On the coastal path by Kirkcaldy, set on a huge rock overlooking the Firth of Forth, there’s the shell of a centuries-old tower called Seafield Tower. It’s made of a crumbling yellow stone known as ‘red sandstone’. When the sun is low in the sky, the rock looks gold. I first saw it a few weeks ago on one of my now regular walks around bits of Scotland. I took a few photographs and wandered along the shore nearby. I saw two seals staring across at me and flopping around happily on shelves of rocks pounded by bright waves. Looking back up the path, I could see that it vanished over a small hill covered in thick bushes. I decided I was too tired to go and explore further, but I would come back in a few days.
On my return to Kirkcaldy, I walked along the same path to Seafield Tower. I gazed down at the cove where I’d seen the seals. The seals were not there, but the sea birds were, and the water was bluer and brighter than before as it was a sunnier day. Hundreds of gulls were crying out and decorating the sky with fast moving cascades of white and grey wings.
I walked along past the tower and beyond it, almost running over the first small hill in my excitement to see what was there. It was a further stunning view over the Firth of Forth, across miles of blue out to the dim Isle of May. It looked like a hazy green projection of a giant image of an island, rather than a real place. I intend to go there by boat next year. Looking back and forth from the far island to the route I was on, I kept walking down the path and up another small hill, looking down at other rocky coves and out at long lines of dark cormorants standing like ancient carved stones on long, narrow rocks. The path continued up and down over lots of small hills and dips. Always, on one side there was the dazzling view of the river, and on the other side -thick bushes where smaller birds sometimes burst out twittering and flying fast across the next hill. Occasionally, walkers, dog walkers, and dogs of all sizes, wagging their tails, appeared and passed by.
I can’t say that I think about much when I am on one of these walks. Well, I could say it, but it wouldn’t be true. Thinking isn’t really the point of walking for me. It’s more a time when I can escape from being inside my head too much. I enjoy all the sensations that come from walking a few miles past rivers and hills and birds flying. I seem to breathe more easily when I can see a far horizon, the hazier the better. Sometimes, although I’m never trying to think, weird and wonderful ideas float into my mind. Like, when I first came across the ruins of Seafield Tower, I thought about people hundreds of years ago who may have passed by on the same path. A few folk on horseback, their big horses making clouds of horse-breath in the air; and there was a man in a rough brown kilt, walking and carrying a big sword attached to a thick leather belt. His sword was like one I’d seen in the museum in Broughty Ferry Castle when I was a child, and I wondered how anyone could lift such a heavy-looking weapon.
After walking just a few miles, I reached Kinghorn, a small town with a population of less than 3000. I saw perhaps 12 people when I was there. Half of those were in a tiny pub when I decided to rest. It’s called The Auld Hoose. In the lounge, I heaved off my ridiculously large backpack. I don’t really need it, but need and want are different things, even for a 60-year-old, and it makes me feel like an explorer. I ordered a Diet Coke. This raised the eyebrows of the blonde woman at the counter, as if it was not quite a manly drink to order. I think I failed again when she asked if I wanted her to switch on the TV in the lounge for “the football”. Through in the equally tiny Bar, I could hear football commentary blaring from another TV. “No, that’s alright” I said. Up went those eyebrows again. I sensed the thought: “Don’t all men watch football?” Well, a lot do, and I was one of those once, but I don’t often do it these days. I scuttled across to a dark wood table with my soft or softy drink and rested. My consolation was – it was a lovely tiny room, like a Hobbit house.
After a leisurely stroll back along the coast to Kirkcaldy, where I saw a huge bright rainbow, I felt refreshed and ready to plan the next trip. On the bus home, I unfolded a map of Scotland on my knee and randomly picked a spot: Aberdeen. Foolishly, I did not think of checking the weather for the following weekend.
Aberdeen didn’t go well. On the way there, a few miles out of Dundee, I noticed an ominous mist starting to surround the bus. By the time I reached Aberdeen, my hoped-for coastal saunter was sabotaged by fog, as thick as candy floss but without the sweet taste. And it was very cold. I wandered around charity shops, cursing myself for my lack of proper quest-preparations. I resolved to return to Aberdeen next year, when I hope that clearer weather will allow me to walk along the coast and hopefully see dolphins.
My next trip was more eventful. First, I visited R & R & R, as noted in my diary: Rachel, Rory, and my granddaughter Rosie. Not yet three months old, and prone to making delightful mouse noises, she is endlessly fascinating. I was reluctant to head out on the challenge I set for myself, but I pretended to have No Fear. I had decided to walk the 20 miles back to Dundee. Scunnered by my earlier Aberdeen fiasco, I was determined to have a real adventure.
I grossly underestimated how long it would take me to walk from Aberdeen to Dundee. Rachel was wiser – she looked it up on her phone and told me: “6 hours”. “Pah” I said. “It’ll take me three hours”. I had forgotten that, in earlier years, I’d run the distance or cycled it. I’d never just walked. It would take me over 7 hours.
The wide Arbroath beach was the first wonder I encountered. The gold disc of the sun was already falling low in the sky when I started walking. Small waves were tinged with lines of moving gold and there was a soft roaring accompanying my every step. One low patch of sky was pure turquoise, which made it look enchanted. I walked quickly along the coastal path, armed with two Mars bars for energy.
A few miles later and it was getting dark. I noticed along the path that there were five large brown bulls close to a fence beyond the railway line, or so I thought. I approached them happily, thinking – that’ll make a good photograph. Then I noticed that the bulls, which were massive, were on the railway tracks. These huge animals were making deep foghorn like sounds, and they looked puzzled as they crashed around on the loose stones around the tracks.
A cyclist appeared with his phone and together we called the police and train service to alert them to the danger. My role consisted of saying useful things like: “Tell them the bulls are massive.” “The bulls are massive” the man said dutifully into his phone.
A woman appeared on the path and said she saw how the bulls got on to the tracks. Two bulls had been fighting, they fell into the fence, and knocked it over, so then all the bulls trooped on to the tracks. “They are very big”, she said. The cyclist and I nodded.
Later, after I said goodbye to the man and the woman and I walked further along the path, I was still worried about trains crashing into the bulls. I heard the deep hoot of a train horn, and I stared back along the track. I saw a very bright light approaching. As it reached the part of the tracks where the bulls were, the bright light stopped moving. At the same time, another train approached from the opposite direction. It moved forward very slowly. As it got near to the dazzling light of the other train, the second train also halted. I relaxed and began to breathe again.
I trekked on, feeling happy that all was well. The path ahead was bright enough under the moonlight so that I could see where I was going. From far down on the beach, I could hear the satisfying crash and hum of the waves. The air was fresh and just cold enough to make it seem bracing but not freezing. The sky was getting cloudier and darker, but I didn’t realise how dark it would become.
I’ll not bother with all the details of my tiring journey home in the dark. It’s enough to say it included a two-mile walk, in pitch darkness along the cycle path beside Barry Buddon. I had to use a tiny torch on my phone, praying that my battery wouldn’t die and leave me plunged into total darkness. I felt like an idiot and not at all as if I was on a quest. I thought of a friend of mine, ultrarunner and socialist Luke Ivory, who has run hundreds of miles in a few days. I also thought of explorer and rabid anti- socialist Ranulph Fiennes, who ran seven marathons in seven days, four months after major heart surgery. Here was I, walking just 20 miles, and moaning about it.
In my more lucid, bulls-free moments on my trips, I like to think I am learning something. I reckon – after another 30 or so walks around Scotland next year, I’ll be much more familiar with distances and estimating how long it will take me to get to places. I’m also hoping I get fitter as I go along. Fitter and wiser -that would be nice.
Mostly, I just want to learn about Scotland by wandering around as much of it as I can. My next trip began in a place I have been to many times: St Andrews. There, I visited the best book shop in the world: Bouqiniste, were I bought a 2-volume edition of Timothy Neat’s biography of Hamish Henderson: soldier, poet, folklorist, and socialist.
From St Andrews bus station, I took a bus to Anstruther, which I have visited a couple of times before. I wandered around the harbour taking photographs of fishing boats, blue rope and lobster pots (the only kind of pot which doesn’t look like a pot). The little coastal town seems as if designed by a postcard manufacturer. I walked beyond it, looking for the next section of the Fife coastal path, so I could get to another of Fife’s coastal towns.
Pittenween is, like Anstruther and Crail, an old fishing town. There’s still fishing going on there. When I arrived three small boats were tied up in the tiny harbour. I also noticed several arts and craft shops. All the little towns have similar shops, catering for visitors doing exactly what I was doing – wandering along the Fife coastal path. I sometimes look around the shops, but I prefer staying outdoors. On that coast, gazing out to river and islands, there’s a sense of timelessness you rarely encounter in a big city. By the harbour, there’s a life-size bronze statue of a woman and child looking out over the river. The plaque below it says: ‘This memorial is dedicated to the men and women who made their living from the sea and to those who lost their lives in so doing.’ It’s worth walking a long way just to see and read that.
I have not yet gone on many of these long walks, although in earlier years I got around quite a lot by train, car, bus, and mountain bike. I suppose I saw a lot of Scotland, but this time I feel more determined to notice places, and to breathe the air where for centuries other people have carved out their lives. Lives fishing or making things, farming, going off to wars, or quietly and carefully making places of peace. In other words, I want to learn the real stories of Scotland. I’ll report back on whatever I find. Perhaps it’s all a bit vague, but I feel that it’s a good quest. Maybe I’m not entirely an idiot. Or, not all the time.