It’s 6.30 in the morning and I’m roused by the cries of geese far overhead. Looking outside, there’s a skein flying high east to west, then circling west to east. I go back into the cabin and the boat gently rolls.
Shortly after, Bob the Reaper starts his boat engine. Truth is, Bob’s anything but grim – it’s just that we don’t know his last name - so in our own fashion we call him after the name of his boat, a converted fisher. He’s heading east today too; it’s the end of summer. The smell of frying bacon fills the air.
Went by river-boat down to harbour
writes Basho in 1689, after leaving the castle town of Tsuru-ga-oka. If we were to go along the river here, to get to Glen Fruin, we’d either need to moor at Rhu and walk or pull in at Faslane, which of course is forbidden.
And that assumes that our old boat with no keel would make it that far over the sandbanks and hidden bars of the Clyde and down Gare Loch. So meeting Peter at Bowling station we three - Peter Manson, Morven Gregor and myself - set off for Glen Fruin in the red Toyota.
It’s a dreich day and getting wetter the further west we head. At the junction to the Glen a police car turns out and heads along the fence line of Faslane towards the southern gate of the nuclear submarine base. We’re to see this landrover at intervals throughout the day.
Peter, not having been here before, wants to see as much of the glen as possible. And it’s a gentle, quiet west highland glen, hard on the Highland Fault line – or one at any rate, since there are several named faults just here – but running cross-wise to them all.
We walk from the cross roads at the head of the glen, past Tam na Voulin, the hill of the mill now represented by a one and a half storey cottage with a small wind turbine at its gable end. We head up towards Drumfad talking of plants: the tormentil, fleabane, bittersweet, eyebright; and of the birds above us, buzzards and heron, with a goldcrest making a shining appearance.
Peter has no hat and I’m reminded of the small Alan Jackson poem – a version of Basho in his own inimitable way:
Cauld rain fallin
an nae hat
News had come in over the radio a couple of days before our walk of Eddie Morgan’s death. We agree to some way make a dedication of the day to him. Every Saturday lunchtime Morven switches on the radio to listen to the programme that’s allegedly about football: Off the Ball. Though when I’m around, there seems always to be a beautifully irreverent discussion of the word of the week and maybe an invented football team, using the names of footballers to make up, say, the jewellers’ eleven. We’d saved up a couple of week’s words and I use them now together in a way which would surely have delighted Eddie: bawbag zeitgeist – evoking the political times we’re in.
Morven slips away and comes back with a single cep. Lichens and mosses are lush here. We talk of the bistort and redleg which Peter has also seen in the city at Maryhill in pavement cracks.
At the cross roads, near the cross slabs, all that remains of a chapel that once was hereabouts dedicated to St Bride, I make tea. There’s a slight improvement in the weather – that is it’s not constant rain. Liking my tea fresh, I use the Kelly kettle, a sort of water bottle with a hollow middle in which it’s possible to make a fire on the wettest days with a couple of pine cones or twigs. A volcano effect with water all round it. Tinkers used to make these for fishermen in Lough Corrib in Galway, and the Kellys, father and son, presented them to the world. Water boiled, I pour it into the English porcelain teapot. The tea is Chinese - Liu An Gua Pian - sent through the post by Eck. I’d ladled it with a wee plastic teaspoon, a gift from Takaya when he visited with genmaicha and beanpaste sweets. We have the Japanese sweets, and the full round of Morven’s home baked orange cake. The tea has a near dulse seaweed tang. I eat my meal back to front, like whoever it was in Alice in Wonderland, so now start on the cheese rolls and a dram of whisky (Nikka Pure Black Malt; also sent by Eck). Once in this Parish, whisky drinking was a pastime, with seventeen whisky shops in the now douce village of Rhu alone; Gaelic the tongue of the farmers. All that remains is my own garbled chatter and this Japanese whisky. Peter declines a shot, and the weather has again become too wet for any passersby to share it with, so Morven and I drink from wee glasses with stags etched on them: the only sight we’re likely to get of deer today with the hills under cloud.
I sprinkle the last of the water from the bottle, a sort of blessing for the godless, and refill it with Fruin water. The long stems of yarrow here would make fine rods for divination we think, as we discuss the I Ching or as old Ez had it the Yi King. Changes the glen has seen.
We continue along to visit the cross slabs, which are stuck in the wall at the roadside by what was once the schoolhouse. There’s a visible cross on one; a Latin type cross dating back to the late 15th century perhaps; similar to the Keills slabs in not too distant Knapdale, which then would have been easily accessible by sea if not overland.
Slowly along the glen north and west past the site of St Bride’s chapel past West Kilbride and Duirland farm, Blairnairn and the burial ground at Ballevoulin, weather ever wetter as we move along single track roads over cattle grids alongside dripping cattle and eager sheep.
At the head of the glen the memorial stone marks one of the last clan battles in Scotland:
The Battle of Glenfruin
was fought between
and Clan Gregor on
7th February 1603
Tell it which way you like, and Morven tells it her way, the rout of the Colquhouns by the fewer Gregor men, with scores of dead Colquhouns, (a seer had urged the Gregors on, saying he saw shrouds of the dead wrapped round their opponents) the battle led directly to the dispossession of the Gregors:
“On 3 April 1603, an Act of the Privy Council proscribed the use of the names Gregor or MacGregor, and prohibited those who had borne the names from carrying arms. The execution of the Act was entrusted to commissioners who were men of power, chiefly to Campbell in the west and Murray of Atholl in the east. The hunt was on and prosecuted with extraordinary venom. Hounds were used to track the Gregarach and no mercy was shown. Warrants for their extermination were put on public sale as though they were game to be killed for sport. Their women were branded on the cheek, their homes burned, their livestock and possessions carried off, their families left destitute.”
Right beside this memorial is a former Admiralty Research Laboratory which included a water entry tank for testing bombs and torpedoes in the 1939 – 1945 war. The workshops and other buildings are shrouded on the inside of the wire fences with sheets of cloth to prevent prying eyes from seeing the war games that are played out there now.
Walking along the MOD road we talk again of the elegant little eyebright and arnica and of Paul Celan’s visit to Martin Heidegger: the Jew, survivor of forced labour camps, calling at the mountain hut of the Nazi philosopher, wanting only an explanation, but getting none.
Celan signed the visitor’s book at the hut and the two walked, Celan impressing Heidegger with his knowledge of botany.
In his poem Todtnauberg (the place where Heidegger’s hut stood) Celan wrote:
“ . . .
—whose name did it record
before mine — ?
in this book
the line about
a hope, today,
for a thinker's
in the heart
. . .”
The little MOD road leads directly to the A817, along which tourists drive - the road that’s been named the most scenic in Scotland - unaware that it’s a military bypass road, known as the Glen Fruin Haul Road, which goes from the A82, up the glen above us and over the top of the hills to HMNB Clyde at Garelochhead. It was originally built along with the Garelochhead Bypass Road in order to directly link Coulport and Faslane to the A82 road in order to permit easy transportation of warheads to the naval base from the Atomic Weapons Establishment. It’s here we find a spent ‘Rocket Hand Fired Para Illuminating L12A2’. At the road end the MOD notice reads that we may be arrested by any military personnel whatever, and imprisoned.
There is no shooting on the ranges in the Danger Zone above us today; no red flags. Rain a distinct feature of the day, but eagle-eyed Morven has discovered some fine larch bolete. I carry them in my green knitted hat and examine them intently as the Police cruise by again.
At the top, west past the head of the glen there’s more evidence of war games: spent bullet cases and a fox hole for hiding soldiers. Morven had wondered if it might be a man trap or maybe latrine. Exquisite views of the Arrochar alps and away to the west, Arran; mists draping the mountains in the trail of rainclouds, lifting a little, a green patch lit by sun on the flank of a far-off hill.
We tie a label to an iron bar on which I write a line stolen from the nearby notice leading to the pit and bullet cases, which lets us know we have no rights here – MOD land:
access may be excluded
and on the other side of the label
Property of MOD
We walk back along our tracks and move on down to the other side of the hill. In the road there’s a cattle grid and two large signs on the gate put there I’m sure by a local farmer which read
Faslane can be seen in the distance immediately above them.
We sit on a wee bench there, silent, staring at Faslane and its enormity. Morven and I take another dram of whisky and we all three have a slice of Morven’s orange cake.
At my feet lies a SIMULATOR BATTLE SOUND L35A1 casing.
Going down through woodland spotting ceps; then finding more and more and deeper and deeper into the wet woodlands for the chanterelles growing by the banks of the wee burn by Little Balernock farm, past bunkers and depots dug into the hill. It’s here on an overhanging oak branch we tie a paper wish. There is only one thing to wish for.
Little Balernock is now a ruin with nothing of its flower garden left, its roof fallen, its asbestos roofed byre and cludgie fallen in too. Bright blue indestructible washing line engulfed by the growth of the garden willow tree, red windowsills, white foxgloves the colour of peace hiding from the road behind the hedgerow; there’s a black plastic packet nailed and cemented to stone.
We make our way out of the glen, in rain, under the west highland rail line, turning south along the eleven kilometres of Faslane razor-wire topped fence.
Back at the boat we drink tea, eat yet more cake and feed the mute swans & their cygnets with our crusts.
At 6:30pm a flight of geese passes overhead, going east again, barking & changing formation – or, Morven asks - are those Bewick swans & I think they are . . .
The only thing that I wrote in my notebook during the walk that isn’t totally factual is the two lines:
second ghost thoughts
the first lost
There are plenty of Gregor and Colquhoun ghosts in Glen Fruin, if that’s your way of thinking, as well as the old lost illicit stills and the language of the men who made the whisky, the shades of the birches and oaks which once wooded the glen, but I can’t now remember why I wrote those two lines.
About a month before our walk, though we were planning it at that time, Peter mentioned an old family photograph of his. I guess we had been talking on a related topic, almost certainly plants and trees; when Peter and I get together, the talk is of whatever’s enthusing us at that moment as well as the work in hand.
Peter later that day sent me two images from his family album: “Doon Well in Donegal -- the two photographs of it, probably from the 1930s, are incredibly ghostly (the trees look almost like people in mummy-wrappings walking in the background). Mary McGettigan at the top is, I think, one of my mother's aunts, and I'm not sure who the lady in the lower photo is.”
I had looked at the images before reading the email and saw only ghosts behind the two women.
After the walk, we began writing up our notes towards a poem of the day. Morven emailed her thoughts and among them: “In the following weeks at Willowbank, I’m meant to be tidying; my Dad’s old cameras, his Pop’s old photos, my old photo albums. In there a teenage picnic in Glen Fruin – posing and trying to be cool – all I’d remembered was the charcoaled sausages and their pink insides. Chase away the ghosts, another walk.”
The past walks with us in Glen Fruin as elsewhere.
our silent love
wanders in Glen Fruin
footsteps and witnesses
glen of rain
glen of fast water
the glen with two roads
my living room
where the white hind has
glen of drizzle
involving the Griorach
fixed point of the hills
glen of smirr
sound of water: battle sound shell
from anodised garscube poppies
to meet eyebright, stalking yarrow
in this glen of not yet quite ruin
glen of bouncing rain
by a person acting
under and in accordance with
any authority or permission given …
shall be an offence against these byelaws”
we took turns making tea
for each other
in the woods
spore & stone
& song engines
only the fossil
animals were harmed
glen of soaking
the road upward
at our absolute whim
glen of puddles
she follows my gaze
over her shoulder
to hillside bunkers
if it doesn’t move
it’s not a cloud
line of floats demarcating Faslane
bends with the yacht’s wake
a deceptively fluid enclave
at once buzzard & thrush
a peace machine
only our names being born
Drumfad cattle & crows fat
Duirland’s cock pheasant
Ballevoulin snuff coloured tups & steers
fanks of Auchengaich
glen of sheep
too lazy azure
a rose dyed blue
with no us
here for the chirr & rattle
of a starling
slow fall of her song
glen of mist
composed by Morven Gregor, Peter Manson, Gerry Loose (ed), Edwin Morgan, with assistance from the Ministry of Defence.
note: the first italicised lines are from Edwin Morgan's ‘On A City Balcony’; the second set of italicised line are from an MOD notice, Glen Fruin.