Category: Kintyre

A Sense of the Past

Too much time on my hands?

Well possibly. But surely isn’t that what retirement is all about, being able to do things never previously thought possible.

What started out as an occasional rambling developed into a blog, which proved I could at least write, and somehow out of this has come a book which has now found its way onto the Amazon shelves. Don’t expect to feel the crisp edges of fine paper here since this is purely for eBook readers, but in creating this thing I have taken a new direction, delving into fiction, and gone further than I expected. And yes, there is a sense of achievement.

So what is it all about? Well this is a synopsis…

This is a story within a story, an account of the enlightening process of writing an ancient tale and how the author becomes engaged with the characters in such a way that they came to life, describing each event as it unfolds, a tale that comes leaching out of the faint remains which are still present in the landscape in which it is set.
The book begins in the modern day with a bus journey from the tiny village of Carradale on a road which winds its way southwards towards Campbeltown. The travellers, most of whom are well acquainted with each other, gaze out at the stunning scenery as it rolls by or engage in friendly chatter to pass the time, noticing but not commenting upon the beautiful landscape around them.
We are then transported into the lives of a young man called Drustan and a girl called Ailisl (who might be called Alice in the modern day), both of whom lived some 4000 years ago in the same remote part of Scotland, what is now Kintyre in Argyll. Considered remote today, in Ailisl’s day it would have been much more so and the impact of the arrival by boat of a group of strangers into her fragile, isolated community forms the basis for the tale. The narrative deals with issues which resonate clearly into the modern day; how we deal with strangers whose language and customs are foreign to us, how we judge our fellows and learn to place our trust in them and how communities can come together in times of adversity. It draws much inspiration from the author’s love of this part of the world and from the lives of its present day inhabitants.

To find it on its bookshelf just follow the link.

Home life

I sit around at home trying to commit to memory the words for my part in the Christmas pantomime, learning my prompts and wondering how much of it will be acting and how much just me. The humour in the part I play requires me to act a little stupid, so nothing difficult there then. (More than this I cannot disclose at this stage for fear of revealing the plot prematurely and spoiling the show for the paying audience.) Having little or no acting experience counted for nothing in getting me into what is, as it happens, my first starring role. There was no audition, no submission of a ‘cv’, instead it was merely a matter of knowing the right people and being around just at the moment the panto rehearsals were about to start. That, and upon being asked neglecting to say the word ‘No’. But I have lungs strong enough to make myself heard from the stage and I have little fear of embarrassment. Acting the part is really no more than not taking myself too seriously, something I don’t find difficult.

Kate is seated in another armchair with her computer perched on her lap. She has recently abandoned her ‘laptop’ computer, which had become so hideously slow that writing on papyrus would have been faster, and upgraded to a significantly faster tablet PC. This makes her smile as she types up a set of minutes taken at a meeting of the local Harbour Group or maybe it is the Village Hall committee or the management committee of the local Abbeyfields care home. By virtue of being rather good at documenting on paper proceedings at these events she has progressed to the role of Champion Secretariat in the village, a secretarial superwoman if you like.

Early one morning a lorry manoeuvres down to the end of our road to deliver some more timber joists and a handful of planks for the decking I am constructing around the concrete hard standing beneath the car port we know as the ‘Bus Shelter’. The rain is lashing down and the southerly gale is blowing the water beneath the canopy so it is rather wet out there. Ducky is away being serviced so I help Steve, the lorry driver, unload my planks and lay them flat on the ground before rushing back indoors to avoid the rain. We live in a wet climate, with local vegetation sometimes being described as ‘temperate rainforest’, and have experienced days of continuous precipitation on numerous occasions since we moved here. So today is not unusual. The landscape here is mountainous. The rivers have only a short distance to flow before reaching the sea, so water does not generally stay long on the land. The rivers swell, turn brown and churning, but water usually stays between the banks as it rushes towards the sea. On this occasion it has been raining heavily all night, the land is already saturated from last week’s rain and the rate at which the stuff is now falling suggests that this just might be something a little out of the ordinary.

I have a dental appointment in Tarbert, 25 miles away to the north and in these conditions this is a major expedition. So I dress up in waterproof clothing, check the mobile phone is charged (not that a signal can ever be guaranteed around here), and set off to drive up the single track road that winds along the Kintyre coastline. In and out of pine forests, across countless small streams, past farms and remote cottages, rising high one minute and dropping to sea level the next, anything can happen in the next hour, the time the journey usually takes. There could be fallen trees, the road could be undermined by water runoff, lying water could splash into the engine and kill it dead, a skid on mud and leaves on the road could put me in a ditch, or else I could just make the journey safely, in which case I have to endure the dentist’s drill after all. The road is wetter than I have ever seen it. In many places the water pours off the steep hillsides and overwhelms the channels dug to carry the water away. I drive past ditches so full they carry water half a metre above the road surface. It all has to go somewhere and randomly and unexpectedly around a corner there is a flood which flows across the road washing gravel and small rocks down the hill on the other side. Water ejected into the air from under the tyres is blown across the windscreen by the gale but fortunately the engine is well protected and it doesn’t falter. It is important to keep both wheels on the thin band of tarmac as the ground is soft on both sides; to drop a tyre off the road is to risk sinking in and coming to a sudden halt. Care is required, speed is best kept low even if this means I am late for my appointment. But no, I have set off early and I arrive safely for my treatment, unfortunately.

It is raining in Tarbert, maybe not quite as heavily, but the high tide pushed even higher by the southerly wind brings the water in the harbour almost up to road level. I feel strangely uncomfortable walking next to this as it heaves gently and two swans paddle over, stretching their necks hopefully towards me in case I have something for them. The high water level gives them a view across the road into the shops opposite, something they don’t usually get to see. I wonder what they make of us featherless people strutting about in the rain.Carpark in Nov14 flood

Much later I have survived the return journey down the single track road and I splash past the village hall, a place Kate and I now have a stake in. Our newly gravelled car park is awash with runoff from the hill opposite which is normally culverted away beneath the road. Now the foaming flood is pouring across the road taking the easiest route towards Carradale Bay which, were it not for the still torrential rain, I would be able to see in the distance. I fear for the safety of the hall and can imagine the carpark surface being washed away downstream but can do nothing about it. What will happen will happen; it is too late now to intervene.

Local knowledge later tells me that this is nothing exceptional, it is not the biblical flood it might have seemed but is just one of those ‘rather wet periods’ we get from time to time. Although it continues to rain all the next night, the wind slapping the rain against our windows, by late morning the next day the sun is shining and the wind has gone. Likewise most of the water has flowed away too. I can hear the burn in the woods just below our garden but cannot see it, which means it still bubbles along happily within its banks. Carpark after rainThe village hall car park is back  to normal, still with its coating of gravel and the sun warms me as I continue with my decking construction project in the garden. The ground is sodden, as you might expect, but other than this two days and nights of heavy rain has disappeared like magic.

Later in the day we sit in front of our log fire and contemplate how fortunate we are in our choice of house, that it can be so unaffected by weather extremes.

Midsummer snaps

Observing the wildlife, rabbits and birds large and small, as we sit eating a meal in our living room is like having a widescreen TV tuned to a wildlife programme. Naturally, without the breathy Attenborough commentary we don’t get the detailed explanations of what each animal is doing but this just means that we have to make our own interpretations of the behaviour we are witnessing.
Why do the rabbit’s ears point to the rear when it is head down feeding? Our explanation is that like us, it has a blind spot behind its head where it cannot see. So having large eyes covering the front and ears ‘keeping watch’ at the rear saves continuously head turning.
Why would a rabbit feel comfortable sitting on the pavement or in middle of the road? We assume that tarmac absorbs heat from the sun and probably feels warmer underfoot than damp grass.
We note that they seem to prefer sitting away from cover, presumably because a clear all round view enables them to see predators approaching. The road is ideal in this respect since motorised traffic past our house is rare.
Rabbits are now such regulars around the house that we are beginning to think of them as pets. They tolerate our presence at the window and are slow to move even when we emerge from the house so we have to remind ourselves that these are wild animals and their choosing to feed and spend time with us is driven by some advantage the place has for them and not by a desire to be friendly towards us. Perhaps our washing lines over the garden deter aerial predators and the large mesh boundary fence through which they routinely hop may be small enough to discourage cats and foxes.

The only piece of land we protect from their increasing numbers is our small front garden where we are growing a few herbs.Rabbit fence Parsley seems to be a favourite of theirs and it would not last long if they were able to get at it. Some low reed fencing surrounds what we would rather the rabbits not devour and to date this has been successful in keeping them out. I speculate that as well as forming a barrier over which they cannot easily leap, the fencing prevents them from seeing what is beyond. Sooner or later they might decide to eat their way through and I hazard a guess that if food were scarce then holes would begin to appear in the fence. But so far, with a plentiful supply of grass and weeds in our neighbouring garden, our herbs are growing well. I did read that a single female rabbit can become 800 rabbits in one season, given the right conditions and in the absence of predation. This number might be more of a challenge for our fencing.

Flopsy‘Old Scarface’  (formerly known as ‘Flopsy’ until we spotted the mark just above his/her nose) appears to nod off on the grass just outside our living room window, perhaps meditating upon which particular blade of grass or clover leaf to nibble next. Choices like this must be tough for a rabbit, tiring, exhausting even. This one found it all too much on a summer’s day.

Midsummer’s day, in fact. A day when the sun sets later than at any other day in the year. In Scotland it sets far into the north-west, barely leaving us long enough for the sky to darken before it rises again in the north-east a few hours later. A wander down to the harbour gave us a real treat, a sunset with a sense of calm and peacefulness. I took a few photos, which seemed to turn out fine, then I decided that the mood could only be re-captured with a bit of music. This is the result:

So Carradale Harbour does have its attractions (and its own website) after all. And since gentle strolls about the village are all I am permitted for the next few weeks while I am recovering from my operation, I find myself steering a course to the harbour more frequently now, by some devious path or other. One of these leads over the golf course, a place where there is grass trimmed to within an inch of its life on the fairways which exist side by side with untamed wildflower meadows. These are loosely kept in check by the feral goats which seem to have little interest in playing on the greens. OrchidsFor reasons I cannot fathom (without Sir David’s help) the goats seem to ignore the Heath-Spotted Orchids whose flowers are dotted around everywhere right now. The flower stems stand around bravely, each one displaying the most delicate of patterns etched on each petal by someone using the finest of paint brushes. I have always thought of orchids as exotic and rare things and it seems odd to see them growing so plentifully.

The rain we have had of late has made the vegetation lush and green. Bracken has reached shoulder height in places and the bramble stems seem to get noticeably longer each day, lengthening almost at walking speed. Deer licking her lipsOne damp morning at home we look out and spy our first deer, just beyond the garden fence. I can see she is heading for a patch of fresh undergrowth and manage to press the shutter just as she sticks her tongue out. But tempted as I am to think of her licking her lips in anticipation of the next juicy mouthful I fancy this human interpretation is not appropriate. I am aware that this deer is easily capable of hurdling our fence in one bound, were there something attractive for her to nibble on. Perhaps our herbs are less safe than they might think.

As it happens in our part of the world, young deer have their own natural predators

Eagle hovering

and later in the same day I spotted one of them, Aquila chrysaetos, gliding on the breeze as I drove north to Tarbert. Although not our first sighting, this was the first time one had come remotely close enough to take a photograph (eventually). Flying with wings held flat and the body hanging below like the fuselage of a plane, this distinguishes golden eagles from other raptors when their enormous size is difficult to judge. Their long primary feathers stick out beyond the end of each wing like thin fingers and when they are hunting, little is safe from them that lives out on the hills.Eagle gliding at Crossaig

Passage from Tarbert to Campbeltown

We slip back easily into ‘Preparing to set sail’ mode – engine on, depth and wind instruments switched on, plus the chartplotter and radio – then cast off our mooring lines and reverse away from the Tarbert pontoon. Work is going on here this morning to put a line of new pontoons in place, expanding the marina to accommodate more boats, so next time we visit we will hardly recognise the place.

For our first sail of the season we have chosen a quiet sort of day with predictable light winds so as not to test our strength or abilities at a time when the air is still quite cool. If we can combine this with a little gentle sun tanning of our faces and hands then this will be even better as it will give us a first layer of protection against summer sunshine. Kate on the deck in Loch FyneWe had driven to Campbeltown earlier in the day, to place the car there ready for our return, then caught the bus which runs along the west coast road into Tarbert. Kate pops into the Co-op to stock up with fresh food and by 10:30 am we are just about ready to go. As Cirrus leaves the harbour we comfortably slip into our normal roles on board, me on the helm and Kate coiling ropes and stowing away the fenders, just as we are used to. We move out into a light breeze across Loch Fyne but this fades as the wind struggles to make up its mind on what to do for the day. Our genoa is unrolled, optimistically, but in the end (and as the forecast predicted it would be) the passage south from Tarbert to Campbeltown Loch is largely a gentle spinnaker run downwind. In Kilbrannan Sound the wind is usually blowing one of two ways, either north or south, as it is channelled by the mountains of Arran on one side and Kintyre on the other, so it is no surprise to have to set up the spinnaker pole for downwind sailing on this occasion. Soon the sun comes out and we are drifting along at about four knots, binoculars out, ready to examine closely all the places we have visited on the land from this new angle. Despite sailing extensively in these waters this is our first time through the Sound and we are keen to pass close to Carradale if we can, to see what our small village looks like from the sea. Port Righ from the seaBut neither of us fancy too much fiddling about with the sails today so the straightest course will be our best.

Some hours later after drifting slowly past Skipness Castle and Grogport, Carradale Harbour comes into view, interesting to see, although there is nobody about to wave at. Further on at Port Righ (royal port), the bay stays hidden from the north east until the last moment when it suddenly opens to reveal the cove where a king once stopped for shelter, Robert the Bruce, so the story goes. Then moving further south we pass Torrisdale where our picture is snapped, albeit from a distance away, by Celia and Jim from their house on the hill. In fact all the way down the Sound, being the only boat around under sail, we are consciousCirrus sailing down Kilbrannan - click to enlarge that we are being observed by those we know. Our neighbour Pat, returning from Campbeltown on the bus, tells us later that she spotted our red hull out at sea and our friend David also noticed our passing from his house in Peninver. This all adds a little spice to the voyage and prompts us to keep the sails set well, this being the nautical equivalent of combing your hair before going out.

The Isle of Arran seen from our angle close to the water looks like a sleeping giant, the southern slopes being the legs and the mountains at the northern end being a broad chest heaving upward. Few visitors get to see the mountains all with their tops clear of cloud and even less will see it from our position. Today the air is sharp and clear, no haze or mist about, and the sky is a grand canvas across which dramatic shapes and colours have been splashed. To the south of us now we can see the islet of Ailsa Craig, ‘Paddy’s Milestone’ as it is affectionately known, sticking out of the sea like the nose of some giant who fell asleep here long ago. The shape is echoed by cliffs on Davaar Island which lies further west, hardly surprising since these are all that is left of long-extinct, pre ice-age volcanoes.

Our passage speed slows as the wind fades with the onset of evening so the spinnaker is taken down and we fire up the engine again, motoring the last few miles to pick up our mooring in Campbeltown Loch. Again this is a tried and tested procedure for us so there is no rushing about, just a slow approach so that Kate can secure a rope to our round, soft plastic buoy, then my job is to finish off and make secure. This is now Cirrus’ home – she will spend the rest of the year afloat here.

As the temperature slides lower we light our cabin heater and cook a meal before bedding down for our first night of the season on board just as the sun drops neatly down behind the war memorial on shore making a dramatic picture to feast our eyes on.Campbeltown war memorial sunset

Launch day visitors

Sycamore budsThere can be few other signs that shout ‘Spring!’ more loudly than the unfurling of leaf buds and tree flowers, the creases all falling out as they swell to full size ready for another action-packed summer of photosynthesis. It is an amazing process to watch in action on a large scale too, this gradual greening up of the landscape, all starting from tiny buds of life sprouting from otherwise lifeless twigs.

For boat owners, however, spring is all about launch-day, the day the boat is lowered into the briny after being closed up for many months during the winter. This is what signifies a new beginning, a new sailing season. Tarbert Harbour lift-inCirrus  Cat stands ready onshore, freshly smooth-painted, as thick canvas lifting strops are wrapped around her hull. Then as the crane-driver inches in the cable and the tension increases there is a loud creaking sound as the load comes on – nothing to worry about really but alarming if you have never heard it before – and slowly we rise from the ground. From on board the sensation of movement is almost undetectable as we swing out over the water to descend gently into the boat’s natural element. This is always a nervous time for boat owners and friends Rich and Gerry who have come to visit for a week help us by remaining calm, taking pictures of the event for posterity.

Cirrus just launched

We are lucky with the launch weather, almost no wind and dry as well, at least until later in the day, so soon we are motoring around the marina to a berth, tying up to a pontoon and the kettle is on for a cuppa. A short while later Graham & Cheryl arrive, more friends of ours on their way home from holidaying in Wester Ross, then by mid afternoon we are moving on to the next item on the busy agenda, a meal out in Campbeltown followed by a ‘Tasting’ of some fine Springbank malt whiskies at the Sailing Club. It is dark by the time we arrive home, floating on a peat-flavoured cloud of alcohol (well most of us), barely capable of coherent thought but delightfully satiated.Seal at Southend

Rich & Gerry’s visit here has been an enjoyably relaxing experience for us (we hope it has been the same for them) despite each day seeming to fill up with activity almost without us trying. They have taken in their stride winning the Carradale weekly village quiz, Scottish country dancing in the village hall, circular walks around the village both in the rain and not, my driving along some of our more exciting single-track roads, single malt whisky consumption to near-excess, walks along miles of muddy tracks and pathways, irregular meal times tempered by countless cups of tea, and finally an evening-full of the Sicilian detective, Inspector Montalbano, on television. View from foghorn at the MullThey are hooked, by the way, as indeed are we.

On Rich and Gerry’s final day with us we all visit The Mull at the tip of the Kintyre peninsula, from where the cliffs of Northern Ireland’s County Antrim can be seen clearly just twelve miles away. Indeed Rich’s excitement is largely because he last saw this place from the other side. The forecast rain held off and the wind just sneaked along the cliffs instead of blasting us off our feet as it can do here. Rain showers came and went in a way that we could watch them drift away Ireland-wards like strange blurry waterfalls, out of focus and drifting slowly over the sea. Through the windows of the old, now disused, signal house the noise of the sea wafts upwards and echoes around the rusting steelwork, all that remains of the horn that once used to shout out a warning across the sea. This is now a redundant piece of equipment since fog signals all around Britain have been silent for some years now. They are no longer deemed necessary in an age when ships are fitted with so many electronic aids to navigation and their crew are all inside where they would not hear the signal anyway. So this rusting monument stands idle, silently watching the waves through its empty windows and when the fog comes its voice is no louder than the noise of the wind through its pipes.

Visiting friends have now taken their leave of us, flying south to the corner of England where it rarely rains and hose-pipes are things confined to the shed, never to see the light of day. Rather like paying car parking charges, a shortage of rain water is something quite hard for us to comprehend, living where we do. Not that we mind this. Having a little too much water seems a far more comfortable state of affairs than having too little of it and having to pay to park a car now just seems like a distant memory. I used to think that cutting the grass was an equally pointless activity until I realised that grass is a plant that needs to be trimmed down low, it cannot survive any other way. If it is left uncut then the land on which it grows will sprout taller plants which will shade the grass, leaving it without light. So grass and grazing must always go together and the lawnmower is really a grazing machine, made necessary because we have removed the natural grazers by fencing them out. Take the fence away and the grass will be grazed naturally, or at least it will where we live. Apologies for the rambling. It must be the time of year.

The sharper-eyed may have already spotted the new feature on this site where the banner picture in the strip on the top of the page changes each time you visit. The page will now randomly select one of our favourite pictures each time it is refreshed (Press F5). Feel free to explore these.

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