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Tuesday, 4 December 2012

There are more Questions than Answers

The winter months are a time when I enjoy thumbing through Arran walks guides to pick out some new routes. I always like to have something of historical interest on my walks, and on Arran that’s not difficult.

You are never far from the past on this island with its hillsides that positively bristle with prehistoric standing stones and the remains of ancient chambered cairns. You sometimes have to do a bit of hunting for them though; they’re not publicised and packaged up, but then again, nor do they have entrance fees. The guidebooks and the Isle of Arran Heritage Museum are good places to seek inspiration.

On Arran, you can trail your fingertips softly across stones shaped by people with flint tools 4,000 years ago. However hard you try to visualise the particular hand that shaped the stone and the intent, individual face concentrating on the task in hand, they stay tantalisingly beyond reach, but it still feels like a connection across the centuries. No doubt their genes live on in some of the families that remain on the island today. Coming from the Yorkshire coast, it is unlikely that my ancestors set foot on the island, but you never know; jet, maybe from Whitby, has been found in the prehistoric landscape at Kilmartin, just north of here over the Kilbrannan Sound. Humans were designed to travel the face of the globe it seems,

The photos show some rock art of 4,000 years ago in a wood near Brodick. The symbols are known as cup and rock marks. No one knows for sure what they represent. To me, they echo the design of stone circles with their rings within rings, often situated close to river valleys. I like the theory that it all symbolised the womb of mother earth, to which the dead were returned in foetal positions.

I recently met a man from New York whilst having a cup of coffee in the Stags Pavilion who informed me he was a leading expert on ancient history and was currently preparing a lecture on whether it’s correct to have the prefix  Mac or O before Scottish names e.g. MacDonald / O Donnell. He also claimed to know the exact reason for cup and ring marks.

Wait for it!

According to him, prehistoric woman discovered the secret of growing giant vegetables. She planted them on rocks in order to replicate drought conditions, which made the tubers work harder to find water, growing huge in the process- the cup marks being the dints made by these supersize vegetables.

I think I met an expert in Tall Tales.

Friday, 23 November 2012

It's not easy to make out, but the photo shows a rescue helicopter airlifting a patient to the mainland from the village football field, as sometimes happens.

We’re Prepared.

Island life. There’s a lot of gossiping. It travels faster than Facebook, and, like Facebook, the truth of the tale can be lost in the telling and then there’s bother! But helping your neighbours out when they’re in trouble goes without saying. You don’t throw anything away because where’s it going to go? And when you go shopping you get plenty in, in case the ferry doesn’t sail for a few days.

On an island like Arran, with a permanent population of less than 5,000, you are a big fish in a small pond. It’s a long way from the rest of our overcrowded world in which we can feel like very small anonymous fish indeed. This situation translates into an island lifestyle which demands that everyone has to get stuck in to make island life work. The last thing island life is, is a retreat.

Cue First Responders.

Last year Nigel and I joined the team of First Responder volunteers covering the North End of Arran. First Responders are people trained in the use of a defibrillator, which can shock start someone’s heart, and also in giving oxygen. Once or twice a week for a 24 hour period at a time, as a First Responder you are in charge of a bag containing the defib, the oxygen canister, masks, airways and first aid equipment. You agree to be at home and available to drop everything on receiving a call from ambulance control. You need to have use of a car. Every minute counts in surviving a heart attack and, as the only hospital on Arran is at Lamlash, 45 minutes away from Lochranza, First Responders can give vital help to someone suffering breathing difficulties until the ambulance arrives.

The fire service, the coastguard service and the mountain rescue team on Arran are all made up of committed volunteers who also have day jobs and businesses. Two of our friends, as well as working, belong to the Fire Service, the Coastguards and First Responders. They are self-employed so a lot of call-outs can have an impact on their businesses, but without the likes of them, island life would become unsustainable.

Island life. You join in.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

My favourite time of year

In my mind early October and late May battle it out for the loveliest time of year. Lately, night skies have been peppered with stars and the Milky Way has been clearly visible. The symphony orchestra of stags has continued to blare out around the clock. (The stags have stationed themselves on crags around the glen for maximum impact.)

The bracken on the hillsides is sinking down in a blaze of fiery gold and the rowans are laden with glossy clusters of berries  In May 2011 I wrote a blog about the devastating effects of a powerful wind we had, which turned all the trees prematurely brown. But nature is clearly putting tree survival to rights with this bumper crop. Half a dozen basking sharks have been cruising up and down the coast between Lochranza and Catacol, and the little ferry to Claonaig has detoured a couple of times to see them.

The fine weather has given us chance to get started on the autumn task of clearing out the ditches but yesterday we took some time off to walk the classic Cock of Arran route, heading up from the campsite and across to Laggan then returning along the coast. Above the Narachan (the old track above the campsite) a stag with a small group of hinds kept us under close watch. We could sense his tension and didn’t linger to agitate him more. Up above, a croaking raven was chasing a golden eagle until the eagle caught a thermal and rose serenely higher and higher.

This route is full of historical and geological interest that I have described in earlier blogs: prehistoric giant millipede tracks, centuries- old graffiti in Ossian’s cave, the Cock of Arran itself, Hutton’s Unconformity and more. At Fairy  Dell, where there is a choice of paths home, we chose the North Newton route because we knew we could get choc ices from Reg at the Whins and eat them whilst having a rest and watching the seals on the rocks below. Incidentally, Kitty, who is 81 and has lived in Lochranza for most of her life, says that what is commonly called Fairy Dell is really Dairy Puddle.

Today it’s raining but I’m pleased to report that our newly cleared ditches seem to be working. The weather hasn’t dampened the testosterone-charged atmosphere we inhabit just now. I am reading “The Sea Kingdoms” by Alistair Moffat which discusses Celtic Britain, but not as something past and gone, but something very much alive in the west. Many of us will be following a Celtic tradition soon with turnip lanterns for Hallowe’en. I hadn’t realised that the originals 2,000 years ago were the skulls of enemies stuck on posts to make ghost fences for protection!

The pictures show: Laggan cottage, the Cock of Arran (something else that lost its head some time ago) and the view from the Whins.

Monday, 1 October 2012

What do campsite wardens do on holiday?

I love camping, and always have. I never sleep so well as when I am camping, and if it’s a wet, wild night and I’m snuggled in my sleeping bag in our small green tent, I sleep even better.

A problem until now for us in our three years of running the campsite has been, ironically, lack of camping. Three years ago we spent two entire months kayaking and living in a small tent in a very wet and windy summer in the Scottish islands. Now, our time off comes from November to February but the little Calmac ferries, which stitch the islands together in summer, will soon be heading up the Clyde for the winter. Seizing the moment before this happens, and leaving campsite-sitters Carol and Alan in place, we finally went camping again, heading north to Knapdale.

A good thing about living in a place of islands and remote peninsulas is that you don’t have to go far to be somewhere completely different. Knapdale is an area of long sea lochs and ancient woodlands, and if you like the wild nature of Lochranza, you would like this area too. We sea kayaked round the Faery Islands, looked for signs of beavers, felt very small watching the awesome power of the tide rushing past Jura, and put a foot in the footprint on the (replica)Stone of Destiny at Dunadd, where Scotland’s earliest kings were crowned.

We stayed at Leachive Campsite in the attractive village of Tayvallich. I’ll wild camp if I’m on a mountain or sea kayak journey far from civilisation, but I don’t find sleeping on boggy tussocks relaxing, nor digging a hole every time nature calls. I positively enjoy the quirky nature of small campsites. Leachive Campsite itself was a very pleasant base, right in the middle of the village and close to the water’s edge.

It was all happening in the Kilbrannan Sound on the way home to Lochranza, with porpoises and a basking shark swimming unconcernedly beside the boat.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Lochranza in August

August is Arran’s busiest time of year and this year it has come with many days of warm sunshine. Evenings have found the red deer cooling off in the loch. Inspired by their example, on hot afternoons we have plunged into cold pools up in the glens, whilst back on the campsite, campers and red deer can be seen snoozing alongside each other.

Every summer, the local PGL geology field centre organise ceilidhs in Lochranza Village Hall. If you’ve never been to a ceilidh, this is an initiation not to miss. A ceilidh is a traditional get-together with songs and dances, and the Arranach Ceilidh Band who provide the music for Lochranza ceilidhs, are a positive treat to the ears. Chris Traill is the caller, guiding you through the old Arran, Scottish and Irish dances. Ceilidhs vary on a scale from exuberant to wildly riotous; the dancers from toddlers to the very old. You’ll find that moving so fast means the summer midges certainly won’t catch up with you!

Tuesday, 26 June 2012


Customer service

A telephone  conversation:

Caller: I’m just making enquiries about the campsite

Me: That’s fine. What would you like to know?

Caller: What’s the weather doing with you?

Me: It’s a bit wet today

Caller: Oh (significant pause) Is it always like that?

Me: Not at all. We’ve had a lot of sunshine this year so far and in May and June we’ve had gorgeous sunsets

Caller: I expect the mountains get in the way where you are

Me: The sun goes down over Kintyre and shines right onto Lochranza in summer

Caller: I’ve heard it’s sunny on Islay

Me: That’s nice for Islay

Caller: What are the midges like?

Me: Well, it depends on the conditions. They’re only around in warm, still weather at dawn and dusk, and we usually have breezes here that keep them away

Caller: Oh (significant pause) You get a lot of wind then?

Me: We’re a west coast island ! Actually, today it’s pretty calm

Caller: Hmmm (significant pause) How much is it for one person in a small tent?

Me: It’s £8 a night

Caller: What facilities does that include?

Me: The fee includes our lovely hot showers, hot water for dishwashing; use of a spin dryer, iron and drying cupboard in the laundry, and a fridge, kettle and microwave in the campers’ room. You don’t pay extra for using hairdryers…

Caller: I haven’t got much hair. I don’t need a hairdryer.

Me: Oh dear

Caller: If I decide to come do I need to book a pitch?

Me: Small tents don’t usually need to book but we can never guarantee we have space

Caller: I don’t know when I want to come. How close is town by the way?

Me: Brodick is 14 miles away over a rough hilly road. On dark nights it’s a very dark road indeed – watch out for the stags charging about – not to mention the potholes.
It’s a fact that West Scotland is a wild place.
It’s not Bognor Regis.
No weather forecast comes anywhere near accuracy regarding the microclimates……… and when the Atlantic winter gales gather up all their might and howl up the loch, it’s positively terrifying.

That’s how we like it.

Caller: Have you got a supermarket?

Sunday, 17 June 2012

 Castles in the Air: Climbing Caisteal Abhail 859m

“Climb Goat Fell” (the highest peak on Arran) is usually on every first-time visitor to the island’s To Do list. However, if you’re approaching from the north, it is Caisteal Abhail, the second highest mountain, that will command your gaze. Aptly named, it looks surreally high, like a huge fortress topped by turrets.

“The Castles” is the nearest of the high mountains of Arran to Lochranza Campsite and its summit makes up the chest of the Sleeping Warrior. You’ll find you won’t share your climb with crowds, as can happen on Goat Fell. Once at the top you feel you have stepped into another world as you wander along grassy corridors between tors of granite blocks. Views of the entire coast of Arran and beyond open up. You can sit on a sun-warmed granite slab and eat your sandwiches, relishing the silence, and gazing back to Lochranza with its miniature white cottages and boats. You are Master or Mistress of all you survey gazing down from your airy throne.

A good route to the top of The Castles which doesn’t involve scrambling begins in the North Glen Sannox Car Park (from Lochranza it’s a short bus journey). “Caisteal Abhail 4 miles” is signposted. The well-made path climbs gently up the left-hand side of the splashing burn, which is popular with gorge walkers for its pools and water slides. At the top of the forest, you go through a deer fence gate then a narrow path takes you across moorland and a couple of gullies to the corrie lip. This is glaciated scenery scoured out by ice in the last Ice Age. To your left the clear rocky ridge of Cuithe Mheadhonach will take you steeply up to the summit of Caisteal Abhail, with close-up views of the gash of Ceum na Caillich (the Witch’s Step) as you climb. At a high col you suddenly see all the Arran mountains ahead of you.

To descend, you continue north west around the broad rim of the corrie, gradually descending to Sail an Im. From here you can descend into Gleann Easan Biorach, following its pretty burn right back to Lochranza and the Isle of Arran Distillery. Look out for golden eagles and red deer as you walk.

Allow 6-7 hours for this route.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The Arran Mountain Festival moved to May this year and experienced weather from snow on the Friday to hot sunshine on the Monday. I posted a blog about my day out on the Gaelic in the Mountains walk. You can find it at www.arranmountainfestival.blogspot.co.uk

Things Happen in Threes

In one of my earlier blogs I’m ashamed to say I complained about not getting out much. Feeling like being in a cake shop and not allowed to eat. Luckily for me my complaints were read by Joe who lives close to the Irish coast, which can be seen from Arran on clear days. Last year he came over the sea in his Redbay rib Ricochet with daughter Hannah, and this year he came to whisk us away for an exhilarating ride in beautiful, sparkling sunshine.

Just like buses- you wait for one for ages then three come at once- I was especially lucky  and had a third day out in the same week. This time it was a city trip and it involved catching the first ferry then the train to Glasgow (my fares for the day including ferry and train return came to only £16). I travelled with Wilma Stark who is a play-writer living in Lochranza. If you notice a ruined cottage near the Youth Hostel she has written a moving play about its history. It’s called the Barking House and it’s being performed in Edinburgh in September. The purpose of the day was to go to the Play, Pie and Pint at the Oram Mor at lunchtime where we saw a powerful tale of man’s inhumanity to man. The plays are new writing and can last no more than an hour.

Returning to Lochranza, bathed in golden sunsets every evening lately, is like returning to a different world. No traffic sounds, just sheep sitting on the road, deer grazing round the village and the eagles circling above Torr Nead.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Places to go Hunting For…..

It’s not much more than a century since Lochranza was reached only by sea, despite, at that time, supporting a much higher population than now through fishing and crofting. Today, the beautiful scene of Lochranza’s castle ruin encircled by the loch, with the white cottages of the village scattered along the shores, is a familiar one in calendars of Scotland. Nonetheless, this area is still full of little-known, relatively unvisited but truly remarkable places of historic and geological interest. To find them, you need an OS map as there are few signposts. The walks are not long but the terrain can be rough.

Here are five of my favourites (some previously referred to in this blog):

Giant Millipede Tracks near Laggan Cottage   GR 972512
These dimpled tracks imprinted on boulders splashed by the sea were left behind by Arthropleura  320 million years ago-  it was the largest land-based invertebrate ever known.

Fairy Dell   GR 948523
This lies beyond the well-known fairy Dell and its little white cottage. It is a long hidden chasm formed by a collapsed cliff- an actual Rivendell, enchantingly pretty and with a sense of enchantments. Rock bridges and trees arch overhead. Be careful! There are steep drops!

Lochranza’s Prehistoric Celtic Hill Fort  GR 927503
It’s only when you stand on it that you realise what a well-chosen defensive position and vantage point it is.  The long wall is a reminder of a time of warring tribes.

The Allt nan Calman in Glen Catacol   GR 916455
As you walk up to Loch Tanna you pass this giant waterslide and pretty plunge pool. To me, it’s the highlight of the walk.

Coastal Path at Imachar  GR 863405
South of Pirnmill and Whitefarland are raised beaches and inaccessible cliffs of ancient woodland. Where the road cuts inland is a delightfully pretty stretch of the Coastal Way with little waterfalls, rock pools and caves. In summer it’s splashed with bright-coloured wild flowers. Look out for the distinctive dry stane dykes in this area.

If you find walking in rough terrain difficult but would like to find magical microcosms like the ones I’ve mentioned, I recommend a visit to Brodick Castle for its woodland trails, especially the Cnocan Burn and the Merkland Burn. The land is managed here by the National Trust and the Forestry Commission.


Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Isle of Gigha

Last Saturday Nigel and I stood on the hefty bulk of Meall nan Damh in Glen Catacol and, between sharp showers, looked beyond the slender waist of Kintyre to the little island of Gigha off Kintyre’s west coast. We have happy memories of kayaking around Gigha three summers ago and thought it would be interesting to see if it is possible to have a day trip there from Lochranza.

Here are the facts for you so that you can make your own mind up.

The first ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig departs at 8.15 am and the last one returns from Claonaig at 7pm in the evening. On a clear day, the crossing of the Kilbrannan Sound is a delight and takes half an hour. From Claonaig it is about 20 miles to Tayinloan by road from where you catch the Gigha Ferry. The first sailing is at 8am and the last back to Tayinloan at 5.30 pm. This crossing takes 20 minutes.

Gigha is 8 miles long and best explored by foot or bike. As a foot passenger on the ferries, the fares are very modest; taking a car is much more expensive. However, I never begrudge money spent on the ferries – they are the life blood of the Highlands and Islands: keeping communities alive, people in employment and holidays in one of the most beautiful countries in the world possible. The ferries are my favourite way to travel.

Gigha has many charms which include secluded beaches, close- up views to Islay and Jura, the lush Achamore gardens, a welcoming hotel, and a delightful art gallery. It is one of several Scottish islands that are owned and run by a Community trust. If you wish to live there, a decision whether to accept you or not is made by the community based on majority vote. The island certainly has an atmosphere of enthusiastically embracing the future, rather than, like many picturesque parts of Britain, simply preserving villages and landscapes as picture postcard scenes.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

April on Arran: To Whet Your Appetite

That’s whet not wet. Actually, much of April so far has been gloriously sunny and everyone has been treated to beautiful clear views with bright blue skies and a blue and green sea. There have also been surprising wildlife sightings: Mr and Mrs Hall looked into a golden eagle’s eyes as it flew up from below the ridge where they were sitting, and a whale swam past the butcher’s.

April’s a good time for walking- before the bracken and heather have started to grow. At last I have found the Real Fairy Dell (see photo), decked with primroses, violets, tangled creepers and overhanging mosses. Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t exist! It’s also lambing time for the hill sheep and earlier I watched a ewe giving birth on a 60 degree slope. Her floppy newborn lamb tipple-tailed downhill then lay helplessly upside down for a while. I daren’t interfere in case his mother rejected him. She began to alternately lick and kick him and I left her to it. When I returned from my walk he was sitting, head up and blinking in the sunshine.

My friend Joyce gave me a Battlefield Band CD for my birthday. It includes a song called “The Arran Convict” which has a refrain of “I wish I was back on the Lochranza ferry…. breathing the spray and the sweet island air”. It’s lovely to be here in April and not having to wish. (It also includes the line “I remember Lochranza…..when the rain from Kintyre was a sheet without end”, but we won’t think about that whilst the sun’s shining!)

We’ve even had sunset suppers outdoors. Our favourite Arran foods for these occasions include:

Sausages from the Arran Butcher

Smoked salmon pate from Creeler’s with Wooley’s oatcakes

Honey mustard from Arran Fine Foods

Island cheeses

Arran whisky from the Distillery

Arran Blonde beer from the Brewery

Suddenly the days seem so much longer and last night we kayaked round Pladda island supervised by seals. As the evening drew on, the waves got choppier; early signs of an Atlantic front heading this way, the first we have seen in some weeks.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Tale of a Gold Watch

In early October 2010 a party of golfers from the mainland came to play at Lochranza Golf Course. Unfortunately, one of the gentlemen realised he had lost his valuable gold watch on the course. Whilst being valuable, it was also invaluable because it had been given to him by his late mother.

The gentleman’s mother fostered many Glasgow children and from 1938 on brought them regularly to Arran on holiday. She would make them wear the same colour t-shirts on holiday so that she could spot them easily.

In the 16 months that passed until February 29th this year, the golf course experienced extreme frosts, thick snow and flooding. During both winters the ditches were thoroughly cleaned out and Nigel and I got to know every inch of the course. We saw no sign of the watch.

On February 29th I walked down the golf course to clear up windblown twigs (the course is closed in winter). It was a lovely spring like day. As I headed towards the Newton Road Bridge I became aware of something gleaming brightly at the top of a ditch out of the corner of my eye. When I went to investigate I recognised the Rotary watch from the gentleman’s description immediately. It had a little frond of dust attached to it but otherwise looked shiny and clean.

Was it a happy chance that I was passing just as the sun was shining on the watch face? I felt as if the watch made me see it- I wasn’t looking that way. I wonder about the story it could tell of where it’s been? Washed into the ditch in a flood? Hidden in a crack that has since opened up? Captured by a crow and kept in its nest? Returned to its rightful owner, and having been checked by a jeweller, amazingly, all it needed was a new battery.


Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Views of Arran


Nigel and I have often discussed which way is best for tours round the island. If you travel clockwise, that is, you turn left out of the ferry terminal towards Lamlash and the South End, an advantage is that you will be driving/ cycling* on the left all the way round and you will have an uninterrupted sea view. Given that otters and seals can often be spotted from the island’s perimeter road this is a good decision. The best stretches to glimpse marine creatures are from Dougarie to Lochranza on the west coast (I’ve seen basking sharks several times along here) and Sannox to Brodick on the east coast. Remember not to stop too suddenly when you see a seal- there may be someone behind you!

Both ways it’s 55 miles round Arran and best to allow a good few hours to do it. Travelling anti-clockwise is going widdershins but you have to encircle the island nine times before the fairies whisk you away. I recommend journeying widdershins up the east coast from Whiting Bay on a clear day to see Arran’s can-I-believe-what-I’m-seeing mountainscapes at their glorious best. Wonderful clockwise panoramas are the sweep of Machrie Bay with Beinn Bharrain behind and, close to home, the view into Lochranza as you travel from Catacol with the loch, the castle and the soaring Sleeping Warrior mountain range.

Whichever way you travel, remember that the east coast enjoys the rising sun and the west coast the setting sun, but also that, on a shady east coast in the evening, you can admire a golden Ayrshire coast, and from the west coast in the morning you can pick out every detail on Kintyre. The midsummer setting sun shines directly onto the Campsite.

The String and the Ross are the two cross-the-island roads. The String is a good road; the Ross more of a track. On both roads, for views, head west to east, Atlantic to Firth of Clyde, for lovely views of Holy Island and Ayrshire.

For more stunning views, it’s worth detouring to Kildonan to look out to Pladda and Ailsa Craig. Pause at Glen Sannox to gaze into this most dramatic of mountain glens and drive/ cycle pretty slowly between Pirnmill and Catacol because you’ll find you’re having a roller-coaster ride and it’s best to take your eyes OFF the scenery.

* The island bus service tours round the island in both directions.

No view for Sherie and the Old Man of Tarsuinn

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Who's Watching Who?

It’s been a windy winter. On several nights the wind has roared so loudly through the mountains that we couldn’t hear the television even at highest volume. But now the sun has returned to Lochranza village after two months of shade. I used to wonder why houses were built on the sunless side of the glen and suspected it must be for the deeper water when, in past times, the fishing boats came in. Now I realise it’s also the windless side; the oldest houses were built in well-protected positions. On the Campsite, in winter, the low sun pops in and out between the three surrounding hills. Any day now it will be clearing the summits.

In winter in Lochranza you go to parties in wellies. Lochranza has a strong community with lots of winter parties to warm up the short, dark days. Word of mouth travels much quicker than text messages here. In fact, when the gales of January 3rd nearly blew the Stags Pavilion down, the whole village arrived to help in no time. (The Stags, by the way, has been rebuilt and is even better than before.)

Lochranza has no light pollution so on clear nights the stars appear to be very close and look like bright glowing lamps. Driving up the Boguillie Road at night you have to weave in and out of the black face sheep who like to sleep on the road. Stags too loom up in your headlights.

Our caravan base on the Campsite has an earth bank close behind, beyond which is a field and the dominating presence of Torr Nead. Sometimes we draw back the curtains to find the face of a red deer gazing in from the bank. Perhaps it is Deer-vid Attenborough busy observing the habits of the human being.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns

It might have been composed more than 200 years ago but for me, Robert Burns’s “My Luve is like a Red, Red Rose” is the most beautiful of love songs: “And I will luve thee still, my Dear,/ Till a’ the seas gang dry./ Till a’ the seas gang dry, my Dear,/ And the rocks melt wi’ the sun…” Long sigh. Emotions go into meltdown. I especially like Eddy Reader’s version.

Last night Nigel and I went to our first Burns Supper in Lochranza Village Hall. Robert Burns was born, oldest son of a poor farmer, in 1759. He never visited Arran but must often have looked across to its soaring peaks from Ayrshire. However, he wasn’t a Wordsworth, finding his inspiration in the hills; it was from human society that Burns drew his creative power. He loved the lasses and they loved him back making him the father of about thirteen children in all, both to his wife and several other young women. And today there are few places in the world that do not know his song celebrating human bonds: “Auld Lang Syne”.

A Burns Supper involves a meal, speeches and recitals. There is a very specific order to the ongauns (procedures). The main addresses include: “The Toast to the Haggis”, “The Toast to the Lassies” and “The Immortal Memory”. I heard plenty of old Scots words I don’t know, but it’s not difficult to pick up the gist. The main speaker of the evening, Robbie Glen, ex- Glasgow prison officer, had the audience in stitches but also mused at one point how, in England, when Shakespeare’s birth and death day both fall on St.George’s Day i.e. April 23rd, the date can just be allowed to pass by without a party lasting weeks!

The meal began with cock-a-leekie soup then the haggis, bashed neeps and champit tatties (mashed turnip and potato) main course. This is actually very healthy eating, and very tasty too - though don’t ask about the parts of animals in the haggis if you’re squeamish. Wooley’s of Arran oatcakes, Arran cheeses and shortbread with Arran Distillery Robert Burns whisky rounded off a delicious and warming winter evening supper.

The new Burns Heritage Centre at Alloway near Ayr is one of the most lively, interactive museums I’ve ever been to. The centre’s director believes that had Robert Burns been alive to day he would have been a rock star! It’s well worth a visit and not far from the ferry to Arran.

Looking towards the Scottish Mainland coast from the cliffs above Laggan Cottage.

Paisley Abbey

As the crow, or the seagull, flies, Arran is not many miles from Glasgow, yet the waters of the Clyde make it seem worlds away with its peace, wild beauty and quirky island traits. This is not to say that there are not many interesting places to stop and explore on your journey to Arran through the urban sprawl of the Central Belt.

Last weekend I visited Paisley for the first time. It’s close to the M8 and Glasgow Airport, and, though famous for its beautiful patterned shawls manufactured in its mills in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is not mentioned in many tourist guides. I particularly wanted to visit Paisley Abbey. Its origins go back to 1163, making it steeped in the Scottish past.

Once inside the Abbey I was fortunate enough to coincide with organ practice. Several local volunteers were devotedly cleaning and polishing, and just being available to share their knowledge of the abbey’s history. In Scotland’s formative years as a nation, the abbey was close to the pulse of power and politics. It was founded by Walter Fitzalan in 1163, who was the first hereditary High Steward of Scotland. It’s also more than likely that William Wallace was educated at the abbey.

Like many old churches, it has a palpable sense of suspended time. As you tread softly from the west end of the nave to the east window you walk through ecclesiastical architecture from 1163 to the present day. Daylight streams colourfully through the gorgeous stained glass windows and there is so much fine detail in the wooden carvings and sculptured stone that it must be difficult to focus attention on a sermon!

On my return home I googled Paisley Abbey for more information. I was somewhat taken aback to discover that even churches get star ratings out of five on the Internet these days! It seems to me that a grander scale is required for a beautiful building that has stood for almost 900 years, survived religious reformation, and held so many human hopes, loves and griefs within its ancient walls.

If you pay Paisley Abbey a visit, it’s easy to find parking spaces nearby and you can have a break in the cafĂ© in the cloisters. The Abbey is also the venue for many musical events throughout the year.

Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me at Paisley Abbey. Instead, here is a picture of Lochranza’s little Kirk of St.Bride’s which celebrates its 300th anniversary this year.