This story has been twenty years in the making, and you can put another five months on top of that if you want to take it back to its conception in the Market Bar in Inverness at Hogmanay in 2002 going into 2003. Falkirk were top of the league with Steve Paterson’s Inverness breathing down their necks. I think there were five of us enjoying football related craic as the old year wound down: Govan Jaggie, Seoras, Shennachie, Bronson and myself. Bronson et moi were on Newcastle Brown, as we usually were, and for whatever reason that I don’t recall, I let it slip that I was going to be fifty in a couple of months and I fancied marking my fiftieth year with something special: “Why don’t we walk to the last game of the season?” “Where is it?” “Falkirk away.” “Right, let’s do it.”
The embryonic Highland March had been conceived.
After a home defeat to St Johnstone at the start of May, half a dozen fans set off bright and early on the Sunday morning for the 160 mile trek to the last ever game at Brockville in support of the Moray Firth Radio Charity Trust. We learned a lot in those next seven days, but what happens on the March stays on the March, to use dressing room parlance. We were essentially a bunch of townies in a world of wildlife adventure. For the record, Charlie Christie scored the last ever goal at Brockville, Inverness inflicted Falkirk’s first home defeat of the season but they still won the Championship back in the day when you weren’t allowed to go up if you didn’t have 6000 seats, so Motherwell stayed up on a technicality. There was no VAR in the corridors of power back in those days. But the biggest winner of that Highland March was the MFR Charity Trust for whom we managed to raise three and a half grand.
That was meant to be it, a one off walk on the wildside, but Caley Canary, who was on that gig end to end, let it be known in the following deep midwinter that he was going also going to be fifty shortly, and asked that we do it again. Inverness were in familiar territory, sitting in second place but some way behind runaway leaders Clyde who subsequently managed to Arsenal their season by winning only four of their last eleven games and after Steve Hislop converted a cross for 1-2 at Broadwood late in the penultimate game of the season, promotion was back in Inverness’s hands. As Highland Marchers, all we had to do was walk 170 miles back up the road to Caledonian Stadium for the party. By way of notoriety, we had a BBC camera crew in tow before and after the Clyde game, and again when we set off to walk the Pass of Glen Tromie in glorious sunshine on the Wednesday morning. The result was the title, and promotion for Inverness, a massive party, ground sharing at Aberdeen and another three grand for the MFR Charity Trust.
And then the penny dropped: this Highland Marching caper was actually bloody good fun. The same wee hardy crew every season, drawn from all walks of life: the railway, engineering, banking, construction, law, journalism: we had all angles covered for a great week on the road. And we learned how to deal with adversity. We swapped charities after three years, and started supporting the International Children’s Charity, but eventually the funding dwindled, as it does when you’ve been doing something for a number of years and tapping the same people, so from about Highland March 5 onwards, we just kept the show on the road for the craic. I did ten of them before announcing my retirement after the March back up the road from St Mirren in 2013: I drove the support bus the following year when the guys took a week to walk from Inverness to Dingwall via the Isle of Skye: simply because they could.
One of the key considerations for me in making that switch was that in 2013, I got my bus pass and a folding mountain bike and so began the next big adventure of my life: I guess that just like the Highland March, I just didn’t appreciate what was about to unfold. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I was living in Ayrshire near Kilmarnock and working at what was then Weir Pumps in Cathcart on the south side of Glasgow. It was at a time when both Vanessa Riddle and Oscar Knox were prominent on my social media timeline for their urgent need to receive medical treatment abroad for neuroblastoma, treatment that they could not get at the time in the UK. Something triggered in me: here you had families facing the devastating news that their precious child had been diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, but they’d also to raise upwards of a quarter of a million pounds in next to no time in an attempt to alleviate their child’s suffering. It was the summer of 2013 and I had this (mad) idea that maybe, just maybe, folk would support me cycling to and from work over the Fenwick Muir at a penny a mile: after all, it’s only a thousand feet of climbing each way every twelve hours, and unlit in the winter down the old A77. What could possibly go wrong?
I took counsel from Angela Haggerty on whether this idea would fly, and her words are in part the reason why the Road To Hampden will happen on May 30th. All she said was “There’s only one way you’re going to find out”. LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma was born, and it was the real reason I retired from the Highland March after 2013. I became a mile muncher instead: the more miles I cycled, the more pennies rolled into what was then the Neuroblastoma Children’s Cancer Alliance (later to become Solving Kids Cancer).
The SPL, as they did back then, dropped a midweek fixture into the 2014 schedule and Inverness were at Fir Park, Motherwell on the Wednesday night ahead of the final home game of the season against St Johnstone on the Sunday. The Marchers were still going strong and they were doing the regular gig, albeit that they started walking on the Sunday then got bussed back to Motherwell for the Wednesday night. I had other ideas, and after a banterous exchange with Dunco, himself a veteran of about five of six HM’s, we decided to cycle it, setting off at the final whistle at Fir Park. We’d told the Marchers that we were planning to wild camp on that Wednesday night but that was merely a decoy operation because the real goal was to ambush them on the Thursday morning, which we duly did at a bacon butty shop in Pitlochry while they were en route to start the walking leg from Drumguish at the top end of Glen Tromie, to Carrbridge. Outstanding tomfoolery! The Marchers were booked into the Carrbridge bunkhouse, but unbeknown to them, so were we. With 160 miles already in our legs after seventeen hours on the road, we actually stopped at Tesco in Aviemore and filled up the panniers with beer for some extra weight on the road north to the bunkhouse. We bagged the top bunks and ambushed them a second time a couple of hours later. More outstanding tomfoolery!
But Highland Bike 1 took a very sad turn the next morning. The wifi signal at the bunkhouse was very weak and it wasn’t until the Friday morning that I learned that wee Oscar had passed away the day before. I worked out that Dunco n I would have been somewhere near Loch Insh approaching Kincraig when Oscar passed. The irony was not lost on any of us: that was pretty much the same spot where we, as Highland Marchers had been walking when The General told us of Tommy Burns’ passing on Highland March 6. Some things never leave you: as Marchers, we formed a guard of honour on the park at Caledonian Stadium for the final home game against St Mirren and remained in place for the minute’s silence for Tommy Burns. A surreal moment in my football following life, matched only by being in another guard of honour at Caledonian Stadium just as Oscar’s funeral was taking place in Belfast.
That same year, 2014, a Celtic fan legend, Iain McGovern, set out to walk 232 miles from Celtic Park to Anfield in support of SIMBA, and the Justice for the 96 campaign. Iain was walking solo, and his journey absolutely floated my boat. I took the Friday afternoon off and I reckoned that he’d be somewhere between Beattock Summit and Johnstonebridge. Having cycled home from work, I got cleaned up and jumped in the motor in hot pursuit of the big man. I duly found him about eight miles north of Johnstonebridge services so I whacked the motor into neutral, wound the window down and coasted up alongside him. “Excuse me mate, do you have a licence for using the public highway for good causes?” How he laughed. I motored on, parked up in the services (for which I got ticketed for overstaying my welcome) then hitched a lift back up the road to walk the last few miles with the big man. Who stopped to give me a lift, none other than his good lady Jack, and more of Iain’s support crew.
A special friendship was born. When big Mouldy, big Kev, wee Robert and myself cycled from Forres Mechanics to Inverness then onward to Celtic Park in 2015, we needed a support driver. Who stepped forward, having jumped on a train north from Newcastle? Iain McGovern.
Iain McGovern is the glue that binds the Highland March, the Highland Bike and the Road To Hampden together as one: he just doesn’t realise it. Iain was the guy who introduced me to Brogan Rogan, Trevino and Hogan, aka Jim McGinley, the story telling booted adventurer fae the West End of Glasgow. Iain also introduced me to Jane Maguire, without whom the Road To Hampden would not be a thing. Iain and Jack got married pitchside at Celtic Park in June 2019 – it was my wife’s birthday as it turned out – and we found ourselves invited to the wedding. It was a remarkable day, with remarkable people, in a remarkable setting. A wedding reception in the Kerrydale, ooooft!
I’d just come back from Australia (for the second time) having cycled solo across the outback from Brisbane to Adelaide in support of Neuroblastoma Australia a few months earlier, and I was looking for a new endurance challenge. As it says in the U2 song “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.
Jim McGinley had arranged for Vanessa Riddle and I to walk out on the hallowed turf at Celtic Park when Inverness came visiting in November 2014, and that gig preceded big Mouldy and I heading to Belfast on Cycling Santas duty for Solving Kids Cancer a month later. That was the start of the Mouldy years that have persisted ever since.
Slowly but surely, the pieces were slotting into place in the jigsaw that was ultimately going to become The Road To Hampden.
But back to the wedding. I was nine months into a cycling sabbatical that was due to end two weeks later on the anniversary of Princess Puddles’s passing. Wee Eileidh Paterson was crowned Princess Puddles on the Celtic Way at the end of that cycle from Forres when the heavens opened as the cyclists were turning left onto London Road, just thirty seconds from the Celtic Way.
I was re-telling that story to Jane Maguire at the wedding reception, and I was explaining how I felt that my new journey was lacking a focal point. This time around, it felt like just doing miles wasn’t going to be enough anymore, and I wondered whether supporting the Celtic Foundation would provide that missing link. Jane’s wise, and although she understood the potential, she also realised that I was maybe just lost in the wilderness, looking for the right road. In effect, Jane talked me into going back to Solving Kids Cancer because that’s ultimately where my journey lay. Looking back, the SKC link has probably never been stronger in any of the ten years that I’ve been on the road. I even managed to bank the single biggest donation of the whole LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma / Ride2Cure journey in 2019 when I went into Shotts prison to cycle 2222km with the prisoners on spin bikes in a day: they donated two thousand five hundred pounds of their earnings to neuroblastoma research. And now, as the admin for Around The World in 800 Days on Wahoo RGT, Solving Kids Cancer branding is on every stage, and the neuroblastoma awareness message is reaching out daily to a global audience. Jane, you were right, and I thank you for your infinite wisdom.
That brings me back to big Mouldy and his epic fundraising adventures on two wheels for the Celtic Foundation. In 2016, when we went on a train journey north to spend the day with Princess Puddles to mark 20K LCFN miles, the big man asked me if I’d fancy cycling to Lisbon to mark the 50th anniversary of Celtic becoming the first British team to win the European Cup. As a non-Celtic fan, I loved the idea, but it didn’t sit right with me going on the road with another team’s supporters and pretending to be one of them: so I passed up the opportunity. However the Road To Lisbon was an outstanding success and I take my hat off to everyone who took part: a fantastic achievement by a dedicated huddle of guys n gals. The follow-on Road To Milan got knocked on the head by the pandemic, but that didn’t stop the same crew planning and delivering The Road To Seville, a journey that’s finishing as I pen these words. For the very same reasons that I didn’t take on the first ride to Lisbon, I wasn’t attracted to do the Seville ride either, although the legs were probably in good enough shape to give it a square go. But I did want to be at Celtic Park to see them off the premises and wish them good luck: and that brings the story back to Jane Maguire.
By now, Inverness had been pitched against Celtic in the Scottish Cup Final at Hampden on the 3rd June and with celebrated history between the two clubs in the competition, I had this earworm of an idea going round in my head: would it be possible to cycle from Inverness to Glasgow, or more specifically from Caledonian Stadium to Hampden Park via Celtic Park, in a single day? It’s a route that I’ve either walked or cycled on many occasions. The only reason I need Strava is to record the miles: I know the route off by heart. I went along to Celtic Park early doors at the start of the Road To Seville and clocked Jane standing pitchside as the cyclists set off on their two laps of honour around the stadium.
“Jane, hello, long time no see. I’ve got this idea going round in my head and it won’t go away. I’m thinking of cycling from Inverness to Glasgow in a day to mark Inverness playing Celtic in the cup final. There’s so much history between us in the Scottish Cup that it feels like too good an opportunity to miss.”
Jane looked me straight in the eye and said “You’re not sure it’s possible though, are you?”
Me: “No, I’m not sure. It feels like it’s right on the edge of what’s possible at my age.”
Jane: “And that’s exactly why you’re going to try.”
And so The Road To Hampden was born.
Proper discussions got under way later that day, but by Monday, we’d basically nailed it. The Road To Hampden is bringing two clubs together, two sets of supporters together and two charities together: the Celtic Foundation supporting the disadvantaged in Glasgow, and Mikeysline supporting Suicide Prevention in the Highlands. At last, my desire to do something in support of the Foundation had found a home, and partnering with a charity in Inverness that means a lot to the Highland Marchers, we have the perfect adventure to showcase the Highland March twenty years on.
My first port of call after deciding to take this on was Gringo Joonya, my fellow Field Marshal from the HM. We became Field Marshals by walking gazillions of miles together. Basically, the more miles you walked down the years, the higher your rank, starting off as a cadet on your first March and rising up through Private, Corporal, Sergeant etc. I think we both got FM topped off by single malt somewhere over the Corrieyairack Pass in a sleet storm on HM10.
“Joonya, if I ride my bike from Inverness to Glasgow on 30th May, will you drive support in my motor?”
“Right, let’s do it. Let’s get the auld team back out on the road and have some fun.”
What is it they say about Highland Marchers…..
“We never stop.”
Except we did it first.