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Thursday, 8 October 2015

In the Heavens and on the Ground

Last night (October 7th) we witnessed the strange shape-shifting spectacle of the northern lights from the campsite. Out of the brilliant green glow in the northern sky tall pillars of green light appeared and disappeared. Four shooting stars sped overhead whilst we watched. All the time, the weird and wonderful roars of the deer orchestra resonated in the still night air. 
It’s that time of year again when Lochranza is anything but peaceful thanks to the red deer rut. This is the seventh year I’ve had the privilege of witnessing its rituals on my doorstep, although it does leave me sleep-deprived.  The top stag of the past three years – known to us as Brutus- is holding on to his position as I write this, but there are plenty of younger stags peering in over the golf course fences and moving in ever closer.

(See my blog of October 2013 for more about the red deer)

Last Thursday (along with the rest of Britain I believe) we experienced temperature inversions causing strangely dense patches of fog. The Brodick ferry was unable to manouevre into Ardrossan Harbour and the Lochranza ferry had a crew member hanging over each side of the boat and peering through the mist to see Lochranza Pier.  However, you only had to be above rooftop height to find yourself in golden sunshine looking across the fog to Kintyre.
Another strange weather phenomenon from earlier in the summer was a startling explosion of thunder as the Arran Distillery roof got struck by lightning. It came without warning. Phones and the Internet were down for a while and it certainly upset the dogs that were staying here at the time.

On a more routine note, a main Autumn task for us each year is to get the ditches cleared out before the weather turns cold (it’s a wet job!) The ditches criss-cross the golf course draining into the burn which empties into the loch. As soon as we close on October 25th we’re going to be busy demolishing the existing reception building, which is past its best in terms of leaks and draughts, and installing its replacement. The new building will have an office, a laundry, a campers’ room and disabled facilities just as before.

As always, we remember the season for the people we meet – it’s the great pleasure of being campsite wardens. 

Wishing you a warm, happy and healthy winter

From the Lochranza Campsite team: Alan and Carol, Kev, Kema, myself and Nigel.

Monday, 7 September 2015

So Long Wet Summer

RET (reduced ferry tariff) has meant that we have had a busy summer despite a distinct lack of summery weather until recently. It’s only in the last couple of weeks that I’ve been able to enjoy an outdoor swim or two in Gleann Easan Biorach. A consequence of RET is that it really is important to book your ferry ticket in good time and also to book your camping- we have not been able to guarantee space for anyone who has just turned up this summer. The Arran Farmers’ Show, held at Lamlash on the first Wednesday in August every year, was still a great traditional day out despite rain clouds which kept turning up the volume. There were plenty of kids there running around encased in mud from head to wellies, all looking a lot like Morph, the clay TV animation character. 

Thank you as always to Chris Traill and the Lochranza Geology Field Centre for organising the weekly summer ceilidhs in the village hall. From later on this year the Field Centre is to be managed as a community initiative- an exciting development for the village. If you haven’t been to one before, a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) is a traditional Scottish get-together comprising music and dancing. Ceilidhs are welcoming, fun and essential to an understanding of Scottish culture where people in close-knit communities in remote places have always had to be adept at making their own entertainment. Both the music and the dancing can get very fast indeed. At the Lochranza ceilidhs music is provided by the talented Arranach Ceilidh Band. Alistair Paul, a member of the band, has recently compiled a book of music from Arran Gaelic culture: Arainn Nam Beann. “Arran, like other parts of Scotland, and particularly Gaelic Scotland, was a musical place where music was woven into the tapestry of people’s lives”, he explains. You can buy a copy for yourself in various Arran shops. Last year, I took up playing the concertina as something easy to pick up when I had spare minutes to while away and I’m looking forward to learning these Arran tunes.

Northerly winds kept midges away for much of the summer. This was not good news for the swallows which nest in our sheds. They produced two broods this year, compared to three last year. So, if you’ve suffered a few bites lately, console yourself with the thought that you’re contributing to biodiversity and saving swallows! When the weather finally warmed up in August we experienced midges that were very hungry indeed! When Nigel and I went camping our midge defences involved keeping the inner tent firmly zipped, going to the pub for the evening, and when we returned to the tent to get in it and have it zipped up again in less than two seconds.

For an amazing wildlife picture from this summer, have a look at the Arran Natural History Society page on facebook. My friend Sue Archer has posted a terrific photo she took of a basking shark breaching in Brodick Bay on August 31st. The ANHS is now on Twitter (Arran Nature). Another friend, Hilary, who runs a B and B in Lamlash told me how she sent some of her guests to see the wild red deer of Lochranza and they returned saying they’d only seen the pet ones behind the fence.! As you know if you’ve stayed here before, the wild deer are free spirits who jump over the golf course fences as they please in order to enjoy the juicy green golf course grass. I take it as a compliment that the wildlife round here (red deer, squirrels, rabbits) doesn’t regard us as a threat and seems happy to share the space with us all.

You don’t tend to find the hooded crow on wildlife-spotting wishlists but we have plenty of them round here and I have come to recognise their intelligence. One day whilst I was washing up I spotted a hoodie eyeing up a large crust under the window. I watched the crow and it watched me. It was determined to get that crust but I was a bit too close for comfort.  It decided to go a circuitous route round Nigel’s boat which would bring it within snatching distance of the crust. I had to laugh because it wasn’t clever enough to realise that I could see its legs under the boat all the time. Still, it got its reward.

Time to enjoy the sunshine- better late than never.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Canoeing Northern Ireland
Although this isn’t a blog about Arran, it is about a place that is not far away as the seagull flies: Northern Ireland. Ties of culture, tradition and language between Northern Ireland and south-west Scotland go back to the days when all the lands around the North Channel made up the Kingdom of the Dal Riata. Ferries nowadays sail regularly between Cairnryan and Belfast, and also between Troon (just a short drive from Ardrossan)and Larne in summer. 

Last week Nigel and I were lucky enough to get time out to travel to Northern Ireland, thanks to Carol and Alan Haddington looking after the campsite for a few days. Specifically, we wanted to reconnoitre canoe trails which had come to our knowledge through Joe Byrne who stayed at the campsite back in 2012, having sailed over in his large RiB boat from Cushendall on the lovely Antrim coast. We were looking forward to the pleasure of back-to-basics camping again, as well as doing a couple of canoe journeys. Arran gives us plenty of opportunities to sea kayak but not so many to open canoe (canoes are most suited to river and lake travel).

A short journey from Belfast brought us to Kinnego Marina on the southern shores of Lough Neagh (pronounced Nay) which is not only the biggest lough in Northern Ireland but the biggest by area in the British Isles. A 90 mile canoe trail circumnavigates the Lough, with the River Blackwater Trail entering from the south-west and the River Bann Trail exiting in the north. Accounts differ as to whether the legendary Irish hero Finn McCool scooped out the hole now occupied by Lough Neagh in order to throw the earth at Scotland or England but he certainly created an inland freshwater expanse so large that, from Kinnego, you cannot see the edges to the east and west, just the broad mauve silhouettes of the Sperrin mountains to the north. Here, we had a rendez-vous planned: a paddle and a picnic with Joe, his daughters Hannah and Joanna, and Paul the site manager, our guide, who in 26 years at the site has gained an intimate knowledge of the nature and history of the area. Swallows swooped around us in the golden evening sunshine as we nibbled strawberries, and the sound of busy distant tractors haymaking filled the air.
Next day we canoed the lower tree-lined parts of the wide River Bann towards Coleraine and the coast- something humans have done for many thousands of years. The pretty rolling countryside was so vividly green it looked like a lovely painting on which the paint hadn’t yet dried.  A kingfisher darted past us in a flash of electric blue.  Further downstream we had another close encounter with a bird: a mute swan imitating a warship. He puffed up his chest and wings like billowing sails as he slid towards us broadsides. He didn’t look ready to parley so we accelerated our paddling thanks to fear-driven adrenaline. Just when we thought we’d left him  we heard the powerful beat of wings behind Nigel’s shoulders: we were being pursued. It must have looked like a scene from Lord of the Rings 4. 

We sought sanctuary at the next lock where a notice warns not to intimidate swans! We considered our options for getting back to the campsite at Drumaheglis Marina, as we definitely didn’t want a repeat performance, when Nigel got talking to a friendly passer-by called Mervyn, who, on hearing of our predicament, offered us a lift. It turned out to be just one of many small acts of spontaneous kindness from strangers that we experienced during our short stay. On our return to Lochranza when we asked Alan and Carol what they had most enjoyed about the week, they unhesitatingly replied “the people”. It seems that, on both sides of the North Channel, however lovely a place may be, the greatest pleasure in any place is the people in it.

If I’ve whetted your appetite to find out more about Northern Ireland’s canoe trails you can find comprehensive user-friendly information about routes, local facilities, campsites, and access and egress points at: www.canoeni.com/canoe-trails/  

Friday, 29 May 2015

Our Day Off: Enjoying RET

There’s something special about crossing water be it by boat or bridge: for me it’s  the anticipation of reaching new land. Watery boundaries emphasise the differences between places.

 In summer, a little Calmac ferry criss-crosses the Kilbrannan Sound all day long between Lochranza and Claonaig on Kintyre. Thanks to the reductions in the Arran ferry fares this year, a day trip with a car on this ferry is about £30- less than half what the fare was last year. You can’t book for this ferry- you just turn up and queue for the next one. It is possibly the loveliest place for a queue in the world! Right next to the car park you can get fresh coffee and sandwiches at the Sandwich Station whilst you wait. Of course, there’s no end of things to see and do on Arran but it’s also nice to visit the places you see across the sea from Arran’s shores, and whichever way you look back at Arran (so long as it’s not foggy!) the view has you reaching for your camera.

Much mutual marauding across the water went on between the people of Kintyre and Arran in the past. I enjoy the folk tale of the boy from Bailemargaidh near Blackwaterfoot who was sent to watch for raiders from Kintyre who would sail over to pillage, burn and capture pretty girls. The story goes that the lad fell asleep and the raiders were able to sneak ashore. He watched in dismay as a pitched battle ensued. Fortunately, the Arran women were very strong fighters. Unfortunately, one lass called Laidir Mhari ,or strong Mary, got knocked unconscious and was carried off by a Campbeltown raider. Before they got to the shore she had woken up and almost throttled her captor. She tossed him over her shoulder and carried him back to Bailemargaidh as her prisoner. Soon after they married and then they lived happily ever after! That’s what I call taking destiny into your own hands! (You can find this tale and others like it in the Arran High School Project book which is available from the Isle of Arran Heritage Museum.)

There is probably less crossing of the Kilbrannan Sound by boats now than at any time in its history but Nigel and I always look forward to time out on Kintyre. On our day off last week, with no agenda other than to explore and see what we would find, we headed south down the narrow road on the east side of the peninsula- a route that isn’t recommended for large vehicles by the way. Recently installed raw-looking pylon lines stride beside the road to transmit green energy from Kintyre wind farms via a subsea cable. Despite them, it’s still a pretty route with views of Arran and wildflowers spilling out of the lush verges. Our first stop was the village of Carradale where we bought home baking in the village shop and watched eider ducks in Carradale’s little harbour. A footpath goes past the attractive cliff-top golf course and the bay of Port Righ to the Carradale Caravan and Camping Site with its sandy beach. At the west end of the village there is a community-owned bike network cafe where you can hire bikes to explore the area or have yours repaired.

A few miles further on, we stopped again at Saddell Abbey where the ruined chapel contains medieval carved grave slabs. From the car park you can wander down a leafy lane to Saddell Castle on the seashore where Paul McCartney and Wings were filmed performing “Mull of Kintyre”. Our final stop of the day out was at Campbeltown, home of the erstwhile Blackwaterfoot raiders and somewhere I have only driven through before in order to head further south. Here you can buy property for £25,000 in a town that has a lovely setting overlooking a circular bay with Davaar Island (not unlike Arran’s Holy Island) in the background.  We were glad we stopped to explore the town this time and enjoyed wandering along the harbour-side and round the interesting mix of old and new shops.

Kintyre is a long, long peninsula, like an arm reaching out to almost touch Northern Ireland, so from Campbeltown it was time to head back north to catch the teatime ferry. It had been a grand day out.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Archaeological Arran

High on the hillside above the campsite, in a place where few people walk these days, a horseshoe of ancient cup marks can be found gouged out of a boulder. Why should such a remote site have warranted this attention? The situation certainly offers spell-binding views over Lochranza right out to the Paps of Jura but the answer is more likely to lie with the nearby water source of the Allt a’ Creamh which tumbles down to Newton Shore. The Ancient Britons worshipped wells and springs.
All over Arran, as in most of the Highlands and Islands, you walk amongst the ruined monuments of prehistory- they are not hidden deep in soil. I am always amused, as I drive into Brodick on bin collection days, to see a blue plastic wheelie bin next to the standing stone near the primary school, looking like it’s staking its own claim to importance. Over time, Arran’s ancient stones and cairns, worn by weather and patterned with coloured lichen, have almost reverted to nature . Only their structures and strange carved symbols, remind us that they represent human prehistory.
You can easily fill a holiday exploring Arran’s Neolithic and Bronze Age sites which date back to 3,500 BC. The profusion of archaeological sites on the island has led some experts, such as Thorbjorn Campbell, author of ‘Arran: A History’, to suggest that Arran must have been a sacred island. But most theories regarding prehistory can never be verified. We do know that early settlement and farming began at this time and hierarchical communities developed which set store by material wealth. We can safely assume that powerful leaders could command the labour necessary to build monuments that would endure through millennnia.  Then four thousand years ago change came with the new technology of casting bronze from tin and copper, driven by a prehistoric arms race to possess the most effective weaponry. In West Scotland, copper was extracted in mid-Argyll and alloyed with tin imported from Cornwall to make bronze. As the trade routes followed the western seaboard it is likely that Arran was an island of strategic importance. It was a golden age of prosperity; its monuments, including the burial cairns of important individuals and families, and the stone circles where communities came together, would survive into our time. But simultaneously farming, tree felling and climate were exhausting the soil and eventually the island would be left infertile. Technological progress and ecological challenges – now what does that remind you of?
A good place to set about discovering Neolithic and Bronze Age Arran for yourself is in the Archaeology Room at the Arran Heritage Museum, Brodick,  where you can see an early Bronze Age grave and pottery vessel, a carved stone ball, a fish vertebrae necklace and many more finds from excavations. Whilst in Brodick you can also pay a visit to the Roundhouse at Brodick Castle where you can do things the way the people of the Bronze Age did, such as making jewellery and pottery. After that, have a look at Historic Scotland’s website to find information about some of these Neolithic and Bronze Age sites on Arran:
·         Auchagallon Stone Circle near Machrie
·         Carn Ban, four miles inland from Kilmory and probably best reached by cycling along forest tracks
·         Giants’ Graves, above Glenashdale Falls at Whiting Bay
·         Kilpatrick Dun near Blackwaterfoot
·         Machrie Moor Stone Circles
·         Torrylin Cairn at Kilmory
The Machrie Moor stone circles are well-known but the smaller sites are well worth visiting too. At all the sites a shortish walk will usually lead you to a location of magnificent views where you can soak up the spirituality of a place long invested with the hopes and fears of different peoples. Walking guidebooks, such as ‘Walking the Isle of Arran’ by Mary Welsh and Christine Isherwood, offer routes that include the prehistoric sites. A particular favourite of mine is Kilpatrick Dun because of its lovely views over the archaeological landscape of Machrie Moor and Shiskine Valley. (Best to catch the bus to this site though as car parking is limited.)
I wonder what will survive of us four thousand years hence? Will our Information Age survive time?  We certainly throw a lot away as a society so could it be layers of plastic bottles?  Or bits and pieces of vehicles which future archaeologists painstakingly piece together? And I wonder what future people will make of who we were based on what we left behind?