The Mild Wild West
This ‘excerpt’ is a bit of anomaly, the background to which might serve as a cautionary tale to any writer intent on getting published. In 2004, a giant publisher in London took a shine to my travel book idea about an as-yet-not undertaken island hopping cycle trip up the entire west of Scotland. The publisher’s non-fiction editor, one of the most respected in the industry, was so taken with the proposal that he flew up to Glasgow to buy me lunch. He returned to the capital determined to get the idea past the bean counters, and overnight I had one of the country’s best publishers actively seeking to work with me, and a leading literary agency stepping in to represent my surely burgeoning interests. Then the bean counters poo-pooed the notion. The editor was furious enough that he asked for more material to take back to the table for a very rare second pitch. An inside source told me he still proposed a hardback release of ten thousand copies followed by a paperback print run in the low six figures.
I wrote him the following ‘excerpt’ from a book unwritten about a journey never undertaken. Part travelogue set in a region of Scotland I know and love, part auto-biography, and part full-blown fiction, it could well be an excerpt from the best book I never wrote.
The bean counters rejected it a second time, the editor gave up, the literary agent dropped me like a used tissue, and I was left to rue a close encounter with something resembling success. I told you it was a cautionary tale.
THE MILD WILD WEST
Feet-First up Scotland’s Gulf Stream Coast
As a primary school pupil in Scotland in the sixties, I did a seriously good line in youthful indignation that peaked most memorably during the annual lecture on the purported mildness of the Scottish climate.
For some reason this always happened in mid-winter, usually when the big primitive wavery 1950s classroom windows, in hard iron frames rimmed with temptingly soft aromatic glazier’s putty, rattled to the crackle of wind-driven hailstones as hard as grapeshot. Every year, we got the same extended homily about why we Scots were blessed by the mildness of the Scottish climate. Which always struck me as being so far from reality that it rendered me speechless. And which, now that I think of it, may well have been the whole point of the exercise.
Even as a child I was completely unable to generate passion or pride (or ire) over anything so palpably beyond anybody’s control as Scotland’s weather. Or, for that matter, its history. I mean, what delusional state makes people brim with hubris over events that took place before their great great grandparents were born? We might as well be inordinately proud of being tall or having blonde hair and blue eyes – and, if memory serves me well, the proponents of the Aryan Master Race already tried that line.
At this point, I have to raise a hand and confess sheepishly to one temporary relapse in a lifelong personal campaign against idiotic pride in things beyond our control.
By way of mitigation, I should point out that it happened in the face of an entire nation’s obsessive smugness over both its weather and its history. This was twenty years later, when it was my turn to play teacher. Mere weeks into my tenure as a bogus English instructor in South Korea, I grew tired of students’ rote-learned recitations about Korea’s ‘five thousand years of culture and four distinct seasons’. Inexplicably, the Korean national consciousness ties the two together, and hardly a day passed without me having to face the question, inevitably delivered with a knowing smirk:
“Mr Ronald, our Korea has five thousand years of culture and four distinct seasons. How about Scotland?”
To which I developed a dead-pan response:
“Scotland has five distinct seasons,” I would declare with authority and to murmurs of astonishment that rippled around the room as the more linguistically challenged sought out whispered translations.
“And five thousand and ONE years of culture.”
There was another major source of Primary School indignation. The Belt. Back in the dark unenlightened sixties, discipline – and more besides – was enforced using a purpose-made two foot-long strap of thick, stiff leather with one or two parallel cuts along about half of its length. It was widely known among teachers, I found out only recently, by one brand name. They called it a Lochgelly.
Subject to seriously variable levels of skill and precision on the part of its operator, the two- or three-tongued end of a Lochgelly was whipped in a downward arc from teacher’s shoulder to child’s outstretched palm. My first experience of the belt, Lochgelly or not, came when I was about seven years old, and it was an episode that instantly and indelibly enforced two lessons: that a skilfully administered belt could render kiddy fingertips numb for hours; and that it inflicted a degree of hurt that lay far beyond a seven-year-old’s pain scale.
Inevitably, the teachers least capable of maintaining any semblance of classroom order reached for the belt drawer with the most depressing regularity. One of them was Miss Skeggs, a shrill Englishwoman who wore black-rimmed spectacles of an ugliness that, in nearly forty years on the lookout, I have never since seen equalled. Being well bred, intelligent and compassionate children, we understood that it was through no fault of our teacher that she found herself stuck with a surname almost as ugly as her spectacles. But boy, did we nine-year-olds have fun with it anyway.
Old Skeggylegs’ use of the belt extended beyond discipline and into the zone of what can only be termed negative reinforcement. After our weekly spelling test, any child who had the gall or the misfortune (or the dyslexia) to make more than two mistakes out of ten words – yep, you’ve guessed it – they got the belt. One swing of the Lochgelly for every extra mistake, delivered in front of a room full of classmates, most of them sniggering.
My spelling was good enough to preserve me from that particular fate – though I suffered the belt often enough for other discipline breaches, mostly involving insolence – but my closest friend at the time, Graeme ‘Weesh’ Wylie, was not so fortunate. Nearly every week for a year I watched Miss Skeggs swing a Lochgelly at my best pal. If that wouldn’t inspire indignation in a nine-year-old, I don’t know what should.
I long ago lost touch with Weesh, but I sometimes wonder if he ever regained the feeling in his fingertips. Still, if he can spell now, I am sure he knows he has Miss Skeggs to thank.
I can still see Miss Skeggs delivering the annual lecture about how we Scots were positively blessed by an all-embracing meteorological mildness. While we shivered, pale bare knees red raw with the cold, grey short trousers black from driving rain and black leather shoes grey with puddle water – she did her best to convince us that the only reason we had it so wonderfully clement in Scotland was thanks to something called The Gulf Stream.
I didn’t get it.
And nor would I for another thirty-five years.
Fast forward to the new millennium, and I am recently returned to Scotland after just shy of twenty years abroad, two decades spent almost permanently on the move.
My daughter and I are looking out over monster cliffs that rise straight from the boiling Irish Sea and are so packed with birdlife and so streaked with bird droppings that, fresh as I am from a decade in Hongkong, they make me think of 400-foot avian apartment blocks.
We stand at the Mull of Galloway, the southernmost point in Scotland, and we are looking north. I know from past travels that beyond these cliffs is an extended procession of craggy coastal splendour. The weather-battered West of Scotland is one long series of visual delights, an ever-changing mix of beaches and coastal plains and towering precipices and peninsulae and sea lochs the shape of broken fingers and underpopulated seaside communities and islands too many to name, most of which I have never set foot upon.
But right now I stand slack-jawed, not at the thought of what extends beyond the cliffs, but at the vivid colours in the landscape that immediately surrounds them.
It is late February, and north-east of here, the rest of Scotland remains in the grip of the chill and perpetual state of near-darkness that is winter. When we set out two hours before, the Clyde Valley was clad entirely in a muted grey-brown. The contrast between that and what stands before us is breathtaking in its starkness.
The Mull of Galloway is alive with colour, luxuriant in dazzling fecund green sufficient to cloak an entire New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. It is greener than the pages of any coffee table picture book on Ireland, more green, even, than the packed stands of Celtic Park on a Saturday afternoon. After the monochromatic gloom of the Clyde Valley, I am staggered by all this colour.
And so, in one epiphanic moment, and after decades dangling, the penny finally drops and thirty-something years of righteous indignation evaporates. Here is what Miss Skeggs was talking about in 1967. The Gulf Stream.
This is it. The Mild Wild West.
Five Hundred Miles Feet First
It takes a special quality to wander as much as I have over so many years. To flit, near-aimlessly from one short-term pipedream to the next; to mooch from land to land and culture to culture, driven only by the twin drugs of insatiable curiosity and an unquenchable thirst for new experience; to be blissfully unruffled by an absence of supposedly essential material symbols like a career or savings or property; to be indifferent to the pregnant clouds of unfulfilled responsibilities that loom ominously over self and family alike.
Long before a ‘gap year’ became the de rigeur diversion for middle class kids, I set off on a jaunt that saw me criss-cross three continents while engaging in whimsy-driven lines of work in nearly thirty countries. Early plans for a couple of years’ travelling stretched to just shy of two decades.
It takes a special sort of selfishness to do all that.
So when, after twenty years of wandering, I returned to Scotland with three goals in mind, even I was surprised that two of the three were not about me.
I recognised in my daughter a need for a sense of social roots in an extended family that, for the first ten years of her life, she had barely encountered. I know it’s ironic, a man taking his child back to Scotland to develop a sense of belonging in a land that he has shunned for the last twenty years. But then I never had a problem with being from Scotland; my difficulties were with living there.
The second goal was to be here for my Dad, mired in alcoholism since my Mother died ten years before. I came back to my home town harbouring a naive hope that my presence would somehow help him turn things around before it was too late.
Considering the circumstances, maybe one out of two is not so bad.
A third goal was more about me. I wanted to see if, after pursuing almost my entire adult life to date abroad, I could develop my own sense of belonging in Scotland. It’s true. This Scotland-born Scot who spent the first twenty-one years of his life in Scotland, returned to Scotland in search of his Scottish identity.
Years later, and I’m still not convinced I have found it – nor that I even hanker for it any more.
My daughter, now a happy player in the extended family and as comfortable with the notion of being a Scot as any other kid her age, will soon go to university.
My Dad remains in the ever-downward spiral of his addiction, yet another Scottish alcohol statistic waiting to happen.
And for me, the call of Asia screams keen in my restless soul.
I might have to settle for one out of three.
During fifteen years in Asia, I knew all about bleak moods brought on by a perceived need for change. Then, I dealt with it by cutting loose to anywhere new, often on self-assigned adventures; to the Philippines to photograph the mindless cock-fighting industry that kills eight million cockerels a year and blights the lives of countless Philippino gamblers; to isolated Marxist North Korea to dodge the omnipresent threat of citizen’s arrest while documenting that strange, benighted land; to Pakistan to sneak across the frontier from the Khyber Pass into the Mujahideen vs. Russians war zone that was southern Afghanistan in the late eighties.
Such diversions scored me the double delight of re-charging the enthusiasm batteries and slaking the ever-groaning need for new vistas and fresh experiences.
Meanwhile, in urban Scotland, I despair of the materialism and the national absence of interest in anything more challenging than Reality TV and tits-and-bum-and-gossip tabloids for whom news is not news unless it bites a footballer’s bum or he bites his extra-marital mistress’s tits. I despair of a business culture that worships the bottom line while it turns its back on the people who generate it. And I despair of a working culture that makes it ever-more difficult for someone without a CV to do anything more rewarding than packing shelves or phone-foisting the unwanted upon largely unwilling, and often unwitting, recipients with credit cards burning holes in their pockets.
So maybe it’s time to run away again, to apply the travel salve to the festering sores of ennui. The twisted mind of the habitual traveller can rationalise almost anything, and a cycle trip up the Mild Wild West offers multiple rationales.
It will refresh my fading enthusiasm for life in Scotland. Or maybe it won’t. It could conceivably convince me that I want to remain in this most beautiful of homelands – or to give in to the powerful allure of Asia. Or anywhere else.
Without leaving Scotland, the trip will satisfy that burning inner urge to keep moving in search of new stimuli, and where better to do that than a spectacular slice of my homeland, much of which I have yet to set eyes upon?
It might even help me make some sense of what Miss Skeggs was on about nearly forty years ago. Scotland’s Gulf Stream Coast? A few years ago I didn’t believe in it, but today? Bring it on.
Sitting on my oddball recumbent bicycle on the Mull of Galloway that marks Scotland’s southernmost point, the single track road from the clifftop that flanks the reserve that surrounds the old lighthouse – that swallows the fly but I don’t know why – dips down through unfenced cattle pasture. Then it weaves a narrow uphill band of bovine ordure-strewn tarmac broken only by the occasional cowpat-shiny cattle grid for what looks like miles, though in fact is maybe one mile, tops. What was it the Oriental sage said? A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. I’m more worried about the first mile than what lies beyond.
It is time to go. I say my goodbyes to the friends who have turned up to see me off, and do the odd push thing with one foot stretched out high in front. Then I get the second foot onto its already moving pedal fractionally ahead of the instant when momentum would retreat and drop me to the ground, and I’m off. I have pored over maps for months, but even now I cannot be sure how long a road lies ahead of me. My best guess says it could be anywhere between three and five hundred miles. Which exceeds my longest ever cycle experience by, oh, about three or five hundred miles.
In the interests of professionalism and a wholehearted, vigorous, Be Prepared approach to the task ahead, I picked up the recumbent a couple of weeks ago. But so as not to get too carried away, and in the interest of keeping things interesting – though I have to concede the possibility that it might have been plain old sloth – I restricted my training to a few short outings along cycle paths in Central Scotland.
The great popularity of cycle paths developed throughout the U.K. by reclaiming and re-grooming railway routes abandoned for decades is something I put down to two factors.
One, the network’s paths are conveniently flanked by lightly-trimmed banks of wildflowers that allow a certain minority of dog owners – in my experience, the same ones who scowl at anybody with the temerity to actually use a cycle path for cycling – to look the other way while Sweety voids his innards.
Two, since railway routes by definition avoid steep gradients the same way some canine worshippers continue to shirk poop scoops, the new cycle paths are mostly bowling-green flat. While this allows grown-ups to almost keep up with the kids, it doesn’t make for the ideal training venue, especially for those of us planning two-month treks of long days and longer hills.
The steep upward drag that minutes earlier caused me such concern passes almost unnoticed, and the next couple of miles glide by without anything untoward occurring. Early cattle grids offer moments of butt-clenching tension, but so long as I take them straight on, my in-line three wheeler handles them with ease.
Grinding along in low gear on a long uphill section, it occurs to me that I am at last beginning to develop some confidence. Then a deep, ground-shaking rumble from ahead makes me look up. Bearing down on me is a monster four-wheel-drive, what the Americans laughingly call a ‘Sport Utility Vehicle’ and we Britons recognise as The Curse of the School Run. As I watch, it sails past the last available passing place, forcing upon me something of a Hobson’s choice. I can either post self and bike like a package between the gaping maw of its front kangaroo bars – the must-have accessory in the posher suburbs of Glasgow and Edinburgh – or pull over and let the two-ton beast through.
Pragmatism, instinctive self preservation and more than a touch of plain cowardice prevails; I depart the tarmac for uneven agricultural ground, and barely avoid crashing in the process. As The Curse blows past without slowing, two adults in the front pretend I don’t exist; he’s wearing a new Polo shirt with the packaging creases still on, and she’s sporting enough make-up to paint a sectarian mural on a Belfast gable end. Two kids in the back stick out their tongues to show they are not only aware that I exist but that they know my place in this world, and at the moment I’m in it, up to my three wheelrims in cow dung.
Only determination not to lower myself to their dreadful standards of boorish discourtesy stops me from giving them the fingers. That plus the fact that they have already disappeared around a corner.
I proceed for the next three hundred yards at a snail’s pace. It’s not like I have a choice, since starting a recumbent on a steep uphill gradient is a talent that far exceeds my current skill set, so I am forced to disembark and push the whole shebang to the brow of the hill. It is not easy.
From there, I take the ensuing couple of miles at my own pace, and the scenery on all sides is so engaging that I almost forget The Curse. I savour in equal measure the visual treats that are deserted wave-lapped beaches of golden sand, enormous bird colony cliffs and lush green Gulf Stream-washed rolling farmland; to the north I catch occasional views of both coastlines of the narrow peninsula that leads to the Scottish mainland proper.
Traffic is thin to the point of non-existence; the few cars I encounter pull over to allow me safe passage, and my waves of appreciation meet with reciprocal good cheer. A couple of vehicles approach carefully from abaft, and I make courteous use of passing places to let them through. Cue more good-natured hand gestures and inquisitive smiley stares. This is more like it.
But a little of me is watching my back with a sense of anticipation, and soon The Curse’s giant tyres squeal around a bend to find me occupying the middle of the skinny trail. I speculate that its occupants are doubtless freshly infuriated by the belated discovery of the Mull of Galloway’s dearth of funfair rides, Madame Tussauds attractions, overpriced designer shopping outlets and Starbucks and McDonalds franchises. Now they will be desperately intent on regaining ConsumerLand with the minimum unnecessary delay. It is times like this that a powerful two-ton monster with ‘Roo bars up front really comes into its own.
For the remaining two miles of single track road, I feign profound deafness while I trundle along at slightly below walking pace on the uphill sections, and a heady fifteen miles per hour on the downhills. I speed up only when passing places appear. Soon, phoney jaunty, coming through! toots of The Curse’s horn turn to long, blaring, out of my way peasant! blasts. I meet each with friendly waves and the occasional forward gesture to dangle the possibility that any moment now I will pull over where the road widens. But of course I don’t, and the only thing widening right now is my smile.
When the ribbon of tarmac finally broadens to two lanes and The Curse roars past, I give the couple in the front seats a variation on their own I-don’t-even-see-you routine, then stick my tongue out at the kids in the back. A boy of about nine gives me the two fingers, but what do I care?
Manic Botanics and the Scottish Riviera
I am still smiling a half hour later when I roll into Port Logan, recognisable to British television viewers as the fictitious island of Ronansay in the BBC’s Two Thousand Acres of Sky.
The few miles to the first settlement on the peninsula’s west coast are a delight. Luminous green farmland creeps gently towards an elongated saddle-like spine which runs the length of the peninsula that is alternately referred to as the Rhins of Galloway, the Rhinns of Galloway and sometimes the Mull of Galloway, which to add to the confusion is the same name as the location of the lighthouse at the southern tip. I do my bit for confusion by calling everything the Mull of Galloway, and nobody seems to mind.
From the peninsula’s lightly twisted saddle ridge, both coastlines are laid out in plain view. To the east, Luce Bay and beyond that, the Solway Firth and the north of England coastline. To the west, the Irish Sea and the long low outline of Northern Ireland, nearly thirty miles distant.
Despite its beauty and fertility, the land is sparsely occupied, with only the occasional cottage breaking up parcels of rolling agricultural land belonging to modest farmsteads. It is summer, so dairy farming is at the fore, and the landscape is dotted with ‘belties’, the Galloway breed of black and white cow with a coat that features a broad belt of one or other colour stretched around its middle, like a hooped rugby shirt shrink-wrapped around a beer-drinker’s belly.
When Two Thousand Acres became a success, I was worried for Port Logan. Worried that it would suddenly find itself playing magnet to hordes of TV-worshipping saddos with their living room tans and happy snappy cameras and well-thumbed autograph books, desperately in search of something, anything to cast a celebrity-lit glow over their dark dull ordinary existences.
Then I remembered that I enjoyed Two Thousand Acres of Sky as much as anyone.
In my defense, this wee place was a personal favourite even before the laird of Pennan in Aberdeenshire – famous as the setting for the movie Local Hero – asked for too much money, sending the BBC to Port Logan instead.
The series has since disappeared from the TV schedules, so I am hoping the idiot magnet has lost its powers, or has moved on to chip away at the life of whichever TV nobody has the dubious honour of dominating the front pages of the tabloids this week.
It takes only a few minutes to work out I needn’t have fretted, and that Port Logan is unchanged by its fleeting encounter with television legend. And since the attraction of the wee village was never anything to do with mass appeal, this is fine by me. Apart from a broad flat crescent of sand speckled with driftwood and dried kelp, the real draw here is the alien simplicity of a one-street coastal village. Alien, that is, to city folk who don’t notice bus routes running through their living rooms and shopping malls in their back gardens.
Port Logan is too tiny to support even one village store. I once saw tourists pound impatiently at a lone waterfront shop. When nobody within stirred, they stomped off swapping generalisations about provincial business sense. I went over for a look, and it was the rack of yellowing West Highland Free Press newspapers that gave it away. Two hundred and fifty miles up the coast where Ronansay is supposed to be, The Free Press is the regional title, and the ‘shop’ was a film set in limbo between shoots. I love the Free Press as much as any collector of small town news trivia, but right then it was the ice cream stickers in the window that made me wish the shop was real.
Yet to some people, this wee village epitomises what makes the Mull of Galloway a special holiday destination by not being filled with the so-called attractions available elsewhere.
I pause to chat with a tanned figure at work in a boat on a trailer, sorting out bendy fishing rods the length of pole vault poles. Ian Burrett is a fishing guide, originally from the north of England, but for years a full-time resident of the Mull of Galloway. I ask him what this part of Scotland has that draws the tourists back, year after year.
“I’ll tell you what it’s not got,” he says. “It’s not got crowds, motorways or traffic jams; it’s not got karaokes, discos, Kentucky fried bloody chicken, roller-coasters, kiss-me-quick hats or sodding amusement arcades. If that’s what you’re after, you can go to Florida or bloody Blackpool.
“What we have got here,” he says, warming to his task and waving an evil-looking gaff hook at the oil painting landscape, “is a place where it’s still possible to have a Proper Family Holiday.”
I ride around the curving beachfront to the pretty stone pier at the south end of the village. On a beach the size of twenty superstore car parks placed end to end in a stretched semi-circle, visitors are thinly spread out over more than a mile of sand, doing the things people enjoy on a Proper Family Holiday. I count them. Nineteen happy souls, aged from perhaps eighteen months to about eighty years, all making the most of the clean sand and the wide open spaces and the chilly waters for paddling. In a village where next to nothing is for sale, the holiday trade is booming. I recall reading that the regional tourist board is promoting Dumfries and Galloway as ‘the Scottish Riviera’. Maybe it is a lame bureaucratic stab at irony, but in any case, it is way off the mark. I’ve been to the Riviera, and it is nothing like as alluring as this.
The tide is so far out that the pier looks like a causeway to nowhere, which means that battered jeeps have to drive hundreds of yards across saturated sand to reverse trailers into the water and offload small charter fishing boats. I recognise the cadaverous rusted Range Rover belonging to Ian Burrett’s On Yer Marks outfit.
Sport fishermen from all over the country come to this part of the Irish Sea and Luce Bay in the hunt for tope and pollack and conger and other things I wouldn’t recognise outside of a labelled display in the crushed ice of a High Street fishmonger’s window. No, scratch that. When was the last time I saw a High Street fishmonger?
I point the bike back in the direction we came from, an operation made more complicated by the narrow pier and the added length of the luggage trailer; I promise to myself that in future I’ll be more patient with truck drivers taking forever to reverse blindly into underground loading bays. I clamber aboard and prepare for take off, and a voice pipes up from my left.
“The fokk’s thaat? Nerr seen onthing like ut beforr.”
The accent is pure Ulster, and it comes from a little liver-spotted man of about seventy in a singlet vest and bright pink Diesel skip hat that I suspect his fourteen-year-old Granddaughter must be turning her house upside down in search of. His bare arms are clotted with blurred tattoos whose designs owe more to Nelson’s Navy than to the trendy, vaguely South-Pacific whirly crap that nowadays keeps tattoo artists in custom Harley-Davidsons.
I didn’t notice him coming, which is not very perceptive of me, since he’s in a wheelchair. Perhaps it’s a stealth wheelchair designed by Allied forces to slip unnoticed into areas of Persia that have endured tough-medicine carpet bombing in the name of civil rights and democracy and the War on Turrrr. No way a man in a wheelchair is going to turn any heads over there.
On one foot he wears a neon pink flip-flop that perfectly matches his hat, and there is nothing on the other foot, because it isn’t there. Hanging from the chair’s edge is a flapping trouser leg in man-made fabric of eye-strainingly bold, circa 1978 check.
“It’s called a recumbent bicycle,” I say, as I try not to sound patronising and not to look at the empty trouser leg. That check pattern is very hard on the eye.
“Nerr seen the fokkn likesuvvit,” he says. “Ye ahn yer hallidies?”
“Doing a trip up the west coast.”
“Ur ye? Hoi farr ye gaun?”
His double-take would have made Oliver Hardy proud.
“That’s afokkova ways from heyirr. Best o’ luck tae ye, pal.”
“Thanks, I only started-”
-”Cuz yer gauna fokkn needit.”
He spins the chair around with expertise that speaks of years of practice, and heads out along the pier at speed, his wee blue-tinged arms a blur. He makes me think of Evel Kneivel heading for the ramp at Caesar’s Palace, a bone-breaking date with the tarmac on the other side of the car park fountain weighing not at all heavily on his mind.
I miss him already.
Back on the bike, I retrace my route around the bay, and bypass what television viewers know as the ‘Raeburn’ Hotel. Until the recent and very welcome appearance of a cafe diner on a neighboring hillside, the hotel remained the village’s only commercial entity. My tired legs and well-worked lungs tell me it is afternoon already, but a glance at my watch says it is not much after ten o’clock. With something like thirty miles still to cover, it is much too early for a drink, but even if it weren’t, I would settle for another source a few miles up the road. Any other source.
The hotel is run by two of the most sourfaced, least-sociable grumps you ever met, middle-aged Anglo refugees who couldn’t smile if their lives, never mind their livelihoods, depended upon it. They took it over a few years ago and now, despite being the only hotel within five miles in a village that attracts a year-round flow of tourists from far over the horizon, it is surely the last remaining bar in the Western World where lunch is certainly, positively, definitely, don’t even bother asking, not served. Unless you count potato crisps or peanuts. And don’t expect any apologies, either. Dark glowering looks at the mere mention of the cafe diner, but no apologies.
This would never have happened at the Raeburn, but then Ronansay’s Raeburn had natural-born congenial hosts, a loyal, happy clientele and a genuine sense of welcome, even if it was a drama set and everyone was acting. I look forward to the day when Mr and Mrs Grump move on and let someone with a hint of social nous build the hotel up to be the booming watering hole it surely should be. Because I adore sitting outside on Port Logan Bay with a cold drink in my hand, and right now, bypassing the village’s only pub inflicts pain on my beer-drinker’s soul.
In the spirit of starting off as I intend to continue, I am in Port Logan to meet the Gulf Stream. Not ‘Ron, I’d like to introduce Gulf Stream, Gulf this is Ron’, but a hands-on introduction to evidence in support of Miss Skeggs’ 1960s argument that we Scots are sooooo fortunate to have a Gulf Stream to call our own.
Logan Botanic Garden is a mile north of town. It perches on a bump of land jutting out into the Irish Sea, and more than thirty thousand visitors a year pay to wander twelve acres of gardens manicured to within an inch of their lives. The average urban Garden Centre is busier, full as it is of painted gnomes with cocaine smiles and moulded plastic water features and flatpacks of weather-degradable dodgy pine furniture. But here the visitors arrive, not to see if they can out-gnome the Joneses, but for what I have been assured is, in horticultural terms, something very special. A renowned selection of southern hemisphere flora, much of it sub-tropical, and all of it here only thanks to the Gulf Stream.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Miss Skeggs might have been involved in setting the place up, but elementary research seems to dismiss the theory as implausible. I remain unconvinced, but as gardens have occupied the spot since the thirteenth century, I have to concede some room for doubt. If she is still with us, Old Skeggylegs will be getting on a bit, but not even she could have survived eight hundred years in Scotland. Not with that English accent.
Barry Unwin is that rarity, a lucky, lucky sod-tending sod. As the Curator of Logan Botanic Gardens (even a brief tour of which explains a job title normally only conferred upon the bosses of museums and art galleries), he has, for over thirty years, watched the gardens grow in reputation and popularity.
For centuries these acres were in the landholdings of the McDoualls of Logan, and even now traces of the family’s Castle Balzieland overlook the Garden from a terrace above. Douall is the Gaelic name for Danes, a sign of that family’s links to the period of Viking occupation, which began around 800 AD. On the Mull of Galloway, as in much of Scotland, history is never far away.
The marriage of Agnes Buchan-Hepburn to James McDouall in 1869 marked the beginning of a transformation of the McDouall’s country house garden into a haven for exotic species. This cause was embraced by sons Kenneth and Douglas, who returned from their travels to temperate regions of the world bearing new additions to the garden. They also sought contributions from great plant hunters of the day, among them George Forrest and Reginald Farrer.
This is not the sort of information that I feel should be released for public consumption. In fact, I would suggest it prudent to impose a strict embargo on such detailed historical background. Think about it. If word gets out, Logan Botanic Garden visitors’ sons and husbands will never again be able to impress the ladies in their lives with potted azaleas from the local garden centre.
Potted azaleas? Old Mrs Buchan-Hyphen-Hepburn-McDouall gets ten-foot tall Gunnera Manicata from Brazil, and you bring me azaleas from the bloody garden centre?
In 1969 the Gardens were donated to the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh, and ever since then, Barry Unwin has been looking after them. He gives me the cook’s tour, pointing out flora from all over the southern hemisphere. Tree ferns from Australia and New Zealand that he describes as ‘tender’ – as in the opposite of hardy, a lovely use of the word I had never heard before. There are conifers from Tasmania, Florida and South America, Rhododendrons from just about everywhere the sun shines long and high, Echium Pininana from the Canary Islands – twenty-foot flower spikes and all – and a further array of plants, trees and sundry flora whose names I can’t recall, let alone pronounce. They hail from all over Australasia, South America and Africa, and outside of a greenhouse or a library book, most of them will be seen nowhere else in Scotland.
I sense this might be a good time for me to introduce the scholarly research element of my visit.
“How much does the survival of these tender species owe to the warmth of the Gulf Stream?”
I’m hoping that Barry will be impressed by my ready embrace of specialist terminology, but if he is, he fails to show it. But then experts don’t take note when a fellow specialist speaks their own language, so maybe I’ve pulled it off. I’d like to think so.
“In the summer? It makes no difference whatsoever.”
Ahah! Take that, Skeggylegs.
“But in winter? It means everything. The Garden is surrounded on three sides by sea water warmed by the Gulf Stream, which means we enjoy winter temperatures several degrees warmer than the rest of Scotland.”
He misinterprets my surly silence as a signal to go on:
“Since I’ve been here, there have been two exceptionally cold winters. When the rest of the country was suffering temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius, here it only dropped to minus 10. That’s a big difference in horticultural terms, and it is all down to the effects of the Gulf Stream.”
No room for an argument there, then.
I spend the rest of my day taking the back roads up the remainder of the Rhins/Rhinns/Mull and making the most of the feeling of being caught in a 1960s time warp. On these rural byways there are no traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, yellow lines or traffic wardens. Nor are there taxis, trucks, double-decker buses or motorcycle couriers. Many of the road signs are the classic, black-raised-letters-on-white-background metallic arms on posts, the sort adored by childish pranksters who love to rotate them and send tourists back the way they just came. I’m unfortunate, not because one of them has been tampered with, but because the one I try to spin won’t budge. Traffic is thin, often agricultural and mostly slow-moving, and the weather is perfect for cycling – comfortably warm, with little or no breeze. Pretty rustic cottages with walls covered in climbing flowers flank the narrow roads at a rate of about one every two miles.
The strains of urban life might as well be a world away. Or so I’m thinking just as a Vauxhall hatchback comes at me in a four-wheel drift, on my side of the road, tyres screaming in complaint, a spotty-faced blank-eyed teenager in a Burberry cap fighting with the wheel. I don’t even have time to react before it is gone, but if the car had been a coat of paint wider, it would have punched me through the roadside foliage the way the cat goes through walls in Tom and Jerry cartoons, leaving his outline in the brickwork. Then a police car flies past in hot pursuit and I pull over to catch my breath. I lean the bike on the hedge and collapse, jelly-legged with fright, to the grass verge.
I was in a police car chase once. In China in 1997, when I was returning to Beijing from a photography assignment in the boonies
I had spent two tiring days travelling to and from a rural high school that was sponsored by my client, and required photographing. The day of the chase started early, with a last few hours of photography fitted in before climbing back aboard the client’s Toyota for the four-hour haul back to Beijing.
Like most drivers, I know from personal experience how dangerously easy it is to fall asleep behind the wheel. But make me a passenger, and even a moment’s slumber is an impossibility. So I was wide awake when we sailed through an intersection the size of a small town at what I construed to be an ill-advised rate of knots. Sure enough, at the other side, a fat man in green signaled us to pull over. In China, only politicians, capitalists and traffic cops are fat, and, at about a hundred pounds overweight, this guy was the archetypal Chinese traffic policeman. We pulled up, Fat Cop waddled to meet us, and my driver reached dejectedly for his wallet. Then Fat Cop’s attention latched onto something behind us. He blew his whistle and waved furiously – then had to leap quickly sideways, no mean feat for a man of his poundage. He only just got out of the way of a jeep that fired past at speed. My driver by now had his window lowered and his license out, but the cop ignored it, wrenched open the rear passenger door, and threw himself, bum first, onto my lap.
“Follow that car!”
My Mandarin wasn’t at all up to the task, but from the way he pointed at the jeep disappearing into the distance I got the message. My driver didn’t have to be told twice. In the space of a few seconds a high-speed car chase was on, with us in the role of the pursuit car. Soon we were weaving through increasingly dense urban traffic at nearly ninety miles an hour, my driver doing his best to persuade Fat Cop of the sincerity of his belief in the pursuit of justice.
By now it must have occurred to Fat Cop that he was sitting on someone, but he did not turn around. Something to do with loss of face, I surmised at the time. Instead, he levered his considerable weight forwards and elevated his ample posterior by a millimetre or three, in an obvious attempt to convince me that the right and respectful thing to do was to prise myself out from under his fat arse.
I stayed exactly where I was and did my best to keep the giggling to a minimum.
He kept his eyes front, ostensibly watching a pursuit the driver had embraced with terrifying zeal. He also let his full weight back down onto my thighs. That would teach me. This went on for several increasingly uncomfortable minutes before it became apparent that the jeep had shaken us, and Fat Cop ordered us back to the Precinct House – sorry, the intersection where he had parked his powerful Cruiser – sorry, rusted moped.
Then he turned around to face the disrespectful pillock who had made no effort to get out from under him.
I met his ill-tempered gaze with a huge smile and a cheery Nihau! (Hello!), and the look of shock on his face when he realised he was perched in the lap of a foreigner was a joy to behold. He shuffled sideways onto the seat, and victory was mine, even if my thighs were as flat as empty sausage skins. For the few minutes it took to return to our starting point, I busied myself creating the illusion that my legs were not in agony, while Fat Cop did his best to pretend he was alone in the back seat. When at last we stopped, he was in such a hurry to get out that he forgot to gouge a bribe out of the driver. That’s how embarrassed he was.
Today’s journey, like the whole trip up the west coast, is intentionally bracketed by lighthouses at each end. Not just any old lighthouses, either. These are impressive structures built in the early part of the nineteenth century by the redoubtable Stevensons, close family relations of Robert Louis Stevenson, one of Scotland’s most famous literary sons. From the late eighteenth century, the Stevensons had a lock on what must have been the ultimate niche-market family enterprise. For more than a hundred and fifty years, four generations of Stevensons constructed ninety-seven lighthouses all around the Scottish coastline, frequently in brutally unforgiving locations as far apart as the Mull of Galloway in the south and Muckle Flugga – the northern-most point in all of the U.K. – at the northern tip of Shetland. Whatsmore, the vast majority of these structures are still in operation. This includes the one I set out from this morning and the one I will sleep in tonight, both built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather Robert, in 1830 and 1818 respectively.
But right now I curse the daft optimism that built in such a long first day on the bike, for when I finally arrive at Corsewall Lighthouse at the far northern end of the Rhins, I am knackered. Too knackered to pay more than token attention to a one hundred and eighty year old lighthouse that not only continues to provide the life-saving service it was designed and built for by Robert Stevenson, but also plays the role of nine-room family-run luxury hotel. Right now, all that interests me is the luxury bit. I am shown to the Mull of Kintyre Room, where I head straight for the spacious hot tub.
Forty-five minutes later I am at last in a fit state to take in the scenery, and like they say about the weather in Scotland, there is no shortage of it. Laid out in front of me is much of my proposed route over the coming days. I can trace the west coast stretching towards Ayrshire, past the rocky offshore dome bird colony of Ailsa Craig to the Firth of Clyde separating the mainland from the Isle of Arran and west of that, The Mull of Kintyre. It’s a daunting prospect. But first things first; my depleted system is crying out for a gourmet dinner, and maybe, just maybe, a couple of cold drinks.
The next morning I wake up uncharacteristically early, and decide to capitalise on this rare situation to make an early start. Big mistake. When I try to throw my legs out of the bed, invisible forces hold them right where they are. I feel like a mad scientist has drilled out the muscles in the backs of my arse and thighs and filled them with cement. Cement laced with a few million pain receptors set to high.
I am familiar with the articles warning how the recumbent bicycle puts stresses upon one particular muscle that is unaffected by a regular two-wheeler. The gluteus maximus. I thought that was the big New Zealander in the Gladiator movie, but no, apparently it’s a muscle in the back of the thigh.
What I am suffering now is in a different league from anything any article ever hinted at. I would not be less agile or in more discomfort if I had metal rods driven through my buttocks. When I do manage to get out of bed, I wade around the room in slow motion like a man in a deep sea diving suit, brass helmet, lead boots and all.
Ten minutes under a shower hot enough to par-boil chicken provides minor relief, and I gingerly pull on loose shorts and a t-shirt while I consider my options. Today’s plan calls for another thirty-plus miles on the recumbent, my reservation here at the hotel is good only for one night, and that was last night. Which means I better get my arse into gear.
Never was a metaphor more apt.
It is all I can do to weasel my feet into unlaced shoes and take myself outdoors for a walk. A very slow walk. I cover three or four hundred yards in slightly less than a half hour before I spot an appealingly soft-looking clump of dew-damp grass and sit down. Gently.
A roseate post-dawn glow paints the Mull of Kintyre and the distant peak of Goat Fell, the tallest mountain on Arran. A ferry the size of a soccer stadium noses out of glassy Loch Ryan, destination Northern Ireland. To the south, stony cliffs and deserted beaches vie for space on a coastline alive with sea birds looking to break fast, which is something I might consider doing if I thought I could get back to the hotel restaurant before nightfall. Far below, colonies of seals loll on dark rocks in compact clusters like beef wellingtons in a frying pan. Breakfast is definitely calling me.
The unremitting fog of pain prompts the notion that a little stretching might help. I sit with my feet together and lean forward to touch my toes, but come up so short my feet might as well be in a different postcode. This is going to be a long day.
A noise from behind makes me spin around, an action which elevates pain levels almost as much as did the attempt to touch my toes. Two men chat in plummy southern tones – Edinburgh lawyers, perhaps – as they float across the landscape with a fluid ease that makes me so envious I fancy I might be blending, chameleon-like, into the green countryside. They wear shiny new welly boots, tailored plus-fours in fetching speckled tweeds, multi-pocketed vests, checkered long-sleeve wool shirts and, get this, matching Sherlock Holmes deerstalkers. In the crooks of their arms they port double-barrelled shotguns.
The barrels are properly broken open for safety, but the two men are coming my way. And my dislike for shotguns is as near to pathological as my fear of snakes. I’ve seen far too many shotguns brandished in anger.
Korea in the eighties was a time of near-daily student demonstrations against a government embarrassingly short of legitimacy.
The first big demonstration I ever witnessed took place in May 1984, when I was an English instructor on a university campus in Seoul. I looked on in a state of wonder as hundreds of students, using only their bare hands, tore to the ground a high stone wall that bordered a one-hundred-and-fifty yard stretch of the campus. Then they broke the entire wall into small pieces and hurled it across the road, where riot policemen in full Darth Vadar kit stood lined up like targets at a fairground coconut stall.
The cops replied with rapid-fire barrages of tear gas shells that exploded from a sinister black armoured car, and backed that up with volleys of yet more tear gas shells fired from long-barrelled shotguns. Between gas volleys, troops without shotguns scooped up incoming rocks and hurled them, sidearm, back at the students. Baseball was very big in Korea, and it showed.
I learned that this was the anniversary of a 1980 uprising in the southern city of Kwangju to protest against the military junta of then General (and by this time self-appointed President) Chun, Doo-hwan. Chun addressed this threat to his illegitimacy as only a career thug could. With maximum cynicism and violence. A military manoeuvre code-named ‘Operation Fascinating Vacations’ sent heavily-armed, crack army troops high on barbiturates into the city. There, they dealt with dissenters in a manner becoming of crack troops high on drugs.
Years later, Chun’s regime grudgingly admitted to inflicting precisely one hundred and forty four ‘revolutionary’ casualties. Eye witnesses disagreed. They estimated the death toll at between one and two thousand ordinary citizens, most cut down by automatic gunfire while unarmed.
A fascination for Seoul’s less perilous form of street demonstration quickly overshadowed my desire to teach English. Which says all you need to know about how much fun was to be had at the front of an English class in Seoul. Three years on, I was still in Seoul, but self-employed as a freelance photographer. I covered government-initiated 1988 Olympic Games propaganda events for the Organising Committee – and Games-threatening anti-government demonstrations for anyone else who would pay me.
In May 1990 I returned to Korea to visit Kwangju for the tenth anniversary of what had recently become labelled ‘Korea’s Tiananmen’. A year earlier, I had spent a long week in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square before misreading the situation so badly that I left town a few days before June 4th. I departed on a jet full of journalists who shared my view that events in the Square were on the wane and would soon fizzle out. It was a decision that rankled a year later and rankles still; the biggest mistake of my professional life.
So I was determined to at least see out the day in Kwangju. I teamed up with Newsweek photographer Charlie Cole, a friend who was also in Tiananmen the previous spring. But whereas I came away from Beijing with nothing but regrets, Charlie came away with what was to be World Press Photo of the Year: his iconic image of the young man with shopping bags confronting the line of tanks on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue.
The people of Kwangju lived up to their reputation as fiery demonstrators, and we struggled to keep up with ever-shifting city centre battles between student protestors and heavily-armed riot cops.
In demonstrations like these, there is only one place for the news photographer. Right in the middle.
We spent hours in the imaginary shelter of skinny lamp-posts and bus stop poles while on both sides of us and with tireless enthusiasm, opposing forces traded rocks, tear gas shells and molotov cocktails. We each had close calls. A stone sliced the top from Charlie’s Nikon even as he held it to his eye, and only his gas mask and hard hat saved him from injury. I took a rock to the back of one hand that stung like hell but drew little blood, and while I sneaked a mini breather in the scant lea of a storefront, a boulder the size of my swollen fist missed me by eighteen inches and blew out the plate glass window I was leaning against.
Hours later and long after nightfall, we were in a narrow shopping street watching small groups of students engage tired riot cops in urban guerilla warfare. The darkness meant we were using on-camera flash, and after I took two or three frames in quick succession, I saw a riot cop focus his attention on me. From no more than twenty yards away, I watched him lower the barrel of his shotgun until it pointed straight at my midriff.
Shotgun tear gas canisters were shaped like the containers that hold two tennis balls. A sturdy fibrous shell with heavy plastic endcaps was packed with noxious powder. This was designed to be spread in a cloud above the intended targets by a small, but frightening, delayed explosive charge. I knew full well that when the cops fired the canisters, not in the air above protestors as policy dictated, but directly at them, things could get very ugly. Three years earlier at Seoul’s Yonsei University, a student by the name of Lee Han-yol died in precisely this way. A haunting news frame of an already brain-dead Lee, blood pouring from a head wound, hung in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Seoul. I knew it well.
Just as I was thinking, if this guy pulls the trigger I’m in big trouble, I saw the muzzle flash, heard the explosion of the shotgun shell – and watched the smoking projectile streak at me through the darkness. Only a combination of pure dumb luck and a reaction time fuelled on raging adrenalin made me arch my back in time for the canister to pass so close to my kidneys that I felt it go by. I never did see where it exploded, but by then I’d had enough. My day was over, and ever since then I have always viewed shotguns with maximum suspicion.
Naturally enough, neither of the wannabe country squires shows any inclination to point his weapon in my direction, and they head overland, doubtless salivating at the prospect of blowing apart small mammals.
I am glad they are gone. As things stand, and remember, I can barely stand, I am going to have a hard enough time getting myself to the hotel’s famous Smoked Salmon and Champagne breakfast. To try and do so with soiled underwear might just be enough to tip the pain and suffering scale towards the unbearable mark.
Two shuffling hours later, I am amply fed, moderately Champagned, and back on the bike. I get off to the shakiest of starts, but after a mile or two the pain in my buttocks recedes to no more than an all-pervasive incessant 120-decibel background roar. Nine miles of minor roads to Stranraer take only fifty minutes, and by the time I emerge on the other side of the small port town and take to the open road leading up the coast, the muscles have loosened up almost completely. Maybe the worst of my gluteus maximus troubles are over. I bloody hope so.
Though still in Dumfries and Galloway, I am heading for Ayrshire, and I am well aware of a historical parallel of sorts.
We Scots are almost shamefully nationalistic when it comes to our more accomplished forebears. Sit a few of us down for five minutes, and even if you restrict the boasts to key figures in the history of transportation, you will soon be regaled with names like James Watt (developer of the steam engine); John McAdam (tar macadam); John Dunlop (pneumatic tyres); and Thomas Telford (builder of roads, canals, aqueducts and bridges). Sadly, the one name most deserving of inclusion on such a list is least likely to be remembered. I refer to my near namesake, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a Dumfriesshire blacksmith known locally as ‘Daft Pate’ and who, in 1839, invented the world’s first pedal-powered bicycle.
Sometime in the late 1830s, a visitor to the smithy at Drumlanrig Castle rode up on a ‘Hobby Horse’, a two-wheeled contraption that was all the rage among moneyed European trendies. The Hobby Horse was powered by the rider pushing at the ground with the flats of his feet, in the way Fred Flintstone propels his car. Macmillan and a colleague quickly crafted copies of the Hobby Horse, but he just as quickly tired of pushing the thing along with his feet, and set about devising a more efficient means of propulsion.
Daft Pate was already credited with inventing a labour-saving pedal-and-crank system he had built to drive the grindstone in his father’s smithy. The success of this gadget almost certainly provided the inspiration for what was to become his cycle’s pedal-drive system.
In a design redolent of railway engines of the era, a repeated fore and aft motion of forward-slung pedals sent power back through long rods to cranks attached to the axle of an oversized rear wheel. This alone was revolutionary for its day, but it got even better; by varying the location of the pedals, Macmillan gave his machine adjustable gearing. Whatsmore, because of the lean-back seating arrangement and forward location of the pedals, the world’s first ever man-powered pedal cycle was a recumbent.
For the next two years, Macmillan rode his machine all over Dumfriesshire, and by the summer of 1842, he must have felt ready for a bigger challenge. His three brothers lived seventy miles away in Glasgow, and so, perhaps with the intention of trying to market his invention, he set his sights on the booming Second City of the Empire. He departed his home village of Courthill on June 6th, 1842.
The very next day, June 7th, he showed up in Glasgow. And the day after that, he showed up in court, thus notching up another landmark in cycling history: the world’s first bicycle traffic conviction – on the world’s only existing bicycle. What sort of odds would you get against that?
On his arrival in the city, Macmillan was surrounded by a curious crowd, and as he rode away, he came to grief. The next day, he appeared before the Gorbals Public Bar which, despite its name, was not a pub but a local magistrate’s court, where he was fined five Scots shillings for ‘riding along the pavement on a velocipede, to the obstruction of the passage, and with having, by so doing, thrown over a child’.
The Glasgow Herald of June 11th 1842 opined that the velocipede in question was ‘ingeniously constructed…but to make it ‘progress’ appeared to require more labour than will be compensated for by the increase of speed. This invention will not supersede the railways.’
This was despite the same report observing that on the day of his offence Macmillan and his machine had already covered forty miles in only five hours.
A few days later, Macmillan raced the stage-coach home to Dumfries-shire and won, drawing to a close his involvement in the development of the bicycle. He never saw a penny from his invention.
One hundred and sixty three years later, more than a billion bicycles, each a direct descendant of Daft Pate Macmillan’s creation, criss-cross every nation on the planet, and I’m on one of them. But something remains beyond comprehension. How Macmillan covered forty miles in five hours along unpaved roads on a home-made contraption fashioned only of wood and cast iron.
The coast road around the edge of Loch Ryan is blessedly flat, and soon I am swinging through Cairn Ryan, which must have once been a sweet little village before some clever clogs bureaucrat decided that south-west Scotland really needed another deep-water ferry port and that, being ten sailing minutes closer to Ireland than nearby Stranraer, this was the place for it. Now Ireland ferries work out of the two ports, generating insufficient trade to support either of them, and fuelling ever-changing rumours over which of the two is about to close. At the moment the pendulum seems to swing in favour of Cairn Ryan at the possible expense of Stranraer. I can’t help wonder that if maybe some planner had been smart enough to put the money into developing Stranraer years ago, the port there would be providing steady jobs for the folk of both Stranraer and Cairn Ryan. But what do I know?
Going by what I have seen of the evidence of their work around Scotland, as much as the town planners, I bet.
After Cairn Ryan the road dips inland, which means a steady succession of hills to deal with. One long climb feels never-ending, but beyond its crest lies a treat: a couple of miles of arrow-straight downhill, my first opportunity to test the recumbent’s high speed handling. Before I left this morning I checked that everything on the bike was tight and lubricated and well-adjusted, and that the tyres were pumped up hard. Underinflation makes for larger ‘contact patches’, which means more rolling resistance and more work for the gluteus maximus muscles, something I need now like I need a rare blood disorder. So tyres pumped up hard it is, then.
I am certain Daft Pate would approve of the startling fact that this bike has, count them, twenty-seven gears. As it picks up speed, I shift through the cogs, enjoying the feel of quality engineering at work as the derailleurs create seamless upward changes in the gearing. I keep an interested eye on my cycle computer’s speedometer. When at last I change up to 27th gear for the first time, the digital read-out says 42 miles per hour, and my in-line three wheeler is completely unfazed. I put further mettle to the pedals in search of more speed, and the numbers creep up slowly. I am concentrating on the read-out, which is edging towards the forty-five mark, when a red ex-post office Escort van materialises unannounced at my side and nearly scares me off the road. I chance a glimpse into its cabin and find two nuns in habits staring back at me.
I’m thinking, They’re just like buses. You don’t see one for ages, and all of a sudden two turn up at the same time. But it’s true – you don’t see many nuns around nowadays, at least compared to when I was a kid, anyways. Anyways? What’s this Ron, the mere mention of Catholic nuns and your inner voice slips into a lilting Irish brogue?
Maybe it’s professional envy. Unlike some fortunate souls in the writing business, I have no inexhaustible store of anecdotal woe and misery from a Catholic childhood. I cannot rely on a catalogue of heart-rending tales of ritual abuse from authority figures, criminal degradation and tyranny at the quick hands of those with God on their side. I don’t even have a deeply-engrained fearful wariness of ageless sexless potential mini dictators draped in matte black and dazzling white.
As products of the non-denominational schools of Scotland in the sixties, unlike our Catholic neighbours, I and kids like me had no fear whatsoever of nuns. So we called them penguins behind their backs. In squeaky stage whispers that would somehow reach the ears of parents who were indoors three streets away, and who would appear within seconds to give our ears a good boxing.
But it is true. They’re not as common a sight on the streets of Scotland as they once were. Perhaps the Sisterhood is in terminal decline. Or maybe Whoopi Goldberg has done with two bad movies what centuries of tradition have failed to do – driven generations of young Catholic women to pursue less selfless existences as prison officers and Independent Financial Advisors and McDonalds manageresses and Big Brother contestants, with or without dubious gender qualities.
The nuns are still in their red van, still on the wrong side of the road, still gazing at me with what I hope is well-meaning inquisitiveness. I glance ahead, and no other traffic is in sight, which is good, all things considered. I mean, face it, what if there is a God, and He/She spots the whole road being taken up by a couple of long-serving nuns in a van and an unrepentant atheist on a bike; then, say, a ten-tonne tipper truck full of manure mixed with broken glass and suffering inexplicable brake failure hurtles around a bend at them – who, apart from the truck driver, do you think gets to wake up tomorrow morning? I’ll give you a clue. They’ll be the ones with a red van parked outside.
They are still looking at me. Maybe they have a particular thing for the well-toned gluteus maximus. I put a bit more oomph into the pedal process, and watch the speedo edge past forty-five. The nun in the passenger seat is the younger of the two, which puts her somewhere in her sixties. I flutter my fingers and she smiles with her eyes. The other Sister fires her a withering look of disapproval, then accelerates away, leaving behind only a cloud of partially burned hydrocarbons and the imprinted image of thin angry lips.
There’s only one explanation for this, I conclude. They must have a problem with innocent flirting. Older penguins, I mean.