Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Go West Young Man


Strathaven Castle


Hullo ma wee blog,

A grey road on a grey day.

Odd how things look sometimes. I started the trip back home to the west coast in the kind of light rain that we Scots would call a smirr, the kind of rain that barely registers on your face, but makes clothes sparkle as if decorated with a million small diamonds and can chill you and ultimately soak you through completely. The car windscreen fogged over as the rain particles - too small to be called drops - slowly joined to hide my view of the road ahead as I settled down for the two hour drive back to Ayrshire and  Dad's - now my and my brothers - house. I switched on the wipers to an intermittent sweep across my vision and recalled how Gordon had phoned the week before saying the gas people needed in to service the boiler ready for winter and he would be away on business so, even though it would be a long drive, could I cover it rather than rearrange to a later date. I'd not been back in several months and as Gordon has taken on the burden of maintenance, gardening and the like as he lives fairly close by, I thought it was about time I showed willing and did my bit too. As we spoke that night he'd mentioned  the for sale sign had come down but he hadn't had the tools with him on his last visit so could I bring some bits and pieces down to make a repair. My toolbox and drill rattled softly from the car boot to let me know that they were on board while an extension cable was tucked behind the passenger seat  next to my laptop and some things I thought I might need if I was to spend the day at the house - tea and coffee, a sandwich, some fruit, some toilet roll, cloths and a few other bits and pieces of the basic things you always find awkwardly missing when doing something like this.

I'd left home with my Lovely G beside me to drop her off at Edinburgh airport for a quick trip to visit her Aunt in Switzerland. It's her aunt's 75th birthday today and they're very close. Once she had been seen off, I was able to get back on to the motorway and turn the car and my thoughts to the trip to the west coast. These days I tend not to drive too much on motorway if I can avoid it, a result of spending what seemed like half my working life on them in the past. I decided though that this time I'd go part of the way on motorway before turning off onto some more interesting scenery so I was at the house in good time. {The last time I did anything like this the gas man had arrived at the house early and left about 5 minutes before I got there. Luckily he'd left a note to say he'd been and I'd managed to contact his office quickly enough to get him to come back as he was still nearby.}

I turned off the motorway just as I reached  the outskirts of Glasgow and took the old road to follow the river Irvine valley west to the coast and home. The radio was playing classical music, a Chopin piece, by the time I reached Strathaven and passed beneath the ruins of the old castle which dates back to Robert the Bruce. At the other side of the village I was faced with the fork in the road and a choice of staying with the valley road on through Galston, Newmills and Darvel or taking a left onto the minor  road across the wild moor to Muirkirk, past the Juvenile Remand Center at Dungavel and the distant view of Loudon hill, another place where Bruce fought the English and won so long ago. The day had begun to lighten, the strip of road now steel grey in front of me as I headed for the moor and I remembered a song a friends mother used to sing at Ne'erday called ' Forty shades of Green' as I passed through a landscape that seemed determined to emulate those words. Everything from the palest lime to the darkest shade of forest green was in the trees and the roadside, mixed through with yellow, gold, russet and browns of every shade and texture as I passed out of the woodland and onto the moor itself. The pastel shades of the landscape softened further by greyness above and the classical music coming from the radio seemed to echo the views that were all around. The road swept down a gently sloped valley and across the river over a small metal bridge and on past a field of sheep with chocolate brown coats and startling white faces lying disconsolately among rough grasses and a small stand of trees next to the bones of a tumbled down shed. It's sole remaining green wall blended perfectly with the shadow of the trees and the countryside around it.


The Muirkirk Miner

After a short drive the moor began to change into grassy fields and the first white painted farm crofts came into view before I arrived in Muirkirk. I passed the sculpture of a miner made from a single piece of local coal, marking the long history of mining in the area I come from. Driving along the long road that contains most of the village I passed a pair of old men walking their dogs. Bowed legs and swaying gaits marked them as old miners as much as their flat 'bunnet' caps and the whippets by their side. The dark clothes they wore looked stained in the coal they'd no doubt mined for the best part of their lives. Unlike any others out that day they seemed impervious to the cold and grey, almost as if they were still grateful to be out in the damp but fresh air rather than anywhere else, especially down a 'pit' as they're called here.  Looking past a few houses I could see an occasional pigeon loft that also marked a favourite hobby of miners in my youth. Just as I wondered if they were still in use a flock swooped past on grey wings and I remembered from childhood the sound of the birds as they exploded from baskets stacked on special lorries at the start of a race involving what seemed like a thousand or more birds, solemn and intent rows of black garbed and bunneted old men anxious to witness the release.



The road out of Muirkirk rose gently towards Cumnock and home and I passed a farm where a field of cattle contained four or five Belted Galloway cattle or 'kye' as they are known locally. I love these beautiful beasts with their cartoon tidy hides. They remind me of a cuddly toy I had been given as a very small child which was very precious for a couple of years until cast aside in the way of a wee boy who has new things to excite him.  The image made me smile and I looked forward to getting back to Dad's  house. I pressed on through Cumnock and moved into proper Ayrshire farmland stuffed with cattle well fed on lush grass and bulging with udders full of sweet milk, through Ochiltree, passed the spot where George Douglas Brown's imaginary 'House with the Green Shutters' would have stood and on to the village and home.



A short 10 minutes across rolling grassland dotted with kye and sheep took me past the farm field where I had my first pay for a days work. I earned a pound for thinning turnips by hand, working from 7.30 in the morning until 6.00 in the evening with a lunch of sandwiches and tea from a flask I'd taken with me. I don't remember any other breaks from that hunched over day years ago but I remember how glad I was for Mum to run me a hot bath to soak my aching back in and forbid me to go back the following day to work for slave wages. I passed the tiny cottage Mum's family had rented at Coalhall, the junction of mine railway and main lines and the tiny hamlet who's sole purpose had named it so simply and descriptively. I remembered that my Grandpa Hughes, who died before I was born, used the line passing the back of the house to walk to and from his work as electrical engineer at small pits 4 or 5 miles back in the hills and that the use of those small gauge steam engines resulted in the lines being called 'He' and 'She' lines in recognition of the difference in scale. The line that ran off to a pit-head near Coylton was called 'The Nanny Line' as it used the same small gauge.  The pub at the junction stood empty now, it's dog walking miner clientele long gone, but new houses built in the woods where I would come to play sometimes have brought new life to replace the old.  From here it's a long straight mile to the village and home.

I used to cycle the road often in my explorations and searches for mischief to get up to. Sometimes I'd ride alongside grim faced wives heading determinedly for the pub to rescue what money they could from the pockets of a husband who'd failed to get off the pit bus on payday and sometimes I'd ride along beside drouthy miners who's dog walking would never get passed that inviting doorway. Occasionally I'd get a couple of bob to take a dog with me through the woods for an hour or two or to help a wobbly miner on his way back home with a shoulder and someone to talk to. Occasionally I'd steer well clear of men known to be violent.

By the time these thoughts had crossed my mind I was turning into the village, instinctively turning up the hill and the longer route that would take me past Granny Robertson's old house opposite the Kirk and the couple of hundred yards on to my destination and the back metal gate to the house.

There was no way the gas man would be ahead of me this time.

See you later.

16 comments:

Morning's Minion said...

Thank you for taking me along on this journey. You've included a fine balance between the geographical/historical details of the route and the purely personal/nostalgic element.
I was only sorry you stopped short of the gate!

Kate said...

Thanks for the journey, I fair enjoyed it - Cheers Kate x.

Alistair said...

MM - On reading this again this morning I thought you were absolutely right so I've put the extra paragraph in to try and help the story to a more fitting conclusion. I hope it meets with your approval.......

Alistair said...

Ha - just realised to that I stopped the tale literally at the gate!!!!!

Alistair said...

Cheers Kate.....

Scottish Nature Boy said...

Aw - beautiful writing Al - you don't know this, but I'm from Kilwinning originally and we used to spend most of our our school holidays in Ayrshire where the rest of the family resided. Our early '70s holidays meant packing everything into the van or land rover, filling the flasks and sandwich boxes and taking the long drag from Aberlady through Edinburgh (pre-bypass days) and out onto the A71 to Kilmarnock and then down to Irvine. The road went through every little village and to us seemed interminable. I discovered recently that those trips were us taking up past the door of Graham Obree, the World Champion cyclist, who was going through his own private childhood hell in a little Ayrshire village on the A71 at that same time. Your descriptions bring to mind lots of images from my own childhood - the past really is a foreign country. When I (very rarely) make it back to Ayrshire nowadays, so much has changed. There are more and bigger roads, more degradation of the green areas I remember and lots and lots of "development" - little clumps of new housing int he middle of nowhere that look like they've descended straight from Planet Crap, or at least from Planet Inappropriate. Some of the lovely nooks and crannies where Dad taught me to fish, went ferreting or showed me adders are probably still there - Montgreenan estate no doubt is still lovely! Thanks for the stimualtion of memory -a wonderful blog post with lots of personal resonance for me. Cheers, SNB

The Scudder said...

That was such a nice journey, I almost felt I was there with you ,, welcome home Mr. Writer !

Morning's Minion said...

I like the extra paragraphs--a graceful finish to a collage of past and present.

coastkid said...

Unlike my Big Bro i was born here an East Coaster(kid) when our parents moved in 1970...
but we grew up travelling the A71 to grandparents in Irvine (mum) and Kilwinning (dad)
and always remmember passing Loudon Hill and nearby the only signed `Gowf` club in Scotland...
i loved the countryside outside Kilwinning and the walks dad took us...thanks for re-kindling memories -:)

Alistair said...

SNB - I was born in Irvine where my Aunt was principal nursing officer and another Aunt was the doctor who delivered me. She still lives in Kilwinning where she has been for forty odd years. My brother lives in Irvine too....

What'd ya know - two Ayrshire lads eh.....

Scudder - glad you enjoyed it. The drive and the scenery was very evocative on Tuesday and brought memories flooding back.

MM - I feel better finishing it like that too. Thanks for the hint.

I should probably blog a bit more about the holiday as I've got lots of memories. Better get them down maybe before the brain cell deletes the short term circuitry.

Alistair said...

CK I missed your entry as I was getting the last comment together. I enjoy the sight of the Newmills 'gowf' club sign when I'm on that bit of road too.

Loudon hill is Ayshires version of the Bass Rock or N.Berwick Law isn't it.

cheers.....

Big Swifty said...

Lovely portrait of a journey across southern Scotland. When I was last in the area I too was thinking of Graham Obree using the same roads. I loved his book, and I think the film was pretty good too (subject to the usual demands of filmmakers simplifying things....). Cheers Al.

Scottish Nature Boy said...

Jing! Crivens! We're practically related Al! My Mum was a nurse in Irvine, after training in Kilmarnock. In a fitting testament to demographic change, the maternity home where I was born in Kilwinning (your Doctor Aunt will remember it, I have no doubt!) is now a retirement home! A GP friend in stirling whom I know purely from bumping into home out walking the dog was also born there, it transpires (small world) - ah, we just couldnae wait to get out of Ayrshire, eh? Just like Robert Burns!

Alistair said...

Thanks Swifty.....

SNB - My Aunts are Helen McNidder and Dr Elspeth Campbell. I was born in Irvine Central.....

Rebecca S. said...

I really like the relaxed pace of this post. You have taken the time to paint a lovely boyhood road for us, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The bits about the miners and their wives and dogs are lovely details which I'm so glad you included.

Alistair said...

Thank you rebecca, very kind. I'm glad you liked it. I really enjoyed writing it too. It fitted my mood that day completely. It's great to get folk saying they like what you've written.

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