Exploring Myths and Memories
Out of the dark and cold waters of a Scottish loch, illuminated by the midnight moon, there comes the beautiful form of a horse. Broad muscles and mane dripping with water, he finds a poor soul to whom he laments a tale of loneliness, tugging at their heart strings before leading them back to the water’s edge. Enveloping them in his spell, he leads them out into the darkness and drowns them. The mythical Kelpie, or water horse, is a long-standing feature of Scottish folklore, although the stories vary depending on their source. It is said that many lochs in Scotland have their own Kelpie, and mariners of old used to relate tales of Kelpies coming out of the sea during storms to sink their ships. In some stories, the Kelpies take the form of a woman on land, to seduce some unsuspecting man before leading them to water and drowning them.
Before I moved to New Zealand in 2012, I must have seen or read about a public art piece that was planned for Falkirk in Scotland, so when finally they were constructed and opened to the public, I knew I would have to visit them on my next trip home. The Kelpies are two 30m high steel structures shaped as horse heads beside a section of the Forth and Clyde canal. Representing both the heavy horses previously used in Scottish industry and agriculture as well as the transformational change of Scotland’s waterways, they have become an iconic structure in Scotland’s Central Belt.
After a nice lie-in in Glasgow following my road trip round the north coast and the previous day’s hike up Ben Nevis, I set off with my parents on a very cloudy day to go visit the steel behemoths. The sculptures have proven to be a popular place to visit, and even though there was an occasional drizzle, there was plenty of people about. Like so many things, they have their critics but I personally love them. I think they are stunning. It is possible to walk round them and view them from different angles, and nearby the canal played home to some swans with their cygnets. My parents had been here before, but they were more than happy to come again.
It was only a relatively short drive from there to the Falkirk Wheel, a boat lift opened in 2002 to connect the Forth and Clyde canal with the Union Canal, and the only one of its kind in the world. Built to help regenerate the canal network and to link Glasgow with Edinburgh via the waterway, it is an impressive feat of engineering even if some people do think it’s ugly. Granted, it has weathered quite a lot, and doesn’t look as grand as it does in pictures from when it opened, but it was still worthy of a look. There is a large visitor centre next to it, and my parents and I enjoyed a wander round the large gift shop and a meal in the cafe whilst we waited for our boat trip. Two canal boats alternate at taking passengers onto the wheel and up to the top, passing through a tunnel and out the other side before making a return trip. Unfortunately, the heavens opened whilst we were on this trip, so we didn’t get to experience much in the way of views at the top. But it was a pleasant and relaxing hour, as well as time well spent with my parents who I only get to see every few years.
That night I met my best friends for a night out in Glasgow. In April, I enjoyed going to see The Proclaimers, a Scottish duo, on their New Zealand tour in Christchurch. So when I found out that Ladyhawke, a musician from New Zealand, was touring the UK, I thought it only fitting to see her in Glasgow. One of Glasgow’s best known music venues is King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, which has a bar downstairs, and an intimate music venue upstairs. It had been many years since I’d last been there, and these days, thanks to a back injury in 2013, I prefer to enjoy gigs in a seated arena where I don’t get jostled or spend hours on my feet. The support acts as well as Ladyhawke herself were fantastic, but I felt old amongst the younger music lovers, feeling sore from being on my feet throughout the whole gig. Aside from having to stand, King Tut’s has seen some major names play there, and it is worth checking their gig guide for any stay in the city.
It was obvious the following day that my run of good weather had well and truly ended. Having lived in Aberdeen in the north-east for 5.5years, I had friends that I wanted to catch up with, and setting off on the 3hr drive north from Glasgow, it wasn’t long till I hit torrential rain that refused to give up. It’s never a good sign when your car’s wiper blades struggle to keep up with the force of horizontal rain that is lashing at your windscreen, and this went on for the majority of the second half of the drive. The Granite City that sparkles in the sunshine, looked dour and grey on such a miserable day. I flitted from friend to friend, unfortunately short of time to spend as much time with most as I would have liked to. I got a beautiful surprise from some dear friends in Aberdeenshire who had put a lot of effort into a surprise den for me, and after many hours catching up, I went to bed under the stars.
The rain continued in Aberdeenshire the following morning, and although lighter, went on into the afternoon. I managed to get lost on some back roads trying to take a short cut to the coast, ending up much further north than I’d planned, and nearly an hour late for meeting some more friends. I was in Scotland in the run up to the ‘Brexit’ referendum and it was an interesting time to be back in the country, with lots of opinions and discussion abound. I was intrigued and curious listening to my friends put forth their varied opinions on the matter, amongst catching up with everyone on the movement of their lives since I had left.
Despite the thick clouds and showers, my friend had dogs needing a walk, and I have a favourite spot north of Aberdeen to go seal watching, so we drove to Newburgh beach to face the elements. Luckily we managed a dry spell to walk along the south bank of the river Ythan to the North Sea, where curious seals swam close by, eyeing us up as the river’s current moved them along. There are always seals hauled up on the north bank of the river mouth, an area that is a nature reserve where people and dogs can’t go. But on this occasion, the numbers of seals were incredible. In all my visits when I used to live there, I had never seen this many and we watched them for a while before the return of the rain.
I couldn’t leave Aberdeen behind without a drive down the promenade, a place where I spent many an evening walking its length listening to the crashing waves on the shore. At the southern end near the harbour is Footdee, a historic fishing village which I had a quick wander around before setting off on the long journey south. I took a detour to Kirkcaldy in the Kingdom of Fife to visit another friend before following the Firth of Forth west and then onwards to Glasgow.
With my hire car due back at lunchtime, I set off early the next morning to head south to visit a place that I hadn’t been to since I was a school kid. Nestled amongst bush on the Ayrshire coast on the west of Scotland, Culzean Castle and Country Gardens is a popular addition to the National Trust of Scotland. Built in the 18th century, the castle sits on a clifftop and is one of Scotland’s most photographed castles. It even features on one of the Scottish bank notes. I took a wander around the gardens first which open to the public ahead of the castle. It was threatening to be a scorching day so it was actually a nice reprieve to step inside out of the sun and take a look around.
Inside the castle, there are resemblances to a stately home, and it was built for the Marquess of Ailsa, clan chief of the Kennedy Clan. Reputed to be haunted, I wandered around unawares enjoying the views out to the sea through the large windows. Back outside, a path lead down to a stony beach near where the entrance to some sea caves at the base of the castle lay. Near a gas house, another beach gave a prospect back towards the castle as it perched on the cliff.
I had unfortunately picked a day where several bus loads of school kids had come on an end-of-year visit, and every inch of grass around the old stables was covered in children noisily chasing each other. I left them to it and looped back through the old archway and across the bridge to the gardens below the castle where the sun now illuminated the scene. Here it was more peaceful and deserted but before long it was time to make the drive north back to Glasgow, returning my rental car ahead of the next adventure.