When I have an idea for an adventure it becomes an itch that I have to scratch. Yesterday’s mission was no different, so when the weather forecast predicted a perfect day, I grabbed my bike and a packet of jammie dodgers and set off on a mini pilgrimage.
This cycling adventure turned out to be wonderfully straightforward and easy – mostly flat or downhill – so would be well suited to fairly intermediate cyclists. If, like me, you find no joy in cycling along main roads, but you’re not quite up to hardcore mountain biking, then this route is perfect. There are a couple of inclines but nothing too horrible – and of course inclines bring incredible views, always making it worth the effort.
My end goal was to reach Keir Mill – birthplace of Kirkpatrick Macmillan, inventor of the bicycle and I felt it fitting to honour this man’s story by cycling on my own trusty bike to the place of its ancestors. The hamlet of Keir Mill lies 17 miles south of Sanquhar and can be reached by either going along the A76 and turning off at the sign for Penpont, or you can opt to take the beautiful ‘back road’ which, for much of the journey, runs parallel with the A76, on the opposite side of the River Nith. It is this road which I have spent much time studying and memorising the various landmarks along it’s route and I couldn’t wait to bring my maps to life.
I set off from Sanquhar just after 10 am, and although I didn’t have a map I did have a hand written list of all the various farms, hills and burns to look out for on my route…which I lost after the first time I took it out of my pocket. But thankfully I knew that as long as I simply headed in a straight line, I couldn’t go wrong.
My first point of interest along the way did not disappoint. I was intrigued by the look of a building which has no name on the OS maps, but I’m guessing it is called Eliock House judging by the names of the surrounding places – Eliock Gardens, Eliock Lodge etc. This stunning mansion lies tucked away less than a mile away from the main road, yet really it is in another world. You have to sort of deviate from the lane a bit to find this place, but if you do miss the turning you can always loop back up to it when you come to the old sawmill.
After this, the route now runs right alongside the River Nith for a long stretch, offering up dozens of picturesque spots to rest on the banks, or out on one of the many little rocky ‘islands’ in the river. I think I always forget just how amazing this time of the year really is, but, as I sat and rested by the water I was soon reminded of the colourful magic of Spring – all around me, on a patch of ground no more than 2 square meters, I could count 10 different wildflowers. The scent of the Ramsons (wild garlic) and the Bluebells, along with the delicate beauty of the Wood Anemones and Cuckoo Flower and the sunshine brightness of the Dandelions, Daisies and Buttercups was a work of wonder indeed.
Shortly after passing Glenairlie Bridge (which crosses the river next to the picnic spot and public toilets along the A76), the lane leaves the riverside behind and continues up and around a hill, cutting through perfectly green farmland. Cloudless patches of bright blue sky illuminated the picture-book green fields and as the ground rose slightly higher I was afforded stunning views right up the Nith valley.
At the point where the lane forks, I ignored the cycle signposts which told me to veer left and I continued straight forwards. This left-hand turning would have lead me right through the Drumlanrig estate, but instead I knew that if I continued onwards I could skirt around the edge of the main part of the castle grounds, thus saving time. Of course the route through Drumlanrig is wonderful and is well worth doing another time.
I lost count of the amount of stunning cottages and farmhouses I passed along the way and I don’t think I could choose a favourite – although one cottage curiously called ‘The Ring’ was quite lovely, surrounded by bleating lambs and circled by a pair of low-flying red kites. By the time I passed Glengar Cottage and through the woods of the same name, all of a sudden I came to a row of cottages and realised I had arrived in Penpont. It had taken me approximately 3 hours from Sanquhar to this point, but that includes breaks and mini adventures up some of the burns so could be done a lot faster.
Since I had made such good time I decided to have a wander around Penpont church graveyard, spotting some beautifully carved old gravestones. After spending every evening of the last week solely reading and writing about the Covenanters, I had planned on having a Covenanter-free day until I unintentionally stumbled upon a grand memorial and grave of a minister who had been forced out of Penpont parish during the Covenanter’s era.
I have not found much information on this man but it is thought he managed to flee to Holland, thus surviving until after the ‘Killing Time’ was over. I quite like his style – he obviously remained firm in his Presbyterian beliefs and refused to adhere to the king’s demands, yet he wasn’t crazy enough to hold sermons on windy moors, waiting to be shot or captured. In my experience hiding out in Holland is always a good choice in times of crisis.
From Penpont, I continued up a short way towards Keir Mill and one of the first buildings I came to pleasingly turned out to be my destination – the old blacksmiths where Macmillan built his first bicycle.
Kirkpatrick Macmillan was born in Keir Mill on September 2nd 1812 and is widely credited as the inventor of the pedal driven bicycle, although as Undiscovered Scotland points out “just about every aspect of the invention of the bicycle is subject to considerable controversy “. Indeed a man named Gavin Dalzell copied Macmillan’s design and passed the details on to so many people that for 50 years he was generally regarded as the inventor. But since we now have plaques and information boards dedicated to Macmillan we’ll stick to the story of him being the bicycle inventor.
By all accounts Macmillan was not after fame and glory with his inventions, highlighted by the quote on one of the sandstone plaques which reads ‘He builded better than he knew’. I guess he just simply liked inventing things. But, as I stood with my bike outside Macmillan’s family blacksmiths, I raised my flask of coffee to him and thanked him for being part of an invention which changed the world – and one which had transported me to that spot 180 years after his first prototype wobbled down that same lane.