Take a walk round Bowling Basin – and bring your dog!

Even on a very chilly day, it’s hard not be impressed by the changes taking place at Bowling Basin and Harbour. Many of the rotting hulks have gone, landscaping is well underway, and the old Customs House is the setting for new ventures. Looking at it now, it can be hard to believe that the canal closed in 1963 and that it was only after decades of campaigning that it was finally re-opened in 2001.

Bowling is a small village that sits on the northern shore of the Firth of Clyde, between the towns of Dumbarton and Clydebank, and is the western entrance to the Forth and Clyde Canal. The canal opened in 1790, and if you follow the towpath, it will take you from Bowling all the way to Grangemouth, across the narrowest stretch of Lowland Scotland, linking not only two of Scotland’s finest rivers, the Clyde and the Forth, but also the west and east coasts of the country.

But your jaunt needn’t end there for it’s possible to take a spin in the amazing Falkirk Wheel and be lifted upwards onto the Union Canal and thereby onwards into the heart of Edinburgh. The whole route is excellent for both cyclists and walkers. And obviously for boats too!

At Bowling, you’ll find the marina, and the canal itself, have lots of interesting boats to have a look at: from the sleek and shiny to the slightly more rickety and ramshackle. You’ll also find that the old railway arches have been tastefully refurbished, housing shops and a cafe with a difference: the Dug Cafe, where we saw lots of dogs and their owners, and walkers and cyclists, enjoying tea and toast. Although we no longer have a dog ourselves, it was good to find a cafe that is so welcoming to (well-behaved) dogs.

A tidal tepee!

Walking along the towpath you can admire the fine engineering and the powerful gates of the locks, or watch the varied and colourful wildfowl on the water. All very peaceful. Yet there would have been none of this tranquillity in its heyday, when Bowling would have been full of ships of every shape, size and description, all laden with cargoes of timber, coal and fish, with other boats being built or repaired in the thriving workshops and yards in the basin. The whole place would have been buzzing with life and full of noise and smells.

The old Customs House with the disused railway bridge behind

All this activity was added to when the first railway station opened in 1850. Then, some forty years later, a second station opened, this one on the Caledonian Railway’s Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire Line. That line closed sixty-seven years ago, in 1951, but the trackbed is now used as a cyclepath through the village. The industrial history of Scotland, although much of it relatively recent in historical terms, is nonetheless fascinating. And there’s plenty of it here at Bowling.

But there’s a much more ancient connection here too! Bowling is only a short distance away from Old Kilparick, which marked the western end of the Antonine Wall, the northernmost barrier of the vast Roman Empire. Rome’s very own final frontier, you could say! The Wall had sixteen forts (with many fortlets in between), all linked by a road known as the Military Way. Commissioned by Emperor Antonius Pius in AD 142, it was abandonned less than a decade after completion. It seems those ancient Caledonians were, very understandably, not too keen on having Roman masters! But, tempora mutantur, as those self-same Romans would have said, and thankfully you’ll find that there’s a very different welcome for the visitors of today!

“Cradle of Scotland” – a colourful history of Forteviot

The Forteviot Arch

The Forteviot Arch

There’s a lovely Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin asks his father why old photos are always in black and white, and didn’t they have colour film back then?  His father answers by telling him that old photos were in colour, but that the world was black and white and didn’t turn into colour until the 1930s!  While he’s just teasing his son, sometimes, looking at the remains of ancient buildings today, it can seem that the past really was only in black and white!

"Cradle of Scotland" exhibition at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

“Cradle of Scotland” exhibition at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

Perhaps that’s why it was such a pleasure to see the digital re-colouring of the Forteviot Arch at the wonderful Cradle of Scotland exhibition currently on at the Hunterian Museum: a major exhibition that, through the archaeology of this ancient landscape, “explores the evolution of society from the loosely connected communities of early farmers in prehistory to the centralised kingdom of Alba (Gaelic for Scotland).”

And it’s quite a journey! From Neolithic Forteviot of 3000 BC with its burials, cremations and huge palisaded enclosure; through the Bronze Age and the forging of the striking Forteviot Dagger; to Iron Age hill-forts and the arrival of the Romans, which in turn saw the Caledonians becoming the Picts thanks to the Romans describing the people of this area as ‘Picti‘ – the ‘painted people’.

The richly decorated Bronze Age Forteviot Dagger

But what really intrigued me is the particularly interesting change in the course of the 9th century, when the kingdom that called itself Pictland eventually came to call itself the Kingdom of Alba.  What brought Kenneth mac Alpin eastwards from his western stronghold and how did the Kingdom of Scotland really come about?

Not so long ago I read an interesting account of this period which suggested that there wasn’t a swift and brutal take-over of Pictland by Kenneth and his Gaels, rather that there had long been much coming and going between the Gaels and the Picts.  But then growing pressure from Viking attacks from the 830s onwards created a Scotland full of turmoil and uncertainty, and it was this turmoil that may have prompted many Gaels to move eastwards.

3D illustration of the Dupplin Cross, also known as Constantine’s Cross with King Constantine mac Fergus mounted on his steed

Forteviot, long a spiritual, political and cultural centre of the southern Picts, as well as a fertile and wealthy part of the country, would have been an obvious place to head for.  The arrival of this new political elite may have slowly altered the balance of power, with the language and culture of the Gaels eventually superseding that of their cousins, the Picts.  In all events, Kenneth mac Alpin became the first king of this new Scottish dynasty with Forteviot at its centre.

It’s a fascinating exhibition and shows just how much archaeology continues to tell us about the past.  With 3D illustrations and magnificent contemporary exhibits, it’s definitely not a dull black and white past that unfolds, but one full of colour and vibrancy, depicting lives lived amidst both the mundane and the sacred.  Just watch the Forteviot Arch as the colour appears and the figures stand out in new depth and detail, almost cartoon-like in their appearance, but it will make you see our ancestors in a whole new light!


The Cradle of Scotland exhibition runs until 3rd January 2016

SERF : Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot