Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations

Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations

Recently, I watched a pair of films on BBC Four presented by Adam Nicolson. In The Last Seabird Summer? he took us to the Shiant islands in the Outer Hebrides, given to him on his 21st birthday by his father, which he said ‘have been the most important thing in my life’. Every spring sees the phenomenal spectacle of a sky thick with tens of thousands of puffins, guillemots and razorbills as they arrive on the Shiants from far out in the North Atlantic to breed.

But there’s a crisis that threatens to end this remarkable show: although the numbers on the Shiants are holding up, in the last fifteen years in Scotland alone, 40 per cent of the seabird population has been lost. In The Last Seabird Summer? Nicolson explored the reasons why this is happening, and how in places like the Shiants there has been long history of dependence on seabirds: thousands of years of collecting eggs and hunting the birds for meat, oil and feathers.

Watching the programmes, I was reminded that for some time there had been a copy of Adam Nicolson’s book Sea Room in the house, in which he told the story of how he inherited the Shiants from his father, his love for these lonely, uninhabited islands, and his exploration of their geology and history, and of the lives of the people who once lived and made their living on these remote islands. I decided to read Sea Room. Continue reading “Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations”


Sundown on the Union?

Sundown on the Union?

Scottish sunrise

Sunrise in Scotland this morning

Will we all wake up in a new country tomorrow morning? Whichever way the Scots vote today, it looks like we could be in for interesting times. So, some very brief thoughts.

If I were resident north of the border, I think I might have voted Yes.  This is an extrapolation from how I feel living in a northern city forced by a London government few people here voted for to make savage and soon to be unsustainable cuts to public services. And I how I feel about a political elite more concerned to bail out the banks for their grievous errors; one dedicated to cutting taxes paid by the rich rather than funding investment in the nation’s health, education and well-being.

Writing in yesterday’s Guardian Linda Colley, though she didn’t name him, drew upon the sort of analysis which Tom Nairn, the Scottish political theorist, has been making since his The Break-Up of Britain in 1977 – namely, that forces of civic (rather than ethnic) nationalism would be awakened by the tightening grip of global capitalism on national economies, governments and party political programmes.  Colley wrote:

The fiercer, more uncompromising, often utopian nationalism that now grips some Scots possesses echoes in other parts of the world. In part this is because the relentless advance of globalisation has fostered a desire in many countries for a more distinctive and reassuring local identity. This trend is particularly marked in Europe because it contains so many ancient, culturally distinctive groupings – like the Catalans in Spain – who do not possess a state of their own, and want to have one.

It’s this aspect of the Scottish campaign that I strongly identify with: if there was a referendum here in Liverpool tomorrow on whether the city – or a city-region perhaps encompassing Manchester as well – should have more power over local services, and more freedom to raise taxes to fund those services, I would unhesitatingly vote Yes.

(However, I was given pause for thought by Polly Toynbee’s argument that ‘localism is no panacea’ for deprived regions in yesterday’s Guardian:

At first sight, how attractive it looks for each locality to raise tax and spend its share of national income as best suits local circumstance. Localism sounds comforting. It is indeed high time to give back powers Margaret Thatcher stripped out and replace the millions of council homes she sold. Labour would give local health and wellbeing boards some NHS powers. Schools and further education should be returned too. Borrowing to build, councils should sell bonds.

But alarm bells ring when groupthink grips all parties. For social democrats there are as many dangers as opportunities. Unlike more equal federal countries, England is so grotesquely unequal in geography and class that London and the south-east make all the money, the rest take it. Redistribution from the south must limit the scope for local tax-raising. The north-east, Cornwall or West Midlands may feel angrily alienated from Cameron’s government, but they can’t break away.)

Nevertheless, it seems that Scots voting No today might really mean Yes: yes to ‘Devo-Max’, more devolved powers to Scotland (and perhaps, if Tory backbenchers and UKIP don’t put their oar in, to Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions, too).  In one sense, it’s becoming clear that the result doesn’t matter: the Scots are going to want to exercise more power at their level whatever the outcome.  As Neal Ascherson wrote some 14 years ago in the London Review of Books (reviewing a book by Tom Nairn):

The Scottish public are not much interested in distinctions between supposedly incompatible variants of self-rule like devolution, independence, quasi-federalism and so on. What they want is to run their own affairs, never mind what the arrangement is called.

I think the Welsh, Liverpudlians, Mancunians, Geordies and the Cornish would like to run their own affairs as well – and sod the banks, global corporations, the London government – and, sadly, probably the European Union, too. Fundamentally the issue is democracy.

As Billy Bragg thoughtfully argued in another Guardian piece this week:

In the post-independence debate about how the remaining parts of the UK are governed, the elephant in the room will be devolution for England. Regional assemblies elected under a proportional system with Holyrood-style powers would offer us the opportunity to address the inequalities that have opened up between London and the rest of the country.

Support for Scottish self-determination might not fit neatly into any leftwing pigeon hole, but it does chime with an older progressive tradition that runs deep in English history – a dogged determination to hold the over-mighty to account. If, during the constitutional settlement that will follow the referendum, we in England can rediscover our Roundhead tradition, we might yet counter our historic weakness for ethnic nationalism with an outpouring of civic engagement that creates a fairer society for all.

We’ll see…

polling station

It’s democracy, stupid


A clear vote for No – yet 45% of Scots, including majorities in the cities of Glasgow and Dundee, voted to leave the Union.  The turnout was an astonishing 84.6%.

So where now?  Curiously, the rejection of independence for Scotland seems to have led to a clamour from Tory backbenchers and UKIP for English independence – to which Cameron’s opportunistic response has been to open up the question of whether Scottish MPs should be allowed to vote on ‘English’ matters in the Westminster Parliament.  Since such matters include health, education, human rights and social care this smells to high heaven of crude party manoeuvring and threatens a situation where, even with a Labour government, the Tories could out-vote policies in those crucial areas.  (See Helena Kennedy, Constitutional reform: English votes for English laws cuts two ways).  So, in England at least, we appear to be exactly where some feared we’d be if the Scots voted to leave us.

And Scotland? In today’s Observer, Neal Ascherson writes:

Even SNP figures say independence won’t return to the agenda for a generation. This is unlikely to be true. Scotland is being carried along on a process of steady institutional, political and social divergence from the rest of the UK, which will continue.

The case for full self-government will make increasing sense in the next few years. The latest hasty suggestions for increasing the powers of the Scottish parliament are little more than a rehash of existing proposals judged some years ago to be hopelessly behind the curve. Anyway, Mr Cameron now proposes to embed them in a vaster constitutional reform for all Britain. This is unlikely to get anywhere serious, and would take many years if it did. If the Westminster system has one real expertise, it is for gently enfolding radical ideas, like a jellyfish with its prey, and dissolving them to transparent mush.

In the past three days, Scots have looked at one another and asked: “What do we do with all that joyful commitment, with the biggest surge of creative democratic energy that Scotland has ever seen?” For many, perhaps thousands of people, it has been the most important public experience in their lives. Must it go to waste?

Nearly one in two Scots, it seems, consider the United Kingdom as broken. Now that they must remain in it, some of their energy for change can go into fresh reforms through the devolved Scottish parliament – for example, giving back power to the people through a grant of real responsibility to local communities.

Best of all, they should not break their hearts because they failed to bring their country into the world of free and sovereign nations. This referendum year leaves Scotland a transformed, empowered society. The men and women of yes should live and work as if they already belonged to an independent country. And perhaps, in a sense, that is what Scotland has now become.

A society transformed and empowered ? Now that would be something to be.

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”

Kathleen Jamie: an appreciation

Kathleen Jamie: an appreciation

Kathleen Jamie

I’ve just spent a week or so in the company of Scottish essayist and poet Kathleen Jamie.  It began last summer when I heard her reading extracts from her latest collection of essays, Sightlines, on Book of the Week.  I liked what I heard and promised myself that I’d read the book when it appeared in paperback.  A couple of weeks ago I did, and then immediately moved on to her previous collection, Findings.  After that, totally impressed, I moved on to her first book Among Muslims and her latest poetry collection, The Overhaul.


Findings and Sightlines are both published by Sort Of Books but it’s not easy to define what sort of books they are.  Jamie herself has said that there doesn’t seem to be a term that captures the disparate topics that she ranges over in these essays.  In Sightlines, in the very fine ‘Pathologies’ she ponders the meaning of ‘nature’, exploring the landscape of cells through a hospital microscope not long after she had sat by her dying mother’s bedside waiting for ‘nature to take its course’ and wondering what the phrase really means.

Kathleen Jamie isn’t one to be seduced by romantic or lyrical evocations of ‘nature’ or the wild. Back in 2007, she wrote a refreshingly astringent review of Robert MacFarlane’s Wild Places for the London Review of Books in which she stated what might be deemed the underlying philosophy of Findings and Sightlines:

Waiting to be discovered is a wildness which is smaller, darker, more complex and interesting, not a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation. A lifelong negotiation at that: to give birth is to be in a wild place, so is to struggle with pneumonia. If you can look down a gryke, you can look down a microscope, and marvel at the wildness of the processes of our own bodies, the wildness of disease. There is Ben Nevis, there is smallpox. One wild worth protecting, one worth eradicating. And in the end, we won’t have to go out to find the wild, because the wild will come for us. Then, I guess, someone will scatter our ashes on a mountaintop, and someone else will complain.

Her clear-eyed stance was apparent elsewhere in that review:

There’s nothing wild in this country: every square inch of it is ‘owned’, much has seen centuries of bitter dispute; the whole landscape is man-made, deforested, drained, burned for grouse moor, long cleared of its peasants or abandoned by them. It’s turned into prairie, or designated by this or that acronym; it’s subject to planning regulations and management plans. It’s shot over by royalty, flown over by the RAF, or trampled underfoot in the wind-farm gold-rush. Of course there are animals and birds, which look wild and free, but you may be sure they’ve been counted, ringed maybe, even radio-tagged, and all for good scientific reasons. And if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that, like the man on Ben Nevis, we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.

Wild is a word like ‘soul’. Such a thing may not exist, but we want it, and we know what we mean when we talk about it. And yes, we’re drifting here towards the religious. When we want to scatter someone’s ashes in a wild place, we know the kind of place we’re looking for. Further: we know what the wild is because we’re making small acts of reparation towards it. It’s noble to reintroduce species once persecuted into extinction, albeit as part of a management plan. Once reintroduced, though, they might show signs of being a bit self-willed: white-tailed eagles have an eight-foot wingspan. Recently, one took a flight round the Asda car park in Dunfermline. People were so alarmed they called the police.

The white-tailed eagle in the Asda car park alarming shoppers into phoning the police is typical of the shrewd and telling observations to be found in Jamie’s essays.  They often begin with an autobiographical recollection – in ‘The Woman In the Field’ it’s the memory of leaving school at seventeen and spending the summer working as a volunteer on an archaeological dig in the Perthshire hills.  The dull routine of scraping and digging is dramatically interrupted by the unearthing of a Bronze Age coffin containing the body of a woman and a baby, buried together on the wing of a swan.  A mobile crane has to be brought in to lift the coffin’s great stone lid.  Just at the moment that crane began to lift the capstone, the sky darkens and there is a great clap of thunder.  The following winter, with the opening of the coffin lingering on her mind, Jamie wrote her first small poem.  She was eighteen, and with exams no success, ideas of trying for university had been dashed. But, she writes, ‘you could sign on the dole’:

You could hide among the swelling numbers of genuinely unemployed, and claim a little money each week.  That’s what people did: artists, diggers, mountaineers, would-be poets and musicians, anarchists and feminists.  Anyone for whom the threat of a job, of conformity, felt like death.

The opening of the coffin, with its accompanying thunderclap, had been thrilling and transgressive.  She discovers that, in its own quiet way, poetry is like excavating treasure buried beneath layers:

The weight and heft of a word, the play of sounds, the sense of carefully revealing something authentic, an artefact which didn’t always display ‘meaning’, but which was a true expression of – what? – a self, conciousness.

Jamie’s prose is finely-crafted and sometimes verges on poetic. At the same time, there is a matter of fact groundedness, rooted in the humdrum ‘here and now’ of kids, house and home.  Sometimes, though, she has to break away: sailing to far-flung, remote Scottish islands like uninhabited St Kilda and Rona, the subject of the finest essay in this collection.  It’s an account of time spent on the island one summer with two companions: Stuart, a naturalist who is counting the numbers of Leach’s Petrels, and Jill, an archaeologist documenting the remains of a long-abandoned village.  It’s a wonderful piece in the unclassifiable Jamie mode: part nature writing, part travel, part environmental and philosophical meditation. Its highpoint comes with a vivid account of the sudden arrival of four killer whales, ‘scary, beautiful animals’, that circle the island:

Out of the shifting sea, the witless sky, out of the ambivalent world had come terrible certainty: a natural law, laid down in black and white, but mystery, too.

Hale Point February light
February light on the Mersey at Hale Point

The shortest piece in Sightlines is a crystalline essay on how, at this time of year, there comes a sudden sense that ‘the light is back’. In ‘Light’ she writes:

Every year,in the third week of February, there is a day, or, more usually, a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky. Today, a Sunday, is such a day, though the trees are still stark and without leaves; the grasses are dry and winter-beaten.

The sun is still low in the sky, even at noon, hanging over the hills southwest. Its light spills out of the southwest, the same direction as the wind: both sunlight and wind arrive together out of the same airt, an invasion of light and air out of a sky of quickly moving clouds, working together as a swift team. The wind lifts the grasses and moves the thin branches of the leafless trees and the sun shines on them, in one movement’ so light and air are as one, two aspects of the same entity. The light is razor-like, edging grasses and twigs of the willow and apple trees and birch. The garden is all left-leaning filaments of light, such as you see on cobwebs, mostly, too hard to be called a sparkle, too metallic, but the whole garden’s being given a brisk spring-clean. Where there are leaves, such as the holly 200 yards away, the wind lifts the leaves and the sun sweeps underneath. All moving because of the fresh wind.

Now the town’s jackdaws are all up in a crowd, revel ling in the wind, chack-chacking at each other. And I hear a girl’s voice, one of my daughter’s friends, one of the four girls playing in the garden. She makes a call poised just between play and fear. What are they playing? Hide and seek? No matter. It pleases me that my daughter says they are ‘playing in the garden’, because they’re eleven years old; another year or two and they wouldn’t admit to ‘playing’ at all, and for a while the garden will have no appeal, because everything they want will be elsewhere. For a few years they’ll enter a dark mirror-tunnel whose sides reflect only themselves. The girls themselves can’t be seen, obscured by trees and that edgy, breezy light. The year has turned. Filaments and metallic ribbons of wind-blown light, just for an hour, but enough.

Sightlines garnered a host of positive reviews when it was published last year.  Doug Johnstone reviewing it for the Independent wrote:

She is a deep thinker on the human condition and nature, and especially the relationship between the two. There is a refreshing lack of romanticism here; a realistic down-to-earthness that grounds her prose and makes it all the more accessible.

While Adam Nicolson in the Telegraph wrote of Jamie ‘coming to moments of poetic precision and acuity, but always set in a frame of ordinariness’:

The whole book is an experiment in honesty, a refusal to romanticise in a Vaseline-on-the-lens way. “I sail on the surface of understanding, a flicker here, a silence there,” she says, and all the time circles around the agonised status of what “nature” actually is. What does that word mean? What is nature? Everything we are? Or everything we are not? And do those two questions ever connect?

She refuses to find any answers and as a result the book plays a subtle line between enchantment and disenchantment, between believing in nature and distrusting it. The book is suffused with a kind of tenderness, but she can also be funny, in an understated and melancholy way.  In the museum in Bergen, full of the hunted, killed and flenched skeletons of dead whales, there are, “on a central pillar, neatly painted in Norwegian and English, the words ‘Do not touch the animals’, but it was a bit late for that”.

And for all her scepticism about empty responses to the natural, she does not fight shy of the heroic. The climax of the book, and its most sustained performance, is the account of two weeks spent on Rona, the green island 40 miles north of the northern tip of Lewis, where she was counting Leach’s petrels and one day met a gang of killer whales, whose brutal, raging arrival at her oasis sears off the page like a knife. I don’t think I have ever read a passage which transcribes so exactly the deep unsettling weirdness of the wild.


I worked my way back, then, to Findings, her first collection of essays published in 2005. In the piece which gives the collection its title, Jamie is frustrated by an easterly wind from her objective of landfall on St Kilda.  Instead the skipper of the yacht in which she’s sailing deposits her on one of the Monach Islands.  She’s never even heard of them before, never set foot in a yacht before, ‘never sailed the sea in anything smaller than a CalMac ferry’.

‘I hacked off the gannet’s head with a penknife, which turned into one of those jobs you wish you’d never started.’ That’s the arresting opening sentence of this piece whose theme is the random objects we find in ‘wild’ places.  Lying on her back by a small loch she notices a stand of flag irises, a white plastic tub trapped among their stems. ‘The islands are a 21st century midden of aerosols and plastic bottles’, she observes, and muses on the things that she and the rest of her party had picked up along the shore, things they valued enough to keep. Apart from the gannet skull washed clean by the sea, she had kept two pale sticks (‘like the first man and the first woman’), an orb of quartz bits of a crashed aeroplane and pieces of whalebone.  ‘It seemed that what we chose to take were not the things that endured, but those that had been transformed by death or weather’.

She is still lying there ‘thinking these idle thoughts’ when a shepherd appears on a quad bike. He’s been alone on the island for seventeen days, and he’s collecting driftwood from along the strandline for his fire.  Jamie asks him about the great number of creel-markers and buoys strewn across the islands.  he answers:

‘They are without value.  I have told the fishermen there are plenty here, but they say they are without value.  If they were of any value,’ he laughed, ‘they would be gone.’

In another essay, Jamie watches, with a small crowd of spectators,  salmon making desperate attempts to leap falls on the Braan river, every huge effort met with cries as if in recognition of the nobility and heroism displayed.  Only later does she discover that the salmons’ way upstream to their breeding waters has been blocked – in the interests of new salmon hatcheries further upstream.  This provokes the characteristically wry thought that what the spectators at the falls were seeing was not the survival of the fittest, but ‘the survival of the ones who give it up as a bad job and settle someplace quiet.  A small life in the suburbs.  Salmon wisdom’. But also another thought – and a question:

They say the day is coming – it may already be here – when there will be no wild creatures.  That is, when no species on the planet will be able to further itself without reference or negotiation with us.  When our intervention or restraint will be a factor in their continued existence.  Every creature: salmon, sand martins, seals, flies.  What does this matter?

In one essay, Jamie journeys to the island of Coll to hear the call of a bird that, in the time of Constable and Clare, could be heard in every county of this land: the corncrake, Latin name Crex-crex, a perfect onomatopoeic rendition of its rasping call. In another, she notices cobwebs hanging from the gutter of her house.  In the room behind, her husband is gravely ill.  These essays were written during a traumatic period for herself and her family. Her mother is incapacitated by a stroke, her husband’s life threatened by a strange complication of pneumonia, the illness that devastates the lungs’ alveoli – that branching mesh that gives us breath, and that, if spread out, would cover an area the size of a tennis court with a fine, fine cobweb.

These alarms, these thoughts are interwoven with accounts of small journeys, explorations, and experiences from her life: scanning the Edinburgh skyline with a telescope to discover the unseen architecture of weather-vanes, steeples, spires and cupolas; or watching peregrines nesting near her home. Jamie is always alive to her surroundings and the human connections with the natural world:

Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life. I listen. During a lull in the traffic: oyster-catchers; in the school-playground, sparrows.

In another finely-written piece, Jamie walks out along the cliffs near her home one Sunday.  A sign at the gate leading onto the coast path reads, ‘Please avoid disturbing the Sabbath’.  She wonders if she can ever reconcile herself to the dreary silence and restrictions of the Sabbath she’d known as a child.  Another day she notices that the local shops have notices saying they will observe a minute’s silence on the anniversary of September 11th.  She recalls a friend scornfully commenting that there would never be a minute’s silence for the many more children who had died in Africa on that September morning alone – because they had no clean water.  This leads Jamie to wonder whether,

if we join up all these minutes we are beginning secularly to observe, we could string them together in a new kind of Sabbath, where there are no men in black blighting our lives with their notions of sin, no chaining up the children’s swings for the Lord’s day.  I mean a contemplative time, a time reserved to reflect.  Perhaps we would feel less imperilled.

Amen to that.

Among Muslims

In November 2001, ten Pakistani men suddenly appeared in Kathleen Jamie’s Scottish home town.  They are on a peace walk, a pharmacist, a draper, a glass merchant, a town mayor, a businessman, a teacher and a student of economics.  Jamie remembers the welcome and hospitality she received when she travelled, a woman alone, in Pakistan’s Northern Areas in the early 1990s and invites them back to hers.

This is the scene-setting opening of the new edition of Jamie’s account of her time travelling alone and living among the Shia Muslims in the mountainous region wedged between Afghanistan, India and China.   and one of the most volatile borderlands in the world.  Originally published as The Golden Peak, for this edition – now entitled Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan – Kathleen Jamie returned to Pakistan and adds a new preface and  afterword.

Among Muslims is a rare thing – an account of a privileged westerner’s travels among a people with a different culture, lifestyle and beliefs and having only limited access to the essentials of life that is sympathetic, non-judgemental – and, above all, superbly written. There was one crucial sense in which Jamie was privileged –  as a single woman travelling alone she was able to slip into the role of ‘honorary man’ and have long conversations about history, politics or religion with men in bars or offices, as well as being invited into homes to spend time with purdah-observing women.

In her account of her travels, Kathleen Jamie displays a natural empathy and curiosity without preconceptions.  She approaches the lives of those she meets from the standpoint of own Scottish upbringing: its puritanism and strict observance of the Sabbath mean that she can readily empathise with the  lifestyle of her Shia Muslim hosts.  She successfully treads a fine line, avoiding being an apologist for any way of life or holding back from critical observations about aspects of the culture she is moving in.  When one man asks the question that they all ask – about travelling alone – she responds:

I told him I was torn between staying with Westerners, in purdah, safety and seclusion. I can’t fully denounce purdah because we do it ourselves, we go in gangs everywhere and keep ourselves separate, in a little cultural bubble.

Gilgit: one of the towns in the Northern Areas where Kathleen Jamie stayed.

Jamie writes beautifully about the bleak and mountainous landscape, and of the people who unreservedly take her in, offering her food and accommodation despite living a hand to mouth existence.  Her observations on the economic and cultural  impact of tourism on the communities she spends time with are probing and perceptive: nearly twenty years ago new roads are pushing their way towards mountain villages, changing lives forever.  Men gain employment as guides to groups of trekkers who head into the Himalayas strewing the villages with plastic water bottles as they pass, camping in a village graveyard, and scandalising the locals with their behaviour and immodest clothing. She questions the Western assumption that increased tourism will bring increased freedom, noting that in the villages women are often kept behind even more firmly behind closed doors. But she also gives voice to those who welcome the opportunities that tourism brings:

‘USA, Saudi have! Why not Hunza people? Hotel-building is self-help. We need money.’
‘And if you make a lot of money, Ghulam, what would you do with it?’
‘I would go to Karachi, maybe Europe, to get treatment for my arm.’

In one of the most eloquent pieces of travel writing that I have read, Jamie follows a dusty track winding through mountain villages to the head of a valley where, amidst gardens full of trees laden with mulberries and plums, she finds a magical Tibetan palace, complete with princess.  She is led by the princess and her brother, Arif, to the roof of the three hundred year-old palace:

I stood between earth and sky, and looked round. I couldn’t breathe for wonder. I’d climbed a ladder without rungs and squeezed through an old trap door, and so clambered into heaven. Behind us the rockfaces of the mountains rose to remote and jagged summits, and before us fell a cornucopia: the villages of Khapalu. They tumbled in golden terraces and green trees down to the banks of the great river. On all sides mountains bound our vision. The sky was intensely blue. Though all that Alison [a Scottish nurse working at a health centre run by Christian missionaries which she has just visited] knew was also true – that in the exquisite yellow fields, and among the groaning fruit trees and under the roofs of all the little houses I could see, there were people ignorant, sorrowful, superstitious and brutalised – it was a proper kingdom. I’d opened a book of fairy stories, and found a way in.

‘Well?’Arif called. He had clambered on to a rickety wooden skylight. ‘Oh, it’s . . . wonderful! Wonderful’ The three young bloods took up the cry, and whirled like dervishes around the roof calling, ‘Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!’From her garden far below, the princess waved.

When Jamie returns ten years later, in a much-changed world, it is with a companion and with her shalwar kameez pulled closer to her face. But despite the tension of the times, she is remembered and welcomed wholeheartedly:

We sat around the oil-heater, with a kettle on top, and told about our lives, the lives of women with families. We had young children and frail, elderly relatives, and jobs. That’s what ten years had done; turned us from Shia girls and Western girls into grown women – mothers and daughters, wives and teachers.

Among Muslims is a superbly-written account that gently probes at questions concerning the nature of freedom (and in particular, the freedom of women), religious values and the impact of development on the lives of the people that Jamie encountered:

What do people want? A sewerage system. Peaceable, open borders, that accord with the land. A language, and a culture, rose bushes. A professional job – for every job advertised in Gilgit, 100 young women apply. Peace. Where can one go for peace? Some help around the house. A decent tourist season.  They asked me if they would lose their jobs, if the hotel closed, others have lost their jobs. That is fifteen families.  I told them I would sooner sell my land. Schoolbooks. A husband, and a necklace of lapiz to wear when he arrives. A farm of one’s own.  That pretty widow at the end of the valley.  Free iodised salt. A cure for grey hair. A baby. To go home. I pray to fill my stomach! A house among the mountains, beside the river: For the first two nights, I hear only the river, then it becomes inside me, like my heart …

Kathleen Jamie’s most recent book is her ninth collection of poetry, The Overhaul.  As in the prose collections, Jamie positions herself in, not apart from, the natural world. The title poem ostensibly concerns a beached boat awaiting repair, but midway the camera eye pulls back to give a wider view inland from the shore where quotidian life goes on: a road runs, washing flaps and the school bus calls.  Meanwhile, in the other direction, ‘little wavelets leap/less than a stone’s throw’ from the boat.  It can’t be easy, hauled out above the tideline:

Look – it’s the Lively,
hauled out above the tideline
up on a trailer with two
flat tyres. What –

14 foot? Clinker‐built
and chained by the stern
to a pile of granite blocks,
but with a bow

still pointed westward
down the long voe,
down toward the ocean,
where the business is.

Inland from the shore
a road runs, for the crofts
scattered on the hill
where washing flaps,

and the school bus calls
and once a week or so
the mobile library;
but see how this

duck‐egg green keel’s
all salt‐weathered,
how the stem, taller
‐ like a film star ‐

than you’d imagine,
is raked to hold steady
if a swell picks up
and everyone gets scared…

No, it can’t be easy,
when the only spray to touch
your boards all summer
is flowers of scentless mayweed;

when little wavelets leap
less than a stone’s throw
with your good name
written all over them –

but hey, Lively,
it’s a time‐of‐life thing,
it’s a waiting game –
patience, patience.

On Caught By the River, Will Burns commented:

This is a beautiful book, shunning both whimsy and sentimentality, because at its core are concerns that become more powerful than mere pastoral elegy. There is a real sense of human mortality here, of frailty and of loss. The poems ask questions of how we live amongst so much other life …

That sense of being part of, not separate from, the natural world is very apparent in the book’s closing poem, ‘Even the Raven’:

The grey storm passes
a storm the sea wakes from
then soon forgets . . .

surf plumes at the rocks –
wave after wave, each
drawing its own long fetch

– and the hills across the firth –
golden, as the cloud lifts – yes
it’s here, everything

you wanted, everything
you insisted on –

Even the raven,
his old crocked voice

asks you what you’re waiting for

See also

Across Iona to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean

Across Iona to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean

On the far side of Iona is a bay of white sand and shingle where you can stand on the shore and look to the west, knowing that the next landfall is Newfoundland.  It’s a magical place with an enchanting name – Camas Cuil an t-Saimh in Gaelic: the Bay at the Back of the Ocean.

And but for the sky, there are no fences facing…

We took the ferry to Iona from Fionnphort on Mull at ten o’clock on a bright Sunday morning.  Leaving the ferry, most of the foot passengers headed towards Iona Abbey and the north end of the island, but our way took us south from the jetty, following the tarmac road past the island’s fire station and war memorial before turning inland to cross to the west side of the island.  Where the road ends, we entered common grazing land that is also used as a golf course.

The lush green ground is another example of machair – the fertile grassland formed at the back of beaches where windblown shells and sand have improved the soil.

The Bay at the Back of the Ocean spreads out before us, where the machair ends and a bank of shingle fringes the beach sand.  Here people have made circles and other shapes – a heart, a peace sign – from the colour-flecked stones washed ashore.

a wide stretch of sand

you walk out
into space
as to
an appointment

with so much
space around you
drops from you

here is where
forward momentum
runs out in
pure extension

no longer
ahead of yourself
in imagination
nor behind yourself
pushing on

you walk
above yourself
space spreading round you
the sand
bearing your weight

– from Thomas A Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places

Finally we wrenched ourselves away from this beautiful place, taking the track uphill that opened up great views back across the bay and the machair. Half way up the rise we encountered a group of those nameless volunteers who help maintain the paths we walk on.  This group were clearing the gullies across the path that drained away floods of rainwater from the rocky hillside.

At the top of the rise, the track reaches Loch Staoineig, passing to the left of the loch which, right up to the 1980s,  provided Iona’s water supply (water is now piped across from Mull).

We continued south, eventually reaching a viewpoint overlooking St.Columba’s Bay, where St Columba stepped ashore in AD 563. In the middle of the bay is a hill known as the Hill of the Back to Ireland: it is said that Columba climbed this hill to make sure that Ireland was out of sight.  He had left Ireland full of guilt at having triggered a clan war that left many dead, and had sworn that he would only settle when he longer had sight of his native land.  He had previously landed at Dunaverty in Kintyre, but as Ireland was visible from there he sailed again until he reached this shore.

The beautiful shingle beach here is backed by a level meadow that must be a stunning sight in late spring because we found it covered in the leaves of the iris, yellow flag.

The pebbles from the beach here have often been collected by Christians who make the pilgrimage here. They are many and varied, very stone different in colour and texture.  The stones flecked with slivers of green are sometimes called Columba’s tears or mermaid’s tears, and legend has it that if you carry a piece of Iona greenstone with you, you will never drown.  These green and white pebbles are, in fact, examples of Iona marble, whose source is a unique small geological outcrop near the south end of the island where there once was a quarry. That was to be our next destination

I spent some time sifting through the pebbles, picking one or two to take home as a memory of the place.  Then I noticed that on the grass beyond the beach pebbles had been carefully laid to create stone labyrinths, a symbol which seems to have a special resonance for those who come on pilgrimage here (the Christian tradition on Iona seeming to have a definite New Age or mystical tinge).  We had seen one of these labyrinths, too, the previous day on the tiny island of Erraid where the Findhorn spiritual community has a settlement.

Intrigued at the ubiquitous presence of this symbol, I found that labyrinths have had a special meaning for human kind for well over 4000 years. There is evidence of the existence of the labyrinth symbol across southern Europe and North Africa from roughly 2000 BC, taking the form of rock carvings and paintings, inscriptions on ceramics, tiles and coins. The same basic design began to appear across Asia, the Americas and Southern Africa in an assortment of forms including rock carvings, wall paintings and wooden sculptures.  Prehistoric labyrinths are believed to have served as traps for malevolent spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances.

Roman labyrinths took the form of mosaic pavement labyrinths laid in the floors of bath houses, villas and tombs throughout the Roman Empire. The medieval period marked a new wave of labyrinth building , especially the many  labyrinths found in cathedrals and churches across Europe from the 12th and 13th centuries. The most famous medieval labyrinth of this type is the one laid down in 1201 in the floor of the nave of Chartres Cathedral. These labyrinths were built for walking. They offered a bounded space for personal reflection, a symbolic form of spiritual pilgrimage.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
– Ranier Maria Rilke

The next stage of our walk took us through very boggy ground where the path was faint or nonexistent.  After a great deal of doubling back and forth, we reached the remains of the Iona Marble quarry, situated in a cleft running down to the sea between cliffs from which the stone had been quarried. The site may have been worked as early as 1745 by the Earl of Breadalbane when he founded the Marble and Slate Company of Netherlorn.

The quarry was officially opened in the late 1700s by the Duke of Argyll but did not operate for long because the marble was difficult to extract and transport was uneconomical.  There was a failed enterprise by the Argyll Quarry Company in the 1800s, which hoped to extract the stone and ship it from the island on an industrial scale, but the remote and rocky location proved too hazardous for shipping.  However, a final attempt was made to extract stone when the quarry reopened again in 1907.   But it closed for the last time at the end of World War I.

Today all that is left are the very rusted remains of machinery from the pre-First World War period of quarrying – a large winch and cable, a cutting frame, water tank, gas engine –  many of which have been painted black by the Scottish National Trust that looks after the site, now listed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The return from the quarry to the village involved crossing another boggy stretch before, finally, we reached the end of the moor and saw the scattered houses on the outskirts of the village.  We came down to the paved road and the shore just as a ferry approached the jetty. We had lunch and rested awhile at the Martyrs cafe before moving on to explore the northern part of the island.

As the road leaves the village it climbs slightly, passing organic vegetable gardens for two of the hotels before the ruins of Iona Nunnery appear on the right.

The Nunnery was built in 1203, one of only two houses of Augustinian nuns in Scotland. It was made derelict during the Reformation.  The walls are of an interesting construction: pink granite blocks are interleaved between layers of  slate. Despite its ruinous state, this is one of the best examples of a medieval nunnery left in Britain.

Next to the nunnery is St Ronan’s Chapel, a small building was the islanders’ parish church from around 1200 to the Reformation in 1560. Excavations have revealed that there was a chapel on the site as early as the 8th century. The chapel is surrounded by a graveyard which contains the graves of several Scottish kings as well as monarchs of Ireland, Norway and France.  By the wall near est the sea is the grave of John Smith, former leader of the British Labour Party. His grave is marked by a stone with an epitaph quoting Alexander Pope: ‘An honest man’s the noblest work of God’.

John Smith died of a heart attack in 1994 at the age of 55.  He is buried here because he and his family spent many  summer holidays on Iona, a place he loved deeply. However, many islanders opposed the decision to grant John Smith – a mainlander who grew up in Argyll – a plot in a cemetery normally reserved for locals and their descendants.

Looking down at his grave, I remember the deep sense of shock among Labour party members and supporters at the time of his death.  Although Smith was by no means a left-winger, a kind of wistful nostalgia for the Prime Ministership that never was has grown up among those for whom Tony Blair is an anathema, concisely expressed in the article, ‘What if John Smith had lived?’ by Francis Beckett in The Guardian last year.  Who can say how things might have turned out – but I have a gut feeling that Smith would never have ignored the legal advice that an invasion of Iraq would constitute an act illegal in international law, or relied upon a meretricious dossier to justify the action.

Iona is a place of pilgrimage because this is where St Columba established his mission from Ireland in 563, credited with bringing Christianity to the Picts who inhabited Scotland at the time (though in this clip from the BBC series Scotland’s History, Neil Oliver questions the accuracy of that belief).

The abbey that stands beyond the graveyard belongs to a later era than Columba, who, seeking seclusion, had little interest in grand buildings.  Almost nothing remains of the original monastery he established here but traces of the that surrounded the monastic enclosure that would have contained a modest timber church, surrounded by huts for the monks to live and work in, and small cells for solitude and prayer.

In 1203, the Lord of the Isles invited the Benedictine order to establish a new monastery, and the first Nunnery. The abbey has been restored. The Abbey was substantially expanded in the fifteenth century,but following the Reformation,   was dismantled and abandoned. The building we see today was substantially rebuilt in the 20th century by the Iona Community. On the lawn outside the abbey is a board with this photo showing the ruins at some time in the late 19th century.

At the door of the Abbey stands a replica of the St John Cross (the original can be seen inside the Abbey). Carved more than 1200 years ago by craftsmen who worked at the abbey. It was just one of many crosses which showed pilgrims the way to the abbey, as well as being places where people would stop and pray as they passed by.

St John's Cross, Iona Abbey, AD 750-800
The replica St John Cross

The original St John’s Cross is in pieces today. The carvers wanted to build a huge and impressive cross – but overdid it. The arms of the cross were too long, and it collapsed almost as soon as it was built. They tried to fix it by adding the stone rings, but that didn’t work for long either. In 1970 the replica cross, made of concrete, was built which now stands outside the abbey.

St Martin's Cross, Iona Abbey
St Martin’s Cross

Just outside the Abbey stands St Martin’s Cross, another impressive cross with Celtic designs. It’s the most perfect of the surviving crosses on Iona, it still stands where the monks of the monastery placed it twelve hundred years ago. The cross is 17 feet hight and is carved from a stone that originally came from Argyll on the mainland. The raised circles, or bosses, are thought to represent God with everything revolving around Him. Intertwined between these bosses are serpents, which in the Celtic world represented rebirth since the snake sheds its old skin. The ring around the cross head represents eternal life and is a common feature in Celtic Crosses.

From the abbey, the paved road continues past the low hill of Dun I, the highest point on the island. Dun is Gaelic for hill, and I is what Iona was once called. The Hill of Iona is a place from which it is possible to see the whole of the island.  From here, a path continues to the northern shore – but for us it was time to turn back to catch the last ferry returning to Mull.

At Fionnphort, the ferry was met by large wagons onto which catches of fish and seafood were being loaded.  A large seal was in close attendance – we guessed it probably knew this happened at the same time every day, and anticipated being thrown some scraps.

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

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