Walking on Mull: Kilvickeon, landscape of the dead and the dispossessed

Walking on Mull: Kilvickeon, landscape of the dead and the dispossessed

Before we set out on our final walk on the island of Mull I had noted the passage in Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places in which he comes to a realisation that, when you are in a landscape that might be termed ‘wild’, ‘the human and the wild cannot be partitioned’.  This walk was to prove the truth of that observation in spades.

Leaving our B&B on the shore of Loch Scridain in the village of Pennyghael, for the first time during our visit we had a clear view of Ben More across the loch: during the previous three days, it had been obscured by mist, low cloud or rain.

Just before Bunessan we took the back road from the A849 signed for Scoor. The tarmac road soon ends, and we decided to continue along the very rough and potholed track on foot, even though a parking area is located a mile or so further on.  We were heading for the bay at Kilvickeon, and an abandoned church and graveyard that lies just off the track before the beach. The morning was warm and sunny morning, though later there was to be a sudden change as cloud thickened and rain drove in from the west.

The track skirted the shore of loch Assapol, before cresting a rise from where the ruins of the church and graveyard could be seen. We took the path across the grass and entered the graveyard.  It’s an atmospheric setting with the loch below, and nothing but the sound of the wind stirring the long grass.

Kilvickeon translates from the Gaelic as Church of the son of Eoghan – Eoghan being a nephew of Saint Columba.  The church was erected in the 13th century,  and once served as the parish church for the whole of the Ross of Mull (this south-western corner of Mull). By 1795 the fabric of the church was falling apart, although it was still being used.  Its fate was sealed when a new church was built in Bunessan in 1804. Heritors (landlords) were often reluctant to repair churches on their land and that was the case here. When the new church was built in Bunessan, stones from Kilvickeon church were used in the construction.

Studying the gravestones it was clear that the church must still be used occasionally today since some of the headstones record quite recent burials, presumably of local people or of exiles whose families were from these parts.

Some of the grave stones bear the emblems and names of local families, including those of Macnevin, McNeil, McGillivray, Macdonald, Mackinnen, and MacLean. The burials date mainly from medieval to post-reformation, but there are a couple stones erected in the 21st century. A variety of occupations are recorded on the stones: cattle dealers, cartwright, and sailors. In a corner by the outer wall are two grave stones to merchant sailors who died during the 2nd World War.

Look in any direction from the graveyard and there is no sign of human habitation – only a broad sweep of moorland,  loch and woodland.  Yet, according to a local history of the area, in 1791 the church incumbent, Dugald Campbell, had 3,002 people living in his parish. He noted that none were ‘Jews, negroes, gypsies, foreigners or persons born in England, Ireland or the Colonies’, and was confident that his flock were ‘sober and industrious’.

‘The dead rest from their journey from one wilderness to another’ wrote Norman MacCaig, in his poem, ‘Neglected Churchyard, Luskentyre’, and learning only a little of the history of these parishes emphasises the truth of his sentiment.

The Duke of Argyll was the near-feudal landowner in the Ross of Mull. By 1730 the Duke had given the Ross of Mull in tack to ‘Donald Campbell, brother of Scammadale’. A tacksman resembled a feudal baron, leasing out the land and enforcing regulations on behalf of the landowner. A report on the Mull estates in 1737, noted that the tacksmen required rent in kind from the peasants as well as labour, and ‘ground them down’ and, after a visit to Mull a little later in the same century, Sir John Sinclair described what had to be provided:

Tilling, dunging, sowing, harrowing, providing peats, thatching, straw ropes or heath ropes, securing his corn in the barnyard, weeding the land, mowing, … manuring, making and ingathering the hay, the spontaneous produce of the meadow and marshy ground, cutting down, harvesting, threshing out, manufacturing and carrying to market or seaport, a part of the produce of the farm.

They paid in kind, straw bags, ropes made of hair for drawing the plough, reeds, tethers for cattle, straw for thatching. They also paid ‘vicarage’ in the smaller tythes, lamb, wool, a certain number of fowls and eggs, veal, kid, butter and cheese and on the sea coast the tythe of their fish and carrying of sea weed for manure. Sometimes lint was spun for the lady of the house and some woollen yarn was exacted.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the potato was introduced to provide a more productive source of nutrition on the  parish lands.  Potatoes became the new staple, largely replacing bear (a primitive barley) and oats, the grains of earlier times.

Towards the end of the century, the gathering and burning of seaweed to produce alkaline ash became a major source of cash income – in 1801, 600 tons were made on the Mull, some of it certainly in this part of the Ross. It was hard, labour-intensive work and, for a short while, very profitable to landlords, who encouraged cottars, landless tenants, to settle in the area to carry out this work.  At the same time, the settlements were ‘modernised’ by turning the old ‘runrig’ system, in which the villagers worked the land collectively, into more profitable individual crofts.

Kelp manufacture collapsed as the Napoleonic wars ended and cheap alternative sources of alkali flooded in from Spain. Meanwhile, potatoes brought disaster as potato blight struck in 1845.  The potato blight continued well into the 1850s, bringing famine and death to the families of Kilvickeon and neighbouring parishes.  But worse was to follow.

Increasingly, landlords like the Duke of Argyll  had begun to regard the villagers as unnecessary, redundant, an impediment to making the land yield a profit. Four years before the potato blight struck, the 7th Duke of Argyll had already taken the fateful decision to turn the township lands over to sheep farming, which required very few workers.

On the Ross, in 1847, the new and soon much hated factor of the 8th Duke of Argyll, John Campbell had begun to implement more forcefully the policy initiated by the 7th Duke. Their approach to tackling the famine consisted of driving the villagers off the land, either abandoning them to poor relief or encouraging them to emigrate.  The mechanism for this was brutal: instead of accepting rent arrears, the factor was instructed to evict or to forcibly remove cattle in payment.

Conditions on the Ross of Mull during the famine years (1846-56) were dreadful. By the 1880s the larger part of the Ross had been turned over to sheep farming, and the population of this southern part of the Ross of Mull had been displaced by emigration, either to Canada or Australia, to other parts of Britain, or to the unforgiving, infertile land of  the Ardnamurchan peninsula to the north of the Ross. Whole communities, including the township of Kilvickeon, were obliterated.

In his poem ‘A Man in Assynt’, Norman MacCaig wondered where they had gone, the people who once lived here, and pondered the meaning of a Highland landscape like that at Kilvickeon:

Who owns this landscape?-
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?
Who possesses this landscape?
the man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?
False questions, for
this landscape is masterless
and intractable in any terms
that are human.


Or has it come to this,
that this dying landscape belongs
to the dead, the crofters and fighters
and fishermen whose larochs
sink into the bracken
by Loch Assynt and Loch Crocach? –
to men trampled under the hoofs of sheep
and driven by deer to
the ends of the earth

We returned to the track and walked over grass down to the beach.  It was late summer, yet there were still many wild flowers along the way, many of them flowers of wet and marshy places.  Most prolific were the violet-blue flowers of Devil’s Bit Scabious, a plant that acquired its strange name from its value in treating scabies and other afflictions of the skin (scabies derives from the Latin word for scratch). According to folk tales the plant’s panacea properties so angered the devil that he bit off the short black root, giving the species its name.

Along the way we found dandelion-like Hawksbit, Knapweed, Purple Loosestrife – and signs that, in season, the Yellow Flag iris grew here in profusion. There were patches of purple Heather and stands of the feathery yellow flowers of Ragwort which seems especially widespread this year – a consequence of the cooler, wet summer perhaps?

Kilvickeon bay came into view – another has a stunning Hebridean beach, a curve of white sand with the tidal island of Garbh Eilean in the centre, linked at low tide by a spit of sand (known as a tombolo).  The silver sand is derived from from mica schist, the dominant rock in the area.

I climbed to the highest point on the island, from where there was a clear view of the Paps of Jura bathed in sunlight, with wisps of cloud blowing like pennants from their twin peaks.  The neighbouring island of Colonsay was also clearly visible.

Rapidly, though, the weather was changing as cloud thickened from the west.  We sensed that the depression forecast was advancing upon us rapidly, so we took one last look at Kilvickeon’s white sands before turning to leave.

From Kilvickeon a path leads to the ruined village of Shiaba, a crofting township that had been owned by the Duke of Argyll. Home to around 130 people, in 1847 the Duke cleared the land to make way for the more profitable activity of sheep farming.  We had intended to walk the couple of miles over the moors to Shiaba, but by the time we had retraced our steps to Kilvickeon church, the rain was driving in relentlessly, and we had to abandon the idea.

Shiaba: the remains of the school

This walk had illustrated the truth that Robert Macfarlane comes to realise during the expeditions that he describes in The Wild Places.  He had set out on his journeys with a vision of wildness as being confined to places like this –  inhuman, northern, remote.  But the vision had crumbled from contact with the ground itself:

No such chaste land exists in Britain or Ireland, and no such myth of purity can hold. Thousands of years of human living and dying have destroyed the possibility of the pristine wild.

Every islet and mountain-top, every secret valley or woodland, has been visited, dwelled in, worked, or marked at some point in the past five millennia. The human and the wild cannot be partitioned. Since the Celtic Christians, culture has endured in wild places and the wild has endured in culture. Landmarks and dwellings – shelter- stones, petroglyphs, cairns, stone walls, bothies, shielings, villages, townships – are to be found within wild places. Journeys have taken place into the wild, or across it. And it has been the subject of stories, songs, legends and poems …

Macfarlane recalls something the writer Fraser Harrison had said:

Our perception of land is no more stable than our perception of landscape. At first sight it seems  that land is the solid sand over which the mirage of landscape plays,yet it turns out that land too has its own evanescence . . . ‘Place’ is a restlessly changeable phenomenon.

In the far north of Scotland, Macfarlane observes that place and landscape are ‘a restless mingling of history and presence’, with different meanings for those who settle or pass through:

The wildness of [a place] were regarded so differently by a forester felling trees, by the captain of a fishing-boat plying the hard waters of the Firth, by an Iron Age settler, by a Christian monk, by parents who had lost their daughter, or by a dispossessed people, trekking northwards into alien country. Or, of course, by a traveller passing through for a few days.

Norman MacCaig’s poem ‘A Man in Assynt’ observes both the timeless sense of the Highland landscape, as well as the successive waves of human settlers who have left their imprint on the land.  He notes, too, the new settlers who come from the cities – ‘people tired of a new civilisation’ come ‘to taste what’s left of an old one‘, who ‘exchange the tyranny of the clock for the natural rhythm of the day’, and who now outnumber the locals (something we noticed here, too).

…And the mind
behind the eye, within the passion,
remembers with certainty that the tide will return

and thinks, with hope, that that other ebb,
that sad withdrawal of people, may, too,
reverse itself and flood
the bays and the sheltered glens
with new generations replenishing the land
with its richest of riches and coming, at last,
into their own again.

I’ll finish with another passage from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places – one that takes a different view to that conclusion of MacCaig’s pre-global warming poem:

There was something in this long sight, this sense of the human presence as being something temporary, which I recognised. During my journeys, I had seen so many human structures from so many epochs sinking back into the land: the roofless houses of the west ofIreland, the rubble of the Clearance townships mossed over in Scottish glens, and the slate spoil-heaps of Blaenau, where I had spent a day inside a mountain, moving through the abandoned mine-tunnels. I had heard about others: the drowned village ofDunwich on the Suffolk coast, reclaimed by the rising sea, over which Roger had once swum. The thousands of deserted medieval villages of England, painstakingly found and mapped by the historian and archaeologist Maurice Beresford in the 1940s and 1950s, many of them abandoned in the years after the Great Plague.

The little Isle of Soay, off Skye, where Gavin Maxwell had established a basking-shark fishery in the 1940s, and where the grass now grew through the eyeholes of shark vertebrae that were scattered in the bone yard, and where rust and damp were slowly breaking down the flensing equipment and the hauling pulleys. North of me here in Essex, I knew,were the so-called ‘plotland’ woods of Laindon and Thundersley: young woods that had sprung up on land that had been built on in the late nineteenth century, and then again during the great slump in land prices of the inter-war years. Street after street of bungalows, many of them self-built, had rotted back into the ground, and the trees had returned – native oak, ash and hornbeam – and with them had come the creatures.

Abandoned places such as these provide us not only with images of the past but also with visions of the future. As the climate warms, and as human populations begin to fall, increasing numbers ofsettlements will be abandoned. Inland drought and rising sea-levels on the coasts will force exoduses. And wildness will return to these forsaken places. Vegetable and faunal life will reclaim them: the opportunist pioneer species first – dog-rose, elder, fireweed, crows . . . Just such a reclamation has occurred in the so-called ‘zone of alienation’: the region of north Ukraine that was placed off-limits after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. In Pripiat, the town in which the Chernobyl workers were accommodated, silver birch now throng the empty streets and courtyards. Flower meadows of exceptional botanical diversity have grown up through the paving stones. Forests of pine and willow have populated the city’s outskirts, through which run wolfpacks of up to 200 animals. Moose, deer, lynx and boar pad through the city’s suburbs. Black storks nest in its chimneys, bats in the empty houses, and kestrels in the unused window boxes. The cooling ponds of the Chernobyl plant itself are now filled with catfish up to six feet long.

I had spoken once to a climate-change scientist about the subject of abandonment. The study of her science had changed her perception of time, she said, and of the relevance of human beings within history. Though we are now among the dominant species, she said, our age will pass, and our material legacy – unthinkable though it now is to imagine it vanished – will be absorbed by the land, becoming all but imperceptible.

I sense this, too.

See also

Walking on Mull: the rocks and white sands of Ardalanish

Walking on Mull: the rocks and white sands of Ardalanish

We’re back from a short break of four nights on the island of Mull.  After a poor summer in England, it felt good to be leaving the city for a landscape of open sky and sweeping shoreline.  I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, in which he describes the feeling perfectly:

Anyone who lives in a city will know the feeling of having been there too long.  The gorge-vision that streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac.

The sun shone all the way from Liverpool to the Scottish borders, but then rain set in, getting heavier as we pushed north, skirting the Trossachs and Stirling before swinging west to Oban and the ferry.  By the time we landed at Craignure, the rain was incessant and, though we had a vague sense of passing through wild landscape as we drove across the island to our accommodation on the shore of Loch Scridain in the village of Pennyghael, low cloud and driving rain meant we could only guess at what was out there.

It was dry and the clouds were lifting when we set off the following morning, following the road from Bunessan to the tiny settlement of Ardalanish where we parked the car to follow the trail down to Ardalanish beach, a deserted sweep of white sand extending across a large bay.  Before it reaches the beach, the track crosses machair – one of the rarest coastal grassland habitats in Europe, found only in north and west Scotland and western Ireland.  It occurs where shell sand has been blown inland from beaches and dunes and has mixed with the soil to form rich grasslands, creating spectacular displays of spring flowers and providing an environment that supports populations of breeding birds.

on a clear day
unfasten the gate
and take the path
over the machair
through the orchids
down to the sea

– Thomas A Clark, The Path to the Sea

The beach has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, both for the machair and for the interesting rock formations that make this beach popular with geologists. The rocks around Ardalanish are Precambrian, formed  800-1000 million years ago. A rocky knoll above the beach is full of unusual minerals like kyanite, tourmaline and andalusite. As the sun broke through, the mica in the sand glittered.

There’s an awful lot of geology left lying around in Scotland, and this place is no exception.  Ardalanish bay is the where the Ross of Mull granites meet an area of schist to the east.  The Ross of Mull granites have been quarried extensively in the past, the stone used for bridges, docks, lighthouses and other buildings throughout the world, such as, I was intrigued to discover, Liverpool docks and Manchester Town Hall.

The rock outcrops on the beach feature some intense folding and juxtapositions, making apparent why geologists love Mull.   The rocks here have a long and interesting history (the oldest rocks are about 2000 million years old), and there are unique structures and rocks found nowhere else in the world.  Mull is constructed rather like a multi-tiered wedding cake. Thick layers of basalt lava sit on top of a complicated layers of much older rocks which outcrop around the coastline of Mull.

Mull has not always been in its present position and form. Over geological time it has undergone enormous changes. Mull’s oldest rocks were formed in the southern hemisphere before Mull, like the British Isles as a whole, gradually drifted northwards. The rocks preserve details of the climatic zones passed through on that northward journey.

Most of Mull is made of lava poured out of volcanos when the North Atlantic was forming and Mull was torn apart from  Greenland. The molten lava which erupted from about 60 to 50 million years ago forms Mull’s stepped tablelands. Into these, at a later stage, intrusions of other igneous rocks took place, forming the central mountains of the island. Finally, huge glaciers which only melted away from Mull 10,000 years ago left deep ‘U’ shaped valleys between the mountains and long glaciated lochs.

There’s a human presence here, too.  Around the bay are several Bronze Age burial cists and the remains of an Iron Age dun or fort overlook the west shore. By the track down to the beach there are the ruins of old crofts, a reminder that this area once supported a much larger population than today.  There are many isolated ruins and evidence of demolished houses along this stretch of the coast, the remains of a community devastated by the potato famine of the 1840s and the policy of the landowner, the Duke of Argyll, to clear the land for sheep.

Down on the beach we saw Gannets and Oystercatchers. In spring, Ringed Plovers breed here, and if walking on the beach in spring, you need to be careful not to step on a nest – the adults will sit quite still and well camouflaged.  Walking back from the beach we heard the mewling of a Curlew and stood and watched a flock of Wheatears, their name  nothing to do with wheat or ears, but an old linguistic corruption of  ‘white’ and ‘arse’, referring to their prominent white rears.

to the north the land hardens
it meets and challenges the eye
sandstone, gneiss, quartzite
windswept and empty

a desert of wide skies
rock and water, a sparse cover
of purple moor grass, deer sedge
the light-loving dwarf juniper

rock cascades or stands
eroded by light
in a motionless pouring
insistent and remote

birch, pine and rowan
huddle in ravines
a stonechat drops
its note among stones

the distances are lonely
silence is immediate
immediately lonely
the rough bounds are desolate

you flinch away from it
yet each drop of rain
on your face or your arm
is a point of return

wind combs the heather
it puts an edge on stone
you splash through melt water
shaking the bog cotton

that you may not only
see but feel
the wind pushes against you
abrupt silences fill

settlement is on the edge
of this emptiness
survival is accepting
the wind’s caress

the harled dwellings
sit facing the shore
a gentleness of sheep-bitten turf
comes to the door

rusting cars and machinery
rhyme with crottle on the rocks
strewn about in the moment
in a reek of peat smoke

bright talk after winter darkness
is not more welcome
than a lull in the wind
coming home to your own form

time no longer matters
buttercup and ox-eye daisy
iris, foxglove, clover
sweeten the tang of the sea

the seal in the cold water
rises to a clarity
or curiosity, a lapping
of silver, a lapping of grey

mountain line and shoreline
carry the melody
butterwort and milkwort
invite you to delay

a lochan in a dark corrie
a sandpiper’s lonely piping
they give their distances
into your keeping

– Thomas A Clark, ‘Forest Without Trees’

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

Norman MacCaig: Fishing for Poetry

I wasn’t sure about it at first, last night’s BBC4 documentary to mark the 100th anniversary of Norman MacCaig’s birth.  MacCaig was a keen fly-fisher, and the producers had the idea of following three of his friends – fiddle maestro Aly Bain, Billy Connolly and poet and novelist Andrew Greig whose most recent book is an homage to MacCaig – up to his favourite loch, the remote Loch of the Green Corrie, high up in the mountains of Assynt in the far north-west of Scotland.  At first the banter between Bain and Connolly felt like an in-joke from which you were excluded.  But gradually their anecdotes, and affection for their old friend drew me in.

For a long part of his career, MacCaig was a primary school teacher (later a lecturer at Stirling University), and he spent the long holidays every summer up in the wilds of Assynt,the place he loved in the North West Highlands.  In an archive interview in the film, MacCaig said:

When I go up, as I do every summer, for 10 weeks – the stuff is there. Hoist your Venetian blinds, there it is. And I never write a thing. But I fatten my camel’s hump then feed on it all winter, quite unconsciously. I never say, ‘there’s a nice skinny rosebush, that’ll make a nice skinny poem.’ But sitting here, a year later, that skinny rosebush will scratch my mind and demand an utterance.

The journey from Edinburgh to Assynt and then the long climb to the Loch of the Green Corrie – where the trout proved elusive – was the framing device for a documentary in which friends and fellow poets – including Jackie Kay, Liz Lochhead, Douglas Dunn and Seamus Heaney – paid tribute and furnished anecdotes, each one reading one of MacCaig’s poems.

November night, Edinburgh

The night tinkles like ice in glasses.
Leaves are glued to the pavement with frost.
The brown air fumes at the shop windows,
Tries the doors, and sidles past.

I gulp down winter raw. The heady
Darkness swirls with tenements.
In a brown fuzz of cottonwool
Lamps fade up crags, die into pits.

Frost in my lungs is harsh as leaves
Scraped up on paths. – I look up, there,
A high roof sails, at the mast-head
Fluttering a grey and ragged star.

The world’s a bear shrugged in his den.
It’s snug and close in the snoring night.
And outside like chrysanthemums
The fog unfolds its bitter scent.

Jackie Kay chose ‘Toad’, which, she said, reflected the modesty of the man, placing frogs or toads at the centre of so many of his poems and making the reader see these creatures very differently:


Stop looking like a purse. How could a purse
Squeeze under the rickety door and sit,
Full of satisfaction in a man’s house?

You clamber towards me on your four corners –
Right hand, left foot, left hand, right foot.

I love you for being a toad,
For crawling like a Japanese wrestler,
And for not being frightened

I put you in my purse hand not shutting it,
And set you down outside directly under
Every star.

A jewel in your head? Toad,
You’ve put one in mine,
A tiny radiance in a dark place.

Back in 1995, Andrew Greig was talking with a frail Norman MacCaig in MacCaig’s living room in Edinburgh. At some point, Greig asked MacCaig: “What is your favourite place in the world?”

MacCaig answered: “I think it has to be the Loch of the Green Corrie. Only it’s not called that. ..I should very much like you to fish for me there. If you catch trout, I shall be delighted. And if you do not, then looking down from a place in which I do not believe, I shall be most amused”.

Climbing Suilven

I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust
A mountain down and down.
Between my feet a loch shines in the brown,
It’s silver paper crinkled and edged with rust.
My lungs say No;
But down and down this treadmill hill must go.

Parishes dwindle. But my parish is
This stone, that tuft, this stone
And the cramped quarters of my flesh and bone.
I claw that tall horizon down to this;
And suddenly
My shadow jumps huge miles away from me.

A Man in Assynt

Who possesses this landscape?
The man who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?

Who possesses this landscape?
the man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?
False questions, for
this landscape is masterless
and intractable in any terms
that are human.

MacCaig’s closest friend in Assynt was AK MacLeod, a consummate poacher and fellow fisherman and whisky drinker. According to Greig, ‘they had an illicit still together…they were like mischievous wee boys’.  When AK MacLeod died in 1976, MacCaig wrote a series of beautiful elegies for him, including ‘Notes on a winter journey’, begun the day before he died and finished after:

Notes on a winter journey

The snow’s almost faultless.  It bounces back
the sun’s light but can do nothing with
those two stags, their cold noses, their yellow teeth.

On the loch’s eye a cataract is forming.
fistfuls of white make the telephone wires
loop after loop of snow buntings.

So few cars, they leave the snow snow.
I think of the horrible marzipan
in the streets of Edinburgh.

The hotel at Ullapool, that should be a bang of light,
is crepuscular.  The bar is fireflied
with whisky glasses.

At Inchnadamph snow is falling.  The windscreen wipers
squeak and I stare through
a segment of a circle.  What more do I ever do? …

(Seventeen miles to go.  I didn’t know it, but when
I got there a death waited for me – that segment
shut its fan: and a blinding winter closed in.)

A.K. Macleod

I went to the landscape I loved best
and the man who was its meaning and added to it
met me at Ullapool.

The beautiful landscape was under snow
and was beautiful in a new way.

Next morning, the man who had greeted me
with the pleasure of pleasure
vomited blood
and died.

Crofters and fishermen and womenfolk, unable
to say any more, said,
‘It’s a grand day, it’s a beautiful day.’

And I thought, ‘Yes it is.’
And I thought of him lying there,
the dead centre of it all.

MacCaig died in 1996. One of his later poems is ‘London to Edinburgh’, written in January 1989:

London to Edinburgh

I’m waiting for the moment
when the train crosses the Border
and home creeps closer
at seventy miles an hour.

I dismiss the last four days
and their friendly strangers
into the past
that grows bigger every minute.

The train sounds urgent as I am,
it says home and home and home.
I light a cigarette
and sit smiling in the corner.

Scotland, I rush towards you
into my future that,
every minute,
grows smaller and smaller.