the employment of females underground. The same legislation also made it unlawful for boys under the age of ten to be given work down a coal mine. As a consequence of that Act, pit ponies began to be used on a much larger scale to transport the coal from the workings to the pit bottom. These ponies soon became “Pit Wise” and had an acute awareness of the operations they were involved in, this led to many a humorous story.

My grandfather once told me that when he had worked alongside ponies down the pit, he knew of a pony that could count. At the Dip Five Foot section a pony stood patiently waiting while the handler coupled the 24 tubs together to form a ‘Race’. He then attached the pony’s harness to the race and instructed the pony, “Walk On”. The pony made no attempt to move and no amount of coaxing, cajoling or threats made the slightest bit of a difference. The opinion of the men was that either the pony was sick and the vet should be called, or that the pony was having an off day. It was then that Willie noticed that the race was made up of 25 and not 24 tubs and after uncoupling the last one from the line the pony, without further instruction, set off along the roadway.

I’m a cock-eyed optimist, as the lyrics say.

I am not a particularly religious person, but I loved the stories at our Sunday School and later in life became a uniformed salvationist. I no longer attend any church, however, the old adage tells us, you can take a man out of the army but not the army out of the man. If I were ever tempted to join a church group again I believe it would be the Quakers.

Coming from a nautical family, and having lived much of my life never more than a stone throw from the sea, it was inevitable when I first came to read the bible for myself I would choose nautical stories. Johanna, a whale of a story. Noah and his ark, and the greatest mariner of them all Paul.

Johanna

Johanna swallowed by a big fish.

We all know the story, Johanna was sent by God to Nineveh, the capital of modern-day Syria, once there he would go to the king and pass on Gods message. If the people did not turn away from their wickedness then they would be wiped from the face of the earth, plain, simple, unequivocal. Now it turned out that Johanna didn’t like the Syrians very much, and would have been happy to see them wiped from off the face of the earth. So, rather than go to Nineveh, he boarded a boat for Australia. Well, Spain actually, but in those days Spain would have seemed as far away as Australia is for us today, the other side of the world.

Noah

Noah built an ark

Now if anyone had asked me to come on board a craft that had no means of propulsion, so even if it did have a rudder or wheel, with no steerage way, no coarse could be set. This boat would have been at the mercy of wind and tide, adrift, a disaster waiting to happen. Then when told of the cargo, all those creepy crawlies and wild animals, no wonder the people laughed at him.

Paul

Paul well he was just a saint.

Paul found himself on board a large cargo ship, a coaster of its day. It had sailed first from Greece with around 150 passengers on board, then on to Alexandra to load with grain, destined for Italy. Caught out in a squall, there was little the captain could do but run with the wind. However, as they nearing the island of Malta, and the sailors looked over the bow of their ship and saw the land rushing towards them at a great rate of knots, alarm bells rang out amongst the crew. They had taken it upon themselves to climb into the tender and leave the ship and her passengers to the mercy of the wind and sea. Cometh the hour cometh the man, out of this chaos Paul tells the centurion that he had spoken with God, and that he was told that not a hair on anyone head would be spared, bold words from a man reputed to be as bald as a coot. Under Paul’s leadership and the authority of the centurion, they put sea anchors over the side, this had the effect of slowing the ship enough for it to make a controlled crash landing onto a sandy beach, whereupon the inhabitants of Malta came to their aid.

Summing up

Johanna

Johanna did finally go to Nineveh, God had chosen well, for he persuaded the whole of the Syrian nation to mend their ways. (I have always had this strange image of people and animals all walking around dressed in sackcloth), Johanna, working hand in hand with God had, saved a nation.

Noah

Noah in his turn, working hand in hand with God had saved all the creatures of the world, including man. (Maybe not one of your better ideas God).

St Paul

Paul working hand in hand with god, saved the ship, her crew and passengers, but his story did not end there. Paul was a small pebble cast into the pool of humanity. Those ripples have spread and spread down through the ages and still lap at our feet today. Paul still saves lives.

The Moral

Working hand and hand, we can achieve great things, even miracles, in our own world. Sadly working hand in hand is far removed from the reality we see in the world today, lessons of the prophets go unlearned.

The foreign policies of America and Britain have been a disaster, and have only worsened over the past 20 years, killing millions, displeasing millions more. Then when the homes and infrastructure of these countries are destroyed and the people start to arrive on our doorstep asking for help, we pull up the drawbridge. Those that do make that perilous journey to our shores, well they die of malnutrition alongside their malnourished child in some squalid Glasgow flat, it makes me angry that I am part responsible for their suffering. The Hindu Kush, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq Yemen, Gaza, Egypt, Libya and right across central Africa we hear the same song sung, and as the New Years approaches, Bush, Blair, Trump and the Johnston’s of this world will gather, and with many a whiskey tear, sing out “A man’s a man for a’ that”.

December had been a magical month for us, full of big night skies, clear and starlit, an ever-growing moon pulling the spring tide higher and higher up the beach. However, the crowning glory was the total eclipse of the moon. The conditions were perfect and being the shortest day we did not even have to get up that early. It is hard to describe this phenomenon when the earth’s shadow moves across the face of the moon. Liked dappled sun on a shaded pool our atmosphere played at first on the moon’s face, turning it into a ball of translucent colour before engulfing it completely. As the day breaks the sun bursts into sight, filling the skies in brilliant hues of red and gold, quickly it now tracks westward bathing the seascape in winter colour, merging both heaven and earth, Elie is such a magical place in winter.

Christmas Day

My sister and I sharing it together, I cooked lunch of Christmas fair, with Tim enjoying the change of diet too. Presents exchanged; thankfully no offence was taken as I handed over my present of smelly stuff for Irene to adorn her body with.

Men are from Mars and women from Venus. Presents can sometimes be difficult. Years ago, Dad and I had travelled over to Glasgow on the motorcycle. We visited the Barrows. It was there that we watched an enterprising lad demonstrating the brand new product, a non-stick frying pan to his captivated audience. He was cooking all sorts of food in the magical pan, even without fat, did any food stick to its surface. Wow! Dad was impressed, as I was, and bought one for mum. When we returned home and the pan was offered up as a birthday present, mum was not amused. Alas mum being mum, still managed to burn the food, eggs with crochet edges and beef to sole your boots with. Mum was a past master at weld food, even to the bottom of her new non-stick pan. Father was a martyr to her cooking and single-handed she kept Rennie’s in business throughout the worst of the recession. Sorry a lot of poetic licences there, but the part of buying the pan and mum’s disapproval were real enough.

This story was inspired by a slogan once used by the Salvation Army, and told to me by Captain Yule. My friend on returning from his first trip up to London was beside himself with wonder at all he had seen and told me he had even visited a brothel run by the Salvation Army.

I was down in Soho and went over to where a red lamp was hanging over a door and rang the bell. Well you could have knocked me down with a feather, when a young Salvation Army Officer, in her slinky wee uniform, answered the door.

“Oh! I’m sorry miss, I must have come to the wrong door”. I blurted out, flushed with embarrassment.

“No, no, not at all” the officer assured me, “Come away in. Now before we can proceed, we have to fill in the paperwork” (paperwork and The salvation army is synonymous).

“Can you tell me your name?” She asked.

“Oh, eh, Smith miss, John Smith”

“And are you married or single, John?”

“Oh, married miss”

“Then I’m sorry John, but you see were here for the Needy, not for the Greedy”.

Yes I know it was a rotten joke and an even worse slogan.

Our trip over to see Sleeping Beauty at the Rep in Dundee was a great success. The production was brilliant and the comic timing superb and although we are not supposed to like the wicked witch, we, of course, loved her. A great addition was the use of a harp to accompany the actors. However for me, the favourite was John Buick as Spider King, Glaswegians are such natural comedians.

Television over the festive season, I am total ‘musical-eds out’. Along with some golden oldies like Casablanca, “Here’s looking at you kid”. I even watched the animated version of “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” You know the temperament and facial expressions of the heroine are those of Kristen Scott Thomas, uncanny.

Irene’s naughty cat perched himself, up on a shelf and out of reach of Tim. From here he stretched out a paw and teased poor Tim, forbidding the old boy from having his after-dinner nap.

Blaise’ will do what cats will do,

Play with ball, play with shoe,

Tear the paper from my wall,

Never come when I call,

But when it’s time for his tea,

It’s he who comes to search for me.

Another year in, and still managing to dodge the undertaker. Old Years Night I spent with my sister, it was Irene’s turn to cook and her meal was a traditional homemade steak pie, potatoes and turnip. I have not made a New Years resolution, seemed little point since I’m a spur of the moment kind of a guy and very content with my lot.

The New Year heralded in a new decade. We stood by the sea wall at North Queensferry and watched the magnificent fireworks display from the Forth Rail Bridge. How hopefully we travelled then. Barely a year on and it has all started to unravel.

Who could ever forget the feeling of disbelief as we watched that loop of film on our television screens as the planes crashed, over and over again, headlong into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, or the stuned look on the face of President GW Bush as his aid whispered the news into his ear?

But saddest of all for the world was when the two cowboys, Bush and Blair, strapping on their six-shooters and wearing tarnished white hats, stepped out into the street to Kick-Ass. And set off a chain of reaction that we still live with to this day. Sow the wind and reap a whirlwind.

 It was a few years ago now that I watched “My family’s crazy gap year” on the television, where Nikki McClement goes off to some of the most remote parts of the world. I was not surprised when she admitted that this made her question her own life back in England, I know that conditioning well.

How I long to be once more alone on my boat sailing over the horizon. I can not begin to describe the joy and wonder one feels sitting at the helm on a moonlit night the skies an endless black velvet veil sprinkled with stars, like a field of shining diamonds. That magical time alone in your own thoughts whilst the boat, driven fast on white wings, white as white can be in the moon’s light, her bow cleaving the water, pushing up a phosphorescence bow-wave as she does so.

My heroes at that time were Bernard Montessori 1925 – 1994, he was a French national born and raised in Vietnam, then part of French Indochina, Montessori was a world renounce ocean voyager and author. From an early age, he had his own boat, but since he was too young to hold the post of captain, he had to employ one. Much of his knowledge and experience he acquired during his time at sea with the fishermen of the Gulf of Siam, Montessori had a very simple outlook on life.

“I dream of the day when a country of the modern world has an intensely simply government and barefoot ministers, I’d ask for citizenship right away. Christ and the Apostles were barefoot vagabonds and I’m sure it helped then work miracles. They were remarkably simple too, just like Buddha and all the saints. And our times have never seen a man as great as Gandhi at the head of a nation.

The automobile manufactures and munitions makers will call it an outrage to freedom and everything we hold sacred when they hear our anthem but our earth would find herself again, and men as well. Just men, with no capital letters. Our nation would not collect gold medals at the Olympics, but the gold medal supermen would listen to our anthem. And they would seek citizenship so as not to be superior any more. Then the manufacturers of cars and oil and supergiant planes and bombs and generals and all-the-rest would gradually begin to feel that the turning had been finally taken. That it is a thousand times truer to have men guided by heart and instinct than the twisted gimmicks of money and politics.”

A very Far Eastern ideology and very much steeped in my hippy past. When I hear songs like “Imagine” by John Lennon, or “A man’s a man for a’ that” by Burns, I hear echoes of Montessori. Yes, I would be asking for citizenship too.

What, Simpson, what’s that they’re singing bellow,

What – repeat, please,

A man’s a man for a’ that’…

There will be none of that Jacobinry on this ship.

Tell them, find better words.

A man

May be king or beggar, Simpson,

It’s better so, every man locked in his place in the great music of society.

It was thus from the beginning of things.

A man’s a man for a’ that

On this ship a man is a sailor

And Simpson, I am the skipper.

By George Mackay Brown

Bernard Montessori, called his boat “Joshua”, after his hero Joshua Slocum, who was the first man ever to sail his boat “Spray”, single-handed around the world.

And it just so happens that Joshua Slocum was the other of my heroes. Slocum’s book of that adventure is both entertaining and humorous, after catching, cooking and eating a turtle, he tells us that the crew were happy with the cook, which of course were one in the same. And fun and game as he outfoxed the North African pirates. If you love good sea yarn this is one you should not overlook.

Spray

The days grow shorter now, however, our Tim is keen to be up and out no matter the light and I find myself begin roused when all around is telling me to go back to sleep. He is, however, a persistent soul and will paw, paw, paw at me till I show some resemblance of life. Pretending to be asleep will only increase his endeavours not to fail in his duty as my self appointed alarm clock. A sharp word and turning over whilst drawing the covers over one’s head will send Tim to lie by my feet, alas this little victory will be short-lived for Tim will groom and fidget there indefinitely, I may have won a small victory but Tim has won the day.

It is still dark as I drag a weary body into the land of the living and we head for the shore, yet even before we arrive my spirits are lifted by the sheer emptiness of this beautiful place. No matter that the sea roars noisily onto the rocks or whispers up the shingle of the beach, its majesty never fails to lift my spirit.

By the time of our return the sun has already sent magical rays across the open waters, exploding onto the land, a million colours, a trillion hues, such light as only the soft autumn morning light can produce, colours once hidden in the brightness of the summers sun now bursts forth on every rock, blade of grass and gable wall, setting fire to the windows of the little cottages strung out along the bay. At such a time I wish I had the talent of an artist to capture such beauty or the elegance of a poet to tell of such wonders. For our little bay has all the colour of an impressionists canvas, only now, in real-time.

One Autumn Morning,

I awake to the bawl,

Of the wood pigeon’s ceaseless call,

As night falls into day,

Tim now wide awake,

Though a bleary eye I still do shake,

We head down onto the shore.

The wind blows strong from south and east,

White-capped waves an endless feast,

Break hard upon the shore,

Crows along the water line,

With their strong beaks the seaweed mine,

To dine on natures fare.

Leaves fall fast from the sycamore trees,

Lie deep now, high as wee Tim’s Knees,

I can’t resist, in them to play,

Kicking the leaves in a boyish shuffling way,

Squadron’s of geese do fly,

Black lines across a pale morning sky,

Onto the Tay’s sweet waters, nearby.  

 I was clearing out the ‘Glory Hole’ this morning and came across some of my old diaries, one dated August 2011, and inside I found a picture of my little bilge keel Leisure Craft, with Captain Tim in charge. I wish I still had her, I’m sure I could still sail that simple little craft single-handed since she was just a dingy with a lid. The picture is poor quality since I had to scan it from off the paper.

“All boats have an Inviable Box”.

“Have you ever wondered why during a storm at sea, some sailors come home unscathed whilst others caught out in the same storm perish?” My father had once asked me.

On every boat ever built there is a box into which we put credits, but don’t look for that box, you will never find it, you see it is inviable, and the credits found in the box can only be acquired by good seamanship. Every time we check the boat over before we put to sea, the standing or running rigging. When we tighten a turnbuckle, check the freshwater levels. Dip the diesel tank, change the oil and fuel filter. Come up on deck some cold wet night and check the running lights, or one hundred and one other little jobs around the boat, you will put credits into that inviable box.

Then when things start to go wrong, caught out in a storm, or we find ourselves in unfamiliar waters, we can cash in those credits. However it the box is empty and devoid of credits we will perish, for the sea gives no credit.

I will always remembered and heed that advice from my father. Today readying those old diaries and thinking of that sage advice, maybe dad’s wise words were not just about a life at sea, but also a euphemism for life itself.

Question: How do you start a firefly race?

Answer: Ready – Steady – Glow.  

 An autumn day by the sea.

I love autumn with passion. Really I should hate it since I never was a big fan of school, well at least not until I was old enough to go to the secondary school. Despite such gloomy memories living once more in the country and by the sea, the changing seasons once more I see, and autumn for me is the most dramatic of the four. The long hot summer days have given way to clean crisp air, when corn and barley fall to the harvesters blade and the land once more is turned by the ceaseless plough and trees put on their stupendous display.

I have seen Elie Bay,

A resplendent, sobering sight,

Bathed in the light of the morning star,

Heaven’s golden delight.

And early walks today along the shore, showed the extent of the damaged reaped but the high spring tide drove on by gale-force winds. Seaweed and driftwood strewn along its length, smashed lobster pots adorned the sands. I collected a variety of fenders, Tim a cricket ball and several golf balls all adding to his growing beachcombing collection. There was also a surfboard along with a plastic dinghy, however, he would have great difficulty dragging them home with him, hopefuly.

Now, I think it’s fair to say, it really rained a lot today,

Another day of drizzly rain,

But here in Elie we never complain,

For it drives those pesky tourists hame,

Oh! the phone.

The wind blows galeforce along the bay, white caped waves festoon the waters and row upon row of white horses gallop forward to the shore. They break in an exhilarating way dashing the rocks and re-sculpting the sand and dunes. Young men clad in black wet suits cling feverishly to an air-born colourful sail, they skim the waves in their high octane ways, dancing unrehearsed in sea and air, across the boiling water of the bay they fly, how I envy them their youth.

When Mum lived in a cottage down by the shore at the Wemyss, she told me that in autumn and during the high spring tides, the sea would come over the garden wall and flood the cabbages.

I had crossed over to the west coast of the US and was heading for Seattle. Not realizing how close Vancouver was to the US border, in fact since my America trip, came about as an opportunity rather than any grand plan, on a whim, most of the time I was ‘lost in America’, so decide to take a look across the border. I still find it surprising how easy it was at that time to travel around North America, no planning, no visa, no questions asked, no one seemed to take any notice of a lad on a bike, how simple life was then. Sitting in the cafe with the local rag open at the adverts, I read that someone was looking for a caretaker for a marina, possibly a stipulation of the insurance company. “I could do that,” I said to myself. It had been a long trip practical without a break and I felt the need to settle for a while, also the weather was changing, winter was on its way.

The marina turned out to be on the Fraser River delta, and rather down at heel. I had a small flat above the workshop that overlooked the many sloughs and islands. When the fog swept in and Grey Heron croaked through the gloom or the Greek in his little blue and white gillnetter sailed up the river, with its one lung engine phut, phuting and Greek music spilling out over the water it was a magical place.

The flat had a sisal carpet on the floor which was a breading ground for fleas brought in by the owner of the flat, a scruffy dog that made in clear from the start that I was the lodger. Rising in the morning and depositing bare feet and legs onto the carpet caused the fleas to leap on board, but only as high as ones knees, I guess they were afraid of heights. A little old Volkswagen was part of the marina’s equipment, and at my disposal. This also turned out to be a flea infested bug and when I gave hitch-hikers a lift it came with a pre-empted flea warning. When I first moved in I did try and eradicate the little blighter’s but my efforts proved futile and in the end we just had to accept the reality of life, they were here to stay.

The leaves fall in the slightest breeze,

Jack Frost, the morning air will tease,

Winter is now on its way,

Still it may kill off the fleas.

The idyllic life came to an abrupt end when the marina was sold on to a consortium that turned it into a timeshare yacht paradise for like-minded yuppies. Anyway, the worst of the weather was over and spring was not far off, and my feet were already starting to itch. With the place tidied up and a few yachts alongside the flat was turned into a glitzy office. Unfortunately, the bugs continued to make the place their home, much I was told (I kept in touch with a friend that I acquired during my stay) to the discomfort of their glamorous secretaries. That’s poetic justice at its best.

It was April and very warm, as I remember. I made my way over the Tay Bridge, the rivers waters today truly were indeed silvery. I was in no hurry to go anywhere so parked up at the old harbour of Broughty Ferry, alongside two other motorhomes, I really think the councils around Scotland are missing a trick by not creating proper stopover for motorhomes as you see in almost every city and small town in Europe. Simple parking spaces, (motorhomes only, no other vehicle not even caravans) some villages will only have two or three spaces, all with a plug-in for electricity and water. You can only stay for three nights maximum and not set up anything outside the vehicle, picnic tables awning and the like. These are a blessing for local businesses, shops, restaurants, bringing in much-needed tourist euros, but alas town planners in Scotland are still using clay tablets.

I visited the castle and museum just across the harbour from where I was parked, I needed to see it having just finished the trilogy by Nigel Tranter, The Master of Gray, (Lord and Master the Courtesan Past Master) and like the 16th-century story, that uses the castle as a backdrop, there is a lot to take in, one visit is not really enough.

I love the little town of Broughty Ferry, possibly the shops that do it for me, many still individuals and not chain stores, as if this is just how it has been for the past 100 years, shops handed down generation to generation.

Early morning mist hung around for a while, so I headed over to Wetherspoon’s for a coffee and the use of their five-star toilet. I cycled off towards Monifieth and then B961 to visit the Souterrain Ardestie at Mains of Ardestic, then on to Carlungie Souterrain just over the busy A92 at Newbigging.

These are Iron Age earth houses or souterrains as they are sometimes called, and found along much of eastern Scotland. Carlugie is around 40m long and one of the most complex you will find in Scotland. It was discovered in 1949, quite by accident while ploughing and excavated during the following two years, revealing about eight stone dwellings. I believe they are also found in Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany.

The weather was still holding and it was a pleasant, run over to Monikie Reserve, for a picnic lunch, before returning by Barry Mill.

This site has seen several mills over the years going back at least to 1539. The one present on this site was commercially operated until 1984, then refurbished and ran by a trust, now listed ‘category A’ watermill. Saved from closure in 2009 by local support and the securing of external funding, and now operated under the stewardship of the National Trust for Scotland.

The mill comprises of three stories, meal floor, a milling floor and a bin floor at the top.

I just loved my trip to Barry Mill, not only very educational but the mill’s tranquil setting, alongside the Barry Burn, makes it a bit special.

Back along the A930 and my temporary home on wheels, proving you really do not have to travel far from home to enjoy some beautiful cycling country. A visit to Wetherspoon for a burger and a pint, it’s gid tell yir ma’.

Next morning all packed, I travelled up the coast to the Victoria Park, Arbroath, (if you do not know the name of a park, call it Victoria, 99% of the time you will be right).

The seafront is perfect for the camp-a-van man to spend a night of three, And you will need them all, for there is much to see. Here again, the bike was pressed into service.

In the town centre, you can get your smokies, or if you prefer great fish and chips, to eat in or best whilst sitting by the Harbour.

A visit to the Lighthouse Museum is recommended to learn how the Bell Rock Lighthouse was constructed on a slither of treacherous rock only viable at low tide. Then for me, the crowning glory, the ruins of the Abbey, so synonymous with the Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland’s contract that makes its people sovereign and not king or queen.

Back to the van and put the dinner on. I sat out on the rear step of my van, listening to the sea beating rhythmically against the seawall, just feet below me, as the sunset over my shoulder, some times life is just this good.

The A92 whisked me into Montrose, I parked down by the dock gates and walked up to the High Street to buy milk and morning rolls.

I had no intention of doing anything strenuous today, the adrenalin of the first few days was wearing off.

I cycled out to the airfield museum, I had read a poster that said they were holding an open day. An old Meteor (meat-box), was sitting as I entered the gates, these were the aircraft that flew from RAF Laarbruch (in Germany) on aerial reconnaissance when I was serving there, funny they seem to have shrunk. There was much to see around the old hanger and wooden building, these would have served as offices in their time. One I remember laid out as a typical home of the 1940s – I did ask if they had asked permission from mum before taking all of her furnishers.

Home and I put Le nozze di Figaro on the DVD player, but mostly just listening to the music, going over the past days, and how far I had come in such a short distance.

Next day, I cycled around Montrose Bay crossing at Bridge of Dun, on into Barnhead and out to the lighthouse at the point, then back into town. I always visit the library, there the notices tell you all you need to know about what is going on during your visit and yes, there was a notice that took my eye.

A talk by a local historian on the architecture of Montrose, I had already seen some beautiful building including an arts and craft house down by the academy, this may be worth a visit tomorrow afternoon. It was well attended, mostly, OAP, free tea and sandwiches always brings them in. “How many people will it take to get the projector to work?” well I counted five. The show was mostly slides of buildings in and around Montrose, of every shape and size, seems this was a prosperous area at one time, reflected in some magnificent architecture.

Packed up and off the next day I travelled up the A937 to Laurencekirk then making my way inland to Fettercarin and onto the B974 for Banchory in Royal Deeside. I loved this road, up and down what are really the foothills of the Cairngorm Mountains and on into Banchory.

I parked at the falls at Feugh Bridge and cycled in to town, not an exiting town to visit, I think they may have a demographic problem here. Picked up some food at the local Co-op I headed back to the car park, made a pot of tea and moved quickly on, first Aboyne then a beautiful run along the valley to Ballater, where you get our first real look at the Cairngorm Mountains.

I turned off at Bridge of Gairn and up Glen Gairn for Gairnshiel Lodge, difficult enough today but much more so in the winter. I’m sure, you will have heard on the news from time to time, how the road from Cock Bridge to Tomintoul is closed to traffic due to heavy snowfalls, well this is where I was heading. There is still an old-style AA box (it could well be an ‘A’ listed building by now) at the junction of the road off to Gairnshiel Lodge and the A939 Tornahaish road, the one I would be taking. Just passed the junction I pulled into a lay-by, for a bite to eat.

It was such a lovely day, and not a soul in sight, I felt as if I could have been the only person left on the planet, after the past few days, this was sheer bliss.

Now high up in the wilderness I pulled over for the night, on the only little flat spot for miles around and with the only tree I had seen that had not been planted by man. The wind had been rising from around 7 o’clock that evening, a front coming our way. It was about 4 am when I was rudely awakened by the violent rocking of the van. The only way the van would fit on the level ground was to reverse it in off the road, now sitting broadside to the prevailing wind it was taking a battering. I popped out of bed and put on the kettle, quickly scurrying back under the duvet until it was singing long and loud. I sat there, duvet up to my chin and a large mug of tea in hand, watching the dawn break over the mountains. First the outline of the ridge, then snowfields came into focus before the whole panorama was exposed. I could easily have been on the moon so deselect was my surroundings. Like Jesus before me, we go into the wilderness to find our soul. I hastily packed up and headed for the hills, literally,

The Lecht, another mighty climb. Just outside Tomintoul, I found a picnic point so I pulled in and made myself at home, bath time, change of clothing and a hot meal with the little wood-burning stove doing a sterling job. My next stop would be Inverness.

Inverness is a city I love and from the various posters around town there will be plenty to entertain me over my stay here. I had parked up out at the mouth of the river on the opposite side to the dock.

It would be quiet out here. Although I enjoyed driving the van, by the time I had reached my destination at Inverness I was pooped. I climbed into my bunk at around 8 o’clock that evening, with the intention of reading a book, next thing I remember was being wakened by bright early morning sunshine streaming in through the van window, I had managed to sleep right around the clock.

I had been to Inverness a good few time over the years, normally I would press my bus pass into service and stay at the Youth Hostel just outside the city centre. At Wetherspoon’s I went onto the internet and found that there was a bus running down to Fort William, it would get there in time to catch the connecting bus down to Oban, same on the return trip, one bus would wait for the other. Sounds like a plan. I hot-footed it around to the bus station in time to see my preferred bus pull into the traffic, ho-hum. I found a bus going more or less on a circuit of the ‘Black Isle’ so the day was wiled away on a magical mystery tour, I needed time away.

I had now spent three days in Inverness, time to move on. Again the weather could not be better, a fine day to see Loch Ness in all its glory. I was getting the decks squared away, everything in it’s place a place for everything, just like being on my boat. Storage space is always at a premium on sailing boats, so you find a place for everything, and always put it back there when you have finished with it, that way you know were to find the thing in an emergency, not that there was going to be an emergency of that calibre in a camper van, but a good habit to get into.

The waters of Loch Ness was like a mirror, Achnabat inverted in her waters. I stopped off at Urquhart Bay, by the old castle ruin, it was a bit early for a stop, but I was in no hurry to go anywhere. Then Fort Augustus, where I parked the van and cycle along the length of the Caledonian Canal as far as Bridge of Oich and back, no boats going through the canal today. Lunch, then cross to the south shore of Loch lochy, all a-board for Fort William.

I did stop at Fort William, but by then I was wearing for home and I picked up the pace from there on in. The pap of Glen Coe, pulled us into the glen the Three Sister standing tall on our port quarter. It’s a fair climb up the Coe, but nothing like over the Lecht and Tomintoul, which the old lass had handled with ease. These roads now so familiar to me and I was soon bowling along for Crianlarich, Loch Earn, Crieff, Perth, Dundee and on into St Andrews.

Next day, going to the shops for milk and bread was as much as I felt like doing, these trips really take it out of me now, I need rest days more often, I simply do not bounce back as I once did. I have all I need at home and more, I know that still, I will always need this time away, just as I need oxygen. I had to give up my boat simply because it became too much for me to sail single-handed. The time may come when I will have to give up on driving, hopefully, that time will be a long time in coming, still, I have my bus pass.

Life is much the same for man and chimpanzee – a one-way ticket with no guarantee.     

Some other places visited along the way

  

Beach at Montrose
Pepperpott Castle
Lighthouse out on the point at Montrose
Aberlemno Stones

I was working away with dad in the workshop and criticizing someone, can even remember who or why, but it was not long before my dad said, “I have too many faults to go looking for them in others”. I’m not sure I even understood what he was trying to teach me, but I still, remember that truth.

Now I take people as they come, I may not like their dress, their politics, or their beliefs, I may even tell them I disagree with them, but will always respect their right to hold such idiosyncratic view or beliefs. Actually, when I think about it, that is what I love most about meeting new people, their differences, it’s that endearing quality that attracts me to them in the first place. Life would be very boring and dull if we were all clones.

Gordon was a lad from Inverness, we had met up in my early RAF days. Gordon had been posted to Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, and during his time there he had found time, outside his RAF duties, to court, marry and become a father. It was at this point that we once more bumped into one another, I had been sent to Stornoway on maintenance work. We made a date to meet up that night in a local hotel and have a pint or two, for old times sake.

Gordon had brought along his wife, and in her turn, Marie had brought along her life long girlfriend. When we were kicked out at 10 that evening (closing time in Scotland then) and since I had transport we decided to travel up the coast, to a popular sandy beach called Bail’ Ur Tholastaidh, thankfully not so popular at this time of night. I would be travelling back the following day, but did promise Gordon, I would come back up for the weekend of their child’s christening, the fact that I had promised another certain lady that, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back” was incidental.

Saturday, and the eve of the christening, we again spend time together in the hotel lounge and Gordon’s wife got the wink from her friend and told Gordon, “We have to get back home, we have a lot to do before tomorrow”.

Bail’ Ur Tholastaidh seemed the obvious place to take Peggy, and there we sat together telling stories in the light of the fire we had set on the beach, the waters of Caolas Nan Eilean our living backdrop.

Next, morning when I looked out at the car, it was covered from bumper to bumper with sand. It had been fun, taking it in turn, to roar around on the sands with only the headlights to guide us. Now a complete valet service was required. I filled a bucket with dish washing up liquid and water, found a sponge and was about to disappear out the front door when I was stopped by Marie’s grandmother and asked where I was going with the bucket of water.

“To wash the car” I said as if it was obvious to anyone what I was doing.

It was all too obvious to gran, and why she had stopped me. The church we would attend later that morning was the Wee Free, and no I would not be breaking the Sabbath, by washing a car on Sunday, more so in plain sight of the whole town.

I drove off down to a loch outside Stornoway, there are plenty to choose from, and with water from the loch gave the car a good going over, what the eye doesn’t see.

I needed to be down at Tarbert early next morning to catch the ferry to Uig then from there a long drive down to Kyleakin and catch a ferry over to Kyle of Lochalsh and onto the mainland. Now when a certain young lass and I, had only one thought in mind the night before, and that was rampaging around the sands of Bail’ Ur Tholastaidh, in my car, with little thought given to the petrol gauge, I was not surprised to learn I did not even have enough petrol to get me to Tarbert far less a filling station on the mainland.

There was only one petrol pump in Stornoway, and being Sunday it was of course closed. I went down to the owner home and told my story and that I would need petrol if I was to catch the boat in the morning. He looked up and down the street, then pushed open the big door to his garage, no locks necessary, and asked me to reverse my car in and up to the petrol pump by the wall, he then closed the door behind us.

“How much petrol would you be needing?” He asked in that beautiful west highland lilt.

“I though 5 gallons would be enough” I replied.

“Five gallons, where would you be going with all that petrol?” he asked.

“Kinloss” I said, “But if I can even get enough to take me to the mainland, I’m sure I can find a petrol station open there”.

He cranked away at the pump for a while and put the filler cap back on the car, “That will get you to the mainland” he assured me.

“Thanks” I said, “And how much will that be?”

“Ouch! You can pay me the next time you are in Stornoway” he said, dismissing it out of hand, even although I had just told him I was going back to the other side of Scotland. When I returned to the house I told them what had happened, they seemed not at all surprised at my story. The owner had done a good turn on a Sunday, but would not take any reward for that good deed, being Sunday. I asked Gordon to pay the man the next day and let me know how much it was.

“I have the winning lottery ticket right here”.

I had to steal that brilliant line, delivered by the late great Robin Williams in ‘Good Will Hunting’.

 It was early May, I was crossing the Forth Road Bridge, looking over at its new neighbour The Queensferry Crossing. What a beautiful bridge this is, slender and minimalist, you have to wonder how it will ever carry the weight of thousands of cars, and lorries ever day, I hope the designer chappy had new batteries in his calculator. Gleaming bright in the early morning sun, outshining the old road bridge that it will replace.

Arriving on the Edinburgh by-pass at around 10 am in the morning I managed to get into the wrong lane. With cars and lories flying past on both sides, I just kept on going and ended up in Wester Hails then Colinton before finding myself back on the by-pass. From here I found, the road down to Pebbles and then on into Innerleithen, this was a well- trodden path for me, and would be my stopover for the night.

I cycled over to my friend’s home, alas Willy was nowhere to be seen. Next day I visited St Ronan’s Wells, plural for there are three of them, all sporting from the slopes of Lee Pen.

These wells were a big attraction in the 19th Century, said to cure all ills. The Wellhouse was constructed in 1820 by the then Earl of Traquair for the comfort and as a retreat for visitors to the spa. It was rebuilt and extended in 1896, showing the popularity of the wells, to accommodate indoor bathing facilities and a bottling plant. The visitor centre is managed by the curator and staff of Museums and is an important venue for part of the annual Cleikum Ceremonies.

They can no longer sell St Ronan’s bottled water from the well, the name St Ronan’s is covered by copywriter, when the council sold the franchise to some Johnny Come Lately in 1960, who later absconded, the name went with him.

The festival of St Ronan’s Cleikum is held in the town each year, normally around July. Children parade through the village carrying flowers and then in the evening, the beating the retreat, this is followed by a torchlight procession, where an effigy of the De’il, to depict the ridding of the town of all evil by St Ronan’s.

I climbed to the top of the Iron Age fort on the most beautiful of mornings, with the hillside glowing golden yellow, with Whin now in full bloom. I returned via the old wool knitting mill that was once the main employer in Innerleithen, now only a shell with boarded-up windows. You can not fail but admire the workmanship that went into this building. The entry gates are a masterclass in hand-wrought ironwork.

I cycled over to Pebbles the following day and stopped in for a pint at the Keys Hotel, I remember when they had live music here, and that distinctive sweet smell of Whackie Bacci as you entered the door. A local schoolteacher once remarked, “When I come down to the Keys it is like walking into my classroom, the same faces greet me”. Yes, Pebbles was a very liberal place to be in the 70s.

Next day I packed and set out along the B709 for St. Mary’s Loch, and parked up in the lay-by above the loch.

The Yarrow Valley stretches from, more or less, coast to coast, the Solway to Selkirk and was inhabited by hunter-gatherers as early as 400 to 600. The Romans had described them as small, heavy in stature with strong limbs, (not unlike the description of the Druids). We were told they were quick to attack anyone who came into their area, but would not fight a pitched battle preferring guerrilla tactics, so not stupid. This whole valley was once covered in dense forest, and we know that Bruce used it to hide his army during their raids over the borders and down into England. It must have been plentiful in wild animals, so plentiful if fact that King James V brought 14 hundred men with him on a hunting trip to Marsh Wood. Just think how many animals they would have had to kill just to feed that many people. The forest was cleared in The 1800s to allow sheep to graze the slopes.

All was quiet in the March Wood,

A mouse found a nut and it was good.

I walked down to the western end of the loch by Tibbie Shiels Inn, a small fleet of mirror dingies had taken to the waters, alas in winds so light they were going nowhere fast. A few had run with the wind-down towards the far end of the loch, they will have a difficult job getting back from there, I thought. Crossing to the path, of sorts, on the south side, I started my circumnavigation, it is about 8 miles around the loch, but I only went as far as Cappercleuch on the north side, pretty much opposite my van, time for lunch.

In the afternoon I cycled over to Meggethead, the Megget Reservoir is new and when it was built it flooded the little village that was once there, in dry summers, they say ruinous buildings appearing from the waters. Tibbie Shiels, was a nice end to what had been the most perfect of days.

I continued down the A708 on a Sunday morning, the road is a magnet for motorcyclists, at the weekends, I can understand the attraction, but at the speed of these modern bikes, on a road that has many false summits, much like a scenic railway, and is not all that wide, ‘scary man’. Cars were parked along the roadside as I neared the Grey Marie’s Tail waterfalls. There is a car-park, and today a long way from being full. Maybe there is a parking charge, and if by the hour, would make a days walk in the hills an expensive day out. Certainly, these low lying hills made for good rambling but can be very boggy in places, watersheds for the many burns that feed into the Tail Burn and Moffat Waters.

I parked in the car-park opposite the filling station in Moffat, a sweet little town nestling in its mountain setting

I bought a tin of Moffat fudge to take back to my sister, who greeted all visitors to her home by putting on the frying pan, no matter you assuring her that you were full to bursting. The evening sun and the B7020 would take me down to Annan, and the Solway.

I did a bit of shopping in Annan then set off along the B725, finding a spot on the Nith Estuary to spend some time exploring these wildfowl wetlands. Cycling down to Caerlaverock Castle

Then up the estuary and into Dumfries the following day was a real treat. There is so much to see in this lovely little town including Burns House and the Burns Centre. Back at the van, I was finding all the travelling starting to take its told on me, I spent the next day busy doing nothing.

Back in Dumfries,

I visited the site of Greyfriars Monastery. Established in the late 13th century and it was here in 1306 that the Bruce, then Lord of Annandale and his rival John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch had a bit of a falling out. Things did not turn out well for Comyn he was stabbed to death by the Bruce. Bruce then gathered his troops and stormed Dumfries Castle, where he was surprised to come across the English justices holding a session. The justices quickly surrendered to Bruce and it was here for the first time Bruce raised Scotland’s Royal standard.

I stuck to the coast road to visit New Abbey (Sweetheart Abbey)

Then followed the A710 into Dalbeattie then onto the A711 calling in at Dundrennan Abbey for a few hours, before making my way into Kirkcudbright, another long day, so did no more exploring.

First Cardoness Castle fell under my wheels, and a few miles on I spotted a sign for Cairnholy Cairns, curiosity raised I turn off the main road onto what turned into to be a very narrow track with passing places. I have no idea what I would have done had I met another vehicle for my van was taking up the full width of the road, and with a big drop on one side, I would not have wished to go over there, forward or in reverse. Thankfully on reaching the top there was a grassy car park so I would be able to turn around for the journey back down the hill.

The cairns are in fact burial chambers, and as I walked up the hill to the first of the two up pops a bobble cap from out of the grave, I near had a heart attack, so unprepared to find someone lying in the grave pit. He was taking pictures of something carved on the stone, which was totally invisible to me. “Is this a grave?” I asked, more for something to say, rather than a direct question. Unfortunately the elderly man in the grave was an eccentric academic and started on his thesis, academic is a language way above my pay grade so I left him in his little world and went off to explore the second chamber, being much more careful this time around.

Creetown, there was a skirmish here with the Scottish forces, led by Edward, Earl of Buchan. Not much to write home to mummy about, as the English army was bearing down on them the Scots cavalry fled for the hills. Thankfully for them, the English were ill-prepared over this terrain, so most escaped. The River Cree was the limit of Edward’s 1300 invasion of Scotland, starved of funds, he headed home.

Wigtown, the Scottish book town was my stopping place for the next few days.

I camped down in the car park that had once been the harbour, now a marsh meadow since the diversion of the River Bladnoch.

Very near to the car park is the Martyr’s Stake where two women were tied to a stake at low tide and drowned when the tide came in, they had dared to be a Daniel, as in the old Salvation Army song goes, preferring to die than relinquish their faith.

Walking up the hill and into town to buy some provisions, with no fridge, this was an almost daily task. I spotted a sign outside the pub that said they not only served John Smith beer (which turned out to be untrue) but that tonight was a live music night.

When I returned a small group of locals, all with dogs of various breeds, and both humans and dogs seemed well acquainted. They were sitting on the grassy bank, I entered the van, along with one of the dogs, made a pot of tea and joined them. This is how I found out all the full story of the martyrs. The talk was about the forthcoming election, One lad was a bit strong on, all these foreigners coming into the country, all religious fanatics and terrorists with their baggy pants, he told us. I thought it strange for he was a well-spoken man, clearly well educated. “Do you know why they wear baggy pants” I asked him. And since there was no reply I went on to tell him. “They believe that the Christ child will be born of man “literally” and if they be the chosen one, they need space for the child to drop into, now anyone who has the slightest idea about the human anatomy will think, well that’s daft for a start, but what do Christians believe, is that any more plausible?” “Foreigners are simply friends we have yet to know” I went on. I’m not sure I changed his mind about anything, but it must have set him thinking. I saw them over the days I spent there and a sort of friendship sprung up amongst us, certainly, the dogs were always pleased to see me, or was it my biscuits?

No one seemed all that keen to open the proceeding that night, and I was just about to take to the stage when a lad who introduced himself as simply John set up his stall. Although not the best guitarist you will ever hear, he made up for that by having a really good voice and used it well, that was his true instrument. When I asked “Do you have any Bogle in that book of yours?” he did and obliged with, ‘Somewhere in America’, ‘Now I’m Easy’ and ‘If Wishes were Fishes’, not the usual standards you get. I was sitting at the bar blethering away to John’s wife, and somehow we touched on boats. It was then that she told me they had a ketch, now we are talking posh. Later, when her husband joined us, she mentioned the fact that I sailed and he suggested I go out with him and his friend on a sailing trip tomorrow, I could hardly contain my excitement. Next morning early, I quickly stowed away and headed on the road for Stranraer.

There is deep water there so no problems with the tide. I knew Stranraer well, we used the Stranraer to Larne ferry a lot in my RAF days. Now that the ferry terminal has moved down the coast to Cairnryan, Stranraer has faded to a backwater and a shadow of its former self, I was physically shocked at its demise. Sadly, for whatever reason, John never showed, I left my e-mail address with the harbour master, a woman as it turned out, who said she would pass on my message, for maybe another day, but I have heard nothing from John since.

I retraced my steps to Glenluce Abbey, founded around 1192 by Cistercian monks, possibly from Dundrennan Abbey.

Cistercian monks lived an austere lifestyle, working themselves into an early grave, work that can still be gleaned from the beautiful architecture they left behind. When much of the rubble was cleared from the ruins of the abbey in 1933, artifices were discovered and are now on display in the visitor centre.

When Robert the Bruce, now King of Scotland, made his final journey to Whithorn, he travelled down the coast resting at several places along the way including Glenluce Abbey. And I was now following in the footsteps of the Bruce. Bruce may have secured independence from England in 1328 but it was at a cost. He was only 54 but his body was racked with a skin disease after a lifetime of harsh living. It was in 1329 he made a last pilgrimage from his home at Cardross to Whithorn to pray at St Ninian’s Shrine.

A pious man who still bore the scars for the murder of John Comyn, and the death of his loved ones. I visited St Ninian’s Chapel and the hermits’ cave along the shore.

Time to head back north, but before leaving this magical land, I spend another day simply doing not very much. I read a bit of Tranter’s Trilogy, ‘The Mater of Gray’ and listened to music or simply wandered the shore. Next day I would be heading for Ayr.

On reaching Ayr I parked up on the promenade and headed for Wetherspoon’s a pub that serves early breakfast and has a five-star toilet, and I was able to go back online from there. As I browsed my e-mails and there were many for I had been out of touch for so long now. After breakfast, I cycled over to the Light House

Then on to the Tam o’ Shanter experience and the Burns national heritage park. By the time I returned to the van, I was feeling my age, this holiday had been, needed and I had seen some beautiful sights and met up with some great people, but it was time for home.

Once I had left Stranraer I felt like I was back in the rat race, I turned off onto the A719 at Turnberry, just to get away from the traffic. I spotted the sign for the Electric Brae, now they say you freewheel up the brae, so to put it to the test. I parked up and set off on my bicycle, it was not that exciting, you did get the feeling you were going uphill by not having to put in much effort, but I think that was more down to the effect of the topography than the hill, sort of an optical illusion, still, you can cross one more thing off that bucket list.

The A 737 whisked me up onto the M8 for the Forth Bridge and home. Again the van never missed a beat, the weather had been perfect. I loved the border country, so tranquil, and the area around Wigtown Bay and Luce Bay. But when you leave Stranraer you leave all that tranquillity behind.

North, South, East or West, Home is still best.

My father had been away from the sea for many years, but it was always there in his blood. Father was well into retirement when a replica of the Mayflower, the ship that had taken the Pilgrim Fathers over to the New World was recreated. Their intention was to retrace the voyage taken by the Pilgrim Fathers 400 years earlier. Mayflower 11, sailed from Plymouth Devon, on April 20th 1957 arriving in Plymouth Massachusetts on June 22nd 1957

An advert had been placed in the national newspaper, asking for men, versed in handling old sailing ships, to join the crew. Dad applied (but did not mention his age) he was sent a ticket to go down to (I believe it was Bristol), for an interview. They told him he was well qualified – BUT he was what the insurance man would call a bad risk, dad did not sail with the Mayflower, number one or two.

Anytime he heard of a special ship coming into any port in Scotland he would head there, with me on the back of his motorbike. I can not remember what year it was exactly, but I do remember dad taking me over to Leith Docks, Edinburgh, to see the Southern Harvester built-in 1945, it sailed south for the 1946-47 waling season, but it would have been well after that date when we visited. The Salvesen factory ship, had a huge slip cut in the stern so that whales could be dragged up onto the deck for fleshing-out.

This ship, along with her sister ship Southern Venturer, changed the way whales would be done in Antarctica. Whales would now be located, by helicopter from the ship’s deck. Hunted down by hunter boats, fast enough to outrun whales. Then picked up by the factory ship, that followed in the wake of the killing boats. Once the whale was pulled onboard, it would be quickly fleshed out on the deck and rendered onboard. No longer were there a need to tow whales back to a shore base. Economic and efficient dispatching of whales, almost to extinction. Thankfully the industry became uneconomic before that happened, with the introduction of mineral oils, in engineering, and palm oils for soap and margarine manufacturing.

I read much later that during an ocean survey of the seas of the South Atlantic, the scientists had found that the lack of whales had allowed the krill to flourish to the extent that they turned the surface waters into a living soup. Inadvertently man had upset the Eco-system of Antarctica.

Now I don’t care if you hate Alex Salmond, or that you thing RT (RussianTelevision) is all Russian propaganda, to be avoided at all cost. Today you must watch the Alex Salmond Show on RT (repeated at 14:30 –15:00 and again 19:30 – 20:00). Why? His guests today are Dr Chris Smith – The Naked Scientist and Dr Huge Montgomery, world-renowned scientists and medical doctors, and they will inform you, in a simple easy to understand, all you need to know about coronavirus. Why it is so dangerous. Why some suffer more than others from this virus. How it leaves a footprint that goes on attacking the body long after the virus has gone from the body. And finally “Is there a cure?” you may be surprised at Dr Smiths summing up of the future, this virus is not going away anytime soon.

 October

Another fine day, very autumnal, with skies clear and chilled, then the sun rises, boy, was it beautiful, my kind of day. The leaves that had hung limp on the trees here in town are now torn free in a strong southern wind, now they dance unrehearsed across the lawn, and the holy tree outside my window is massed with bright red berries.

Trees devoid of leaves looking rather forlorn,

Casualties of frost and autumn storm,

But one remains to delight,

Leaved green as emeralds,

Berries red,

Berries bright.

I had spent the morning preparing the van, for my trip, Eva Cassidy for company.

I planed to passing through Cupar then Scotland Wells, before travelled up through Glenfarg and on to Methven.

It was in mid-June when Bruce approached Perth a heavily walled town at that time and challenged Valence, come out and fight or surrender the town. Valence replied that being Sunday lets leave the fighting until tomorrow, Bruce taking him at his word moved to Methven a few miles west of Perth and set up camp. Valence men burst into their camp without warning and it turned into all but a rout Bruce managed to escape with his life but lost many good men. This was a low point for Bruce. There is nothing to see here now but if you listen hard you can still hear echoes of the past. Bruce and those that had survived made their way to Inchaffray where he found sanctuary with Abbot Maurice.

At Gilmerton I headed up into the Sma’ Glen and set up camp in this beautiful glen by the crystal waters of the Almond.

The Sma’ Glen has been used since the earliest days of man’s understanding as a highway linking the highlands with the lowlands, the main road from Inverness to Edinburgh, at that time and used much by drovers to bring their cattle to the markets at Crieff and all places south. They tell of the times when thirty thousand cattle would pass through this glen each year, and how the lowing of the beasts could be heard for miles around, a strong aroma too I wouldn’t wonder. The two large hotels that once serviced the passing trade have been redeveloped one now a modern art gallery. There was an information board in the car park, tells how the inhabitants went off to find a better life, many Scottish historians would take issue with that.

In truth the inhabitants were driven from their ancestral lands by greedy corrupt chieftains who stole the land. This was the time of the Napoleonic wars with food need to feed vast armies, these greedy men could smell profit. The rents they gained from crofters hardly covered their gambling losses, mutton would bring better reward. The time was known as the Highland Clearances but was Ethnic Cleansing by any other name. With many young men seconded into the army, doing their bit for the British Empire, a euphemism for cannon fodder for French guns, and with only old men, women and children remaining it was easy work now to drive them off their crofts and burn them out so they would not be able to return. This was done under the legally under the guise of ‘Estate Improvement’ many given eviction notices only had the Gaelic so would not have been able to read or understand the request and stayed put, this left them open to forceful and harsh eviction.

September, Thursday.

The weather still held and it was a short journey up to Aberfeldy, a beautiful little town on the banks of the River Tay. I parked up alongside the Black Watch Memorial and went for a wander around the town. The old cinema has been converted into a café leisure centre still retaining an auditorium and outside a board announced a film that would be showing that day. Much more interesting, however, was a small notice announcing an open music night.

Back at base, I made lunch then set off to cycle up to the Birks of Aberfeldy, a glen with picnic area and footpaths throughout the wood and following the burn that cascades down a number of falls. I was surprised to see so many folks out, then again, the weather was very pleasant.

The music night was very special; fiddlers and accordion players, like stepping back in time to the Fiddlers Rally days, that once graced our television screens. Then we had folk songs, old favourites such as the Streets of London, a flute solo, vocalists gave us everything from Burns to Dundee folk. One young girl played Beethoven and Brahms on the electronic piano, set to sound like a harpsichord. Most played two or thee instruments and one very dexterity player, the fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and superbly, the banjo. We all joined in singing along to his medley of banjo music including his interpretation of ‘Grandfather’s Clock’. Real talent personified.

Friday and another sort journey up over the hill and down into Tummel Bridge, named after the old Wade Bridge that crosses the river at this point.

I made camp in the Forestry Commission car park and set off for the dam that feeds the hydropower station near to the bridge.

It is an easy climb up the forestry track and onto the metal road that follows the aqueduct carries water from the dam to the turbine hall. The aqueduct snakes it way rather than a straight flow, possibly to stop a surge of water.

Reversing my footsteps at the dam I passed my entry point and followed the aqueduct to its conclusion where it enters huge pipes that carry the water down to the turbine hall. The water in the canal seems genteel enough but when you see it exit at the turbine hall and back into the river you get some idea of the volumes of water involved.

Saturday

I was slow to get moving, after breakfast I started packing my case with bedding and clothes and cleaning up the van for the homeward journey. Travelling over by the Queen’s View

Then Pitlochry where I stopped and cycled up to the fish ladder and theatre, taking time out there for lunch.

 In the stairwell of the theatre hangs a tapestry, it was created by a young lass who lived in Pebbles at the time of its making. She also received a commission for a large tapestry for the Bank of Scotland building in London. Her loom was so large for her home, a small roadman’s cottage just outside Pebbles. I saw her often working away in the old dilapidated water mill, on the other side of Pebbles. A barn of a place, the holes where the windows should have been covered over with polythene sheets. There she sat day after day in the depth of winter, her newborn baby wrapped up in a cot by her side, a suffering artist right enough.

I was privileged to see some of her painting, that would be used in the design of finished tapestries, each one a work of art in its own right. 

Then onto Kindrogan, Bridge of Cally, Blairgowrie, Rattray and on down into Perth. I had chosen to go via Blairgowrie hoping to seen the Beech Hedges moving into autumn colour

But alas I was too early but impressive enough in any season.

The van never missed a beat and I am finding it a pleasure to drive, even the kerbs don’t jump out at my back wheels any more. It was never cold enough to light the stove in earnest but I loved to kindle it at night and lie on my bunk crooning away to myself, as I watched the flames dance their way around bulkhead and cabin roof. There is something magical about a living fire, flames roaring up the lum and wood crackling, with stove pipe glowing cherry red in the darkness. And the smell of hot cast iron, that assaults you’r nostrils and dwells in you’r mind as a life long memory.

Travelling home there was a strong smell of diesel in the cab, I pulled into a lay by and found one of the return pipes from the injectors was spraying diesel everywhere, I tried unsuccessfully to stop it, finally wrapping it in insulation tape but the diesel simply dissolved the glue, still, I did manage to stop much of the flow. Cleaning down the engine and fixing the return pipe, one more job to add to an overgrowing list of to-do jobs. One other modification I have in mind, the small stove is so efficient at burning wood that it would take a full-time stoker along with a small sawmill to keep it going. I found an old paint tin lid and put it over the bars in the bottom of the stove, this helped reduce the airflow and put a heart in the fire, at home, I will make a heavy plate to replace the paint tin lid, but then this is what shakedown runs are about.

Home once more, I switched on the television for the news and I found I was not ready for the world just yet. Afternoon television must be the best cure for insomnia known to man, for I was quickly asleep in the big chair, long before the news was over.

My story started with my little Yorkshire Terrier, ‘Captain Tim’, a name given to him by members of the sailing fraternity since he accompanied me on many a sea voyage. It was the consensus of opinion that he, Tim, was the true skipper on board. I had Captain Tim for seventeen years and I assure you when it was time to put him down, it was like asking me to kill my only child.

That year I was also recovering from a broken leg, having dropped a motorcycle on top of it, and I lost one more sister to cancer, this was not a good time for me. Irene and I lived next door to one another, we were in and out of each other’s homes all the time and I would drive her around for shopping and the likes so that was a big shock. We would go to meetings and conferences together and many a time she would get me out of myself when I was a bit depressed and did not wish to go out.

When I lost Irene, I needed a new outlet, something to get me out of the house and doing something, the van provided that, it is no exaggeration to say that the van became my saviour.

The van, project was started in spring 2016. it started with the purchased of an old (1999), LDV van. Sometime in the past, it had the chassis extended at the rear and a van body attached, converting it to carry a car for autocross. Although a bit Heath Roberson, it was in very good mechanical conditions, since as race transport it would have to be reliable, but came with a good few battle scars, along with a duff exhaust and dodgy wiring, “If it is cheap, then it had to be good”.

The initial idea was to put the bare minimum in the rear and take off, just get away for a while, rambling, with a dry bed at night. The first couple of trips never further than 50 miles just to see how things went. I loved those trips so much, I decided to make it a bit more comfortable and more usable. After getting it through an MOT, renewing the road tax and insurance. This was followed by a lot of skip raking culminating in the finished product you now see.

The van was lined with insulation, and then further lined with a quarter inch plywood, sorry I still think in old money. I did not wish the Swiss sauna look so stuck carpet and coloured cloth over the plywood sheets, as a bonus this acted as further insulation and too my mind looks brilliant. A false ceiling was installed, so I did not have the problem with trying to fit plywood around the tight curvature of the roof to sides and as a bonus left a void for running the cables. The knackered, roll-up rear door was replaced with a double glazed house door, from a skip in Anstruther, changing the old lock, since it did not come with a key, was a challenge, but the internet came to my rescue. Double glazed windows from a skip in St Andrews. There was already a water tank, pump fitted under the floor so just a good clean and a stainless steel sink, from the same skip in St Andrews, replaced the plastic basin and water jerry can. For those times that I might be caught out with all the public loos locked for the night a ‘new to me’, ‘made in Italy’ porta-potty, not too many people can boast that they have an Italian designed toilet in their van. The cooker and grill and oven combo replaced my primus stove. The van’s deep cycle battery was wired up to two solar panels total output 300W and in turn, wired through a 240volt inverter and household consumer box. All cable runs, plugs and sockets were household types, readily available, and found in most renovation job skips. All light are LED with LED downlighters in the ceiling.

I found on the first trips that the bed was too low, getting in and out was an effort, ‘old aged does not come alone’. So I used an old single wardrobe on its back, doors removed and in their place a 6 X 4-foot sheet of 1 inch thick Stirling board. Ikea supplied the base and mattress, bought second hand and is much more comfortable than my bed at home. There is lots of storage below, you might say a wardrobe full, this had been divided into two equal halves, mostly to strengthen the wardrobe, one side holds all my bedding. There was accommodation over the cab if required but I use that for storage too.

I also found that getting towels and clothes dry when caught out in the rain was difficult so bought a small wood burning stove on e-bay. Although tiny it keeps me snug and warm, and only needs to be on for an hour or so to have the place cosy and dry as a bone, I gather pine and fir cones when out walking and a handful was all that was required to have the wee stove glowing cherry red.

The body of the van being fibreglass I had to separate the stove pipe from the fibreglass roof. This was achieved with a balanced flue, salvaged from an industrial heating system. The balanced flue is unobtrusive and works well even on very windy days. That said I did suffer a blowback once when setting a fire on a very stormy day, blowing out the fire and filled the van with smoke and setting the fire alarm to scream its head off, the van smelt like a fire-damaged carpet store for some time after that incident. The secret I learned was to get the stove pipe heated up as quickly as possible and that is where the pine/fir cones come into their own, ever ready to induce to flame.

The outside of the van body was rubbed down, filled, where necessary sanded down and given an undercoat and coat of semi-gloss paint, (years of owning old wooden boats teaches you a lot about paint and vanish). All this was done with a roller and turned out surprisingly well, not at all a Swan Vesta finish. It did look rather plain, well it was a large flat area, so I added some graphic design to break it up, maybe not to everyone’s taste.

I was lucky to find a boatyard willing to allow me to park it out the back and use their electricity and some tools that I did not have, such as a table saw. I did pay storage for the privilege but well worth it for knowing it is safe and secure and will not be vandalised. So now I move onto phase two, taking it on tour.

Before I did I bought a 20” LED TV/DVD player, that would work from 12V or 240 Volts, for those times when you just want to curl up in the bunk and watch Casablanca, one more time, or engross myself in a good book with audio wallpaper in the background and the wee stove doing its stuff as the kettle sings along with Eva Cassidy; yes life is sometimes just that good.

“Tell me Rick, why did you come to Casablanca?” – “I came here for my health, to take the waters” – “But there is no water in Casablanca, it’s a desert” – “Then I must have been misinformed”, yes the old ones are still the best.

Tomorrow – my shakedown trip.

I packed my scooter and headed off over the Forth Bridge, and down to Newcastle. The trip down through Border country was pleasant in warm, cruise at a steady 80 kph. One thing you get on a bike, scooter or motorcycle, is the smells around you and today the air was thick with oilseed rape, golden yellow, ripening in fields along the way.

Newcastle Ferry Terminal and the ferry awaited my arrival, I joined a flock of bikers from the Netherlands and Germany climbing the ramp and into the belly of the beast, all butterflies from early morning excitement had by now long gone, I was on my way and in the holiday mood.

King Seaways was a splendid ship boasting 12 decks I spent the evening down in the Navigator Bar sipping my John Smith’s, at these prices, very slowly. I was enjoying the live entertainment very much and joining in with some of the old standards, penned by greats such as Denver, Holly and Holland, Dylan and the likes, by now the singer was floating, singing his heart out. He sang of Memphis, New York and LA, songs of places that he’s possibly never visited, then when he sings his songs he is already there. I watched from the large picture windows the summer sky turn first to twilight then dusk, a sight so familiar to me, sitting at the helm of my old folk boat Maggie.

The cabin was on deck 9 complete with bunk, shower, toilet and me its sole benefactor, comfortable and warm, snug under my duvet I passed the night sailing on a flat calm sea with only the slightest of swell, just enough to give the sensation of being on board a ship, “Oh for a soft and gentle wind” I heard a fair one cry. I slept like the preverbal log as the ship ploughed on into the night.

One other group I met up onboard, were three old lads from Newcastle, their bicycles were of various shapes sizes and generation. Seems they visit Holland regularly and cycle all over, sometimes visiting the outlying islands, been doing it for years. I reeled off some of the places I hoped to visit. I told them I was hoping to stay in Jorplace (sort of youth hostel) and if the weather is fine maybe a spot of camping. They, in turn, would be staying with a Dutch phenomenon “Friends of the Bicycle”. We talked about cycling and when they found out that I had been a keen cyclist, they suggested I come on board, join them on one of their adventures.

Jorplace and Stayokay are great but you have to be a bit open-minded for they are mixed bedrooms and most of your roommates will be in there late teens and mostly under thirty so a bit bolsters, having just been ejected from college or university and having past their exams they are now out to enjoy what life has to offer them. All Jorplace have what is best described as a students union bar attached with live music most nights. I adore Dutch live music, a sort of improvised music, mixing jazz, blues. You are listening to a classic such as Rolling Stones, then in will creep, Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf Oscar Peterson may join in too. I have only heard this in Holland in France they have a totally different style of Rock with a Jazz fugue.

My first night was spent in Alkmaar, this was a nostalgic trip for me, when I was stationed in Germany with the RAF I cycled a lot in Holland, it was a natural choice since my camp was right on the border with Holland. If you make the trip to Holland, do not miss a visit to the cathedral of Alkmaar and see (and if possible hear) is a great organ. I listened to my friend play Bach on this great organ, the first notes struck filled the cathedral and brought the whole building to life, I still hear that Toccata and Fugue in my head even today. I now have Bach’s works on CD but nothing will come close to such an experience. It had been a long day of travel and sightseeing so I was glad to pitch my tent Droom Park Molengoet at 20.15 Euro.

Amsterdam

I spent a morning mostly shopping for groceries, I picnic a lot, crusty bread filled with cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and more cheese, after a week cheese becomes a bad word, and my camping stove provides me with endless cups of tea, although I am very fond of Dutch-made coffee, it could easily become habit-forming. I found an internet café and sent an e-mail to my sister to tell her I was on an open-ended tour of Holland, well she may be wondering where I am, anyway I didn’t want to see my photo splashed across the billboards, “Have you seen this man” or have Interpol track me down.

Den Haag

Where I hired a bicycle and set off for the Carnegie Peace Hall. I left my message ribbon on the Wishing Tree at the entrance, and spent the remainder of the day trailing up and down the small narrow streets full of shops selling bric-a-brac, old wooden clogs and tie on ice skates might look good as design objects I suppose, in my home stour collectors.

Delft

It was only a hop skip and a jump over to Delft where I was booked into a Jorplace found online at the internet café, I cycled back to Den Haag returned the bicycle and collected my scooter, the day again had been a long one and tiring.

I love the attitude of the Dutch, if you don’t like an EU mandate well, adopt, but only in spirit, like smoking in the bar, when I said I was surprised that so many young people were smoking, the barman said it’s a Dutch thing if the majority of those in tonight wish to smoke and the bar staff are happy with that then we turn a blind eye. The bar at the jorplace was heaving all enjoying a group of musicians, none of whom played in a band or regularly together, it was a jamming session of and although it did take time for them to blend, it soon became clear these were top-notch musicians.

I packed it in at midnight, old age does not come alone, but the youngsters partied on. Delft, of course, gives its name to a certain type of pottery, now the tourist shops are full of the stuff all I’m sure straight from a container that morning with Chinese writing along its length, so I bought two, one for each of my sisters as souvenirs, well it did say “Hand painted in Delft” and a bargain at three for five Euro, well you never know when you may need another mug, I use it as a pen holder.

Next morning I trailed around the city, museums and street market that was going full pelt, not only in the market place but up and down the canal sides. Late afternoon and I had enough of towns and cities so headed out to Scheveningen. The Jorplace there recommended by the manager of the one in Delft, who sold it to me with a promise that I would get a discount by telling them I had stayed in the one at Delft the night before, turned out the discount was a free beer, but why do they only fill the glass three-quarters full?

For anyone who loves, sun, sea and sand, this is the place for you, sand, miles of the stuff and if you are into surfing or wish to learn you could not find a better spot. Jor Benefits they tell you are free WIFI and internet, including sheets, lounge, bar, terrace and pool table, free lockers, outside fireplace, and best of all “No Curfew”. All this for a price of 19 Euro, I did use the bar but mostly just soaked up the rays.

Bugger

The next day it was the long run down to Bugger, with some beautiful traditional Dutch building. My Jorplace tonight was once an old cinema and if this were in the UK the Health and Safety man would have a field day before closing it down. Certainly, none of these building would pass the House of Multiple Occupancy law in the UK. This one has a very American theme with the walls coved in licence plates from most ever American state. Old gas pumps, motorcycles and endless American movie posters of a bygone era. If they ever get into financial difficulties they can sell the walls. The likelihood of that ever happening is a long way off, if the number of young people gathered inside and spilling all the way out into the street was any indication of its popularity. It is great to see young people enjoying themselves, not constantly playing with smartphones and deaf to the world with plugs in their ears listening to their music. I shared the room with six others, bunks are normally two tears high, I did not see mu roommates when I turned in at around one o’clock that morning. Next morning I was up for breakfast at around eight and the room looked as if there had been an explosion in a Chinese laundry, clothes scattered to the four winds, clearly neat and tidy is something only Dutch mums know about. The bunks were full, heaps of white duvet with the odd arm or leg protruding for them, which along with the mess in the room led me to believe all were male, young ladies would not live in such a mess, would they? Breakfast is as ever Continental and DIY. Most mornings I would plunk for toast, layered thick with butter and chocolate spread, or for a change possibly jam or marmalade, this is washed down with numerous cups of delicious coffee, sometimes life is just that good.

Boulogne

My time was drawing to a close, holiday time for me is relevant to my savings at that time and mine were depleting fast. However no trip to the continent would be possible without a visit to my grandfather’s war grave at Boulogne (he died at the Somme).

The suns shining now on this green field in France,

The soft winds blow gently and the red poppies dance,

The trenches have vanished long under the plough,

No gas, no barbed wire no guns firing now,

But here in this graveyard, it’s still no man’s land,

The countless white crosses in mute witness stand,

To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,

And a whole generation that was butchered and dammed.

No man’s land by Eric Bogle.

Homeward

The trip home turned into a marathon, I had boarded a late afternoon ferry at Calais arriving in Dover at around seven in the evening. The first part of my plan was too travelled up the M20 onto the M25 – M11 – and pick up the A1 just north of Cambridge. The first part of my plan worked to perfection. Part two, book into a Travel Lodge for the night, I, like Mary before me, found no room at the inn. I must have tried half a dozen up the A1 all to no avail; I had little option but to keep on heading north. By around ten o’clock I was finding it hard to concentrate and when I pulled in for fuel I could have happily flopped down next to my machine and happily would have gone off to sleep.

I bought a large Costa coffee from the machine and a cookie which seemed to do the trick, the shot of caffeine revived my flailing body. The carrot I dangled in front of me was breakfast at the big service station just before Newcastle. On arrival there, I found it a shadow of its formal self, showing its age and badly in need of repair. The franchise too had changed no big fry up on offer. I chose an egg and mushroom muffin that they take away and heat, possibly in a microwave oven, and a large pot of tea. Hungers good kitchen I suppose but it tasted Okay and the tea helped it on its way. I spotted a large leather settee with big soft cushions and as soon as my bum got planted in it I fell fast asleep. I woke to the sound of a clattering tea tray and headed back over the bridge to my stead, it was around 4 am and the light was creeping into the sky, a sky that turned pink then red as the morning broke, another fine day in the making. I would make it home in the dry. Once back over the bridge the familiar roads simply slipped bye under my wheels and an unsteady rider dismounted and dragged his machine onto its stand in Elie, where I left it to its own devices and without many sermons flopped into bed at around 08.00hours.  

I grow up in a time of ‘radio’ listening to the radio, was all about using your imagination, and possibly why many programmes that had been successful on radio, when introduced to the new television, simply fell flat. Much of the comedy broadcast on the BBC radio, would be the Navy Lark, Round the Horn and the Goons. I love all of these. However, when it came to music the BBC was dismal. The music union was strong in the BBC, you had to be a member of the union to get a job, which would mean being able to read music, ruling out much of the popular musicians of the day. What we were exposed to was popular music played and rearranged for the BBC Concert Orchestra.

When still, at school, come evening, (if the weather was playing ball) we would listen to Radio Luxembourg. Sundays: 6.15 Ovaltiney’s Concert Party, we would all sing along “We are the Ovaltiney’s, little girls and boys………. Sponsored by Ovaltine.

Mondays: 7.15 pm The Adventures of Dan Dare, “Pilot of the future” I would sit with an ear pressed up to the radio speaker for the fifteen minutes serial broadcast on Monday and Friday. Noel Johnson, the voice of Dan Dare was hypnotic, (Noel Johnston, was also the voice of Dick Barton (special agent) on BBC radio around the same time.

Around 1960 Radio Luxembourg, started to target more and more a growing teenage market, playing pop music and by 1963, almost all the station’s output was based around the playing of music from discs.

This did not happen in isolation and would have been a direct response to the Pirate Radio Stations.

Amongst the first of these was Radio Caroline (started broadcasting in 1964) and radio London, broadcasting on medium wave from offshore ships and disused sea forts. These stations were not illegal at that time. The UK government later closed the loophole when it brought in the International Waters bill via the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967, Although Radio Caroline, would continue to broadcast in various forms right up 1999. The new law would hand back control to the BBC, therefore, the Westminster government. (with the government firmly in control of the content, they would say what you should or should not listen too).

The pirate radios had a daily audience of 10 to 15 million listeners, despite this the BBC Light Programme’s audience did not decrease, indicating that the pirate radio had found a new audience or created a new demand. For those ill-served by mainstream and legal radio, pirate radio filled the void, mostly this was in the black and ethnic communities. Many of these stations are still broadcasting today. One that is not, a pirate radio, broadcast from the home of a young lad in Peebles. It was total crap, and possibly why it was listened too. The police were forever going around to his door and telling him to close down. Finally, the threat of legal action persuaded him to stop broadcasting.

In 1965, Tommy Shields purchased the Comet, a decommissioned lightship for £7,000 and added a further £14,000 adapting Comet into a floating radio station. Back then record companies introduced “needle-time” restricting the number of discs that radio the station could broadcast in an average week. The reasoning behind this was they believed (wrongly as it turned out) that if people heard their records played constantly on the airwaves record sales would plummet, the opposite was true, people on hearing the record played on the radio induced them to dash out and buy the record.

Radio Scotland was launched shortly before midnight on Hogmanay 1965 in the estuary of the River Forth, off Dunbar.

Radio Scotland lacked the polished sound of Radio London and Britain Radio, backed by big bucks and expertise from America. Radio Scotland focused on chart music, with a mix of Scottish country dance and easy listening, sounding uniquely “couthy”.

Despite protest, The Marine Offences Act came into effect at midnight on the 14th August 1967, ending Tommy Shields’ dream of Scotland having it own radio station, and just to kick a man and (Scotland) when they are down, the BBC changed the name to Radio Scotland, although its content was produced and vetted as it always had been.

Although short-lived Radio Scotland did help to fast track Scotland into the “Swinging Sixties”.  

It would have been 1964 or 1965, when I attended my first Shetland Pony sale at Baltasound Unst. A ship was anchored at the small pier, ready to take the ponies to the mainland (Aberdeen) after they had been through the auction. There was no ring, or enclosure as such, just people standing in a circle, I could hardly believe that there were this many people on the Shetlands, so vast were their numbers, all kept warm with the help of bottles of whiskey that were being passed around the gathering. The ponies were led into the middle of the circle and paraded around, I had never seen a Shetland Pony this close before, they were tiny.

Some happily followed the handler, others kicked at the tether, rearing up on hind legs, it is then you realised, these were wild animals and had spent most of their lives free to roam the pastures of the islands.

The first sale of Shetland foals at Baltasound took place in October 1958, prices were high, fillies making up to 116 guineas, foals up to 82 guineas. I can not remember the exact prices at the time I attended, but they were in pounds not guineas and ranged from under £100.00 to £160.00. These were good prices, for before the war ponies had been selling for 5s and during the depression, (between the wars) ponies had been worthless.

I had been standing next to a crofter who went by the name of Priestman, he sold three pones that day and was delighted with the prices, they had sold well.

Years later I was abiding in Edinburgh and working at Scottish Agriculture Industry (SAI) at Leith docks. One of the two riggers there was a Shetlander, he had spent his former years as an AB in the Merchant Navy. We rubbed along well together, but it was much later that I noticed his surname on the clock card, Priestman. Well, I never the crofter I had been standing beside at the pony sale had been none other than his father. It’s a small world and no mistake. We had much to talk about after that revelation.

Turned out he was the black sheep of the family, for he was unable to play either an accordion or fiddle, (That indeed would mark you out as an outsider in Unst at that time). His sibling sisters certainly could, I had been invited to a few parties at the Priestman farm over my time there, all of the family seemed to be able to play both instruments and would happily swap one for the other with ease, but why do these fiddler rally tunes all sound the same?

G3SVK

threewheelsonmywaggon

RAF Saxa Vord, (potted history)

Saxa Vord was located on the island of Unst, the most northern island in Scotland. In fact, everything there is the most northerly, lighthouse, post office…….. and you will find the nearest railways station is in Norway. I remember Unst in early 1960 before North Sea Oil, then it was a pretty remote place to be. A few crofts, people earning their living from their land, and from inshore fishing around the islands. The land would provide peat to heat their homes and grazing for their sheep and cows. The annual pony sales would bring in a few extra bucks, the value of these beasts would be dependent on what colour was in vogue with the Pony Clubs in the south of England.

So what made Saxa Vord so attractive to the military? Saxa Vord, the name comes from the hill at the north end of the Island of Unst, at 935 feet (285km/h) that may not seem very impressive, but when everything for miles around is sea it makes sense to site your early warning radio/radar station there. Saxa Vord is further north than Saint Petersburg, and on the same latitude as Anchorage in Alaska. However Saxa Vord does come with its problems, links with the mainland are poor, and it does get some severe weather, sunshine one minute, snow the next and holds the dubious accolade of the highest wind speeds recorded anywhere in the British Isles, with wind recorded in 1992 at 197 mph (317 kn/h).

By the end of the war 1945, there were two radar sites in existence, Saxa Vord hill and Skaw on the east coast. Part of the Chain Home radar network.

In 1955 the AMES Type 80 radar, with much greater range, was installed at Saxa Vord giving a good coverage of a large expanse of the North Sea. In 1956 the rotor system of Type 80 was ripped from its mounts and hurtled 50 yards away by winds gusting to 177 mph.

RAF Saxa Vord was a vital part of Britain’s air defence during the Cold War, at a time when NATO and Russia played their little war game. During my time, it was the English Electric Lightning aircraft, that would be sent up like Roman Candles, lighting up the skies on afterburners. Off to intercept the Soviet planes and stop then from entering UK airspace. The RAF station on Unst, consisted of three sites: the domestic site, the technical site and the married quarters called Setters Hill Estate (SHE).

In 2005 the RAF announced that RRH Saxa Vord would close. The Type 93 radar was approaching obsolescence and was increasingly difficult to maintain, (the always had been). It was considered that with a reduced threat funding would be diverted to other defence priorities, (no refund for the poor taxpayer? Not to worry taxpayer have deep pockets). RRH Saxa Vord closed in April 2006, the radar dismantled and the site placed on care and maintenance. In April 2007, Saxa Vord’s Domestic site and the road up to the Mid site were bought by Military Assets Management (MAM)

Fred the Sleepless Wonder.

Amateur Radio Operators, or Radio Ham’s.

It is hard to believe today, in an era of internet streaming and downloading of everything from films to music and text, that not so long ago we only had the radio.

Radio waves were proved to exist by Heinrich Rudolf Hertz in 1888, and adapted into a communication system in 1890 by the Italian Guglielmo Marconi. By the turn of the century there were many amateur wired telegraphers setting up their own interconnection telegraphic systems, but not until Marconi did we get wireless telegraphy. Magazines such as ‘Amateur Work’ showed how to build simple systems based on Hertz’ early experiments. Amateur radio clubs began to spread around the globe, By1910, the expansion was, manic and amateur radio soon became a casualty of its own success.

Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912, restricting private stations to wavelengths of 200 meters or shorter (1500 kHz or higher.) Following this Act the number of radio hobbyists in the US dropped by as much as 88%. Other countries were soon to follow suit. And the following year of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the International Convention of the Safety of Life at Sea was convened and produced a treaty requiring shipboard radio stations to be manned 24 hours a day, it was also the beginning of the US federal licensing of amateur radio operators and stations. The term “Ham” was coined by professional operators.

During the 1950s, hams helped pioneer the use of single-sideband modulation for HF voice communication. And by the late 1950s, a radio ham was instrumental in keeping the US Naval personnel stationed in Antarctica in contact with loved ones back home during the International Geophysical Year, and in 1961 the first orbital amateur radio satellite was launched. OSCAR 1 would be the first of a series of amateur radio satellites created throughout the world.

During the Falklands War, 1982, it was a Scottish amateur radio operator, Les Hamilton, GM3ITN that kept London in communications with the islands when the Argentine forces seized control of the phones and radio network.

One other hero on the Armature radio scene, was Fred, George 3 Sugar Victor Kilo. I met Fred when we were servicing equipment up at Saxa Vord. He was also in the RAF and stationed on the permanent staff there. His posting was for 18 months and during that time he managed to contact the majority of armature radio hams from across the world.

Back at out base in Kinloss, I would receive messages from Fred asking if on our next trip I could bring up, X feet of 300 lbs copper wire, insulators …… he wished to try out a new aerial.

As I have said you would be hard-pressed to find a better place than Saxa Vord to site a radio station. Think of it as an upturned teacup on a large saucer. The teacup was the 935 feet (285km/h) hill on the island, on top of which a 90-foot lattice wooden towers stood. And the saucer as the sea that surrounded it. Now think of a modern satellite dish, get the picture. One other advantage, Fred had was he was able to bounce radio waves off the ionosphere, the ionized part of the earth’s upper atmosphere, from about 37 miles (60 km) to 620 miles (1,000 km). And in this way could shoot radio signals over the North Pole and down the west coast of America.

We installed the inverted V aerial for Fred, its apex at the uppermost limit of the tower its two legs cut to a set length, insulated from the ground and spread out to form the inverted V. This was attached to his 70 Watt, homebuilt, transmitter in the radio shack, via a low loss cable. When we had finished our work, Fred sent out a CQ-CQ-CQ he was immediately inundated with replies from the west coast of America. Every radio ham, worthy of his salt wanted Fred’s calling card. What amazed the Americans most was that Fred was transmitting with only a 70 Watt kit, they were transmitting in kilowatts. I was amazed at just who clear their voices came over the speaker, like they were only down the road from us, the telephones on the island were less clear.

It was years later I was in the home of an ex RAF flight engineer called Gordon Moat, who had been an amateur radio ham in his time. When he told me this, I retold my story of Fred and his inverted V aerial. He quickly went off into his den and returned, with a back issue of an armature radio ham magazine. They’re filling the front cover, and as large as life was Fred. The headline read “Fred, The Sleepless Wonder”. It told of Fred’s explodes on Saxa Vord, how he had worked all these stations, and saying how there must now be a partial eclipse of the sun on Unst, with all the aerials Fred has accumulated. (Partial and full eclipse of the sun was not uncommon on Unst, and nothing to do with Fred or his aerials).

The Shetlands was the place we went to frequently, sometimes it would be Sumburgh Airport, if it was something urgent like the navigation light at the top of our guyed mast then a commercial aircraft would normally fly up from Edinburgh, land at Kinloss RAF base, where we would be picked up on the runway and fly on to Sumburgh. Our taxi would wait there for us to climb the mast change the light bulb and then fly us home. I’m sure the RAF could have found someone at Sumburgh capable of changing a light bulb, even at the top of a 150-foot mast, but where’s the fun in that, anyway the taxpayer has deep pockets.

Mostly we would take the overnight ferry, from Aberdeen, Saint Clair, to Lerwick, arriving there around 6.30 in the morning. The Earl of Zetland would then leave around 8.30 from Lerwick, our destination Baltasound Unst, and all stops in between.

You never really knew where you would end up on such a journey, for the Earl of Zetland carried everything from livestock, to mail, gas bottles, cement, even the odd car. Along with this odd assortment of cargo would be the Light House Keepers. Few of the little islands we visited had proper harbours or piers, so the ship lay off and small fishing boats would come out from the land and be loaded by derrick from the ship. Sometime these little boats would be piled so high with goods and mail bags, you had to marvel that they were still able to float.

Baltasound by around 5.30 in the evening, once off the ferry, there would not be another until the following Tuesday. From time to time a bobby would arrive on the island of Unst with us, by which time his coming would have been well telegraphed, so all uninsured and untaxed cars (which was most privately owned cars on the island) would vanish from his seeing. If truth be told, most of these cars I saw were so unroadworthy it would have been sacrilege to even think of insuring and taxing them. I remember getting a lift up to the camp one day in a Ford Popular. The floor was so badly rotted it was akin to something that Fred Flintstones would have owned. As for the floor in the boot, well, it was non-existent. With no place to have a petrol tank, a jerry can have been tied to the inside of the boot with a piece of rubber hose attached to the original fuel line. Not that it mattered, it was only used to transport fish in boxes from boat to home, he told me.

Saxa Vord was the RAF camp on the island, with clear water, all-round and set on top of the highest point it was perfectly situated as an early warning station, the radar could scan from horizon to horizon unrestricted. The problem for us was the weather, with some of the highest winds recorded anywhere in Scotland not uncommon. Servicing and maintenance became almost a full-time occupation. Two of us, (we always worked in pairs for safety) had been sent up to do a repair on an aerial and asked to do an inspection of their condition. I reported that some of the arms on the towers were in need of re-painting, unaware at the time that it would be us that would have to paint them and not put out to contract, and possibly why they were so neglected, not a job to be relished.

Two of us were sent up a month later to paint the arms. When we arrived we found they had sent two 45 gallon, not two gallon, drums of a Red Oxide type of paint, it was special paint resistant to sea spray, but 90 gallons of the stuff, what were we to do with all this paint a couple of gallons would have sufficed. We need not have worried unduly, word soon spread that we had lots of Red Oxide left over from the job and it was just the stuff for painting fishing boat hulls.  

I am still here, and I still do not know where all my time has gone. I seem to be drifting along in a fast-flowing stream at the moment, with no idea where I am going, when I will get there or is it really where I want to go anyway, summing up, my life seems to be out of control at present.

I seem to be spending a lot of my time scribbling away on my stories for threewheelsonmywaggon, it started off as a platform for my trip to Europe (which never happened because of coronavirus) but now seems to be storage for a lifetime of stories, (I’m not a writer more a storyteller). Although I have to admit it has been very therapeutic and has seen me through lockdown, coming out the other side with some semblance of sanity, (and my spelling has improved too).

Meeting up with people more now and I have found many have had similar experiences as myself. They have started doing things they have always wanted to do, but kept putting them off. One lass upstairs from me, a bit of an academic is writing a book, not sure what it is about but not something that will interest me I’m sure. Now with time hanging heavy many have made a start on their new life, writing, jogging, cycling, painting, two lads from the Men’s Shed are going on a bicycle mechanic course at Aviemore, and one lad, I hear, is going on a traditional boat building course, during his time there, he will build a clincher constructed skiff, sounds like a lot of fun.

It’s an ill wind, they say that blows no one any good and coronavirus, is proving that adage true.

I was speaking to a long time friend, I asked him how coronavirus was affecting him, “Not a problem I have been working from home”. People now working from home, are making more money by staying at home, simply because they do not need their car to get to work, they do not buy snacks and meals when away at work. And, if they are anything like me because they are not going out, or to the office mixing with people outside the family, they do not have to dress up or keep buying new clothes, so spend less in the shops. They like staying at home, spending time with their family, not trapped on a gerbil wheel. I don’t believe the government is going to get them back into that stuffy office anytime soon.

It is difficult to say, but the lot of men may be enhanced by the failure of a system of government that has been so ill-prepared for a pandemic. If the world order, as we know it, collapses, there will be a hardship, but as Maria said: “You cry a little, then wait for the sun to comes out, it always does”. Or as dad would have said, “Spilt milk, move on”. Keep well.

With no bridge and no Sunday ferry from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin, the Cullin Hills, was a place only accessible to us on Bank Holidays, when we could get the ferry back on the Monday. When on Skye we would stay in a hayloft belonging to a farm down in Glenbrittle and in his implement shed the field kitchen would be set up. Just as important was the keg of beer with a proper delivery handle and pressurised by, if memory serves, a foot pump. No sooner was all the comforts of home installed than we would have a visitor:

“Well, Hello there boys, I did not know you were here, but it just so happens I have my mug with me”.

This would be my first visit to the Cullin Hills, and my first real rock climbing experience, although I had done a bit of scrambling in the past. The Cullin Hills are all you have heard about them, and then some, beautiful, majestic and a delight to climb. The rock is Basalt very hard, and as coarse as rough sandstone to the touch, so good handholds and footholds. However over the years, climbing boots have polished footholds to the resemblance of polished marble and when wet, not uncommon on Skye, it is more like climbing on ice, without crampons. Also it is very magnetic so compasses don’t work there, hill walking is much more of a challenge, thankfully my first visit was on a hot and sunny August Bank Holiday.

On our return the following Monday, we were waiting for the ferry at Kyleakin, our Chief was fooling around on the slippery pier and ended up in the water, no one rushed to his aid, we all knew the Hind too well. A guy came from one of the car and, believing Oor Chief was in trouble leaned over to help him out, only to find himself in the sea beside him. We all saw that one coming.

The second time I went over to Glenbrittle, was on a call-out a woman, an experienced hillwalker, had become separated from her friend as darkness fell. We bivouacked on the hill that nigh and started our search next morning. She was quickly found in the area we were told to look for her by her companion who had raised the alarm. The woman was experienced enough to known, not to go traipsing around the Cullin Hills in darkness, had decided to spend the night sheltering in a gully. She was not a young woman and now suffering from dehydration and exposure, we wrapped her up in a duvet bag and strapped her onto our aluminium stretcher, such stretchers had skids, so could be pulled across open ground. I’m not sure how comfortable it would have been, bounced across the heather, pulled by half a dozen fit young lads, but a lot quicker than walking I’m sure.

The third trip: the RAF Mountain Rescue, had received a request for guides. Seems a group of Italian Soldiers wished to go training in the Cullin Hills. They all came in full uniform complete with hats with large feather sprouting from their rim and spend most of their time running around at 120 step per minute blowing bugles, well they were Italian.

After leaving the RAF I did continue hillwalking and managed 106 Monroe’s, some several time over, some in both summer and winter. And when I moved down to the borders, some of the Donald’s there, them life got in my way. I once danced on those mountain peaks, now I only stand and look in awe at their majesty. Old age does not come alone.

File:Ballachulish ferry - geograph.org.uk - 362353.jpg - Wikimedia ...

It was Christmas Eve and once more we were down at Fort William, to do a bit of winter climbing. We decided to celibate on Christmas Eve with a drink. All the pubs would be closed in Fort William, as it was Sunday. However if we travelled down to North Ballachulish and cross the ferry to South Ballachulish the hotel there would welcome us with open arms, we would be bonafide travellers. You would have to sign a book to say where you were travelling from and where you were travelling too, this would be checked out with the local bobby. We put all sorts of places from-too in those books from Bute to Inverness, today it was Fort William to Oban.

Returning on the ferry we decided that no one should have to pay on the ferry, not on Christmas Eve, (we as Mountain Rescue were already exempt). The vehicles that were coming down Glen Coe and onto the ferry were piled high with snow so we gathered snowballs and climbed onto the superstructure. When the ticket master came to collect the fares we pelted him with snowballs until he retreated into the safety of his office. The passenger then came from their cars and joined in the snowball fight. Our captain, who we knew well, one of our members would later marry his daughter, was happy to laugh along with us. It was a glorious and unforgettable Christmas celebration, on that ferry crossing at Ballachulish.

As we passed through the village of Onich we spotted a little canon on the forecourt of the filling station. Back at base, a plot was hatched to take the canon back to Kinloss with us and have a small brass plague made and screwed onto the canon that would read:

This canon was captured at the battle of Ballachulish by RAF Kinross, Mountain Rescue, and returned the following weekend to the filling station.

The best laid schemes of mice and men…..

A plague was ordered at the jewellers in Forres but did not arrive for weeks rather than days. When it did finally arrive the canon was taken from its hidey-hole, given a good clean and the brass plate screwed in place. There did not seem any reason to put it back in the underground storage bunker so it was left on the barrack table in plain sight.

Someone happens to mention the canon in the presence of a Snowdrop (RAF Policeman) and rather than turning a blind eye, he, in turn, reported the canon to his superior, who in turn informed the local police of a stolen canon on the camp. Something that had started as a bit of a laugh had now suddenly become very serious.

The local police would have been happy to simply leave this until the canon had been returned but were put in an untenable position and charged the three lads that had put their hand up, with theft. When the case came up before the judge at Fort William Sheriff Court, the Judge listened for a short while, then stopped the trial, and said to the owner of the canon,

“Has the canon been disfigured to a point that it has now been devalued in any way?”

“No Sir,” was his replay, “I believe it has been enhanced by the plague”.

Bang, bang, when the judges gavel “Case dismissed”.  

I am still keeping the peddles turning but today there was a distinctive change in the weather, much cooler and low cloud, that lifted later in the day. All is just about ready for my next trip, will have to do some fine adjustments, the gears on my bike do not click in as cleanly as they did, new cables stretching, I suspect.

I have been pouring over my maps, and the more I do, the more I change my mind about where to go. But is seems I always end up Assyn Coigach and Noth-West Sutherland. Looks as if another attempt at crossing the Kyle of Durness to visit Cape Wrath is on the cards.

James Mitchel was a retired police sergeant in Dunfermline, he once told me that on Student Rag Day, the students will go down the high street and the town will be split 50/50. half wanted their antics curtailed the other enjoyed the spectral. I think the Mountain Rescue in the 1960s was seen in much the same light. We would come down off the hill after a long hard day intent on enjoying ourself, a few pints and a sing song. Most costumers would enjoy our impromptu choir, with their random selection of well known bothy ballads, others would not.

It was Fort William on that particular weekend, my first time climbing of the Big-Bad-Ben, Ben Nevis, then crossing the scary arête and up onto Aonach Beag, dropping down to the Steall Hut and back to camp. Steall Hut belonged to a boys club from Glasgow, their uniform was a Donkey Jacket, their merit badge, rope burn down the back of the jacket from abseiling.

The Steall Hut in Glen Nevis, with Ben Nevis in the background. Photo: Ian Taylor CC-BY-SA-2.0

Changed and fed we headed for the town centre, the Imperial Hotel, our chosen venue. There would have been around seventeen of us packed into the small bar that night and it was not long before a communal sing along got underway. As the beer flowed our voices, now well lubricated, grow in stature until the owner of the premises arrived from the lounge and asked us to keep the noise down, he had guests in the hotel. We did for a while but as more boisterous songs began to be sung the volume would inevitably rise.

Now it so happened that the owner of the Imperial Hotel, at that time, was a South African and could only visit Scotland for a maximum of eighty days in any one year. The owner returned to the bar and in his best South African, authoritarian voice said, “Surly I have some say, in my own hotel?” the response from one of our group was “It may be your hotel mate, but its Oor country”

Our parting song (before the police arrived) was a Red Army song with lots of Hoy! Hoy’s! In the chorus.

In May 1960 a horse was sold in Dublin, it was bought by Anne, Duchess of Westminster who had named him after a mountain on her Sutherland Estate. The horse remained on Anne’s farm, in Ireland, just outside Dublin, his new stable-mate was Arkle. Anne had a habit of calling her horses after mountains and like Arkle and Ben Stack, she called this new horse Foinavon. In 1965 the horse was up for sale again this time it was bought by John Kempton who ran Chatham stables a small training yard in Compton Berkshire. Foinavon’s new stable-mate this time was a white goat called Susie. He never shone in 1966 managing sixth place in a field of seven but the following year was placed in seven out of eight starts.

In 1967 his trainer, John Kempton hoped to ride Foinavon in the 1967 Grand National himself but, at over six foot he was never going to make the weight. Cyril Watkins, the horse’s owner, wasn’t keen to pay the additional fee expected for riding in the Grand National and was turned down by three jockeys. Days before the race John Buckingham, who had never before ridden in the Grand National, took up the challenge. Foinavon would start the 1967 Grand National at odds of 100/1

Of the 44 starters, 28 were still in the race as they approached Becher’s Brook on the second circuit with Foinavon going well in 22nd place, just behind the favourite Honey End. As they approached 23rd fence, Popham Down, one of two riderless horses out in front of the race, veered to the right and ran across the fence, causing a pile up. Rondetto, one of the leaders managed to clear the fence but then unseated his rider after landing, as horses refused the fence they crashed into one another and ran up and down the fence. Foinavon slowed to a canter and managed to find a gap, cleared the fence and carried on.

At the next obstacle the Canal Turn, Buckingham looked back in disbelief at the 30-length lead he had with only six fences remaining. Seventeen horses, including remounts, did give chase and the 15/2 favourite, Honey End closed the gap to within 20 lengths but at the final fence Foinavon would not be caught, Foinavon romped home to win the 1967 Grand National.

When I returned from Cyprus, I was posted to Kinloss GRSS (ground radio servicing section), we were a small and pretty nomadic bunch, we could be at Saxa Vord on the north tip of Unst in the Shetland isles one week the next in Northern Ireland or even Stornoway. I joined the Mountain Rescue when I was at Kinloss, although I could not go out every weekend with them I did have some good experiences.

Leaving the camp on Friday evening we travelled up to North-West Sutherland, making camp at Alt Ceann Locha. Once the tents were pitched it was into the landrover, to beadle off to the nearest pub, I believe that would have been Rhiconich. Plans had been hatched back at Kinloss as to who wanted to do what, arranging pick-ups amongst themselves. Since I had little experience of hill walking would be part of a team doing a ridge walk, nothing too desperate. Tomorrow I would be walking along the crest of the remains of a long-extinct volcano called Ganu Mor Foinavon at 908 meters above sea level and since we would be starting at sea level, we would have to climb ever meter.

Now it just so happened that the 1967 Grand National would be run the following day, Saturday. A certain group of lads from Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team, would be walking the Foinavon ridge, must be an omen in there some place. I believe it was spoons, who phoned his friend at camp and asked him to put the bets on for us before the race. The rest you can read above, I can assure you there was a lot of new climbing equipment in evidence the following weekend. Me I was back in Northern Ireland, spending some of my ill-gotten gains in Mooney’s Bar in Belfast.

 Postscript:

I’m sure You have already worked out by now that Jimmy was my father (James Hamilton).

With five women still living at home, dad called our cooncil hoose, Bedlam Hall, and when the noise reached a crescendo, he would escape to his workshop, I like a faithful puppy dog at his heels. I spent a lot of time with my father as a young lad, working in his workshop, or travelling around the country on the back of his motorcycle, we would even go camping together, sitting at the camp fire I would listen, wide eyed to his stories from around the world, his real-life adventures, that was magical. I would also listen in when men gather, to smoke and blether on the street corner or down the Seaman’s Union. All of the stories that you have read were based on his true-life experiences. OK, I did not know all the details, some I tried to research, some I tried to fit into a time scale that would have been about right, and yes I did use some poetic licence.

Dad was much older than mum, but he always looked young for his age so the difference never showed until the latter years of his life, his attitude to life gave him that persona of young and modern, so helped hide his true age too. But if you knew them both, as I did, dad was very much in the 19th century mum in the 20th in many ways dad was very Victorian in his attitude. He was a Darwinian, for a start, live and let live, survival of the fittest, and the church, as far as he was concerned, was a corrupt sham. When the Pope appeared on television, dad calls him “Old Father, do them all”. Still, he was happy to see us, his kids, go off to Sunday School, like mum I suppose it got us from under his feet for an hour.

Reading the Sunday papers were almost a ritual, he would read the papers from cover to cover, reading allowed passages that he thought his wife would (or should) be interesting in, then give his comments on those affairs. Mum just sat in an identical chair at the opposite side of the fire, knitting needles clicking away twenty to the dozen, and I’m sure her ears firmly closed to his wise words.

To me it was a happy house and so different from homes today. For a start mum was always at home. Thinking back she was a hard-working woman. There to send dad off to the pit, no matter what shift he was on. Then my big, big sisters, and finally Irene, my big sister, would be sent off to work. Then came my two sibling sisters and I, full of porridge, off to school we would go (there were big gaps in the family, dad being a sea, during the war years and the whaling, saw to that).

I’m sure she hardly had time to lift her head when dad would be back home from the day shift, then we kids would burst in a happy screening horde, or at least we must have seemed like a legion most of the time. Irene from the Co-op would soon follow, then would come the others. We always had meals together around the big table, with its pull out leaves, Copious amounts of Scottish fare, stew, potatoes and what ever vegetable was in season, or possibly a big bowl of thick, home made, vegetable soup, always followed by pudding, custard poured over sponge cake, apple crumble, or Semolina with a big dollop of home made jam in the middle, Rhubarb and Ginger was mums favourite.

Mum had to go into hospital for an operation, all I knew about her condition was “It was Woman’s trouble” which normally would mean having a baby but I think mum was already too old to have babies, or at least this is what I had overheard.

Dad would be looking after us whilst mum was in the hospital. Dad was a good cook but no cake, no fancy puddings just plain fare. Breakfast was, as always, porridge, cooled on the back doorstep. Irene came down the stairs, rushing at the last minute, as usual, Irene liked her bed and would lie until the very last moment then everything was a rush. “I don’t want porridge this morning” she called to dad as she flew out the front door. “That’s all right,” he told her, but by then she was out the door and I don’t believe she would have heard his response.

Irene arrived home from work, she was always first in, the Co-op being in the village and closed around five in the evening. When dinner was served, we all had potatoes and mince, Irene had the porridge she did not want at breakfast. Another of dads Victorian ideals, “Waste not, Want not”.

If mum was not in the living room then you would find her in the kitchen, preparing or cooking food, making jam, baking cakes, or on that special day, buried in a cloud of steam, pulling white linen sheets from the boiler, feeding them into the big sink for rinsing, then through the ringer that would be clamped between the two sinks. I would help out by turning the handle for her as she worked the sheets in through the rollers.

I’m an engineer, ma mither has a mangle,

When she dis the washin’, she lets me turn the handle.

Our bright yellow canary, lived in a cage that hung in the kitchen window, he would now, be lost from sight in a room full of steam, singing his heart out with his beautiful rolling song, keeping it going hour after hour until the washing was done. Mum said he was enjoying his bath.

Mum and dad were married on the 12th November 1925 and lived together until dads demise on 26th September 1983. Two gemstones of different material. They lived through two wars, depression, hardship, apart and together all those years from their marriage until dad died. By the time of their retirement, the waters of life that washed constantly over them, often turbulent flash floods, certainly in the early days, that tossed and tumbled them, knocking off their rough edges only succeeded in smoothing and polishing their nature like a lapidaries sands. I was privileged to know them in times when quieter waters lapped over them, two highly polished pebbles now lying still and peaceful together side by side, in quieter times. I was mums carer for the last years of her life and she would tell me stories of her early childhood and married life, and they were not the romantic stories I had grown up with, there were no “Good Old Day”, but what I remember most from that time was how much she missed ‘Her Jimmy’.

I have enjoyed this wee dip into my past, it has been very therapeutic for me, maybe you would like to find out more about your family if so, do not leave it too late, once your parents have passed, there will be no one to answers the questions you so desperately wish answers to, only questions will remain.

When I want to feel you near me,

I stand in this quite place,

With the silver light of countless stars,

Falling on my face,

They all shine so brightly,

And it comforts me to know,

The ones that shine the brightest,

Died an eternity ago.

Lyrics from a song written by Eric Bogle.

We buried mum on the Tuesday, the following Saturday I had taken my sister Irene, to an Eric Bogle concert. We chatted with Eric and John (Munro) sitting outside on the veranda before the concert, as a request, he sang “One Small Star” for us at that evening’s concert. Precious moments, like these last a lifetime.   

On the shores of the Black Sea stands the city of Odessa. A city forever synonymous in Russian history, for it, was there on 22 June 1941, that the German Wehrmacht troops fired the first shots of Operation Barbarossa, marking the beginning of Hitter’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Russia was in no position to fight a war, many of her senior officers purged during the revolution, she simply crumbled before the German onslaught. Stalin’s plan was to move his factories to the icy wasteland of Siberia. geographically as far from the front as possible from the front line. Over 1,500 factories were systematically dismantled and shipped on 1,800 trains. Burning what they could not move, they left nothing for an invading army to feed upon. Badly in need of Western aid, Churchill in 1942, and against all advice from the Admiralty, promised Stalin three convoys of war aid every two months, some would come from Britain some from America. The ports of Archangel and Murmansk would be their destination, the Russians preferring Archangel, Murmansk being just thirty miles for the German lines. Archangel, however, was frozen in for much of the year, notwithstanding Russia had undertaken to supply ten ice-breakers, promising to keep the port free from ice, only two ice breakers materialized, and in 1941 a number of ships were stranded there throughout that winter.

Added to the natural hazards, these Arctic convoys would face, was a shortage of escort vessels, inadequate numbers of ice breakers, little in way of discharging facilities, or medical care for wounded, and the failure of Russia to provide coal, ballast, stores and fresh water, required for the return voyage. On the plus side the ships that were used were modern, since they had to be specially fitted out in order to withstand the awful Arctic climate and mountainous seas. The first twelve convoys all reached their designated ports without incident. Convoy PQ13 was less fortunate her losses amounted to 30,000 tons of merchant shipping. In June 1942, convoy PQ17 set sail for Archangel, Her escort was ordered to withdraw and the convoy to scatter, PQ17 was decimated by the Germany bombers and U-boats a total of twenty-nine of the original thirty-eight merchant ships lost. The Royal Navy did not come out of it well, Rear-Admiral Burnett, giving his explanation of events, on his return to Scapa Flow, only succeeded in gaining the nickname ’Bullshit Bob’. The Admiralty wished to put a complete embargo on further convoys during the continuous hours of daylight found this far north in summer, Churchill, however, was adamant that they go ahead and ordered Admiral Pounds to fight another convoy through the Barents Sea. In his own words, “If a naval battle should ensure, so much the better”.

In August 1942, the Merchant Navy Shipping Officer, sent for me, I was to report to Loch Ewe to join Empire Snow, one of thirty-four ships due to sail in convoy code named PQ18, our destination, Archangel, in Russia. Maggie did not wish for me to return to the sea, saying I was still not well enough to go, and the doctor almost agreed with her. Endless days in freezing ships engine rooms and the biting cold air of Antarctic had taken their toll, leaving me with a hacking cough, he was now saying my Woodbine cough might be something more serious, and that I should maybe spend more time ashore; however, I managed to persuade him to let me sail. What would I do washed up on the beach at my age, any way any money that I had made during the good days was dwindling fast, my 21 gold sovereigns a distant memory. I assured him I would rest up after this trick, reluctantly he signed my chitty, if it had not been for the war, I am sure he would not have done so.

Our escort included an aircraft carrier, two anti-aircraft vessels, eighteen destroyers, four corvettes, four-armed trawlers, mine sweepers, even two submarines, it seemed we were part of an armada rather than a convoy with an escort. At 16.10 on the 2nd September, we started the first leg of our journey, sailing for Hvalfjordur in Iceland, there to pick up six Russian freighters before heading through the Denmark Strait to rendezvous with various other freighters and warships that would finally form as Convoy PQ18. By the time we had left Cape Wrath astern of us we were pounding through high winds and heavy seas, gale force 9 to storm force 10. Already the convoy was being torn apart. The American and Panamanian ships with no previous experience of convoy work, gave little attention to signals and were seldom found to be on station. The Campfire and the American liberty ship Patrick Henry raised their ‘out of command’ signals reduced speed and put their helms over to port as dangerous beam seas threatening to swamp them. At 7,167 ton, the sea for us was no more than a discomfort, for the smaller ships of the Royal Navy was a night of pitching, rolling and corkscrewing, their scuppers streaming water, all the way across the stretch of open sea, between Iceland, the Orkneys and the Shetlands, commonly called ’The Rose Garden’. To add to this already formidable escort, the cruisers Cumberland and Sheffield along with destroyers Amazon, Echo, Venomous and Bulldog patrolled off Spitzbergen. Whilst the three cursers Norfolk, Suffolk and London, gave support off Bear Island. Crossing the Greenland Sea, the swell rose and the horizontal rain blown in on gale-force winds turned to snow. On the 12th September a flight of Sea Hurricanes were dispatched from Avenger to intercept a Blohm and Voss BV 138 but they easily avoided capture by flying into the cover of low cloud. At 21.00, Faulkner sunk the U-boat Bohmann’s U88 with depth charges ahead of the convoy, this was turning into an eventful journey.

At 08.55 on the 13th September, we lost the Stalingrad, hit by a single torpedo on her starboard side. Rescue ships were quickly on the scene and picking up all of the crew uninjured. Almost at the same time the Liberty freighter Oliver Elsworth was hit by a second torpedo again on her starboard side. Little could be seen from above, the damage all blow below the waterline, at the command to ‘abandon ship’ all but one of her crew managed to get clear. The skies were now filled with aircraft, fighters, bombers and torpedo-bombers, the planes came over the ship and dropped a torpedo, not in the water but clear into the hold of Wacosta exploding inside her hold, seconds later Oregonian, was hit and started to sink, just ahead of her, the Panamanian freighter Macbeth hit by two torpedoes and quickly capsized. The Empire Stevenson carrying explosives simply evaporated in a column of flame and smoke. A second Panamanian ship Africander torpedoes and sank, her crew all rescued. Empire Beaumont also lost. The American liberty ship John Penn was less fortunate the torpedo entering the engine room killing all four-crew members instantly. Another torpedo fired haphazardly, snaked its way through the convoy and unluckily found Mary Luckenbach in the eighth column. She was carrying ammunition and went up in a ball of flames, the explosion, rocking the ships around her. Although attacks followed an attack by plane and U-boat no more ships were lost, and by 16.00 hours on the 18th the weather deteriorated aiding our escape. On we battled through high winds heavy seas, final to approach the Kola Inlet, there to be met by the ships HMS Salamander, HMS Hazard, HMS Britomart and HMS Halcyon it was they that would lead the convoy through the shallows and over the Devina Bar. Proceeded against an ebb tide and with such severe weather conditions, few pilots were prepared to put out, forcing the convoy to come to anchor.

Life onboard Empire Snow was now a misery, dragging anchors and snapping cables as the ship rolled and pitched. The temperature dropped rapidly throughout the night and by dawn the ships were unrecognizable. Cross-trees, superstructure, winches, rigging, stays, halyards mast and ladders all were now coated in ice, so thick we feared she would turn turtle. Steam hoses were rigged and constantly played on the superstructure to lessen the topside weight, but almost as soon as large chunks of ice were dislodged the windblown rain and foam would freeze the instant it touched any solid object. By the 20th September, no fewer than five ships were aground on the Devina Bar, ships and crew could do little in such conditions except endure. As the weather moderated the ships not aground again got underway. On the 27th September, the tides were high enough and the remaining ships were finally floated free to make their way upriver.

It would be a further month before all the ships could be unloaded and made ready to return home. It may have been the Russian Convoys to blame, for my mental and physical condition, or simply the drip, drip, dripping of hard sea-time, but Maggie was physically shocked when I returned home in mid-November. My recovery was a long one, first I spent months in the sanatorium, then when recovered sufficiently, sent to work in the Donibristle Aircraft Factory. The warm dry conditions there did much to restore my health. After some instruction I was given a team of young girls to work with me, we would produce many fine aircraft wings. Maggie seemed happy to have me under her feet, and steady regular wages made life much easier for the family, bonuses too since it was piecework. When the war ended in 1945 the demand for aircraft wings fell off and within a year I was again out of work and once more found myself down the Seaman’s Union, much too Maggie’s dismay. I was now off to lift wrecks from the French harbour’s.

Dad did not take any wages when in France, for they were paid in French francs which were practically worthless, instead he had all his wages sent home. Spending money came from the sale of salvage from the ships they dragged from the bottom of the harbour, They would go around the bars and cafes and take orders, to be sold or bartered for food and bottles of wine or Cognac, then volunteer for fire picket over the weekend. I certainly remember at that time we had some very fine cutlery and dinner sets on our table all with ships names in their decoration.

Some years on Blue Peter (a kids program on the BBC) was asking us children to box up unwanted cutlery and take it down to the post office to be collected and sold, the money would go to charity. We asked mum if we could send some off and ‘Silly Mum’ said yes. Dad had to drive her down to the Co-op to buy new cutlery before he could have his dinner.

I have never sailed with the Royal of Merchant Navy, but I did spend much time with my father as a young lad, and heard the many stories of his time in the Royal Navy and Merchant Service, (Dad hung up his sea boots in the early 1950s). I have always loved sailing and working on boats and I know how seductive the sea can be. I can also understand why it is not for everyone. I use to sing a song around the folk clubs and countless yacht club bars, one that sums up the two sides of the argument, much better than I could ever hope to do, it’s called:

Lock Keeper by Stan Rodgers.

You say, “Well-met again, Lock-keeper!
We’re laden even deeper than the time before,
Oriental oils and tea brought down from Singapore.”
As we wait for my lock to cycle
I say, “My wife has given me a son.”
“A son!” you cry, “Is that all that you’ve done?”

She wears bougainvilla blossoms.
You pluck ’em from her hair and toss ’em in the tide,
Sweep her in your arms and carry her inside.
Her sighs catch on your shoulder;
Her moonlit eyes grow bold and wiser through her tears
And I say, “How could you stand to leave her for a year?”

“Then come with me” you say, ” to where the Southern Cross
Rides high upon your shoulder.”
“Ah come with me!” you cry,
“Each day you tend this lock, you’re one day older,
While your blood runs colder.”

But that anchor chain’s a fetter
And with it you are tethered to the foam,
And I wouldn’t trade your life for one hour of home.
Sure I’m stuck here on the Seaway
While you compensate for leeway through the Trades;
And you shoot the stars to see the miles you’ve made.
And you laugh at hearts you’ve riven,
But which of these has given us more love of life,
You, your tropic maids, or me, my wife.

 Been very lazy today, after a short run I sat down in front of my computer and wrote a couple of short pieces for the website, I have to keep putting something on it to keep the interest flowing until I can get out on my next great adventure.

Bang! my iScot magazine, dropped onto the mat. Along with this superb magazine came an unexpected novella, Fatal Contagion, by Allan Martin.

The book was commissioned by Ken McDonald, manager and editor of iScot, to be given out with the magazine as a bonus for readers during the lockdown, Allan came up with Fatal Contagion a wee crime story and a new case for Detective Inspector Angus Blue.

I have lost a whole afternoon for I just could not put it down until the very last page, and I’m not a big fan of detective stories. But this has no complicated plot, in fact like me you will possibly be one jump ahead of the posy, all the way, the cat with its collar was a dead give away, now where did I read a story with a cat with a very special collar, a bobble that contained the world? The characters, seemed real, the places they visited, were all recognisable and made it very believable. However what caused me to keep the pages turning, was in the writing, fast-moving and easy to read, much like a Lee Child, Reacher novel, but thankfully a lot shorter, or nothing at all would have been done today.

P.S. I’m not very happy about you taking a swipe at cyclists, Allan, the only excuse I can see for this sort of behaviours is that you are a dedicated Volvo driver.   

All the talk of war made me unhappy about sailing to the Antarctic less the fleet found itself trapped there for the duration, having spent two seasons at Leith Harbour, I did not wish to spend another. I was fortunate and secured a position as the second engineer with, Blue Star Line. They being amongst the better shipping lines, at that time, carrying a combination of passengers and refrigerated cargo. There main sailings were to South America and Australia, carrying meat, perishables, businessmen, and diplomats. However, by the 1930s a worldwide depression had put an end to the luxury passenger business and ships such as Avalon Star, owned by the Blue Star Line Ltd. found herself in Greenock for modification. All passenger accommodation was removed as was her dummy funnel. The superstructure lifted and moved forward increasing her refrigeration compartments to eighty chambers giving a total cargo capacity of 699.000 cubic feet. Powered by four Parson steam turbine engines she could romp along at 17 knots. By 1939 we had circumnavigated the world a dozen times, now lying in Dakar, Senegal we received the news that Britain was at war with Germany and ordered to sail light-ship for Buenos Aires and return loaded with 8,800 ton of frozen meat for London. The trip was uneventful, by way of Santos, Brazil and Freetown, a port we reached on 15th June, sailing the following day to rendezvous with a thirty-four ship convoy, which we overhauled three days later on the 18th June, with them we now zigzagging our way back across the Atlantic Ocean.

At 10.00 hours in the 30th June, 200 miles north-west of Cape Finisterre, the first ship in our convoy was hit by a torpedo and sunk. The red and blue signal flag was immediately hoisted, and all turned to starboard and continued to zigzag. One hour and thirty minutes had elapsed when Avalon Star herself was hit, blasting open her Number 2 hold. Big as she was Avalon Star was she was lifted clean from the water, carcases thrown clear into the air as hatch covers burst open. She settling back with a 20-degree list, before righting herself. It was the collapse of the aft bulkhead that finished her as tones of seawater flooded into the stokehole exploding her boilers. The order to ‘abandon ship’ quickly followed. Within minutes of the order, all but the four men trapped or dead in the engine room were in the boats and safely away. MV Beignon steamed to our rescue and plucked us from the water at great danger to herself, then continued at her best speed once more to chase down the convoy. At 03.00 hours she too was struck on her starboard side by a torpedo, listing badly she started to go down by the head. Beignon, normal compliment was thirty men, now carried an additional eighty she had insufficient lifeboats so a raft was fashioned from odd planks of timber and empty oil drums, commonly found on ships decks during times of war. I clung, with twenty-five others, to a rickety structure waist deep in oily water, shivering with fear and cold. Our SOS sent out from the sinking ship had been picked up and the destroyers HMS Vesper and HMS Windsor who arrived at 05.00, all 110 survivors from both ships were picked up and taken on to Plymouth. Maggie welcomed me home, a shadow of the man, she sent off to Antarctica. I had lost weight and my hacking Woodbine cough as bad as it had ever been.

My morning ride was a bit special today and a run that has to be right up there for me. Anstruther, Crail and home. The heat was already in the day, it was just so perfect.

If I had to pick one time of the year to visit Scotland it would be autumn, such a magical time and a time that is just around the corner. The early snow on mountain peaks, the lower slopes ablaze in purple heather and autumn’s perfusion in lowland woods. By late autumn the stag, separated from the hind now, antlers dressed in velvet, migrate down onto the lower planes. Just to wake, in some remote part of Scotland, no one around, why you could almost be the only person on the planet. Skies still and clear, starlight casting its ghastly light upon the waters of the loch, mountains black cardboard cut-outs, silhouetted in the low autumn sun. How could you be anything but in awe of such magnificence?

I had tried to keep myself busy during a lockdown, and I did feel I was coping well, but from time to time I would start feeling weepy at old films and my writing reflected my mild depression. So, with the van now having a full year’s MOT and my feet starting to itch, thoughts once more turned to get away for a while, something that had been put on hold.

Making preparations.

I started by installing an inverter in the van today, so many things require charging these days all with different voltage requirements, that it is best to plug them into a 240V outlet, with their own charger. The old car battery is not a deep cycle, as was the case in the big camper van, but it should do the job OK. My solar panels are portable and full self-contained just connect to the battery, simple, and fold away flat when not in use.

To test it all out I decided to MOP (mechanically operated polisher) the van. I have not used this for years, last time was on my boat hull. Its a bit messy since you have to use water as well as the compound, otherwise, it will burn the paint, centrifugal forces will do the messy part and I’m a dab hand at making even the simplest of jobs messy, you should see me with a paintbrush, “Will you be putting any of that paint on the walls Walter?” and today was no exception, but great fun and the car park will be find after a shower of rain.

With coronavirus still a threat, more so for wrinklies like myself, I will stay clear of the coast Montrose, and especially Aberdeen, a route I would normally have taken north. This time it will be Blairgowrie (might be a bit early to see the Beech Hedge at its best, Beech being late to colour) Braemar Ballater, Grantown-on-Spey, would make sense. Cape Wrath is still on my bucket list, now there’s a thought. Keep peddling and stay safe.

The owners of the Norwegian whaling fleets had harbours and shipyards back in Norwegian so would return home at the end of each season. Salvesen, however, had no such facilities at home so would not only incur the cost of steaming home and back to the fishing grounds but also the high costs of mooring and servicing of the fleet in Scotland. The solution was to leave the fleet at Leith Harbour and transport man and materials there for the off-season servicing of the fleet.

During the 1930s, when jobs were scarce at home, there was no shortage of whalers ready to volunteer for the winter. Compared with the normal two-year articles of engagement in the merchant navy, a period of eighteen months away was relatively attractive, particularly as there was no way of spending earnings. Those who wintered there found Leith Harbour a much pleasanter place than might have been expected. There were occasional heavy snowfalls which lay up to ten feet deep, but it was no colder than Norway, apart from a gloomy mid-winter period when the sun did not rise above the hills behind the station.

Arriving at Leith Harbour, at the head of the Stromness fiord, I could not believe any place could be so delicate. Despite the amenities such as a cinema, library and football field, this was the backend of beyond. The station had a big installation for the servicing of the floating factories and overhaul of the catcher fleet, including a floating dry-dock. Tanks for storage of fuel and whale oil and large guano shed for the storage of meat and bone-meal. Coronda Quay, the main jetty had very deep water alongside where floating factories and transports could safely lie. The whale catchers had their own quays there they would be moored over winter, fuelled and repaired. Close to the quay were the substantial machine shops, platter and boiler shop and foundries all required for the winter overhaul programme. The wages paid by Salvesen were higher than paid by other companies in South Georgia and the slop chest prices very much lower than at home. In fact, there had been a dispute over wages a year or so before I arrived at Leith Harbour, settled when the company agreed to an increase from 50 Kroner to 80 Kroner per month. The men on South Georgia had been in a strong position at that time, for once in Leith Harbour they could not easily be replaced. a situation however that would soon swing in Salvesen’s favour as unemployment at home increased, the threat of a strike might mean no work the following season.

During those dark months of winter down in South Georgia, the weather could be horrendous. Leith Harbour, although well protected from the worst of the winter storms, the bitter cold was everywhere. Working onboard empty ships, whose steel hulls would run with condensation, and when the temperature dropped would freeze into solid ice. We carried a small bogie stove with us, that even when glowing cherry red halfway up its stove pipe, gave off little heat in the vastness of a ships engine room. Off duty, there was little to do but try to rest weary bones, and learn a few new tunes on my box of whistles. The schedule meant our work was never-ending and glad I was to see spring. There were days however when up on deck looking out on a mirror-calm sea, the ship rolling in the Southern Ocean’s swell, listening to the plaintive cry of the solitary sea birds and the unmistakable boom of a whale blowing as they surfaced. The tinkling, like breaking glass, of ice in the swell, or the dramatic crack, like that of a gun, as the ship broke through the pack ice, there were times when I thought the Antarctic was the most beautiful place on the planet. My fondest memories of Antarctica was seeing for the first time the Southern Lights, the aurora borealis of the southern hemisphere. This strange and surreal curtains of dancing light, the colours green, yellow, red, blue and pinks, dancing unrehearsed in the night sky, almost defying description.

By December all was ready for the new fishing season, I sailed onboard the floating factory ship the Neko, a converted cargo ship of some 3,576 gross tons. Our destination was the South Shetlands, a small group of islands about 400 miles southeast of Cape Horn. We went south with three catchers and a two-boat, but the weather was most foul and ran into some very unseasonable heavy ice. It was with great difficulty that we reached Deception Island arriving there in mid-December, despite our late start we had a very successful season. Striking a balance between, enough coal and sufficient space for the storage of oil was always a problem. Too much coal, less so, since it could simply be dumped overboard, however, the weather is unpredictable, and if continuous bad weather depletes the ship’s bunkers, there is little that can be done. On our return to South Georgia. Returning at the end of the season we again hit bad weather, reducing our speed and burning up our bunker. With no wireless to contact our base and have supplies vessel sent out to replenish our stocks. with only half, our journey completed Scapa was first to raise a distress signal that she was our of coal. later that day Sonja put up her signal, she too was running low on bunker. The following day Silva ran out of fuel, all now taken into tow by Neko with still 500 miles of ocean before us. The one remaining catcher made it back to South Georgia under her own power, Neko towing three catchers four days later, our bunkers exhausted we were down to burning all spare timber on board along with three barrels of whale oil.

 A sad Owl sat upon a post,

A poor soul he did looked too,

With head tucked underwing,

And much too wet to Woo.

It rained a lot yesterday so I donned my cycling cape and did a fast circuit, over to Pitscottie and back, at my time of life you have to push yourself, it is far too easy, when sitting in a comfy chair in my cosy we flat, to say, it is too wet to go out. Doing so will only lead to it is too windy, too cold, too hot even to go out.

My van, that has hardly turned a wheel since I bought it, went in for its MOT on Monday and failed seems the exhaust, was not only broken in two pieces but rotten too, what rotten luck. Today it goes in for a replacement, costing half the original price of the van. So I really need to put it to work. Up until now, I have been reluctant to do any travelling that would bring me into close contact with others, this coronavirus has to a greater or lesser degree made me its prisoner. So taking advice from Maria, I will turn a new leaf.

“Oh, I must stop these doubts, All these worries. If I don’t I just know I’ll turn back! I must dream of the things I am seeking. I am seeking the courage I lack” (from the sound of music).

Now where did I put that box of maps.

Southern Venturer

At the start of the 20th Century almost every whaling station in the North Atlantic was faced with a decline in catches. Some gave up, others followed Captain C.A. Larsen to the more lucrative southern seas. In December 1909, he arrived in Cumberland Bay, South Georgia with a modern steam whaler and two small sailing vessels that would be used as transport. Deceived by the bareness of the island, Larsen established his whaling station and set to work; quite unaware that South Georgia was a British possession. C.S. & Co. (Christian Salvesen & Co.) had been given a chance to go south a decade before Larsen began to whale in the Antarctic. A Dundee expedition to the Antarctic by Dr. W. S. Bruce and his friend W. Burn Murdoch, like Larsen saw the potential of southern whaling and on their return to Scotland they held a meeting of businessmen in Edinburgh, in order to raise the capital needed to finance a whaling station on South Georgia. Christian had attended the meeting, but was unconvinced, with Bruce’s clams, for the taking of eight humpbacks a day, believing this to be a gross exaggeration. It was not until 1907 that Salvesen decided to go down to the Antarctic and applied to the Colonial Office for a licence to fish the waters off South Georgia, where Larson had been so successful, this was turned down. However, if they were to take up the offer of a whaling option for the Falkland, their application to fish South Georgia the following year would be looked upon most favourably.

C.S. & Co. at that time purchased the Icelandic station at Faskrudsfjord dismantled it and shipped it along with 60 men, some thousands of barrels and a cargo of coal to the New Island in the West Falklands. The construction of a station there was a formidable undertaking with the land having to be levelled, slipway built, fleshing plan, building to erect too house blubber, meat and bone boilers. All to be carried out by January, the start of the fishing season. On the16 January 1909, gunner Edmund Paulsen brought in the first whale to be caught by Salvesen in the southern hemisphere, 227 were caught that season. This was encouraging and in the 1909/1910 season, four catchers operated from the station and 475 whales taken. The New Island station was never as successful as Leith Harbour in South Georgia, and in 1915 New Island was dismantled and the equipment taken to Leith Harbour, where increased production was required to satisfy war needs. The cost of producing whale oil that could only be sold for burning or lubrication was becoming unsustainable. Fortunately, there were companies working to perfect the process of hardening oil to a soft solid fat by adding hydrogen, if successful whale oil could now be sold to soap manufactures and if the oil was deodorised, to manufactures of margarine. The technology was there but convincing customers to spread whale oil on their bread might prove more difficult and many margarine manufacturers shied off the new oil until the price forced a change of heart. Lever Brothers at first would only use whale oil in the manufacture of their Lifebuoy Soap, the carbolic destroying any hint of whale oil. However, as the scarcity of other oils, such as palm or kernel, pushed up the price and they were forced to reconsider. Unfortunately for the whaling companies the manufactures formed themselves into a cartel and kept the prices low, not allowing them to exploit the new markets. Again it would be the war that changed the fortunes of companies such as Salvesen. Glycerine and important component of high explosives, which could be extracted from whale oil. Lubricants was another and for the future margarine would later outsell butter. When in 1916/1917 Salvesen was asked by the Director of oil and fats to do everything possible to increase production, Theodore, went into overdrive, buying the station at Saldanha Bay, South Africa. Salvesen worked hard at improving production. The facilities at Leith Harbour, were greatly improved to utilise as much of the whale as was possible, it was said that had the smell so pungent at Leith Harbour been marketable he would have tried to process that too. Lever, the soap magnate, was once asked why he did not go into the lucrative whaling industry. He answered ‘Gold-mining or dice-throwing are unexciting occupations compared with whale-fishing’. Notwithstanding Salvesen was the largest whaling enterprise in operation, and without question the most efficient.

all research of the whaling industry, from Wray Vamplew book Salvesen of Leith 1997 Scottish Academic Press.  

Tomorrow, Jimmy goes fishing for the whale.

Built-in 1892 Pentaur had served Salvesen well over the years, by 1928 with an overcapacity of merchant ships, a combination of depressed world trade and too many ships having been built to replace those lost during the Great War, 1914 – 1918. Salvesen decided to sell-off many of her merchant fleet and concentrate on her whaling in Antarctica. Pentaur, was one such ship sold to the Argentine Navy as a supply vessel, she was in need of a crew to take her down to South America.

We lay alongside the coal chute with the black diamonds poured into our holds. The deck crew then battened and washed her down from stem to stern to rid us of the coal dust that had accumulated over the ship. No matter how meticulously the deck crew worked, the gleaming coal diamonds could be found for weeks after we sailed in every nook and cranny of our quarters. The cargo of good quality steam coal was cargo only, Pentaur, boilers that feed her triple expansion engine with steam having already been converted to oil burning. The coal once sold would help pay the ships way to her destination. The trip across the Atlantic was uneventful until approximately 500 nautical miles from the estuary of the River Plate, a fire was discovered in the hold. When the hatch covers were lifted, the coals hot through internal combustion, ignited into a roaring inferno with the introduction of oxygen, the fire that had smouldered away unnoticed for weeks, now engulfed the entire cargo. Orders had been given, for all crew members, not directly involved in the fighting of the fire, make ready to abandon ship, such was the situation with flames leaping 20 feet into the air and smoke billowing over the entire ship. All that day the fire-crew pumped water into the hold trying desperately to bring the fire under control and reinstate the hatch covers. The fire could not be extinguished only subdued and happily burned away even after the hatch covers were replaced and fire hose nozzles inserted into the hold to play a fine mist of water over the cargo. The Harbour Authorities at Rio was made aware of our plight, that we had the fire under control and were making best speed for Rio de Janeiro. They in returned bad us enter the harbour but ordered us to stay out in the river until a fire boat could be sent to make the ship safe to enter the harbour. With the cargo dumped into the sea and the fire boat crew happy that there was little danger of another outbreak, the authorities reluctantly allowed Pentaur enter Rio. Such was the damage by heat to the ships plates and bulkheads that she was only fit for scrap. I was ‘paid off’ in gold sovereigns I felt like a king, never to be poor again.

Britain was a country in two halves during this time; Chamberlain was telling us “We have never had it so good”. and for many in the south of England that was certainly true. New industries brought wealth and prosperity, semi-detached housing schemes were expanding out from central London and brash new Art Deco factories were springing up all over the southern counties. In contrast the old industries, coal, iron, steel and shipbuilding were all laying off men and closing their gates. Unemployment in the North of England, Wales and Scotland was severe. For these families no new semi-detached homes, they remained trapped in their rat-infested, diseased ridden, Victorian terraces, tenements and miners rows live an endless struggle of survival. 

Tomorrow – Jimmy sails south to fish for whale.

 A few years ago I bought a ‘new to me’ box van and set about converting it into a camper-van, it had the lot, bed, cooker, washing facilities, small wood burning stove, and last but by no means least a chemical toilet – just in case I was caught out, I used local toilets all the time I was away, so it was never used.

I travelled the length and breadth of Scotland in my old van, it never missed a beat, over the two years I travelled with it. Winter months were brilliant fully insulated keeping it cosy and warm, and I had the little wood burner in reserve, never really needed and lit mostly for its comfort. I would lie in my bunk, on those dark early winter evenings, with only the light that had escaped from around the joins of the little stove, my little magic lantern. Snug as a bug in a rug, I would watch the night skies in all their spender. Scotland is so beautiful in winter and free from two of Scotland pests, the midge, and the tourist. After my extended trail, I parked it up and started to plan a foray into Europe.

I was spotted by a lad one day, he had caught me lounging around inside the van, well, the solar panels still worked as did the CD player and I had built up a good library of books and magazines I had collected on my travels, but never having found the time to read them when I was away. The van had now been turned into my wee bolt hole. Over a pot of tea and a bit of humming and hawing, he bought the van from me. Well, I was getting on a bit and the van was not getting used.

I had a new neighbour last year and if you have moved into City Park and want that new piece of furniture assembled, that came on a boat all the way from China as a flat pack, then any of the girls will tell you Walter is the man to see. Flatpack furnisher Tick, Pictures and mirrors hung Tick. Pictures and mirrors are taken down and move to a different wall, Tick. Then again maybe that mirror would look better in the bathroom, Tick.

Later in the week, no names no pack drill caught me in the hall, “I wonder if you could put up some shelves for me?” she asked.

“I’ll have a look first” I said.

Simple enough job, if fact I have an old countertop made from Oak, it had been rescued from a skip in South Street, a bit of renovation going on in the Rule, at the time, it would cut down into a nice set of shelves.

We chatted away during the times I spent in her home and it seemed she loved to travel, but I soon found out that we lived in different worlds, I did not travel first class on the ‘Canberra’. I said I loved travelling to Europe, that my favourite country was France, but it would be a toss-up between France and Germany, and how I had been planning a return trip to the continent.

If this was not always going to be just a dream, serious plans would have to be put in place, this encounter with, no names no pack drill, had reawakened my dream, plans started to drop into place.

‘Everything comes to those who wait’.

I needed a van to sleep in, the old-age pension does not stretch to B&B. A van would also be needed to carry my bike and equipment. I had no intentions to build another camper van, this time around, the trip would be more roughing it, than Cooks Tour. Something more economical too. I put out an SOS and my nephew came up with the goods, a small VW Caddie. He had ordered a new car and, needed to sell at least one vehicle from his stable, to help finance his new dream car.

I went into overdrive and was all but ready to depart, camp bed, Tick, cooker, Tick, DVD/CD player, Tick, spare battery and solar panel to keep it fully charged, Tick. Inverter, to charge up my laptop and kindle, Tick. Then disaster struck in the form of coronavirus, shit.

On the first of August I turned over my calendar to discover that the van was due an MOT, and being a ‘cut as stick when you come to it’ kind of guy I booked it in for its MOT right away.

Up early, cleared our all the rubbish that had accumulated, over the time it has been sitting, more or less dormant in the car park. Bucket and sponge at the ready, I gave her a good going over, may as well do my bike whilst I am at it. Off up to the MOT station in plenty of time.

It was all locked up, shutters down, everything. Well, I am a little early. I spent half an hour over at Aldi doing a bit shopping but when I returned to the van, the garage was still firmly locked up. The penny dropped, “Why did you not tell me it was only Sunday?”

I returned to the MOT station this morning and yes it was now open, “Come back at 10 o’clock it will be ready for collection” I was assured.

My wee van failed, seems the whole exhaust system is shot from stem to stern, on Wednesday, after it receives it’s new pipework my bank book will be depleted by a further few hundred pounds, I hate books with sad endings. Still better to find out now than, somewhere in France.

There was also an advisory, ‘light rusting and pitting on brake discs’, hardly surprising the van has been, more or less, sitting in a car park for the last three months, they will be well and truly polished by the time I make the boat at Southampton.

“It’s an ill wind indeed that blows no one any good”.

In some ways, it was good that I did not get away last spring as planned, I will have had a whole year to iron out the wrinkles with the van and save some extra money for the trip. I have also sorted out the electrics, (inverter and solar panels) I know it sounds more like taking it all with you than getting away from it all, but I like to watch my DVD when the weather has closed me down, and my laptop and kindle requires re-charging from time to time.

Now all I have to do between now and spring 2021, is keep dodging the undertaker and hope that the coronavirus has run its course.  

Hundreds of coastal tramp steamers of all sizes sailed the Home Trade. Every kind of general cargo was carried, scrap metal, pig iron and steel rails so much needed and carried to Hartlepool, Redcar and Middlesbrough during the reconstruction years after the Great War. Goods carried to the Continental ports, would be such as china clay uplifted from the Cornish town inside Gribbinhead and from Teignmouth small ports in Devon and carried on to Antwerp. This was the most miserable of cargoes to endure, deck and accommodation were smeared with traces of clay from stem to stern, and even after hosing down deck and superstructure the dreadful stuff would turn up in food and bunk for weeks after it had been unloaded.

I spotted Marquis, in the dock she carried the distinctive pink funnel and blacktop, for Messrs. J. Hay Shipping line, her destination unknown, however, I knew she would eventually return to her homeport of Glasgow. The talk around the docks was that the ship was already sailing short-handed the fireman had gone down with pneumonia and taken ashore. I had never served as a fireman but needed a berth, spending days even weeks in a foreign port awaiting a ship did not appeal more so since Continental docks were awash with men willing to do any kind of work for a days wage.

Marquis main engine was a Ross and Duncan compound, steam supplied by two Scotch Boilers their fires generating steam at 110 to 160 pounds to the square inch. She also had a Donkey boiler situated at the entrance to the stokehole and used a great deal for steam to drive the winches on deck. Her only other engines was a one-stroke engine, housed above the main engine, this drove both generator and steering gear, all were looked after and tended by two engineers. The First Engineer, known as ‘Chief’, and his satellite the Second, ably assisted by the two firemen.

The First Mate had been sympathetic to me an ex-naval seaman, having served at the temporary rank of Sub-Lieutenant R.N.R. When his ship had been commandeered for water carrying to the forces in the abortive Dardanelles campaign and further Levant actions. The Old Man would have the final say, however the First Mate’s recommendation, as too the crew would normally go unquestioned by the Ships Master. So I was put to work under the supervision of the Second Engineer, he himself having come to that position via the stokehole, often referring to himself as a shovel engineer.

A watch for one of the two stocker’s onboard (known as firemen on Scottish boats) would be four hours on and four hours off, theirs the toughest work, shovelling fuel into the jaws of the two Scotch boilers. Much would depend upon their bunker supplies, good Welsh steam coal, soft and combusting gave a good heat and small ash but more often than not it would be little better than dross, that took real sweated labour to break up and induce to take fire. Half an hour before the watch ended to ease the task of the new watch the fires were cleaned of ash and clinker, then freshly stoked. The hot debris then hoisted up through the ventilator for dumping overboard. Tedious work when a tide had to be caught. With fires kept at maximum, the firemen sweated like slaves ending there watch exhausted and good to drop. Still firemen, like all onboard, were feverishly proud men who would put everything they had into there stint. Black with coal dust they stood clad only in knickers and boots getting heat and steam out of whatever fuel was supplied. A white feather of steam issuing from the waste steam pipe, abaft the funnel, their certificate of competence.

The boat’s layout was familiar enough to me or anyone who had knowledge of these traders. At the forepeak the lamp and paint lockers, and on the starboard, the crew’s water-closet, flushed with seawater by bucket. Down the steep scuttle from the forepeak the quarters, There were portholes in the quarters but being level with the sea and to prevent seepage during heavy weather, their deadlights had been screwed uptight and over time had gained a generous helping of paint. The light came from three electric bulbs that burned constantly whilst at sea, but with the loss of the dynamo in port, paraffin lamps would be pressed into service. Tables, cupboards, stove, benches and brackets were all firmly fixed to the bulkhead and to the fo’c’sle deck. No gally was provided for the crew such meals as were possible being cooked upon the bogey stove in each of the quarters, firemen to starboard, deck staff to port. Hardly had I time to stow my gear than I found myself on watch. My first attempts were pitiful to see, as shovel after shovelful of coal would end up, more on deck than in the firebox, it took time to find a rhythm but the second was patient, and by the end of my first watch I had the rudiments. As the days past the work become as natural and predictable as the tide and in this constant labour the hours passed quickly. When we tied up in Weymouth, I was by every bit a fireman. 

To be continued, Jimmy sails for Rio.

Well I did sit up until one o’clock, to watch the lasts episodes of The Bridge, brilliant, more, please.

The wind is the big story of the week and has not abated any, so cycling has been curtailed to a quick circuit of 10 to 20 miles, but we travel hopefully. Elie weather is telling me that the start of the new week thing will get better. The long-distance forecast for Wester Ross and Assynt is looking good from around the 19th an Indian Summer for at least a week, with wind, speeds down to 4 mph, so that is my window of opportunity, I can not wait to get back into the mountains again, this time I will ride around the peninsula of Applecross. I have been putting in more walking over rough ground, with this trip in mind, I want to visit such places as the Falls of Glomach, and that will require me walking into the hills.

Coronavirus is not going away anytime soon, in fact, quite the opposite, travelling like wildfire around the country once more. I don’t wish to get political in these blogs, so we shall say no more about that apart from I can’t see my trip to Europe happening even in the spring of 2021, ho-hum.

So until things settle down a little more, this blog will be all about wee stories and not really about why it was set up in the first place to tell you about cycling advantage.

We had been watching The Jolson Story, (made in 1946) on the television, dad was now settled in the collieries of Fife, he was a Deputy by that time, steady wages and mum at last had a home of her own, wan o’ them new cooncil hooses.

The film clearly brought back memories for dad for he told us how he had gone to seen the film when it was first released. The film was huge in its day, talking pictures. This was 1945 the world had just emerged from a world war, Europe was in ruins, millions of men coming home from the war to a life of poverty and hardship, that had spread all the way back to the lead up to the First World War. Yet when people went off to the cinema, they escaped the every day drudgery, (their cocaine) in exchange for glamour and a champagne life style. The beautiful people would attend the awards, where stars and starlets would be handed bobbles and Oscars, for these were not mere people, not even film stars, but gods.

When dad had finished his reminiscing, mum retold the story but, did not remember it in quite the same way. Your dad was fair excited about the Jolson film, staring Larry Parks. Parks was a bit star for Columbia at the time and when Columbia was preparing for a screen biography of Al Jolson, Parks won the part, he was never out of the movies after that appearance. So when your dad said he was taking me to the pictures to see the Jolson Story I was exited too. And believe me there was not a lot of excitement in our lives at that time, your dad out of work, still recovering from hard sea time and shipping in the doldrums.

I washed and ironed my blouse, and pressed my good skirt,Violet did my leg for me, dyed stockings, old tea leves stained legs, ink lines down the backs as seems, well you couldn’t get stockings unless your were a millionaire or going oot wi a Yanks. And what happened, your dad went off to the pictures on his own, leaving me all dressed up and no where to go.

Dad was a bit embarrassed about, mum, not only remembering that but telling it in front of the kids.

“You know I tried, but I couldn’t collect enough jam jars for both of us” he said by way of an excuse. The ‘Good Old Days’ aye right.

 Another glorious day, of cloudless skies and pleasant warm wind. I was in Cupar sitting on a bench in the park, taking a bit of a breather before the homeward journey. It just seemed wrong to be going back this early in the day, especially with the opportunity to tick one more adventure from off my bucket list. I call it a bucket list, but it is more like the Horn of Plenty each time something is removed it replenishes itself.

If you travel around North East Fife you can not fail to notice a tall chimney structure sticking up on top of a small hill just west and north of Cupar. I once asked a local what it was and he told me it was built to commemorate the victory at Waterloo until today I believed him.

I rode up the main road through Cupar, the A91, as far as Cupar Motorcycles, the road was busy with school kids and jam-packed with cars and buses. I turned off onto the A913 still busy but at least I did not have to watch out for people crossing the road between stationary traffic, that I was weaving my way through. Now a long steady climb up to Kilmaron Den farm. The road flattens out here at the 100m contour and soon I turn off left onto a small unclassified road, that would take me to my destination the base of Mount Hill.

There is a signpost that point you in the direction of the footpath, that will takes you up to the top of the hill and the monument itself. The path is more rough farm track and loose gravel so I left the bike behind a hedge and decided I would walk the rest of the way to the top. I suppose you could ride up, or even push your bike to the top for the white knuckle ride back down if you were that way inclined.

The first part of the climb takes you onto a relatively flat plateau and from here you get a magnificent view back down into the valley and the town of Cupar, now almost obscured by hardwood woodland, once-upon-a-time this whole valley would have been all heavily wooded and a place of hunting for the nobility. Even today you have the remains of the great Balgarvie Estate. I spotted a stance of Scots Pine and had to take a picture, of one of the noble trees,

along with a Rowan covered in bright red berries.

The next part of the journey is much steeper and covered in mature trees obscuring the top and the monument itself. Finally, at 221m, I reached the top, where there was an entrance through the deer fence, which must be all of 3-4 meters in height.

Hopetoun Monument is a simple B listed stricture, with an inscription above the door to tell us that it was erected in memory of the Earl of Hopetoun. There is a Hopetoun House on the other side of the River Forth, in the Lothians, and I believe this will be connected to that, for the Earl may well have had estates on this side of the water too. I am told there is a spiral stair within the tower taking you up to a viewing platform, but alas like Scotstarvit Tower, the door was firmly closed against me. I would have loved to go up there, on a day such as this, for I sure you would have been able to see for miles and miles. I touched the Trig Point then headed back down to the road, found my stead awaiting my coming, this time, it would be homeward bound.        

 

Strange how you can read a line and it triggers all sorts of thoughts in your head. I had been reading a blog from a young cyclist in the Republic of Ireland, and reading between the lines somewhere in Munster, telling us about his time awheel.

I grow up towards the end of the Second World War, then came the depression, before things got better into the more affluent mid 1950. Cycling, too and from work was still the norm, and work was much more manual than it is in today’s world. The use of bicycles did not stop at commuter transport, bicycles for recreation was also commonplace. So in that way, we did not have to put in the effort or think too much about physical well-being, which happened naturally, and something we built up over the years.

My baby sister, on the other hand, was much more a child of the 1960s, she grew up with the motorcar. Once passed her test she bought her first car, you couldn’t get her out of it. She went everywhere in her car, in fact, if you removed the car from her life it would have been equivalent to removing her legs. She was one of the Grand Prix mums on the school run.

My baby sister had a quick mind, I never won an argument with Heather, so when she asked me to teach her to drive I knew it would not be that difficult a task.

I had taken heather out a few time over the weeks and on this occasion, she was visiting mum and dad. Hazel, a niece of one of my older sisters, was there too. I told dad I was taking Heather out for a driving lesson, dad was quite nonchalant about me using his car. We drove up and down the Cuddie Road a few times, then I suggested we might try reversing the car. No problem with the reversing.

“Now draw forward to where the white stop lines would normally be on the road” I told her “and stop.” again not a problem.

Looking left and right, there was a car coming from our left but it was a long way up the road.

“You will make it out before he gets anywhere near us” I assured her.

In gear, hand-brake off, big roar of the engine, clutch dropped, we shot across the narrow road like a bullet out of a gun. I did manage to grab the wheel and turn it but not quickly enough, the car slid sideways into the ditch. The car, that had been coming towards us stopped, and the two young men inside gave me a hand to pushed dad’s car from the ditch, no harm done, those little Morris Minors were hardy little animals.

When we were all settled back in the car, I turned to Hazel, still in the back seat, and said,

“Now don’t you tell your granddad that the car went into the ditch”, and received a firm assurance from, hazel that she would keep quiet about the incident.

Parking the car at the door, Hazel ran quickly from the car and into the house,

“Granddad, granddad”, she cried out, “Heather crashed your car” – never ask a woman to keep a secret, that’s my experience.