A Stroll to John o' Groats

On an April morning of bright sun, cold wind, and billowing cloud, I left Edinburgh on the first lap of a stroll to John o' Groats on Scotland's far northeastern tip, distant by the route I planned about 410 miles.

Along my way would lie some of the most colorful and historic spots in all the British Isles. Here stand storied castles and playgrounds of Britain's kings and queens; here Mary Queen of Scots once hunted with bow and arrow and here, too, she signed away her kingdom. On the route I could climb a mountain scaled by Queen Victoria, and walk through the countryside Shakespeare used as background for the tragedy of Macbeth.

On the far northern coast i would see mined castles with histories reaching into the 13th century. I might even catch a glimpse of Peter Pan or Long John Silver, both born in these quiet Scottish hills and both, as every child knows, still alive and vigorous. I planned to ride as many ferries as possible, partly because John o' Groat himself was a ferryman who in the 15th century plied the turbulent waters of Pentland Firth between the Caithness mainland and the Orkney Islands, and partly because a ferry usually offers the wayfarer a romantic and buoyant interlude.

There were few passengers aboard Bonnie Prince Charlie, the ferryboat I rode between Edinburgh and Bumtisland that spring morning. i stood on the top deck admiring the delicate view of the city. !ts soft gray outline of hills and spires, backed by surging white cumulus, rose like a drawing in silverpoint.

Far to westward the giant cantilevers of the railway bridge across the Firth of Forth hung like a lace fringe between Fife and Midlothian. Until the bridge was opened in 1890 the ferry had a special claim to romance, for it was the world's first train-carrying ferry.

The small shipbuilding town of Burntisland has one of Scotland's most unusual churches. There the signs of medieval guilds are still painted on the panels of the galleries the guilds occupied. The sailors' loft holds particular interest, for it shows compasses and old-time navigating instruments-cross-staff and astrolabe-used in the 16th century, as well as the later Davis's quadrant. With such tools, master mariners used to "shoot the sun," dressed elegantly in tailcoats and with buckles on their shoes.

Storm Saved Fife from John Paul Jones

The town also has associations with Cromwell and Napoleon. The Lieutenant Governor of St. Helena during Napoleon's time lies buried in its churchyard, and Cromwell, when he came north to subdue Scotland, left his mark on the royal burgh of Bumtisland, for his first shot is said to have smashed into the provost's china shop.

But probably even Cromwell did not cause such consternation as did John Paul Jones when he sailed up the Forth in 1779 and terrified the folk of Fife. On that occasion the good minister of Kirkcaldy, the Reverend Robert Shirra, led his flock out to the sands, where they knelt in supplication for a wind to drive back "the pirate of the Forth."

The prayers of that little band apparently were heard. As if by magic, a storm arose that night and blew John Paul and his ship out of Fife history forever!

From Burntisland my way led along the busy coast road to Kinghom and Kirkcaldy, with sparkling views of the blue firth and distant smoke-wrapped Edinburgh.

Rounding a corner, I came suddenly on a tall monument backed by the sea and fronted by frowning crags. Here, on a dark March night nearly 700 years ago, a horse changed the whole course of British history. Ridden hard to a rendezvous with a queen, it tripped and landed its rider 150 feet on the crags below.

The illustrious horseman was Alexander III, last and best of Scotland's Celtic kings.His death plunged Scotland into civil war and strife for more than a century, for his only direct heir was his little granddaughter, the King of Norway's daughter, who died later on a stormy voyage to Scotland.

As I gazed upward to where the gaunt brown cliff towered menacingly, its front splashed as if with blood by a bush of flowering currant, I thought of what might have happened if that horse had not tripped. No Stuarts would then have ascended the throne, there would have been no Mary Queen of Scots, no Bonnie Prince Charlie, and no Queen Elizabeth II, lineal descendant of those Stuarts!

As I went on my way again, wending high above the Forth, my nasal radar suddenly picked up a soft sweet odor that was not unpleasant. it was the smell of linseed heralding approach to Kirkcaldy, the "lang toun" of linoleum factories whose main street skirts the Forth for several miles.

1 comment:

Matt Sinclair said...

I didn't know about Alexander III. Thanks for the travelogue.