Derek & Fiona, Maz & Adz, Caron & Alex, Connie and Sandy, Iain & Mary and Mr and Mrs McCulloch
It was like trying to move against the crowd in the rush hour. The wind tugged at my hood, and shoved and pushed my pack. And it was wet. The wind drove the stinging rain against my face. Cars sped past in a blur of atomised water and dirt. I was walking down the A 70 in the Central Lowlands of Scotland towards the turning onto a minor road north, and was hoping to cross the Forth Road Bridge later that day.
It was wet but I didn’t feel uncomfortable. My coat was holding up well. My boots were dry too. I passed stoic sheep and lambs sheltering where ever they could. I turned onto the small road and headed north. I passed forestry on my right. To my left pylons as grey as the sky, chased by the wind, leapt over wet fields to the west. In a lay-by two vans were parked, the drivers both women exchanged packages, wound up their windows, and drove off in opposite directions.
I thought that it would be nice to stop for a hot drink, or even an early lunch at Kirknewton. When I got there I could see the pub to my east, but it meant walking a couple of hundred yards out of my way, so I carried on towards East Calder. My road did not enter this village either but crossed over the B 7015 and then followed a route roughly parallel but at some distance from the River Almond. The land was flat. I could see grey sheds in the distance. I was walking through that half world where fields no longer have a strictly agricultural value, but that harassed, abused, uncertain look of a city’s borderlands.
Before long my road crossed the Union Canal. I could have continued on it but decided to change and walked down to the tow path. My head was now at the level of the ground in the field and I could see the crisp blades of barley grass coming out of the earth like the advertisements of the front of ‘Farmer’s Weekly’. The canal drew close to a slip road of the M8 junction 2 and I slithered down a steep bank from the tow path, walked out on to the pavement of the slip road, through an underpass following the road into Newbridge where I had seen the enchanted letters ph marked upon the map.
View from Forth Road Bridge at Queensferry
I can’t remember the name of the pub. I pushed in through the door. Even after the gloomy light of the wet day seemed dark. It was warm and dry. In the gloom I saw two figures at one end of the bar and two figures at the other end. Conversation stopped and four heads turned to look at me. There was moment’s silence and then the conversation recommenced. I un-shouldered my sack and dumped it by the bar. I saw a radiator on the far wall and walked over to take off my coat, and then sitting at a table, undid my boots and took off my waterproof trousers, from time to time regarded by the men at the bar.
‘What can I do for ye?’, asked the barmaid. (I hope that any Scots will forgive me my poor transcription of the accent)
‘Please could I have a cup of tea?’ Even as I said it I had a feeling that it would seem like an odd request.
‘We don’t do tea’
‘Ther’res no call for it’
‘Aye, ther’ res nay tea serfed behained this bar’, added one of the men to my left.
His companion nodded at me in affirmation.
‘I’ve got a tea bag if you could give me some hot water’
‘Aye, well if ye’ve got a tea bag. Nae problem’, said the barmaid. I found the bag of tea bags that the nice people, Dave and his sister, had given me on first day out of Gretna Green, in one of my trouser pockets.
The man at the end of the bar on my left asked me where I had come from and where I was going to. I explained the A70 and before that Gretna Green and that I was going to Inverness. “Aye, and I bet this gentleman’s not as young as he looks either’, he said. He was dressed in tweeds and and a tweed cap. He could have been a gamekeeper, which is almost exactly what he was, since he was a ghillie, and it also turned out that he was the same age as me….
‘Aye. I used to walk a fair bit, and I know the rules of good health, but the drink has done fer me, done fer my liver, …done for it, ‘ he said, not gloomily, but with the grim satisfaction of a man who knows that, even though it was hard, he’s made a good job of it.
‘Aye, And what would the rules of good health be, Graham?’ asked his neighbour.
‘Weell, tak y’re veggetaples, eat in moderation, walk a wee bit……and have a woman from tame to tame…… I’ve had three wifes, all deevorced….and.. they all say it was all my fault.’
‘And your’re surpraised?’ asked Maggie, who had returned with my tea and a tin of biscuits, which I happily tucked into. Mmm, so sweet and crunchy… forbidden fruit. What a treat.
‘…and not wash in hot water’, continued Graham on the health theme, ‘I’ve no washt in hot water for three yeears now.’
We were joined by a third man, with a kindly face who was introduced to me as a heating engineer, ‘ A very rich man’, said Graham.
The conversation continued on the subject of what I would see and where I was going. ‘Aye well if you go up the Laraig Ghru, ye’ll see the Dark Man no doubt,…he’s been seen by many. Even the mountain rescue have seen him’. From this the conversation turned to other strange phenomena. Graham claimed to have seen the Loch Ness Monster….
‘Weell I was out in the boat. I’d been out all day on the Loch, when suddenly the boat was rocked, violently, as if I it had been taken by a great sea wave. I feared for my life, I can tell you. I thought, ‘Graham…this is it’. The boat surged, forward then backward, in a terrible way. There was a rush of bubbles under it, and around it…I’m not making this up…No, No though I had been hitting the hip flask all afternoon. I’ll give yer’re that.’
The time passing pleasantly to other unusual sights, Graham claimed to have seen the Duchess of Argyle without her knickers when she was having a pee. ‘It did me careeere no good at all, I can tell you.’
The kind man who was the heating engineer explained that a quicker and pleasanter way to get to the Bridge would be to walk down the abandoned railway.
I offered to pay for the tea but Maggie was having none of it. ‘And you bringing yer’re aine tea baag. Niver’ Considering how many of her biscuits I had eaten this was very kind of her. My time in her pub was definitely the best bit of my day, as good as or even better than crossing the bridge, and I am grateful for the welcome I received, and would happily have spent the rest it, there, with my new friends, eating biscuits and listening to tales of hill and loch.
By the time I left the pub the rain had stopped. I found the railway by the junction of the A89 and the M8. I walked down it happily, thinking of the conversation in the pub. The sky began to clear. There were flowers which I had not seen, their enchanting, modest little faces turned to the sky. From time to time large aeroplanes, their turbines overwhelming even the sound of the traffic, appeared in the strip of sky above the path, seemed to hang there for a moment before heaving themselves through gravity up and on.
At Kirkliston I crossed the Almond again and then turned left into the village. I was sure that it would be pleasanter to continue on the railway but it would have taken me the best part of two miles out of my way and I was keen to cross the bridge and finish my day. Here I misread my map and took a wrong turning. I was redirected by some nice people in a car, returned, took the correct road, passing new houses, through an underpass and then over the motorway.
View from The Forth Road Bridge, Queensferry
Before long I arrived at the The Forth Road Bridge. I could have walked on the west side, with the view of the work on the new bridge, the huge towers to support it, but that would have meant looking into the sun, and I chose the east side with a view of the sun on the rail bridge.
Walking onto the bridge had something of flight about it: even slower and far noisier than ascent by balloon, but with the same surprise at looking down on the familiar from so directly above, on gardens, roads and houses, and then the mighty firth, with miniature waves, burnt to silver in the evening sun, the occasional tiny gull gliding far below, yet far above the water. The foot path is separate from the road way. People jogged past me in enjoying the evening light while on the road the traffic passed in a cloud of noise and pulverised carbon, shaking the criss cross of girders high above the water, till they and the road bounced from the huge steel cable sweeping up into the sky. I enjoyed the bridge. It’s long and took me longer.
On the other side I took the road I thought would lead to Dunfermline, but it did not. I walked past what I thought to have been an outlying part of the Rossyth naval base, now full of steelwork for the new bridge. The sun was setting. It was getting late and I was tired. Willfully I interpreted the new road layout in a way that meant I would be heading directly to Dunfermline. I passed a huge collection reinforced hexagonal concrete pillars, pushed together, standing vertically, like cells in the nest of some vast, but unseen insect. I passed metal fences of fading green paintwork, neglected ‘MOD Property Keep Out’ signs and places where the metal fence stakes had been ripped leaving dark gaps like missing teeth.
I could delude myself no longer. I was walking into Rossyth not Dunfermline, and must have gone several miles out of my way. I consulted my map. A nice man walking his dog hailed me. ‘Ye look lost. Wher’re de ye want to go?’ I explained. ‘Aye, well ye can take a bus but I guess you’re walking.’ I continued in the direction he had pointed out but was rather disappointed, 5 minutes later, to see the bus pass me. I walked on up a wide avenue with grey houses either side until I arrived at the bridge above Rossyth Railway station. It was late, nearly 10.00 pm and I had nowhere to stay.
All photographs © James Forshall
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