open country

I was sceptical about what sort of a person Ian Macartney would be after speaking with him on the phone.

I have found the speakers for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society this season to be pleased to tell me about their background and generally quite humble considering their personal achievements.

When I spoke with Ian he seemed aloof and grudged the fact that we had to publicise his talk. There was one thing that was certain: all have varying degrees of eccentricity which tends to aid the interest in them and their adventures.

When I entered the lecture theatre I could not see our speaker sitting out front or talking to the chair and the treasurer. Then I spotted Ian – I recognised him from his photo in which he was wearing a red vest, holding his bicycle and smiling. He was sitting in the front row, almost blending in with the audience.

This was symbolic of his personality; in the moments that I approached him I quickly grew a better understanding of him. After his shock at appearing on the top page of a paper he had decided that “I got him just right.”

However, when this man stood in front of us to tell us about Uruguay he morphed into a different being. He spoke clearly and with the perfect amount of enthusiasm to take us on a journey through this country which turned out to have many historic and some modern connections to Britain, especially Scotland.

One of the first slides that came up was a statue of a man in 18th century garb; it was James Watt standing proud outside the central train station of Montevideo. The little boy who was considered lazy because he watched the steam in the kettle for hours was now revered for his steam engine in a far off land.

A favourite pastime of travellers is to take photographs of unexpected signs. Included in Ian’s slide show were a number of street signs named after English writers – Byron, Shakespeare. Specially for the Borders group he had included a sign that read Walter Scott.

He was delighted to relate the story of how he started speaking to a local man here whom he was able to correct about Scott’s nationality – more pertinent was the chance to tell the tale in Scott’s country.

He did meet one local who had a great fondness for Scotland for one particular reason. Uruguay is a flat country and, therefore, has many green plains for grazing beasts; the most common type is short-horned Herefords. The cattle are never kept in barns and they look exceptionally clean and healthy.

Eduardo, a gaucho, stopped under the shade of a tree on the road one afternoon to talk to Ian. He was very happy to learn that the cyclist was from Scotland. He asked after neither his country nor his family but wished to know how the Aberdeen Angus were.

A little known fact, relating to beef farming, is that Fray Bentos, purveyors of processed meat products, began in Uruguay. The label refers to the German who invented the process of creating long life-beef food-stuffs. No longer a working factory it is famous for corned beef and Oxo cubes, for example. Their tinned beef meals fed many soldiers during the world wars.

As the talk began with Scottish references, so it ended with the same. One morning Ian had stopped at a small bread shop where the proprietor was sitting on a crate after baking for several hours. He motioned the traveler to sit beside him on the other crate.

When he discovered he was Scottish he told him he should go and see Tony, he is Scottish too.

Tony was phoned and Ian was given directions to his house. When he arrived he found Tony, the parish priest, welcoming him into his home clad in a Celtic football strip. Even more amusing was that Tony’s house was painted white inside with emerald green doors.

What had really laid the atmosphere for this cyclist’s wanderings was his statement about the year he set out on two wheels. He said: “I arrived in Brazil in 1978 during the winter of discontent. I was the most contented Britain in the world. All I had to do was wheel about on my bike; in the first 18 days I only spent $11.”