Trails and trials of the writer who walks
This week I’m in the border lands between England and Scotland – on the Scottish side. Until the early 17th century, the border was without definition and without sovereign law, each family clan looking after its own. Some raised stock, others raised hell. ‘Reiving’, ie raiding other clans to bring back the bacon (or beef or horsemeat), was an acceptable career choice for certain families. There was no discrimination between Scottish and English: you were either a ‘have’ or a ‘have-not but I don’t mind having yours’.
In that sense, it was comforting to know that the marauding mouse who sneaked into my tent porch, gnawed a large hole in my expensive dry-sack and ate half a (wrapped) chocolate Hobnob was in no way displaying racial hatred. He was simply a rodent reiver.
I’m walking 122 miles of the Scottish Southern Upland Way, from Sanquhar to the east coast (last year I walked from Sanquhar to the west coast). My first day takes me over the dumpling hills to Wanlockhead, a busy mining town in previous centuries, now a self-conscious hamlet turning its pitted fell-sides and steampunk technology to tourism. I wonder if our present-day silicon valleys could do this in a few hundred years time? Would there be museums of subterranean data servers? How do you put ‘cloud’ in a glass case? Will the ice-cream be any different?
The Scottish Southern Upland Way is a coast-to-coast trek across Scotland’s widest section. The hills are high enough to afford good views. The lochs and burns give excellent camping opportunities. The forests … well they’re just boring. Can really put you off Christmas trees. The particular challenge of this walk is not the terrain but the lack any human life (or shops) for two or three days at a time: ideal for a back-packer who loves solitude but disastrous if you happened to slip and break a leg. (Mobile signal? You must be joking.) No one seems to do this trail, and I begin to forget that the rest of humanity exists. Stripping off for an icy-cold morning wash in the stream becomes my routine.
One of the many things I love about Scotland is the innocent, untrained ‘here’s your food’ kind of service you get. There are no stick-on smiles or practised platitudes. At Mary Loch, which has road access, a simple café stands in isolation and that’s where I’m tucking into my full Scottish breakfast, with haggis slices and ‘tattie scones’, when a lady arrives from the car park.
‘Can you do me a decaff cappuccino?’ she asks, in an English accent. There’s a longish pause.
Another long pause. ‘I can dee yee a coffee?’