Retrospective: Glasgow to Bute

Though our journey was completed some weeks ago we are still processing the many lessons we learned from our encounters. Here are some reflections on our passage from Glasgow to Bute.

We felt renewed after our visit to Glasgow, enjoying kind hospitality from an interesting cross-section of people.  My friend Martin had shown us some classic cultural hot-spots in the West End, including flea-markets and venerable pubs, while Issy’s friend’s brother’s wife’s parents Frances and Charles invited us into their home for champagne with the emeritus archbishop of Glasgow.  We discussed religious intolerance and Islamophobia and Frances recalled being spat at for being Catholic when she was a little girl living in a Protestant area of Glasgow.  We had seen orangemen marching past the cathedral the day before and had heard a local express fears that a vote for independence in Scotland would stoke up the religious and political fires still smouldering beneath the surface in Northern Ireland.


Orangemen marching through Glasgow


We left Glasgow via the national cycle route 75 which took us through the beautiful grounds of Pollock House, once home to an aristocratic family an a thousand-strong community of servants, it now houses a cafe and a time-travelling murder-mystery game.


Following the Clyde out through the suburb of Paisley we met a retired lollipop man called Andrew.  He was out strolling and passing the time before boarding a bus then a train then a plane to Moscow.  He is spending his pension and days of retirement travelling to far-off destinations, seeing the sights and staying in hostels.  He spoke of the joys of meeting new people in distant lands, and was wiser for his experiences.  We discussed the deprivations faced by many in Scotland with the decline of the ship-building industry and he countered that he had seen ‘real’ poverty in Vietnam.


Andrew and Issy walking and talking


We stayed overnight in Lochwinnoch before walking on through torrential rain and across boggy moorland to Largs where a warm welcome awaited us.  We have occasionally found accommodation through Air BnB, relishing the opportunity to meet people who open their doors to strangers.  In Largs we found the most fantastic host in the person of Colin, who cheerfully told us that he had died twice in the last week.  He had been admitted to hospital with a very rare fever that meant he was quarantined.  At the height of his illness he was visited by a specialist with the intention of having ‘the conversation’ about death.  Colin pulled through and his chief concern appeared to be who would look after his guests!  It was refreshing to meet with such tremendous courage so lightly worn.

We were now in sight of the sea once more, with views across the water to the hills of Arran.  From here we would catch a ferry to Bute, for the first time moving towards our destination under artificial power instead of on our own two feet.  The end of our journey was in sight, and we were now in what was to prove the most beautiful phase of our journey.


On the ferry to Bute

We had chosen the Way of the Islands rather than the Highland way past Loch Lomond, partly for the greater beauty of the Western Isles and partly because we knew Bute to be a key location in the contemporary story of refugees in Britain.
When we first discussed our idea of walking to Iona and researching refugees some friends in London had pointed out that some Syrian families had recently been resettled on Bute.  It seemed unlikely that such a small and isolated community would be chosen as a place of resettlement so we looked it up and quickly found polarised views of a complicated situation.  The Daily Mail had run a story about ‘ungrateful’ refugees failing to integrate with their new community.  Other media outlets, local and national and including the BBC and The Guardian, ran counter stories praising the success of the initiative.  It was obvious that media lenses were having their usual distorting or fuzzying effects and we decided we would like to go and learn what we could about the situation at first hand.

After a swift internet search we were soon in touch with Monica, Mounzer and Father Michael. Monica hosts the Facebook page ‘Bute Welcomes Refugees’. She opened her doors to us and gave us a meal and a bed in her beautiful home which she calls An Tearman, meaning ‘Sanctuary’ in Gaelic. We were reminded of the City of Sanctuary scheme and also the tradition of places of worship being places of refuge (a tradition too often noted for its violations, such as the murder of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. She told us about her experiences fostering teenagers whom others had branded ‘difficult’. She understood that these individuals thrived when they felt they were really listened to, and was able to provide that calm listening presence which harassed teachers and others had neglected to offer. She has a powerful empathy for refugee, which she put down to her own experience of war and destruction when she was an infant in Hamburg.

With Monica in her sanctuary

Monica interview

Mounzer is a barber, husband, and father who fled war in Syria and resettled in Bute. We discovered him via a local news article which described the barber-shop he had opened with the help of a business grant. His first customer was the local MP. He told us how he and the other Syrian families on the island had no choice over where he was resettled, and there were difficulties associated with being on an island with only two Arabic interpreters and limited work opportunities. Another man with university qualifications had been washing dishes at a stately home, and some families and moved away from the island to join larger Syrian communities in Bradford or Sheffield. Mounzer had stayed and worked hard to develop his English language skills. He volunteered at a local hair-dressers and learned about the different expectations of Scottish customers, and was still developing his barber’s small-talk. His children attend a local school and in the absence of any mosques he and other muslims are able to worship in the local parish church thanks to their new friend Father Michael. He gave me a first rate trim and a cup of cardamom tea and was friendly and efficient, bearing the long hours of fasting in his far Northern Ramadan with smiling equanimity.

Mounzer audio


Mounzer in The Orient Salon

As Mounzer had made clear, it takes perseverance to make a new life in a strange place, but he was sustained by the friendliness and kindness of the people he met on Bute.  We had seen examples of that kindness in Monica and Father Michael, but we also heard about less friendly attitudes.  One lady told me that the people of Bute felt they hadn’t been consulted before the resettlement scheme came into effect, leading to resentment and a feeling of disempowerment in the local community.

On a small island like this there is a clear division between those who are born here (in Bute’s case they are known as Brandaynes) and ‘incomers’, meaning everybody else. Even if you live on the island for decades you are still an ‘incomer’ if you are not born there. I spoke to a local builder whose family had been Brandaynes for generations, and while he claimed to be easy-going he spoke of others who resented the gifts of bicycles given to the children of Syrian families when local kids got nothing. He also spoke of local suspicions that the veils worn by Syrian women were a sign that they were not well treated. Local children, he told me, would shout out ‘ninja’ when they saw these women, and adults would gossip about domestic quarrelling  among the Syrians as if it was something never seen in Scottish families.

In this sense Bute is a microcosm of Britain as a whole.  Think of the all too common hostility to immigrants which is so often stirred up by elements of the media which conflates refugees and economic migrants into one threatening mass.  In Bute, as in Britain, we see those who empathise with refugees and those who are suspicious or hostile. We live in hope that hostility and fear will diminish as time, proximity and education reduce ignorance and the shared humanity of the ‘incomers’ and ‘natives’ becomes apparent.

Bute waves

Glasgow: Audio and writing


Retrospective:  June

On the way to Iona we entered Glasgow via Hamilton and soon saw evidence of the mighty architecture of the Industrial Age in the city that was once the second largest in Britain. We saw a plaque commemorating a battle with the English and discovered the necropolis, modelled on that of Pere-Lachaise in Paris and filled with impressive monuments. Glasgow city centre felt familiar- its combination of steep hills and central grid evocative of San Francisco and Melbourne. We saw the mighty Tenant’s brewery in the shadow of the medieval cathedral and discovered street-poetry that chimed with our long journey now entering its final stages.


That evening we visited the night-shelter set up and supervised by Phil and staffed by volunteers. Each night the volunteers cook and serve meals for around twenty destitute men, nearly all of them asylum-seekers who have no claim to state support. Phil told us how the government was essentially starving these people out of the country, having rejected their claims to stay but not actually deported them. The men spoke of long days sheltering in public libraries and struggling to occupy and feed themselves. A visiting journalist recently wrote about the hall where the men sleep fitfully, disturbed by each other’s night terrors of recent suffering and escape.

There is a separate room for women in the shelter, though there were none staying when we visited. Not all of the men were asylum seekers, some were vulnerable people from Britain who had found their way to sanctuary here.  One young man told us about his struggles on the streets of different cities all over the UK, and how grateful he was for Phil’s friendship, protection and advice.

Notices in the night-shelter

Click below to hear what Phil had to say about the shelter:


We returned to Glasgow after leaving Iona at the conclusion of our pilgrimage.  This  time we arranged to meet L from Gambia, a former detainee now waiting for his visa case to be processed. In the past he had relied on Phil and the night-shelter for accomodation. He now lives in a shared flat in East Glasgow, and due to his uncertain status he is not allowed to work, though he is studying I.T. and looks forward to the day when he can support himself and contribute to society in a meaningful way.

We got in touch with him through Indre at Samphire, the organisation that we had contacted in Dover on the first day of our pilgrimage. Lasana would have loved to walk with us but at this time he was fasting for Ramadan.  Fasting from dawn to dusk in equatorial regions is one thing, but the long days of Scotland in midsummer present a special challenge for muslims who cannot break their fast between four in the morning and ten o’clock at night!  Here he is speaking about the people and organisations that have helped him through ‘tough, tough, times’.

With L in the Botanical Gardens in Glasgow

Listen to our chat with L in the link below:


To mark World Refugee Day we attended a lecture at Glasgow University given by Professor Alison Phipps. Alison is a scholar, poet, a long-time host for refugees and co-convener of the Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network. She has just been made the first UNESCO Chair of Refugee Integration Through Languages and the Arts. This was her inaugural lecture, and the lecture theatre was filled with people and music when we arrived.


Alison has kindly given us permission to share this recording of her inspirational words, combined with the music of Gameli Tordzro and musicians from Scotland, Ghana, Gambia and Burkhina Faso, as well as poetry composed and performed by Alison and Tawona Sitholé. The lecture concluded with a performance by Noyam African Dance Institute from Dodoma in Ghana. You can hear the powerful and energetic mime and dance routine at the conclusion of Alison’s inspirational talk in the link below.


Alison Phipps Lecture

Gameli Tordzro and his band

World Refugee Day Special: Dumfries

To mark World Refugee Day we are posting a bumper blog of audio and photos from our visit to Dumfries on 25th-26th May.

We hope that by sharing the stories of the folk we met others will be inspired to emulate their examples of courage, pragmatism and generosity.  If you would like to support or contact any of them just click on the links.  Read to the end to learn about an opportunity to take part in a fantastic community engagement project that involves cycling and soup!

Travelling South-West to Dumfries meant diverting from the straight route to Iona, but we had a friend who would accomodate us and thought we could see an interesting path up to Glasgow from there. As it turned out Dumfries gave us some of our most inspiring meetings: for a small town it boasts powerful communal, artistic and charitable impulses.

Morning yoga

We were welcomed by a woman called Jill who had heard about our walk and offered to put us up at her house. Her kindness to strangers is inspired by her Buddhism, and she gave us a comfortable room, a delicious dinner and a free Yoga lesson to ease our aching joints. Jill has been trekking in Nepal and knew how much walkers cherish the opportunity to rest, eat and wash clothes. She and I had both visited the Langtang valley in the Himalayas, which was devastated by an earthquake two years ago. Jill has worked hard to assist the people who had been affected, undertaking a sponsored series of sun-salutations to raise money for a shelter for the elderly.

Jill took us to meet another inspiring local woman called Moxie. In 2015 she set up a charity called MOOL, which stands for ‘Massive Outpouring of Love’. Like many others Moxie had been appalled by the media coverage of the suffering of refugees and asylum seekers. She was moved to ‘put her head above the parapet’ and set up an online forum requesting donations which she intended to drive to Calais in a small van. It seemed that people had been waiting for somebody to take the initiative and the response she got was overwhelming. A local church offered her space to store the thousands of donations that came flooding in but even this proved too small. Two years later MOOL is still collecting and redistributing donations from a warehouse donated by the local council. They now send trucks direct to camps in Lebanon and have also helped with disaster relief closer to home, supplying donated blankets to the victims of flooding in Carlisle.

You can hear the remarkable story of MOOL in Moxie’s own words here.

With Moxie, third from right, and MOOL volunteers
Hand-knitted hats, jumpers and baby blankets donated by a local knitting group and destined for children in refugee camps

In the afternoon we visited the Allanton World Peace Sanctuary by the River Nith. Set up in the wake of the Atomic Bomb attacks on Japan there are many of these centres spread around the world, with the aim of spreading peace. Their motto ‘May Peace Prevail on Earth’ is inscribed in different languages on pillars in the grounds, one for each nation. You can hear the story of the European Peace Centre in the words of its founder Caroline hereIMG_0688

On the day we visited the centre was hosting a group of refugee families who had been given the opportunity of a weekend break from Glasgow by the Red Cross. Women from a dozen countries were staying alongside each other, sharing meals and participating in craft-based activities while their children played together under the supervision of volunteers. We joined a group of them for a walk by the river. While Christy skimmed stones with the children Isabel interviewed Gesya, a former refugee now working for the Red Cross. You can listen to what Gesya had to say here.

The group enjoying the sun at Friar’s Carse on the River Nith

IMG_0681Later we were able to repay Jill for her kindness with a private tour of some remarkable gardens thanks to a connection we have we the owners. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is occasionally open to the public to raise money for Maggie’s cancer centre. On this brilliantly sunny day we had the place to ourselves. The garden was conceived by Charles Jencks and his late wife, Maggie Keswick, it has evolved with the help of Alastair, the head gardener, ever since.  It is inspired by the worlds of cosmology, physics and nature, and has to be seen to be believed. Alastair carefully explained the narrative of the garden to us: the water cascade of steps recounting the story of the universe; a terrace shows the distortion of space and time caused by a black hole; a “Quark Walk” takes the visitor on a journey to the smallest building blocks of matter and a series of landforms and lakes recall fractal geometry.


To round of a busy day we visited The Stove, a community hub in the centre of Dumfries set up and run by Matt to create a safe place for local residents to explore art and exchange ideas. In an interview with us Matt explained how Dumfries town centre had been gutted by out of town supermarkets and international chains, and how he hoped to bring life and creativity back to the heart of the community. Matt also kindly invited us to speak about our pilgrimage at the spoken word event ‘Brave New Words’ that evening, our first attempt to speak about our journey on stage. You can hear what Matt has to say here.

Dumfries bathed in May sunshine

That evening we stayed with family friend Alice. She had lots of experience volunteering in ‘the Jungle’ in Calais and spoke about the value of simple grass-roots action. She herself has designed and built a mobile soup-kitchen which she hopes to deliver to Glasgow, London or Calais. A bike with a trailer that folds out to become a covered table and benches with stove and cooking pot, the contraption is known as ‘Stone-Soup’. The aim is to provide free meals to those who are destitute, be they asylum-seekers without recourse to state provisions or others who have fallen through the net of social care. The name comes from a parable that has variants in many different cultures:  some travellers arrive in a village and by persuading each villager to add to the ‘soup’ they are making (initially just a stone is some boiling water) they create a nutritious meal to feed everyone.

The parable teaches us that if many people make a small and practical contribution, something wonderful can be achieved. A valuable lesson in the context of a crisis that can seem overwhelming.

If you would like to cycle the Stone-Soup kitchen on a leg of its journey from Dumfries to London and on to Calais, please get in touch with us on and we will connect you with Alice.

The ingenious mobile soup-kitchen designed by Alice