Walking with Peter Thomson on 16 June 2010

Kilcreggan – Rosneath – Kilcreggan
I am walking with my friend. mentor and former colleague (from the University of Exeter), Peter Thomson. Our walk, we imagine, retraces a walk taken in the summer of 1890 by Peter’ s  Great Grandfather, John Thomson. Peter has in his possession a letter written by John Thomson to his son Hugh, dated 18 August 1890. Telling of an enjoyable day trip (lasting 8 ½ hours), the letter’s narrative provides the plot for our walk. We read that John Thomson, his wife Mary, and Aunt Tina took a ferry from Row point, near Helensburgh, over to Rosneath. From here they walked to Kilcreggan, where they boarded the “Jeannie Deans” and sailed to Craigendoran, “thence to Helensburgh by train”.

Our journey (like theirs), begins in Glasgow, taking the train out to Helensburgh. There’s no boat anymore from Row point, but we can take a tiny sea bus from Helensburgh to Kilcreggan. Standing at the boat’s stern we watch the spectacular panorama emerge, one mountain becoming five. As we land at Kilcreggan I wonder if the huge, barnacle covered wooden pier is the same one that John Thomson would have seen more than a century ago.

Stepping onto it, our walk proper begins. Peter sets the pace, I follow. We are accompanied not only by the spirits of John Thomson and his walking companions, but by his walking stick too, which Peter has brought along. The silver inscription at its top reveals that he was given this dark wooden stick, topped with a smoothed bone handle, on the 2 June 1869 – a gift from the Sabbath Class that he ran. John had lost his leg in an accident in 1868. The walking stick is tiny, too small for Peter to use as a walking aid, but he swings it expertly nevertheless. When it touches the ground, I imagine it reconnecting with its history. It has been here before, even if we have not.

The road out of Kilcreggan is immediately steep but pays back with a stunning view out across the water. The road is also the main road (B833). Unlike in 1890, it is a busy thoroughfare and we are somewhat risking our lives by walking it. There are no pavements for almost the entire way (which makes us laugh when we encounter a sign that warns us that there is no footpath for 900 yards – as if a footpath had been a steady feature to this point). Drivers seem somewhat startled to encounter us on this road.

In spite of the traffic, the landscape is beautiful. John Thomson writes enthusiastically of the path being one of “continuous and varied beauty”, with “thickset verdant woods which threw an agreeable shadow in a hot sunshiny day”. The woods remain thickset and verdant, and as our own day is hot and sunshiny too the shifting shadows are welcome ones. The long grass verges are coloured with bursts of pink Campion and pastel hues of Comfrey. A shimmering buttercup field seems set alight. There’s Dog Rose, and swathes of Rhododendrons draw a purple line under the forest plantation high up on the hillside. We even spot some bamboo, presumably escaped from a garden.

The hill descends to the curved shore of Gare Loch, offering a view down its length, with the Alps of Arrochar in the far distance (described dramatically by John Thomson as “dark and solemn, altogether a union of the sublime and the beautiful”). The foreshore is bustling with birds – a Heron standing at the water’s edge, a group of mallards, a flock of crows, and a pair of swans with a single downy-feathered cygnet. Next to them, a nest – made of equal parts rubbish, grass and twigs – with four large, shiny eggs. We finally reach the village of Rosneath, at the centre of which lies the Clachan – a row of old houses (probably here in 1890), along with a small Co-Op (definitely not here in 1890). Ferry Road seems a good bet, and from here on to Gare Road, off which is a dirt-trodden path leading directly to the pebbly shore of Gare Loch.

It is sweltering hot. We sit, with picnic and cool Cider, looking out onto the lapping water, to the shores on the far side, the hills in the distance. Just beside us, the remains of what might be an old pier. Perhaps this is where John, Mary and Tina alighted. Perhaps they too sat here, enjoying the sun, taking in the view, before heading off towards Kilcreggan.

It is time for us to head off too, to walk in the direction they walked, from Rosneath to Kilcreggan. The tide has come in. The swan is back on her nest. The trees still look verdant. The sun still shines.  It’s so hot, that the tar sticks to the soles of my shoes. The cows and sheep are dozing in the field. But the going is a little easier this way, as it’s more downhill than up. Peter swings his inherited stick, energetically, enthusiastically (he walks more like a 10 year old than a man in his 70s).

Back at Kilcreggan, we cool down with a pint. John Thomson would likely disapprove (and, in this respect, Peter Thomson is definitely not one of John Thomson’s bairns). Here, we must part ways with John, Mary and Aunt Tina, for the “Jeannie Deans” from Kilcreggan to Craigendoran is no longer (though we did pass the old pier at Craigendoran on the way to Helensburgh). The sea bus transports us instead to Gourock, thence to Glasgow by train.

I have enjoyed the company of Peter’s ancestors immensely, the ways they have framed this land for me as I attempted to walk in their footsteps. But I have enjoyed Peter’s company even more, his keen aliveness, and the tangible sense that with each step taken there is a gladness  to be just here, experiencing this place and rewalking this walk for the first time. Tomorrow, I will continue to walk with Peter’s spring in my step.

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