Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 8 May 18, 2022
An unusual but (generally) pleasant evening required hotfooting it back to the Loch House Farm campsite as the rains rushed in. It showered, off and on all night, but my new ZPacks duplex performed. It starts getting light around 5, so I got an earlier start on the day’s walk — 32 official km on a flat canal path. I’m ready for some variety and to get off this pavement which is really hamburgering my feet. The early start meant grabbing some fresh rolls and an orange drink from a local convenience store (with the usual parade of folks stopping to buy a newspaper—something I really enjoy), then stretching out on what was essentially the same walk as yesterday.
The main difference is that this part of the trail crosses the fall line dividing Edinburgh and Glasgow. Most people know what incredible engineers the Scots are and those who are unaware of that need only walk this part of the National Trail (Union Canal Way). The subtle but overwhelming evidence is that, for all these km out of Edinburgh I’ve been walking for two days, I’ve passed 50+ bridges, and only later today did I pass a lock. Basically the canal’s engineers built a perfectly level canal the distance from Edinburgh to Falkirk— more than 30 miles as flat as a spirit level. The fall line brings a different story and the drop is considerable. On the Edinburgh side today I passed a three- lock sequence, with a boat just commencing the process, and then came to the Falkirk Wheel— a 21st century old-fashioned engineering marvel that takes the place of 11 traditional locks by swinging a piece of the canal up on a giant wheel, whisking canalboat and canal up 35 meters in 5 minutes. The only way to understand is through the picture below (I was lucky that it was in action when I arrived this morning).
Apart from the engineering, today brought a couple of interesting encounters including a woman insisting that the worms wriggling on the pavement were leeches— I can neither deny nor confirm the report, only to verify that there were wriggling creatures on the pavement wet with last night’s rain. Later I passed a man in hiking gear with a day pack walking in the same direction with purpose. He had a fascinating rough, thick countenance like a character from an old movie. He asked where I was heading— I gave the usual Cape Wrath eventually but to X for the day answer. Today’s X is Kilsyth which I pronounced “kill sith”. He said you mean “kill syth” (rhymes with Blythe). Grateful for the correction. A bit later I passed a fit middle aged couple and for the first time someone asked me if I was on my way to Cape Wrath. The Scottish National Trail is a fairly new route and most people down here aren’t thinking someone is walking the length of the country (unless it’s someone walking Lands End to John O’Groat). Apparently most people try not to think about the Cape Wrath Way. Was refreshing to talk to someone who understood the magnitude of the trek and expressed enthusiasm.
The other encounter on the path wasn’t with a human but rather a swan. All this trek I keep bumping into swans on the edge of the path or in the water, and I always think of William Butler Yeats’s “Wild Swans at Coole”—“But now they drift on the still water/ Mysterious, Beautiful”— or his brutal “Leda and the Swan”: “Being so caught up,/So mastered by the brute blood of the air,/Did she put on his knowledge with his power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” The latter poem prompts a healthy respect regarding the possible violence that swans can inflict, so I circle them on paths warily. But today a swan in the air rushed past, flying down the middle of the canal, and I was immediately taken back to 2015 and the New Zealand Te Araroa trail. The full day is detailed here—https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/te-araroa-walking-south-with-the-spring/day-28-2 — but I quote the swan scene here “I got half-way across the dyke, smiling at the sun drying all the stuff on my back, when from nowhere along comes a hail storm, which ultimately got to pea-sized, then the lightening began to strike on either side, like an artillery detachment determining range, and there I was, the only elevated upright figure anywhere nearby. The thunder was accompanied by the honking clatter of swans– a pair of black ones in the river beside me who were unsettled by the crack and boom. One took flight, the muscular effort to raising that bulk so it was just skimming above the water, going up the narrow channel as if it were a landing strip.” This is all just to say the notion of a graceful swan is a misnomer— they are powerful, intimidating, and ultimately supernatural creatures, something I glimpsed in that flight today.
The day’s hike wound down at the Auchinstarry marina, before turning up to Kilsyth for dinner and a bed. There were rows of canal boats on the water, one classic one was occupied by two older women talking on the small deck to the fore. Next to them was a brown spaniel, head on the rail looking longingly at the water just there below him. I settled into my room, treated the wounds my feet have suffered by the hard pavement on the canal path, then wandered to the Scarecrow Pub for pints and a prawn, chorizo and blood-pudding salad— delicious.
T. Hugh Crawford