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.

bull

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.]

 

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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-tillergraph-and-crisps.jpg
“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.

Camelon
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]

Walking

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:

Auchinstarry
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!

Banton
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.

Motorway
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.

gloaming
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
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
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.

wheel
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]

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.

hadrians-wall

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