The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

 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.

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