Category: Clyde

Island over the sea

deer at lochranzaCan there be a better advertisement for a natural, nature-friendly campsite than this, red deer grazing outside your door, guaranteed, any time of the day or night? However these creatures are not put there just to add interest for the campers. Indeed they may be regarded as something of a nuisance for they are somewhat casual about where they leave their droppings and they can hop over onto the golf course next door as easily as wander into the road. They know the area so well and seem to assume the grass is put their entirely for their benefit. After all this is their home, and has been so for longer than anyone can remember. From the first steps ashore from the ferry at Lochranza on the Isle of Arran we notice how garden fences and gates are built shoulder high rather than at waist level, as if to ensure the inhabitants don’t escape onto the road. Only later do we twig that we’ve seen this height of fence before on Forestry land. It is the height that a deer cannot jump. So on Lochranza deer are being kept out of gardens, full as they are with such a delicious variety of food items, and the fences are not (just) to keep dangerous locals under control. light through treesThey certainly have remarkable freedom (the deer, that is) and their behaviour is tolerated far beyond what might be expected. The rut, for instance, when the stags bellow endlessly and joust amongst themselves for the ladies, must be a particularly trying time for those living here yet they seem to have adapted to this, stepping around the odd gaggle of hinds when they have to just as we do on the campsite.

We consider ourselves blessed as the sun comes out in some force after only one day of torrential rain at the start of our five day visit, a day that gave the legs a chance to recover from our eight mile coastal afternoon hike around the Cock of Arran on our first day. The worst part was when we were already tired and at our furthest point from ‘home’ when our path forced its way tortuously through a boulder field, studded with ankle wrecking dangers as well as being well supplied with midges and other biting insects. Given enough wind, midges generally find flying too difficult so the presence of a fresh breeze when out walking is normally welcome. tickLess easy to avoid however, especially when passing through waist-high bracken, are the ticks, tiny black creatures who scuttle down beneath the clothing then latch on using a barbed probe, penetrating the skin to, well, suck up their host’s juices. The itching generally does not start until later and then goes on well after the creature’s now swollen body is extracted, a process that involves a specially shaped device and exceptionally good eyesight. Given that these beasts can carry Lyme disease a full body inspection is recommended after walking through any long vegetation, a minor price to pay really for the pleasure of so much fabulous scenery.

From Machrie Moor we look across Kilbrannan Sound to our home on Kintyre, where less than three miles away, our village nestles at the foot of its valley. Machrie standing stones3Although nobody can ever be certain about the precise date, I can say that some time after the last ice retreated 12,000 years ago and before about 750 BC, some large stones were dragged across Arran and firmly stood on end in such a way that they still remain standing today. As to how this remarkable feat was achieved or why it was done nobody alive today really knows, which seems quite sad considering the effort that must have been involved. Today we might use a large crane to lift something this heavy into place but archaeologists doubt that such things had been invented back then so the whole place is surrounded in mystery. We can speculate that their commanding presence, and there are lots of them here placed in circles or arranged in alignments that today we can only guess at, must have been quite stunning to those passing by when they were first erected… and they have lost little of that today.Machrie standing stones5

Before coming to live in Scotland we had never heard of this magical place. So it seems strange that we should discover something like this so close to our home. In some ways it’s rather like finding Stonehenge is just down the road although the hoards of tourists are missing here. Remoteness does have its advantages.

To complete our slow circumnavigation of the isle of Arran we steer Ducky over the String Road back to Brodick, a long climb over the central mountainous backbone with a fast descent on the other side. Ducky on Cloanaig ferryI regret to say that Arran has benefited little financially from our visit; only two nights were spent on formal campsites and most of our food was brought with us from home. There are plenty of places where we can pull off the road, get tucked in behind a few trees and find isolation and a quiet place to sleep, so apart from the cost of the ferry (twenty minutes spent sitting in a gently swaying van or waving farewell from the upper deck) this has been a cheap holiday. Our walking boots return a little muddier and our faces a little ruddier from exposure to the sun but we feel richer and wiser knowing what lies across the sea from our home.

Time off on Cirrus

We start our wee break on Cirrus (not a holiday, of course, as retired people don’t get these) by having a close encounter with a paddle steamer, none other than the newly restored steamship, Waverley.Waverley leaving Campbeltown She was making a brief stop in Campbeltown, just as the steamers would have done a hundred years ago, and her departure, reversing away from the quay at speed, her decks lined with waving passengers, was exactly how it would have been on any of the Clyde steamers. Out in the centre of the loch she performs the nautical equivalent of a handbrake turn before steaming off south (forwards) around the Mull and heading off north to Oban. As it happens we time our own departure just before she got underway and thus we have the best view possible of this little slice of living history.

The rest of the day passes more gently as we drift north trying to persuade Cirrus’ sails that there is enough of a breeze to fill them. Unlike on our two previous encounters with Kilbrannan Sound, both in strong winds, we now have a chance to sail and then motor close by the shore, dipping our twin bows into each bay in turn. First we pass the ruins of Kildonan Dun, where we are surprised to note how the tiny Ross Island creates a good sheltered bay, an attractive place for the ancient people who settled here to build and set up their home. The relationship between land and sea is not evident from on shore – only from a boat does this place become a logical stopping point.

Saddell castle from the bayAt Saddell Bay the castle peeps out from the corner in fine style as we creep in as close as our echo sounder tells us is safe. The sun beats down on us as we cross Torrisdale Bay then finally we slip slowly to anchor in Carradale Bay, just a short distance from our home. Three and a half metres of water is all that separates us from the bottom but it feels like we are in a world of our own here, bobbling gently up and down on the slight swell. Those on land are no doubt suffering the midges, which are particularly troublesome just now whenever the wind falls light, but these little insects are poor flyers so we have every hope that they find it difficult to cross the short stretch of water that separates us from land; and so it proves.

After a peaceful night we wake early to find the motion of the boat has changed. Now Cirrus is wobbling from side to side as waves pass beneath her although the wind is still very light. Whatever is happening it is getting uncomfortable so we decide to leave, early though it is, but as soon as we leave the shelter of the bay the true wind hits us, a north-easterly blast at 15 to 20 knots, and the waves driven by this are rolling down Kilbrannan Sound. The nearest shelter from this wind is Lochranza on Arran, some 10 miles away, so we motor upwind as best we can and attach ourselves to a blue visitor buoy there. This place, which lies west of the most mountainous part of the Isle of Arran, has a reputation for ‘williwaws’, strong wind gusts which can occur to the lee of high ground, and these now sweep down on us throughout the rest of the day and through the night, creating much noise and fuss. Cirrus takes all this in her stride, however, so we feel safe and secure.

The following day is a Sunday, and to our surprise we notice buses running on their usual routes around the island. So after pumping up the dinghy we scuttle ashore and soon find ourselves on our way south to the settlement of Blackwaterfoot which lies in the Lowland part of the island. Like Bute, Arran is also bisected by the Highland/Lowland divide and the character of the south of each island is typical of the Lowlands in both places. There are steep cliffs of red sandstone here, identical in every way to the rocks we noticed just south of Rothesay on Bute only a few weeks ago yet the two islands are separated by the waters of the Clyde. Kings cave on ArranIn both cases these are all old sea cliffs, formed before the land rose up above its present level and on Arran around 6,000 years ago the ancient sea cut massive caves, one of which was reputed to have been once used as a hiding place by Robert the Bruce. This would have been around the same time as he visited Port Righ (royal port) just across the Sound in Carradale. Of course Uamh an Righ, or King’s cave as it is locally known, is bound to have seen human habitation prior to King Robert’s time, it being such an obvious choice for someone needing shelter from the elements but lacking the time or the skills to build. This imbues the place with almost mystical significance, in my view. Of what other places of human habitation can it be said that so little has changed. The walls, the floor, the smoke-stained ceiling, are all exactly as our ancestors left them. Beach pebble towersAnd as if to emphasise this quality just along the shore only a short distance from the cave there is a ‘grove’ of stone cairns, each stone magically balanced on the one beneath and somehow surviving despite the ravages of wind and rain. Created by some unknown artist, perhaps, or else by ancient man and lying undisturbed ever since. And maybe there is some critical alignment of the stones that I missed for out across the sea to the south lies Sanda Island off the tip of Kintyre and beyond this, Ireland, another country. Arran is full of mystery, it seems.

When the morning brings us lighter winds we motor off across Inchmarnock Water to the island of the same name. Uninhabited, unless you count the cattle, there is a small cove on the eastern shore in which a boat like ours can drop an anchor so the crew can eat their lunch. We take shelter from the powerful sun for a time then raise sail to float away northwards again up the West Kyle. White sails are now to be seen in most directions, although this place can never be called crowded, but as the Kyle narrows we begin to wonder whether our chosen anchorage at An Caladh will be full. Not to worry, of course, for there is always Wreck Bay on the ‘Buttock’ of Bute with space for us to drop the anchor, pause to ensure it is well dug in, then settle down for the night.

Come the morning, Cirrus is still in exactly the same place, which is always a comfort when you are attached to the land only by a slim length of chain. The day started cool so we light our diesel heater (the same troublesome stove we were swearing at only a few weeks ago but which now has a ‘New, Improved’ chimney attachment to carry the waste gases higher than ever before into less turbulent air) and just as it was supposed to, the temperature inside our boat begins to rise. A heron lands with perfect grace on the edge of the shore beside us then stands motionless waiting for fish to come its way. This is the most patient of birds and lives by proving the adage, ‘Dinner always comes to those who wait’ and is a treat to see at close quarters.

Our local weather forecast promises some south-easterlies so a plan is hatched that might give us some decent sailing a little later and we motor off down the East Kyle towards Rothesay.Ocean Countess in Rothesay Imagine our surprise on arrival, however, to find the substantial Victorian houses here dwarfed by a mighty cruise ship, the Ocean Countess, which has dropped its own anchor in the bay. I wonder whether the captain goes through the same procedure as us when anchoring – let the boat run back until jerked to a halt by the anchor biting into the sea bed, let out some more chain, check the boat has enough room to swing, set a depth alarm, light the anchor light – or does he just give orders and let someone else worry about these things. I rather fancy things might be dealt with rather differently on a ship of this scale.

After passing Rothesay, Bute’s principal harbour, there are two more islands, Great and Little Cumbrae which we motor past because the wind has not as yet performed as the forecaster promised. Indeed we soon begin to feel he was having a little joke with us for instead of a ‘south-easterly backing easterly’ the wind is set firmly in the south, exactly the direction we had decided we might like to head. Since beating upwind is not something we choose to do with any relish, and having the whole of the Clyde at our disposal from which to pick an alternative destination, we bear away (a nautical term for steering away from the direction from which the wind is coming) for Lochranza and soon find ourselves charging along at 7.5 knots with all our sails straining hard. Massive dark clouds blot out the horizon and are creeping ever closer so that by the time we pick up a mooring in Lochranza the rain has overtaken us.Lochranza swan

Thus it continues throughout the night and early morning, to the disappointment of many, no doubt, who would have arisen early to try to catch sight of the transit of Venus across the face of sun. Our own position, with Arran’s biggest hills to the east of us, gives us no chance at all of seeing anything close to the horizon no matter how clear the sky.

So instead of Venus, here is a nice picture of a swan.

Remarkable nature

There is just something about dramatic orange and red sunrises and sunsets that makes a huge impression on the human psyche.Evening sky Whether it be the sun reflected on clouds in the western skyline, setting them on fire with complex mixtures of colour or simply an unlikely monochrome which spreads over the whole sky, such sights never quite satisfy us. There is no such thing as the ultimate sunset, the next one we see is always that little bit more dramatic.

Sky-gazing has had another reward just recently as the moon has been on a close pass-by and the merest hint of a clear sky no doubt encouraged many to dust off their cameras to capture the sight. So naturally on a recent visit to Oban when the moon winked at me for a Oban moonshort while I could not resist pressing the shutter. Had I waited a night or two the moon might have been even bigger, had I been able to see it through the clouds, of course.

Our run of dry weather seems to have come to an end, at least temporarily. The Highlands will welcome the rain as water drains away rapidly from our hills and they were beginning to look a little wilted. There is an ecology here which needs moisture to sustain itself. Before the end of the dry, clear weather, however, my mother and her companion, George, manage to squeeze in a luxury cruise around the Western Isles on the Hebridean Princess, an ex-ferry ship now converted for comfortable cruising. They take up residence on board for a week in the same suite occupied by our very own Queen Elizabeth when she took a holiday here recently. It was this fact that prompted me to take a photo of mother sitting on her rather grand-looking bed,Mum in Queen's bedroom a picture worth sharing with the world not because it shows where royalty slept but more because it shows there really is nothing special about the room that would not be found in a small hotel bedroom anywhere in the world. The rich and famous have, after all, normal needs just like the rest of us. They must sleep, eat and do all the everyday things that I do using the same basic set of equipment that we all use, something that had not occurred to me before.

Meanwhile, as they say, Kate and I take a holiday from our ever-busier Carradale lives by the simple task of jumping in an inflatable dinghy and rowing out to where Cirrus lies on her mooring in Campbeltown Loch. After a shaky start while we wait for the wind to leave its north-east corner, not the ideal direction for leaving port, our sails are raised and we fly off downwind towards Pladda, a lump of rock just off the southern tip of the Isle of Arran.Goat Fell from Lamlash From here it is but a short distance to Holy Island (yet another volcanic plug, by the way) and Lamlash Bay where we pick up a mooring for the night. The cold air we have been experiencing of late has left its mark on the mountain summits just to the north of us and the snow-whitened peaks make me think of the Swiss Alps I used to climb many years ago instead of Scotland. On board Cirrus we struggle to keep warm once the sun leaves us and when our diesel heater fails to function properly we begin to think that perhaps we have made a rash decision in going away at this time. It is still early in the season and unreasonably cool, both the sea and the air being cold, and without added warmth during the evening on board we are distinctly uncomfortable. Our heater has let us down before in strong winds. It is a primitive device which relies upon hot exhaust gases rising up a chimney which passes through the deck and extends above. But when there are fierce gusts outside these blow back downwards choking out the flame and puffing smoke into the cabin so that we are left breathing unpleasant fumes before the stove can give us any benefit. This is not quite the state of happy marital bliss that we envisaged. We survive one night then set off towards Bute where there is a marina. Marinas come equipped with electric power sockets and we have on board a long orange cable which, with various trip switches, enables us to connect the boat safely to the mains supply and to deploy our backup strategy, an electric fan heater. The cost of the electricity is included in the overnight berthing charge so we make full use of it with a clear conscience and our comfort is restored.

The marina is in Rothesay, a town we have visited before in indifferent weather. It is a good port in which to take shelter and is a place with a Victorian feel to it, the age when most of the buildings were constructed. On arrival we cower away from the 40+ knot gusts and the torrential rain which drives us inside. By morning though things are a little better – the rain is interspersed with sunshine now – so we visit the Victorian toilets, one of Rothesay’s timeless attractions, to warm ourselves under their hot water showers. Rothsay church wallThe urinals, hand-basins and the original tiling may bring in the tourists but for me there is something just slightly more intriguing to be found tucked away in Rothesay. Hidden in a quieter corner of the town lies one of several disused churches, this one having features that caught our attention when we happened to pass by. Rothsay church towerThe structure still has a solid, tall, Victorian look to it but despite its towering height, nature is re-claiming the building from the bottom and from the top. The south wall of the church, from the roof down, is completely encased in delicate purple flowers, trees are encroaching from below and even the bell tower is home to sprouting plant life. Through the broken windows pigeons fly easily in and out, making a clear statement of ownership as the whole structure gradually disappears beneath a green tide. It is as if the building, whilst standing tall above the ground, is being returned to natural humus by the local greenery. It may yet be many years before it succumbs (unless man decides to intervene and spoils the game) but in the end it is nature that will triumph. It always does. This natural marvel is not, however, in any tourist guide. If asked, Rothesay would probably say it was ashamed of the place when in fact it should take pride in the healthiness of the environment that enables all this verdant growth to happen.

Two volcanoes in one day

I believe I may have mentioned Davaar Island before in this blog, about it being the only remaining part of a volcanic vent,Lighthouse on Davaar sometimes referred to as a ‘plug’, which lies in the mouth of Campbeltown Loch. It turned out to be a convenient piece of rock on which to erect a lighthouse, which no doubt saved David and Thomas Stevenson a lot of hard construction work back in 1894. They knew what they were doing because just eighteen nautical miles away to the south-east is another similar ‘plug’ on which this pair of engineers had erected a lighthouse eight years earlier. This rocky lump is known as Ailsa Craig and it rises steeply out of the Firth of Clyde to a height of 338 metres (1,110 feet), has an area of only one third of a square mile and although the human population is zero, it is home to around 36,000 pairs of gannets. Puffins too are staging a comeback here after being wiped out some years ago by rats arriving on ships servicing the stone quarrying activity. The rats themselves were subsequently exterminated (in an effort to try to put things back as they were) and now we once again have puffins burrowing into the thin topsoil of the island.

All interesting facts about 500 million year-old extinct volcanoes, or what is left of them. But I learnt recently that someone has discovered some bits of Ailsa Craig scattered about the English countryside, a long way away. The distinctive ‘blue hone’ granite which is found on the island and shaped to make the splendid curling stones used in the Winter Olympic Games, has such a unique quality that when chunks of it were found in a field in the English Midlands this led some keen geologists to investigate whence they came. Their amazing conclusion is that they (the stones, not the geologists) were brought there by a glacier which must have picked some bits up and carried them away southwards. All this happened a few years ago, of course but I find this snippet of information quite fascinating, not simply because of the distance the rock has travelled. My mind goes into a spin at the thought of someone examining these few grubby bits of stone, found just lying about, in an effort to work out where they came from. Has every piece of the land we live in been similarly examined in this detail, I wonder? Is there someone being paid to do this work? And if so, where can I apply for the job? Where does it all end? Surely every speck of rock and soil across the land has not been examined so thoroughly as this would seem to suggest. I feel fairly certain that the stones I dug up in our front garden whilst bedding in some herb plants the other day have never been examined before. But who knows what riches would be discovered if we did look at everything in this sort of detail?

What really prompted me to find out all these fascinating details was that last Saturday morning we sailed Cirrus out of Campbeltown Loch past Davaar Island and set a course for Ailsa Craig. A fresh north-easterly wind was blowing, forcing us to dress up warmly against the cold, but despite this we hardened the sheets and set a direct course for the island. As usual when at sea we switched on our GPS chartplotter, a small piece of electronics which removes all the cleverness and mystery from small boat navigation and which when connected to the tiller even steers a good course for us, then we settled back to keeping watch and admiring the guillemots in the water around us. They always seem to wait until the last second before panicking and diving out of sight. Today, however, we are thwarted by ‘War Games’ (more properly called ‘Joint Naval Exercises’) going on in the Clyde. It seems the Admiralty, in its wisdom, Yacht passing at Alsa Craighas the power to turn off GPS radio signals in any particular area whenever they want and they do this to make life more exciting for the officers on their ships regardless of whoever else they inconvenience. GPS signals are used most heavily by navigation systems fitted in cars and telephones these days so we know we are not alone as we curse those who wield such power so recklessly. Fortunately the target of Ailsa Craig is almost unmissable – it is the highest thing around for many miles – and the few grey-painted navy ships we do see keep well clear of us. We pass just one other yacht, on the way out, then pass it again on the return journey where with the wind free, Cirrus takes off across the sea like a scalded rabbit, a white streak of foam streaming out from her stern. Kate on bow approaching DavaarWhen Kate takes her favourite spot on the bow she does so it because it is dry, comfortable and a rather fun place to be. The wind may be cold but it is deflected upwards by the hull so with feet dangling just above the water and the sound of our twin bows splashing beneath us we both enjoy sitting here and watching the scenery pass by. Some added pleasure may come when we are joined by dolphins riding the bow waves – but sadly not on this occasion. Davaar Island is ahead now and as we glide back home to our mooring the wind falls light at last and all is quiet. Somewhere out at sea the navy is still simulating World War Three or the D-Day landings with as much realism as they can create but we spend the night on board rocked asleep by gentle movements as the remaining breeze drifts across the loch. We decide that two volcanoes is quite enough for one day.

Sailing with Vela

Forecast checked, stores loaded, extra bedding brought on board for Kate and myself plus our Dutch guest Maartje, and after a discussion with Jim & Celia on where we would be heading to on the first night we cast off from the Campbeltown pontoon, raising the sails to the gentle southerly breeze. Autopilot on VelaFar from being crowded with five on board, Vela proves to be a comfortable boat with plenty of space in the cockpit for us to flop around in the sun and watch the scenery drift slowly by. Once the sails are set, the autohelm (which still needs to be christened as it is a valuable member of the crew) is set so we can relax and try to pick out the landmarks.
“Isn’t that Carradale Bay over there?”
“Yes, I can see our house nestling amongst the conifers”, replies Jim who is alarmed at the flowering rhododendrons which seem to be trying to take over his back garden. The view from the sea is not one he has seen before and this gives him and Celia a new perspective on their home.

Some hours later Lochranza came into view and Jim is soon engaging in the familiar (to us) task of trying to pass a rope through the ring on the top of a mooring buoy whilst lying prone on the foredeck. No matter how hard one may try to make this an elegant exercise, failure is inevitable. The bottom in the air posture just about guarantees this. Soon all is shipshape and all five of us pile into the inflatable for the short ride to shore. From this point onwards nothing on earth can prevent us heading for the hotel to slake our thirst. CSC group at LochranzaDave and Hilary, who set off from Campbeltown just before us, have landed from their pretty yacht, Foxcub, and seated round a large table in the bar we all pore over a large map of Arran as if we were planning a great campaign, David, to everyone’s amusement, producing the most authentic ‘major-general’ voice we have ever heard.

After we had eaten there was the compulsory visit to Lochranza Castle for a group Campbeltown Sailing Club photo in the late evening sunshine. The daisies were very pretty, I thought.

FoxcubWe all pile into dinghies again and head for Vela where we find Glenn has arrived on Jessica Lee so that there are eight of us crammed into the cabin for more socialising before turning in for the night.

The morning sky is streaked with cirrus while little puffs of white cumulus float aimlessly around. Foxcub is first away, heading north up the West Kyle to the proposed lunch-stop at Kames. The wind is light again, from behind us, so naturally I pose the question to Jim and Celia,
”Do we have a spinnaker on board?”
They don’t know for sure but, “There is a spare sail in the forward cupboard. I don’t know what it is but it is a nice colour”.
We dig around and pull the bag into the daylight. Yes, it is a spinnaker, so out come the sheets and up the mast it goes. Vela under spinnakerSoon its red, white and blue is billowing out ahead of us. (Surely this is not patriotically correct on a Scotsman’s boat!)

We leave Glenn behind at Kames as the weather changes, cloud taking over and a wind arriving which swirls unpredictably around making sailing an energetic affair. Celia takes the helm, tacking this way and that, leaving the rest of us grunts to do all the hard work of hauling ropes and winding winches. Fortunately, just before the crew rebel, there is a wind shift which gives us a clear run up the narrowest part of the passage and round the corner into the East Kyle. We squeeze past the Burnt Islands but the wind deserts us and the rain comes on with a vengeance. There is nothing for it but to motor on south into Rothesay for our second night away. We are all tired and somewhat damp as we plod about the town until we find a restaurant that can accommodate all of us. Curiously our wet clothing gradually dries out more quickly the more we wet our inner parts – a lesson to be learnt there, I think.

Rothesay is as charming as ever with its impressive harbourside and, of course, the spectacularly tiled Victorian toilets, but the forecast for our last day out was threatening some fresh easterlies and more rain later in the day. This meant an early start, well as early as we could manage, out of the marina, but nobody complained. David and Hillary chose to stay on in Rothesay, knowing better than to venture out, perhaps.Cloud over Goat FellArran sat brooding to the south under a heavy carpet of cloud but despite this no wind came our way. Our only choice was to start the engine and rumble on past the islands of Great and Little Cumbrae then on to Pladda which lies off the southern tip of Arran. All went well but for the engine needing an anastomosis in one of its various pipes (this being performed without anaesthetic) before we could continue. Fortunately we were properly equipped for such an eventuality, as every good boat should be, and the day ended smoothly. As for the predicted wind and rain, this totally failed to come anywhere near Campbeltown until after we had safely berthed and unloaded. Such is the way of forecasts around here.

Our first outing with the Campbeltown Sailing Club took us past a scattering of the most spectacular islands in Scotland, even giving us glances of a distant Ireland on the return. We still have to nudge ourselves to believe that all this is on our doorstep.

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