‘Ancient footprints are everywhere’
The first day of September and we’ve taken the ferry from Ardrossan to Arran to make our first visit to the island which lies only twelve miles out in the Firth of Firth and is only 10 miles wide but, as we soon discover, is a world unto itself: an place of ancient footprints, where a short walk can lead you to places where you really sense that you are just a murmur in the whispering sands of time.
We’re staying in Lamlash, in the elegant row of green-painted cottages that form Hamilton Terrace, facing the sea and the bulk of Holy Isle out in the bay. The island has had religious significance since the 6th century when the Celtic Saint Molaise lived there as a hermit before it became the site of a Christian monastery. Today it is owned by Tibetan Buddhists who offer retreats and have established a Centre for World Peace and Health.
On the green before the bay stands the Arran Clearances Memorial, consisting of three sandstone slabs, boldly expressive of a desire to stand firm on native ground. The Clearances (Scottish Gaelic: Fuadach nan Gàidheal, the expulsion of the Gael) saw large forced displacements of the rural population as part of a process of agricultural modernisation forced through by brutal landlords. When the crofters in Glen Sannox in the north of Arran had to make way for large scale sheep farming, many of them saw no other option than to emigrate to Canada, and they departed from Lamlash. A plaque on the monument poignantly recalls their departure in these words:
Erected on behalf of Arran clearance descendents across North America to their brave forefathers who departed from their beloved island home to Canada during the clearance years 1829 to 1840. Here at Lamlash on April 25th 1829 part of the clearance (86 souls) when embarking on the brig Caledonia (196 ton) the Rev.A.Mackay preached from The Mound (opposite) formed by the departing his text “Casting all your care upon him: for he careth for you” 1st Peter ch.5 v.7. The Caledonia arrived at Quebec City June 25th 1829. The group was the first of more than 300 Arran colonists of Megantic County, Province of Quebec. The largest group, more than 400, had as their destination the seaport town of Dalhousie, New Brunswick to be pioneer settlers of the Restigouche-Bay Chaleur District. “Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is highland”.
You can drive round the island in little more than an hour, the road hugging the shoreline for most of the way. There is also a coastal path which, like the road, takes advantage of the raised beaches that encircle the island. After the last Ice Age there was a massive release of weight as the ice melted, causing the land to lift and create the raised beaches. In the stretches where the path lies across the raised beach the walking is easy. Kildonan shore on the west side of the island is an example of such a stretch, where wooded cliffs rise beyond the meadows where sheep graze.
Or here, looking towards Drumadoon Point on the stretch from the King’s Cave, reputedly used by Robert the Bruce on his way to seizing the Scottish crown in 1314, to Blackwaterfoot. Drumadoon headland is composed of basalt columns, the result of the same series of volcanic eruptions 30 or 40 million years ago that also created the similarly structured columns of Fingal’s Cave on Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim.
Apart from the coastal road, there are two roads that cross the mountainous interior. The route from Brodick to Blackwaterfoot is known as the String Road and at its highest point there are stunning views towards the northern mountain peaks and the sea to the west and the east.
Arran is often described as ‘Scotland in miniature’ because the landscapes of the island are so varied. One of our walks began in the well-tended parkland of Brodick castle and wound along paths in the woodland of the country park, now owned by the Scottish National Trust. Follow one of these paths and you will reach the peak of Goatfell, the highest mountain; we took a path that followed Merkland Burn as its rushing brown water cascaded down the hillside through a series of waterfalls and rock pools shaded by firs and deciduous trees.
We emerged from the woodland to picnic on an empty beach on Brodick Bay, golden sands stretching away to Merkland Point to the north.
Another day we walked out along Kildonan shore towards Brennan Head, through meadows where sheep grazed and the last of the summer flowers bloomed. Scattered among the shingle were drifts of dog daisies.
Among the taller grasses were the delicate, green-veined white flowers known as Grass of Parnassus – given that name by the Flemish botanist Mathias de l’Obel who was so inspired by its beauty that he named it after the holy mountain of Apollo and the Muses.
Here, too, clustered among the heather were clumps of Bog Asphodel, that at first sight looks like two different plants, one red, one yellow. But both are the same plant – the red ones being the anthers, while the petals are yellow.
‘Does the song of the sea end at the shore or in the hearts of those who listen?’ reads the inscription on an elegant seat, carved out of sandstone and positioned facing the sea. Along the shoreline we could hear the bubbling calls of curlew, and oystercatchers swept noisily back and forth over the calm sea. Further out to sea cormorants perched on rocks, characteristically spreading their wings to dry their plumage. On the horizon, rising abruptly from the sea, loomed the distinctive, solitary shape of Ailsa Craig, the uninhabited island that is the granite plug of an extinct volcano.
In the summer of 1818, John Keats and a friend embarked on a walking tour through Scotland. They travelled along the Ayrshire coast from Ballantrae northwards with Ailsa Craig constantly in view. Later, at the King’s Arms Inn in Girvan, Keats wrote his sonnet on Ailsa Craig:
Hearken, thou craggy ocean-pyramid!
Give answer from thy voice-the sea-fowls’ screams!
When were thy shoulders mantled in huge streams?
When from the sun was thy broad forehead hid?
flow long is ‘t since the Mighty Power bid
Thee heave from airy sleep, from fathom dreams?
Sleep in the lap of thunder, or sunbeams,
Or when grey clouds are thy cold coverlid?
Thou answerest not, for thou art dead asleep!
Thy life is but two dead eternities –
The last in air, the former in the deep –
First with the whales, last in the eagle-skies,
Drowned wert thou till an earthquake made thee steep;
Another cannot wake thy giant size.
We walked towards Brennan Head. Our walking guide suggested that colonies of seals can be seen basking along this stretch. I was sceptical: when I’ve read this sort of thing before, all we have seen, at best, is a bobbing head out to sea.
But, as we skirted one of several basalt dykes that cross the beach here, we were met with the pleasing site of a large number of seals basking, each precariously balanced on an outcrop of basalt. We sat and watched them for some time, occasionally shifting and grunting, as the larger beasts sometimes elbowed the younger ones off their lump of rock. As the afternoon wore on, more seals swam into the bay to join the basking group. All in all we counted over 40 seals.
According to an interpretive plaque along the beach, as many as 200 common seals relax on the rocks along Kildonan shore, returning day after day to the same spot, only to disappear with the incoming tide when they return to the sea to feed.
As I write this, on my desk is a barnacle-encrusted pebble of some kind of igneous rock, collected from the shore near Lochranza. There seems to be poetry in this object, combining as it does two contrasting time scales – the biological time of the barnacle that typically lives for between 5 and 10 years, and that of the rock itself, quite possibly a small chunk of the Cambrian schist that outcrops along this shore, laid down some 550 million years ago.
On our last day on the island we walked from Lochranza along the coast path to a place known locally as the Fairy Glen. Along the way the path meant a scramble over an angular rock formation with distinct layers that dipped and rose at different angles. This site has great significance in the history of geology and is known as Hutton’s Unconformity. In 1787 the father of modern geology, James Hutton, visited Arran searching for evidence that would confirm his suspicion that the accepted idea – promoted in 1645 by Archbishop Usher – that the earth was a mere 5000 years old was wrong. Usher had calculated from the Bible that the earth began on 29 October 4004 BC, but Hutton’s encounter with the rock formations at Lochranza helped prove his theory that the earth was far older than anyone had previously imagined. The rocks at Lochranza are a juxtaposition of layers of very old Cambrian schists and much younger sandstone (below). Sedimentary rocks like the sandstone and the original core components of the schists were deposited on ancient sea beds in horizontal layers and then, over eons, processes such as heat, pressure and folding forced them up at an angle. Between the sandstone and the metamorphosed schists, Hutton realised, there is a huge time-gap.
A year after the trip to Arran, in the spring of 1788, Hutton set off with John Playfair to the Berwickshire coast and found more examples of unconformities. Playfair later wrote:
On us who saw these phenomenon for the first time the impression will not easily be forgotten…We felt necessarily carried back to a time when the schists on which we stood was yet at the bottom of the sea, and when the sandstone before us was only beginning to be deposited, in the shape of sand or mud, from the waters of the supercontinent ocean… The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time; and whilst we listened with earnestness and admiration to the philosopher who was now unfolding to us the order and series of these wonderful events, we became sensible how much further reason may sometimes go than imagination may venture to follow.
But I have never felt a sense of millennial time so intensely as on Machrie Moor: a track leads on through meadows where sheep graze to open moorland where the only sounds are of curlews piping and the wind rustling the bracken and purple moor grass. On Machrie Moor stand a series of Bronze Age stone circles, about 4000 years old and made of red sandstone or granite. In the words of Seamus Heaney, in ‘A Dream of Solstice‘, they stand
Millennia deep in their own unmoving
And unmoved alignment
The first people on Arran to leave visible traces of their lives were Neolithic people, who lived on the island in the period between 4,500 BC and 2,000 BC. They were farmers, and traces of their field systems have been found on Arran, as well as other stone structures such as hill forts like the one on Dunadoon Point.
But it is the enigmatic stone circles on Machrie Moor that form the Arran’s finest collection of ancient monuments. The first megalithic monuments here – a series of timber circles – were constructed towards the end of the Neolithic period (around 2000 BC). No remains of these timber circles can be seen today.
What can be seen are the stone monuments that were built to replace them, the six stone circles whose grandeur make this site so atmospheric and which were added for almost two thousand years during the Bronze Age. There is no real certainty about what these monuments were used for, but it is safe to assume that they had some kind of ceremonial function, possibly related to their alignment with the midsummer sunrise at the head of Machrie Glen.
The tallest of the stones stands eighteen feet high and, with the moor stretching towards the distant mountains and the stones towering above you, there is a very real sense that you are standing in a sacred landscape.
This is a Bronze Age landscape of outstanding importance. Though there has been some excavation, most of the site remains unexplored, largely buried in the peat that destroyed the way of life here. About 3800 years ago, climate change brought colder, wetter weather leading to the build up of peat. The peat-bound, infertile moor where these monuments stand would once have been rich farmland supporting a thriving community.
Heedless, unheeded of the years they stand;
The rain drips off their chins and lichens spread
A moist green skin along each stony hand
That gropes among the bones of the grey dead.
They did not see the forests flow and fall –
Junipers blue wave by the fellside shore –
Nor barley batten by the coddling wall,
Nor purple ploughland swipe across the moor.
They hold death in them. Skulls have moulded ears
That deaf remain to curlew, crow and dove.
The human winds blow past them; each one fears
The hoarded ache of malignant love.
– Norman Nicholson, ‘The Megaliths’
John Ormond, friend of Graham Sutherland and Kyffin Williams, wrote this poem, ‘Ancient Monuments’, in which he conjures the men who worked the stone and created the ‘back-breaking/Geometry, the symmetries of solstice’ that we see today. For the rest of that day I pondered where these stones were wrenched from, and how those people could have moved them. The next leg of our walk took us down to the shoreline between Machrie and Blackwaterfoot. There lie stretches of sandstone pavement, exposed and scoured by the sea. Was that the source of these stones? And if so, how did they haul them two miles from the shore, to an elevation of five hundred feet or so to the moor?
They bide their time of serpentine
Green lanes, in fields, with railings
Round them and black cows; tall, pocked
And pitted stones, grey, ochre-patched
With moss, lodgings for lost spirits.
Sometimes you have to ask their
Whereabouts. A bent figure, in a hamlet
Of three houses and a barn, will point
Towards the moor. You will find them there,
Aloof lean markers, erect in mud.
Long Meg, Five Kings, Nine Maidens,
Twelve Apostles: with such familiar names
We make them part of ordinary lives.
On callow pasture-land
The Shearers and The Hurlers.
Sometimes they keep their privacy
In public places: nameless slender slabs
Disguised as gate-posts in a hedge; and some,
For centuries on duty as scratching posts,
Are screened by ponies on blank uplands.
Search out the furthest ones, slog on
Through bog, bracken, bramble: arrive
At short granite footings in a plan
Vaguely elliptical, alignments sunk
In turf strewn with sheep’s droppings;
And wonder whether it was this shrunk place
The guide-book meant, or whether
Over the next ridge the real chamber,
Accurate by the stars, begins its secret
At once to those who find it.
Turn and look back. You’ll see horizons
Much like the ones they saw,
The tomb-builders, millennium ago;
The channel scratched by rain, the same old
Sediment of dusk, winter returning.
Dolerite, porphyry, gabbro fired
At the earth’s young heart: how those men
Handled them. Set on back-breaking
Geometry, the symmetries of solstice,
What they awaited we, too, still wait.
Looking for something else, I came once
To a cromlech in a field of barley,
Whoever framed that field had real
Priorities. He sowed good grain
To the tombs doorstep. No path
Led to the ancient death. The capstone,
Set like a cauldron on three legs,
Was marooned by the swimming crop.
A gust and the cromlech floated,
Motionless at time’s moorings.
Hissing dry sibilance, chafing
Loquacious thrust of seed
This way and that, in time and out
Of it, would have capsized
The tomb. It stayed becalmed.
The bearded foam, rummaged
By wind from the westerly sea-track,
Broke short not over it. Skirted
By squalls of that year’s harvest,
That tomb belonged in that field.
The racing barley, erratically-bleached
Bronze, cross-hatched with gold
And yellow, did not stop short its tide
In deference. It was the barley’s
World. Some monuments move.
The power of these stones on Machrie Moor is palpable, a testament to the power of art and humankind’s sense of something spiritual beyond the everyday. In ‘Bridestones’ from the collection Remains of Elmet, Ted Hughes, inspired by the Bride Stone boulders on the moor above Todmorden, wrote of the ‘Crowding congregation of skies./Tense congregation of hills’ and of the sense that in such a place, ‘electrified with whispers’, ‘You do nothing casual here’. Which is just about right.
Scorched-looking, unhewn – a hill-top chapel,
Actually a crown of outcrop rock –
Earth’s heart-bone laid bare.
Crowding congregation of skies.
Tense congregation of hills.
You do nothing casual here.
The wedding stones
Are electrified with whispers.
And marriage is nailed down
By this slender-necked, heavy headed
Black exclamation mark
And you go
With the wreath of the weather
The wreath of the horizons
The wreath of constellations
Over your shoulders.
And from now on
Can always touch your ghost
With the shadow of this finger.
From now on
The moon can always lift your skull
On to this perch,
to clean it.
We left Arran after only four days, but vowed that we would return.
- Return to Arran, where the world was stilled
- Walking Arran: Iron Age forts, a Viking burial and Buddhist pilgrims
- Walking Arran: rock of ages
- Walking Arran: two glens and the dog on top of the world