The Grey Man




One man, travelling far, in search of 'The Grey Man'


The lone figure, draped in a yellow oilskin cape and hunched over the handlebars of the heavily laden bicycle, struggles slowly against the driving rain and steep incline of the narrow winding road. The surrounding hills, shrouded in heavy mist can be more sensed than seen. The cyclist presses a cable lever down with wet fingers, slipping the derailleur and engaging the chain on the largest of the cogs on the back wheel; the equivalent of first gear in a car. He accepts that if his tired legs cannot continue to turn the pedals in this gear, he will have no choice but to dismount and continue on foot.
He grips the dropped handlebars tightly, and raises his butt off the saddle. Staring down at the slowly turning front wheel, he focuses all his energy and concentration on keeping going. One more pedal revolution, one more yard. Slow but sure progress.
He realises that he would be as quick getting off and pushing the bike, but he wants to break his record. Just up ahead is the ruin of the old lead mine, the place where he stopped last time. The weather was better on that occasion. Dry with the wind behind him. Not so now.
He's done well to get this far without resorting to pedestrianism. His legs ache and his knees cry out as he sees the dark shape looming ahead to his right - the old mine.
As another blast of wind drives needles of rain into his face, he defiantly shakes annoying drips from the cape's hood, and the end of his nose. He resists the temptation to stop at this milestone on the climb. The crumbled remains of the old building retreat behind him, disappearing into the gloom.
His sense of accomplishment is short lived as he sets himself a new target. Some hundred yards ahead he can make out the top of this particular rise. He struggles on. The rise is taken. He sets another target. Gradually, painfully Moonwatcher continues the long climb to Scotland's highest village.

An hour later, the young man stands overlooking Wanlockhead.
Leaning the bicycle against him, he pulls the plastic water bottle from its cradle on the down tube, gulps the contents, then snaps it back in place. The rain and wind have lessened now.
"Typical!" he mutters to himself. "Now the climb's over."
He rummages for a Mars Bar in one of the side pockets of the saddlebag, and pulls back his hood to reveal a head of thick, dark, wet hair and a face some might describe as sharp featured. He's in his early twenties and, beneath the cape, is dressed in sodden Levi jeans, a cotton shirt and black shoes. The bottoms of the jeans are tucked into long socks.
His thin nine and a half stone frame belies a fitness and strength acquired from many miles of cross country biking, hiking, hauling and scrambling ... and a day job requiring effort of a different sort. Up and down the tenement stairs of a city now behind him and far to the north.
As he bites off a chunk of the chocolate, he feels a great sense of freedom and relief. It's good to be away. Away from the city, the noise, the crowds, the sirens and the human debris of urban life. The air here is heavy with the scent of wet grass, moss and bog. A stream gurgles nearby.
Here, high in the Lowther Hills of Lanarkshire, he feels his journey has truly begun.
His quest: to find the Grey Man.

The short freewheel down to Lotus Lodge is exhilarating after the long climb. The brake blocks screech as he pulls the heavily loaded bike to a halt at the metal gate on which a red triangular sign displays the letters 'SYHA'(Scottish Youth Hostel Association).
He wheels the bike around the side of the white, detached house that overlooks the village. Inside a wooden cycle shed, Moonwatcher shakes off the wet cape, hangs it from a hook and undoes the straps of his saddlebag. Dropping it to the floor, he gathers what he needs from the pannier bags slung over the rear wheels.
The bike is particularly well stacked this trip: tent, backpack, boots, sleeping bag and stove. Rigid tent pole sections are taped to the top frame.

It's early evening as he enters the front door of the Wanlockhead Hostel, and makes his way straight to the kitchen, where a coal fired range takes up one wall and bathes the room in welcoming warmth. A large kettle simmers gently on the hotplate, steam rising lazily from the spout. He places his saddlebag and bicycle headlamp on a bench at one of the two large wooden tables and uses a towel to roughly dry his hair.
"So it's you that's dripping all over my clean floor!"
Momentarily startled by the voice, he whips the towel from his face, and snaps his head towards the kitchen door.
"You'd better get those wet things off before you get a cold." says Mrs Young - hostel warden and surrogate gran to many hundreds of hostellers over the years.
"Oh sorry, Mrs Y, I didn't know you were there."
The old lady, dressed in grey skirt, blouse and long flower patterned smock, takes off her glasses, letting them hang from her neck by the attached cord attached. She walks slowly over to the range and bends down with a soft grunt and cracking bones. She uses a cloth to open the hot firebox door revealing the glowing coals within.
"Kettle's boiling. Get those wet things off and hung up here. Then fix yourself something to eat. We'll book you in later. You're the only one so far. I'm expecting Bill Houston and the boys later. Been very quiet of late."
She closes the range door, rises to her feet with obvious effort, and looks at the dishevelled traveller.
"And how are you? Been a while since we've seen you."
"I'm fine, good to get away again." he says as he finishes drying his hair.
"Still in the ambulances?" she asks.
"Yep. Still there."
"Dont know how you can do that job. All that blood."
She gives a mock shudder to emphasise her point.
"Oh you get used to it." he lies.
"Where are you off to? Weekend trip?" she asks while tinkering with the legs of her glasses.
"No, I'm on holiday; just finished night shift this morning. Heading from here across to Ayr, and then hopefully down into Galloway."
She shakes her head.
"Night shift! What time did you leave?"
"Eight o clock this morning. Would've left earlier, but we had a last minute 999 call."
"In this weather as well!"
She shakes her head again as she walks towards the door.
"What's the forecast? Any idea?" he calls.
"Supposed to brighten up tomorrow, and get very warm. But I don't trust these forecasters, I think they just tell us what we want to hear."
Mrs Young disappears out the door, leaving him to get his wet things off and dried out.

Wanlockhead lies high in the Lowther Hills. A tiny village - it's height above sea level gives it the distinction of being the highest in Scotland. In its day, a centre of lead production. Now, in the early 1970s, the mines have been abandoned, leaving only scattered ruins as testament to the industry that once flourished there.
Another metal was extracted from the surrounding hills - gold!
'There's gold in them thar hills!'
Many prospectors have made their way to Wanlockhead. Armed with their shallow metal bowls, they have spend spent hours, days, months, perhaps even years; panning the streams in search of a glint of the elusive yellow metal. While enough grains are found to keep hope alive, none have struck the 'motherload' ...
... yet!

The hostel sits right at the top of the village, virtually the first building the traveller encounters as he crests the brow of the hill from the north. It looks over a few dozen stone and brick dwellings, lined up in stepped rows, on the steep slopes below Green Lowther Hill. They look like some Scottish equivalent of Machu Pichu.
The southern end of the village ends abruptly, as the road drops off to the fearsome descent of the Mennock Pass.

Mrs Young at Wanlockhead

The hostel was one of the earliest to be opened, when, in the 1930s, the Association was formed to provide cheap overnight accommodation for deprived city children - many of whom had never been beyond their tenement streets. Hostels provided their first experience of the countryside, and for many it was a life changing experience.
Mrs Young had helped her father run the Wanlockhead (Lotus Lodge) Hostel - once the doctor's house - for many years. On his death she took over the wardenship, and became one of the best loved wardens in Scotland. A no-nonsense woman, more than capable, despite her advancing years, of dealing with the varying nationalities, youngsters, hikers, bikers and (at times) troublemakers, that passed through the hostel gate.

The pot on the range releases an appetising aroma, as a meal of canned sausage and beans bubbles away. Moonwatcher's stomach rumbles and his mouth waters! He tips in tinned potatatoes for good measure, and gives the mixture a stir.
Taking a jar from one of the wooden 'dookits' on the wall, he makes coffee with boiling water from the kettle, then sips the hot liquid as he looks around.
On a busy day, all the dookits would be full of all sorts of provisions; each hosteller having selected one for the storage of their eatables, safe in the knowledge that no one would stoop to stealing from another.
Hostellers of all shapes, sizes, gender and origin would be competing for stove space. Those, unfamiliar with cooking on a range and underestimating the heat generated, would be cursing as food burned and caked itself to pots.
But this evening only one dookit sees service, housing the things Moonwatcher has pulled from his bulky saddlebag.
As he prepares his solitary meal, his wet clothes, strung out above the range, steam as they dry quickly in the heat. He feels comfortable and relaxed in his slacks, sweatshirt and thick, dry woollen hiking socks.
Wanlockhead is a grade three hostel, indicating basic facilities. Grade threes vary considerably, from those like Wanlockhead to some that are no more than stone bothies with the most primitive of resources.

As he sits at the table with his meal, he pulls a book from the saddlebag perched beside him on the bench. He swallows the last forkful of beans, washing them down with a gulp of coffee. Pushing the plate away he examines the book's white dustcover, frowning at the patches of dampness at the corners where the rain has penetrated.
The bold title identifies it as 'The Highway Man'. The cover features the black silhouette of a man sitting astride a bicycle. The man, its author - Davie Bell.

Davie Bell was a cyclist who toured the rugged, wild country of the South-West. Ayrshire, Galloway and the Borders, were his hunting grounds, and during his lifetime he was a familiar figure on his bicycle as he explored the highways and byways of southern Scotland.
But what made Davie different from the many other cyclists of his time, was his desire to get off the beaten track; often off the road altogether and into the hills and moors of his beloved country. On these expeditions, he would man-handle his bike across heather, grass, bog, and rocks. Although determined to ride the bike whenever he could, he was often reduced to pushing and carrying it, much to the consternation of hill walkers and climbers who happened upon him and his machine in the most unlikely places.
From the summit of the Merrick, southern Scotland's highest mountain, to the rocky island of Ailsa Craig off the Ayrshire coast, Davie Bell and his bike became legendary.
One of the original 'Rough-Stuffers', a term given to his kind, long before the modern concept of mountain biking and all terrain bikes. He contributed regularly to the newspaper 'The Ayrshire Post'. The stories of his exploits were eagerly devoured by armchair adventurers.
The book Moonwatcher now reverently leafs through, was a compilation of many of those 'Post' articles, brought together after his death by those closest to him.
Wanlockhead had been one of his favourite hostels. He visited it regularly, and contributed to its reputation as a 'cyclist's hostel'. He led the gathering of cyclists from all over Scotland who congregated in this very kitchen (as well as filling the hallway and dormitories), on the night Wanlockhead celebrated its 21st birthday, leaving Mrs Y embarrassed by the tributes paid to her and wondering how on earth she would accommodate so many people.
Needless to say, a bed was guaranteed for Davie Bell.

Moonwatcher swallows another mouthful of, now tepid, coffee. Gazing around the room, tries to imagine the singing and dancing of that night, before he returns his attention to the book.
He flicks over the pages to a black and white, full page, plate and holds the book flat, studying the photo closely. It depicts a rocky outcrop, immediately discernable as a human face. The rugged face of an old man, rugged, bearded and solemn. As though carved out of the solid rock, the feature would not have looked out of place on Mount Rushmore, yet no human hand had played a part in the creation of this ...
'The Grey Man of the Merrick'.
As he runs his fingertips over the glossy page, he feels a stirring of excitement. He has long dreamt of seeing that face; of touching the cold, rocky beard; of following in the steps of Bell and gazing on what he and few others had seen, or were even aware of.
He knows it will be difficult. He doesn't even know exactly where the outcrop is located.
Somewhere at the base of the Merrick, in a gully south of Loch Enoch, in the wild, remote, mountainous region of Galloway. Far from any road, track or civilisation.
Clues are contained within the book in front of him. Even Davie Bell, on the few occasions when he visited this secret place, had forsaken his bicycle and made his way on foot.

The noise of new arrivals jars him back to the present. Closing the book, he looks up to see a group of damp, chattering cyclists, encumbered with saddlebags, wet oilskins and a buckled cycle wheel, struggle through the narrow door into the kitchen. Unceremoniously, they drop their belongings in the middle of the floor. The room fills with the smell of pipe smoke, as one of the newcomers puffs on the briar clamped between his teeth. Moonwatcher recognises the two older members of the group - the burly Bill Houston and 'Piper' - and it's as though two characters have leapt from the pages of the book that lies before him. Both these individuals cycled with Davie Bell, and remain regular visitors to the Wanlockhead hostel.

"Ah! We've a Glasgow man with us tonight boys." announces Bill, as he props the buckled wheel against the far wall - hopefully out of sight of the approaching Mrs Y, who can be heard coming down the stairs.
"Travel far?" he asks, as he and the others busy themselves emptying saddlebags, filling dookits, spilling the contents over the tables and getting pots and pans ready for a meal.
"Just come down from the city. Headin south. Yourselves?"
"Just up for an overnighter." explains Bill. "Came up from Kendoon. Would've got here sooner if it hadn't been for him."
He points to one of their number attacking a tin of beans with a can opener.
"Skelpin a bliddy great boulder in the rain an bucklin his front wheel. Straightened it best we could, but it went again near the top of the Mennock. Had to walk the last bit."
They all laugh, revelling at in the misfortune of the unlucky rider.

As he slides the book back into the saddlebag to clear space for the banquet that's being prepared, it catches the attention of Bill.
"Is that Davie's book, ye've got there?"
"Aye it is." Moonwatcher replies.
Bill nods, opens his mouth to say something, but is cut off by the voice of Mrs Y.
"What's that wheel doing in my kitchen?"
The question isn't shouted out loud, but asked in a quiet voice, loaded with authority. Everyone freezes, as though someone had hit a video pause button. Instantly, the room becomes muted. All eyes turn to Mrs Y and then to the offending wheel in the corner. It sits in a puddle of oily rainwater, sending muddy trickles across the floor.
It's Piper who steps into the breach. Removing the pipe from his mouth, he steps over and grabs the spoked obscenity.
"Sorry Mrs Y. I'll take it outside."
The old lady purses her lips, and nods, before surveying the chaos that has overtaken her kitchen.
"I thought you folk had changed your minds." she says, checking her watch and looking at Bill.
"Had a bit of trouble on the way Mrs Y."
"The wheel?"
"Aye, that's it. But you know it'd take more than that to keep us away from here, and your warm hospitality, Mrs Y."
"Ah but you're full of it, Bill Houston." she says, moving her spectacles to the end of her nose and peering at the contents of the pots, which steam and sizzle on the hotplate.
"I take it you'll be going down the club once you've finished here?"
"Aye, once we've cleared up here and fixed the wheel."
"Well, I'll give you the spare key, but keep the noise down and don't forget to lock up once you're all back in."
"No problem. Thanks Mrs Y."
A chorus of thanks follows. Technically this is against the rules. She would normally lock the hostel doors well before pub closing time, and woe betide anyone who dared bang on the door after that. The old lady's gesture is appreciated by all, and recognised as a measure of the trust she places in these particular guests.

Moonwatcher smiles, gathers his gear together and heads for the male dormitory.
The bunk beds are all empty, except for a pillow and a couple of folded army blankets. Choosing a top bunk near the window, he pulls a white cotton sleeping sheet from his saddlebag and spreads it over the mattress. Designed to YHA standards, the sheet is stitched to form a thin sleeping bag, with a pocket at the top for the pillow. He stuffs the pillow into the pocket and spreads the blankets over the top. A flap of the sheet covers the top part of the blankets. The idea being that no part of the sleeper comes into contact with the pillow or blankets - a throwback to the early days of hostelling, when skin infections and infestation were major concerns.
His bed made, he grabs the cycle headlamp and a map, and heads back to the kitchen. Someone is already busy on the wheel in the hallway just inside the front door; tyre off, one hand working rapidly with a spoke key, the other tapping each spoke with a screwdriver to produce a 'pinging' sound. Like a harp player listening to the tone of each string, the repairer tunes the wheel, bringing it to the true, ready for the next day's mileage.
"See you guys down the club?" Moonwatcher asks as he pops his head round the kitchen door.
"Sure thing!" comes the reply from a kitchen, now alive with activity.
He heads out into the gathering dusk. The rain has stopped. He fills his lungs with the fresh mountain air, and strolls off down the steep hill.


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Original story and material © 2005 Bob Wilson
Layout, editing and additional material © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016
'tachras' and 'Winding Yarn' © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016

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