Friday, 28 September 2007

Scotland Trip

RAM’s first rambling experience abroad: 6th - 17th September 2007

Written by Alex

Thursday 6th September: Excitement was in the air as seventeen of us lined up to the Check-in Desk of AirMalta on the start of a first ever venture abroad by RAM. The flight was good and timely. Not the same could be said of the queue at the car-hire desk and the availability of the hired cars at Glasgow airport. It took us one hour to get sorted and on our way to Stirling.

In no time we were at the Sterling Management Centre on the campus of Stirling University and lining up again to retrieve our key to the individual rooms. However coffee and sandwiches were offered while accommodation details were sorted out. All were out within one hour and after a quick shower, expressing satisfaction with the accommodation and its location. The secretary handed out some maps of the place and gave other information as to the frequency of buses to the centre, bus-stops and details of the surrounds, and prompted everybody to roam about independently for the afternoon until the appointed dinner time. Some ventured to the center, others to Bridge of Allan nearby.

Friday 7th: A lively group of Scottish ramblers from Biggar and Hamilton were massed and ready to welcome the arrival of the Maltese ramblers for the first outing in Biggar. It brought to mind the welcome that awaited the Scottish ramblers six months earlier on their first outing in Malta. On that occasion more than a hundred locals greeted their surprised counterparts in Rabat on the start of the walk to the Chadwick Lakes.

It took no longer than thirty minutes to renew friendships and exchange greetings before the motley group followed Jan and Bernard on a leisurely stroll around the historic village, along its golf course under the shadow of Tinto Hill, past streams and over the small “Cadgers Brig” (named after William Wallace “Braveheart”, who crossed it disguised as a pedlar to spy on English troops camping in Biggar in 1297) and finally to Biggar Kirk (1545), the last such collegiate church to be built in Scotland before the reformation of Scotland’s religion. We lunched lightly at the Gillespie Community Centre on hot soup and appetizing sandwiches prepared for the occasion.

Then came the crunch, as the seemingly-easy challenge was laid before us to surmount Tinto Hill, which from the bottom looked like relatively easy going. But what an optical illusion is Tinto as viewed from the bottom. Vertically it climbs to a height of 800 meters (a mountain by Maltese standards) yet seemingly peanuts as the summit appears so near. It is only on walking the first mile up that we realized that Tinto had hidden contours that made the ascent to the top another four miles distant! What with a cold biting northerly blowing strongly against, and a gravel surface tricking our every step?

Marianne Muscat Azzopardi was the first up there in some 90 minutes, with yours truly a close second. Almost all made it to the top somehow or other, but the descent was even more treacherous as the rounded pebbles rolled under our weight.

Our Scottish friends baptized us with fire. And they told us so.

Saturday 8th: By comparison the day visit to Falkirk was relaxed and undemanding, yet most intriguing and scenic. Even the weather turned sunny as we met our friends at the Falkirk Wheel. What a sight and a marvel of ingenuity is this Scottish project of the Millennium. One and all were fascinated by the mechanism as we took the boat ride up and down this simple contraption, which takes boat canal and water together up some twenty five meters in a matter of ten minutes. It raises the water of the Clyde to the level of the water of the Forth to enable barges to travel all the way up from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Fascinating!

After a light lunch we set off on the “tow-path” alongside the Union canal, led by Jo and Fay. This path was trodden by beasts of burden towing the barges before the advent of steam-power. The walk was most exhilarating in the splendid sunshine; the green meadows beyond the canal had early rusty touches of autumn with glimpses of shy deer staring or starting away ; snow white swans and their cygnets followed us on the still water while some leisure barge steamed quietly on its way. We plodded on through the Falkirk Tunnel, at 630meters the longest canal tunnel in Scotland cut with picks, shovels and gunpowder in 1822. We had a feeling of paradise regained as ripe juicy blackberries lined the way to tickle our throats, dry as they became with the gentle sun beating down on some five miles of trodden path. Walking back we thanked our luck as the opportunity presented itself to view the gates and sluices of the canal locks in action as the water leveled down barges on their way.

Sunday 9th: It was the turn of the South Lanark Older Walkers (S.L.O.W.) and Mary leading to prepare a full day of activities for us in Hamilton. The day started off with a guided visit to the Mausoleum and crypt, where Alec the caretaker gave an account of the history and lives of the various dukes that were laid to rest there, all from the noble lineage of Hamilton. After some group photos were taken to commemorate the visit the hosts treated us to a mouthwatering lunch at the Hamilton Bowling Club where greetings and appreciations were exchanged.

In the afternoon we drove to Chatelherault, the restored William Adam hunting lodge, with visitor centre, set in 500 acre country park with superb views north to Ben Lomond, and ten miles of footpath in historic landscape and Avon River gorge including ancient oaks and extensive semi-natural woodland. We did not walk the ten miles but a solid three hours along the Cadzow Oaks Trail was enough to tire our limbs. It was almost sundown before we got our cars started on the way back after two dizzy members stumbled to the wrong car-park.

Monday 10th: The Trossachs pier on Lake Catherine was our destination and our caravan of three cars was timely to meet up with Moira and Sue on this another day full of glorious sunshine. The boat was lousy but the trip diverting along the shores and around the islands, with the various Bens and falls in the background.

We drove back to Callander at noon and parked at the southern point of Lock Lubnaig. It was a delightful walk along the 7-mile western shore of the lake all the way north to Strathyre. Again the sun shone brilliantly overhead as we covered territory that lit up in various shades of green, encountering some half dozen pure breed highland cattle grazing away in the shade of an old oak tree, their golden tufts covering their heavily lashed eyes. Further along sandwiches were shared under another mighty oak, and a little nap taken by some, especially the young ones. A smooth climb toward the northern side of the lake got us to a vantage point from where the whole stretch of the lake came into perspective. By the end of 4 hours we were downing cold ale at the first corner pub in Strathyre.

Tuesday 11th: The sun did not shine today and our arrival in New Lanark was delayed by at least one hour due to my missing the proper exit on the M9 and a misunderstanding of the meeting place. But all was well as we met up with Dorothy and Isobel. The local guide explained all about David Dale and his mills in the valley below Lanark. We toured the impeccable environs and the orderly rows of buildings that housed the mills and the orphans that lived, learned and worked there. After eating our packed lunch we set off along the river Clyde often stopping to admire the rapids and spectacular falls on the way up to the dam which diverts the water to the hydroelectric turbines below. The lake created by the dam reflected the trees along its edge as the sky by now had turned blue. It was a feast of colour, though not as brilliant as we know it back home!

By 4.00pm we were back at New Lanark where all enjoyed a hot cuppa, while the Secretary accompanied by the president of the Biggar Ramblers paid a courtesy visit to Mr Gilbert Duncan, who was indisposed at home. Mr Duncan was the person who instigated the original visit to Malta last March and who had kindly invited us over to Scotland. We wish Mr Duncan a speedy recovery.

At 6.00pm the Maltese were treated to a healthy dinner of varied goodies prepared by the Biggar and SLOW members themselves. The party, which started with a talk about the history of Lanark, lasted well into the night. Then with stomachs full we headed on our long journey to Stirling.

Wednesday 12th: We all took the bus to Edinburgh from the Park & Ride near the Airport and were comfortably driven right to the heart of the city. The Secretary explained directions to the Royal Mile, the Visitor Centre and other vantage points, a meeting time and all went their different ways. All were punctual but exhausted after a long day of exploration and shopping before we trudged back to the car park for the drive home in our cars.
Thursday 13th: Picturesque Pitlochry, famous for its scenery and hydro-electric dam with salmon ladder presented the opportunity to walk along the banks of the river Tummel under the direction of Willie and Blane. Actually today we made two walks. The Edradour Walk of some 3 miles led up to the picturesque Edradour distillery, the smallest in Scotland that sends its brew to the House of Lords at Westminister. Here we sampled the liquid gold before a detailed scented tour of the distillery aroused the appetite for more and all took home a bottle or two. Walking through Black Spout Wood the Kinnaird Burn and the Edradour Burn present attractive water features tumbling down their tree-lined way. The burns are spanned by footbridges linking the paths which criss-cross through the woodland. The Black Spout is an impressive 60 meters high waterfall, pleasantly overlooked by a viewing platform. The longer walk took us around Loch Faskally’s shoreline over interesting footbridges and finally over the Pitlochry Power Station Dam where the salmon don't actually jump up the ladder but swim through interconnecting pipes. An observation chamber allows visitors to watch the salmon underwater through a large plate glass window. We did not see the salmon swim up but got an overall impression of what a sight it presents when the salmon returns to brood.
Friday 14th: For a change it rained in the morning but by mid-day the sun was out again. No walks were on and the Stirling attractions were the order of the day. The Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle were explored by those who did not prefer the commercial attraction of the Thistle Shopping Centre.
Saturday 15th: The last long drive with our cars took us to Peebles sited on the third major river in Scotland, the Tweed. And what an enjoyable day it turned out to be. Willie led us for a ramble of about two hours that from the park in Kingsmeadow led out of town among the tree lined banks of the river and across some historic bridges and remains. As we met the road to Peebles we crossed over the bridge spanning the river and then a left turn uphill. From the top the scenes were charming and pastoral: sheep and cattle grazing on the meadows sloping all the way down to the river with a backdrop of rolling hills heaving up to a blue sky littered with white cloud. Leaving the road we crossed some meadows with more sheep and molehills and down to town again where a nice lunch was expecting us at the Green Tree Hotel. We played hosts this time as we treated our Scottish friends in appreciation of the wonderful programme that was prepared for us. Willie bade the group farewell after lunch, remembering what a good time was had in Malta, and the Secretary retorted with thanks that our tour was memorable and augured that other such activities will follow, as they will always be welcome to our isles. Members intermingled bidding personal farewells and au revoir. After lunch there was enough free time to wander about the quaint town of Peebles before making headway for St Ninian’s Church in Bannockburn for Holy Mass.
Sunday 16th: Our last day in Scotland was left free for all to do whatever they please and pack up for an early start on the morrow. A small group of us ventured to Loch Lomond and others toured the interesting sites around Stirling and Bridge of Allan. Most however ended up sooner or later at the Thistle Shopping Centre to pick up the last souvenirs of the visit.
Monday 17th: Following earlier suggestions all suitcases were by the side of the cars at the appointed early hour and these were diligently packed to fit the cars without the need to hire additional transport. The hotel prepared an early continental breakfast and our caravan set out on its way to Glasgow at 0630hrs, arriving at the airport well in time for the flight back home.
It was always the case during the trip that every member of the group was meticulous in co-operating with the organizer and fellow members to make matters easy and expedient for all. It was an example of teamwork and that is what made the tour so successful and enjoyable. I wish to thank one and all for the company which I enjoyed at all times. Well done to all.

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