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Walking in the steps of Patrick MacGill

April 8, 2011

In my blog of 4th January, I gave a description of my walk from Kinlochleven up to the Blackwater Dam in the steps of the writer and poet Patrick MacGill.

I have just been re-reading his first book Children of the Dead End, his account of navvying and tramping days in Scotland before the Great War. Although billed as a novel it is nearly pure autobiography. It is a moving tale of a very hard life.

Today, we have members of the government – most of whom have never held down a proper job in their lives – telling the rest of us that we must work hard until we drop of old age. The 23 millionaires in the Cabinet would do well to read MacGill’s books so that they have some understanding of the hard work real people have done, and still do.

They might even be humbled, though I doubt it. They might even discover the rare quality of compassion, though I doubt any of them could spell the word!

For the rest of us, particularly hillwalkers, walking in the steps of the Kinlochleven navvies, carrying a copy of MacGill’s book could be an enterprising adventure. The hero and his friend Moleskin Joe (the eponymous hero of a later MacGill novel) tramp much the route of the present West Highland Way up to the Blackwater. You will never see that landscape with quite the same eyes once you have read MacGill’s descriptions.

If you only have a day to spare I recommend again the walk from Kinlochleven to the dam, visiting the site of the navvies camp and the sad and lonely burial ground where they buried the navvies who were killed on the project.

Navvies Graveyard, near Kinlochleven

As well as reading MacGill’s books before you go, do seek out the wonderful CD No Stranger to the Rain by Keith Campbell, a fine tribute to MacGill, featuring some of his verse and other wayfaring songs (try Amazon). Keith’s songs really do give you the feel of the hardworking navvies who lived such hard lives.

Probably no 20th century writer apart from George Orwell has captured this strange world better than Patrick MacGill. Do read his books!

Books to read by Patrick MacGill:

Children of the Dead End (the one to start with).

Moleskin Joe.

The Rat-Pit.

The Great Push.

All of the above are, happily, in print.

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