Ship shape

I wasn’t looking forward to repairing and repainting my Mirror dinghy, again. My social media handle “gumptionology” comes from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and the author, Robert M. Pirsig, got the word “gumption” from an old Scottish relative. It’s a common old word here and means a combination of initiative and know-how, get-up-and-go, va va voom, Kraft. There’s a few translations.

The problem is I really didn’t have any. I’ve been wanting to sail this boat for a few years now. For various reasons, it hasn’t happened. The latest set-back was (probably) some local fishermen deciding to take Harmony out on the canal. They obviously understood boats (she was upturned when I found her, so the rain didn’t get in) but they didn’t understand how heavy old wooden boats are – and how fragile the bow and stern transom and gunwales are – especially when hauled out of the water!

I’ve already blogged about when the bow broke, but this time it wasn’t the bow transom (that’s the bit at the front) but the gunwale (the bit at the front on the top). Added to that, everything has been such a hassle this past year and a half while everyone has been under the spell of the Covid cult. So trying to get a mate to come out and help me shift and repair the boat, or even just go for a row, has been difficult. I have had some help, for which I’m very grateful, however I knew water was probably getting in and I knew I needed to do something about that.

Finally, I got round to it. Pirsig coined the term gumptionology to refer to the art of being and feeling up to a task. He gives some helpful hints. One is coffee and I made sure I had a couple of cups before I left the house. I also freed up the afternoon so I wouldn’t feel time-pressured (that’s another). Then I decided to do one thing at a time.

The first thing was to dry the boat, make sure she stays dry and inspect/ remove any rotten wood. I really wanted to do that, and the repair and the paint job all on the same day as this heatwave is forecast to end in a couple of days. But I decided to focus on the first task and try to do that well.

Pirsig stresses the importance of good mood. As the stinging nettles drive me crazy when I’m working outside on the boat, I decided to take some old-fashioned manual hedge cutters to them before even starting that first task.

I already felt a little better. Being out in the sun and actually dealing with the problem instead of ignoring it helped. However my heart sank when I ran the wire brush over the paintwork and easily peeled off the “bubbled” navy blue paint below and astern of the thwart (seat). Rotten plywood. That had to come off.

Even as I worked, the sun was drying up the damp wood and I realised most of it could be rescued, with either a coat of epoxy glue (as I’d previously done on the hull supports) or with primer, then successive coats of paint. As long as the wood wasn’t rotten and it was dry! I tidied up the paint and wood scraps to transport back home to bin and put the fabric cover back on to let the boat breathe and get even drier.

As my biggest worry was rain (not uncommon in Scotland) the next day I put into action a cunning plan. £25 had bought me an inflatable dinghy and pump that really shouldn’t have been used outside a swimming pool. At the shallow end. Ben my cute terrier and I had paddled it up and down the canal over lockdown a few times (me rowing and him lolling over my legs and being famous on Facebook as every passerby fell in love with his doggie charm). Not unsurprisingly, it had sprung a few leaks and, though I repaired them with StormSure glue & tape, I felt it was safer to use it as an extra cover for Harmony to keep the tarp convex rather than concave and so prevent puddles forming and water ending up inside.

When I got back the next day, knowing I would find a dry boat (which would’ve stayed dry if I’d been more clever about getting the tarp off) made me feel more enthusiastic. I’d need that good mood because today I was going to use epoxy. Another of Pirsig’s hints is cleanliness and good order so first I wiped the whole topsides down, from gunwales to centreboard case, with a dry cloth, which got slightly wetter as I went along. This is a good move for various reasons:

  • dust gets onto paint and in your eyes
  • dirt hides damp and damage
  • beasties get dislodged and don’t get painted!
  • it’s a visual check of the whole boat
  • if paint gets rubbed off just with a cloth, it needs scraped off and repainted

It also gave the exposed wood a bit more time to dry and I could see the underlying layers of plywood were staying in place as they dried.

Next to prepare the gunwales for the epoxy using a file – and also a fern to slip through the crack at the stern and brush out any beasties! I figured I’d get all the filing done before using the glue so the dust wouldn’t stick and the vibrations wouldn’t displace what was supposed to be stuck together!

When you go looking for trouble on a boat you generally find it. I’d seen a very professional repair done on a Mirror that revealed all the original wood and clear varnished the inside and I must admit it was lovely. However I’ve learned that the pragmatic approach works well with boats and I knew that I’d never get her ready for even the autumn if I undertook all that. So I decided I’d only take off what wouldn’t stay on and simply file and sand then epoxy and repaint.

The proper mindset for using epoxy is paranoia. (Imagine the scamdemic were really true and act accordingly.) Basically, if you put enough masks on so you can’t breathe, and wear so much eye protection you can’t see, you’ve got a fighting chance with it. Make sure you do all these things before you open those tins. Because you can’t do any of them afterwards!

  • Pee
  • Drink water
  • Wipe your eyes
  • Blow your nose
  • Take photos
  • Text
  • Switch off alarms
  • Read the instructions!!!!!

Firstly lay everything out on a cloth. Because everything is going to get sticky and you need to know what’s what and where it is. If you’re using 5:1 don’t even bother measuring out 5ml just go for 10:2 because you’ll need it. If the job is smaller than that, you don’t need epoxy, you need chewing gum!

Everything is about time and temperature. READ THE INSTRUCTIONS!!!! Separate the syringes and keep them separate so you know which is which and only put the resin syringe in the resin and the hardener in the hardener. Panic is part of the process (it goes with oxygen deprivation) but the important thing is that when something goes wrong (it will) don’t mess about wondering how to do it perfectly: JUST DO IT!!!!

Working with epoxy is very Zen. If Zen consisted of making a gloopy sticky mess that defies gravity when you want it not to and runs when you’d rather it stuck and sticks the fingers of your gloves together (or your fingers if you’ve been STUPID enough not to wear gloves) and makes you either pass out from lack of air or pass out from toxic fumes!

Panic started when I realise the double pronged tack helpfully holding the bow gunwale apart (so I could gloop the glue in) wasn’t going to go back in place without a fight despite initially shifting slightly. I had minutes (which felt like seconds) to get those pieces of wood clamped together – without a clamp. I did at one point consider just standing there for 8 hours till it cured. (That glue is pretty strong!) Then I sprang into action, doing everything I’ve just warned not to!

I tore off my hat, gloves, masks and breathed in some air! I looked around wildly for a piece of rope then wasted time trying to figure out how to get it off the inflatable (just do it!) then wasted even more trying to move all the epoxy stuff —magnificently now in the way — without touching it. Then more time uselessly trying to keep a rope taut from amidships along the bow gunwales then back to the cleats on the cabin roof. Finally I looped it round the padded block (which the boat should’ve been on) over a cloth to exert pressure on the gunwale and finally to the cleats.

Sticky, sweaty and most probably high (don’t phone anyone at this point, in fact try to avoid human beings and animals and plants and breakable objects entirely) I messed about trying to tidy up the gloops a bit. Mostly in vain. Then a red deer appeared. Well. It was red and it was a deer. A moment of stillness and beauty.

I realised I had done enough for the day. One way or another. I washed my hands in water, wiped them on cloths (fairly ineffectually) and covered up the boat again. For another day of repairing and painting.

Harmony with inflatable atop covered by blue tarp and grey fabric cover with green tarp over front wheel of trailer.

Walking: Falkirk to Linlithgow

With the world on climate strike, one academic year barely over and the next about to begin, I decided to enjoy the rare Scottish sunshine and walk the next section of my good days journey to Edinburgh along the Forth & Clyde and the Union canals. Ben, my faithful doggy companion, had already proved his worth in the 2.5 hours it had taken us to get to Falkirk High, by train, bus and walking (which should have been a half-hour train ride) as he’d simply flirted with everyone in sight and taken their minds off broken-down trains. We really didn’t mind and Falkirk Arts Festival was looking bonny in the sun.

Falkirk Arts Festival bigger

We’d done a side walk from Falkirk High to the Kelpies in February and back but the last section, from Auchinstarry in October last year, had also ended at this canalside train station so that’s where we started – at the famously long and eerie tunnel with its fairy lights and red-green traffic lights at either end.

The tunnel wasn’t just eerie it was also wet! I put Ben on the lead and walked warily over the cobblestones further into a fairyland under the hill. Not a place for the claustrophobic – although you can always see the light at both ends – and we had to flatten ourselves against the wall to let a couple of cyclists past. But, if you manage to miss the narrow streams of falling water, when your eyes adjust, it’s rather lovely.

Outside again and the warmth of the air and blue skies were a pleasant surprise. After all, this was Scotland, in September! (If there’s an R in the month, it tends to rain almost constantly; if there isn’t, it just rains a lot.) The Union canal, narrower than the Forth and Clyde, was popular with cheery narrowboaters, who (from their accents and amiable incomprehension of mine) hailed from Across the Pond and Down Under.

It is also full of beautiful old bridges (the newer ones are more functional than aesthetic) whose builders weren’t always happy with their financial lot, as a sign explained.

The milestones intrigued me and it was only further on that I worked out what the numbers referred to: we were 2 miles to the west of the beginning of the Union canal at the Falkirk Wheel; 29.5 miles from its Edinburgh end. There was also a sensible notice for cyclists (though the rude ones would be going too fast to read it):

Old stone is quite a feature of these canals and the next example was a weir with an overflow burn below, keeping the level of each reach (canal section from lock to lock) – and providing Ben with his favourite tipple: rainwater.

Further along, I spotted white deadnettle among the ferns, which look a little like snapdragons but the leaves sting! At the next bridge was a spray of rosehips.

And then, unexpectedly, a field of pinto ponies! And was that smoke from Grangemouth? Yes, then that must be the Forth, flowing majestically down from Stirling, under the Kincardine bridge towards Queensferry and the North Sea. And the lovely Kingdom of Fife, the setting for my latest Bruno Benedetti Mystery – which I must get finished! And another lovely bridge.

Some Ben action shots now: (if you flick through them quick you can see him jumping around happily):

Purple clover hiding in the grass, a stark star of cow parsley and the delicate violet-coloured flowers and large , typical geranium leaves of wood crane’s-bill.

On to Polmont where there was a nice long quay with mooring rings and a shut-up narrowboat snugly tied up, with another one chugging along.

The town is famous for its prison for young offenders but, before that, the ambiguous legacy of Alfred Nobel. Not exactly peaceful!

In prison or out, life goes on, and so did the path. With Ben irrigating the vegetation and another narrowboat approaching. I spied a great big clump of yellow vetch and took a close-up.

A welcome rest! I sat on the milestone while Ben had his lunch then, in solidarity with our Greta, went on strike. Right in the middle of the path. I persuaded him to sprawl on the grass just before a cyclist happened by.

I had been dawdling. I knew it. I’d stopped so often to get my phone out of my backpack to take photos that I finally gave up the pretence of being technology-free. And I’d just ambled along chatting to everyone, who chatted back. It was that kind of day. But, when I saw this sign, I realised that I really should get a move on. Later on I worked out that, at this point, it had taken us 2.5 hours to walk a total of 2 miles! It really didn’t help that Ben occasionally walked back the way we’d come.

But there were quiet meadows to contemplate, lovely old stone bridges and sheep lying down in shady pasture.

I didn’t notice this sinister thing lurking in the murky waters when I took what I thought was a poetic shot of riverbed reeds. Bicycle inner tube? Freshwater eel? A very lanky pike? Then I spotted this keystane and thought of Burns’ immortal line about midnight’s black arch.

On the other bank, a herd of bulls and one on his own. I turned veggie at the age of eight and vegan a few years ago. Since seeing sheep carcases hanging on the walls of a slaughterhouse, I’ve avoided farmed animals. I watched The Animals’ Film with my brother decades ago (it turned him veggie, again) but I don’t watch all the shocking footage that’s so widespread these days. I know what goes on. When I lived on a small Hebridean isle, the only beings I didn’t connect with were the cattle and sheep. I knew their fate. I didn’t want to get to know them.

bullsBut recently I’ve been following some animal sanctuaries on Instagram. The pigs that have names and get butternut squash and bellyrubs are the same of sentient  species, more intelligent than dogs, who are imprisoned in cages as piglet-making machines, who scream in terror before being clubbed or shot or knifed or skewered or gassed to death. Male chicks, considered as non-profitable processes in the egg industry, are suffocated or mechanically shredded – human hands pick them out on purpose and set them on that conveyor belt. Cows cry at what awaits them, as the deception of the kindly farmer finally hits home.


So I was glad that these ones were out in the field in the sun. And I was sad that human greed, for milk and meat (ignoring the effect of both on the body and the planet) meant their early and terrifying death.

But then there was the sun reflected on the water. Which must have meant something. And the path went on – and here’s a bicycle! Okay it’s got no brakes and the back tire needs pumped up, at least, but it’s free and yours for the taking!

The picnic place beside the canal basin looked nice and, before another lovely bridge, a sign that we were nearing…ah but you’ll have to wait and see!

And then a ford and, past a wee narrowboat shimmering in the sun, and an ivy-covered tree in a lovely wood, there was…

Well you’ll have to wait because, at this point, Ben bolted ahead – straight for what appeared to be a very small sausage dog on a lead which was promptly hoisted to shoulder height by his owner (clearly used to this) and turned out to be a ferret! I apologised and the unsuccessful (and unrepentant) murderer went back on his lead.

The Avon Aqueduct! (And we’ve come a whole 3 miles since that last sign – which is 5.5 altogether. In three hours. Oh well.)

It was beautiful. I’m sure Hugh Baird was proud of his creation. I really got the sense of crossing over towards the east coast. The canal continued and Ben seemed happy to, and there were lots of pretty flowers along the way.

This may be water mint and that’s bullrush – but the tower is definitely not the Wallace Monument. I think the sun was getting to me when I came to that conclusion and forgot my Central Scottish geography.

A wee burn below the canal, a milestone to show how brave we were (seven miles – fancy!) and some splendid huts that may or may not have been for boaters.

I fell in love with Linlithgow. What’s over that bridge? Look at those cute canalside cottages! What a lovely spire! What is it? (St Michael’s Church, with the Palace behind it – or St Michael’s Kirk, wi thi Palace ahint it, in the vernacular.)

Journey’s end was the sight of these lovely old canalboats, including a workboat tipped a bit astern as the ballast would be heavier forrard, and a teashop.

Well I know what’s my first stop for the next stage: Linlithgow to Ratho. But that, as they say, is another story. My last photo: a lovely veranda and Linlithgow Loch behind.

lovely veranda

[All photos (descriptions more accurate than titles) are copyright the author and may be used with a link to this post.]


Below the waterline

Having replaced the broken forward transom (bow) of my Mirror dinghy, I now had to deal with the peeling paint, rotten wood and delaminated plywood below the Plimsoll line. I wasn’t looking forward to it. Inching the boat off the trailer was fun – involving two large trailer straps with hooks and ratchets, an empty oil barrel and a conveniently-placed ring on the side of a concrete shed. I could have asked for help but I’m a bit impatient. (Which is what led to all the damage to the bow and the hull in the first place!)

Boat on a barrel
Boat on a barrel with lifting straps

Boat lowered onto the grass and turned over onto planks, I could survey the hull. The sensible long-term solution was to replace the damaged plywood but (as it isn’t part of the hull per se but rather supports running parallel to the keel which seemed principally to bear the load of resting on the trailer, and as I really wanted to get the boat out while there was still some good weather) I decided to remove what I had to and epoxy the rest.

And so it began. Removing the peeling paint was easy enough. It just peeled off. Unfortunately the same was true for much of the first two layers of plywood. Faced with not enough support if I kept removing layers, I decided to only take off what was rotten and stick the rest down. That, at least, was the plan.

Paying attention to what lay beneath the paintwork, I discovered some other areas of the hull (along the keel and mostly on either side of the centreboard slot) that needed attention.

Rotten wood had to be scraped out with a wire brush, and flaking paint and epoxy removed between the keel and its metal strip protector.

Fortunately this repair coincided with a fortnight of fabulous weather, so I could be confident that the exposed wood really dried out. That, however, was the limit of my confidence. If I did all this and the boat didn’t float, Plan B was to sell it, with full disclosure. To cheer myself up, after replacing the bow, I’d decided to put a fresh coat of Bondi Blue topcoat on the topsides and finally affix the name of the boat: Harmony. Henceforth ‘it’ would be known as ‘she’.

Below the waterline, the forward hull wood and paintwork was undamaged but looked more cheerful with another coat and gave me something to do while other places were drying out.

That done and dried, I started sanding the mid and aft hull, especially where the wood was newly exposed.

Finally satisfied that the surfaces were ready, I prepared to apply the marine epoxy and glasscloth as I’d done for the forward transom and gunwales.

This stuff I’d bought from Trident UK and (unlike the Galeforce 1:1 ratio) it needed 1:5 hardener to epoxy so this time I did use the calibrated syringes. I also donned my protective goggles and pulled my neck warmer up over my nose.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the various applications of fibreglass cloth and epoxy but I soon realised that I’d need to get more if I wanted the plywood surface more even.

A mate sold me some polyester resin (with hardener) to save me the trip to the chandler’s – and I soon discovered that everything they say about the fumes from this stuff being noxious is true! And much more than epoxy. Even outside, with a breeze blowing and looking like a Martian, it was making my head spin. So the advice to use a particle mask or respirator – even when just sanding the stuff down – is sound.

As before, the sticky strands of glasscloth drove me crazy when I was trying to get the cloth to stay in place.

Polyester 3
Strands of glasscloth fraying on plywood

You really need to pay attention to the amount of hardener (1-2% only!) and mix mix mix before you apply it – otherwise, as I found out, the 20-30 minute application window shrinks to 5-10! So it was all very tedious but eventually the hull stopped looking like the surface of the moon as layer after layer of cloth and resin approximated the levels of the surface of the hull planks and protective plywood.

It didn’t help that one fine day I was sanding down the surfaces (which I did between each application) and managed to get some hardened resin dust in my eye. That served me right for thinking I could get away with not wearing goggles and put me out of the game for a few days with a painful swollen eye – which I had to bathe every few hours.

Robert M. Pirsig, the “engineer’s philosopher” who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, warns against trying to fix a machine when you’re in a bad mood (cos all you’ll do is damage). A wooden boat, nowadays, maybe doesn’t strike most people as mechanical but it floats because of the physics of opposing forces and I think that’s sound advice. So, even though the sun shone, I resisted the urge to just get it done and instead did some jobs around the house I’d been putting off.

Recovered and refreshed, I did one last lot of sanding down the globs of resin that spattered the hull – despite my best efforts – then wiped down the whole upturned boat with a wet cloth, then a dry one, then wiped the resin with white spirit (to ‘take the bloom off’) dried that and started to paint.

The undercoat covered a multitude of sins, I knew, and I really should have applied another coat, and maybe primer (though I wasn’t sure of the order) but there was either a previous layer of paint or of resin underneath and with midsummer approaching I really wanted this boat on the water. So the Rustic Red went on (and ran over the Bondi Blue in places and had to be sanded off).

Not the prettiest paintjob but Harmony, after weeks out of the water, was finally ready for the big moment: would she float?

And, with the help of a good strong mate, I soon found out. YES!



When the bow broke

It was all going swimmingly. I’d shipped the oars and the Ship’s Dog and I were floating along the Forth and Clyde canal, watching the reflections ripple across the old stone bank and listening to the birdsong.

Bow and canal
Bow and canal

(Actually the Ship’s Dog was too busy lazing in the stern of my Mirror dinghy to bother about the banks or the birds.)

Ben astern
Ben astern

And then, disaster struck!

Bow broken
Bow broken

I did know that the forward transom (as the rounded triangle at the end of the bow is called) had a line of fracture running along parallel to the deck and up to the top rail. When I’d bought the boat, I’d seen it had been repaired at some point and a mate had just filled in the cracks with some epoxy (very strong glue) and we’d hoped for the best. I remember him saying something about having either some resin or some hardener left over, and me being surprised – as it said to mix them equally on the tin.

Now, the original fracture, resulting rotten wood, the weakness of the epoxy mix (maybe on both occasions) and my impatient hauling on the bow rope to drag the boat onto the trailer (which doubles as a launching trolley) instead of positioning it correctly in the water so it would just float on – all combined disastrously and the bow broke.

I was not happy. Would I have to sell my beloved wee boat, Harmony, after only a few months of ownership – and most of them over the winter? I couldn’t afford a professional, so I emailed a Glasgow charity that specialises in boatbuilding but they failed to reply. I could have phoned them but, at that point, I was getting over the initial shock and decided to take up the challenge myself.

Onto the Trident UK website, where I purchased a forward transom kit.

New forward transom & bow heart
New forward transom and bow heart

Before doing anything, I had to remove the old forward transom. I’d toyed with the idea of leaving the sound bottom part in, but I knew the join had to be sturdy so that the top part didn’t rip off again. Especially, with the mast and sails up, in a strong wind in the middle of Loch Lomond! So, out with the old and in with the new. (I didn’t like the look of the hull, once the old fibreglass sealing tape had come off the inside.)

I’d only be using glass tape from the outside – as I wouldn’t have access inside without removing the deck and I didn’t want to go that far. I hoped the new seal would be watertight! First I had to fit the new bow heart (the darker, thicker small spearhead of wood) to the new forward transom (‘the transom’ usually means the more rectangular one at the stern, not this roughly triangular one at the bow). Then, see how the new forward transom would fit. (The photos are out of proportion but they show the same pieces of wood.)

Now to refit the ring fasteners for the bow rope and the forestay (the front cable that holds up the mast).

Outside of new transom with fittings
Outside of new transom with fittings

Next I had to fit the new top rail. That involved removing all the old copper ‘stitches’ so the new wood could fit. And also removing the rotten wood at both bow ends of the gunwales (the long, narrow, curved pieces of wood running around the top edge of the hull.

Removing the old fibreglass tape uncovered the irregularities of the join. Here’s the starboard side of the hull, with the new forward transom nailed onto the wood running under the deck (perhaps not advisable, as it introduces a breach and the nail can rust, but I’d no other option).

Close up of space between transom and starboard hull
Close up of space between transom and starboard hull

Then the sanding began! Port and starboard sides of the hull, and the bottom. Not forgetting the inside, on and above the deck. This took forever. And the metal tip at the hull bottom broke off.

The insides, above the deck, needed sanded too. Forever, and a day.

Sanded deck
Sanded deck

The rot in both gunwales, hidden under the old epoxy and paint, was more extensive than I’d thought.

Extensive rot on starboard gunwale
Extensive rot on starboard gunwale

I was tempted to ignore it but it would cost more effort eventually and I didn’t want to end up having to replace the gunwales entirely. So out it all had to come – including the nails that had gone through the damaged upper edges of the hull (that metal clip was useless). And all that needed sanding too.

So now it was time for the epoxy. I used the West System.

West system
West system of marine epoxy, brushes, syringes and glasstape on deck

I didn’t use the syringes with these 1:1 tubs of resin and hardener from Gaelforce, or the brushes, because the mix was as thick as peanut butter. I also didn’t need the clamps to keep the inner and outer gunwales together, as replacing the only screw almost at the end, with a slightly longer one, did the trick. I filled the gap with epoxy and strips of glasscloth then more epoxy. Then I had to face doing the same thing, but now further down. Where it would have to cover up a multitude of sins – and, below the waterline, make the difference between being watertight and springing a leak!

The glasscloth was sticky (I troweled the epoxy onto the wood first) and the single strands of the weave got everywhere. Finally, the first process was complete but would need another application to fill in the gaps.

So then came the next coats, using a 1:5 mix (which the syringes came in handy for) from Trident of 105 (resin) and 205 (hardener) epoxy – with some 403 microfibre white filler powder to add to the mix to get it to a thicker consistency. I also filled in the gap between the bow heart and top rail, and coated the nails.

Port and starboard sides, after a lot of sanding, were now looking much better.

Time for the undercoat, with white Pre-Kote International.

At this point, I was beginning to feel hopeful again. It looked good. Would it be watertight? I painted on, with blue Toplac International.

Finally, with all the topsides done, my (fairly bad) paint job was complete!

Would she float? Before I find that out, I need to sort out the warped planking and flaked-off paint underneath the hull. Till next time!

The Kelpies along the Canal

The Forth and Clyde canal is so named as it connects these two rivers but its eastern end drops into the River Carron which flows down to the Forth. Living in a town right in the middle, I’d walked and cycled to Glasgow and from there cycled to Bowling, at the western end, and I wanted to walk to the other end. There be Kelpies!

These water horses, creatures of Celtic legend, have inspired two sculptures in sheet metal and I’d seen them from afar but never visited the site itself. I suppose I felt that, with all the hype, the reality would be a disappointment. I’d felt like that about the Falkirk Wheel and yet, when I saw it, I could only agree that it was an elegant feat of engineering.

The recent ice had melted on the canal by St Valentine’s Day and I decided to continue my walk the following day. Previously I’d walked as far as Falkirk High train station so I started from there, with my dog Ben, at about ten past two in the afternoon.

Signpost at Falkirk High
Signpost to the Kelpies, outside Falkirk High train station

It was a lot more pleasant to walk along the canal towpath in daylight.

Towpath west from Falkirk High
Footpath winding down to the towpath going west from Falkirk High

The last time I did this it was pitch dark! This time I could see the old stone structure of the Union canal, as I walked west towards the Falkirk Wheel which connects the Union and the Forth and Clyde canals.

Old stone and trees on Union canal
Old stone walling and trees along the Union canal

The towpath to the tunnel and the top lock of the Falkirk Wheel was closed so I took the shortcut over a bridge and popped into the Visitors Centre. There it was strange to see the basin dry and the Wheel itself surrounded by scaffolding, awaiting its reopening in May.

Dry basin at Falkirk Wheel
Dry basin of the Falkirk Wheel marina

Scaffolding around Falkirk Wheel
Scaffolding around the Falkirk Wheel

But the café was open, with its friendly staff, and I picked up some supplies.

“Towpath Talk”, “The Tillergraph” and two bags of crisps on a hexagonal wood and plastic table

A map near the door of the Visitors Centre shows the canals and rivers around Falkirk.

Map of canals and rivers around Falkirk
Map stenciled on three panels of French windows showing the Forth and Clyde, joined by the Union at the Wheel, running northeast to the Kelpies, the Carron and the Forth

I walked across the wooden bridge to the north side of the Forth and Clyde canal.

Canalboats at Falkirk on the Forth and Clyde
Wooden bridge and canalboats along the Forth and Clyde looking east

The canalboats that are usually in the marina, or somewhere along either canal, were now tied along the bank near the entrance to the Wheel.

More canal boats at Falkirk
More canalboats on the Forth and Clyde

By this time, it was almost three o’clock and I thought we would have light enough to reach the Kelpies but I didn’t want to be walking back along the canal in the dark, again! My first idea was to take the train to Camelon, where legend sites the Camelot of King Arthur (the central lowlands of Scotland have a lot of evidence of Brythonic heritage that links to the people now in Cumbria, Cymru and Kernow, so this is not as far-fetched as it sounds) but I couldn’t get a return ticket so then I had the idea of retracing my steps from Falkirk High. But in the light! Present-day Camelon (pronounced ‘Kamelin’) is quite prosaic.

Terraced housing around a park with swings and trees, a hut with WELCOME TO KEMLIN in the foreground

Some of the wildlife, like this magpie who fluttered away through the branches, are quite shy.

Magpie and nest
A magpie hiding near his nest among the branches

Some, like these swans, are more inquisitive.

Swan family
A family of three swans swims towards the bank with a small pretty canalboat in the background

The canal skirts the north of the town and a series of locks provide interest and pretty locations for some canalside cafes and pubs.

Lock 16 to 11 on the Forth and Clyde canal
Lockgates and an information board on a grassy verge of the canal, with trees and houses

Pleasant walking along Forth and Clyde canal
A bridge and lockgates with a mother and child walking in the distance

Pontoon on Forth and Clyde
Ben the dog runs past a pontoon near lockgates, with pubs and factories ahead

The industrial heritage is evident in the factories, such as this one for whisky, along the banks.

Old whisky factory
Three modern steel sculptures of whisky bottles with an old factory on the other side of the canal

Scottish Canals industrial heartland board
Scottish Canals information board explaining how iron, vinegar, rope and chemicals were made and transported along the canal

I also loved the whimsical graffiti of dragonfire and an umbrella-wielding hero, on an old stone lintel set in a wall.

Dragonfire and umbrella grafitti on old stone wall
Bricked up door with funny graffiti above

Further along, the canal seemed more functional than pretty.

Towpath sloping up to road
Ben waiting obediently on the path as it ascends from the canal to a busy road

Heading out of town, to avoid scrambling through a lock-keeper’s garden, we had to climb a steep flight of steps to the road and immediately descend. But the reedbeds further on were unexpected and no doubt a valuable contribution to the local ecology.

Reedbeds across the canal
Reedbeds on the other side of the canal

By now we’d been walking for two hours and I felt there was something familiar about this bridge. Had I seen it in an article about the Kelpies?

Ben waiting under the last bridge
Ben waiting under a bridge

The ducks ahead swam over to investigate us.

Ducks on the canal
A pair of Mallards and a white duck swim towards us

Which was nice but aloud I wondered, “Where are the Kelpies?” And looked around…

First sight of the Kelpies across the fields
First sight of the Kelpies across fields to the left

There, across the fields. We hurried on, with fresh energy. In minutes I was seeing them just across the canal.

Kelpies across the canal
The Kelpies closer now, just across the canal to the right and along the path

Then just at the end of the path!

Kelpies along the path
The Kelpies at the end of the path

Then, of course, I had to get close. Ben went back on the lead and we approached the western waterhorse. Which has been sculpted so expressively.

Beautiful Kelpie up close
The western Kelpie, looking down and to the right, with a beautiful expression

Before approaching the eastern Kelpie, I wanted to walk to the end of the canal. And witness the last few feet of water, pouring down the lockgate and into the River Carron.

Last lock on the Forth and Clyde canal
The Forth and Clyde canal plunges over the last lockgate

Canal ends at the Carron
Below the lockgate, the canal joins the Carron

From there, the river flows under a bridge and down to pass industrial Grangemouth on the Forth.

Canal and the Carron under a bridge
The River Carron flows under a bridge down towards Grangemouth on the Forth

But then we walked back to more legendary beauty.

Kelpie and the moon from base
The head of the eastern Kelpie rearing up towards the moon

The Kelpies up close
The two Kelpies side by side

Technology, wild nature, myth and beauty. I sat at a table in the café. And fell in love.

The Kelpies
The Kelpies at sunset with a pylon tower to their left, trees in the background and water below

[All photos ©Alan McManus 2019. Use permitted with link to this post]


I’ve been ranting lately on Twitter (you may have noticed). I’m vegan, gender-critical and I question the HIV-AIDS hypothesis. There’s a lot to rant about. Today it’s about idiots shooting wild goats on Islay and the tour company that promotes this. However, when I’m not ranting on social media, proofreading, acting, navigating along the Forth & Clyde canal in a narrowboat or rowing boat, I like to go walking.

For various reasons, I haven’t had a holiday this year. Summer is a busy time, workwise, and my plans to fit in a short break between plays didn’t work out. So I decided to walk to Edinburgh along the Forth & Clyde and Union canals, in stages, on good days. A good day in Scotland is the same as a good day anywhere else: it’s when you have the gumption to keep going (that’s a wee nod to the late Dr Robert M. Pirsig, by the way).

I live on the border of what’s blithely known as Central Scotland (which is about 100 miles south of the geographical centre) and my town is bounded by both the Antonine Wall, which predates Hadrian’s, and the Forth & Clyde canal. So I’m fortunate to have access to beautiful countryside by simply walking up the road for five minutes.

Last week I walked from Kirkintilloch to Auchinstarry then back by Barr Hill, the site of a Roman fort and the inspiration for another novel idea for the Bruno Benedetti series. After I finish the one I’m writing now, which is mostly set in Fife.

The marina at Auchinstarry is just down the road from Croy train station and it was from here that I (and my trusty canine companion, Ben) started walking on Monday:

Narrowboats at Auchinstarry marina on the Forth & Clyde canal

I’d started a bit late, I’d slept badly and I do tend to faff, so we’d caught the train at Lenzie about 2:30pm and arrived at Croy (a mile or so uphill, to the right of the photo) about ten minutes later. This photo was taken after a snack sitting on the steps at the back of the restaurant, which was unfortunately closed (boaters blame the extortionate rent charged by Scottish Canals, I couldn’t possibly comment). The canal towpath is to the left.

The next photostop, and snack, was about 4pm at Kelvinhead. Where I found picnic tables and Ben found much to sniff!

My tan terrier Ben sniffing under a wooden picnic table beside the towpath

I won’t say that my cares instantly vanished as soon as I started strolling along. I didn’t do any walking meditation and I was a bit anxious that I’d really started too late to get to Falkirk High before dark. But I’d silenced my phone and only took it out for photos. And the peace and just walking started to have its effect. Wyndford, just before Banknock, was the next pretty picture, about half an hour later. Lock 20 is at the top of the eastern section of this canal, which leaves 18 miles of canal to navigate without portage (carrying your boat) all the way to Maryhill in Glasgow. As I’ve recently acquired a Mirror sailing dinghy, which I want to use to row on the canals and sail on lochs, I was pleased to see low pontoons or canal walls for portage places on either side of each lock.

Loch 20 Wyndford
Stone canalside cottage with lock and pontoon in foreground

I couldn’t resist snapping the contrast between the frenetic motorway traffic, roaring over the bridge carrying the M80 between Stirling and Cumbernauld, and the peaceful stone bridge a few yards to the east at Craigmarloch.

Cars & lorries on the M80 bridge over the F & C canal

Bridge near motorway
Peaceful stone bridge over the canal at Craigmarloch

The residents at Banknock have extended their back gardens right up to the towpath, outdoing each other in displays of rock gardening and topiary. I wasn’t expecting any section of this canal to look like an entry for Britain’s Prettiest Railway Station and this display of quirkiness made me smile. About 5:30pm the sun began to set.

Looking west along F & C canal at setting sun

However, Glasgow sits at a higher latitude than Moscow, we were a bit further north still, and the sun takes a while to set and the time in between we call the gloaming. So I was able to snap this shot of cattle browsing and taking a drink from the canal, about twenty minutes later.

Cattle browse on the far bank while one drinks from the canal

Much of the canal has a fairly straight and level towpath with trees either side, and some might find it monotonous. I find it soothing. Just walking. Just being in nature. No need of the exhausting adrenaline rush of constant thrill and distraction.

Ben facing camera
Ben sniffing along the towpath, looking east

Still, by the time we arrived at Bonnybridge, which I’d mistaken for Falkirk, I was already a bit weary and I knew we didn’t have much light left. So I was glad to see a train on the line from Falkirk High, our destination, on the far bank.

Train among the trees over the canal

Finally at Falkirk about a quarter past 6 and there were canalboats, either marooned by the closure of the bridges until March (hopefully) next year or just waiting to go up over the Wheel to the Union canal in the morning.

boats at Falkirk
Narrowboat and 2 cabin cruisers moored at Falkirk

Then the Falkirk Wheel itself! Unfortunately the centre was closed, understandably at this hour, in October, so I didn’t get the coffee I’d been dying for all day! But I was glad to have made it, with just a step to go till the train station. First to climb the hill to the tunnel.

Falkirk Wheel across the F & C canal

Looking over the Wheel from the top at the tunnel entrance is a serene and majestic sight. I took a while to visit the Wheel because of all the hype but this is indeed a beautiful feat of engineering.

looking back to wheel
Looking north over the top of the Wheel

We entered the tunnel about six thirty. The entrance is cute but inside is a bit spooky and I was glad to have Ben and, I suspect, vice versa.

entering tunnel
Entering the tunnel

The tunnel itself is well-maintained and we trotted along with no mishap.

looking back from inside tunnel
Looking back at the Wheel from inside the tunnel

And then we were out and walking along the Union canal!

union canal
Union canal from the tunnel exit

The Santa House was just round the corner.

Santa house
Santa’s House for festive boat trips

And then another lock. We hurried on.

lock gate waterfall
Lock with water overflowing

Ten minutes later and it was getting very dark indeed.

darkening sky
Darkness falls over the Union canal, looking west

I realised that what had seemed a short step, on a bike, was a bit of a way, walking in the dark.

last stretch
Dark towpath and canal looking east

Falkirk isn’t known for crime, unlike my native Glasgow (mostly unfairly) but by the time I saw the twinkling lights of the tunnel above the train station, and the brighter light of Falkirk High, it was almost 7pm and I was very glad to have, nearly, reached safety. Ben had already tried to head off the towpath towards civilisation. He’d had enough.

station and tunnel
Twinkling lights of tunnel above the station

Journey’s end, Falkirk High. Never have I been more glad to see a railway station!

Falkirk High
Back entrance to Falkirk High train station

We walked into the station as a train arrived, got on, changed at Croy and arrived at Lenzie and walked 20 minutes to a warm, dog-friendly pub where Ben had water, lots of pats and a lie down and I had a great fried jackfruit with potato wedges. Hot and tasty. Renewed, we walked home. Where I immediately went onto Twitter and apologised to some people for ranting. A day spent in nature does give one perspective. (But I hope those hunters of wild goats get jailed and the community on Islay gets recompense from suing that company!)

[All photos ©Alan McManus 2018. Use permitted with link to this post]

Guerrilla Litter-Picking

Like many men my age I’m liable to sound off a bit. On occasion. For good reason. And there are many good reasons to be angry about many real issues. However, anger can become a default emotion for many men my age. It’s the other side of depression and (perhaps) it’s better out than in. Inward anger is linked by the more holistically minded to many bodily symptoms of ill health – and even the most Cartesian of medical minds admit that stress induces high levels of cortisol with a knock-on effect that’s not only bad for the waistline but is linked to Type 2 diabetes etc.
Grumpy is a stereotypical attribute of older men but vary the adjective a little and other stereotypical irascibilities come into focus: peevish, waspish, nippy, surly, petulant, bitchy, thin-skinned, aggressive, high-maintenance, demanding, hard to please, not amused. There are many manifestations of habitual anger and a bit of wordplay will ensure that’s there’s one demographically suited especially for you.
Nowadays many of us feel that we are justified in having anger as a default reaction to the wrongs of the world. We would all be quite happy if not for the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, if not for climate change denial, if not for cruelty to animals, if not for racism and homophobia and misogyny, if not for the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, if not for Teresa May and Donald Trump. If only these things would change, we would get back to being out usual bubbly happy-go-lucky selves. If only.
And just Zenning out or doing yet another spa weekend/ Tough Mudder/ Marvel Comics Movies binge/ (insert favourite displacement activity) can feel a bit of a cop-out. What do we do? What can we do? In the face of all that’s wrong, isn’t that the basis of our communal, continual, ever-present, exhausting, anger?
And for those of us whom the powers-that-be (higher, lower or just purgatorial) have tasked with the burden and duty and privilege of caring for a specific vulnerable person (or several at once) then all these political concerns become so personal that at times it’s simply unbearable.
And that’s when I take my trusty Ben for a walk. Along the banks of the beautiful Forth and Clyde canal. Which winds beside the remains of the Antonine Wall, one of Scotland’s most unknown, unprotected, and uncherished cultural legacies. And on that walk through this place of Victorian and Roman imperial heritage there are empty bottles of Buckfast (cheap fortified wine made by English monks) and cans of beer and their plastic rings and the supermarket plastic bags they came from, tossed about. If they haven’t already been smashed/ thrown into the canal or set on fire along with the grass.
And it usually makes me angry. But tonight, I found myself thankful that the local youth had had the grace (this time) not to chuck the bottles at the stank just below the swings. An empty bottle is better than a broken one. And on my way back, Ben still sniffing and gambolling about – because his default emotion is either highly energetic or very lazy joy – I picked up the plastic bags, snapped apart the plastic beer rings and put them and the cans and the bottle in the bags, took them home and recycled them.
It’s not much. It’s just guerrilla litter-picking. I don’t do it all the time. But when I do engage in this little sporadic and disorganised warfare against hopelessness, I can feel my cortisol levels drop and my grumpy face relax. A little.
There are so many of us. We have such energy. Just think what we could do. Just think what we do do. Now and Zen.


Thanks to Karen Arnold for releasing her photo Old Bridge on Canal into the public domain.

Wave After Wave: Immigrants Both Sides The Wall

Walking along the Forth & Clyde Canal the other day, I was twice passed by a young man of Levantine appearance happily cycling up and down the towpath. The Canal often follows the line of the Antonine Wall (the Roman Wall built before Hadrian’s) and a small post-industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow shares the prestige of this piece of World Heritage with other sites of Roman forts. The town’s museum records:

After the wall was built the legionaries returned to their headquarters in the south of Britain. Those left to man the forts were called auxiliary troops. They were soldiers who came from the occupied countries in the Roman Empire such as Syria, Germany, Spain and Gaul (part of France).

(Auld Kirk Museum display)

Having grown up in the vicinity of the Wall, reading the urgent prose of George R.R. Martin (“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildings are dead.” – is the magnificent start of A Game of Thrones) I immediately associate his Wall with ours. Which makes me one of the wildings. I assure you we are not dead but alive and well and living in Kirkintilloch – and all over the globe.

Although I may have some ancestors among the aboriginal Picts north of the Wall (who themselves migrated here in the wake of our Neolithic ancestors) most of my paternal and maternal ancestors can be traced back to the Scots who at that time were across the Irish Sea and so more of a threat as occasional raiders than as native people resisting foreign occupation.

Which means that, in all probability, there were Syrians in Caer Pen Tulloch (the fort on the hill in Brythonic Celtic – yes the ‘Welsh’ were here before we were) before there were Scots. The name change, from ‘fort’ to ‘church’ on the hill, did not occur with the centuries’ later migration of the (Irish) Scots, who spoke Goidelic Celtic – or Gaelic – but with the migration of the Angles from the south centuries still later. ‘Kirk’, and its variants, means ‘church’ in many branches of Germanic language, including Scots.

Take out the dragons, suspend disbelief on the magic, and the bloody and beautiful world that Martin describes reads remarkably like ours. An anachronistic mixture of High Middle Ages and Renaissance to be sure, but still more like than not. Refreshingly free of Tolkein’s tendency to treat all women as embodiments of the Eternal Feminine, Martin depicts a spectrum of agency for good and ill irrespective of gender. He also shows up the tragic irony of wave after wave of incomers claiming sovereignty and aboriginal rights.

There were Syrians in Kirkintilloch before there were Scots. There were Syrians and other Levantine, European and North African people living south of the Antonine Wall all the way to the Channel, before there were English people here.

20 centuries later, the English and the Scots, and those colonised by our descendents, brought the doom of modern dragonfire to the cradle of civilisation in the Near and Middle East, for oil.

Syrians have returned to Kirkintilloch and may be seen cycling happily along the canal following the path of the Wall their ancestors built and manned so many centuries ago.

Fàilte gu Alba a-rithist: welcome back.


Thanks to George Hodan for releasing “Hadrian’s Wall” into the Public Domain.