A tour of Kintyre: ‘a little crowded’

A tour of Kintyre: ‘a little crowded’

Each time we’ve walked or driven along Arran’s west coast I’ve looked across the the narrow strait of Kilbrannan Sound to the low hills of Kintyre and imagined exploring that long peninsula as far as the very tip where, from the Mull of Kintyre, you can see the coast of Northern Ireland, seeming a mere stone’s throw away.

This year, at last, we took the ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig to spend a day exploring this remote and sparsely-populated area.  Looking back from the ferry (which had been delayed, due to an exceptionally low tide) the views that opened up of Arran’s northern mountains were dramatic and unexpected: when you’re down on the shore you have no sense of the rugged majesty of the peaks rising behind you. Continue reading “A tour of Kintyre: ‘a little crowded’”

The walk to Laggan cottage: ruins and ancient footfalls

The walk to Laggan cottage: ruins and ancient footfalls

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. Continue reading “The walk to Laggan cottage: ruins and ancient footfalls”

Glen Sannox: landscape, nature and industry

Glen Sannox: landscape, nature and industry

Something about Arran that I don’t quite understand is how it is possible, with no great effort, to walk from sea level into the mountains.  One example is the trail that follows Sannox Burn from the golden sweep of sandy Sannox Bay along the gently rising path to the head of Glen Sannox,  where spectacular mountain peaks tower over the head of the Glen. Continue reading “Glen Sannox: landscape, nature and industry”

Coire Fhionn Lochan: ‘mountain line and shoreline’

Coire Fhionn Lochan: ‘mountain line and shoreline’

It’s not a long or particularly difficult walk up from the delightfully-named hamlet of Thundergay up to Coire Fhionn Lochan, the lake like a teardrop that nestles in a bowl hollowed out by glacial ice in the mountains a thousand feet above.  But we did it on one of the last days of the long, cold spring of 2013; it may have been mid-June, but the wind battered us that day, making the going an effort, and the temperature did not speak of midsummer.

Nevertheless it was an exhilarating walk.  We parked the car opposite the access road to the tiny settlement of Thundergay where the main road round the isle of Arran hugs Kilbrannan Sound.  On the shore a pair of swans were fiercely protective of their brood of cygnets. Continue reading “Coire Fhionn Lochan: ‘mountain line and shoreline’”

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”

Walking Arran: two glens and the dog on top of the world

Walking Arran: two glens and the dog on top of the world

‘Back to winter’ they say in the Co-op in Brodick.  Lowering cloud, a chilly breeze: it all looks decidedly unpromising for a day’s walking.  But as we set off  up Glen Rosa, the valley that pokes a finger from Brodick Bay into the mountains of the north of Arran, things are starting to look brighter.  By the end of the afternoon we will have had another brilliant walk, shedding layers as we go, as the sky clears and hot sunshine breaks through.

The walk up the glen is fairly flat and undemanding, gaining less than 200 metres in altitude before the final sharp climb to the ridge called The Saddle that overlooks Glen Sannox.For the first couple of miles the track leads past grassy meadows and wooded hillsides.

Soon, though, the valley becomes more bare of trees and shrubs, a consequence we learn later of grazing by deer and sheep that have rediced what once was extensive tree cover to small remnants.

Glen Rosa Water rushes along beside the track, crystal-clear water spilling over rocks and stones. To our right, the valley is overlooked by Goat Fell, the highest peak on the island, though it’s not possible to see it from the glen.

After a mile or so the glen turns to the north and the path crosses a bridge over another very busy stream that flows down the steep hillside in a series of waterfalls.

Now the valley ahead is dominated by the jagged peaks of Cir Mhòr which rises to 799 metres (2621 feet) and is sometimes called the ‘Matterhorn of Arran’. Its Gaelic name is translated into English as ‘Big Comb’, a reference to its resemblance to a cockscomb.

The landscape becomes increasingly wild and majestic,with bog cotton (common cottongrass) and wild orchids flanking the path.  Yet, amazingly, this landscape is little more than two miles from the nearest supermarket.

It’s here that we think we identify a stonechat.  At least, the bird we see seems to live up to its naming: it sits on a stone and chats, energetically and at great length.  Norman MacCaig painted a vivid portrait of this bird, ‘a bright child throwing a tantrum’, in ‘Stonechat on Cul Beg’:

A flint-on-flint ticking – and there he is,
Trim and dandy – in square miles of bracken
And bogs and boulders a tiny work of art,
Bright as an illumination on a monkish parchment.

I queue up to watch him. He makes me a group
of solemn connoisseurs trying to see the brushstrokes.
I want to thumb the air in their knowing way.
I murmur Chinese black, I murmur alizarin.

But the little picture with four flirts and a delicate
Up-swinging’s landed on another boulder.
He gives me a stained-glass look and keeps
Chick-chacking at me. I suppose he’s swearing.

You’d expect something like oboes or piccolos
(Though other birds, too, have pebbles in their throats –
And of them I love best the airy skylark
Twittering like marbles squeezed in your fist).

Cul Beg looks away – his show’s been stolen.
And the up-staged loch would yawn if it could.
Only the benign sun in his fatherly way
Beams on his bright child throwing a tantrum.

By the time we stop for lunch, the sun is beating down. After, I take the dog and make the ascent to The Saddle: what is it about getting to the top to see what’s on the other side?

The climb is steeper now, but its only in the last few yards that it becomes a scramble.  We reach the top, dog and I.  Was ever a climb worth it!  The views are spectacular, despite the heat haze.  A small King Charles spaniel looks back down Glen Rosa with some astonishment, perhaps, at her achievement (top).

The view down Glen Sannox to the sea is breathtaking.  Both these valleys were sculpted into classic U-shaped valleys during the last Ice Age, when the glacial ice flowed downhill to carve deeply into the rocks.  There’s a poem by Norman MacCaig, ‘Humanism’, that meditates on the work of these glaciers millenia ago:

When the glacier was defeated
in the siege of Suilven and limped off
to the East, it left behind it all that
burdened its retreat –
stones, the size of
sandgrains and haystacks:
abandoned loot of Glen Canisp.

What a human lie is this. What greed and what
arrogance, not to allow
a glacier to be a glacier –
to humanise into a metaphor
that long slither of ice – that was no more
a beaten army than it was a horde
of Cinderellas, each,
when her midnight sounded,
leaving behind her
a sandstone shoe.

I defend the glacier that
when it absorbs a man
preserves his image
intact.

Well…it was a tough climb for a small dog.  We pause to rest awhile before heading back down the glen and watch a chaffinch sing lustily on a nearby branch.  On the way down we pass a man who asks if we’ve seen any adders – they have been plentiful this season, he says.

Part way along is the Glen Rosa Enclosure, a section of the valley fenced off from sheep and deer in order to allow the natural regeneration of woodland to take place and to increase wildlife diversity.  It’s certainly having an effect: this enclosed area is rich in tree saplings, shrubs and heather largely absent beyond the fence.

It’s a pleasant walk back to the metalled track at the beginning of the glen.  The sun is still warm, and as we pass the campsite young lads are plunging into the river.

Friday was our last day on the island, and we woke to steady rain – rain that had been forecast as a depression headed our way.  But it was the cold that made the weather distinctly unseasonable: it was 10 C – or worse, with the wind chill factor in a stiff breeze.

After lunch, though, the rain moved off for a few hours, and we decided on a walk up Glenashdale to see the waterfall.  For the most part, at least, we would be sheltered from the biting wind.  The walk along Glenshdale begins at Whiting Bay, and follows the burn through mixed woodland, rich with the smell of wild garlic.  The woodland floor was carpeted with the leaves of wood anemone and wild garlic (now over; it must have been a superb sight a few weeks ago).

When I saw this truck, with trees and shrubs growing through it, I was reminded of a scene in Werner Herzog’s recent film Into the Abyss, in which Herzog, probing the circumstances of a triple murder, chances upon the Camaro stolen by the murderers during the crime.  A tree has grown up inside the vehicle during the decade it has stood in the police station parking lot.

A noticeboard along the trail informs visitors that Arran is one of the remaining strongholds of the red squirrel.  There are no grey squirrels on Arran, which is the only Scottish island with a resident red squirrel population.  So vigilance against any incursion by grey squirrels is of primary importance to safeguard red squirrels.  Red squirrels seem unable to survive in the presence of greys, though the reasons for this are not fully understood. There is no evidence that grey squirrels aggressively chase out red squirrels, but grey squirrels seem to be more successful competing for food in different types of habitat – and they brought a disease, parapox virus, with them from America to which they are immune but which usually kills red squirrels.

Glenashdale Falls were a spectacular sight: it was easy to understand how this waterfall  is regarded one of the most impressive waterfalls in the West of Scotland.  The path to the area has been improved over the years and a viewing platform now juts out over the falls to give a clear view of the double drop.

The waterfall descends over 140 feet in two falls to a plunge pool, and then over another ledge to the river below.

We continued past the waterfall on the circular walk that takes you to the Giants’ Graves, neolithic graves that, at 5000 years old, pre-date the Egyptian pyramids.

Rather than being the final resting place of giants, as the legend says, the graves contained the bones of several people. Massive stone slabs, jumbled together in the turf, are all that remains of this large Stone Age burial cairn.  There was once a forecourt, defined by large upright stones, with a rectangular burial chamber entered from the forecourt.  The chamber was roofed with large slabs and enclosed in a stone cairn.  Most of the smaller stones were removed long ago for walls and building materials.  The cairn was excavated in 1902, and some burnt bone, pottery, flint knives and stone arrowheads were found.

Before they were placed in the cairn, bodies were left in the open to let the ravens remove the flesh from the bones, and different parts of the skeleton may have been placed in different parts of the chamber.  People were sometimes buried with decorated pots, stone arrowheads and knives. The cairns were not permanently sealed but were used again and again over many years. The cairns were built using simple tools and required considerable communal effort. They were intended for the remains of the community’s ancestors, not just for individuals.  The forecourts may have been used for rituals conducted during burial and in remembrance of the ancestors.

It’s a wild, windswept location, on a headland offering superb vistas of Whiting Bay and Holy Island.  Looking down at the bay, we could see the waves, whipped up by the stiff wind, breaking on the beach below.

All that remained of our week on Arran now was the packing and the leaving.  But, as Norman MacCaig observes in his poem ‘Landscape Outside and In’, we may leave the place behind, but the song of the landscape continues long after:

My rough ground lies under,
my scrub trees rise over
a tangle of grass half drowned
in a dazing wash of bluebells.
Four things, making a perpendicularity.

Beside them the loch water provides
the horizontal. It itches
with waterboatmen
and dimples with trout.

On top of all, on the high branches
I’m divided into birds, all singing.
How often do all my selves
sing together?..

You pick up a piece of wood,
a water sculpture; and we go to the car
and make for home.

We’ve left behind the bluebells
and the water. But all my selves
are still singing. They make no sound
but you hear their every note.

Gallery

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Walking Arran: rock of ages

Walking Arran: rock of ages

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.

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