the hundred
thousand places
with a stone
and some grasses
the dwellings
in ruins
the stones
given back

– Thomas A Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places

There’s a track that leads out of Lochanzra on the northern tip of Arran, out past the greens where golfers make their putts in the company of grazing deer, and up the fell beyond.  Here the path is clearly-defined, consisting of granite blocks, worn by the footfalls of those who passed this way regularly in the years before the Clearances.  For this path is the historic route from Lochranza to Cock Farm and Laggan, an area where once many families farmed the land, but which now is desolate.

Laggan cottage 2

Laggan cottage 1

Laggan cottage 4 Laggan cottage 3

As the way leads uphill, stunning views unfold across Glen Chalmadale to Arran’s jagged northern peaks. In the glen below, the road to Sannox and Brodick runs past the Arran distillery before winding uphill in a calligraphic sweep, reminding me of Georgia O’Keefe’s minimalist rendering of a road in winter.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Winter Road 1, 1963

After a steady climb with many pauses to gather breath and admire the magnificent skyline, the path emerges onto rough heather moorland where cotton grass spreads like a dusting of snow.

Laggan cottage 3a

The way leads across the open moorland for a mile or so, before reaching the point where the steep descent towards Cock Farm and Laggan Cottage begins.  The views here, across the Firth of Clyde towards Bute and the Cowal Peninsula, are stunning.

Laggan walk 8b

Laggan cottage 5a

Now the ruined Cock Farm comes into view far below. Before the Clearances the area between here and Laggan Cottage was home to more than a hundred inhabitants: it was they who laid down the substantial path over the pass, and whose feet trod it regularly. The land now lies deserted, but for the ruins of the cottages that housed those who lived and worked here.

The ruins of Cock Farm
The ruins of Cock Farm

Before the Clearances, the local economy was based on the run-rig system (referring to the ridge and furrow pattern characteristic of this system) and the basic crops were oats, barley and potatoes. Then, in the early 19th century, the 10th Duke of Hamilton embarked on a programme of clearances that had a devastating effect on the island’s population. As a result of these ‘improvements’ land that might have supported 20 or 30 families was transferred into single ownership, usually for raising sheep.

Over a hundred people farmed the land around Laggan
Over a hundred people farmed the land around Laggan

In some cases, land was promised in Canada for each adult emigrant male. In April 1829, for example, 86 islanders boarded the brig Caledonia for the two-month journey, half their fares paid for by the Duke. But, when they arrived in Quebec only 100 acres was made available to them. Whole villages were removed and the Gaelic culture of the island devastated. The writer James Hogg wrote:

Ah! Wae’s me. I hear the Duke of Hamilton’s crofters are a’ gaun away, man and mother’s son, frae the Isle o’ Arran. Pity on us!

There is a memorial to the Arran Clearances, paid for by a Canadian descendant of the emigrants, on the shore at Lamlash.  I wrote about it here.

Laggan cottage 10

One famous British publishing dynasty originated here at Cock Farm. In 1735, Malcolm Macmillan, the grandfather of Daniel Macmillan who founded Macmillan publishing and great-grandfather of a future British Prime Minister, was born on Cock Farm. The Macmillans were a crofting family when Daniel Macmillan was born in 1813. Though he had little formal education, Daniel was apprenticed to a bookseller in Argyll at ten years old for a wage of 1s 6d.  After his apprenticeship was finished he worked in a bookshop in Glasgow, before moving to London, where, in 1843, Daniel and his brother Alexander opened their own bookshop in Aldergate Street, close to Paternoster Row, the traditional heart of the book trade.

A year later, Daniel founded Macmillan Publishers with his brother Alexander after buying the business of a retiring bookseller in Cambridge. Their business grew, first publishing educational titles and books on religion, literature, science and mathematics. By 1845, the Macmillan brothers were able to buy a second book-selling business and move into a bigger building in a more prestigious location where they encouraged dons and students to mingle in an upstairs salon, discussing the events of the day and exchanging knowledge and ideas.  Macmillan published their first bestseller in 1855 – Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! – followed by Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School-days, in 1857.

Daniel’s grandson was Harold Macmillan, who became British Prime Minister in 1957. Meanwhile, Cock Farm had been abandoned in 1912 and now lies in ruins at the end of a grass track on the hillside above the Firth.

Laggan cottage 9
Laggan cottage

It’s a steep descent down the fell side to Laggan cottage.  We were here last year, mystified by its presence, freshly whitewashed but miles from any road, its two windows, decorated with trompe l’oeil curtains, facing the shore, the front door a few steps from the sea.

After a much-anticipated picnic lunch, we set off to follow the coastal path along the shore back towards Lochanzra.  This part of the walk was described in more detail in last June’s post.

Laggan cottage 7b

The path leads past the fallen rock known as the Cock of Arran, and the Fallen Rocks at Scriordan – just as tricky to navigate as last year.  After the Fallen Rocks, the way was straightforward, the path level once again, meandering along the raised beach and past the attractive fisherman’s cottage at Fairy Dell.

Laggan cottage 11a

Along the way we encountered this striking lichen formation, with nicely-contrasting pinks.  They could almost be the same lichen circles and sea pinks that inspired Norman Bissell’s poem:

Alone in this bay near Port Mary
only the waves creeping in
and the squeal of a buzzard
high on a clifftop for company
even hotter than yesterday
less wind, sea less frantic
I lie here on this shingle beach
in the early evening sun
until the sea laps my ankles
and the sun’s shadows grow long
around me sea pinks on wizened rock
terns diving out by the reef
three hours I’ve lain here now
among the glistening wet pebbles
and the lime green lichen circles
sky blue all blue
and a heat haze
right along the coast of Mull
drifting with the haze taking it all in
becoming those lichen circles.

Kathleen Jamie has written a very different sort of poem inspired by this yellow lichen.  Xanthoria parietina is a foliose, or leafy, lichen. It has wide distribution, and many common names such as common orange lichen, yellow scale, maritime sunburst lichen and shore lichen. This is Jamie’s poem, Stane-raw:

Xanthoria parietina
Your yellowish mark
of salt on rocks
found miles inland
on gravestones, chimneys,
any limit of the sea’s
breath. And though we know
your subtle bond
endures a lifetime,
what we desire
is your leaden blue dye.

Our kisses are fleet, invisible;
should we wish to
keep or carry one, we must
transmute it to a bruise –
coloured tattoo, hidden
beneath our clothing, like this
indelible dog rose
inked on my shoulder,
the finch on my inner thigh.

Laggan cottage 13

While photographing the lichen I became conscious of a persistent, angry screeching.  On the rocks a few feet away was an adult oystercatcher, annoyed at my intruding so close to a trio of fledgelings.

Laggan cottage 16

In the late afternoon light, the Firth was a study in blues: out on the blue water, a boat with a blue sail. Beyond lay the blue hills of Bute.

Laggan cottage 15

This stretch of shoreline is defined by the weathered red sandstones that millennia ago formed in an equatorial desert. Encrusted with streaks of green and light blue lichen, they might have been an abstract painting.

Laggan cottage 18

The final mile leads past Hutton’s Unconformity, a site of great importance in the history of geology, discussed in more detail last year.  There’s a viewpoint marker here, bearing a quotation from the geologist Andrew Crombie Ramsay that has rung true on both occasions that we have passed it, weary after a long walk:

There is perhaps no scene on Arran which so impresses the beholder with a feeling of solitary beauty as the first glimpse of Lochranza.  The traveller may perhaps be somewhat fatigued with his protracted journey as, on a still summer evening, he rounds Newton Point. But tired and hungry though he be, and with the very smoke of the little inn curling before his eyes, let him pause for a moment at the entrance of the loch and seating himself on a granite boulder, quietly contemplate the placid scene before him.

We sat and watched the ferry from Kintyre as it approached the terminal at Lochanzra.  On the following morning we would be on that ferry, heading for the Mull of Kintyre.

Golfers and deer on the links at Lochanzra.
Golfers and deer on the links at Lochanzra.


See also

5 thoughts on “The walk to Laggan cottage: ruins and ancient footfalls

  1. Quite a read, but so worthwhile. What a lovely post. Thank you so much for sharing these places and their fascinating history with me, which I may never otherwise see.

  2. This is a lovely, informative post with nice photos. I came across it (belatedly!) when I was looking for family links (Arran Kerrs and Macmillans). I am sharing with my family.

  3. Lovely walk with great pictures. Nobody ever gave a better historic view of this great place. Chapeau! My Dutch wife and I had between 1979 and 1989 the permanent rent of Laggan Cottage, see our and we recognize every step.
    We painted the cottage, decorated from a Coke-tin in style the name Laggan Cottage on the gaeble and did the trompe l’oeil work on the shutters. Result of my Academy of Fine Arts study in Rotterdam! What a lovely place! Although we wanted to travel with our family to other parts of the globe, we have been back almost every year on Arran and still can’t live without remembering it.
    On this winter evening in Holland I’m watching now BBC Alba via the TV dish!
    But certainly about Laggan Cottage: once seen, never forgotten!

    1. Well, now a mystery is solved! We stood outside the Laggan cottage and wondered who had painted those shutters and whether they still stayed in the cottage. Now I know you were off travelling in your ‘mobile dance saloon’, the Famous Spiegeltent! Wonderful! Thanks for reading, Jelle, and glad the post brought back memories.

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