Route Canal

Posted on July 16, 2012 by admin

In Kilmartin Glen, Lochgilphead, Kilmartin on 16 July, 2012

No chippies on Loch Fyne? Scandal. I returned to my youth hostel and slept for 11 hours, and woke up to discover that the youth hostel wasn’t full of the youths advertised on all their leaflets[1], but of more old couples, and two German families. I classily and professionally organised my days ‘appointments’ in the youth hostel toilet (only place with phone reception, noting down telephone numbers in water on mirrors), in A-road parking zones, and in small-town bus stops to shelter from rain. Enduring another charming morning of rain-soaked cycling, I head towards Lochgilphead to stop in at their Resource Centre.

As has often been the way here, I had no real idea of what I was doing. I call a number, I turn up, I have a chat, and I see what they thought I was meant to be doing. So I arrived at the resource centre having no concept of what it was or what to expect. As a day-centre for people with special needs, it acts as a hub bringing in people from all over the area. It organises activities to link the centre with the surrounding community, and uses artistic work and craft to bring the day centre out into the environment. Obviously the Giants are the perfect thing! The day centre, as well as the local school, has been out visiting and writing songs, spending time with the Giants doing drum workshops and photography. Plans are afoot to enrich their local forest, dangling found objects (natural plant debris, bones, leather and cotton etc) as a welcome to the Giants lair, and installing some sound sculptures along the Giants’ trail. I hear descriptions of a natural doorframe, which once passed symbolises entry into a different Giant world. The integration within the community is demonstrated first hand when we sit down for a packed lunch – between the Resource Centre staff and its attendees are myself, the manager of the nature reserve where the Giants live, and a guy who works with some of the centre’s fans in the community. There’s local chat and gossip, talk of the islands and traditions, religion and society. It’s all fascinating, light-hearted, and welcoming stuff.

Leaving the centre to go visit the Giants themselves, they impart local cycling wisdom and I’m sent up along the Crinan raised canal towpath to be transported West and spat out from the wood surrounding the thoroughfare at Bellanoch bridge.  What a view. The weather had cleared up, and the panorama on a clear day across the peat bog and Crinan estuary on the river Add was heart-stopping: an assortment of craggy rock outcrops poking out of a bed of moss and heather, fingers of water creeping in; the home of the Kings of Dalriada. Breathtaking, and 10,000 years in the making. At the end of the last Ice Age, the sea rushed in and flooded the glen leaving a nice healthy layer of marine clay. The land rose, turned to saltmarsh and a freshwater loch, and plants grew. All things come to an end, and for the last 5,000 years the dead plants have been peatifying[2], slowly building a thick layer of peat doming[3] out above the estuary, and covered in heather and sphagnum moss. It was back around 3000BC that the Moine Mhor peatbog (“The Great Moss”) started to be populated, with cairns and stone carvings as evidence of what had been. Fast forward to 500AD or so, and we see the kings of Dalriada, and a thriving settlement based on the West and in the Islands.

It was in a small forested grove on the edges of the Moss that the Giants could be found, in what was proving to be a perfect demonstration of their concept and history. Living out in the glen, in the midst of a National Nature Reserve, but easily accessible (by bicycle or by car!), they really invite the locals to come out into their environment to meet them. All three lurk on a small loop trail a third of a mile long – you know they’re there, but to find them you need to be constantly wandering around, head raised firmly 4m off the grand, inspecting the surroundings with an intensity usually preserved for finding lost keys. They spur thought for the beauty of their home, its history, and recent human interaction with the area (industrial age drainage of the bog for farming and peat harvesting, and the present efforts to reverse the damage done). And they’re in some particularly lovely trees.

With the sun beating down(!), I was treated to an impromptu cycle along a 2km line of cairns and standing stones, and an idyllic scene of a shepherd and his sheep dog expertly doing their thing.

So here I was, exploring by bicycle ancient archaeological sites in sunny west Scotland, and everything was just splendid, dahling. So of course it was the perfect time to contemplate American tourist schtick. As I stood pondering a 5,000 year old astrological and burial standing stone/cairn concoction called Temple Wood, a minibus arrived and spewed out 10 American tourists. As a ‘fellow American’, our shared nationality was of course not itself laughable. It was the unfortunately faithful and thorough attempt to fulfil all painful American tourist stereotypes that was. There is nothing like the site of a uniformly overweight group of retirees,

with the men kitted out in full ‘traditional’ Scottish wear (newly pressed kilts, crisp knee socks and ribbons, gleaming sporrans and red bobbled beret see-you-jimmy hats minus the hair) clambering over ancient burial monuments discussing how the ‘sacrifice area’ of this one was pretty small, they’d probably have to cut the people up a bit first before they did the killing. Through some group speculation, they then concluded that the stones were probably just put there in a pile by the local farmer when he was clearing the ground, and were nothing to do with millennia of tradition and cultural change. At this point I felt it my duty to point out the sequence of highly informative panels explaining the history and suspected uses of the standing stones. They were then instead distracted by a vole and started cheering the little fella along, and embarked on a discussion about the difference between a vole and a mole.

It was all a very special moment. And perhaps my immediate mirth, and response of trying not to burst out laughing but instead taking surreptitious photos of them, was a tad unfair. The vole was cute, and one of them went on to mention that ratty in Wind in the Willows was a vole, not a muskrat as is often thought. And while they certainly appeared to have been wholeheartedly conned into buying and wearing full kilted attire like absolute tits, they are not alone in tourist dress idiocy. There is a sliding scale of tourist clothing behaviour, from the endemic “I ♥ [insert capital city abbreviation here]” hoodies popular in NY and London, to the South American trend of ponchos, baggy cotton pyjama trousers and Peruvian hats, to long shirts in India, or even cheap Lederhosen in Munich. Some of it is genuine local dress and an attempt to fit in/respect cultures, and some requires more immediate ridicule. But permanently wearing a full novelty kilt set when out and about really is unbelievably hilarious.

Having recovered suitably from my judgemental voyeur’s afternoon of entertainment, I got to my B&B in Kilmartin. At 18h30, when I’d usually go out to eat a sorry meal by myself “with tearoom/pub regulars and old couples who don’t talk or do anything but just sit in restaurants and tearooms looking morose and absentmindedly interrogating the floor”, I was instead picked up by Catrina and her son. Catrina, one of the workers at the Lochgilphead Resource Centre, had taken pity on my solitary cycling ways and invited me for dinner. And it was very nice indeed to be well fed, with family dinner table chat followed by watching some TV. Near sunset we went for a drive to the end of Crinan Canal (that I’d cycle along a stretch of earlier on in the day) and watched the Islands in front of a sunset, and the fisherman coming in.

Out of all the places I’ve cycled through on this trip, this one really demands that I return.

[1] Youths always having fun, smiling, larking around, and in multi-ethnic mixed-sex groups.
[2] Not a technical term. Disputably accepted as English, in fact.
[3] Its between 3-4m deep, and grows at a rate of 1mm a year!

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