on a clear day
unfasten the gate
and take the path
over the machair
through the orchids
down to the sea
– Thomas A Clarke, The Path to the Sea
We returned to the isle of Arran and the cottage on Kildonan shore where we have stayed before. Once the coastguard’s home, ‘Streamlet’ is the last house on the shore; beyond here lies nothing; nothing, that is but the ancient meadows, their walls overgrown and slowly sinking into the land as the years pass, and the brooding bulk of Brennan Head.
with a stone
and some grasses
– Thomas A Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places
In the mornings I’d set out from the cottage with the dog to walk the meadows past the carved stone bench inscribed with the words, ‘Does the sound of the sea end at the shore or in the hearts of those who listen?’ We’d walk through great golden drifts of Yellow flag, the iris of wetlands – the display this year was especially remarkable, locals agreed. Perhaps something to do with the long, cold spring? Cows grazed here sometimes with three pretty calves, but the shore belonged to the birds: a pair of swans gliding through the rock pools, bands of squealing oyster-catchers stalking the sands, and a blackbird flitting through the hawthorn that had formed a dense tunnel over a small stream where it had made its nest.
The shore at Kildonan, as elsewhere along Arran’s western coast, is a classic example of a post-glacial raised shore, formed when land rose after the melting of glacial ice sheets whose weight had previously pressed down the land. Distinctively at Kildonan, basalt dykes and sills form lichen-crusted walls of rock that slice the shore into segments and extend into the sea. These are the remnants of intrusions of molten magma from a volcanic event that were squeezed into layers of Triassic mudstone. When many dykes form like this they are known as a ‘dyke swarm’, and Kildonan has one of the best examples in the world.
In the furthest bay, before the path peters out at the boulder field beneath Brennan Head, seals bob offshore or heave themselves onto the basalt dykes, where they slouch and grumble, snorting and grunting together. These are Common Seals, and the large colony is present all year.
Offshore lies the isle of Pladda, formed in the same volcanic event as the dykes when magma was forced laterally between pre-existing rock layers. Once cooled, this magma was harder than surrounding rocks and resisted erosion, forming a cliff above softer rocks. There has been a lighthouse on the island since 1790, though the current building dates from around 1830.
Back at the house after our days walk, we’d sit on the bench in the late afternoon sunshine as house martins darted above our heads, back and forth to feed the young ones in the nest in the eaves above our head. Or watch the gannets offshore as they followed the incoming tide, hurling themselves like javelins into the waves to spear their bounty.
I am watching the white gannets
blaze down into the water
with the power of blunt spears
and a stunning accuracy –
even though the sea is riled and boiling
and gray with fog
and the fish
are nowhere to be seen,
they fall, they explode into the water
like white gloves,
then they vanish,
then they climb out again,
from the cliff of the wave,
like white flowers –
and still I think
that nothing in this world moves
but as a positive power –
even the fish, fanning down into the current
in the red purse of the beak,
are only interrupted from their own pursuit
of whatever it is
that fills their bellies –
and I say:
life is real,
and pain is real,
but death is an imposter,
and if I could be what once I was,
like the wolf or the bear
standing on the cold shore,
I would still see it –
how the fish simply escape, this time,
or how they slide down into a black fire
for a moment,
then rise from the water inseparable
from the gannets’ wings.
– Mary Oliver, Gannets
On the horizon far beyond the diving gannets lies the distinctive hump of Ailsa Craig, a view that changes in shade and texture with the fall of light and the drift of cloud. The island is home to one of the largest gannet colonies in the world, with about 36,000 breeding pairs. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds looks after the colony, which it describes as a ‘bustling seabird city, with puffins, black guillemots, razorbills and peregrines some of the special residents’. There are strict controls on development on the island in order to protect the birds’ breeding ground.
The dome-shaped mass of Ailsa Craig rises over a thousand feet above the Firth of Clyde, the hard plug, resistant to erosion, left behind from an extinct volcano. From a distance, the sides look sheer, but in fact the 220 acre island is home to a ruined castle, a small cottage, a lighthouse and a granite quarry.
Twenty-five thousand years ago, when Scotland lay smothered under a thick sheet of ice, a glacier flowing down the Clyde valley broke off pieces of Ailsa Craig and carried them south to the English Midlands where they still lie today scattered between Wales and the Pennines. The rock is mainly volcanic basalt but there is a seam of red, fine-grained micro-granite, which is the ideal material for curling stones. These were quarried and cut on the island then polished on the mainland and a few are still manufactured today for connoisseurs.
He also notes that
The names of features on Ailsa Craig are pure poetry – for example, Spot of Grass, Bare Stack, Doras Yett, Ashydoo, Rotten Nick, and Kennedy’s Nags.
Ailsa Craig is currently owned by the Scottish peer Archibald Angus Charles Kennedy, the 8th Marquess of Ailsa, though a few months back the BBC reported that he has put it on the market.
In the summer of 1818, John Keats and a friend were on a walking tour of Scotland. As they travelled along the Ayrshire coast from Ballantrae northwards, Ailsa Rock was constantly in view. ‘That fine object’, wrote one Keats biographer, ‘appeared first to them in the full sunlight like a transparent tortoise asleep upon the calm waters; then as they advanced, displaying its lofty shoulders, and as they still went on, losing its distinctness in the mountains of Arran and the hills of Kintyre’. Later that evening, Keats wrote a sonnet to Ailsa Craig in the King’s Arms Inn at Girvan:
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?
How long is’t since the mighty power bid
Thee heave to airy sleep from fantom dreams?
Sleep in the lap of thunder or sunbeams,
Or when grey clouds are thy cold coverlid?
Thou answer’st 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 with the eagle-skies –
Drown’d wast thou till an earthquake made thee steep,
Another cannot wake thy giant size.
– John Keats, Sonnet to Ailsa Rock
Our final two days at Kildonan were days of rain, only clearing in mid afternoon. On our last day, when we finally got out, the waterfall on Levencorroch Burn that plunges over the cliff to the meadows on Kildonan shore was in full spate.
We decided to explore a local site recommended to us by a couple we had met on the ferry over, but which we had not been aware of before. We took the road from the shore up to the main road where we entered Auchenhew Wood, a 40 acre deciduous forest that straddles a ‘hidden valley’ where spectacular and beautiful 103-foot high waterfall drops down into ravine. This is Eas Mor (pronounced ease-more) which means ‘Great Fall’ in Gaelic.
For over 15 years a dedicated band of volunteers has worked to make this beautiful glen fully accessible. With the help of Millennium funding, a charitable company has laid out broad paths through the forest leading to viewing platforms from which the falls can be seen in all their magnificence.
Paths wind along the edge of the gorge, climbing steadily towards the falls.
There are viewing platforms located along the path, but the final platform offers the most dramatic view of the single, long plume of the Eas Mor waterfall plunging down the cliff face and into the ravine far below.
Above the falls, the path crosses the burn as it makes its way towards the precipice.
Descending through the trees on the far side of the valley, in a clearing above the waterfall, is the surprising sight of the library, a basic log cabin with a turf roof, built using wind blown timber from storms in 1998.
The structure houses a library and interpretation centre, designed as a place where groups of children or adults can learn about the environment and ecological themes. Visiting school children have been encouraged to make written responses and draw pictures of what they have seen, and these are pinned to every surface.
Prominently displayed in one corner were quotes from Native Americans concerning the importance of treating the environment with respect, and the impossibility of the concept of land ownership:
‘Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’
‘What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?’
‘One does not sell the land people walk on.”We do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us?’
Inspiring thoughts in a wild and beautiful place.
- Return to Arran, where the world was stilled
- On Arran: Millennia deep
- Photo Tour of Trip to Ailsa Craig
- Ailsa Craig Photogallery
- Ailsa Craig: RSPB
- Ailsa Craig: article by by Hamish Haswell-Smith in the Scottish Herald
- Eas Mor and Loch Garbad: the walk described on Walk Highlands website
- Eas Mor Ecology: project website