James Bateman came from a family made rich by iron and coal during the Industrial Revolution. A landowner and accomplished horticulturist, in 1842 he bought Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire where he set about creating what has been called ‘a Great Exhibition of a garden – the whole world in one green
space, with planting to reflect the spirit of Italy and China, Egypt, England and the
At the same time as Bateman developed his gardens to represent the variety of creation, he began work on a Geological Gallery at Biddulph Grange which, when it opened to the public in 1862, presented a selection of fossils and geological strata displayed in a chronological order – his attempt to reconcile his evangelical Christianity with geological understanding at the time. Resolute in his belief in divine creation, Bateman planned his Geological Gallery as a refutation of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, unveiled in The Origin of Species, published in 1859. Continue reading “James Bateman’s garden of creation at Biddulph Grange”→
Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me. Time and place have had their say.
– Zora Neale Thurston, Dust Tracks on a Road
Arran rocks! They’re all over the place: which is why Arran is the classic destination for geology students doing fieldwork, and why Aerran played a pivotal role in the development of our understanding of the geological story of the earth. A walk last week along the Arran coastal way between Sannox and Lochranza offered some striking examples of the twists and turns in that geological story.
We parked at North Sannox picnic site and followed the well-defined shore path through a stretch of birch woodland through which we caught glimpses of the Firth of Clyde. The ditch alongside the pathwas filled with watercress and fringed with wild garlic. I can eat watercress without accompaniment, and I wolfed down a sprig or two: it zinged with pepperyness, much sharper than the shop-bought variety.
Here, too, were clumps of Water Avens, a frequenter of damp places such as riversides and wet woodlands. The flowers varied in colour from greenish-white to pale pink. Its roots apparently smell like cloves and have historically been used to flavour drinks such as beer, and to cure a variety of medical ailments. The Ortus Sanitatis in 1491 reckoned that, ‘Where the root is in the house, Satan can do nothing and flies from it, wherefore it is blessed before all other herbs, and if a man carries the root about him no venomous beast can harm him’, while Culpepper stated:
‘It is governed by Jupiter and that gives hopes of a wholesome healthful herb. It is good for the diseases of the chest or breath, for pains and stitches in the sides, it dissolveth inward congealed blood occasioned by falls and bruises and the spitting of blood, if the roots either green or dried be boiled in wine and drunk. The root in the spring-time steeped in wine doth give it a delicate flavour and taste and being drunk fasting every morning comforteth the heart and is a good preservative against the plague or any other poison. It is very safe and is fit to be kept in every body’s house.’
So: a one yard stretch of waterlogged ditch offered a tangy herb, a powerful food flavouring, and a plant with many medicinal applications.
Soon we came to Fallen Rocks, an imaginatively named collection of colossal boulders, the result of what must have been a terrifying landslip that hurled great sandstone boulders, studded with pebbles and conglomerate, from the cliffs to the sea.
The geology lesson is continuous: the rock fall means it’s possible to distinguish the different strata in the rock: alternations of sandstone and conglomerate reflect the different time periods and conditions in which the sediments were laid down, sometimes in warm seas or lagoons, or during periods in which fast-flowing rivers deposited the coarser, pebble-strewn layers. All of this, as I understand it, in the Carboniferous period between 359 and 299 million years ago.
put your hand on the hollow rock place your hollow hand on the rock
rocks fallen from high places keep their composure
you will have to go all round it to see it
have to stay with it to know it
– Thomas A Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places
There’s another story told by the level nature of the path along this stretch, with the cliffs set well back from the shore (as on most of Arran’s coastal way). It’s the story of glaciers and ice sheets that once covered Arran. The weight of all this ice pushed Arran downwards into the earths’ crust. But, once the ice began to melt, Arran began to rise again, resulting in the raised beaches that fringe the island. This uplift – or ‘rebound’ – after the melting of the last ice age has been a gradual process – and is still continuing today.
I stopped to take this photo of the raised beach because, apart from the usual puzzlement when I encounter one of these lost shoes (why so frequent? why always only one?), the abandoned shoe reminded me of something. There’s a great song by the Texan songwriter Terry Allen, co-written with David Byrne (now there’s a couple out on their own astral plane), called ‘Wilderness of this World’, in which the sight of an old shoe on the highway provokes thoughts about the transitoriness of human life on a planet that just keeps on spinning, and in the vastness of time geological forces mean that the desert falls to the ocean:
There’s an old shoe Out on the highway That tells us of the Wilderness of this World […]
And the desert falls Down on the ocean And that motion is all We’ll ever know
It just keeps on spinning This bunch of dancing fools Run crazy across the Wilderness of this World
Past Millstone Point we came to the lovely, whitewashed Laggan cottage, located miles from any road, its two windows (covered when we passed with trompe l’oeil curtains) facing the shore, the front door a few steps from the sea.
Laggan Cottage was part of a thriving community over a century ago, but now stands alone in the wild – a memory of a time when the sea was the only way here. The cottage has been a haven for artists, and so impressed Scottish author Paul Story that it became the seed for Creggan Cottage in the first novel in his Dreamwords series. This video was compiled by Story over a period of four weeks in the summer of 2010, when he stayed there. Most of the scenes were taken within a few steps of the cottage
Soon after Laggan cottage you encounter the reason for its existence – the ruins of Duchess Anne’s Salt Pan, built in 1710. These workings are of a kind found in only one other location in Scotland, on the neighbouring island of Bute. Salt being vital to preserve meat and fish, it was a valuable commodity.
The discovery of coal nearby (another gift from the Carboniferous era) made it possible to extract the salt from sea-water. Coal was burnt under iron salt pans for the ‘lumpmen’ and ‘wallers’ to skim off the salt from the evaporating brine. The resulting salt was then shipped out – it was highly prized, as Arran salt salt was particularly pure.
The ruined building here is the old pan-house, where the furnace and iron pans were located. There are traces of other, smaller buildings that stored fuel and salt, with workers’ cottages inland.
The coal was dug from pits, now filled with water like the one above. The process proved uneconomic and the Salt Pan fell into disuse after only 20 years.
There’s a remarkable stretch of shoreline a little further on, where red sandstone outcrops on the beach (above and top). The colour and weathering of these rocks evoked a sudden nostalgia for Liverpool and the Wirral, where you see this stuff everywhere.
These sandstone strata were laid down in the Permian era, which followed the Carboniferous (between 250 and 290 million years ago). At that time, Arran was situated somewhere between latitudes 13 and 30°N (roughly where the Sahara is today) and it would have been in a Sahara-like landscape that these beds would have been laid down, deposited in wind-blown and river systems.
A mile further, and we reached the Cock of Arran, a huge sandstone boulder deposited on the beach, which, before its head fell off, resembled a cockerel.
Beyond lay the Scriordan Rock Fall, which was to prove a the most stressful section of the walk. It’s the result of a massive landslip of the rock strata which resulted in an avalanche of rock covering about a mile of the shore. At low tide, you can bypass the fall by keeping low on the beach. But it was high tide and we had to clamber and scramble over the boulders. The way through turned out to be slow, tortuous – and worrisome when our dog, jumping down from a boulder, fell awkwardly and began limping as if she had strained a leg muscle. There was nothing for it, but to carry her over the rocks, hoping I wouldn’t slip and injure myself going one-handed. But all was well: we got through, and the dog recovered rapidly, pausing only to take stock of the terrain that she had traversed (above).
Now the way was straightforward: the path was level once again, meandering along the raised beach and past the attractive fisherman’s cottage at Fairy Dell (below).
We were now approaching Hutton’s Unconformity, a site of great importance in the history of geology. It was here, in 1787, that James Hutton noticed that one strata of very old rock which was inclined nearly vertically was overlain by another strata of much younger sandstone which was almost horizontal. Since sedimentary rocks are deposited in horizontal layers, it takes eons for geological processes (such as heat, pressure and folding) to force them up at an angle, and longer still for erosion to wear them down. Hutton deduced that, between the two kinds of rock at different angles there was a huge time-gap, which could not be explained by the contemporary orthodoxy, promulgated in 1645 by Archbishop Usher, that the earth was a mere 5000 years old. Based on his calculations from the Bible, Usher reckoned that the earth began at nightfall on Sunday 23 October 4004 BC.
The nomenclature of the Uncomformity appeals, seeming to refer not just to the geological circumstance, but also to the radical significance of Hutton’s deduction. He was then able to put forward a theory about the geological history of the earth that was to have as profound an effect upon society as did Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, as he was the first to propose that the earths’ surface had evolved over an immense period of time, far in excess of Biblical time.
Visiting Lochranza in 1787, Hutton explored the coast to the north of the village. From his observations at Lochranza and elsewhere, he proposed that the earth was much older than had been previously thought. It was at Lochranza where the length and complexity of the Earth’s history was first fully appreciated. In the National Portrait Gallery there’s a delightful portrait by John Kay of Hutton, the frock-coated gentleman farmer, chipping away at a rock face which may, perhaps, bear the image of Archbishop Usher.
Hutton was on the fringes of the gifted group of intellectuals sometimes called the Edinburgh Enlightenment; his circle included economist Adam Smith, philosopher David Hume, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), and James Watt, inventor of the steam engine. Although he also is cast as a champion of scientific logic over religious irrationality, Marcia Bjornerud, in her book Reading The Rocks, suggests that in fact his interest in things geological seems to have sprung from a deeply felt spirituality:
As a landowner in a wet climate, Hutton was aware of how much soil was lost to the sea by erosion each year, and as a religious man, he was troubled by the thought that God would allow the continents simply to be worn progressively away. He therefore began to seek evidence for the rejuvenation of the land and intuitively understood that such evidence could be found only in rocks. He recognized that the rocks exposed on the seaside cliffs of eastern Scotland were formed from sediment that had been derived from older continental rocks. And in this single insight, the Scottish farmer simultaneously articulated the central precept of geology and made a compelling argument for an Earth that was far older than the 6,000 years allotted to it by the Church.
In his one great treatise, The Theory of the Earth, published in 1788, Hutton showed remarkable understanding of the principles that underpin modern geology:
The ruins of an older world are visible in the present structure of our planet, and the strata which now compose our continents have been once beneath the sea, and were formed out of the waste of pre-existing continents. The same forces are still destroying, by chemical decomposition or mechanical violence, even the hardest rocks, and transporting these materials to the sea, where they are spread out, and form strata analogous to those of more ancient date.
Once round Newton Point, the port of Lochanzra came into view. It’s a sight that the geologist Andrew Crombie Ramsay knew well, and here there is a viewpoint marker that bears a quotation from his Geology of the Island of Arran:
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.
As we approached Lochranza the ferry from Claonaig on the Kintyre mainland was just arriving at the jetty. This is an isolated place, at the far end of a wild mountain glen, and, facing north, said to be one of the wettest places in the British Isles. But on this particular evening it was balmy, the shoreline fringed with erect yellow flag and the sea like glass. Sir Walter Scott liked the place, writing in The Lord of the Isle:
On fair Lochranza streamed the early day, Thin wreaths of cottage smoke are upward curl’d From the lone hamlet, which her inland bay And circling mountains sever from the world
Our long walk over, we waited for the bus to take us back to our car at Sannox at a stop across the road from the Arran Distillery, built in 1995, which produces the Arran Single Malt and isone of the major industries on the island. We had some time to spare, so I stepped across and bought a couple of bottles. After all, as Holinshed wrote in his Chronicles in 1577:
It sloweth age, it strengtheneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth flegme, it relisheth the harte, it lighteneth the mynd, it quickeneth the spirits, it cureth the hydropsie, it repelleth gravel … and trulie it is a sovereign liquor if it be orderlie taken.
Then it was on the bus for the ride back through Glen Chalmadale with the jagged peaks of Torr Neaden Eoin so close it seemed you could reach out and touch them.
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 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.
We left Arran after only four days, but vowed that we would return.