The Grey Man




Evil cannot be conquered in the world.
It can only be resisted within oneself.

Rowantree Toll

Moonwatcher sits transfixed, gazing at the tiny wonder of nature before him, pleased to be sharing space and time with it. The bright iridescent colours, the intricate design, the sheer beauty. The peacock butterfly had been on the leaf for some moments before he'd noticed it, and seemed quite content to remain there, warming its dazzling wings in the hot midday sun. He keeps his movements slow, deliberate, so as not to disturb it; he's enjoying its company too much.
Not that he feels lonesome. It's good to be back on the road again, solo. The past couple of days with family have had been good, but he relishes the peace and solitude of the Tairlaw Pass. He quietly sips coffee from the tin mug, and munches on a cheese sandwich.
A forestry Land-Rover trundles up the hill, and, engine roaring, passes him in a cloud of dust. It's one of the few vehicles that he has seen, since cycling out of Straiton earlier in the morning, to begin the long climb up the Pass.
Returning his attention to the leaf, he's disappointed to find it empty, and catches only a brief glimpse of his companion as it flutters off into the surrounding trees.

This is serious forestry country, by Scottish standards. High ground, planted with non native conifers, stretches for miles to the south. At one time, from the spot where he now sits at his drum-up, the surrounding hills would have been clearly seen and identified. But nowadays, he'll need to gain more height before being be able to see over the tops of dense Sitka spruce.
His understanding is that when WW1 highlighted an acute shortage of timber for coal-mine props and trench construction, the Forestry Commission was set up to ensure adequate supplies to meet any future demand; leading to these huge swathes of green that now cover the land.
Moonwatcher has now entered the northern periphery of the vast Glentrool Forest. The day's journey so far has been slow, but enjoyable. The first miles from Croy through Maybole passed quickly, the freshness of morning giving way to what promised to be a scorcher of a day. A promise fulfilled. The long hill climb finds him on foot most of the way, the heat wave making riding the incline too tiring to think about.
But it's pleasant, and, dressed in shorts, T-shirt and dark glasses, he enjoys moving through the trees at a sedate pace. It's rare to see him in shorts. Early experiences of coming off the bike and leaving skin on the gravel or tarmac, has convinced him that traditional cycling gear is not all it's cracked up to be. But today it's just too hot, and he's enjoying 'catching some rays' on his bare arms and legs - with little thought for the consequences!

Break over, he stuffs his gear into the saddlebag of the bike, propped against the an old wooden shed. A sign identifies the large shack as a 'Fire Station'; the symbol of a flame emphasises the point. A tall wooden frame nearby supports long poles, each with a large rubber paddle at one end - for beating out flames.
Small fires are all too common, usually started by carelessness, but sometimes malicious in origin. When a fire gets a hold, the results can be devastating. Huge areas of timber can be destroyed before it's brought under control. Wildlife suffers badly, and on occasion, human life as well. Moonwatcher thinks of the butterfly and decides this is not a good time to light his pipe.

Tairlaw Toll is passed on foot, and brings thoughts of when this high pass was a Toll Road between Straiton, Glentrool and Newton Stewart. Drovers, merchants, gypsies and common travellers would have followed this route on foot, horseback and cart. There were probably far fewer trees in those days, with the road being no more than a rough dirt track. The journey, in all weathers, must have been difficult and dangerous.
Toll Houses would have been major milestones, and perhaps provided some degree of shelter and comfort. Nowadays, only the names remain. As Moonwatcher treks onward and upward, the next toll beckons - Rowantree Toll. Over the Shalloch summit, where the road drops down, and swings around to join with the Nick of the Balloch Pass.

The breeze is refreshing as he freewheels off the summit and down the Shalloch curving towards Rowantree. To his right he can see 'The Nick', the other high pass road snaking over the hills from the village of Barr. Ahead, in a large area clear of trees, is the point where both roads meet in a 'V' junction before the Shalloch continues it's its long descent through forest to Glentrool.

The Davie Bell Memorial

Pulling up near the V junction, he dismounts, then wheels the bike up a path to a rectangular paved and cobbled area, in the centre of which, sits a small stone cairn. Leaning the bike against the cairn's side, he slakes his thirst on tepid water from his water bottle, while taking in the view. In the absence of trees, the panorama is spectacular. In the distance - his ultimate destination - the a range of five mountains shimmering in the heat: Merrick, Tarfessock, Shalloch on Minnoch, Kirriereoch, Benyellary. The mountains of The Awful Hand. Behind the range, hidden from sight and little known, lies the Cauldron of the Dungeon and the Grey Man.
Like Frodo, gazing for the first time at on the Mountains of Mordor, Moonwatcher stands, and looks out at towards his objective.

Rummaging in his bag, he digs out the book, and opens it at a photo, near the introduction, showing this very spot on the day the cairn was unveiled. For this is the 'Davie Bell Memorial Cairn'. The photo shows a large group of friends and family, gathered at this remote site.

The Davie Bell Memorial Plaque

He reads the inscription on the plaque on the front of the cairn.

In Remembrance of
David Bell
'The Highwayman'
Who knew these hills so well
1907 -1965

On top of the cairn is a bronze relief map of the area showing mountains, lochs and roads. Moonwatcher runs his fingers over the contoured metal surface, hot in the baking sun, and relates the features to the landscape around him. His fingertip traces his proposed route along Loch Trool, and up into the mountains to the spot where he believes the Grey Man to be. Looking at the book's introduction again, he reads words he's read before, but which now with have more meaning as he stands here at Rowantree Toll.

'... Within a year of his death, a simple, solid cairn, typical of the man, crowned with a bronze relief map of The Merrick and it's neighbouring hills, was unveiled. Hundreds attended the ceremony, and hundreds more have since visited the spot.'

Moonwatcher could now add his name to the list.

The Mars Bar that he finds in a side pocket of the saddlebag, is a disappointment; heat having reduced it to a squidgy, gooey mess. So, contenting himself with a packet of smokey bacon crisps, and what remains in his water bottle, he sits cross legged with his back against the cairn, staring out at the hills.
It's the arrival of midges that remind reminds him of the pipe. Having followed his uncle's instructions, he's soon puffing away and, the midges buzz off.
As he sits looking out at towards the Merrick, the strange case of the Murder Hole comes to mind. Strange, because of its association with two separate locations - one fact, the other fiction. Rowantree Toll, where he now sits and Loch Neldricken within the Dungeon area.
A few hundred years previously, and in similar vein to the Sawney Bean incident, folk were being waylaid on the Straiton to Glentrool road. Although cannibalism wasn't a factor in this case, it was eventually discovered that travellers staying overnight at a cottage near Rowantree Toll, were being robbed, then murdered; their bodies taken to a deep natural well behind the cottage, to be dumped and lost forever. The well became known as the 'Murder Hole'.
However, in 1893, Scottish novelist S. R. Crockett wrote the a book titled 'The Raiders', set in the Galloway Hills. He was a keen hill-walker, and his treks took him into the Dungeon area. On one of these treks, he noticed that the water along the edge of Loch Neldricken was thick with reeds. But curiously, the expanse of reeds appeared to have a 'hole' in it; a perfect circle of clear water where no reeds grew. His imagination incorporated this observation into the story, then evolving in his head. His hero, Patrick Heron, whilst traversing the Dungeon area, would come across a sheiling and accept an offer to stay the night. During his stay, he discovers that the occupants make a living out of robbing and murdering travellers and dumping the 'evidence' in an area of the loch, they call 'The Murder Hole', identifiable because of it's its circular shape and absence of reeds.
After Crockett's book became a best seller of it's time, the true story of the 'Murder Hole' at Rowantree was forgotten, and people grew to prefer preferring the fictional version. So much so, that, to this day, maps show the 'Murder Hole' as being located in Loch Neldricken. Moonwatcher wonders if the hole observed by Crockett will still be discernable.

The heat of the sun brings on a drowsiness, and he leans back against the cairn, eyes closed, head falling forward periodically as he dozes. His mind conjures up images of trekking over the hills, falling in holes, and searching for a face that constantly eludes him.
It's the scream of a jet engine that snaps him awake, and to his feet in an instant. No sooner has the RAF jet screeched past than his wingman follows on his tail, low enough for the pilot to be visible in the cockpit. The sound blast is deafening and echoes across the hills shattering the tranquillity, and sending flocks of birds streaming into the sky. Moonwatcher covers his ears and cowers as the aircraft shoot north, skimming the top of the Shalloch summit over which he had ridden earlier.

He takes the long descent of the Shalloch, through dense forest to Glentrool, at a leisurely pace; freewheeling most of the way. When gaps permit, he stops frequently to take in the view.
At the road end, he opts to turn right for Bargrennan and the 'House o' Hill' pub. He makes it just in time to secure a pint and a bar lunch, before afternoon closing. The 'House o' Hill' is a favourite haunt of his. On previous visits to the area, riding in from Newton Stewart in the south, or Girvan in the north, he's made a point of stopping here. The pub is old, probably a coaching inn at one time. Its thick, stone walls give giving a feeling of history.

The topic of conversation at the bar is a forest fire currently raging south of here, in the Talnotry area. A couple of men, faces smeared with soot and dirt, dressed in dirty, stained boiler suits reeking of the acrid smell of ash and smoke, regale the barman and local worthies with tales of flames, smoke and destruction.
Moonwatcher places his already half-empty pint tumbler on top of the fruit machine, and fumbles in the pockets of his shorts for coins to feed into the slot. Three oranges reward him with a handful of tokens, before the barman calls him over to collect his meal.
"Fish and chips?" the big man checks, before handing over a small oval basket lined with a paper napkin. In the basket is a large piece of fried, battered haddock, lying atop a mound of chips.
"Yeah, thanks." says Moonwatcher, as he accepts the food.
"There's cutlery and sauce n' stuff at the end of the bar." the barman points. "Cycle far?"
"Came down from Croy, over the Shalloch." replies Moonwatcher, as he heads in the direction of the tray containing the knives and forks.
"Fair caught the sun, son." says an old timer on a stool.
Moonwatcher looks down at his legs, then his arms. Their redness looks ominous.
"Hmm. Reckon ye might be right there, mate. It was pretty hot up there today." he says before making his way over to the far side of the bar, where empty tables sit in front of cushioned bench seats against the walls.
"No half as hoat as the heat up at the foarest fire." says one of the volunteer fire fighters, slightly annoyed at losing the spotlight and keen to get back to recounting his exploits.

As he sits down, the extent of the sunburn makes itself know known. The bottom edge of his shorts irritate the front of thighs, crimson and hot to the touch. His arms are little better. The removal of his watch revealing reveals a brilliant white band of skin around his wrist. He needs no mirror to know that the back of his neck completes the set. As he eats his 'meal in a basket', he's glad that he had resisted the temptation to take off his shirt, earlier in the day.

Before he's finished eating, the inn's golden labrador comes mooching. Feeding it a couple of chips - hoping in the hope that it'll go on its its way - proves to be a mistake, and it sits staring and drooling, waiting for more. The barman eventually calls the dog behind the bar, allowing Moonwatcher to swallow the last remnants of his lunch in peace.
A large laminated Ordnance Survey map dominates the opposite wall, and he goes over to take a look. Kneeling on the seat to peer closely, he homes in on his present location, easily identifiable by the worn patch caused by countless fingers touching the spot where the inn was once shown.
His eyes follow the road along to the east: Glentrool Village, Minnoch Bridge, Loch Trool, Caldons. Then upwards, to the irregular whorls of tight contour lines depicting the rugged hill country.
Downing flat dregs of beer from the glass, he returns the tumbler and basket to the bar. The place is nearly empty now; just the old timer sitting on the stool and the barman drying glasses from at the sink. "Thanks!" calls the barman as Moonwatcher heads for the door.

The coolness of the bar is sorely missed, as bike and rider set off down the road towards Glentrool; shorts rubbing painfully on thighs with each turn of the pedals.

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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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