The Grey Man




If a man dwells on the past then he robs the present.
But if a man ignores the past, he may rob the future.
The seeds of our destiny are nurtured by the roots of our past.

Sons of Vulcan

"Many more up at the hostel tonight?"
The old guy sitting at the rickety table, in cloth cap, tweed jacket, heavy woollen pullover, and weather-beaten features, looks every bit the a shepherd, or crofter. The sound of chinking glasses and chatter can be heard through the adjoining doorway as Moonwatcher signs the guest book.
"Only a handful. They should be down later." The doorman waits patiently as Moonwatcher finishes entering his name and sets down the pen, attached to a long length of string tied to the table leg, before thrusting a book of raffle tickets at him.
"Twenty Pee a ticket, son. Proceeds to village funds." The tone and eye contact suggests more than a polite request.
"I'll take five."
A series of pink, numbered cloakroom tickets are torn from a book.
"What's the prizes?" he asks the recipient.
The old man jerks a thumb back over his shoulder at a notice on the wall at his back; a handwritten list in felt-tip pen, alongside a printed 'Rules of the Club'. The prizes near the top of the list include bottles of whisky and wine. As the the list descends, the prizes become less appealing: home baking, a car washing kit, a potted plant. Moonwatcher contemplates his luck and the likelihood that if he wins anything it'll be the plant. He smiles as he pictures himself cycling around Ayrshire with a potted geranium secured to the handlebars.

Inside the club, a few locals are congregated at the far end of the bar, drinking, smoking and laughing. The barman slides the last of a batch of fresh pints towards towards them, then turns his attention to the till. It's early, and a haze of cigarette smoke begins is only beginning to create the evening's atmosphere.
To the left, the room opens out widens on to an open area, with a clear area of floor in the centre. Formica topped tables are arranged around the perimeter, each with chunky glass ashtrays bearing the legend 'Tennents'. An assortment of stained beer-mats lie scattered over the tops. Wooden chairs provide the seating. Most are empty, but a young couple have staked their claim at on a corner table, and are sipping drinks, deep in conversation.
On the far wall sits a solitary stool, a small table with an accordion propped against one of it's its legs, a microphone on a stand, and a set of bulky speakers amplifiers.

"What can I get you?" asks the barman.
Moonwatcher scans the bar.
"Pint of Guiness Guinness, mate. Thanks."
As he waits for the pint to be pulled, he leans against the bar top, extracts a cigarette from a rather damp pack and lights up. He surveys, with casual interest, the display shelves above the optics: arranged with bottles, glasses, ornaments and adverts.
His eye is caught by a framed poem, yellowed with nicotine. It hangs centrally, taking given pride of place.

Ye Vulcan's sons of Wanlockhead
Pity my sad disaster
My Pegasus is poorly shod
I'll pay you like my master

The barman sets a perfectly poured pint of blackness down on the bartop bar top, creamy head still forming, the cold glass coated in condensation.
"I'd let it settle a minute." he advises, as he accepts payment and returns to the till. As he hands over the change, Moonwatcher asks him ...
"Who's the poet?"
"Dae ye no ken the works of our national bard? Burns. Rabbie himself."
"Burns wrote that?"
The barman nods.
"It's from a poem cawd 'Pegasus at Wanlockhead'."
"Was he here like?"
"Who? Pegasus?"
"Naw! Burns."
"Must have been." replies the barman, smiling. "Wrote that poem didn't he?"
Recognising that a bit of leg pulling is in the air, Moonwatcher returns the smile, and makes his way through to the main area. As he chooses a table in the corner, opposite the sitting couple, they nod politely and continue their conversation. Setting down his torch and map down, he takes a long, slow drink of beer, before placing it to one side and opening out the map, over the table.

The inch to the mile Ordinance Survey map details an area of Glentrool and Galloway; it's finely detailed contours and colours depicting the roads, rivers, hills and towns of the region. It's a well worn map, with folded corners and seams, faded and worn.
He knows the roads and many of the byeways of the area well. But it's the central hill area, dominated by the Merrick range, on which he focuses his attention, as he sips his pint and blows wisps of blue smoke from his lips. Leaning forward, he closely scrutinises the remoteness, ruggedness and inhospitabilty of the area. No roads lead in or out. Even dotted paths are few and far between. Sinister sounding names leap out from the brown contours: Dungeon Hill, Cauldron of the Dungeon, Craignaw, The Murder Hole.
The Merrick, the highest hill in southern Scotland, is flanked by Benyellary, Tarfessock, Kirriereoch and Shalloch on Minnoch. Together these five hills form that what is known as 'The Awful Hand', a name derived from the fact that, as the sun sets, five long shadows creep across the bowl of the Cauldron, like some ghostly hand.
Small lochs are dotted around. Among them are Lochs Valley, Neldricken and Enoch. It is the last that interests Moonwatcher the most. Reputed to be of incredible depth, the tiny freshwater Loch Enoch is said to have been the habitat of a fish species found nowhere else. Recent thinking research however suggests that it's Enoch's fine, abrasive sand that alters the physical nature of the fish in it's its waters. In times past, gypsies were attracted to this high quality silver sand found along Enoch's southern shore. It was seemingly excellent for tool sharpening, and commanded good prices in the markets.
But Enoch has particular significance to him, this night. It sits at the northern edge of the area, under the shoulder of the Merrick, and Moonwatcher traces a finger along a point running from its southern shore ,through a narrow gully, cutting its way south, below the base of the hill.
It is in this gully, below Enoch, that the Grey Man sits ... alone... waiting.

Looking up and swallowing more beer, he becomes aware that more people have arrived. Seats are filling up, and the bar has become crowded. He notices Bill, Piper and some of the young lads who have just entered. They join him, a few moments later, and he begins to fold the map to make room for pints, fag packets and raffle tickets.
"What's the map?" asks Bill, after emptying half his pint in one go, and wiping his froth covered mouth with his sleeve.
"Can I see?" He beckons with his free hand.
The map is opened out again, and spread awkwardly over the, now cluttered, table.
"Where you headed for, son?" asks Piper, tamping fresh tobacco into his pipe.
"The Grey Man." says Moonwatcher.
Heads look up, and all eyes are upon him.
"Taking the bike?" asks Bill curiously.
"Nope. Intending to leave it at the Caldons, and head up on foot."
Bill nods.
"Do you know where it is? How to find it?"
He drains his glass and stands up.
"Got a fair idea. Any of you guys ever been to it?"
Bill walks around the table, heading for the bar.
"Prefer to follow roads myself, or at least tracks. Davie was the boy for headin into the mountains."
He lifts his empty glass in the air.
"Who's for another?"

As Bill disappears off to the bar, Piper lights his pipe and the table is shrouded in thick, heavy smoke.
"For gawd's sake, Piper, we'll bae needin gas masks in here!"
Unperturbed, he smiles and continues to puff away merrily. The map is refolded and put aside. Bill returns with fresh glasses and the talk returns to the Grey Man.
"Bloody hard country, up that way." he says knowingly. "Reckon your best route would be up by Calsharg, and follow the burn up to Enoch."
"Yeah, I've looked at that route, but I want to go by the Murder Hole." says Moonwatcher.
"Phew! You don't believe in making it easy for yourself."
Bill shakes his head.
"That's the way Davie did it the first time."
Piper looks thoughtful, taking the pipe from his mouth, and using the mouthpiece as a pointer, emphasises his words.
"They left the bikes at Glenhead House, followed the Gairland Burn up to Neldricken and the Murder Hole, and camped. Then they crossed over to Enoch next day. Tough trip by all accounts."
Bill laughs.
"Couldn't have been that tough. He led a group of them back, some time later, and they took an inflatable boat them!"
It isn't only Moonwatcher who voices surprise.
"Yeah, it's true. Took a rubber inflatable with them to paddle out to the wee island at the centre of Enoch. Managed it too! They even dropped a plumb line to measure the depth."
Heads were shaken, and glasses were raised in respect of such a deed.
"How deep was it?"
"Dunno! They ran out of damn rope!"
Piper leans forward.
"Have you thought about the midges son?"
"Yeah, they'll probably bae a nuisance." nods Moonwatcher.
"Nuisance! Nuisance! They'll eat you alive."
"Ach, ah'll try an get some repellant cream before ah go."
"That'll do ye no good son. The wee buggers thrive on that stuff, ye ken."
Piper is obviously warming to this subject.
"Ah'll tell ye what to get."
He pauses for effect.
"Get one of these."
He holds up his pipe, and blows out a mouthful of smoke that sends sets everyone coughing, and waving their hands in front of their faces.
"They dont don't like the smoke - sends them runnin. Take my word for it."
He laughs. They all laugh ... and cough.

As Moonwatcher takes another slug from his pint glass, his eye catches movement over at the far end. One of the guys who was with the group at the bar when he first came in, is settling himself onto the stool, and pulling the straps of the accordion over his shoulders. He's a stocky, middle-aged individual, with a face that wears a smile easily. He sups some beer from a glass, then sets it down carefully on the small table beside him. Shuffling through a wad of papers and booklets that appear to be music, he frowns, before casting them to the side as though he has no need for them. A few distinctly unmusical sounds erupt from the instrument on his lap, as he squeezes the bellows together, and fingers some keys on the keyboard.
Then, another swig of beer. Suddenly, the entire room fills with music. Scottish music. People start clapping in time, drumming table tops with hands and fingers. Not a foot in the hall is still. The place could not have come more alive, if Jimmy Shand himself, had walked in with his band.
The accordion player's fingers dance over the keyboard, while his other hand operates the bellows back and forward. His head and shoulders sway in time to the music. His eyes close as if he is seeing the music in his mind then transferring it to his hands and fingers. His right heel rises up and down to the rhythm.
When he finishes his piece, a loud cheer and applause erupts. Not for this man, the disinterested patrons, the embarrassingly polite handclap by one or two individuals after each number. This man has everyone eating out of his hand from the first note. Capturing their undivided attention, spirit, and sense of fun.

His next number brings them onto the floor. The old yins ones dance with the young. Boys with girls. Girls with girls. Some are obviously good dancers, others just prance around, in keeping with the music.
A steady supply of beer makes it's its way to the wee table. The accordian accordion player nodding appreciatively to the donors, as he plays on.
Eventually, he takes a break, thanks everyone, and heads for the bar, leaving the accordion sitting strangely forlorn and silent on the floor.
People mill about. The raffle prizes appear, and a two, rather bashful, ladies start picking out the tickets from a plastic bucket. Thankfully the potted plant goes to a local lad, who promptly presents it to his girlfriend, who then gives it to her mother. The story quickly goes round that it was this lady who donated it in the first place!
The whisky and wine, as indeed the other prizes, remain firmly in local hands.
A local chap, emboldened by the golden nectar, decides to try his hand in front of the microphone, and proceeds to slur, stammer and sway his way through 'My Way'. The audience is less than enthusiastic at about his performance, and he's quickly booed off, accompanied by with calls for the accordion player to return.
And return he does, to loud applause.

As the night gets late Bill starts to look at eyeing his watch.
"Right guys, drink up. We need to be getting back."
"Aw, c'mon Bill. They've shut the doors, and the ceilidh'll be goin on for hours yet." protests one of the cycling lads.
"Aye, an' ah'm quite well aware that we've got a lock in, but we need tae get back up tae the hostel." says Bill, draining his glass, placing it on the table, and digging the big hostel key from his pocket.
"But we've got the door key, and Mrs Young knows where we are." protests the younger man.
Bill leans across the table and adopts a serious tone.
"That's the trouble. It's too easy for folk to take advantage of Mrs Y. She was good enough tae give us the key, and let us stay out late, but as long as ah'm the one that she gave it tae ... we're aw goin back! Understand?."
No one speaks until Piper lifts his glass, swallows the dregs and speaks.
"Well, ah'm for mah bed, anyway. C'mon. Let's go."
Everyone around the table finishes up, chairs scrape across the floor, and the group start to make their way through the crowd. Goodnights are exchanged between locals and visitors. At the door, the old doorman puts down his paperback book - a western - and rises. He fumbles with the lock, and swings open the door, allowing the cyclists to exit into the darkness.
"Goodnight gents."
He nods, as they file out.

Outside, the night is warm, dry and very dark. Torches are switched on, and the group follow shaky circles of light up the steep hill towards the hostel. Behind them, the sounds of Vulcan's Sons continue behind locked doors, as the darkness closes in around the club building. The ceilidh will carry on well into the wee sma' hours.
"Was that a bit of trouble back there wae the lads?" Moonwatcher asks Bill as they negotiate some tricky potholes on the road, and feel the effects of the beer.
"What? About stayin later? Naw! That'll bae okay. Just some of the young yins. Dont know when tae pack it in. It's no problem. They'll thank me in the morning when we're setting out, believe me!

Bill and Piper

As they creep quietly into Lotus Lodge's kitchen, they discover coal and kindling have been left at the side of the stove, ready for the first person up in the morning to relight it.
The kettle's still hot, and mugs of tea and coffee are quickly circulated. Soon, only Bill, Piper and Moonwatcher are left. Piper, puffing on his pipe at the side of the stove and Bill sitting on a chair with his legs outstretched, heels resting on the hotplate. Moonwatcher digs out a small camera and points it at the two veteran cyclists.
Piper looks directly at the lens with a big broad grin.
Bill smiles and looks pensively at the stove.

Moonwatcher experiences a tinge of sadness at the thought that he is witnessing the end of an era. All to too soon, the remnants of the old school, like Bill, Piper and Mrs Young will, like Davie Bell before them, will be gone. Destined to become names and memories in a book; recalled only by those who knew them or chance chanced to read the pages. Wanlockhead will change, as all things change.
As he says his goodnights and heads for bed, he recalls the words of Gavin Maxwell in one of his 'Ring of Bright Water' books ...
"Only The Rocks Remain"
With this, he drifts off to sleep with one rock in his mind - an ageless face, looking out from a desolate hill far to the south.

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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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