The Grey Man




Shape clay into a vessel -
     It is the space within that gives it value.
Place doors and windows in a house -
     It is the opening that brings light within.
Set spokes within a wheel -
     It is the emptiness of the hub that makes them useful.
Therefore, be the space at the center.
Be nothing, and you will have everything to give to others.

The Caldons

As the two cycles approach each other, it becomes clear they'll meet on the 'rumbling bridge'. Like a sentry, the narrow bridge, guards the only route across the stream, and therefore, access to and from the woodland campsite. It owes it's its nickname to the rumbling noise made by the wheels of vehicles trundling over the logs from which it's constructed.
As he nears the centre, of the bridge, Moonwatcher draws up, keeping the bike upright by holding on to the chest high, timber side rail. His toes are still wedged in the pedals, which he idly rotates backwards, gaining a curious satisfaction from the sound of the clicking freewheel. He waits for the figure on the Moulton cycle to draw alongside. He knows the rider from previous visits and is pleased when the oncoming cyclist raises a hand and extends a greeting.
"Howdy pardner! Welcome again to the Caldons." calls the Ranger.
As the small-wheeled bicycle comes to a stop beside its large-wheeled cousin, it's clear that both the bike and its rider, are unconventional.
Dressed in khaki shorts, and short-sleeved khaki shirt, the Forestry Commission badge stitched to the breast pocket leaves no doubt that he is the man in charge. The badge could well have been a tin star with the word 'Sheriff' inscribed on it. If so, it would have complemented the wide brimmed Stetson shading the man's eyes from the glaringly hot afternoon sun.
"Haven't seen you here for a while, feller." the Ranger drawls; removing his cowboy hat and running his forearm over his sweat-sheened brow.
"Nope, but it's good to be back. Got room for a wee tent?" asks Moonwatcher, finding it difficult not to break into cowboyisms in the presence of this man.
"Sure have! You know the score; just pick a spot, a reasonable distance from your nearest neighbour. Office is closed for now, but you can book in tomorrow. How long you sticking around for?"
"Dunno. A few days at least. Intend doing some hill walking and touring."
"Fair enough." The Ranger nods, running his eyes over the visitor's bike. "You're fair packin a load there kid."
"Yeah. Cycle-camping tends to attract a fair bit of gear." replies Moonwatcher, turning in the saddle, and looking at the bags and paraphernalia strapped to the bike.
"How's your steed holding out?" he asks, diverting attention to the cult bike, astride which, the Ranger sits.
The man in khaki pats the Moulton's handlebar fondly.
"Oh she's holdin out just fine. Okay for what I ask of her. Gets me around the site better than I could on foot, or in the Land-Rover."
With that, he returns the Stetson to his head and prepares to push off.
"Just headin down to Glentrool. Catch you later."
"Yeah. See you."
The riders part company; the Moulton heading off towards the road, and Moonwatcher over the noisy bridge and through the trees into the neat, grassy expanse of the Caldons site.

The Caldons Camp Site

The natural woodland of the Caldons: ancient oaks, birch, ash and alder provides a refreshing change from the monotonous lines of dense, uniform conifers that have dominated the scenery for so much of his journey. It lies at the southern end of Loch Trool which, like most Scottish lochs, owes its its existence to the glaciers that carved it out, several millennia ago.
Glacial streams that flowed under the glaciers deposited large boulders and debris, that remain strewn across the floor of the woodlands.

As he rides into the main area of the campsite, he's not surprised to see clusters of caravans, camper vans, large frame tents as well as small ridge and dome tents.
Children amuse themselves on the grass, laughing, playing ball games, riding bicycles, and fishing for minnows in the large stream that flows through the camp, and into the mouth of the loch. Adults, in various states of undress, sit on deck chairs or lie on the grass, sunning themselves.
He pedals slowly around the perimeter, looking for a quiet spot away from the general throng. A van, sitting alone in an centrally exposed area of grass, catches his attention. Moonwatcher steers the bike off the path onto the grass, freewheeling over to what is obviously, an old converted ambulance. Riding slowly around it in a circle, he identifies it as an old Morris 'wagon'; angular, all signage removed, and painted cream and pale blue It appears unoccupied at present, but professional curiosity prompts him to make a mental note to speak to the owner later. He wants to find out more about its history, and maybe even have a look inside.
Having reconnoitred the whole site, he ends up almost back where he started, near the 'rumbling bridge', at a secluded spot amongst the trees. A small footbridge nearby, conveniently leads over the water to the shower and toilet block on the other side.
He feels tired and sluggish as he dismounts. Propping the bike against a tree, he begins to unpack his gear. His stomach feels a bit queasy, and doubts over about his recent pub meal begin to creep into his mind.

The tent which he pulls from one of the pannier bags, lacks the sophistication of other small tents on the site. Spreading it out on the grass, he sets about erecting his home for the next few days. It has no flysheet or ridge pole, but at least boasts a sewn-in groundsheet. The blue canvas is supported by two poles, each in two sections, which, in the absence of a ridge pole, need to be held taught taut by opposing guy ropes, to prevent it sagging in the centre.
He's conscious that, as the fierce heat of the afternoon diminishes and early evening approaches, the midges will be taking to the air on their frenzied raids for blood. Swarms of them. They in no way pose the same threat to life, as their larger mosquito cousins, but when literally thousands of them descend, the results can be distressing and extremely uncomfortable. Some people react quite badly, their skin coming out in red blotches, and even sores for days after an attack. Others are less bothered, but most agree that midges are the scourge of the Scottish countryside in summertime.
There is one school of thought, however, who consider them guardians of the wilderness; discouraging settlement, and keeping human numbers down. Midges dislike hot, direct sun and the coolness of night, so in weather like this, early mornings and evenings are their usual hunting periods. They make the most of it!
Moonwatcher wants the tent up, and things organised ,before the wee buggers come out to play.

As he fumbles around, putting the poles into position - the tent being no more than a canvas bag, at his this stage - he first feels the headache. It's stifling inside the canvas, and he is sweating bullets.
Once the poles are in position, he attaches the nylon guys, hammers pins into the hard ground with a round stone from the stream and tightens the runners. He's, glad to be back out in the fresh, albeit hot, air.
The tent rises from the ground and takes shape. But the headache is blinding now, and he feels dizzy. He takes a break; sitting with his back against the trunk of a huge oak. Its old, gnarled branches, reaching out above him, provide some degree of shade over for his newly pitched camp.
As he drinks from his water bottle, and swats the odd, early, over-zealous midge, he feels nauseous. He is not sweating now; he feels as though he's burning up.
"This is not good!" he thinks to himself, knowing enough to recognise the early symptoms of heatstroke. The realisation sends him rummaging in the saddlebag at his side. Locating a pack of aspirin, he swallows two. His sunburned skin is hot, aching and angry red. His eyes squint in the sunlight. It hurts! He feels terrible.
The eEvents of the day replay in his mind: the heat, the strenuous climb up to Shalloch, not drinking enough, the pint of beer at the 'House o' Hill'. A pint of water would've been better. Hindsight.
He curses to himself. Knowing he must act fast, he rises unsteadily to his feet; clutching his now empty water bottle.

Staggering like a drunk, across the footbridge towards the shower block, he is unaware of anyone; he doesn't care. The interior coolness of the brick and concrete building is welcoming.
He makes his way hastily to the nearest toilet, where he loses the basket-lunch consumed earlier. Then into a shower cubicle, where he strips off and turns on the water; frantically twisting the knob counter-clockwise into the blue zone and feeling the icy water run through his hair and over his bare shoulders. It's a shock!
He turns up the flow and stands for a few minutes as his external body temperature begins to drop, and he starts to shiver. He sinks to the floor, his teeth start to chatter, and he wraps his arms around himself. He needs to think; stay focused. He knows what to do.
Next steps: fluid intake, out of the sun, rest.
Rising to his feet, he turns off the water. Still shivering, he puts on his shirt and shorts - both damp from spray - and makes his way over to the mirrors above the wash-hand basins. His reflection confirms what he already knows. As he fills his water bottle, he looks around, and sees a large empty lemonade bottle in the waste bin. Rinsing it out, he fills that too with water, taking a drink from it before topping it up.
He has dried out by the time he reaches the tent, and the shivering has all but stopped. From his bag, he removes a folded nylon 'survival' blanket. With a shiny silver surface on one side, it has an eyelet on each corner, through which he quickly ties lengths of guy rope. Then, silver surface facing out, he drapes the blanket over one side of the tent - the side facing the sun - and secures it in place. The makeshift flysheet will reflect deflect the sunlight, and keep the interior of the tent cool.
Grabbing the sleeping bag from the remaining pannier, he unfurls it out on to the floor. Crawling inside, he quickly zips the front flaps closed behind him, against the midges. He swallows another couple of aspirin, takes a good slug of water, then curling up in a ball on top of the sleeping bag, he closes his eyes.

The headache continues for a while. How long? He cant can't tell. The nausea passes, but the shivering comes and goes. He drifts in and out of a fitful sleep. Dreams come and go. Crazy dreams. Dreams that make no sense. In the distance, he can hear rumbling, like thunder. Wheels on logs. He dreams of bridges, bikes and mountains. Each time he wakes, he drinks from his supply.
At one point he opens his eyes, and is shocked to find himself in darkness! Disoriented; it's a few moments before he realises where he is, and that night has fallen. He can't believe it's been that long; has no idea of the time.
"How could I have been so stupid?" he mutters.
He is cold now; so struggles into the sleeping bag, zips it up, and sleeps.

Moonwatcher awakes to a world of blue. Sunlight, shining through the canvas, bathes the inside of the tent. As he blinks and takes stock of how he feels, he becomes aware of a slight humming sound, low down around the tent. Midges! A quick check shows no sign of them inside.
Droplets of condensation trickle down the fabric, and drip on to the sleeping bag as he props himself up, yawns and rubs his eyes. His watch shows the time as six-thirty. He feels better. Not right. But a lot better. His head aches as though hung over, his arms and legs feel weak, sunburned skin tender, but it's the thirst that bothers him most. A fumble to the side of the sleeping bag locates the two bottles - both empty. The saddlebag lies at his feet, near the zipped-up entrance where he dumped it in haste yesterday afternoon.
Confident now that he's on the mend, he struggles out of the sleeping-bag, and kneels, while extracting a towel and washing stuff from the saddlebag. He finds the Mars Bar from the previous day, now solidified and misshapen; decides he's not ready for breakfast yet.
Clutching his toiletries and water bottle, he prepares to leave the tent. But he has to be quick, though. At this time of the morning, the midges will be swarming in the shaded parts of the tent, low down near the ground. Once they sense his presence, smell blood, they'll be on him. Without hesitation, he unzips the entrance flap, crawls out onto cold morning-wet grass, turns around and closes the flap, then walks off smartly towards the footbridge. The midges do not follow.
He still feels a bit shaky, but the walk to the shower block, in the early morning sunshine, is pleasant. The heat of the sun has yet to build up; the air is fresh and cool at this hour. The camp is quiet. He stands on the footbridge for a few moments, leaning over the wooden rail, watching and listening to the stream gurgle it's its way over the rocks, pebbles and gravel that attempt to block it's progress.
He takes a couple of deep breaths, then moves on before the midges home in.

There will be no cycling this day.
Once the sun is up, he contents himself at his campsite. In the shade of the old oak, he reads a little, dozes, drinks water. Earlie,r he'd booked in for three days, stocked up with supplies from the shop, and had a breakfast of cereal and some fruit. Now, lunchtime, appetite returning, he's got the stove on the go, and sausages sizzle in a frying pan, borrowed from the Ranger's wife. Evening finds him strolling towards the old wood, pipe in mouth, tired, but very much back to his old self.

The path through the wood twists and turns between ancient trees and fallen branches. Gnarled roots threaten to trip the unwary. The scents of the cool woodland are refreshing, the birdsong uplifting and the rustling of leaves overhead, soothing.
Moonwatcher knows the path well. Knows that if he follows it all the way, it will bring him out on the other side of the wood, into an open area of moor. After that, it plunges into the conifer forest, eventually to emerge near Minnoch Bridge on the Glentrool road. But he has no intention of walking that far.
He nods to a family returning from a walk along the same route; their young children screaming and shouting, as they play hide and seek between the trees. Peace descends once more as they recede into the distance behind him.
The path takes a sharp turn to the left and dissolves into a patch of squelchy bog. Strategically placed stepping stones lead to a four-sided stone enclosure. After gingerly making his way across the bog, a stone step allows him to stand and look over the square wall into the space, and the monument it conceals. The erect stone slab in the centre of the enclosure bears weathered engraving. The inscription, covering both it's sides, reads ...


The stone commemorates the death, and subsequent martyrdom, of six Covenanters who were killed at this spot nearly 300 years earlier. On a cold Sunday morning in January, the men were holding a secret prayer meeting within the sanctuary of Caldons Wood, not realising that one Captain Urquhart had entered the 'Glen of Troul' with a squad of dragoons; extermination on his mind.
Finding the men at prayer in this hidden clearing, his troops shot them. One Covenanter escaped, running off into the undergrowth, and, on reaching the loch side, waded in up to his neck and hid in the reeds.

It is said that Captain Urquhart met his own death shortly afterwards, while he and his men were scouring the wood, and nearby loch-side, for the escapee. Seemingly, for many years he had harboured a fear - the result of something once said to him by way of a prophecy - that he would die 'among the Chaldaeans'. At the time, he had laughed it off, saying that he was unlikely to ever find himself among this Biblical race of people.
Now, as he rode past the edge of the loch during the search, a shot rang out, and he fell to the ground mortally wounded. As he lay dying, he asked one of his men ...
"What is the name of this place?"
"Caldons." the trooper replied.
"The prophecy!" Urquhart muttered, then died.

Looking around the clearing, Moonwatcher tries to imagine the scene that morning. Men kneeling, bibles in hand, wisps of their breath drifting in the cold winter air, as they softly recite verses from the pages.
Then shouts. Panic. Screaming. Shots echoing through the trees. Bloodied bodies and bibles falling, as musket balls tear through flesh and strike vital organs.

He turns his attention, once again, to the memorial stone. Now he visualises a man dressed in 18th-Century clothing, the garb of a stonemason. Crouched down on this very spot, chiselling the letters on the stone's hard surface. A small white pony, laden with the tools and materials of the his trade, stands tethered to a branch nearby.
The stonemason's name is Robert Paterson; well known for his distinctive style, and the quality of his work. Robert harbours an obsession - to maintain the memory of the Covenanters. Some believe that he's descended from those who died in incidents, similar to those which happened, here at the Caldons. As his hammer and chisel chip away, the tapping, clinking noise resounding through the trees, he is pleased as his monument takes shape; the names emerging from the stone. This is his firsts first memorial to the Covenanters. In years to come, he'll travel this wild land of Ayrshire, Galloway and Carrick; a wandering craftsman, seeking out the spots where men of the Covenant died. He'll erect stones in their memory, chisel their names on the surfaces. Then he'll visit them regularly, care for them, clean them of moss and algae, repair the lettering when necessary. A labour of love.

Sir Walter Scott met this stonemason at some point, and, captivated by the man and his quest, made him a character in one of his novels. Robert Paterson was destined to become 'Old Mortality' in the book of the same title.

If Moonwatcher could see into the future as well as he could visualise the past, he'd be saddened to discover that, in a little over ten years, the stone he now admires will be vandalised; ultimately to be removed from the site, moved the safety of the local museum in Newton Stewart to be restored, and replaced by a replica.

As he wanders back through the oak wood to an early night in the tent, his thoughts linger on the men who died here, and on the old stonemason who trod this same path, while wandering the country, caring for his beloved monuments.

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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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