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Issue 68 - Fat & unfit: The length and breadth of Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 68
April 2013

 

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Fat & unfit: The length and breadth of Scotland

Tom Morton on cycling from the Mull of Galloway to Muckle Flugga

Too much stuff. Far, far too much. So, in the course of my two-wheeled, unmotorised trip from Scotland’s southernmost point to its most northerly, I dumped two jackets, a pair of trainers, some padded shorts, three T shirts, some underwear and the book that guides you along National Cycle Route One. Only the last item was destroyed in a fit of fury. The rest were abandoned, more in sorrow than in anger.

I’d like to say that the 10-day ride saw me shed some of my own personal excess baggage. At 17 stones, I’m about three stones (that’s an ancient unit of measurement that still seems to me somehow more descriptive of what ‘weight’ really is) into obesity. I was assured by mountain man Cameron McNeish that the poundage would fall off and I’d have to eat like that crazy deathwish glutton guy on the TV show Man Versus Food to keep my energy levels up. I took him literally and truly, I’ve never felt hungrier. Never has so much deep-fried fish and chips been consumed in the course of human cycling. Not to mention full-fat soft drinks, Guinness (it’s healthy, honest!) chocolate bars and cereal. The result? I now weigh 17 stones, two and a quarter pounds. I have been informed that this is down to muscle being denser than fat. I would like to believe that.

In a sense, I don’t mind. The idea of the trip was, partly, to demonstrate that a fat, unfit, curry-loving, pint-swilling 56-year-old could set out for a very long run on a bike, with little training or ambitions to ultra-fitness. And finish the course. And I did. I learned a lot of lessons on the way. The most important being: (1) Don’t be ashamed of going slowly.
(2) Stop, by all means. Stop frequently. But start again, and keep going.
(3) People are essentially generous and kind. They want to help you on your way. Value them.
(4) Perth’s a funny place.
(5) National Cycle Route One could drive you insane if you let it. Or if you adhere to its endless convolutions too strictly.
(6) There IS an informal cycle path beside the A90 between Stonehaven and Portlethen. But it doesn’t begin until the top of the hill by the golf course. Do not try to walk beside the A90 with a fully loaded touring bike, in the rain and driving wind, from the A92 junction north. You will not believe there are so many dead hedgehogs in the world. You will never be so scared. Those juggernauts are bent on your destruction.
(7) Shetland has the best-surfaced cycling roads in Scotland.

So...why?

The Mull2Muckle, Scotland’s end-to-end, Tom’s Fairly Long Ride...there were too many descriptions of what I was up to. Basically, the idea, conceived last autumn in a fit of web surfing and a fantasy of becoming a long-distance cyclist, was to bike from the true end of Scotland (south) to the true top, which is Unst, of course, not John O’Groats. Ransacking the internet indicated that it hadn’t been done before. Friends south brought the Scottish Fair Trade Forum on board as sponsors, and the mainland section became an effort to bring public attention to the Fair Trade issue and the attempt to make Scotland a Fair Trade Nation.

Promote Shetland were keen to push the isles as a cycling destination, and liked the idea of the Mull2Muckle as a permanent long-distance route, like John O’Groats to Land’s End. So they brought in a film crew (Jolene and Richard Crawford of Precious Productions) and provided some logistical help in the isles. The idea was to finish on the summer solstice, the longest day, at the top of Britain. And why not?

All through the winter I mapped, plotted, planned and other people organised until, with a month or two to go, I began to panic. It looked like I’d actually have to go through with the whole thing. And I had done no training to speak of. Other than that run to the Ollaberry shop and back.

Off I went. Stephen Wright dropped me at the Mull of Galloway lighthouse on a misty Friday evening. It was 8 June. It’s a strange and forbidding place, and Drummore, the southernmost village, just six miles away, is friendly but otherworldly. Everything is the southernmost. It feels, truly, like the end of something. Possibly the world.

Next morning I began properly. Just 55 miles or thereabouts to Girvan. Up through the Rhinns of Galloway, across the busy A75 and up, up, up past New Luce and the completely otherworldy single track road to Barrhill in Ayrshire. It feels like you’re on the top of a bare, damp world, until the ForestryCommission plantations begin. One of the great cycling - and motorcycling - roads in Scotland. I’m joined by the delightful Heather, tri-athlete and kindness itself in putting up with my wobbly lack of fitness. She even gives me a miniature of whisky and some energy bars. I need them. Badly.

Girvan is an odd place, a mixture of clear deprivation and lost seaside glories. The bars seem, let’s say, slightly rough around the edges, but it has a great working harbour, boat trip to Ailsa Craig, and the wondrous Community Garden, a magical hideaway right in the centre of town. Next morning I’m up and away early, along the A77 until the Turnberry turn-off. This is where Ayrshire’s Golf Coast begins, with some of the world’s best links stretching all the way up to Troon and Barassie. Turnberry’s courses are manicured and beautiful, full of Proingle knitwear and electric golf trolleys. The hotel towers above it all like a refugee from Disneyland. I stop. I’m supposed to meet some folk here. Better bicyclists than I will ever be, I fear.

- - - - - - - - - -

I can see the slope, the rising road ahead, threading its way upwards along the coastline. There’s a lurch of disappointment in my stomach. It’s been a hard morning, cold and damp and in company. I’m not good at company. I’m not good at people, not cycling with them. They’re inevitably much fitter and faster than I am, and younger, and I’m always taken right back to schooldays, that desperate need to compete, to outpace, to win.

Lactic acid. That's what's burning in my thighs and calves. Over half a century of lazily walking, running, falling over and getting back up again. That's what's wrong with my knees. I can actually hear my knees, if the traffic's quiet, crunching, squeaking and creaking like bits of an old woodenship asked to cope with a lumpy ocean.

I'm all at sea. Why am I doing this? I'm out of my depth. These days, I’m not a competitor, never mind a winner. I’m a plodder, a gasper, an agonised getoff- and-pusher. I’m 56, fat, unfit and fuelled by beer, sugar and fried food. I'm an out-of-breath to the shop for a half bottle of Grouse, four cans of Guinness and a large bag of tortilla chips cyclist. Bryce and his pal Dave, 40-something, serious Sunday fitness riders, are lean and lithe, and although they’re kind and keen to help me along the road, indeed tried to tire themselves out by doing a fast 50 miles prior to meeting me, I can tell that Dave wishes he wasn’t burdened with this heavily-laden, very overweight tourist. It’s the way he races on ahead and waits at farm gates, arms folded, staring at the sky. His bicycle is an expensive aluminium racer, his lycra-clad body bent around it like a bow.

Bryce is a bagpiper. His lungs are strong, but he’s heard me on the radio and he wants to chat. "I'm just here for the craic," he says. His cycling clothes are baggier, his bike grey steel. I’m content to let him talk, as my lungs, no longer tobacco-seasoned but still a little emphysemic, are not chanter-fit. I'm not really up to broadcasting the couple of feet from bicycle to bicycle. I'm knackered. I find it difficult to pedal and speak at the same time.

I find it difficult to pedal.

“There’s more work than I can cope with" says Bryce, effortlessly. "Every day, or every night. I’m the piper at the Turnberry Hotel, so that’s every day, and there’s weddings, funerals, corporate events. Dinners. I do wee speeches, after dinner things, demonstrate the pipes to tourists. Goes down really well. I have a wee shop up in Maybole, just a wee business, but I’m not there much. I do well with the pipes. There’s too much demand, really.”

Bryce sticks with me, even when I wave him ahead, spluttering with pain outside Culzean Castle. And then, groaning, I crest a wee hill, turn and see that gradually elevating ribbon of grey, wet tar ahead of me. I just want this to end. I want to stop. If these guys weren’t with me, I would stop. Fifteen miles or so I’ve come today, and it’s taken me two hours. What is the point? In a car, I’d be there. No, I wouldn’t have left yet, because I wouldn’t need to be there yet. I mean, I’d leave later because all I have to do is get to Ayr for lunch. Ayr, wha’ nair a toon surpasses, for honest men and bonnie lasses. Burns Central. My dad, my son, my daughter. They’re meeting me there for lunch. To see if I’m still alive. To try and talk me out of this mad caper.

And then the strangest thing happens.

I'm getting ready to expend more musclecrunching, cramping effort on climbing the slope ahead of me when I notice that I'm freewheeling. Up the incline. I look at Bryce, beside me.

He's laughing.

"Aye, it's something, isn't it?" Suddenly, I know where I am. We are on the Electric Brae. The Magnetic Hill.

I am in the grip of a mysterious power. Gravity has no authority in this part of Ayrshire.

I've known this slice of road since childhood, in fact, but never on a bicycle. It was a place parents loved to experiment with cars, when automobiles were fewer and further between, and you could stop one on this stretch of road without risking tail backs, collisions and raging tattooed BMW drivers who've been watching too much Jeremy Clarkson. And wee kids loved it. The sheer weirdness of it. A hill that didn't work. A slope which had antigravitational properties. It was the rock, we were told, full of iron. Magnetism. Would it work with… with a Reliant Robin, which was made of plastic, I asked? Who knew? Certainly not my dad in his VW Beetle, his Vauxhall Cresta, his Ford Zephyr. He parked them, facing uphill . He switched off the engines. They crept spine-chillingly forward, sometimes. Sometimes they didn't move at all.

On a bike, though, you flew up the Electric Brae, known locally as Croy Brae. It was like being pushed by God up the A719 between the beautifully named Drumshrang and the negative-sounding Knoweside. My mount, hugely laden with panniers front and rear, and made of quality American steel, surged of its own accord towards heaven, or the Craig Tara holiday park just a bit further on towards Ayr. Against the wind.

It's an illusion, of course. An optical illusion, there are so called 'gravity hills' or 'magnetic slopes' throughout the world, though this is one of the most striking and most famous. General Eisenhower, who was gifted an apartment in nearby Culzean Castle by a grateful Scotland after World War Two, was obsessed with the Electric Brae, and would bring all his guests to see it in action. Hundreds of American soldiers and airmen based at nearby Preswtick flocked here during the war, and tens of thousands of curious gravity-haters have investigated it since. There used to be metal signs, but souvenir hunters stole them. I wonder if they tested them for magnetism when they got them home? Now there's an immovable granite cairn, bearing this inscription:
The ELECTRIC BRAE", known locally as 'CROY BRAE'.

This runs the quarter mile from the bend overlooking Croy railway viaduct in the west (286feet Above Ordnance Datum) to the wooded Craigencroy Glen (303 feet A. O. D.) to the east.

Whilst there is this slope of 1 in 86 upwards from the bend to the Glen, the configuration of the land on either side of the road provides an optical illusion making it look as if the slope is going the other way.

Therefore, a stationary car on the road with the brakes off will appear to move slowly uphill.

The term 'Electric' dates from a time when it was incorrectly thought to be a phenomenon caused by electric or magnetic attraction within the Brae.

I'm thrilled, magically transported to a world where cycling uphill does not hurt, where freewheeling everywhere is the rule.

I get the same feeling I did when i first let out the clutch on a motorbike, and felt the marvellous, joyous thrill of powered two-wheel balancing.

I was defying, painlessly, the power of the landscape, the power of the world to hold me down, hold me back.

I'm not the first to wax metaphysical or metaphorical about The Electric Brae. There's an entire novel based on and named for it, by Andrew Greig, which I wholeheartedly recommend and even oddly parallels my own personal pilgrimage to the remote archipelago of Shetland. Whither, indeed, I am bound by bicycle on this trip.

Heading home.

The length and breadth of Scotland, under my own steam. Unaided by electricity or engines other than the one contained in my own body. Oh, and the NorthLink ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick.

There are limits.

- - - - - - - - - -

Every morning of the trip I felt sick and unwell, before and after the necessary high-carb breakfast. Every lunchtime I felt fantastic, and fantastically hungry. Every night I fell asleep early and woke at five, and the process began again. I ate and ate, far too much deep fried food, had too many beers and too many sugary soft drinks.

I fell off, once, next to the A90. Sideways away from the traffic.

People helped. Some cycled with me, like Heather, Roddy, Kenny, Dave and Bryce The Bagpiper. Fiona met me on Prestwick prom with her electric bike. Jim and Stephen from Fairpley Ltd organised accommodation and contact with Fair Trade and community groups. Two cycling MSPs waited for an hour and a half for me to arrive,very late, in Edinburgh, and tabled a motion on the Mull2Muckle in the Parliament. I was late because I really, really, didn’t want to fall in the Union Canal, and the towpath from the Falkirk Wheel is like some kind of Harry Potter scarefest, with everything from pitch-black endless tunnels and teetering viaducts to crumbling paths, tattooed crackheads with weapon dogs, loose and wandering labradors, angry hikers and barge drivers who shout that they’re waving at you, and you must MUST, wave back.

So the route: From the Mull of Galloway lighthouse, six miles to Drummore, Scotland’s most southerly village.

Fifty-five miles from there to Girvan, up through the lovely and lost Rhinns of Galloway, then up and over the high moorlands of South Ayrshire from New Luce to Barrhill and then to the coast. Girvan to Ayr, 23 miles, then to Troon, another 10.

Back to Prestwick for a school assembly, then to Glasgow along the coastal cycle path - Irvine, Lochwinnoch, Paisley.

Long but almost all off-road, if you like disused railways. 52 miles, though. There are more direct routes as well.

From Glasgow I really should have gone the Inverness route and then via Orkney, but I hadn’t the time (I’d taken a week off broadcasting) and there were meetings in Edinburgh and Dundee. So I rode the Forth and Clyde Canal towpath to the Falkirk Wheel, then the Grand Union into Edinburgh. Rough, dangerous and exhausting and long. Sixty-two miles.

Edinburgh to Perth was all over the place. Partly because of a long detour through the Dalmeny Estate to get the Forth Bridge, then more guddling about in South Queensferry and the strange, difficult and circumlocutory National Cycle Route through Inverkeithing, Dunfermline and Kinross. Fifty-two miles in the end, with some wrong turnings, though it could have been done more efficiently. A Stevenson’s mince bridie in Inverkeithing was lovely at the time. Not an hour later, though.

Perth to Dundee and then Montrose via Arbroath was a hefty 60 miles in a day, against an east wind most of the way. Followed by 50 miles of messing about to Aberdeen and the boat home.

I’d knocked off Lerwick-Voe and Voe-Toft before leaving (30 miles) as I was back broadcasting and couldn’t make the cycling work with getting back to Lerwick each morning for the radio show. But I had the Sunday before midsummer to do Yell, from Ulsta to Gutcher and, as it happened, back again, as there was no bus service. Thirty six miles.

The end was finally in sight. On Tuesday 19th June I finished the show in Lerwick, drove to Toft, took the car over to the second-most-northerlyisland of Yell, and parked it up at Gutcher.

I unloaded the bike, took it over to the island of Unst, and cycled the 10 miles through gradually clearing weather to the Saxa Vord Resort, where I was welcomed by the excellent staff, led by mountain biker Kim, and had an excellent dinner, one of the best of the whole trip. Yes, deep fried haddock, but as fresh as fresh could be. Saxa Vord was a surprise.

It’s a hostel, basically, in the old RAF sergeant’s mess, but is sparkling clean and comfy, and it was very busy with wildlife spotters and simmer dim connoisseurs. Nice bar, friendly folk.

Next morning, Shetland put on its best summer gladrags as we filmed the final four miles to the Muckle Flugga shore station. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a beautiful midsummer’s morning. It felt, after, let’s see, 452 miles, like the most beautiful place on earth.

But then, it is!