Scotland March 22-24: bonnier than ever

Driving north east into the brightness after coming off the ferry, there’s a sense of déjà vu – I’ve done this journey a few times for sure, but never with this excited sense of purpose - and I realise, never alone. I’ve always been with the family, or years ago in a van with Trevor Dixon and the country band, or a couple of years ago, with Ben Glover.

 Picture by Jonathan Cosens, Moffat

Picture by Jonathan Cosens, Moffat

And it feels good - middle of the afternoon, on the road with three shows to look forward to, arrangements all made for accommodation, tank full of petrol, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on the stereo.

The towns in the west look familiar – beautiful little sandstone houses with views out over the Irish Sea, until the road turns inland and it’s rolling hills and bridges until we hit the motorway. And then it’s that motorway thing – miles and miles of two lane, overpasses and bridges and trucks.

The road pumps you into the heart of Glasgow before you really know it, and you find yourself on this elevated motorway that appears to run between the rooftops of the city, while you wait for your exit. And then it’s down to street level, where it gets complicated, a maze of one-way streets that suddenly open out into bypasses – the satellite navigation on my phone is a little slow on the uptake, so it tells you to turn left into streets that you’ve already overshot. I miss my turn into the hotel, and end up having to go five blocks north, eventually missing a turn and ending up back onto the motorway. Eventually I pull in beside the hotel, where construction workers are tearing up the street, and find my location, the engine roasted from the non-stop drive from the ferry.

The hotel is close to the top end of Sauchiehall Street, and I walk the whole way down to the Buchanan Galleries, just to stretch my legs after the journey and get a feel for the city. It convinces me that I should walk to the gig – it’s only a few blocks. So later I pack my rucksack with cables and CDs, and set out on foot with my guitar. I’m abruptly reminded of how steep some of the hills are in Glasgow. It’s a uniquely characterful city – a real sense of grit but a very elegant place, lots of beautiful stonework and tall windows and wide streets. I hear ‘Saturday Night’ by The Blue Nile in my head the whole time I’m walking – ‘when it’s cold and it’s starlight, and the streets are so big and wide’.

 Live at The Admiral - picture by John Melrose

Live at The Admiral - picture by John Melrose

The gig is a treat – a lovely, low ceilinged basement room at the Admiral Bar, where I’m the guest of the Star Folk Club and The Fallen Angels music club. There’s a lovely support spot from Glasgow songwriter John McMeekin, and an audience who want to listen and engage. Afterwards, there’s a couple of pints a few streets away in the Horseshoe Bar. And then I walk back up Sauchiehall Street at midnight, with my guitar and my rucksack, feeling like a real musician.

Over breakfast the next morning, I rise and pack, check out of the hotel and take my stuff over to the car. And then I go for a walk in search of breakfast, and I sit in the window of a Pret A Manger and finish what I’ve been reading: Bukowski on Writing.

The book started unpromisingly with lots of whining letters to publishers and bitching about rejections, and then settled into something kind of wonderful. The main thing, surprise surprise, is to keep working, to stay honest, not to get greedy, not to get hooked on any kind of fame nonsense, and to stay alive to everything.

‘The secret is in the line,’ he says. ‘And I mean one line at a time. Lines containing factories, and a shoe on its side next to a beercan in a hotel room. Everything is here, it flashes back and forth. They are not going to beat us, not even the graves. The joke is ours; we pass through in high style; there’s nothing they can do with us’.

Closing the book, it’s back up the street, back in the car and on the road south, towards the Borders, where I have a house concert in Moffat. The scenery once I leave the city is kind of breath-taking – huge, rolling fields in shades of brass and gold, the motorway rolling down into the valleys in deep, slow curves, up again through dazzling little showers, the sun moving across the landscape, clusters of pines in the gaps between the hills. I have a sudden desire to pull into a layby and set off across the moor… But I’m hemmed in by heavy lorries and I press on into the early afternoon.

 Live at Moffat - picture by Jonathan Cosens

Live at Moffat - picture by Jonathan Cosens

Eventually – and much earlier than expected – I see a turn-off for Moffat, and as I approach the village there’s a car park on the left, with a sign that says ‘River Walks’. I pull in and park. On the ‘main road’ in front of me, a mallard duck flaps down into the centre of the road, shakes his tailfeathers, settles his wings and walks up the centre line, like he’s the mayor. I pull on my walking shoes and head up the river.

The water runs in a straight line through a shallow channel, over pebbles and roots – it’s a very musical accompaniment. Eventually there’s a gate and a path to my right that leads across open country and the main road beyond, back into the village. I take it, and find myself walking through the outskirts – glorious old sandstone houses with white window frames, dormer windows and slate roofs, ivy growing up the front, wrought iron gates and the rest. Absolutely beautiful old properties.

John Weatherby and his partner Mairi make me very welcome, giving over their spare room and welcoming a dozen or so friends into their ‘performance space’. There’s dinner and red wine and some songs and stories. And then more red wine. And eventually, when everyone has gone, John offers me a short single malt tour of Scotland, stopping off at Scapa, Old Pulteney and Highland Park before I navigate unsteadily to bed, my head buzzing.

The next day, the road north east is equally beautiful – more rolling hills and golden fields, and Kirkcaldy is gleaming with bright cold, and I park up and walk down the waterfront and up into the town centre.

Mary and Davey Stewart’s house is a beautiful space - I stayed here with Ben a couple of years ago and I remember it fondly. Nice old furniture, walls painted white and adorned with beautiful original art, the stairs edged by tasteful pieces of wood sculpture or pottery. And once again, I’m in the hands of gracious hosts.

 Barbara Dickson joins me for a song at Kirkcaldy Acoustic Music Club

Barbara Dickson joins me for a song at Kirkcaldy Acoustic Music Club

Kirkcaldy Acoustic Music Club is hosted by the Polish Servicemen’s Club in the town, and it’s just like I remember it being on my last trip, filled with warmth and welcome. From the minute I start, the stories and the songs just seem to connect. High point was when Barbara Dickson - who was in the audience, as an old friend of my hosts - accepted an invitation to come up for a song, and we sang a duet on the old Everly Brothers’ song ‘Sleepless Nights’, much to the delight of the audience.

(It was an evening of connection, and there’s no explaining it when it happens. It feels like it all just… rolls forward in solid forward motion. You could do exactly the same thing the next night and it could just as easily fall and lie flat on its back… But all three nights were filled with that sweetness of connection – when the ball hits the centre of the racket)

Thanks to my hosts, there are a few more single malts before bedtime, and the next day, heavy headed and dry-mouthed, I rise to a house brimming with brightness. It’s a wonderful day for heading west to the Irish Sea and home for Easter. I pack the car and make my way across the Forth, up through the midlands and west, the sky brightening at one minute and closing in the next, and showers blessing the landscape along the way.