|04/04/2012||Filled under boatyard, Kintyre, mountains, Scotland|
The bottom scraping is now complete and fresh antifouling paint applied. (In reality all that has occurred is an exchange of layers of costly, but old paint for more expensive new ones but we boat-owners do this sort of thing, willingly, year after year.) Once Cirrus’ sails are bent on she takes on that fresh, ready-for-the-water look again, but regrettably not before Kate climbs on board over the stern and falls foul of the boom as she stands up on the deck, cracking her head on a sharp edge protruding beneath it. This is an embarrassing thing to do at the best of times but whilst the boat is still on dry land it takes some explaining to understand how this could happen. The boom was lashed up for winter, not in its normal position, and Kate’s momentary lack of attention, whilst not damaging the boom , has left her with a nasty cut and mild concussion. All my fault, of course.
All is now ready for when, over Easter, Cirrus will be lifted gently back into her natural element and we can go sailing again. We are both (Kate included despite her altercation with the boom), keen to explore further the fabulous area we live in and we can only hope that the weather will be kind enough to us so we can make a start.
Kate’s poorly head prevents her from joining me and friends David and Hilary on a long walk along the sea cliffs down at the Mull, the headland at the southern tip of the Kintyre peninsula. To get to the start we drive along the scary bit of single-track that leads to the Mull until we reach a point where we can cut across rough country towards the sea. From this angle the volcanic plug of Ailsa Craig appears to be just behind Sanda Island although in reality they are separated by many miles across the Firth of Clyde. It is a ‘too bright, too soon’ day and by 10.30 in the morning the sun has retreated south to a thin strip on the horizon but the three of us launch ourselves across Borgadale Water, traversing around the hillside until we find the ruins of the dun, an ancient fortified settlement standing on a high point which still today affords good visibility across the Channel to Ireland. While the sky is overcast and the view is predominantly grey, the greys come in so many shades that there is an ethereal feel to the place, haunted as it is by its past.
We now traverse west on difficult terrain following the line of the cliff as best we can, past another ancient monument, the fort at Sròn Uamha (try saying it like ‘uva’), the southernmost point of the Mull, where we stop to eat our lunch within the 2000 year-old walls of what must once have been an imposing stronghold. No less than three defensive walls once protected this place on the landward side and vertical sea cliffs running along the seaward edge still form a natural barrier second to none.
Walking on we arrive at a point where the inland crags of An Gobhann descend to meet the sea cliffs. There is only one passing point here, a grassy slope beneath a sheer rock face with another steep drop to the sea on the left. With no alternative apart from retracing our footsteps across miles of open country, we tread cautiously onwards to reach the relative safety of slightly more level ground just around the corner. Strictly for the goats, this one.
What I find most intriguing about this whole area is that there is evidence on the ground, even to our untrained eyes, that a considerable settlement existed here, amongst the cliffs along the shore, on terrain which most of us would regard as totally inhospitable. These people cultivated crops on the few reasonably flat patches, they kept livestock, built fortified dwellings; the marks of all of this are still evident on the landscape today. There must have been better, easier places to live but they chose this spot, for very good reasons, no doubt. We just can’t imagine what they were.
Over five hours after we started we are back at the car resting our weary legs. Somehow the forecast rain has held off although we were in cloud for a time on the top of the Mull above the lighthouse. This place attracts cloud like a moth to a flame so we consider ourselves very fortunate to come away dry. The ground is surprisingly dry just now after several weeks with no substantial rainfall at all. The air is still cool but spring is definitely coming now.
|07/10/2011||Filled under Carradale, house refurbishment, Kintyre, Scotland, weather|
Spring and summer have both come and gone and the season I have really been looking forward to has finally made it to Carradale. Along with some wild weather, Autumn brings us a profusion of colours which transform the hillsides, dripping reds and browns from every tree bough and changing the character of the Highlands. Then in a quieter way new growth emerges from the ground in the form of mushrooms and toadstools in all shapes and sizes. Fungus thrives in the damp places along our forest paths, feeding on fallen logs, invading the peat moss and even sprouting amongst the grass in our back garden. There is a full spectrum of colours but these growths are fleeting objects which can dissolve to nothing in the course of one day once they have released their spores into the world. Whenever the weather allows we rush outside to try to capture their brief lives in photographs, to preserve forever what nature chooses not to. This page shows off just a tiny part of the Carradale fungus compendium, delicate things that I must leave others to give names to.
Against our wishes we are driven indoors when the gale arrives and torrential rain thunders down, an exciting but all too frequent event over the last few weeks. I reluctantly turn to my second choice pastime – exploring the mysteries of the house we live in, going through a process, familiar to many, of uncovering the work of previous house owners, learning about the changes they have made, what has been covered up by successive layers of decor and what lies still hidden beneath floors and behind the fitted cupboards. It seems inevitable that years of history will manifest itself in the fabric of a building in such a way as to subvert any refurbishment project or at least to undermine the timetable yet somehow this is something that is never given due prominence on TV property improvement programmes. It is not a question of uncovering poor workmanship, more an issue of the time it takes to discover how the elements of a house have been put together so that they can be unpicked without causing too much damage.
One of our domestic objectives is to provide electrical power to a garden shed which will be delivered and erected next week, my workshop space in the garden. So, having nothing better to do, I begin crawling around our roof spaces where I uncover a rather stout but unconnected length of electrical cable which meanders about the place and which disappears from sight beneath our bedroom floor heading in a purposeful way towards the front of the house. It no longer carries any electrical current – it must be a relic of a time when our domestic water was heated by electrical immersion – but I can perhaps make use of the cable if I can locate the other end which is hidden somewhere in the structure of our property.
Inevitably in this type of exploratory operation, the time comes when one just has to get destructive; there is nothing else for it, no other way to get to the inaccessible space I need to peer into. Perhaps I could rip up the bedroom floor to see what lies beneath but with laminate laid over our solid tongue and grooved floorboards this is not a happy option. In any case there is an alternative, to approach this space from below by making holes in a ceiling on the ground floor. It is at about this point that I discover what used to be a corridor or passage leading from the front of the house into what used to be a small back kitchen. This route was sealed off many years ago so that the kitchen could be redesigned and enlarged and the only evidence now is in the walls of our small broom cupboard beside the stairs in the centre of the house, It is hard to imagine, in a small house such as ours, a different layout of rooms from what we see today, but clearly this was once the case, I cannot argue with the evidence of my eyes.
I am covered from head to toe in plaster dust by the time I have successfully located the missing end to my cable but am satisfied that we can make use of it and do not have to thread another cable through the house.
As the sun pops out, once more we grab our waterproofs and don our walking shoes for another blast of exercise and fresh air, of which there is still plenty flying about. Does it matter that the rain showers come and go regularly as we ascend to the top of Deer Hill? Do we care that lying water quickly penetrates our shoes and soaks through to our toes? Do we meet any other walkers out braving the weather? No, no and well yes, surprisingly, we do meet one young couple, Londoners, who are staying in a cottage previously inhabited by their grandparents but since retained by the family as a holiday home. Shifting mentally between the landscapes of Southwark and Carradale takes some doing, we know, and they did have an air of puzzlement about them as if Kintyre was still sinking through into the deeper parts of the brain. It does take a little time.
|20/09/2011||Filled under Kintyre, mountains, Scotland|
Deep inside the forest a long clearing between the trees continues ahead of us following roughly the same line as the rough forestry track that brought us here. Although the sun shines brightly and there is a fresh breeze blowing, here in the forest it is still and shaded so last night’s rain drips from the vegetation. We continue upwards, struggling through a thick blanket of sphagnum or peat moss, like walking on a layer of wet sponge. Growing through this is a coarse reed-like grass which reaches up to knee height, each blade being topped with a cluster of water droplets, so that as we pass by, our feet sinking into the spongy surface, the water transfers easily from the grass to our clothing making our legs wet and heavy, the cold seeping right through to the skin. Having climbed this far we can only press on upwards, slipping and sliding in the damp, stepping over hidden gullies where the water runs even more freely and stumbling over broken branches and small pink mushrooms. Somewhere up ahead we can see the wind-farm towers on the summit ridge beyond the forest although these remain illusively distant, teasing us on.
We started out later than planned, following the Kintyre Way almost from our doorstep out of the village and along the shore path to Torrisdale. A line of cormorants stands at the water’s edge catching up on some late season sunbathing so we try not to disturb them as we negotiate the rocks behind them.
We are at sea level but our plan for the day is to ascend Beinn an Tuirc, the highest summit on the Kintyre peninsula standing 454 metres (1,490 feet) above us. It is close enough for us to begin the walk from our front door but the route is far from clear, no signposts point the way, so we must follow the forestry roads then do the best we can from there on up. The sun beats down as we ascend and the scenery opens up behind us, more and more of Arran’s mountains coming into view. Then we plunge into the dense forest where the air is motionless and all noise is sucked away by the trees. Between them there is deep shade, an impenetrable tangle of branches and moss-covered roots. Go only a few metres in and the trees swallow you up so you become disorientated with the uniformity around you, unsure which way to turn even to retrace your steps. We stay in a rough clearing between the trees, plodding ever upwards in the hope that sooner or later we will reach the upper edge of the tree line. Our legs are soaked below thigh level; we have reached the point where our feet cannot become any more wet so it matters little how deep are the streams we cross. Each foot is pulled from the spongy moss with a sucking noise, the effort sucking our energy away and we have only our grim determination and the thought of lunch on the summit to keep us going.
At last we scramble out onto the open hillside where the going becomes a little easier. It is still very soft under foot – the amount of water lying trapped in what passes for soil here just beggars belief – but we pause to orientate ourselves and identify just where we have emerged from the forest in relation to our summit. We set off again, steeply upwards to where we can see sheep browsing the upper flanks of the mountain, finally gaining the summit trig point where the panorama is stunning (the wooden sign marked ‘Viewpoint’ is rather superfluous). To the north-west, beyond the wind-farm towers, the Paps of Jura nudge the skyline and north of these are larger summits, maybe Ben Mor on the Isle of Mull or possibly even Ben Nevis further away still. South there is the faint outline of Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland and over across Kilbrannan Sound to the south-east we can make out the shape of the Mull of Galloway. East of us the Isle of Arran is spread out from end to end just like a map with fluffy clouds hovering over it and north of this there is Bute and Cowal. What a view!
The fresh wind is tempered by the sun’s heat but despite the stunning view this is not a place to hang about. It is mid afternoon and we have to choose a descent from the summit. There is no easy walking terrain hereabouts, no footpaths or waymarks to follow and to return the way we came is not appealing. So the choice is between a long walk over rough country along a ridge above Torrisdale but from which there is no clear descent path, or else we can follow the wind-farm service road, a longer indirect route that leads onto a forest track lower down the valley above Saddell Water. This is the route we choose, but it is a long march, and we know that we may be faced with a steep and dangerous descent yet and then finally a long walk once we do get back to our coast road.
The shadows are lengthening now and our legs are beginning to shout back at us as we pound along the forest track towards the sea. “No more”, they say, but as we round a corner we surprise a small herd of deer from their browsing and this encourages us on. Large birds of prey, buzzards we think, hover over the deep wooded valley to our right but our route stays high above this following the contours of the hillside. Then suddenly there is a sign we recognise, a waymarker for the Kintyre Way placed beside a track leading off to our left. This is a surprise since we know we are not on the present KW route but we follow the signs just the same and soon find ourselves descending a freshly made path through an area of felled timber then across a burn and back into the forest itself. By following a series of flags attached to trees this finally leads us out of the darkness onto the very forest road we had used earlier in the day. We have discovered, by chance, a Kintyre Way diversion in the process of being built which has worked for us as a short cut back into Torrisdale. Great relief brings new energy to our legs for the last few miles back home. Our aching limbs are testament to perfect day – visibility as good as it gets and sunshine to boot. Before long this land will change into autumn then winter colours – this one tree is ahead of the pack – and we are now looking forward to the whole lot following suit.
|03/09/2011||Filled under Carradale, Kintyre, Scotland|
Just a few miles to the south of our village lie what few stones remain of Saddell Abbey, a monastic settlement established in the twelfth century by monks coming from what is now Northern Ireland. Permission to build the abbey was needed, just as it would be today, and the story goes that this was granted by none other than Somerled, a powerful figure in the history of Scotland who after a significant battle in 1158 declared himself as the first ‘King of the Isles’. As such he ruled an independent kingdom which was subservient neither to Scotland nor indeed to the King of Norway whose influence was still strong in the Western Isles at this time. Although Somerled’s kingdom was short-lived his blood line still continues because as many as half a million people alive today can, according to the evidence of their DNA, claim him as an ancestor.
Although this is disputed by some, Somerled’s remains are said to be buried somewhere on the site of Saddell Abbey, something that gives these crumbling ruins something of an aura, despite their condition. The monastery did not survive to the present day, its fate is lost to history, and over the last two hundred or so years the site has been used as a graveyard, the gravestones peering out from every corner, even from within the bounds of the building remains themselves. Much of the stone from the original abbey has now gone, to be used in other buildings such as Saddell Castle where local tales tell of the bad fortune that this brings to those who stay there. Fortunately for the owners this does not appear to prevent holidaymakers coming to stay here, indeed they appear to make much of the tale to add to the cachet of the place.
Kate and I arrived here on our bikes after negotiating the five miles of road from our village, this being the horizontal distance we had to travel. The length of the journey, however, gives no impression of our movement in the vertical dimension. Both the beginning and the end of the journey are at sea level, as indeed are several other spots along the way and the problem is that each of these places are separated by high ground over which the road winds its merry way totally indifferent to the plight of those who try to ride a bicycle on its surface. To negotiate steep hills on a bicycle we change into our lowest gears but the fact is that the same amount of effort is required to ride uphill regardless of the number of gears a bike has. Then if the gears are too few in number and the hill too steep then there will come a point when the rider’s weight simply cannot push hard enough on the pedal to rotate the wheels and move the bike up the incline. This is a scientific fact few are aware of simply because they don’t cycle along the lanes around Carradale where most of the hills fall into this category.
Our real motive for visiting Saddell was to visit not the abbey but the beach which, aside from its outstanding natural beauty, was the setting for something even Somerled might have found entertaining. This short strip of sand and pebble, dominated by the well maintained and classical features of the castle, was once the backdrop for a video made to accompany the UK’s best selling single of all time, ‘Mull of Kintyre’. In the song accompaniment is provided by the Campbeltown Pipe Band who were seen in the video marching along the Saddell shoreline beside the sea and being joined by Paul McCartney singing and playing his guitar. In subsequent verses of the song they are joined by local schoolchildren, many of whom may now be adults still living in the area – the song was released in 1977. In many ways the beach location would have been an obvious choice since it possesses so many of the vital ingredients needed – it is easy of access by road but secluded enough to remain undisturbed during the filming; it has the tall castle as a backdrop, a proper one with battlements all in good repair; there is spectacular scenery in every direction. It lacks, however, the most essential ingredient which is that the beach is not actually located at the Mull of Kintyre.
Having been to the Mull, of course, we know why this would not have been suitable for the video. It has no beach, it is a remote, inaccessible and windswept place often surrounded by fogs and it has no Disneyland-like castle to use as part of the backdrop. So perhaps history can forgive the deception. After all Saddell is on the Kintyre peninsula, so many would say it is is close enough to be authentic, and very few will ever know the truth anyway.
|20/06/2011||Filled under family, Kintyre, weather|
A series of visitors during a period of less than perfect weather has left us feeling drained of our normal energy and joy at living here in Carradale. Many different strands of our lives seem to be shifting simultaneously so that there is much to think about and worry ourselves over. There is the leaking roof, for example, which is now finally being repaired by a local builder. Ever since we first moved in here, each time the rain really fell heavily we have had to place buckets on the floor of our guest bedroom to catch the water that seeped through the ceiling. At last our guests can be assured of a sound night’s sleep without the noise of constant dripping into a bucket beside them.
Then there were telephone calls from our eldest son, Tony, who is reeling from the news of his best friend Ed who died recently. Tony had been close to Ed since they were at school together. We send our condolences to his family and friends.
The sale of our London apartment takes place any day now, closing another chapter in our lives and providing us with some much needed capital. We may even soon be able to afford those roof repairs!
Meanwhile our next visitors, my mother and her nonagenarian companion, George, were splashing their way through the showers and the puddles on walks around our village, this despite my fervent praying for some sunshine and warmth for their visit. We did at last manage to take them over to the Isle of Gigha on the ferry so they could wander around the garden of the Achamore estate here. The Vikings, and later the Norse Kings, who made their home in the Western Isles, called this place ‘the good isle’ or maybe even ‘God’s isle’ depending upon how you translate it. The hundred-odd full time inhabitants would not argue with this as back in 2002 they all clubbed together as a community and bought the island from its then owner. Today you don’t have to chat for long with any local to become aware of how proud they feel of their home and of the strong sense of shared community that exists there. It is a lovely place which exhibits humanity at its very best.
I will admit that squelching around gardens on a damp day is not my favourite activity. I preferred the drive to the northern tip of the island from where you can sit and watch the whole of the Sound of Jura spread out before you like a map. This is all good sailing country standing ready for when we have our boat up here.
Our wild landscape produces some astonishing shapes and colours. On a plastic bucket cast up from the sea on the Atlantic-facing beach at Westport I found this collection of goose barnacles with their elephant-trunk appearance and brilliant yellow ‘lips’ around the shells. As soon as they sense water around them they send out feathery feelers which they wave about to catch their food. These ones may have picked the wrong floating object to latch on to as the incoming tide had pushed it just too far up the beach to be able to suck it back again when it receded. The weight of the bucket was too much for me to try to cast it back out and as a result these particular barnacles may well have been doomed.
Back to our visitors now and on one exceptionally rainy day it seemed sensible to take a tour of one of Campbeltown’s whisky distilleries. Gone are the days when there were more than thirty of such establishments in the town to chose from. Today only three remain and Springbank offered us the temptation of a wee dram to dispel the chill of the damp day, so naturally we chose this. The sight of so many barrels of spirit resting untouched and quietly watching the years pass by is more than many men could bear. No wonder they keep their bonded warehouses under lock and key.
In better weather a few days earlier we drove our little car along one of the most exciting stretches of single track road that Scotland can offer, stopping above the lighthouse that guards the North Channel and winks its light at Ireland across twelve miles of sea. This headland is the Mull of Kintyre and road traffic has to stop high up above the lighthouse from where a narrow track spirals downwards. Walking down this final mile is a bit like reverse mountaineering – going downhill before going up – but it has to be done. It is part of the magic of the place.