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Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Red Deer Rut  Diary 2013 part two
October 15th
The chief stag was VERY agitated this morning, refusing to tolerate other stags anywhere near the herd and charging furiously and noisily after a young stag who was determined to try his luck. I found out later that a big fight between two stags was witnessed on the sea field that same morning, lasting twenty-five minutes.
October 16th
The ground has been scuffed up on the 6th fairway today. I wonder if it has been caused by actual mating? Damage to trees has stopped. There must be something about munching up pine trees just before the rut that attracts stags- it doesn’t seem so appetising to them afterwards.
October 19th
The atmosphere has changed on the golf course. It is less intense and there is less roaring. The main herd on the golf course of 16 hinds has been sitting comfortably on the first fairway in a tight-knit group with the chief stag. No hinds were trying to run away and no other stags were around waiting to challenge.
There is still a lot of night-time roaring coming from up the Narachan track and from Gleann Easan though the stags sound pretty hoarse at times.
October 21st
This week stag culling stops and hind culling begins. If this isn’t done there will be high mortality of the young over the winter. Calves stay with their mothers for a year or even two. There are two or three little family groups like this who are now grazing at some distance from the main herd, presumably because mating has taken place.
October 23rd
One very exhausted chief stag fast asleep in the reeds near the Newton Road Bridge. His big antlers sticking up like an aerial gave his whereabouts away. The rut ends in a drawn-out slow calming like the sea after a storm. The structure of the herd loosens and eventually the big stags return to the hills.

Blinky was culled earlier this month. He was estimated to be 15 which is very old for a stag. He was blind in one eye and going blind in the other so his prospects for surviving the coming winter were not good. At least he spent his last few days proudly in charge of the herd again.

Snowstorm Facts

Our camping season 2013 began dramatically with the blizzard that blasted Arran on March 22nd.  Some facts about it that we have learned recently are:
  • Three power towers collapsed on Kintyre severing the electricity line to Arran. Power tower collapse in this part of Scotland had only occurred three times before in sixty years. Heavy snow rapidly built up and turned to ice. Lines between each tower had about 20 tons on them.
  • Some Arran homes on the West coast had no power for six days.
  • 700 SSE workers were drafted into the area from round the country.
 (This information came from the ‘Snow bill hits £15 million’ report in the Arran Banner 3rd August 2013 following a presentation by Neil Wilson SSE Operations manager for Argyll and West Highland.)

The campsite and golf course close for winter on October 31st as usual. Rutting has no sooner ended here than tupping begins and the hill sheep will be brought down to the golf course on November 1st. Whoever thinks Lochranza is a quiet place?

I’ll leave you with a glorious view of the Arran mountains in October sunshine taken from Dun Fionn near Brodick on Thursday.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Lochranza Red Deer Rut Diary 2013

For two summers a stag has been hanging about Lochranza. Sometime he must have had the worst of a fight and had been blinded in one eye. He is the Blinky I refer to in these notes.
The red deer of Lochranza are wild but managed, and culling takes place in the autumn.
Every year the deer congregate on the golf course for the rut. The obvious reason for this is that it’s the best grass in the area. My personal theory is that they choose to be here because it’s a natural amphitheatre and the rut is all about stags showing off their strength. The stag in charge keeps the main herd centre-stage on the golf course and his roars resound around the hillsides.

17th September
32 deer have congregated on the golf course including six young stags. Some play-fighting is going on and some muted roaring at night. A mature stag with 17 points on his antlers is sitting in the sea-field of the golf course- by himself.
19th September
Blinky woke us up in the middle of the night sawing his antlers on a tree outside the caravan and breaking off branches (that’s why Lochranza gardens are fenced!)
20th September
Eight young deer are munching Mrs MacAllister’s hedge next to the golf course. Why are they doing that now when they haven’t done it all year? There’s plenty of grass to eat. Once the rut begins properly the stags won’t eat at all. The 17 pointer has taken charge of the herd- he’s showing interest in the hinds but they’re not reciprocating- they scurry out of his reach.
22nd September
The stags have re-opened their baths by the 6th green (we filled them in after last year’s rut). They scour out holes with a circular motion of their antlers and finish up looking dark, muddy and scary (to impress their rivals).
26th September
A noisy night of roaring. Jackdaws were sitting on the 17 pointer pecking insects off him- he looked happy to have the service. The quietest time of day is late morning, when the deer settle down and have a nap.
30th September
Thought the 17 pointer was dead- he was crashed out exhausted in the sunshine this afternoon. Not easy to lie flat out when you’ve got big antlers at each side of your head!
1st October
Blinky has moved in and has charge of the herd. He is defending them fiercely because there are rivals roaring all round the periphery of the golf course. If females run away he roars at them.  If young stags come too close he gives a series of loud grunts. He had fun bathing in the deep ditch we’ve just cleared and tossed mud and water everywhere.
4th October
Blinky has moved the herd to the sea-field. Roars from stags above the old quarry, the Village Hall, the Distillery, the hill fort and the Whinns.
6th October
Walked up the Narachan. Stags are everywhere- oblivious to people- just intent on watching the herd to seize their chance.
Tonight  Blinky saw a young stag off by walking in a dominant way parallel to him, forcing him right up above the old quarry where they had a quick tangle with their antlers. Blinky then charged headlong back down to the herd. P.S The eagles were out in the sunshine too- flying high above all the deer drama.
8th October
Blinky is not in charge any more. The herd have scattered a bit but there are plenty of stags moving in. Some of this year’s calves are still being fed by their mothers.
14th October
The first fairway is the central arena of the rut.
Night-times now are filled with the long resonant groans of stags’ voices- they sound as if their urge to procreate is unbearable. If they all took up monogamy life would be much easier.
The hinds come into season on the 21st so the tension is electric. When the stag in charge chases the interlopers away he really means business now. I give him a wide berth when I’m raking the bunkers.

Next instalment coming soon.

Photo by Lance Ostler

Friday, 20 September 2013

Taking the Humps  

From Tuesday 24th September the A841 between Catacol and Pirnmill will  be closed for six weeks for “improvements”.

As many of you reading this will know, the A841, which along with The String from Brodick to Blackwaterfoot makes up Arran’s road network, includes a bumpy stretch between Catacol and Pirnmill known locally as the Humps or the Switchback. Its Gaelic name is Rubha Airigh Bheirg. The area is  picturesque and geologically significant with heather-tufted volcanic sea stacks and a tiny old weathered graveyard huddling under high cliffs. The humps cause many an excited squeal from children in passing cars.

The A841 clings to the island’s edges because they are the only flattish land on a mountainous island. In fact the road is using ancient raised beaches much of the time. Arran’s steep hillsides mean that rainfall flows off the land rapidly and across the road to the sea. This makes maintaining the tarmac a challenge. Fortunately, for most people, the beauty of the scenery more than compensates for the odd pothole, and who would want to speed in such surroundings anyway?

The imminent roadworks at the Humps have provoked a great deal of controversy. The aim is to level the road so that buses with low floor mobility access ramps can use it. Apparently this is required by EU legislation (aspects of small island life can be vulnerable in the path of juggernaut one-size-fits-all legislation). Any road closure on Arran has a considerable impact on local people and visitors alike. There are no alternative routes unless you have a boat. In this case, Pirnmill Village Stores, the only shop in the north end of the island, will undoubtedly be affected by daily road closures. These come in a year when March’s freak blizzard meant a late start to the season, then shortly afterwards the shop was badly damaged by fire, before reopening in July.

Given the unique character of this section of road, many people have wondered if buses with lifts might offer a solution which would allow access for people with wheelchairs without changing the landscape. This is not to be but after listening to local concerns, North Ayrshire Council has moderated the original plans. Instead of flattening the crests the dips between are to be infilled. We hope that this compromise does not compromise the natural landscape. Many islanders fear the pressures to “mainlandise”  the island with pavements and tarmac laybys. Arran’s unspoilt natural character once damaged can never be regained.

Another concession that has just been announced is that the road will be open daily during the period of roadworks, from 3.30 pm until 9 am the following day, so Pirnmill Shop, the Lighthouse Restaurant and The Old Byre Showroom will still be accessible later in the day. The drive from Lochranza to Pirnmill is very scenic and there’s usually something to see in the Kilbrannan Sound from basking sharks to naval manoeuvres. If you’re hoping to travel to Machrie Standing Stones or the Kings Caves it will be best to make an early start or go across the String via Brodick.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Cir Mhor: The Great Crest

I saw stars for the first time since early May this week; the time of the never-truly-dark nights has passed for another year. After July’s heat, mornings are fresher and hillwalking has become appealing again.

Why do so many people climb Goat Fell and so few venture on any of Arran’s other mountains? Okay, it’s the highest peak, but not by many metres. Maybe it’s because it’s got a pronounceable name. Whatever the reason, one of the joys of Arran walking in this world of shrinking lonely places, is that, apart from the group you’re with, you can usually have an Arran hill all to yourself.

The other day  the route that Will and I took was up Glen Sannox, over Cir Mhor (799m) and Caisteal Abhail (The Castles 859m), onto Sail an Im, then down Gleann Easan Biorach to Lochranza- a route about 15km long with 1000m climbing. From the start of the walk Cir Mhor, the Great Crest, confronts you majestically from the head of the glen looking like a child’s drawing of a mountain: a perfect pyramid.

This walk starts at the bus stop at GR 016454. Whenever I am driving back from Brodick to Lochranza the view at this point into Glen Sannox is a –well, shock. The fearsome ridges on each side of the glen look like they might swallow pretty Corrie golf course whole. A well constructed and discreet path takes you almost to the top of Cir Mhor. The path exists thanks to the hard labour and expertise of Scott Murdoch of Lochranza and his team of pathmakers, commissioned by the National Trust of Scotland. It is no mean feat to make a helpful path up such steep and rocky hillsides. Some hands-on scrambling is needed to ascend a gully close to the top of the Saddle and again to reach Cir Mhor’s summit.

My favourite moment when climbing Cir Mhor comes close to the top as you turn a corner round a boulder and find yourself in a corridor of rocky granite towers with dizzy drops to the valley floor. Surrounded by great grey bulky shapes you feel as if you are moving through a herd of sleeping elephants. Q. What’s the point of climbing mountains? A. For special moments like these.

Whilst eating our sandwiches we watched fierce showers blowing in from the west and as we continued up to The Castles one blew onto us. Stopping for a quick rest we found ourselves having that common British mountain experience whereby, in thick cloud, all boulders look the same and so do all paths down. The trouble is that paths close together on mountain tops can end up in valleys that are many miles apart. It was time to dig the compass out of my rucksack. Whenever you need a compass it is sure to be cold and wet, with the wind snatching your map and rain dripping off your eyebrows. The direction of travel arrow can often seem to point you to a direction you weren’t expecting but you know you have to trust it rather than your instinct. It will be right.

As the cloud raced away and we saw Lochranza a long way down and a long way off we knew we were on the right path for Sail an Im. From here we headed down boulder strewn slopes into boggy Gleann Easan with its many waterfalls. The photo shows Will having found a particularly wet bit. Golden spires of bog asphodel, fluffy tufts of bog cotton and clumps of purple heather made it all a delightful bog.
Being at the end of a hard day’s hillwalking is one of my best feelings in the world. It’s the inner and outer glow factor. If you decide to do this walk, don’t forget that if you get back down to Lochranza by 5pm, the additional warming pleasures of the Arran Distillery await you.

 Caisteal Abhail also features in my June 2012 blog: Castles in the Air

Friday, 2 August 2013

Four Years Later

August 2nd
It is four years today since Nigel and I arrived at Lochranza Campsite about to embark on a summer of camping and sea kayaking following Nigel’s redundancy. Ten days later we travelled on, having bought the business – well almost. (The land is owned by The Estate by the way.) Before Lochranza, we had an action plan for our next moves in life, but when you find a random opportunity popping up in front of you, by a certain age you decide it’s best to grab it with both hands and deal with the inevitable snags later.

Our summer of sea kayaking and camping round Scotland was wet and windy to say the least, but strangely it made running a campsite seem even more appealing. We got so used to living a very basic lifestyle in difficult conditions that going back to normality looked like walking into prison.

Ironically, running a campsite is actually pretty confining for significant stretches of the year, and when visitors comment on our idyllic lifestyle we think it’s not quite the right word. Remember that it does involve embracing toilet bowls on a daily basis, and toilets and paradise do not normally get mentioned in the same sentences. From the beginning, Nigel’s regret was “we don’t get a weekend”- in fact, no down time at all once the campsite’s open for the season (and then maintenance goes on in winter). Undoubtedly however, life has simplicity- you look after people; you look after land, and your day is dictated by the needs of both. And we have a very beautiful office. If running a campsite is something you’d like to try, the most important skill you can offer is being able to fix things – at any minute of any day something will need fixing. Fortunately fixing is Nigel’s heaven.

Looking back, we were in a state of shock most of our first year- it was less of a steep learning curve and more of a vertical precipice.  We had no financial safety nets and we worked very hard, doing a lot of heavy manual labour that we were not used to at all. Also, coming to live in a place like Lochranza is about so much more than taking on a business- it’s about joining in with community and island life too. Four years on, summer 2013 has beamed brightly on this part of Scotland after Easter blizzards. We are pleased with the changes we have made here, especially our investments last winter in new toilets and showers, as well as two camping pods. With Scott the greenkeeper in charge of the golf course (where previously we did all the golf course labours ourselves) we do not topple into bed in an exhausted state every night.

Things are never dull on a touring campsite – far too many interesting people, doing interesting things and pursuing interesting journeys pass through for it to be otherwise. And paradise does really come into it because the island on a daily basis never fails to move me in terms of its unspoilt beauty. With wild red deer grazing, red squirrels trotting by, and eagles gliding silently high up, I feel a bit like Disney’s Snow-White wandering merrily through the woods with wild creatures gambolling about her.

We are here because a) we went travelling b) we got talking c) we took the plunge. We both believe life is full of opportunities floating around like bubbles. You have to catch them when you coincide with them or else they drift away.

Nature put on a glorious show here on Monday night; the photos show the rainbow that arched over Torr Nead an Eoin and the fiery sunset over the loch.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Liquid Gold

This morning Nigel and I paddled our sea kayaks across to Claonaig on Kintyre and back before breakfast at the Sandwich Station. It was like being out in the beginning of Time- misty grey and a flat calm sea teeming with jellyfish and leaping porpoises.

About a month ago there was a sequence of very low tides caused by a super moon. As parts of the seabed were revealed that I’d never seen before it looked like someone had pulled the plug out. There’s always something unusual going on in the natural world of Arran. Last week we had another before-breakfast paddle from Sannox to Lochranza with Pete Hart of the East Yorkshire Canoe Club. In the clear sea it was possible to see sea bed activity without being a scuba diver: it was a whole universe of sea urchins and anemones, starfish and crabs down there.

Right now we’re having a scorching summer after an Arctic Easter. I’ve never been as hot on Arran as in this month! Outside the window whilst I write this campers are worshipping the sun. (The deer are lying low in the bog areas of the golf course.) Our north-west facing campsite is a hot bowl of sunshine and never-ending daylight when there is good weather in summer. Other folk are heading for the water whether it’s the rocky beach by the pier, the pools of Glen Catacol or Coire Fhion Lochain.

Every year the winners and losers in nature change. It was a late spring that turned out to be wonderful for wildflowers. Meanwhile I haven’t seen a buzzard on the golf course since before the blizzard and it always seemed that it was their domain until then. The wet weather of early May brought springs spurting out in places on the golf course where none used to be. In past times- which didn’t take a water supply for granted- these springs would have been regarded as a blessing, so we mulled over decorating them instead of complaining about them. Now, the thirsty ground must be greedily gulping them down.  

Whatever the weather, Arran’s atmosphere is vibrant in summer with special events, and if you missed the Bronze Age Festival at Brodick Castle last weekend you missed a treat. A team of archaeologists from Northlight Heritage and Glasgow University conducted experiments based on their excavations to try to find out how things were done 4,000 years ago. The weekend culminated in the burning of a timber circle in a field high above the castle. As the flames took hold, we all drew closer to the safety rope enjoying the warmth and the spectacle. Earlier, Neil Burridge of www.bronze-age-craft.com had demonstrated the processes involved in creating a Bronze Age sword. The case that had had molten bronze poured in was opened, amidst rapt suspense, to reveal a slender, gleaming blade.  Neil told us how such swords are often excavated from rivers and lakes most probably having been thrown in as a gift to the gods. 4,000 years ago our ancestors longed for sun and water.

What’s changed?

Friday, 28 June 2013

Heading West

At the campsite we watch the setting summer sun drop down behind the purple moors of Kintyre, and in Lochranza, the coast of this mainland peninsula is closer to us than any villages of Arran apart from Catacol. Back in the days of seafaring peoples, in the fifth and sixth centuries Arran, Kintyre, Knapdale and Bute were all ruled as part of the sea kingdom of Dalriada which encompassed Argyll and Northern Ireland. In this way, the summer ferry between Lochranza and Claonaig continues a longstanding relationship, and this year Calmac are offering a Kintyre link between Brodick and Campbeltown too, making round tours of Arran and Kintyre an appealing possibility whatever your mode of getting about.

The closest point between Arran and Kintyre is the three mile stretch of the Kilbrannan Sound between Imachar on Arran’s west coast and the picturesque fishing village of Carradale half way down the east coast of Kintyre. When Nigel and I paddled this route in our kayaks earlier this month, we were delighted to see a large sign pointing to a hilltop tearoom as we hauled our boats up onto the beach. We hadn’t expected to be able to sit munching homemade cakes in a sheltered garden with a croquet lawn whilst enjoying views of bulky Beinn Bharrain and the Arran hills. The tearoom, by the way, was The Green Tearoom and Observatory (www.greenroomteas.co.uk).

Our second day out this month found us and Nigel’s motorbike on the Lochranza-Claonaig ferry with a view to touring some of the long, remote peninsulas in this part of Scotland. The fourteen miles of rough single track road between Claonaig and Carradale couldn’t have been a prettier start to the journey with cascades of colourful wildflowers tumbling down the banksides.

We know that many of you who stay with us travel on to Carradale Caravan and Camping Site. It has a delightful approach alongside a river which glides under leafy, mature trees. The site itself is tucked behind sand dunes and next to a south-facing beach, with views of our Arran mountains again. It turns out that Carradale hasn’t got just one café that offers fabulous home baking but two, and we enjoyed lunch at Nellie’s café at the west end of the village where you can also find bikes and buggies available for hire so that all generations of a family can get from one end of the village to the other with ease (www.carradalebikesandbuggies.co.uk).  

Though towns like Tarbert have all the fun, bustle and business of small ports, some parts of Kintyre seem almost more serenely remote than some islands. And Kintyre might be mainland but it’s only just hanging on by a thread of rocks between East and West Loch Tarberts. Yet great names of history have stood in this place before you including Somerled Lord of the Isles, St.Columba and Robert the Bruce. (Oh, and Paul and Linda McCartney.) A profuse scattering of standing stones, hill forts and Neolithic burial cairns across the landscape add to a sense that important events of long ago times are only a little beyond reach.

If you’re planning to explore Kintyre you can read more about it in some of my earlier blogs:

What do Campsite Wardens do on Holiday? Oct 2012
Isle of Gigha  April 2012
Meeting the Neighbours  June 2011
A Perfect Day Out  June 2010

Of course Kintyre also offers an alternative, relaxed and scenic route to reach the Isle of Arran.

Monday, 3 June 2013

One Day Clad in Mist……
It’s been a busy bank holiday week for me here so instead of writing a blog I thought you might enjoy a couple of extracts from old literature about Arran.

The first extract is from The Isle of Arran in the Beautiful Britain series. It was written in 1912 by Rev. Charles A Hall and it’s available at The Book and Card Shop (on the seafront in Brodick) as well as at the Isle of Arran Heritage Museum:-

Rev. Hall comments how “One who knows the island intimately and is under its spell can readily sympathize with that Arran devotee who, nearing the end of his earthly career, prayed, “Let me die with my face towards Arran”.”

He also describes the island’s changing moods: “Arran is a sea-girt land, clad in greys, purple, russet, and green, with its rugged granite peaks, its noble glens, its cadent burns and comfortable-looking whitewashed cottages……. One day clad in mist; another bathed in sunshine; now gloomy and threatening; to-day warm and grateful; to-morrow gale-swept, with the erstwhile trickling burns so swollen by torrential rains that they rush thunderingly, carrying boulders and debris in hurrying, scurrying haste to the sea.”

Some of the vocabulary in “The Isle of Arran” has become dated, but the picture of Arran painted in words remains very recognisably the Arran of today whilst much of the human planet has changed beyond recognition since then. The sinking of the Titanic, the First World War and votes for women (in Britain) all lay in the near future in 1912.

Malcolm Higgs stayed here last summer, and now lives on Bute. He shared his interest in ancient history by passing on to me an extract from the Lyra Celtica, an 1896 collection of translations from early Gaelic poets. The introduction to the Lyra Celtica describes Arran as Arran, no longer Arran of the many stags, but still one of the loveliest of the Scottish isles, and touched on every headland and hill with sunset glamour of the past.” As you know, stags feature strongly in daily Lochranza life so it is interesting to learn that this was not the case 117 years ago.

The following extract is from a translation of the Lay of Arran by Caeilte, an Ossianic bard:

Arran of the many stags- the sea impinges on her very shoulders….. Skittish deer are on her pinnacles, and blackberries upon her waving heather; cool water there is upon her rivers, and mast upon her russet oaks…..

Smooth were her level spots- her wild swine they were fat; cheerful her fields, her nuts hung on her forest hazel’s boughs, and there was sailing of long galleys past her…… at every fitting time delectable is Arran!”

I have left out the blood thirsty bits about hunting but viewing landscape from a perspective of food supply is a surprising one today.

Finally, it strikes me in reading these old texts that the superlatives of 21st century tourist literature are nothing new: Arran was making writers strive to do justice to its beauty in the long distant past too.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Big Five

2013: Lochranza Wildlife and The Year of Natural Scotland

VisitScotland and Scottish Natural Heritage have recently launched the Big 5 campaign as part of the Year of Natural Scotland. The idea is to encourage discussion of Scottish wildlife and they would like to hear your views at www.scotlandsbig5.co.uk

The five species selected to spark off the debate are: the harbour or common seal, the otter, the golden eagle, the red deer and the red squirrel which happen to be creatures we see almost daily in Lochranza.

The common seal is actually much less common in Scotland than the grey seal. They can be seen basking at mid-tide on the rocks off Newton shore.
Otters can be seen almost anywhere round the Arran coastline but predicting just where or when is no easy matter. I was canoeing last week and saw one scampering along the loch shore beside the road. Drivers, please be aware!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you will know how much red deer feature in Lochranza life. During this chilly spring most of them have stayed high up on the hillsides as the grass down here is only just beginning to grow. I really thought the old stag with a damaged eye must have gone to meet his maker after the rut, but he’s back, soaking up the sun in quiet corners of the golf course.

In Lochranza the golden eagles are probably watching you far more than you know. Hares are their main food on the island.  The eagle look-alikes, the buzzards, hunt the lower slopes of the hills around the campsite, often calling as they fly. They’re actually only half the size of a golden eagle. If you want to know more, Jim Cassels keeps meticulous records of birdlife on Arran- see: www.arranbirding.co.uk.

There are no grey squirrels on Arran and the reds range from fiery orange to almost black. Look out for them in the trees along the burn or crossing the road to village gardens early in the morning- another good reason to drive slowly. They tend to stay under cover when it’s raining.

Missing from the current Big Five list is the basking shark- they cruise between Lochranza and Pirnmill, and are a sight that fills everyone’s hearts with joy, every September. It is not unusual to see them from the Calmac ferry. We also have badgers, adders, bats and toads in Lochranza, but, like the rest of Arran, no foxes, weasels or moles, and no magpies, rooks or tawny owls.

Sometimes it can be very rewarding to explore the natural history that doesn’t run, swim or fly away. The island has a positive treasure trove of mosses and lichens in the native woodlands, not to mention the unigue Arran whitebeam trees of Glen Catacol. However, it is the rocks of which Arran is composed which are one of the island’s most famous features. Whoever thought up the phrase “solid as a rock” should visit the Isle of Arran Heritage Museum where you can find out just how dynamic and well-travelled Arran rocks are!
Where can I see:  A guide on where to find some of Arran’s best wildlife is produced by the Arran Natural History Society and costs £4 available from many island shops.

(The otter photo was taken by Mr Berry and the deer photo by Lance Ostler.)

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

I wrote this blog for the Arran Mountain Festival website: www.arranmountainfestival.co.uk   The booking lines have been busy lately but some places remain on this year's walks May 17th-20th.

The Arran Hills: Many Shades of Grey

Certain to get your heart racing and your knees trembling, Arran’s exciting mountains take your breath away. Whilst Munro-Baggers may whizz up the M74 without turning left, missing out the Arran hills because of their lack of a few metres is a bit like getting married without the wedding night.

So what makes the Arran hills so seductive?

1. A magnificent profile: from all approaches, the distinctive mountain skyline of Arran commands your gaze, with its soaring peaks and pinnacles. The towering east ridge of Caisteal Abhail is known as the Sleeping Warrior- see the photo. (He’s wearing a helmet and he has a firm chin!)
2. In a vigorous embrace: Arran is only ten miles wide so wherever you are, you’re never far from the encircling presence of the waves. From the summits, you can get 360 degree sea views- to Northern Ireland, the Kintyre peninsula, the Paps of Jura, Mull, the Arrochar Alps, Cowal, Bute, Ayrshire and Galloway.
3. No boring introductions:  you won’t find long walk-ins on Arran. Unless you keep going in circles round the coast, the only way is up, but taking things one step at a time you’ll be amazed at the height you can achieve in a relatively short time. The apparently vertical climb up Cioch na h-Oighe is a good example of this- it’s still a walker’s route though a head for heights and sure-footedness will help.
4. Fill up your senses: waterfalls stream over Arran’s shoulders, sliding down chutes and plunging into deep, ferny chasms. The background music of water accompanies every Arran walk. Glen Catacol especially is a great place for waterfall hunters.
5. Hands-on experiences:  once you’re on the ridges you won’t be able to resist some exciting hands-on scrambling on the satisfyingly rough-textured  tors of pale grey granite.
6 An untamed character: whilst the Gulf Stream caresses Arran with warm currents making palm trees flourish round its coastline, the mountain tops are survivors of fierce battles with Atlantic weather. Apart from Goat Fell, the hills of Arran are uncrowded and perfect for walks on the wild side.
7. A fascinating past:  walks on Arran reveal hints of the ancestors in ancient cairns, stone circles and the remains of prehistoric hill forts. The echoes of Viking rule are in the names of the coastal settlements.
8. Beautiful creatures: Arran’s most famous wild creatures just happen to be very good looking ones too: there are the pure-blooded, elegant red deer for example, as well as majestic golden eagles, tufty-eared red squirrels and lithe, playful otters to select but a few.
9. Fulfilling: Arran walks are adventurous and the end of adventure satisfaction factor as you enjoy your meal in one of Arran’s independent restaurants is off the scale overwhelmingly good.
10. Enduring and elemental: Arran enjoys worldwide celebrity status in geology circles for its amazing rocks. The island represents a coming together on a titanic scale of highland and lowland. The mountains themselves burst into being as an exploding volcano.  Today, the hills are a rocky heaven with pebbles, boulders, outcrops and crags in every imaginable and lovely shade of grey.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Arran’s Week of Fame

At 1 am in the morning of Friday 22nd March Nigel and I were driving back up the west coast of Arran, from Shiskine to Lochranza, after a First Responder callout. The wind was tossing wheelie bins about but that was nothing unusual and it was dry. Once home, we quickly fell asleep and when we woke up five hours later all the damage was already done: the two pylons on the Kintyre mainland peninsula which supply Arran had been mangled by wind and ice, all Arran’s power was off and all life outside the window was obscured by a fierce unseasonal blizzard.

Of course, without electricity or phones, and unable to go outside for 36 hours because of the blizzard, no one had any idea what was happening to anyone else. Now we know that the scale of the damage to the power supply was unprecedented according to Scottish Hydro, who had 60 miles of poles to replace and connections to restore in truly extreme conditions. It would take the next eight days for them to get Arran back on a mains electricity supply.

As I understand it, this must have been one of those unforeseeable destructive natural events. A freak conjunction of temperature, moisture in the air and strong wind must have been conducive to a massive and rapid build up of ice. The first thing Nigel and I noticed when we headed out on the Saturday was that power and telephone cables, all thickly encased in ice, were broken and draped everywhere. Our wire fencing was also sagging under the weight of ice, with each strand of wire having an ice casing 5 or 6 inches in diameter. We kicked the ice hard to remove it before it pulled the fences down altogether.

It struck me that 100 years ago the blizzard would not have had the same impact. The Arran people of the time would have sat it out, stoked up the fire and relied on their food stores in the same way as now, but phones, TV, central heating, the Internet, and cars, for most people, still belonged to the future. 100 years ago there was far more coming and going of boats in Lochranza than now. However, the survival of their stock would have been a matter of grave concern to the people of that time, and this year’s blizzard could not have come at a crueller time for sheep farmers with lambing so imminent. Last week was tough for all-electricity households, and even more so for those at Pirnmill without water due to their supply being pumped by electricity. It’s clearly good planning to never be without a means to create heat or have some water and food in reserve.  I would say that a bottle of Arran whisky definitely needs to be in the emergency box too.

As so often happens in crises, there were many examples of quiet heroism, by which I mean when someone automatically assumes responsibility for someone else in difficulties, and they do everything they can to help. The praises of Scottish and Southern Energy and Scottish Hydro EPD have been widely sung for their unstinting efforts and I can only add to that. I was in the Lochranza Hotel when it was the village hub of food and warmth having been provided with a generator, and I could overhear the conversations of the power workers, snatching a bite to eat in a long day. All the conversation was about how fiercely determined to not rest till electricity was restored they were. I was very impressed that, in such a big organisation, every member of staff was so committed and caring.

A week ago Lochranza was a flurry of activity with hundreds of power workers, helicopters, lifeboats, mobile catering, the police, the Arran  Mountain Rescue Team and many individual helpers. We understand that every generator north of Watford was brought to Arran. Each day saw progress. As time passed, the television reports started to sound embarrassingly tragic for a resilient community as life got back to normal. Footage of Brodick with little snow kept being shown whilst a few miles west, cottages at Machrie had been buried under snow drifts. All this winter Arran villages have seen no snow or wintry conditions when most other parts of Britain have, and that’s normal. How strange to make the headlines because of too much of them!


Friday, 15 March 2013

The Boguille


The Boguille: even nowadays, on long dark winter nights of swirling fogs, the locals won’t cross it alone. At such times it is still the mountainous barrier it used to be…. separating Lochranza from the rest of the island.

If you travel to Lochranza from Brodick (rather than on the Lochranza ferry from Claonaig on Kintyre) you will have to travel over the Boguille to get here, unless you go the long way round via the String Road and the west coast.

The Boguille is marked on the OS map at G.R. 974483 as a high point of the road at 204 metres. Given that most Celtic place names describe natural features with precision, I have always assumed that boguille means a watershed. Another interpretation is that a boglie in local folklore refers to an elf or fairy (and not necessarily a kind one!). There is a layby close by the high point, on the west side of the road, which gives superb views of the Sleeping Warrior ridge.

The wide and windy expanse of high moorland now crossed by the Boguille Road, was a barrier until 1843 when the road connecting Lochranza to Sannox was built and it meant that most visitors to Lochranza came by sea. Travelling from Brodick, your climb begins at the bridge next to Corrie Golf Course where the island’s perimeter road turns inland from the coast and you have the sharp-fanged jaws of Glen Sannox to your left. At night at this point you leave behind the distant orange glow of the towns of the Ayrshire coast and travel into dark sky country. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the moon rising above the Ayrshire hills making a gleaming path across the Firth of Clyde. Stags will leap out of the glare of your headlights.

As you climb out of Sannox you will see the ruins of old clachans which fell into disrepair after the Clearances. Buzzards, golden eagles, and hen harriers hunt these remote hillsides. It is 1.6 miles from the bridge crossing the rushing burn at North Glen Sannox up to the top of the Boguille. It is then 2.6 miles down Glen Chalmadale, and downhill all the way to the Distillery at Lochranza. If you’re a cyclist do take care: the bends at the Witch’s Bridge and just past Ballarie Farm have seen many incidents. An off-road alternative for walkers and cyclists is to look for the old way into Lochranza on the opposite side of the burn. At least it’s a grassy landing on that side!

Whilst the locals treat the Boguille with wary respect, the local hill sheep enjoy sleeping on it at night. Don’t expect them to move out of your way, just be cunning and whistle- they will think that they have heard the farmer come to feed them and they will charge in a herd down the road to find him.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Something old, something new

I thought you might like to see this photo of our new toilets cabin arriving on the campsite (made by Wintech Ltd and very nice indeed). I wonder what the eagles made of it all. In this wild and natural part of the world, life often throws up such strange juxtapositions of old and new. Recently, I visited Dumbarton Castle which is situated on a fortress rock in the Clyde. Nowadays its parapets overlook Dumbarton’s football pitch- and prove useful to those who’ve left it too late to buy a ticket.

In the three years I have lived in Lochranza my perception of time has undergone a paradigm shift. This may be because of all the exciting geology in the area which confronts you in measures of millions of years, such as the footprint trail of the giant millipede across the rocks at Laggan from 250 million years ago. The past is here in the present.

Of course we are all living in exciting times of scientific discovery about the entire universe, and when Brian Cox presents new theories they come in trillions of years. No wonder that when the 500 year old skeleton of England’s Richard the Third was found, it seemed as if his final battle was a recent event and we almost knew him! Another exciting debate of our time is that regarding Scottish Independence. Applying geological time to this matter tells us that it’s a mere 700 years or so since the Scottish/ English border was defined (roughly the age of Lochranza Castle) and only a few thousand since the island of Britain did not exist but was joined to mainland Europe. The 300 years since the United Kingdom was formed is less than ten generations away.

As fast as new discoveries are made, old theories are demolished. For example, experts now say that Britain was actually never covered in woods which were quickly cleared by humans. In fact, careful human management of the forested areas by such practices as coppicing helped them to survive. Most of the landscapes we celebrate for their apparent wildness look as they do due to the activities of humans and their grazing by farm animals. Around Lochranza, black cattle used to tread the hillsides keeping intrusive vegetation at bay, crofters dug a network of lades to drain the boggy ground, and also built dry stane dykes. It all helped to create varieties of habitat which in turn attracted more varieties of wildlife, and shaped our favourite landscapes.

It’s good to keep moving so here’s to new theories – and the next time that you feel the earth under your feet shift a little just remember that it’s quite possible in Lochranza.

Here’s the enduring face of the Sleeping Warrior, sentinel of the north end of Arran, weathering the frost and ice…… at least for the time being.