APRS News

Day 25: Mugdock to Strathblane

Nearing the end of her Green Belt walk, Kat walks some of the West Highland Way, passing the site of the famous Craigallian Fire and stops in at the Carbeth Huts.

We’re getting very near to the end of my green belt circumnavigation and the walks are getting shorter and less direct. It’s reminiscent of the feeling I get when I am reading a book that I’m loving so, so much. I want to read, but I also don’t want to read because I’m getting closer to the end when the spell will break and I’ll find myself back in reality again.

I did this little gem of a walk with two friends who are part of a ‘dog walks and lunch’ WhatsApp group I started last summer with the intention of getting together for at least two walks a month. We’ve only managed two walks in total …. but this one would make three, and the opportunity to reinvigorate an enthusiasm for regular outings.

We set off from the car park at Kyber Pass – a rather dramatic name for part of Mugdock Country Park where the single-track road puts in a couple of hairpins to climb a short cliff.  Apparently, the original road ran past the front of a rather grand house and the owners of the estate decided to have it re-routed to give them privacy. The country park’s Facebook page explains the unusual name: “The pass through the rocky crag was constructed at the same time as the Khyber Pass Railway Line, on the border of Pakistan, and locals jokingly dubbed the work on Craigallian Estate the “Khyber Pass”. The name has stuck to this day!”

We walked down the road to reach the West Highland Way as it exited from Mugdock wood, the bluebells on the brink of emerging, and then headed north. There were a few other walkers, a couple with heavy packs had stopped at the junction to examine the map, evidently at the start of the long trek to Fort William.

The weather this winter has been absolutely dire, with incessant rain, wind and storms, but never cold enough for a decent fall of snow, even in the mountains. Spring was taking its time, with day after day arriving in a bad-tempered blast. But on the morning of the walk, I woke to a forecast offering a 5% chance of rain – perhaps spring was here at last.

walking along the West Highland Way north on the banks of Craigallian Loch

As we walked along Craigallian loch some showers passed through, and we stopped to put our jackets on, but as soon as the rucksacs were on our backs again, the rain was over.  The border terrier and collie cross we were walking with greeted every party we passed with enthusiasm, as we trilled a friendly ‘hello, lovely day’.

As we walked I kept a look out for a small memorial I wanted to stop at. I knew what I was looking for but, set a little back from the loch in the trees, it was not obvious to passers-by on the path.  A simple bench made of a thick plank of oak, gave a fine view of the loch and the Campsie fells beyond. We sat on it to contemplate the monument, a pointed boulder in the midst of moulded branches and logs set, as if for a fire.  An inscription read:

“Here burned the Craigallian Fire.  During the depression of the 1930s, it was a beacon of companionship and hope for young unemployed people who came from Glasgow and Clydebank seeking adventure in Scotland’s wild places. Their pioneering spirit helped to make the Scottish countryside free for all to roam.”

While we were reading the inscription, a few groups of walkers passed by without a look in its direction. And without an inkling of the significance that this place holds in the history of the outdoor access movement in Scotland. It cannot be an accident that the West Highland Way passes this very spot, on the same route that, in the 1920s and 30s, hundreds of people would pass on their way from the city of Glasgow, and Clydebank, on their way for adventure in the hills and mountains beyond.

We were at the site of the Craigallian Fire, a fire that was said to have kept burning throughout the depression years, and where young men and women (although most of them did seem to be men) would gather to hear stories of mountain adventures, information on the howffs and dosses of the hills, and to discuss socialism and the struggle for free access to the land and wild places that they loved. It brought together young people, skilled and unskilled workers, activists, academics and thinkers who debated, sang and shared the communal cauldron of tea that was said to be forever boiling on the fire.

Mountaineer, author and broadcaster Tom Weir, who frequented the fires as a young man, brought together a couple of the original fire sitters in a 1983 episode of his TV series ‘Weirs way’. In this episode he chats with legendary climber Jock Nimlin and Bob Grieve, a mountaineer who had been Scotland’s first Chief Planning Officer, when a new planning department was set up in 1946. In the film Bob credits the direction of his career to his time in the mountains, and at the fire, some of which he spent as a ‘philosophical tramp’, sleeping rough on the shore of Loch Lomond and only going back to the city to sign on.

Extract from ‘Water, Wind and Fire’ S01E45 of Weir’s Way – March 15, 1983

The memorial we were sitting at was erected in 2012 by his sons, and their website is a repository for first-hand tales from the Craigallian fire. Sir Robert (Bob) Grieve, like Jock, was from Maryhill, and in the video he talks of his work on the influential Clyde Valley Regional Plan in the 1940s. “The whole southern end of Loch Lomond, was actually zoned for bungalows at 14 an acre from Balloch right along to Drymen” he says. “[The Clyde Valley Regional] Plan was to show why that should not be, and how it should be planned to keep this as a superb piece of Highland wilderness.”

Looking through the archive of APRS annual reports I was not surprised to see Bob Grieve’s name pop up a few times – he was a member of APRS council in the 1950s, was appointed as the APRS representative on the 1954 International Congress for Housing and Town Planning, and was a member of the Scottish National Parks Committee which published their influential report recommending National parks for Scotland in 1945.

Looking at the Craigallian Fire Memorial

As we sat on the bench we read out the four-line poem that was inscribed in a circle around the memorial

Long may old Craigallian woods
Send forth abundance of their goods;
May the fire be always lit
So that we may come and sit.

This was the fire chant that was sung round the fire, supposedly based on the tune to the hymn Rock of Ages (though it must have been a different version to the one I know as I tried to sing along to the tune and it didn’t fit…)

We left the site of the fire and headed on northwards, along the route that would have been taken by those idealistic young men and women, on their way to put up new routes on the Cobbler, perhaps to sleep in that famous doss, under the Narnain boulders, or to walk some of the Trossachs peaks.  I thought of the precious legacy these pioneers left Scotland, the right to roam our countryside, hills and coastlines, and muttered a ‘thank-you’ for the joys that my Green Belt walk had brought me. I really wished I could have been there at that fire, getting to know those people, hearing the stories of derring-do, chatting about a better way of living. It reminded me of times at my University climbing club, where I gained my love of mountains and fondness of the kind of experiences that are only fun in the telling of the stories in the pub afterwards.

I felt a sudden sense of nostalgia for my own formative (and uncomfortable) nights spent in derelict quarrymen’s cottages, under boulders, in a recycling shelter and even a disused ski jump tower, in the service of a climbing obsession in the 1990s and early 2000s. I was even starting to feel nostalgic about my Green Belt walk.

I fell back in step with my friends and conversation moved to the Carbeth huts, a movement that started while the Craigallian fire was burning just a kilometre down the loch.

The Carbeth story started in 1918 when the landowner gave returning soldiers the right to camp, and it grew over the following years as huts started to be built. Carbeth became a place for working class people from Clydebank and Glasgow to escape for weekends and holidays in the countryside.

During the Blitz, families walked over the Kilpatricks to escape and set up an encampment at Carbeth in tents and makeshift huts. Many walked each day to work in Clydebank taking the ‘Bankie path’, the route I had taken from Cochno to Mugdock, which is now marked as part of the Clyde Coastal Route. The hutters gained ownership of the site in 2013 and still maintain a similar ethos of communality and low impact living. The hutting movement is growing with Reforesting Scotland’s long-running  ‘Thousand Huts’ campaign which is calling for wider access to the benefits that hutting provides.

As we walked, Sarah told us about someone she had known at vet school back in the 1980s who had moved, a few years after graduation, to become a partner in a vet practice in Honk Kong. Just before lockdown she was back in Milngavie visiting her parents and was stranded when the travel ban came into force. Like many people confined with family unexpectedly during lockdown, she took to walks, and rediscovered the little loch that she had such fond memories of going to with her father to fish when she was a child. This happened to be at Carbeth, in the midst of the huts and it was then she fell in love with the alternative, interesting, idealistic community of the Carbeth Hutters. When she saw one for sale, she immediately sold up her part of the practice in Hong Kong and moved to Carbeth.

We were just at the end of the story when we reached the first huts and a man, who was standing outside one of them, greeted us as we opened the gate on the track.  He introduced himself as Stuart, a relatively recent arrival at the huts, who had moved up to Scotland from London, where he’d been a music executive. Of course he knew Sarah’s vet school friend. Stuart told us a bit about the huts and how much he loved the life-style and sense of community.

The huts were a mix of styles with wooden chalets, glorified sheds, and some that looked more like small houses. We passed one that looked like it was made entirely of found and reclaimed materials, and one with a Tesla parked outside. It was a lovely higgldy piggledy place. Someone had built a long picnicking bench, for passers-by that seated 10 with a built in table.

We stayed on the west highland way through the village of huts, a brightly-painted  arch over a garden gate told us we were 4 miles from Milgavie and had 92 Miles to go to Fort William.

This hut was called ‘The Shire’ and the crimson red paintwork of the arch matched that of the eves, door and window frames. A taxidermy grouse and pheasant sat on the windowsill and the garden was filled with gnomes, carved figures and faces.   

The next hut, in matching dark stained wood, had the same painted features, but in bright yellow with the sign on the gate reading “West Highland Way”. If you’re going to have hundreds of thousands of walkers each year passing your gate, I suppose these two Hutters had figured it’s better to lean in and give them something to look at. I wondered how many selfies had been taken in front of those gates.

Just past the Carbeth huts, the West Highland Way intersected with the John Muir Way – a long distance route, created in 2014, to mark 100 years since the death of the father of the National Parks Movement John Muir. The path takes a route from his birthplace in Dunbar to Helesburgh, where he took a boat with his family at the age of 11 and set sail for America. The path took us on good tracks to Strathblane with fantastic views of the pudding shaped Dumgoyne and the Camspie fells.

At one point we came past a huge glacial erratic smoothed by generations of people touching it (and probably climbing it and sliding down it, given the wear on some well-placed footholds and the smooth reverse side).  I wanted to find out about the stone, it was obviously significant locally. Looking on googlemaps I saw that we were on Gowk Stane road so this, presumably, was the eponymous stone.

Strathblane is not the only place with a Gowk Stone – Canmore lists three standing stones named Gowk Stone, and a paper on Cuckoo place names lists 14, mainly in central and Southern Scotland, with a couple in Aberdeenshire, and one in Cumbria. Gowk is the old name for the Cuckoo, from the Norse, and persists in Scots, whereas the French-derived word Cuckoo took over in England after the Norman invasion. But Gowk has a dual meaning in Scots, also meaning ‘Fool’ – Huntigowk Day being the Scots April Fools Day, where the victim would be sent off on fool’s errands, one of which was to go out to hunt a gowk.

It is thought these stones may have been significant places linked to the arrival of Spring, heralded by the Cuckoo, and linked to fertility. A study by a Geographer from Aberdeen University suggests that the links between these stones and cuckoos could go back a very long way to the pre-historic.

The stone was certainly smoothed by centuries of hands (and feet) so it had evidently been a very special place for a long time. The Heritage Paths Project of Scotways notes that “According to John Hood’s Old Drymen and the Blane and Endrick Villages (2000), those who slide down the west face of the stone will have their wishes granted”.   

Some shoots of Spring were showing through, in spite of the cold wind and showers, with wood anemones flowering in the woods on the way down to Strathblane. The first cuckoos return to Scotland in mid-April so it would have been perfect to hear that Herald of Spring as we passed the Gowk Stane, however it wasn’t until the next day, 20 April, on a trip to the Isle of Kerrera near Oban, that I heard my first Gowk of the year. And it was also on that day, when, finally, the sun re-emerged after the long long winter, and it really did feel like Spring had arrived at last.

Postscript:

I have found my Green Belts walk peppered with strange and serendipitous things and one of these popped up as I was doing a bit of research for this Blog. As I was searching for Sir Robert (Bob) Grieve in past APRS Annual Reports, which I have been scanning in as part of our preparations for the APRS Centenary, the search turned up a handwritten letter in spidery script from a ‘Mrs EF Lyle  (Life Member)’ in 2011. She was writing to entreat APRS to get involved in objecting to a development happening in Blanefield, which would be visible from the Gowk Stane Road. But why had this been thrown up this in my search for Bob Greive?  At the end the letter under the signature was an addition. “I wonder what our dear Professor Greive would think if he was still with us in this life?! Once he said to me he got engaged right above this on the Gowk Stane Road”.

An auspicious place indeed.

If you’d like to read about the other green belt walks you can do so here

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