Saturday, 28 June 2014

   On the way out of East Kilbride I first encountered an odd phenomenon that would recur, but only in Scotland, whereby rain started falling out of what looked like a completely clear sky. At a place called Eaglesham where I visited a nice pub for lunch, a copy of a Scottish Sunday newspaper informed me that Paul Gascoigne (a player incidentally of no less raw talent than Dalglish), had sadly done a repeat performance of his flute-playing antics at some kind of Rangers function on the previous Friday evening, less than 24 hours before my visit to the pub that had his picture in Blantyre.
Moscow, East Ayrshire
   The road from there went past a major wind-farm to a hilltop, from which a vast land and seascape suddenly came into view, including the city of Ayr, and the Isle of Arran on the horizon. Later I came to the A719, which passes through Moscow, the name of a small village where obviously it was important to take photographs. Then after passing Loudoun Castle on the way into the town of Galston, I fished a football out of a ditch (it must have sailed over the fence of a nearby school), and left it on the walkway – later I learnt incidentally that Livingstone is said to have taken a football with him to Africa. The place I found to spend the night in Galston was so much like a classic haunted house, initially I had genuine reservations, but the important thing was that although there were a few empty beer cans lying around, thanks be to God, there was no evidence of any drug abuse paraphernalia.

   On the morning of Monday 6th May, a bank holiday, I was glad to attend a Communion service at Galston’s remarkable, domed Hagia Sophia RC Church, based on the one which is now a museum in Istanbul. Saying a few words to a parishioner afterwards, he generously gave me £20 for Mary’s Meals. The road leading from there to Ayr was quite good for birds; kestrels a-hovering, some goldfinches and a curlew. At a fast-food outlet-that-shall-remain-nameless where I stopped for coffee on the outskirts, next to the racecourse, I was struck by the great number of people, mostly it seemed in their early 20s, who are employed in these places, but also by the depressing volume of feather-brained waste – huge bin-liners of half-eaten and uneaten food was carted past the table where I was sitting.

   The weather was dryer than it had been as I ambled to the pretty centre of Ayr – the area near the river, especially, yielded some ascetically gratifying tableaux. My hopes of finding a youth hostel turned out to be nil however, and while I had been told about affordable B+Bs in theory, in practice accommodation was pricey. Then at a certain point in my meanderings, the sea suddenly came into view at one end of a road, with tremendous rays of sunlight streaming down through broken clouds above the horizon – seemingly a celestial summons to move in that direction. Attaining the seafront, I then walked quite a long way parallel to the shore, before coming back behind the houses on the seafront itself, on the look-out for a place to sleep. A fair bet turned out to be under timber roofing, in the courtyard of what I took to be an abandoned NHS hospital place, though as I left in the morning I was seen by someone apparently arriving for work.

   There was nary a cloud in the sky on the morning of Tuesday 7th May. After my good sleep I headed back towards the centre of Ayr, because I’d noted that there would be Mass at St Margaret’s RC Cathedral at 10am. The first place where I could get a coffee turned out to be a very posh hotel, and I also used the facilities there to at least freshen up a bit. After Mass I fell into conversation with a group of parishioners, all of whom knew about Mary’s Meals, and they kindly gave me some sponsorship, but most impressive and affecting was the response of the parish priest, Fr Keegans, who asked me to wait a few minutes. He went to fetch for me a packet of tasty smoked salami, and a whopping cash windfall for the pilgrimage – having twice walked the Camino de Santiago, he readily identified with my quest. Leaving there with a promise to write, I made my way to Alloway.

   One of the most interesting quotes in the Robert Burns (d. 1796) museum in Alloway was in answer to the question: 

‘What killed Robert Burns?’ [probably endocarditis, a form of heart disease] 

Expert opinion: Prof David Purdie MD FRCP Ed. FSA (Scot) “…the tragic fact remains that he died long before penicillin, with which endocarditis is treated today, was discovered by another Ayrshire farmer’s son, Alexander Fleming.” 

   Burns won great acclaim in the Soviet Union for his egalitarianism, yet in 1786 he was all ready to sail across the Atlantic to start work on a slave plantation, and would have done so if his poems hadn’t suddenly started getting published. As is well-documented, he was also a philanderer and a freemason, but some of his poems are very accomplished, not least the one about a ‘wee cowrin’ tim’rous mousie’, and ‘Tam O’Shanter’, a recording of which, expertly read by Brian Cox, I listened to in the museum. Later it occurred to me that, as someone with such great romantic appeal, who was a song-writer as well as a poet, and whose balladry addressed broadly-speaking left-wing political themes, the closest 20th century equivalent might be said to be another ‘Robert’ – Bob Marley, who also died young, at the age of 36; Burns died at the age of 37.

The Brig O'Doon
   The Brig O’Doon, featured in ‘Tam O’Shanter’, is a very beautiful example of a 15th century bridge, spanning the river Doon, on the other side of which is the Doonside Estate, where Burns’ father worked. The weather was illustrious when I crossed over that afternoon, and continued in this fine aspect as I advanced to the town of Maybole, notable for some interesting-looking old buildings, and thence past St Cuthbert’s primary school to a village called Highcross. On this latter stretch of road, of perhaps 3 or 4 miles, I first saw the advantages of re-adjusting my itinerary. I was now on a pilgrimage to Whithorn, to the place where St Ninian built Scotland’s first church. This meant however, that instead of subsequently taking a dogleg east and continuing through England, if I took a dogleg west and made my way to Stranraer, I could sail to Belfast. Then (assuming I could cover the intervening ground), from Rosslare on the south coast I could take a ferry to France – less walking, less time, and affording an opportunity to get to know Ireland better. 

    In Highcross I found a place to sleep under a porta-cabin, serving as a changing room next to the village football pitch. On the morning of Wednesday 8th May, dedicated to St Desiderata, I got up well before 6am, out of a fear of getting woken up by a hound, out with its master for an early morning walk. A great boost lay in the availability, even at such an unsociable hour, of a super and inexpensive cup of coffee, from the village post office; and I bought there an item called a macaroon (chocolate-coconut confection), to keep in reserve. What also did my morale a world of good was a meeting with a Scot of about my age, out walking his dog, who had done long treks of his own, including several Munros[1], though not as religious missions. He invited me to his home, where he and his wife/partner put porridge with fruit and coffee in front of me. And he showed me how to make a makeshift tent with the big German poncho that I still had from Ukraine, using two wooden pegs that he was going to give me, and some rope. I obstinately left them with a packet of three of chocolatey nutty clusters by way of a thank you, ignoring their insistence that I shouldn’t have.

[1] Peaks higher than 3000 feet, of which there are 282 in the Scottish Highlands.

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