Saturday, 28 June 2014

III Great Britain: The Bridge over the Till

   ‘SCOTLAND welcomes you’, announces a brown and white sign, with a blue thistle symbol, just before the pretty village of Foulden. Following the road from there as it skirted round Chirnside, I was detained by an information hoarding about famous Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, native to these parts. Veering north into more elevated and untamed country, I got quite a good view at close quarters of a large raptor, engaged in an aerial manoeuvre that was at least similar to the ‘sky dance’ courtship display of a Hen Harrier (Busard Saint-Martin in French), in which the male plunges into a tail-spin, falling as if unconscious before, so to speak, wresting back control of the flight console, and swooping up once more into the heavens. As darkness fell, with more snow lying about, I passed a very remote-feeling place called Ellemford, where James IV mustered most of his army in the preamble to Flodden. The idea was to reach a village marked on my map called St Agnes, but just before Cranshaws I saw that a bridge over the Whiteadder river had an extra arch, underneath which I could put down my sleeping bag and pass the night in tolerable comfort, the sky above garlanded by a gorgeous gallery of gas-lit galaxies.

   Next morning I got away early in bright sunshine, but my right knee was stiff and starting to impair my ability to make progress. Reaching the still snowier and wilder terrain of the Lammermuir Hills, alongside the Whiteadder Reservoir I was amused by the calling of Lapwings all around; like the sound of a 1980s Space Invaders arcade game. Having stopped for a rest on an upward slope some way past there, when a car reversed and the guy in his thirties asked if I’d like a lift to Gifford, where I knew I could probably get a cup of coffee, I was so desirous. It turned out he was from the nearby town of Duns, whose most famous son is probably Blessed John Duns Scotus, the great theologian beatified by St John Paul II in 1993. I told him about sleeping under the bridge, but he was not perhaps as impressed as some people might be, as he had slept outside in temperatures of -35C when serving with the British Army in Bosnia. Even so, he was interested in the idea of my pilgrimage, and his mention of Bosnia was my cue to outline the origins of Mary’s Meals[1].

   He happened to be on his way to the only café in Gifford, and when we arrived he insisted not only on paying for my coffee (which tasted magnificent), but on giving me a flask filled with hot chicken soup. In return I proffered a home-made chocolate slice, and a sort of improvised flyer about an outstanding short documentary which tells the story of Mary’s Meals, called Child 31[2]. Savouring a longer than usual stop there, afterwards I took advantage of clement conditions to reach the main road leading to Humbie, before taking a nap. From there, up to the last mile or so before the village of Fala, where my Godmother lives, I was sceptical of my ability to arrive by 7pm as arranged, but thankfully I made it with a few minutes to spare. After a wash, the glass of sherry she offered was a terrific tonic, followed by a delicious chicken stew with white wine for supper. I was admonished for my scepticism about Merlin and his baptism – apparently there is viable evidence of the existence in the Strathclyde area of a rather cantankerous druid, sometimes called Merlin, who seems eventually to have accepted the sacrament, of which hitherto he had been highly scornful. She also articulated an idea with a strong following in Scotland, that the great Apostle of the Irish, St Patrick, was born either in what is now Scotland or else the Carlisle area of England, which amounted to more or less the same thing in the 5th century AD.

Naïve clouds over Dalkeith - Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh in the distance.
   After a very good sleep and super breakfast, on Thursday April 4th, feast of St Isidore of Seville, I made my way to Pathhead, got a bit lost, spotted a Greater Spotted Woodpecker (its Lesser Spotted cousin is so-called because it is spotted less – only joking), then reached the crest of a hill from which I was greeted with a fine vista of Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh. On the descent from there however, as naïve clouds with ruled-line undersides sailed serenely across the firmament, my right knee finally went. Limping on to Dalkeith, at St Andrews Road Health Centre the lady at reception kindly let me register temporarily; I was promptly attended to by a doctor from India, who warned that microscopic tears in the tendons of my knee could get worse if I didn’t ‘give it a rest’. In the vicinity of a nearby Catholic church (which was closed), there was a water tower similar to one I knew of in Svetlogorsk, on the Baltic coast of Russia (formerly called Rauschen, East Prussia). Then at Dalkeith’s public library I decided to reserve three nights’ accommodation at the backpackers’ place in Dundee for the coming weekend. A quirk of the online booking procedure was that you had to put your nationality, but there was neither ‘UK’ nor ‘Britain’: I assumed initially therefore that this couldn’t be a compulsory field, but it turned out that you had to choose from one of ‘England’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ etc! Reaching Edinburgh on a bus, just off Princes Street I snapped a piper, in full highland dress, as he played what I prefer to believe was the theme to Indiana Jones, though it may have been Star Wars. Finding the home of family friends in Edinburgh’s Blackhall area was more difficult than I’d anticipated, but a solicitous couple in a posh restaurant, who had seen me traipsing back and forth two or three times, kindly invited me to sit down at their table, and then use a mobile phone to make contact. 'CM' and his wife 'MM' expected me to have spent the whole day walking of course, but it was no problem to explain about my knee, and their welcome was none the less marvellous.

[1] When Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow and his brother Fergus saw television news coverage of the plight of Bosnian refugees in the early 1990s, they decided to launch an appeal locally for food and blankets, and took a single jeep-load to Medjugorje in Bosnia. On their return however, their parents’ shed was filled with additional supplies that had accumulated while they were away. A charity, Scottish International Relief, was born, expanding its horizons and activities over the course of the 1990s and into the first years of the new century. Mary’s Meals began in Malawi as an individual project under the SIR umbrella, providing school meals, but soon became the charity’s paramount consideration, until finally the name SIR was superseded by Mary’s Meals in 2012.
[2] I was first inspired to try to undertake this pilgrimage as a direct result of seeing ‘Child 31’ in Glasgow in November 2012. It can now be viewed online: see

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