Long Way Round
(with no apologies to either Ewan or Charlie)
The 26th Scottish Rally
To say I had never been a gambling man would be a lie; in a previous and far more youthful existence, in a brief stay at Glasgow College of Building and Printing, in a job from which I was later unceremoniously and quite justifiably ejected, I had lost pretty much all of my meagre earnings weekly in a card school, which occupied the three breaks throughout the day. Being a slow learner it took most of the year to realise I was a terrible poker player, and would never win back even a penny. Despite that salutary lesson in hard truths, the fever never left me, but was transferred into a new and equally malign habit of Russian Roulette, of the planning variety.
This interesting sport takes the form of a complete failure to recall where and when you are supposed to be somewhere, the complete inability to locate all the things required for the occasion, and a sullen resistance to route planning. The result is of course predictable, and although there was, to my surprise, nothing of consequence missing from my rally kit, the route plan was of course never created. It's the navigational equivalent of repeatedly sticking your fingers in the fire, and being surprised when they get burned, but as a gambling fix, it beats poker.
I have no defence; it's not as if I'm heading into the tundra or the wastelands of the Arabian deserts. I have to unravel just a few miles of central Scotland, the place where I have lived for all of my 64 years.
The conundrum is that the Mighty Falcone broke last year, and has just been returned to life after some expensive surgery. The required running-in period precludes any opportunity to travel the primary arterial roads (and if we're to be honest, even in it's fully fledged condition, that's no place for the Mighty Falcone), and so it is necessary to plot a course through the spider's web of single track roads that bind the fabric of our fine country together.
The journey starts well enough, with the rebuilt engine chugging merrily along the potholed and gravel strewn byways, and although I miss the turn for Madderty, I manage to recall another one, and don't suffer the embarrassment of yet again retracing my steps a mere few miles from home. I have managed to visualise from the ten second glance at my map the general route to my first destination, and it's with some surprise that I find us swinging down the right road, strewn with vicious potholes, mud and pebbles. The grey clag with which we started the journey turns to rain, and it's of the Scotch Mist variety: what I call wet rain. Much in the same way as the Inuit have dozens of names for snow, the Scots have the same for rain, and there's no doubt, at least in my mind, that Scotch Mist is wetter than other, less wet varieties.
The Scotia (local club's get out on your bike competition) checkpoint is a derelict churchyard, gained via a muddy path, but we burble along unconcerned, suspension creaking over the puddled potholes, and take the required photo-evidence. There's a smell of hot oil, and that's not good. The rocker box has just been replaced,after re-torquing the head, but a quick check demonstrates that I've not forgotten to tighten any of the Allen screws, and the oil feeds also seem secure.
We chug back up the long incline, and force our way through the un-forecast rain. I have the dry visor on, based on the heatwave that was forecast, so it fogs up, and eventually I have to raise it, and the drops tattoo my face with their icy needles. Although limited to a blistering 80 kph, the sudden appearance of an unsigned T-junction results in an impromptu test of the brakes, and we slew to a screeching and slithering halt on the muddy surface, heart pumping furiously. We take a correct left but although I'm sure there's a right turn somewhere, we miss it somehow, and end up forced onto the busy A9, an unfortunate place for a slow motorcycle in camouflage green, but the Bank Holiday traffic is lighter than expected, and we bank onto the next exit with relief.
It is at this point that a mind burp takes over, and we slip onto yet another single track road, bordered by fields of sheep and grass, and open parkland, peppered with broad leafed trees, resplendent in their luminescent fresh green foliage. It looks vaguely familiar, and I begin to recognise some features from a VMCC reliability run we went on last year. I know by this time that it's the wrong road, but the gambling instinct takes over, and I manage to convince myself (in the absence of any evidence to that effect) that there will soon be some turn that directs us rally-wards: and of course there isn't. The sky is so dark that there's no indication of the sun's position, and because the road twists and turns as it follows the landscape, I lose all sense of direction, until, inevitably, I end up back close to where I joined the A9 some time ago. On the plus side, the rain has subsided to a less wet variety. Discarding the option of repeating the trunk road experience, we turn around and head back the way we came. The road always looks different in the other direction anyway, and I congratulate myself over the additional miles rolling onto the odometer. We wave in a friendly fashion at a puzzled rustic, who had stepped onto the verge as we trundled past in the other direction, and eventually find the right route, and familiar roads, stopping at Deanston distillery to take a photo for an American friend who's interested in whisky.
Thornhill is dry, and full of friendly faces, two of whom insist on assisting the old bearded one in putting the tent up, to the accompaniment of Williams Bros. finest bottled ale. My weekend companions turn up, and despite this being the year after the 25th Anniversary event, the site doesn't seem any less full, with campsite and wigwams peppered with bikes. Not only Guzzis either, and I discover a few Harleys, a pre-unit Triumph and Model 19 Norton in amongst the crowd of transverse V-Twins, within which the Mighty Falcone hides coyly, blending into the grass.
An excellent meal at the Lion & Unicorn, washed down with Belhaven IPA (which is not at all like any IPA I've ever tasted) sets the mood for the night ahead in the hall, without the intrusion of a band, giving the opportunity to meet new people and enjoy the craic. I find no fewer than three Nuovo Falcone owners, and run into a gentleman I've been corresponding with on a Harley forum for fifteen years or so, but never met. It's not clear what he made of the drunken ramblings, but I eventually find his contact details written on a napkin, folded carefully in my panniers the day after we get home.
It's a late night, but suitably anaesthetised by Harviestoun Ales and more than a few whiskies I manage to both locate my tent, and wriggle into the bag without mishap, and drift into a dreamless slumber. Of course I'm awakened at a most unsociable hour by all those who had taken a more mature approach to Friday, and who are bustling around, making breakfast, firing their bikes up and all those other things that blight the sleep of late night revellers. I crawl out of the tent onto wet grass, to discover that the forecast heatwave has not arrived. This is a familiar outcome to those of us who reside in a Scotland that is largely forgotten by weather presenters, whose vision seems to stop somewhere around Birmingham. The sky is low and grey, with rain in the air, and a brisk breeze cuts through to the skin. Over to the East though, there's a dull red glow on the horizon (Mordor?) and another bright patch in the middle distance that looks like sun.
Undaunted, I rake through my scattered belongings, locate a toothbrush and some clothes, in an unsuccessful attempt to achieve a more presentable appearance, before forcing two bacon rolls and a large tea onto a decidedly queasy stomach. Back at the camp, my companions have fired up their Kelly kettle which has already consumed their entire wood stock, and is struggling on with twisted and slightly damp newspaper which keeps going out. Adopting my finest frontiersman persona, I make a trip to the adjacent woodland, and return with a bundle of dry pine twigs, which maintains the boiling water sufficiently for more tea all round.
Suitably warmed, and beginning to feel at least half human, I decide to seek the sun, and head east to the lands of my childhood. The bike thuds contentedly along the back roads towards Stirling, passing that tiny bright spot where the sun has burnt an equally tiny hole in the dense clouds, and chooses the steep hair-pinned route up to the Castle, before chattering down the granite setts and Carron Co. cannons of Broad St. to Stirling Bridge (Wallace: 1 - Earl of Surrey: Nil) and over to the Ochils. Last year's single heated over-grip has disappeared in much the same way as its partner, to some mysterious corner of my packed garage, so there is no warmth to be had, although, oddly, it still feels warmer on the bike than off, the fairing diverting the cold air quite effectively, and the extra layers staving off hypothermia. Despite our Eastwards travel, the dull red glow looks as far away as ever, so we stop for a warming tea in Dollar, before returning via the Sheardale Ridge, where the glaciers scalped the hills to reveal the long defunct coalfields of Clackmannanshire.
Back at the site, the sky has lowered still further, the wind is even more penetrating, and soon the rain arrives. I offer my tent porch to a damp Don, who's making a flying visit, and accept an early invitation to the pub, where a roaring log fire and several pints restore morale. The dining room is fully booked, but we meet some new people, have our meal in the bar, and share the best Knickerbocker Glory I've ever had, before heading back to the hall for the evening's silliness. An excellent Rockabilly band packs the dance floor, the drink flows freely, and the raffle is ably performed. At some point, the stage is filled with rally goers, perpetrating unspeakable atrocities on inflatable dolphins, but what happens at the rally, stays at the rally, right?
Unusually, the raffle winners get to choose their prize, and I'm relieved that the V7 chalk pastel picture I donated doesn't come last.
Despite starting so early, and moving onto the whisky, all of us make it back to camp without assistance (unlike last year), and sleep comes easily: as does wakefulness, as the sun punches through the flimsy canvas. The hangover's not too bad, but I can't face breakfast, and make do with a handful of nuts (part of the Essential Rally Supplies kit), washed down with one of the many bottles of water which, uncharacteristically, I've managed not to forget.
Sun. It's such a rare occurrence that you need to make the best of it, so I spend a few hours basking in it while the alcohol levels subside, then fire the bike up for another mystery tour.
The obvious route from Thornhill is the Duke's Pass, but it's Bank Holiday, and it will be full of holidaymakers and best avoided. Following the mantra that all miles are good when you're running-in, I swing a leg over the sprung saddle, and see where the green machine decides to go.
The system is simple; find a wee single track road, and follow it, until a more interesting looking single track road appears. Consequently, you will find here no particular report of where exactly we went, but we did pass by Lake of Mentieth (Scotland's only Lake, and it used to be called Loch of Mentieth; opinions differ on why it was changed in Victorian times) twice, in opposite directions, and there were lots of trees and fields and sheep and blue sky, punctuated by puffy cumulus, floating cheerily towards wherever cumulus choose to go. At some point in the proceedings, we find ourselves on a mysterious road, in that it is not single track. Before we can take steps to avoid this unfortunate miscalculation, we find ourselves embroiled in the traffic chaos that is Callander, on a Bank Holiday Sunday, and so take the first available turn (towards Glasgow) and slew off that artery at the first indication of another single track route. This one is full of pedestrians, walking four abreast across the carriageway, seemingly oblivious to the stentorian bellow from our twin-boom exhaust. Fearing an impending collision, I'm forced to test the horn button, which was last used the previous year at MOT time, and am rewarded with the masculine blast of a cross-channel ferry in the fog. You might imagine that such an event would startle the walkers into some form of panic, or at least encourage a parting of the ways, but they stroll along relentlessly, quite oblivious to their impending doom. Perhaps they don't understand horn in Italian? Enforced application of the brakes engenders a more positive outcome, as the screech from the twin drums (which has so far resisted all attempts to cure) would penetrate the skull of a dervish, and the startled ruminants rotate their owlish heads in horror, beaks agape, as the mounted green machine bears down on them. Not exactly the parting of the Red Sea, but we got through without mishap.
The road meanders gently through mixed woodland, its surface deteriorating with every mile, until we're faced with a dirt track, and an enforced turn over what looks like one of General Wade's bridges, followed by a steep incline up to a T-junction onto what seems to be a main road.
I appear to have entered some kind of worm hole, as we have landed somewhere in the US of A. Every vehicle I meet is a Harley-Davidson, chromium plating and metal-flake gleaming in the sunshine, and the rumble of unmuffled pipes drowning out the feeble burble from the Falcone. I realise it's Sunday, and that I know most of those approaching, whose run I had discarded in favour of a weekend's rallying, so I wave cheerily as they disappear into the reflection of the single mirror. Brig o' Turk approaches, and it becomes obvious that I'm now committed to the Duke's Pass after all. The village is bowfin' with cars, motor homes and buses, and clearly some holiday event is n progress, but the net result is that the Pass itself is remarkably clear of traffic, so we don't hinder the progress of any tractors or horse-drawn vehicles with our escargot-like gait. The oil leak has mysteriously but happily ceased, and as we stop for a rest at the summit, the lochs and glens of the Trossachs spreading to the patchwork of fields below, the rocker box is dry, the heat rising, shimmering in the still air. We descend into Aberfoyle, the exhaust popping on the long over-run, are complimented by a following motorcyclist who draws alongside to ponder this marvel of Italian engineering, and meander our way back to camp, passing Lake of Mentieth for a third time.
The L & U has our custom for a third night (being the only pub in the village has some benefits) and we arrive for the Sunday session suitably fed and lubricated. We've drunk the bar dry of Harviestoun B&T, so have to make do with lesser beers (Schiehallion is a good substitute), and soon move onto whisky to avoid that mid-sleep discomfort that overindulgence in gallons of liquid imparts on the plumbing. The band is good; initially, perhaps too good, and it's more of a concert than a dance. Music to listen to, but either the band or the audience changes subtly as the evening progresses, and the floor becomes full of enthusiastic shapes, slicing the muggy air energetically, and with varying degrees of competence.
As the night draws to a close, and the kitty is emptied, I find myself with a half pint glass full of whisky which is seems a shame to waste, so I don't. This is my only and very poor excuse for attempting to socialise noisily, and partake of a group sing-song with those who were attempting sleep, and for that I apologise, unreservedly. It is the 21st Century fashion to submit apologies unreservedly, usually proffered by indiscrete celebrities and politicians, most of which are characterised by a complete lack of sincerity. But at least I didn't fire my bike up at 2:00 a.m. this year. Be glad of that.
Monday morning is a more sombre affair, although the sun is splitting the pavements as rehydration therapy is applied with gusto, whilst dismantling the chaos of the weekend, and attempting to stuff it all into bags that seem so much smaller than on Friday, but farewells are said, and thanks given to those stalwarts who make it all happen, year on year. There's talk of moving to another venue next time, which would be a shame, as this one works so well, but such is life.
There are many occasions where something good happens, and everyone says, “we must do this again” and they do, and it doesn't work. Chemistry or something doesn't connect, and the event is a mere shadow of what had been envisaged. Somehow, bike rallies don't seem to work that way, and for that we can be very grateful. If you don't own a Moto-Guzzi, I recommend you correct your ways forthwith; just the rallies make it all worthwhile.
Oh, and I didn't get lost on the way home, although the short ride to Perth became a meander through the hills and glens of Big Tree County, taking in another couple of distilleries, another Scotia checkpoint and chugging over Moulin Moor, finally reaching home late evening, just as the odometer's cylinder cranked round to the magic 1000 km. The long way round. It's always the best
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