On the Road
On the Road

With an old bike ...
... by Bill McLaughlin.

   Go to Chapters ...
A Beginning
Free of the City
Crianlarich and Beyond

A Beginning

Glasgow to Ullapool via the West Coast and back down Loch Ness side! I don't know why I wanted to do it, but I wanted it so bad, it hurt at times.
It probably began with the determination to go somewhere on my own, under my own steam, with the my faithful bicycle. It was 15 years old; a Dayton Roadmaster. When my oldest brother, Davy, and his wife Margaret, stayed with us after they got married, I borrowed it from time to time.
When They eventually got a place of their own, in Maryhill, the bike went with them. I had used it so often, that I kind of regarded it as mine anyway, especially when Davy was away on his National Service with the Royal Air Force. I think that the 'old man' intervened on my behalf, but because, somehow, the bike ended up as mine. It was brought back from Maryhill, and I loved and cared for it - it was probably my first love!

I stripped it, and cleaned it; endlessly polishing the wheel rims until I could almost see my face in them. I oiled the hubs, checked the brakes, and greased the brake cables. I oiled the pedal spindles so much, that when I twirled them, they seemed to spin for ever. Just like the wheels ... on and on and on!

A couple of weeks before the trip, I got some money together from the my part-time job, as a Van-Boy with 'Beattie's Bakery'. Off I went to the big 'Dale's Cycle Shop', up in Dobbie's Loan. I bought a saddlebag; hopefully, it would be big enough to get me by, without being too large to be overweight.
My Ma kicked in with some money to buy me a cape. She said it was from Dad.
I can still smell the oilskin; it was bright yellow, and when I wore it - which, in our weather, was often - it covered the bike and me perfectly, I was like a mobile tent!

I Joined the 'Youth Hostel Association' as a full member in my own right - not, as previously, a 'family-member'.
I bought my own Youth hostel map, and checked and rechecked, the routes I might take.
Some further savings went on proper cycling shoes.

I left Barrowfield, in the East End of Glasgow, quietly, one Saturday morning. The old man was at work; Ma said "Cheerio" before going out to the shops. We weren't big on sentiment, and anyway, I had been going away to school camp, every year for about three years.
This was different, I had organised it myself, saved some money and I was doing it by myself.
An early Jack Keruoac! I was 'On the Road'.

Into the Gallowgate, past Glasgow Cross, with the old Mercat clock watching me come, watching me go. I turned up High Street, and stood on the pedals to get me around the steep twist, as I passed over Duke Street. Up and by Burrell's Lane where, family legend had it, Andy - one of my older brothers - had let me spin out of control on in my pram, all the way down and across Duke Street!
Next, past the Cathedral and the oldest house, Provand's Lordship;once a Bishop's palace, then a hospital, now a museum with no artefacts. Up Cathedral street and along Sauchiehall street, Cowcaddens, past the 'daft school', New City Road and up to Maryhill. All the time watching that the wheels didn't skid on the greasy cobbles, and didn't get trapped in the Ttamlines.
On and up; it felt like climbing. It was climbing! This was heading for the highest part of Glasgow; built, like Rome, on hills.
Once past the old Tram Terminus, I cleared the City Boundary at the top end of Maryhill, just at the fancy church, with eaves so low to the ground, that it resembles a large triangle.
I passed a sign, then looked back, to make sure that I had left it behind.
'Glasgow City Boundary'.
I felt alone - not lonely. For the first time. I was tasting freedom.

Free of the City

The City gently turned into the greener, more genteel area of Bearsden. I had passed this way often on the back of my old-man's motor bike. Now, I had time to see it at my own more leisurely pace. Everything seemed larger, the houses bigger, the gardens more cultivated. In later life I would come back to work in this area, and become conscious of the smell of money coming from these surroundings.
Right now, my priority was to get out through to the Blanefield road, then on towards Drymen. I pushed harder on the pedals to take me over the hill and past the reservoir. At last, I cleared the last of the big country houses.
Open road! Hissing along, I counted my breathing. Apart from the tyres, all was quiet; no traffic, no people. More aloneness. More freedom!

The saying goes ... 'a long road for a short cut'. I didn't take the direct route to my first day's stop at Inverbeg, on the west bank of Loch Lomond, at the foot of Glen Douglas. This road was 10 miles longer. But I was on holiday and had all day. I I didn't want to miss the road through Gartocharn to Balloch. I had passed the road end so often, on trips to Rowardennan. Seeing the signs for Gartocharn, I was drawn to it like a magnet.

Eventually I came to the village. It was a case of 'now you see it, now you don't!
I saw the sign but little sign of life. The village was off the road a bit, and there was little sign of life. I only saw the sign as I left. Such a disappointment! I cycled on, and like a lot of things in my life till then, put it behind me.
Sometimes wishes are better, unfulfilled!

Once through Balloch, I decided to stop for a 'drum up'. Tea and sandwiches. I unpacked the Primus-stove that the old man had allowed me to borrow for the duration. He had laughed when he gave me it.
"We'll see you back when it gets dark."

I found myself drawn to the park at Balloch Castle - scene of an earlier trip when I was in the 'Life Boys'. A day of drilling, and marching up and down.
I remembered the junior leader of the 'Life-Boys'. She was my big-brother Andy's girlfriend, Jean. She had hauled my pal Robert Hagerty, and myself, away from the rowing boats, after we fell into the water. Dried us off a bit before we had to go went home, and then lied to our parents about the accident!
I was proud, that day, to think that my brother was smart enough to have such a good storyteller for a girlfriend.

I left Balloch, and turned north, with only about 14 miles to cycle to my first night's hostel and rest.
At Inverbeg, the Warden was a big, bluff man with a huge beard, an army sweater, and a Kilt! I just knew I would love this guy!
I found my way to the dormitory. Twelve in each, as I remember, and no mixing of the sexes! Dumped my saddle bag on the bunk and went down to the kitchen to cook some grub - some kind of tinned rubbish that I had picked up in Balloch. But I prepared it, and I was going to enjoy it. Or else!
While a bunch of us sat talking about our plans, the warden started with his tales. The layout of the Hostel was like a two-level log-cabin, with some stairs leading to the upper level, which served as a meeting place for everyone. I appeared to be the youngest resident, so took a bit of stick.
"Dis yer Mammy know you're oot, son?" was the favourite, and I was to hear it a fair number of times over the next two weeks.

According to Big Jim - I will call him that, for I only met him the once, and his name is long forgotten - the place was haunted; stalked by the ghosts of two previous wardens. One of whom had hanged himself from the open-work beams, dropping from the upper to the lower level and only stopping short when the rope ran out!
The talk was for my benefit, as I discovered. Most of the other hostellers were regulars, and paid no attention. One of them told me ...
"Don't listen to him. He's only trying to frighten you, son. Two wardens! A lot of shite son! There only ever was one hung himself, and that was in the dormitory - not out here.
I stayed up late that night! I watched the fire glow, and listened to the tales of all these experienced travellers. Soon I was too tired to worry about bumps in the night!

Crainlarich and Beyond

The next morning I was up early. At that time, the first up got the easiest chore from the warden. It was a tradition in hostelling, that before leaving, you had to perform a chore to help him out. It might just be sweeping out the floor.It could be fetching logs to restock the fire.
It was a good tradition. It made you feel part of everything.

The early rise meant that I could watch the mist rising, like smoke, up the slopes of Ben Lomond. In the morning light, the rising sun shone through the clouds, creating searchlights where it pierced. When these shafts hit the water of the loch, the effect was breathtaking. This sight would accompany me for the next 12 miles, as I rode alongside the loch on that infamous narrow road, with its blind bends, humps, and twists, all the way to Ardlui.

Taking the right fork, following the loch side, I was heading for Glencoe. I left Loch Lomond behind me, and started the long drag up Glen Falloch. I stopped long enough to walk through the woods for a look at the Falls of Falloch. It was quiet; only me, the moss and the trees.
The river paid no attention to its admirer, as it ran, rushing madly over the rocks. Then, it was back to the bike, and on towards Crainlarich. Another climb! God! It was easier when I was sitting on my old-man's motorbike!
This was one of those hills where you only realise how steep it was, when you get to the top. I had stood on the pedals most of the way, not wanting to get off and walk, in case passing professionals laughed. I hit the top, then almost collapsed, when I looked back down and realised the extent of the climb.
A good cyclist would have made it look easy, but I was unfit, and on holiday. I vowed that, in future, I would walk when things got tough. What the hell! There was no point killing myself! And anyway, it was a good excuse for a cigarette.
I had started smoking a weird, oval-shaped cigarette, that went by the name of 'Passing Clouds'. No filter, and a real gut-buster. I must have had some kind of romantic notion, of sitting under a tree, lighting up after a hard days graft!

I crested the hill, remounted, then freewheeled almost all the way to Crainlarich. That was a blast! At times I was going so fast, I had to veer over to the other side of the road to take the bends. Isle of Man TT races - eat your heart out!
Onwards! Swing left. Run past Tyndrum, then head for the Black Mount across Rannoch Moor.
It was a Sunday, and I met no one. Nobody overtook me; not because I was fast - just up early. Too early yet, for the cycle-harriers who would race to Glencoe and back to Glasgow in a day, as sport!
190 miles round trip! Headcases all!

I had just passed through the Bridge of Orchy, when, on the moor, I saw my first red deer. A small herd of about twenty. At first they appeared not to notice me, as I hummed along on the bike. They were strolling; stopping from time to time to munch at the reindeer moss. Casual; not a care in the world.
The young buck, with twelve-inch single antlers, saw me first. He stopped, nose in the air, stared for what seemed an eternity, then took off, alerting the rest others. As they ran, their hooves drummed on the turf and moss so loud loudly, I stopped to listen. I had never heard that kind of sound before, except maybe in some old cowboy movie, when the a herd of cows stampeded.
But this was real! Enchanting! Such a lot of noise for twenty or so animals. They disappeared into the distance, the drumming growing fainter. That sound has never left me.

I decided to eat, and felt that the roadside at Loch Tulla was an ideal spot. The long, barren vista across the Rannoch Moor was the backdrop.
Lunch was a sandwich, a biscuit, and tea brewed on the Primus; I was beginning to feel like a real traveller.
I had a little tin container, with a separation in the middle, and a lid, at either end, embossed with the words 'Tea' and 'Sugar'. Just in case you couldn't tell the difference when you opened it!
My teacup was a tin - better known in these parts as a 'can'. It had a wire handle, which had to be kept away from the flame of the stove.
Once the water - taken from the nearest burn or loch - was boiling away, the tea was added; roughly measured in my hand and dropped into the can, then stirred with either a matchstick or a small twig. This supposedly attracted the tea leaves, and made it easier to avoid swallowing them. It never worked for me! Yugh!

I was now ready then for the long climb up the Black Mount, that part of the road leading which leads to the heart of Glencoe. The road winds upwards. There is a severe bend, christened 'the other devil's elbow' by my old-man, at some time. I got so far along, then decided to get off and push the bike to the top - only a couple of miles!
At the top, looking back, the view was breathtaking. I gazed on the panorama back across the moor, the break in the clouds, Loch Tulla and all the little tarns and lochans, waiting, then glistening, when it was their turn to catch the sun.

   Go to Chapters ...
A Beginning
Free of the City
Crianlarich and Beyond

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Original story and material © 2005 Bill McLaughlin
Layout, editing and additional material © Dave Sloan 2005, 2016
'tachras' and 'Winding Yarn' © Dave Sloan 2005, 2016

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