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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.