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

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.


See also

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.

See also

Walking Arran: Iron Age forts, a Viking burial and Buddhist pilgrims

Walking Arran: Iron Age forts, a Viking burial and Buddhist pilgrims

On Arran you sense time, the accumulation of thousands and millions of years, more intensely than anywhere else I’ve been: the deep geological time of rock formation along with signs of thousands of years of human presence in the landscape.

The first people on Arran to leave visible signs of their life and times lived in the Neolithic era, between 4500BC and 2000BC. They were farmers, and have left traces of their field systems, stone circles, standing stones and cairns. Megalithic monuments were built over a long period of time, stretching into the Bronze Age (roughly 2000BC to 600BC).  It was people from the Bronze Age who erected the enigmatic stone circles on Machrie Moor which I described when we first visited last September. I have never felt a sense of millennial time so intensely as on Machrie Moor: a track leads across open moorland to a series of standing stones 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

This was a place to which we had to return.  This time we found a party of primary school children studying the stones and writing poems inspired by the place.  We distracted them for a while with our spaniel, which disappeared in a scrum of adoring girls.  After they had left, an intense silence descended, leaving the moor as it was and will be. Millenia deep.

An interpretation board tells visitors:

You are standing in a sacred landscape, where a complex story of belief and ritual has unfolded over thousands of years. This moorland is rich with signs of human life, belief and death. People lived and worked here for many thousands of years. Hidden in the peat are the remains of their homes, marks made by their ploughs, and the outlines of their fields. The land in this valley was fertile and attractive, and the people who lived here were farmers. Their ancestors had hunted and fished, but from about 4000 BC people began to clear the land for farming.

These enigmatic stone circles have long fascinated visitors and locals alike. In the 19th century they were investigated by probing through the peat with metal rods and eventually the peat was removed. However, most of our knowledge of them comes from scientific excavations carried out in the 1980s.

From about 2000 BC families lived here in round houses built of wood or stone. They grew barley and wheat, and kept animals like sheep, pigs, goats and cattle. Meat, vegetables, bread and cheese were produced and they made their own tools and clothes from the resources around them.  Around 4,500 years ago (at about the same time as monuments like Stonehenge were being built elsewhere in Britain) people erected elaborate timber circles . The timber later decayed and the land was cultivated, but the sites remained important.  Five hundred years later two stone circles were erected on the same sites as the earlier wooden ones. Probably at the same time four other circles were erected, one with a double ring of stones.  The result was an impressive and significant ceremonial centre for those who lived or travelled here. There may be other remains still hidden in the peat.

Although experts can’t agree about how the circles were used, the rising sun may give a clue. This particular location offers an early view of the midsummer sunrise at the head of Machrie Glen. It’s possible that important ceremonies took place here at the midsummer solstice.

When excavated between 1978 and 1986, the ground was shown to be criss-crossed with marks made by ards – early ploughs which cut through, rather than turned over, the earth.  Earlier in the day we had visited the Arran Heritage Museum at Brodick where we saw this display of ards excavated on the island.  These differ from stone ard shares found elsewhere – being heavier and shorter.

Also on display in the Museum were these two replica gold ornaments: a pennular ring of solid gold – probably a cloak or dress fastener, and a gold ‘lockring’ for holding back a lock of hair. The originals were found at Whitefarland (on the northwest coast of Arran) and both are now in the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow.

The larger, wealthier and more hierarchical communities of the Bronze initially used copper, extracted from small surface deposits in Mid-Argyll. Soon, tin ores from Cornwall were being imported and alloyed with copper to make bronze which was much harder and made more effective weapons.  Considerable organisation was required to produce these objects, and they always retained a high status position.

On another day we walked the coastal way from Clauchland Point at the north end of Lamlash Bay as far as Corriegills Point, before turning inland and returning to our starting point along quiet lanes and through patches of old wildwood.

At the start of the walk along the shore was a board explaining that a large section of Lamlash Bay is now a No Take Zone – a designated area of sea and seabed from which no marine life can be removed. Decades ago, Arran was renowned for its fishing, when cod, haddock, hake, dab, plaice and turbot were plentiful in the waters of the Firth of Clyde. Today the white fish have gone, leaving only prawns and a dwindling stock of scallops. Concerned about the damage caused by trawling, campaigners formed the Community of Arran Seabed Trust and spent 15 years lobbying for a No Take Zone. Iain Stewart explained its significance  in his series for BBC TV Scotland, Making Scotland’s Landscape.

If the establishment of the No Take Zone is a positive development, the walk along the Clauchland shore provoked less optimistic thoughts.  All along the shore was strewn with plastic debris of all shapes and sizes – a large drum, a big fish storage tray, and many, many plastic bottles that once contained water or fizzy drinks.  The shoreline is strewn with boulders that have become overgrown with turf at the high tide line.  I began to notice, however, that every few yards, the turf underfoot would sink and squeak where the grass had overgrown a plastic bottle.

The Bronze Age left us their standing stones, the Iron Age their forts.  The traces of our civilization seem likely to consist of discarded plastic objects.  I pondered the accumulation of this debris along this shore on the Firth of Clyde, downstream from Glasgow.  I imagined wave after wave of discarded plastic bottles drifting from the city, swirling and turning endlessly in the Firth until swept ashore during a a storm or at high tide in a place remote place such as this.  It brought to mind the ‘Trash Vortex’, an area the size of Texas in the North Pacific, in which an estimated six kilos of plastic for every kilo of natural plankton, along with other slow degrading garbage, swirls slowly around like a clock, choked with dead fish, marine mammals, and birds which get snared. Some plastics in the gyre will not break down in the lifetimes of the grandchildren of the people who threw them away.  As Greenpeace observes:

Take a walk along any beach anywhere in the world and washed ashore will be many polythene plastic bags, bottles and containers, plastic drums, expanded polystyrene packing, polyurethane foam pieces, pieces of polypropylene fishing net and discarded lengths of rope. Together with traffic cones, disposable lighters, vehicle tyres and toothbrushes, these items have been casually thrown away on land and at sea and have been carried ashore by wind and tide.

The walk finally brought us to the Iron Age hill fort at Dunn Fion, superbly situated on the very edge of a high cliff facing the sea, with commanding views of Brodick Bay in one direction and Lamlash Bay in the other.

The fort is small, but in this advantageous position it probably served as a secure home for an extended family at a time when intertribal conflict and attack were a constant threat. Archaeologists have determined that on the flat summit was a small oval fort little bigger than a hut circle, surrounded with a sizeable five foot thick earth and stone wall.  On the southerly slopes, where access was easiest, a defensive ditch was dug enclosing cultivated natural terraces.

An interpretive board explains that the site would have been fortified with ramparts using local natural materials, typically slabs and blocks of stone, rubble, boulders, earth and turf.  This fort would have presented an impressive profile on the sheer northerly cliff at a time when appearance and status were of great significance – this show of strength a further defence against cattle rustlers and tribal conflict. From evidence collected at similar forts on the island it seems likely the occupants of Dun Fionn would have kept cattle, sheep, goats, horses and pigs, and grown cereal crops such as barley.  The circular hut dwelling would have been made with timber and thatch, typically bracken and heather.  Inside, along with the sleeping area, a fire and a loom, a circular quern would have been used to grind grain.

A triangulation point now installed at the summit detracts somewhat from the atmosphere of the place.  Across the water lies Holy Isle, which I was to explore the following day.

A little further on, there is a Second World War pillbox, or look-out shelter, one of those erected in 1940 during the scare about a threatened invasion.  Standing in the pillbox, I gazed out across Lamlash Bay at the distinctive shape of Holy Isle, with its twin peaks –  Mullach Beag and the higher Mullach Mor.

The island has an important religious past, dating from the 6th century when Celtic Saint Molaise lived there as a hermit.   Since 1992, the island has been owned by a Tibetan Buddhist organisation that has established a Centre for World Peace and Health that offers a variety of courses, retreats and environmental programmes.  It is not a Buddhist community, but is run by the Rokpa Trust that also manages the Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre in Eskdale which we visited last year.

There is a regular ferry service from Lamlash pier, and the following day I made the crossing on my own, leaving partner and dog behind  since you aren’t allowed to take animals onto the island.  Visitors who simply wish, like me, to explore the island are welcome, while anyone willing to abide by the Five Golden Rules may stay in the Centre for retreats and holiday breaks. I can honestly state that I did not break any of the rules while I was on the island:

  • To respect life and refrain from killing
  • To respect other people’s property and refrain from stealing
  • To speak the truth and refrain from lying
  • To encourage health and refrain from intoxicants (including alcohol, cigarettes and drugs)
  • To respect others and refrain from sexual activity that causes harm

There is a clearly marked circular walk that leads over the two peaks before descending to the western shore (the whole east side of the island is a Nature Reserve and off limits).   I set off up the path from the jetty, past Buddhist prayer flags and stupas and up through an area of woodland with young birch trees.  There’s a steady climb to the top of Mullach Beag, 759 feet above sea level, with expansive views across Lamlash Bay.  From here it was possible to appreciate the commanding position occupied by the Iron Age fort at Dun Fionn just across the water.

I had been the only person coming across on the 10 o’clock ferry and I felt a sense of profound solitude as I stood at the first peak. The path then descended a little, before climbing again to the windswept crest of Mullach Mor, 1026 feet above sea level. Here, at the highest point, unexpectedly, I encountered a small party of teenagers sprawled around the trig point at the peak.

The views from the peak were stupendous: to the southwest was the broad sweep of Whiting Bay with Ailsa Craig looming out of the haze beyond Dippin Head.  To the north, Goat Fell was shrouded in low cloud.

I moved on, and soon the solitude enfolded me once again, and I was accompanied only by the cry of the gulls and the distant murmuration of the waves far below.  The climb down from Mullach Mor is fairly steep and at one point the path leads past hidden crevasses that have been marked by blue ropes.

On the descent, two lighthouses are in view.  On the eastern shore stands the outer lighthouse, or Pillar Rock, built in 1905 and the first lighthouse built with a square tower. It had a fog horn and a revolving light that was lit by paraffin. In 1877 the inner lighthouse (facing Arran) was designed by Thomas Stevenson, father of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

The path finally returns to sea level, and the last couple of miles is a level walk along the grassy raised beach.  The inner lighthouse cottages now accommodate the Inner Light Retreat for women, and the retreat and adjacent gardens are closed to the public.  On the hillside are several newly built semicircular retreat pods and an accommodation unit for the retreat master.  Here individuals can follow a traditional Buddhist retreat of three years and three months.

Along the shore several rocks are painted with Buddhist images. The Holy Island website explains:

 In Tibet it is traditional to carve and paint depictions of the Buddha and saints on rocks and cliffs along pilgrimage routes and at holy places, to remind and inspire everyone who passes of the spiritual vision towards which to strive.  A Tibetan monk living in Samye Ling has carved several figures on the rocks along the path to the south end of the island, depicting key historical figures of the Kagyu Lineage and other significant images. They are carved and painted according to the traditional proportions and colours of Tibetan art.

Walking along the path, you encounter depictions of White and Green Tara. For those not familiar with Tibetan Buddhism, the Centre website explains:

Tibetan Buddhism recognises many different tantric deities, each of which represents a different qualities of enlightened awareness. Tara is often seen and described as a Mother, because her compassion is so great that every being is as precious to her as a child to its mother. She is also described as Mother of all the Buddhas, because she is seen as the embodiment of perfected Wisdom.  In the form of White Tara, she can help preserve and protect one’s precious human life and cultivate wisdom. As Green Tara, she helps to overcome fear and to remove both external and internal obstacles on the path. She is quick and fearless in her activity – her outstretched right leg shows her readiness to spring into action whenever she is needed.

On a stone beneath the painting of Green Tara, those who had passed by had placed various offerings.  These were largely natural objects gathered on the nearby beach – though, for some inexplicable reason, someone had left a golf ball.  For some who passed by, their journey might have constituted a pilgrimage.  This desire by individuals to set out on a pilgrimage, and to leave tokens of their passage, is something discussed by Robert MacFarlane in his new book, The Old Ways.  On Saturday, in The Guardian, he wrote an article, Rites of way: behind the pilgrimage revival, considering why more and more people are setting out on pilgrimages, for religious, cultural or personal reasons:

Across faiths and denominations, down the green lanes of England, along the dusty roads of Spain, up the cobbled streets of Alpine towns, through the marl deserts of Israel and the West Bank, around the sacred peaks of the Himalayas, over the frozen lakes of Russia and along the holy rivers of India, millions of pilgrims are on the move: bearing crosses, palm branches, flaming torches, flower garlands, prayer flags and over-stuffed rucksacks, clutching scuffed wooden staffs or shiny trekking poles, and tramping, prostrating, hobbling, begging and believing their ways onwards, travelling by aeroplane, car, bus, horseback and bicycle, but most often on foot and over considerable distances – for physical hardship remains a definitive aspect of most pilgrimage: arduous passage through the outer landscape prompting subtle exploration of the inner. This pilgrimage revival is not only religious in nature; it also extends widely and fascinatingly into secular culture and art. […]

Everywhere I went on these journeys, I encountered men and women for whom landscape and walking were vital to life. I met tramps, trespassers, dawdlers, mourners, stravaigers, explorers, cartographers, poets, sculptors, activists, botanists, and pilgrims of many kinds. I discovered that walking is still profoundly and widely alive in the world as a more-than-functional act. I met people who walked in search of beauty, in pursuit of grace or in flight from unhappiness, who followed songlines or ley-lines; I witnessed walking as non-compliance, walking as fierce star-song, walking as elegy or therapy, walking as reconnection or remembrance, and walking to sharpen the self or to forget it entirely. […]

Not long before I went to Spain, I read an essay in the journal Artesian by a Czech writer called Vaclav Cilek, cryptically entitled Bees of the Invisible. Cilek – himself a long-distance wanderer – proposed a series of what he called ‘pilgrim rules’, of which the two most memorable were the Rule of Resonance (A smaller place with which we resonate is more important than a place of great pilgrimage) and the Rule of Correspondence (A place within a landscape corresponds to a place within the heart.) ‘The number of quiet pilgrims is rising,’ he observed. ‘Places are starting to move. On stones and in forests one comes across small offerings – a posy made from wheat, a feather in a bunch of heather, a circle from snail shells’. I had come across such DIY land-art often myself: the signs of unnumbered “quiet pilgrimages”, of uncounted people improvising odd journeys in the hope that their voyages out might become voyages in.

Just after the last of the Buddhist images, at the foot of the red sandstone cliff, is St. Molaise’s Cave.  Molaise was born in Ireland, the son of an Irish king of what is now called Ulster. Rejecting his princely upbringing, at the age of 20, he chose to live a secluded life as a hermit in this cave.  He was later ordained in Rome, before returning to Ireland.

Centuries later, in 1263, the Vikings arrived in Lamlash Bay. King Haakon of Norway brought a fleet of ships to the shelter of the bay, before fighting the Scots at the Battle of Largs. Vigleikr, one of his marshals, came ashore at Holy Isle and cut runes with his name on the wall of St. Molaise’s cave. Several carvings can just be distinguished on the wall – simple crosses, perhaps made by pilgrims, and carved personal names. I don’t know whether the symbols carved into the rock face in my photo (above) are actually Vigleikr’s runes – I just made a guess.

From the cave, it is only a mile of flat walking back to the jetty and the Centre, where meditation courses take place.  As I walked along, just after midday, I began to meet individuals walking out from the direction of the Centre.  I smiled and greeted the first two or three with a cheery ‘hello’, but received only a glimmer of a smile in response.  Then I realised – they were probably on a silent meditation programme.  So I limited my further acknowledgements to a smile.

I clean my teeth in water drawn from a cold well;
And while I brush my clothes, I purify my mind;
Then, slowly turning pages in the Tree-Leaf Book,
I recite, along the path to the eastern shelter.
…The world has forgotten the true fountain of this teaching
And people enslave themselves to miracles and fables.
Under the given words I want the essential meaning,
I look for the simplest way to sow and reap my nature.
Here in the quiet of the priest’s temple courtyard,
Mosses add their climbing colour to the thick bamboo;
And now comes the sun, out of mist and fog,
And pines that seem to be new-bathed;
And everything is gone from me, speech goes, and reading,
Leaving the single unison.
‘Reading Buddhist Classics With Zhao At His Temple In The Early Morning’ by Liu Zongyuan (China, 773–819)

On the field in front of the Centre a flock of the ancient breed of Soay sheep was grazing.  They are found only here and in the Outer Hebrides on two of the three main islands of St Kilda: Hirta and Soay, which is Norse for ‘sheep’, giving the breed its name. No one knows how or when the sheep arrived on St Kilda, though archaeological evidence suggests that they have been there since the Bronze Age. Soay sheep are thought to be one of two ancestors for all domesticated sheep, and are very hardy animals, not dependent on people for anything.

There are two other kinds of animals on the island which I did not see on my walk.  Eriskay ponies are the last surviving remnants of the original native ponies from the Hebridean Isle of Eriskay (south of South Uist), and have ancient Celtic and Norse origins. The ponies are a hardy breed with their dense and waterproof coat, enabling them to live comfortably in the Scottish climate all year round.  There are also white Saanen goats with impressive horns, possibly brought here originally by the Vikings.

The poet Kay Hathway has written a poem inspired by seeing a woman on Holy Island practising T’ai Chi, the ancient martial art now widely followed to bring about a state of mental calm and clarity.  It draws on the concept of the Taiji (the ‘supreme ultimate’) found in both Taoist and Confucian philosophy, representing the fusion of Yin and Yang.

A westerly wind whispers through sea grass,
each blade bends in continuous cadence.
A woman lifts her arms shoulder high, past
the horizon, angles her foot and leans
forward, turning her right hand to ramparts
from where guillemots dive for fish and spread
selvedged wings underwater to dart and
seize in sequence. The woman’s inner strength
is yin, yang for gentleness of  movement,
her limbs the extension of swallowed depth
for solitude seekers. The attendant
animation, a rhythmic form of self.
Bird and woman pursue related goals
to fuel the belly and to feed the soul.

I waited at the jetty for the ferry that would take me back across the water to LamlashGoat Fell and the ridge of peaks above the town were now clear of cloud: after a chilly start, the day had turned out warm and sunny.

I was not alone on the crossing: the teenagers I’d met at the summit were returning on the same ferry.

Reunited with partner and dog, that afternoon we walked out to Kings Cross Point, the headland at the northern end of Whiting Bay just across the water from St. Molaise’s Cave with its Viking runes.  Our aim was to explore the  substantial Viking grave that is located on the headland.  Although the site has been damaged in the past, this burial mound is of a type rare in Britain.  It represents a cremation burial in a boat of one of the early Vikings who landed here in 1263.  When the site was excavated it was found to contain fragments of burnt bone and charcoal, whalebone, iron rivets and nails as from a boat, and a bronze coin minted in York in 850.  It’s possible to just make out the boat-shaped outline of the burial mound (below).

The sign back at the road that points to this site reads ‘Viking Fort’ – a confusion that has arisen, no doubt, because right next to the Viling burial is a small Iron Age fort.  From here, the people who lived within the fort’s enclosure could look across the bay and see the fort at Dunn Fion, described earlier.

An ancient Irish poem called ‘Agalllamh na Senorach’, first recorded in the 13th century, perhaps captures the island and its attractions as it would have been experienced by those people.

Arran of the many stags
The sea strikes against her shoulders,
Companies of men can feed there,
Blue spears are reddened among her boulders.
Merry hinds are on her hills,
Juicy berries are there for food,
Refreshing water in her streams,
Nuts in plenty in the wood


See also

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