Scotland Day 10 - Linlithgow to Castlecary
It's interesting walking for the Samaritans, having the information poster on my rucksack and their branded T shirt. It generally provokes thoughtful nods and comments about how good a cause it is, but it can also precipitate interesting conversations, such as with Chris yesterday about how he's spending time learning to listen. I was also very struck by a Scottish health service poster in a pub toilet a few days ago, suggesting that people ask their friend if everything's ok, and not be frightened to really find out. It had the Samaritans number at the bottom, which I really liked, as they are there to help the friends of people in emotional distress too.
I was nervous about today's walk, as it was the longest so far and the first in Scotland with the full pack. I've trained with weight for the last four or five months, but haven't had the full 11 kilos or so for a while. I read an article a few weeks ago about staving off ageing. It suggested lots of walks with a weighted rucksack. At this rate I'll come back 30 years younger.
Swinging it on for the first time it felt crazily heavy, and I also made heavy weather of the first mile or so on the way out of Linlithgow. But although it was very tiring today, by the end it began to feel more acceptable, albeit hard on the knees.
I walked past an excellent information board about the beautiful well just outside my lodgings. On it was described the Edinburgh mason, Robert Gray, who was commissioned to rebuild it when it had fallen into disrepair. He was a quick worker, and his 'speed was more notable in that he had only one hand and worked with the mallet strapped to the stump of the other arm.' For which he was paid 300 guineas. I remembered poor Lilliard from Ancrum Moor, fighting on her stumps.
I soon returned to the simplicity of canal walking. Its lack of decision making and its even footing means there's more time to look around, and more time to think.
I chatted yesterday with an angler who had returned to these waters for the first time since he was 8. He was looking to catch a perch or even a pike, but he didn't care if he caught nothing. He said 'an hour with the moorhens and the birds of prey in the quiet is fine by me. Great way to be retired'. And I had to agree, watching the elegant heron and the proud swans with their fluffy brood.
My reverie was interrupted by an aqueduct over the River Avon. To my surprise I discovered that there are 7 River Avons in England and 3 in Scotland, to say nothing of the Afon in Wales. This was a pretty confident Avon, with a noisy waterfall far below me. The aqueduct is the longest in Scotland at 247 metres. I love these pieces of sturdy Victorian engineering, but I often experience catastrophic thinking when going over them - will I fall off, will I fall in the water, will I drop my phone over the edge.... But as always none of those things occurred, and I even hovered my arm over the balustrade for a photo.
I knew I'd need to take it steady today and take breaks regularly, so if there was something to sit on I generally took the opportunity. So a large rock by the most idyllic pastoral scene was stop number one, I even cracked out the suncream for the first time for days. The rural nature changed as I approached Polmont, with the flame of the oil refinery clear against the shape of the hills.
I had a couple of lovely emails and texts this morning which were very supportive and helpful, and the graffiti was pretty apposite too.
I've also had some lovely phone conversations too which really spur me on. I was talking to a dear friend whilst walking with a prison to the left of me, Tescos to the right. I had Stealers Wheel' Stuck in the Middle on repeat in my head for the rest of the day.
My second stop of the day was improved hugely by meeting Liz and Anne. They are fell walking friends who were out for a stroll to the Falkirk Wheel today. They kindly sponsored me, and suggested a couple of Scottish songs that I'll include tomorrow. One provoked some demonstration dancing on the towpath. I can't wait to listen!
Another piece of impressive engineering in the form of the Falkirk Tunnel. This is 630 metres long, and although comparatively well lit, it is still a very atmospheric place, dank and dripping with the navvies' hew marks clear in the ceiling.
I looked up the tunnel's history, and was astonished to find this nugget from visitfalkirk.com
During the construction of the tunnel, two men named Burke and Hare relocated from Ireland to Scotland in a bid to be involved in the tunnels creation – if only someone knew what they were going to be capable of. Burke and Hare went on to kill 16 people during their time in Scotland, providing their bodies for medical experiments. Furthermore, the canal was also used by doctors to smuggle the corpses of patients to Edinburgh University, with the bodies being hidden in containers labelled as industrial chemicals.
A couple of slow miles between the tunnel and the Falkirk Wheel during which I listened to my sponsor's suggestions for today. Jessie recommended an album by Rina Sawayama, who was new to me. I especially liked Comme des Garçons - I could imagine Jessie playing that fantastic bass line. Chris' excellent suggestions of Paul Simon's Graceland brought back happy memories of seeing him in concert with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. And Ben Howard's Every Kingdom also created reminiscences of hearing 'Keep your head up' coming from teenage bedrooms. I listened carefully to the lyrics, 'keep your mind set in its way' and thought about how this walk is actually about doing the opposite.
Liz and Anne caught up with me and were excellent company again as we arrived at the Falkirk wheel. The area felt like a carnival, with lots of coach trips and tourists coming to see this local astonishment. Whilst waiting they could also have a go at bungee jumping or zorbing on the water. I contented myself with a seat next to the main attraction. The Wheel opened in 2002, and is a rotating boat lift that connects the Union canal with the Forth and Clyde canal. Boats go out into the high edifice leading from the Union, and then giant cogs allow the wheel to gently lower them to the level of the Forth and Clyde. It made me exclaim with pleasure, along with everyone on the boat, who also burst into applause when safely down to the bottom
Whilst I was finding somewhere to sit, a young man with an even bigger rucksack than mine approached, hand out, introducing himself as a fellow adventurer. Ian is walking to John O'Groats too, raising money for Rennie Grove. He's going quite a bit faster and with quite a bit of wild camping as opposed to my more genteel version. But we agreed that everyone does their own journey. He kindly bought me a drink, and we had a very convivial time sharing our experiences. So convivial, in fact, that we caught the attention of a man opposite. He came over to us and gave us a couple of coins each, saying that he didn't have much money, but he thought what we were both doing was great. Something like that means such a lot, we were both bowled over. We swapped details, follow Ian on Instagram on i.wainwrightwalks, his enthusiasm is infectious!
He went to the Old Military Way to check out some Romans, and I walked along the second canal of the day, the Forth and Clyde. Fairly similar, until I reached an area that was surprisingly more back garden planting than wild hedgerow. Then I saw the plaque to Andrew Muirhead, who'd made it happen, erected by his grateful neighbours who've clearly taken over his baton.
Nearing the end, I was conscious I was walking alongside the Antonine wall, but not near enough. I will look into changing my route for tomorrow to see a bit more of the Romans. Towards the end I saw a couple of tabarded men opening the lock gates for a boat before jumping on their bikes and hating down the towpath. I stopped Robert to find out what they were doing. Unlike in England, in Scotland boat users are not allowed to open the lock gates themselves. But they can book a cheery volunteer from the Go Forth and Clyde organisation to do it for them.
Distance travelled: 16.3 miles
Total ascent: 212 feet
Calories burned: 1977
Local tipple - half of Tennants
Dinner at Castlecary house hotel - moderate, the soup was very salty and the green vegetables were mainly swede and carrot...
Seabream fillet with Chardonnay sauce and new potatoes.
Sponsors' songs, thanks to Chris and Jessie
Rina Sawayama - Sawayama
Paul Simon - Graceland
Ben Howard - Every Kingdom
Video of the day