To the lighthouse

To the lighthouse

Ailsa Craig and Pladda

The lighthouse on Pladda, with Ailsa Craig beyond, photographed from the front door on Kildonan shore

She had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!
― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

The last two summer holidays have been spent on Arran, in a cottage on the shore at Kildonan.  We would sit on the bench by the door, gazing out to sea.  Before us lay the low outline of the tiny island of Pladda with its lighthouse, while out further the hump of Ailsa Craig rose sheer from the sea, some 25 miles out yet  appearing to be much closer.

So when my good friend Joe offered to lend me the memoir of a hippy art student, deep into poetry, Kerouac and Beefheart who spent the summer of 1973 working as a lighthouse keeper on Pladda and Ailsa Craig, I accepted eagerly.  In Stargazing, Peter Hill recalls the glorious summer when, nineteen and fresh from art college, he spent six months working on various lighthouses off the Scottish mainland.  Apart from his nostalgic reminiscences of early seventies music and politics, I learned a lot about the operation of lighthouses – that now all the lighthouses in the world are automated, an entire occupation eliminated in the decades following Hill’s apprentice summer; but when when manned (as they were back then), there would be three or four keepers working shifts.

Hill describes how a chance conversation in a pub that spring led to him pursuing one of those classic childhood ideas about what you’d like to do when you grow up.  Like me, he imagined the life of a lone lighthouse keeper, daydreaming and stargazing the days away, reading poetry and listening to the latest offering from the Doors or Van Morrison.  He had just read Desolation Angels, Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical account of months spent as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the mountains of Washington state (a book that had a mighty impact on me as well in my teenage years).  So Hill, a long-haired 19-year-old art student turns up at 84 George Street in Edinburgh to be interviewed for the job of relief keeper – but let Hill take up the story, as he does in the book’s introduction:

In 1973 I worked as a lighthouse keeper on three islands off the west coast of Scotland. Before taking the job I didn’t really think through what a lighthouse keeper actually did. I was attracted by the romantic notion of sitting on a rock, writing haikus and dashing off the occasional watercolour. The light itself didn’t seem important: it might have been some weird coastal decoration, like candles on a Christmas tree, intended to bring cheer to those living in the more remote parts of the country.

I was 19 when I was interviewed for the job of relief keeper by the Commissioners of the Northern Lights in the New Town of Edinburgh. My hair hung well below my shoulders. I had a great set of Captain Beefheart records and I walked about with a permanent grin on my face as I had recently, finally, lost my virginity. I rolled my own cigarettes, was a member of Amnesty International and had just read Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. In short, I was eminently suitable for the job.

He gets the job, and for his first tour of duty is assigned to Pladda lighthouse.  The night before he leaves, he gets down his father’s atlas and finds the island marked by a dot the size of a biscuit crumb. ‘Closer inspection showed it was in fact a biscuit crumb. I scratched it off and found an even smaller dot underneath this. This was Pladda.’

Pladda 2

The lighthouse on Pladda, photographed from the front door on Kildonan shore

Arriving on Arran and following instructions from 84 George Street, he waits to be picked up by a local farmer for the next stage of his journey, who greets him with ‘Don’t tell me they’ve sent another fucking hippie!’ The farmer will take him by tractor from a remote field and deliver him to a rowing-boat which will take him to the lighthouse. The farmer’s greeting may have had something to do with the fact that Hill was standing on a wall a Scottish burn reading a Langston Hughes poem about a mighty river.

Peter Hill (top left) and the class of 71

Peter Hill (top left) and the class of 71 Dundee Art College (photo:

When Hill arrives on the tiny island of Pladda he learns that not only would he be sharing his new living quarters with three other men, but that he would also be participating in a bracing cooking rota. A pint of vegetable soup, followed by lamb casserole and apple crumble form his first lunch, served by Finlay Watchorn, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Captain Haddock. The keepers smoke like chimneys and drink endless tea poured from a kettle kept constantly at the boil. There’s a TV, on most of the time, and into this remote outpost are beamed daily the latest revelations from the Watergate hearings in Washington.

The least satisfactory aspect of the book for me were the constant references to Watergate and the popular shows on TV at the time: I just had a sense of Peter Hill having googled these things in order to provide some contemporary context.  He also has an irritating (and, I think, inaccurate) tendency to portray every young person at the time as feeling they had no chance of escaping the fate of being conscripted to serve in Vietnam.  Being roughly the same age at the time, I don’t remember it like that – yes, we were angry and marched against the war, but, in Britain at least, there was not that fear.

Stargazing cover

But those are small niggles; overall, I found Hill’s account of his glorious summer an entertaining read in which he brings to life some great characters – the men, a generation or two older than he, who had served in the war, worked as merchant seamen and who had experience of many lighthouses in all kinds of conditions.  I learned that there are three types of lighthouse. Rock lighthouses come straight out of the sea and, as a keeper, you spend all your time in the tower. Coastal stations skirt the British Isles and are on the mainland, allowing keepers to live with their families. Island lights are situated on uninhabited islands.  That summer Hill worked on all three of them.

I suppose if you had asked me, I would have suggested that all a keeper had to do was make sure the light was switched on at night.  But from Hill’s account I learned that each light had three keepers, and each keeper took two four-hour watches every 24 hours. The watches rotated daily. Breakfast was always at eight, and always attended by all three keepers. When not attending to the light, the other two keepers would perform duties that, on an island lighthouse, ranged from shearing sheep to building jetties to painting the tower white. Each week a keeper would be assigned the important task of preparing a lavish three-course lunch.

Ailsa Craig

Ailsa Craig, photographed from the the front door on Kildonan shore

Peter Hill served on three lighthouses that summer – two of them on islands that we would stare out at from our cottage at Kildonan – Pladda and Ailsa Craig. I discovered that Ailsa Craig, which looks from Arran like a rock rising sheer-sided from the sea, actually has a an area of flat land around its base. It is home to 20% of the world’s gannets – and a terrifying population of rats.

The lighthouse was built between 1883 and 1886 by Thomas Stevenson, member of an amazing family of lighthouse engineers, and father of Robert Louis Stevenson. Thomas Stevenson designed more than 30 lighthouses as engineer to the Board of Northern Lighthouses, while his father designed another 23, and invented the ‘intermittent’ light for lighthouses. Prevented by tuberculosis from pursuing a civil engineering career, Robert Louis Stevenson often travelled in search of warm climates better suited to his fragile health, writing the adventure novels for which he is famous – as well poems, including a couple inspired by his family’s profession:

The brilliant kernel of the night,
The flaming lightroom circles me:
I sit within a blaze of light

That’s an extract from ‘The Light-Keeper’.  Stevenson also wrote a second poem on the same theme, ‘The Light-Keeper II’, from which come these verses:

As the steady lenses circle
With frosty gleam of glass;
And the clear bell chimes,
And the oil brims over the lip of the burner,
Quiet and still at his desk,
The Lonely Light-Keeper
Holds his vigil.

Lured from far,
The bewildered seagull beats
Dully against the lantern;
Yet he stirs not, lefts not his head
From the desk where he reads,
Lifts not his eyes to see
The chill blind circle of night
Watching him through the panes.
This is his country’s guardian,
The outmost sentry of peace,
This is the man
Who gives up what is lovely in living
For the means to live.


Among many other interesting insights in Peter Hill’s book are his comments about foghorns. ‘Nothing,’ he writes, ‘had quite prepared me for the painfully loud noise,’ or for the number of hours ‘turning into days’ that the foghorn might have to blow. Hill’s account of a conversation conducted in fifteen second bursts between deafening blasts of sound is hilarious, but will certainly give pause for thought for anyone who might have the idea of buying a lighthouse cottage.  Not always per Virginia Woolf:

The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the isles soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness.
― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

The last lighthouse that Hill worked on was on the island – no more than a rock – of Hyskeir  in the Outer Hebrides.  I laughed at his description of the island’s three goats which insisted that humans and goats walk in sequence across the island; if they failed to do so they would be butted into place. The correct order, Hill recalls, was goat, human, goat, human, goat. Hill also gives a vivid account of his last night on Hyskeir, an experience that brings to mind Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The men were already fraught – the helicopter which was due to collect them was fog-bound and they had to stay an extra night on the island with their tobacco ration exhausted. That night land birds migrating south from Scandinavia arrived in their tens of thousands, flying along the beam of light before endlessly circling the light.  Though sea birds know to avoid lighthouses, land birds navigate southwards from beacon to beacon, many of them flying straight into the glass.

My watch started at 2 am. From the moment I woke up I was aware that there were birds everywhere. Dozens of them tapped against every window at ground level and the same manic mantra followed me up the 223 steps to the light room. Then things got worse. Because the light operated on paraffin there was a huge hole at the top of the tower to let the vapour escape and this, of course, let in the migrating birds. Some were fit and healthy, others had broken legs or damaged wings. There were at least fifty walking, flying and flapping wounded percolating around the light chamber.

Fearfully, I settled into a routine for the night. Every half an hour I would run up the stairs, wind up the light, pump up the paraffin, then disappear down to the kitchen while all around me a death rattle was tapped out on the inch-thick glass. At certain hours of the night every keeper on duty has to open the hatch in the light room and venture onto the balcony, often hundreds of feet above the sheer cliff face with only a low rail for protection. On the worst nights I had to pull myself round on my stomach because the winds were so strong. The point was to check that all the neighbouring lights were still burning. On the other lights, you soon realised, they would be doing exactly the same thing. The greatest sin was to let the light go out. The second greatest was to let the light stand so that it was burning but not turning. The night the birds came they were waiting for me on the balcony, sitting tightly shoulder to shoulder staring beyond me to the light. Behind them, tens of thousands of their flock circled in the beams of the light. Every few seconds another one would fly straight into the glass, break its neck and fall out of the sky. Not a night for a smoker to be without his poison.

The next day the flat roof of the outhouse was carpeted with dead birds – redbacks, wrens, tiny finches, thrushes. The keepers got ladders and for several hours threw the bodies into the sea.

Stargazing is heart-warming, nostalgic, and an elegy to a vanished profession. But it’s also an elegy to youth – to being nineteen and at an age when music and poetry, life and dreams for the future are felt with more intensity than they ever will be again.

But it may be fine -I expect it will be fine,’ said Mrs. Ramsay, making some little twist of the reddish-brown stocking she was knitting, impatiently. If she finished it to­night, if they did go to the Lighthouse after all, it was to be given to the Lighthouse keeper for his little boy, who was threatened with a tuberculous hip; together with a pile of old magazines, and some tobacco, indeed whatever she could find lying about, not really wanted, but only littering the room, to give those poor fellows who must be bored to death sitting all day with nothing to do but polish the lamp and trim the wick and rake about on their scrap of garden, something to amuse them. For how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn? she would ask; and to have no letters or newspapers, and to see nobody; if you were married, not to see your wife, not to know how your children were, if they were ill, if they had fallen down and broken their legs or arms; to see the same dreary waves breaking week after week, and then a dreadful storm coming, and the windows covered with spray, and birds dashed against the lamp, and the whole place rocking, and not be able to put your nose out of doors for fear of being swept into the sea? How would you like that? she asked, addressing herself particu­larly to her daughters. So she added, rather differently, one must take them whatever comforts one can.

Back on Kildonan shore

Back on Kildonan shore

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. Continue reading “Back on Kildonan shore”

Return to Arran, where the world was stilled

Return to Arran, where the world was stilled

Days full of rain
Skys comin’ down again
I get so tired
Of these same old blues
Same old song
Baby, it won’t be long
Before I’ll be tyin’ on
My flyin’ shoes

We left Liverpool a week last Saturday in a deluge, the start of a week of endless rain in England.  But we drove north, heading for Arran, and by the the Scottish Borders the sky was clear.  On the quay at Ardrossan, waiting for the ferry across to the island, the sun was beating down.

We would have a fine, dry week on Arran as we read of storms and flooding down south.  But our leaving was to be an entirely different matter: after a cold and largely wet day on Friday, we woke to a gale and steady rain on Saturday, and arrived at Brodick port to be told that our ferry had been cancelled.  A four hour wait in the queue of cars on the pier ensued.  It might have seemed ironic that, leafing through The Guardian as the rain lashed down, I came across Deborah Orr’s article, ‘The islands of Scotland are like heaven on earth – weather permitting‘ in which she writes:

Last week, as torrential rain lashed Britain, I relaxed with family and friends on a beautiful sun-kissed island, strolling across long, silver beaches, sitting in deck chairs admiring stunning scenery, and doing a couple of trips to other nearby islands, even more amazing than the one that we were on. Where was this paradise? Scotland. Mull, to be precise. It rained once, in the evening, and when morning came the skies were blue again. Sure, we were probably just lucky. The funny thing is, however, that every time I head for the Inner Hebrides in late May or early June, I have the same good fortune.

But this had been our experience, too, until the last day of our break – and you can’t ask more than that holidaying in Britain.

Following a brief but memorable visit to Arran last autumn, we vowed to return. Our base this time was on the island’s southwest coast – the last cottage on the shore at Kildonan, a stone’s throw from the beach with the distinctive, shadowy outline of Ailsa Craig rising sheer from the sea on the horizon.  The house was a former coastguard lookout – one has occupied this site since at least 1700.

Walking out towards Brennan Head after unpacking, it was as if the peace and tranquillity of the place seeped in through the skin’s pores.  Not that this is a somnolent place: it bustles with activity.  Martins swoop and dive, bringing mud to reinforce the nest under the eaves, while starlings surge noisily from bush to bush.

On the glassy water, swans glide, probing the shoreline for submerged roots and stems.  There are shelducks and quarrelsome oystercatchers, cormorants and gannets from the colony on the offshore island of Pladda, while ringed plovers do their funny sprint along the sand, captured finely in Norman MacCaig’s poem, ‘Ringed plover by a water’s edge’:

They sprint eight feet and –
stop. Like that. They
sprintayard (like that) and
They have no acceleration
and no brakes.
Top speed’s their only one.

They’re alive – put life
through a burning-glass, they’re
its focus – but they share
the world of delicate clockwork.

In spasmodic
Indian file
they parallel the parallel ripples.
When they stop,
they, suddenly,
are gravel.

Along the shore are splashes of pink thrift and billowing clouds of yellow sea radish, common here along Scotland’s western coast where it thrives on poor ground, sandy soils and shaley beaches, the tall spindly flower stalks supporting little yellow cruciform flowers.

sit down on the rocks
impatience exhausted
thyme, thrift and clover
where the space is wide
hours should be wasted
thyme, thrift and clover

– Thomas A Clark, from The Hundred Thousand Places

Here, too, is ragged robin, yellow flag and ladies smock, all seeking the damper patches, while bird’s foot trefoil colonised the turf trodden by the cows that graze the meadows along the shore.  At the last sandy beach before the boulder field of Brennan Head we sit awhile, watching the seals perched on the rocks a few yards offshore.  Edging closer to photograph of one, it takes exception and slides into the sea.

There’s something I want to forget,
though I forget what it is.

… My mind niggles and grits
like the sand under my feet.

I used to know things I didn’t know.
Not any more.  Now I don’t know
even the things I know, though I think I do.

… Little waves slide up the beach and slide back,
lisping all the way.  The moon
is their memory.  In my head
there’s no moon.

What I don’t know I don’t even think I know.
That was Socrates, conceited man.

I’m trying to remember
what I’ve remembered to forget.

Twenty yards away, a seal’s head
looks at me
then tucks itself
under the surface, leaving
no ripple.
– Norman MacCaig, ‘On a beach’

It was here, too, that R watched as an otter ambled down the beach and slid under the water. The Isle of Arran wildlife web page states: ‘While numbers declined across Britain as a result of persecution and pollution in the mid 20th Century, the Highlands and Islands – including Arran – retained a relatively healthy population and remain prime otter-watching territory. Spotting these shy creatures usually requires luck or patience’.

Arran is often described as ‘Scotland in miniature’ because the landscape of the island is so varied.  During our week here we walked seashore and mountain glen, through wooded valley and beneath boulder-strewn cliffs.  We saw standing stones from the bronze age, Viking burial mounds and iron age forts, and I walked the spine of an island off an island.  I’ll describe these peregrinations in forthcoming posts.

Little more than a week from the summer solstice, the extravagance of the northern summer light was apparent, even at latitude 55′ N.  At midnight, and again by four in the morning, the sky would be washed with light.  Standing at the cottage door at close on 11pm, when the photo above was taken, the western face of Ailsa Craig glowed pink in the setting sun.  Coincidentally, I was reading Peter Davidson’s The Idea of North, in which he explores the concept of ‘north’ as manifested in painting, legend and literature.  He writes of the northern summer, ‘as prodigal of light as the winter is starved of it’, celebrated, for example, in Bergman’s films, Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries.

Much of the melancholy of the north arises from the impossibility of saving one minute from the long light against the approaching darkness. … For many, true north is defined by white nights, the ‘summer dim’, the extravagance of light all night through, celebrated in the haiku by Alan Spence:

midsummer midnight
full moon in the pale sky
over the north sea

Davidson cites other examples of the cultural  influence of the season of light, from the Gaelic calendar that places summer earlier than the later, Christian tradition with May and June being central, to Summernight, the painting by Norwegian Harald Sohlberg (above).

In the evening, here on Kildonan shore, with the sea like glass and the only sounds the gentle lapping of waves on rocks and pebbles, and the soft breathing of the cows in the meadow, it is as if Norman MacCaig wrote his poem ‘Sound of the Sea on a Still Evening’ about this place:

It comes through quietness, softly crumbling in
Till it becomes the quietness; and we know
The wind to be will reach us from Loch Roe.
From the receding South it will begin
To stir, to whisper; and by morning all
The sea will lounge North, sloping by Clachtoll

Gentlest of prophecies. The most tottering grass
Stands still as a stiff thorn, as though its root
Groped not in sand but in sand’s absolute
And was itself disqualified to pass
Into a shaking world where it must be
Not grass but grasses rippling like the sea.

Three heifers slouch by, trailing down the road
A hundred yards of milky breath – they rip
The grasses sideways. Waterdrops still drip
From the turned tap and tinily explode
On their flat stone. An unseen bird goes by,
Its little feathers hushing the whole sky.

And yet a word is spoken. When the light
Gives back its redness to the Point of Stoer
And sets off cocks like squibs, pebbles will roar
At their harsh labour, grinding shells to white
And glittering beaches, and tall waves will run
Fawning on rocks and barking in the sun.

After six good days without rain the weather took a turn for the worse, with rain and lowering clouds over Ailsa Craig on Friday evening. As we left the following morning the island was being lashed by stiff winds and rain.  The sea, placid all week, at Whiting Bay was being whipped by the wind as breakers rolled onshore. Our ferry was cancelled, and we had to wait until the storm had abated before we could make the crossing to the mainland.

Nonetheless, we left with memories of a fine holiday:

Where  no-one  was was where my world was stilled
into hills that hung behind the lasting water,
a quiet quilt of heather where bees slept,
and a single slow bird in circles winding
round the axis of my head.

Any wind being only my breath, the weather
stopped, and a woollen cloud smothered the sun.
Rust and a mist hung over the clock of the day.
A mountain dreamed in the light of the dark
and  marsh mallows were yellow for ever.

Still as a fish in the secret loch alone
I was held in the water where my feet found ground
and the air where my head ended,
all thought a prisoner of the still sense –
till a butterfly drunkenly began the world.

– Alastair Reid, ‘Isle of Arran’


See also

  • Wild on Arran: a blog that documents ‘ a life on Arran, walking, climbing and watching wildlife’.
  • Isle of Arran: Island, Landscape, Geology, Wildlife and History

On Arran: Millennia deep

On Arran: Millennia deep

‘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.

Holy Isle in Lamlash Bay

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”.

Arran Clearances Memorial, Lamlash

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.

Kildonan shore

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.

Looking south to Drumadoon Point

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.

The String road – top of the pass looking 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.

Merkland Burn, Brodick Country Park

We emerged from the woodland to picnic on an empty beach on Brodick Bay, golden sands stretching away to Merkland Point to the north.

Brodick Bay

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.

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.

Grass of Parnassus

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.

Bog Asphodel

‘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.

Ailsa Craig

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.

Brennan Head

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.

Hutton’s Unconformity

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.

Hutton’s Unconformity

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
of rock.

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
The sun
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.

Leaving Brodick

We left Arran after only four days, but vowed that we would return.

See also