Category: family

The Lochan

The track to Deer Hill begins just behind our house and starts with a wash of gorse-scent and a blaze of yellow flowers as it rises beside a shallow glen within which, lochan reflectionmany years ago, was created a lochan, a small loch, by the simple process of constructing a dam across the burn which flowed through it. This would have been done so that silt could settle out of the water thus making it fit to drink in the village below, and always providing you didn’t mind the peaty colouring that went with it, this probably was the sole source of water to the scattering of houses that once existed here.

Cross the lochan dam, which is still largely intact, and you are on the slopes of Torr Mor, a small rounded hillock whose flanks drop into the sea just to the north of the village. The day is warm and the sun powerful for we are approaching the solstice. The vegetation here is dry and crisp underfoot, the springy stems of old heather smelling dusty summer-dry as I brush past up the slope towards the tree line. small hollyA single holly tree has rooted and survived to send its green stem up above the heather but the bracken whose leaves in a month’s time will cover everything is still in the business of curling out of the ground.

I follow a track, so faint that even the deer rarely use it, to where it leads into the deep shadows of  storm-succumbed trees, fallen after many years growing. Soil lies thin over the bedrock providing a poor toehold for roots which a tree will wrench out as it crashes to the ground. The after effect is a surreal landscape of both vertical and horizontal trunks and stranded roots grasping at the sky but with soil still clinging on. Walking through this is next to impossible without crawling under or climbing over the obstacles and I soon lose whatever slight trail I have been following. The sun penetrates through the holes made in the canopy making deep shadowsTorr Mor trees but with bright patches where new grass is making a go of it, fodder for the passing grazers who come through here perhaps.

I backtrack and traverse to find a new way up the slope to try to reach the rounded Torr Mor summit, forcing my way in through a barrier of branches so that I am once more surrounded by trees. This is not natural woodland; timber is grown as a crop here. The conifers were sown close together and their lower branches, now starved of light, are just dead sticks which sprout horizontally in all directions like spears ready to catch the unwary. An uprooted thinner trunk leans drunkenly in its death against a stronger neighbour leaving a scar, a bleeding wound which still weeps shiny sap. As I pause to stare in horror at the extent of the injury I realise it is quiet here, the forest deadening all, but there is a tiny sound, like a squeak from a small animal, which prompts me to gaze upwards in the hope of spotting a squirrel perhaps. fallen treeI listen and it comes again. I realise it is the two trunks crying in pain as they rub together, the breeze gently swaying the leafy top of the tallest of them. It cannot escape its fate and must bear the hurt until the dead trunk finally breaks its way to the ground in years to come.

Clear of trees the summit of Torr Mor would once have provided a good viewpoint over Kilbrannan Sound, or maybe it was a romantic place suitable for courting couples, safe from observation. Since the trees have grown tall this view has disappeared behind impenetrable forest, inaccessible to all but the most determined and I could not get through it without causing myself serious harm. The only view is in the other direction, looking down over the brown waters of the lochan, which today lies almost still, reflecting the landscape.The Lochan

Torr Mor overlooks the lochan, which itself stands above the house where my mother spent the last year of her life.Mum at 90 Had she had more years and better health at her disposal she might have been able to get about more to delight in the simplicity of this place, the beauty and stillness, but she has slipped away now and rests, in peace at last. In the end her failing heart let her down and yesterday her spirit finally let go its strong hold on life. I feel numb with sadness but happy that in the end I could be there for her, to let her go out as she wanted, peacefully in her own home.


Joan Eileen Rosa Matthews
1922 to 2013

Life’s little challenges



As we slide slowly out of winter and into spring our garden bird population enlarges once again, in more ways than one.






Our old friends the siskins and the goldfinches have spent the winter abroad somewhere and their return each year is as clear a sign of spring’s arrival as there could be. The swallows have also made it back, which means of course that there are insects for them that have survived cold and frost of recent months.




Memories of the chaos caused here by tons of windblown snow fade as the remainder of the white stuff disappears from the landscape. Arran’s mountains have at last resumed their summer colours, just in the last week or so, and

this picture serves as a reminder of how we struggled through those cold days. We have to hope that now repairs to the power lines brought to earth by the snow are almost complete, lessons have been learnt by the power company from the experience that will prevent a recurrence of these events. But I doubt it. And it is still one of life’s mysteries (to me) that the electricity to our village can fail when the machines that produce it, the wind turbines erected on the hills behind us, still continue to function. I have heard the various explanations for this but a little brain like mine still does not understand why this has to be so.

Although we might like to resume the more adventurous lifestyle we had adopted since retirement, Kate and I have each taken on a number of responsibilities, sometimes conflicting, that keep us close to home and busier than we might like to be. Kate’s training as a nurse has proved invaluable for our son Mike in seeing him through his recent treatment and my mother living right next door to us must feel reassured that such an experienced carer is so close at hand. Kate’s feelings as a mother will always take priority but nevertheless balancing these demands can be very challenging. But when you add to this the Village Hall business and Kate’s commitment to minute-taking for our local social enterprise company she finds she has little time for herself.

On my part a set of useful skills I never realised I had, the ability to build websites, is suddenly in demand in our village. Experience gained through maintaining  this blog has given me the ability to set up and manage other websites which are needed to support the new projects Carradale is spawning this year. Mike’s return home has signalled the need for more trips to Glasgow, a task Kate and I share, but combining this with the responsibility I carry for my mother’s care needs and her GP visits can make my own day to day life quite complicated too.

Of course none of this is what we expected when we first came to Carradale. We thought we had signed up for a quiet unassuming lifestyle, looking after only ourselves and generally being left to our own devices apart from occasional family visits. As it has turned out our lives have been taken over by events beyond our control, just like last month’s snow storm impacting the lives of the group of people amongst whom we live.

What is encouraging is to see Mike feeling well enough to get involved in something he is really rather good at. When it comes to computers I am reasonably comfortable going about putting together the material we see on the screen, creating a few pages of words strung together to make some sort of sense. Mike, on the other hand, now that his body is healing well, takes on a rather different computing challenge.

This started when a series of large boxed parcels begin arriving at our door, Mike smuggling them upstairs to his room before we had a chance to see what they were. The box largest of all, rather larger than the largest suitcase you would want to go on holiday with, turns out to be the case for the colossal computer he has decided to build for himself. Armed with nothing more than a screwdriver, a pair of pliers and various instruction manuals, most of which he never even glances at, he begins to unpack each box and fit the contents inside the case, plugging the rats nest of black connecting wires into place as he goes along. Just like his old dad, Mike is self taught, but he moves with such assurance that I am confident he knows exactly what he is doing. From time to time I am summoned to help him lift the case (which now weighs more than that holiday suitcase) to the floor or turn it around so he can slot in another complicated piece of electronics but I have to confess I wonder how anything so complex will ever be made to work. Surely he can’t expect to just throw a switch to make it work, thousands of calculations a second buzzing away in its processors, with every part connected perfectly to everything else. Most likely, I conclude, he will power it up and nothing will happen, leading to months of cursing and swearing, crawling about inside the case with a small torch held in his teeth, poking each part in turn with his screwdriver as if this will make a difference. I base this conclusion, of course, on my own experience with building anything complex and powered by electricity, which I have to say is pretty limited. Needless to say this is not what happens. The very next time I pass his room he is sitting at the computer screen (which came from another large box) with a smile of quiet satisfaction on his face and maybe just a trace of smugness too. And who can blame him!

They said it couldn’t happen

But they were all wrong. Somehow singled out for rough treatment, our little corner of Scotland has just been hit by a natural catastrophe on a scale few can imagine and even less could have predicted. Exposed as we are to westerly winds, power outages are not uncommon for us on Kintyre, but this time things have fallen apart in a much grander way. Just one night of wind and snow was enough to bring down so much of our electrical power infrastructure that repair is now counted in weeks instead of hours or days. All road communications with the peninsula have been blocked by massive drifts of snow and the weight of what fell has been sufficient to break steel and wooden support poles like they were twigs so that power cables now lie draped across the landscape.

Filmed in the immediate aftermath of the storm

As an army of workers tries to repair this damage, our village and indeed the whole area, discovers what modern life is like when the electricity disappears. This is not just like turning back the clock. This is far worse, because today we are reliant on electrical power for everything. We have very few backup systems in place to see us through and those that exist only have a limited lifespan. In our village those houses that have them are using open fires, burning stocks of coal and wood. Elsewhere most residents are equipped with emergency gas heaters and cookers, but for how long? Bottled gas is brought in by road, as are most other things, and with the roads being blocked gas heaters must be turned down low to conserve precious fuel. At first even the telephones failed but with the system having backup generators the phones soon came back on. Generators run on fuel, of course, so how long before this runs out? Even getting money, cash, to buy what little is left in the shops, is difficult – cash machines need power – and shops can only sell they goods if they abandon their electronic tills and revert to pen and paper.

Fortunately there is one thing that continues to function through all this – the community. This needs no electrical power to keep it going. It is the ultimate support mechanism that ticks over all the time and when it is really needed everyone plays their part.

Ducky at CraigendmuirWith Kate and I away visiting Mike in Glasgow we hear about the disruption only belatedly when the telephones are first restored to working. My mother is alone in her Carradale home but her gas heater is keeping her warm and our neighbours are looking after her, we are told. Despite this good news we are torn between meeting our family’s needs and Kate sets off to try to reach home leaving me caravanning in the cold so that I can keep Mike company. Kate finds that her bus is unable to travel beyond Tarbert, a town some twenty five miles from home, but now separated from it by impassable snow drifts. She is forced to find accommodation there until things improve but all the time the easterly wind continues to blow its freezing air across Scotland.

The extent of the disaster is hard to comprehend from a distance and information hard to come by but it takes Kate two more days before the roads are cleared sufficiently and she is able finally to pass through. She travels with other displaced Carradale residents (a couple returning from their holidays in Spain) and on her reaching home at least now we have regained some control over this part of our lives. Our house breathes sighs of relief as the coal burning stove is lit, soon roaring away bringing comfort, warmth, and even some normality to our world.

Here in Glasgow, each day I set off in the cold on my double-bus journey across the city to Mike’s hospital. Glasgow Kelvin museumSuch places are run for the patients and not, it has to be said, geared towards those visiting. Nor should they be, I suppose. I am confined to seeing our son an hour here and there at set times of the day so for the rest I try to gain what pleasure I can from the dominating sandstone architecture that gives this place its character. The River Kelvin which cuts through the western part of the city, lends its name to one such structure, now a museum, that tries to hide itself behind bare branches in the park that surrounds it. Within the Kelvingrove I find an eclectic collection that celebrates Scotland and all that is Scottish, but gently so, without any fuss. I discover that the ubiquitous credit card reader is a Scottish invention and that the Glasgow Boys were not short-trousered hooligans but a group of artists whose vast and varied canvases take up a whole room here. All terribly interesting, although I am finding it difficult to tear my eyes away from the building itself with its multi-tiered towers each capped with a grey helmet that makes me think the builder didn’t really know how to finish it off. The entire west side of Glasgow seems to be built from the same reddish stone and on the same grand scale as this, refurbished tenements that are now enjoying a revival in popularity second to none. Despite my being here on another pretext, I find myself strangely grateful for this opportunity to explore and get to know the city in this way. 

Latest news on Mike’s recovery

Mike is never one to put his emotions on public view and as he struggles to come to terms with his situation whilst coping with an extended stay in hospital and discomfort on a level few would find easy, he remains impressively positive. Medically speaking his recovery is going well – nurses and doctors alike are genuinely pleased with his progress as he is made to walk unsteadily about the ward. But it may yet be a week before he is well enough to leave hospital and back home is where he wants to be. If there was anything we could do to get him there sooner then we would do it.

Farewell to an unwanted guest

Frogspawn in Carradale

Spring arrives in Carradale once again, although it is still far from being warm, but our frogs are taking their usual gamble by spawning as early as they can. If they had access to a long range weather forecast this might improve the chances for their offspring but instead they rely upon volume, greater numbers improving the odds for each wee one.

The weather on the day I set off for Glasgow to meet up with Kate and Mike is mixed, bright sunshine for a while then later I am driving into large flakes of snow which streak upwards in front of our large van windscreen without actually making contact. Mike is here for the operation to remove his tumour – a day we have been anxiously waiting for – and as I type these words the operation is underway while we wait for news in the nearby Pond Hotel.

Abnormal load under bridge

I distract myself by remembering yesterday’s drive when I was caught behind a couple of pieces of a windfarm tower as they made their way by road across country from Campbeltown. This bridge just before Loch Lomond was a very tight fit and needed great care. Only by lowering the suspension on the trailer could it pass under, after which all the traffic had to wait in the snow flurries while everything was pumped up again so it could continue.

Glasgow is very cold. A thin dusting of pure white covers the ground, the cars and the rooftops but the sun shines too and the air has a clarity which brings the surrounding hills into sharp focus, like looking through a freshly cleaned window. All day Kate and I sit around, watching mindless TV, barely talking to one another, not daring to think what is happening at the hospital just along the road. We know Mike went into the operating theatre quite early in the day so when mid afternoon arrives and I get the first call from the surgeon the relief is palpable. Alarmingly we are told that the operation is not yet over but nevertheless things have gone as planned, Mike is holding up well, and we can expect to visit him later.

Surgery is complete by nine in the evening and we hustle out into the cold to where, just inside the hospital entrance, a nurse is waiting to guide us through the basement labyrinth to the theatre recovery room. Our son has pipes and tubes going in everywhere with machines bleeping away, flashing displays and coloured lights. He is still sedated, but as I stand and watch his chest rise and fall I recognise that he is still our Mike. The emotion is nearly too much to take in as the surgeon moves forward to greet us, a tall slim man who cannot be much older than Mike himself. The whole surgical team stand quietly nearby. These are the people who have just saved our son’s life, doing their everyday jobs and not one of them seems to resent the fact that they have worked more than twelve hours non-stop or that their evening at home has been spoilt. Mike has been in the best possible hands and we soon leave him to their tender care once again.

ice on the tapAfter a disturbed night in the hotel – residents in the room beneath us choosing to have a wild 3am party – we move house and settle gratefully into life in Ducky on a caravan park at Stepps, on the north side of Glasgow. Ducky is jacked up on her levelling ramps then we plug ourselves into the mains and wifi then let our space heater slowly bring the temperature up from below freezing to something more survivable; the scary ice drip hanging from the tap evaporates. From Stepps Mike is a double bus ride away so despite feeling increasingly jetlagged we grab a quick bowl of soup then set off to visit him. He has been moved from Post-op Recovery to an Intensive Therapy Unit at the nearby Western Infirmary, to a place where there are more nurses and doctors per patient than in any other part of the health service. We sit at his bedside while he gradually regains consciousness – 30 hours he has been away with the fairies – and suddenly it is all too much for me. The tears pour down my face and for some moments I can’t stop them coming. Seeing Mike lying there, his face partly hidden behind tubes and pipes, is more than my emotions can stand. I can only tell myself that the most important thing for him is that his unwanted guest has gone.

Our lives for the next few weeks will be centred around negotiating bus timetables, journeying in and out of Glasgow peering through misted up bus windows trying to see where we should get off, avoiding alighting too early so that we have to walk long distances through cold, dark streets. In between travelling to and fro we lurk around hospital wards, making the most of our brief visits whilst staying out of the way of busy nurses. For Mike this will be a long slow recovery, painful too, as his body heals from the insult of surgery.

Escape to Islay

Shoreline walks are scarce things for us these days – it is winter after all – and with our caring responsibilities it is even rarer that Kate and I go out walking together. New-Year-goat4So when a chance does arrive for either of us we try to grab it and go alone. I like to head out to Carradale Point where the rocky terrain makes walking difficult, hence few go there, and where there is always something unexpected going on. The wild goats which roam about here pause in their search amongst the unappetising grasses, giving me the eyeball as I pass by, just making sure I do move on without letting me get too close. One of their kids is bleating somewhere close by – the noise is eerily like a human baby crying – but the adult goats ignore this and focus all their attention on me.

Continuing with my walk I arrive at the harbour, a place which provides some shelter from the south-easterly wind and which is therefore regarded as a cosy home by the eider duck fleet. Eider-in-the-harbour4Almost exclusively male, they seem to be doing what chaps all over the world do, trying to impress the ladies. In this case it is with their formation swimming, I surmise. There is even a black-headed youngster spending his first winter amongst them pretending he is old enough to swim with the men, so to speak. It seems hard to believe that these creatures actually choose to live here during the winter when they could easily fly away somewhere warmer, less windy perhaps. A little research tells me that they are Britain’s fastest (and heaviest) ducks, 70 mph record breakers, easily a match, then, for a strong wind. Of course their presence here may simply be down to the presence of their food, which is plentiful here all year round. They eat molluscs, mussels mostly, which they swallow whole, and crabs which they also eat whole after removing the legs, an understandable precaution. The shells are crushed inside their bodies before being passed out as crumbs. We are now in the eider breading season, a time when they come in from the open sea to seek shelter and male eider plumage is as bright and shiny as it gets, the delicate pale green on the back of their necks and the roseate breast feathers contrasting with the black caps they wear on their heads.


A visit to Carradale, his first, by my brother Graham gives Kate, Mike (whose chemotherapy treatment is on hold for now) and me a chance to take a short holiday, leaving our mother in my brother’s tender care. We grab this opportunity, ignore the fact that it is mid-winter and likely to be cold, wet and windy and book a ferry to the Isle of Islay.

On this occasion YouTube will illustrate our trip…


We have a date for Mike’s surgery, at last, and a clearer picture of what this will mean for him. Juggling with his and my mother’s care will continue to influence our lives but we are more optimistic for the future than we have been for some time.

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