The Sign-Poster’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Sign-Poster’s Tale

by Alistair Lawson

On reaching the boundary between Berwickshire and East Lothian, the Coastal Path takes on an additional name, ‘The John Muir Way’, after the so-called ‘Father of Conservation’, albeit he is known better for his exploits in the High Sierra of the American West, rather for than for his childhood doings in East Lothian.

Alistair Lawson installing a new sign
Alistair Lawson installs a sign

The John Muir Way is marked by sign-posts at all points of doubt or difficulty, the signs being in the standard white-lettering-on-green-background style used by most of the Scottish local authorities and also used as its in-house norm by the Scottish Rights of Way & Access Society (‘ScotWays’, for short). I was responsible for installing the sign-posts on the John Muir Way when I was the Society’s Field Officer working on contract to East Lothian Council. Here is one of my early experiences in this sort of work.

I was busy digging a hole, intent on what I was doing and taking no notice of what was going on around me, which was not much, in that I was in a rural location, with only fields and cattle for company. As I looked up momentarily to take a breath and rest an aching back, I caught sight of a rustic ancient, who had sidled up quietly, his approach muffled by the noise of my spade. We caught each other’s eye and exchanged the universal ‘Aye, aye’ of greeting. This local worthy was dressed in a farm worker’s dark grey suit, together with farm worker’s cap and farm worker’s boots, all typical of the period from Victorian times through to the 1950s. All he lacked was a working horse and plough. He took care not to come too unsociably close, but established himself comfortably against a nearby dyke and busied himself with the important business of getting his pipe going, in between which I was aware that he was keeping a close eye on what I was doing.

When the hole was sufficiently deep for my purposes, I moved on to the next stage, unloading the pole and beginning to fix the metal base-plate to one end and the plastic top-cap to the other, followed by the sign. My sixth sense told me that all this was being closely watched by my silent companion and, as I rose from my duties and faced him again, he ventured, ‘Aye, aye – putting up a sign then, are you?’ ‘Yes’, I confirmed, glad that my efforts had been accurately identified. Further silence followed, he with pipe, I with the final act of my little drama, preparing the concrete, adding water, ‘planting’ the pole, hammering down broken bricks into the concrete, fussing about with spirit level and generally attending to the fine detail of quality control.

My observer missed nothing, as revealed by his next remark, ‘Aye, aye – that’ll be you finished then?’ I confirmed that that was so, which satisfied him for the moment, as the pipe was needing more attention. I busied myself with filling in the rest of the hole, chucking the rest of the spoil over the dyke, packing up the tools and generally making ready to leave, conscious all the while that this rustic ancient had probably done a thousand times more days of manual labour than I ever would and was probably noting critically all the things that betrayed my city-boy origins.

In order to rinse my muddy hands in the nearby burn, I had to pass close to where he was sitting, and it was clear that we should speak again. Somewhat to my surprise, because I had gathered over the course of our time together than he wasn’t exactly an effusive conversationalist, he took the initiative. His body-language betrayed that, during the whole period of observation, something had been increasingly bothering him, and now he had prepared himself and was ready to come out with it, before I left.

‘Aye, aye, laddie, that’s an awfu’ braw bit sign, but – dae ye ken whit?’ (and this was delivered with a slow shaking of the head, as if to convey total incredulity) ‘A’body kens whaur that path gaes’.

I felt it would be a kindness to him not to trouble him with the finer points of local authority policy on outdoor recreation, national strategic objectives on healthy living and all those other obscure concepts which had not been invented in the days when he followed his horse and plough up and down the furrows.

The ‘ScotWays’ Society goes back just about as far as John Muir, having been founded in 1845 by Adam Black, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, and others, in response to difficulties encountered on the outskirts of the city as it expanded into previously open country. Black’s family was perhaps better known as the publishers of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’. His statue can be found in Princes Street Gardens in the city centre.