Coire Fhionn Lochan – Arran at its best

‘Climb every mountain …’

… and take this walk to the beautiful Coire Fhionn Lochan on the west coast of Arran. It’s name means the Little Loch of the Pale Corrie, and its crystal-clear water is fringed with white granite sand. There’s something quite strange about coming to a beach up in the hills, but its a lovely spot for a rest or a picnic. And for the more energetic, there are walks that head further into Arran’s stunning mountains. I’ve written about this walk in the September/October issue of Scottish Islands Explorer.

What intrigues me about exploring the landscape of Sotland is just how much has happened in almost every area of the land. Even in places that seem deserted and remote to us today, you’ll find that not so long ago they were home to generations of people who lived and worked the land. And that usually means there’s something left behind that tells their story, if you know how to look for it.

You can find clues in the place names that describe the natural features of the land. Or those place names with a mixture of linguistic roots, that tell of the invaders from other lands, with other cultures, who descended upon these shores. Often arriving as deadly raiders, many then returned as settlers, marrying into local communites and adding to the mix of nations that make up who we are today.

Then there are the myriads of old tales and legends, which although fictitious at one level, do very often contain a grain of truth about otherwise long-forgotten events.

Even the shape and size and hair colouring of a commmunity can tell you something of its background. Whose blood flows through your veins? Are you descended from dark-haired Celts, or fair-haired Norse Vikings, or those unfortunate Spanish sailors whose ships floundered in the stormy waters off the Scottish coasts in the aftermath of the Spanish Armada of 1588 and stayed on (think of Jimmy Perez!).

This walk has echoes of St Columba, a visit from Robert the Bruce and a beautiful poem, amongst other intriguing aspects. It’s a walk in the present that resonates with the past and contains hopes for the future. Not a bad mix at all!

Should you wish to find out more, you can read my article in the latest edition of Scottish Islands Explorer. Print copies are for sale in many local newsagents and it’s available online for only £1.99 at:  pocketmags-scottish-islands-explorer-magazine

 

Rev James Dey

A man who could make chocolate cakes!

I first posted this piece about High Corrie in 2015.  It was linked to the article I’d written about that unusual coterie of men and women for whom High Corrie was a special place. Just last week the last of that group, my father, Rev James Dey, passed away. In many ways it’s the end of an era. They were all men and women who had experienced the reality of war, of poverty, of suffering and hardship. Yet they were all men and women who looked to the future with courage and determination.

They helped make their world a better place for all, not just for a few. Something I’ve tried to do in my life, and see reflected in the words and actions of my own children. Life is never static. Change is always with us. I hope we always try and make those changes good ones. Just as my father did.

***********

Burnbank Cottage in High Corrie

High Corrie on Arran, Scottish Islands Explorer, September/October 2015

If someone asks you to name your favourite book, or song, or food, or place, it’s not always easy to come up with an answer, even though the question itself seems perfectly straightforward.  Somehow it all depends on a host of factors, and in the end, for most of us, it isn’t really possible to come up with a once-and-for-all favourite.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t books, or songs, or places that are special to us – and  some that are more special than others.  For me, a very special place is High Corrie on Arran.

Sunshine on Burnbank, 1973

Sunshine on Burnbank, 1973

It’s special because of the island it’s on, special because of its wonderful setting and special because of all the happy associations and memories it brings with it. Wonderful carefree family holidays, when the sun always shone (well, most of the time!) and we were free to roam the hills and shore and cycle safely wherever we chose (there were far fewer cars back then!).  Each year we stayed in Burnbank, one of the small cottages in High Corrie, a clachan designated by Historic Scotland as being of ‘outstanding historical interest’.

High Corrie United c 1969

High Corrie United FC 1969

There was the High Corrie Burn to explore, Goatfell to climb, and a flat-ish area where we held our own ‘olympic games’ and football matches, along with a home-made two-hole golf course set on a steep slope with the sea far below.  Not far away was Corrie, and then Brodick,  so there was also putting and crazy golf and rowing boats and sandy beaches to enjoy. Adventure beckoned at every turn!

1973: James Dey and playwright Robert McLellan relax during a break in filming in High Corrie

1973: My father Rev James Dey of the BBC (left) and playwright Robert McLellan relax during a break in filming in High Corrie

It was also a place where summer-holiday stories were written and where there was time to slow down and talk and think and unwind.  But it was also a place where adults could stop and unwind too.  For my parents it was a break from their challenging jobs at the BBC and in a tough Glasgow secondary school respectively. The cottage opposite Burnbank was the home of the playwright and poet Robert McLellan and his wife Kathleen. Nearby, the summer homes of the editor of the Guardian, later the Controller of BBC Scotland, the Director of the Royal Scottish Museum and many artists.  A small place but one alive with thoughts and ideas.

It’s a place I’ve been back to on many occasions and I’ve written about some of the things that made this place special not just to me and my family, but to many others (see link below). It’s good to have places like this, places that played their part in our young lives and continue to hold such a store of fond memories. Whilst I’d still find it impossible to name a favourite place, High Corrie comes pretty close!

High Corrie article

 

King’s Cave on Arran – a message still resonating today

Remember the tale of Bruce and the spider? The tale of how a tiny creature’s persistence provided the spur that Bruce needed to keep going in the face of insurmountable odds? With the benefit of hindsight we know that success was eventually to be his. But he didn’t know that. He had to face his darkest moment without knowing what the future would bring.

Bruce faced terrible losses; the barbaric torture and death of some of his closest family, the imprisonment of others, the loss of Scotland. How much easier it could have been for him to turn and run. Give up and disappear from history. But he didn’t.

With hindsight life seems much easier than it is. But the reality is that, more often than not, we have to take a leap of faith, not knowing what the final outcome will be, but hoping that the decision we’ve made is the right one.

And it’s this that makes the central message of Bruce’s tale resonate just as strongly today as it did all those centuries ago. Right now, in countries like Syria and Yemen, men, women and children are facing the horrors of war, torture and starvation. Drug wars rage in South America. Torture and beheading go on unabated in Saudi Arabia. Ours is not a peaceful world. Yet despite that, there are always those courageous enough to stand up against oppressors, no matter how impossible the odds appear.

Standing up against injustice takes courage and conviction. While we may not fear for our safety in a physical sense, there are still anxieties that stop us speaking out against the insidious structural violence that dictatorial government in Westminster is inflicting on so many people. Right now the poor, the disabled, the widowed and the most vulnerable are being crushed. New laws are being slipped in silently, without debate, without scrutiny, without consensus. Legal?  Perhaps, but at the same time immoral.

In Europe we’ve had a long spell of peace and relative stability and it can be hard to take in the seriousness of what’s happening. Or have we become too comfortable to notice any more? Too cosy with our nice homes, our holidays, and more than plenty to eat? Is it just too easy to sit in front of our televison sets and shut out the reality of what others around us are going through?

Imagine you talk to friends of trying to bring about change. Someone mocks you, calling you naive, idealistic, says forget it, nothing can be changed. But they’d be wrong, for change is at the very heart of human existence. If it weren’t, we’d still be dressed in animal skins, slavery would still be legal, children would still be working down mines, there would be no NHS. Change is happening all the time. But all too often we allow ourselves to think that someone else will sort things out, someone else will fight our wars, someone else will be the hero. But those times have gone.

Think of the words of Edmund Burke, who said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Or the Bible, where in Proverbs 31: 8-9 it clearly states:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
    ensure justice for those being crushed.
 Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
    and see that they get justice.

WE are ones being called upon to act, to speak out – not ‘someone else’.

Bruce came out of his cave (with a little help from the spider!) and faced what had to be done. Now it’s our turn to make the difference, to fight for change, to be involved, to look beyond our comfortable lives and play our part.  That ‘someone else’ is now you and me.

King’s Cave article available in iScot

Amnesty International UK

Glorious Gorse, a great Scottish native

Glorious gorse

You know Spring has arrived when you walk past a gorse bush and the air is full of that delicious aroma of coconut rising from the yellow flowers in the warm sunshine. And right now the Island of Arran is positively awash with gorse.

Gorse, also known as whin or furze, is native to Scotland and has proved its usefulness over the centuries. A traditional winter feed for cattle and other livestock, it would be ground with mallets or with a whin-stone, until it reached an edible consitency!

You can add the flowers to a salad or use the leaf buds to make ‘tea’. Apparently the seeds are mildly astringent, containing tannin, and were used to treat diarrhoea, varicose veins and slow down infections. Then, like most plants, it can be used to produce a dye (replace the The Good Life’s nettle green with yellow!)

Goats love gorse!

Importantly, it was regularly used as a fuel, burning well even when quite green because of its high oil content. The ashes are rich in alkali and gorse was often burned off to improve the quality of the land. These alkali-rich ashes were also mixed with animal fat to make soap. And it’s a sanctuary for small birds, who can hide safely inside this thorny shrub.

On the other hand, there are few things worse than fighting your way through gorse that has been allowed to grow unchecked – then those spikes become just too vicious. But, on the whole, gorse has been a friend to farmers and crofters and fitted in well with rural life in this country.

Skunk cabbage fringes the pond at Brodick Castle

Gunnera aka ‘giant rhubarb’!

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the rampant rhododendrons that grow unchecked in so many parts of Scotland. In the right setting, as in the gardens of Brodick Castle, rhododendrons flourish alongside other exotic plants that were brought here in the late 18th and 19th centuries to fill the gardens of the new, fashion-conscious, owners of country houses. In Brodick Castle grounds you’ll see American skunk cabbage (with its very curious smell) and Gunnera (looking for all the world like enormous rhubarb) arranged to create areas of great interest.

However, as the management of many large country estates has declined, their gardens have been left to run wild. As a result, some of these non-native species have been allowed to escape and are now too rampant, too invasive, and are causing wide-spread difficulties. In particular that ‘Victorian monster’ Rhododendron ponticum, has become a severe problem throughout Scotland.  It shades out other plants – and their attendant wildlife – and soon creates dense jungles which are not simply hard work, but also almost impossible, to clear.

There a numerous projects afoot now to try and contain and clear these plants which are deadly to all other growth if left unchecked. Though I would have to say that the relatively new-kid-on-the-block, Japanese Knotweed, is now regarded as the world’s most invasive species. It’s found a foothold here and is spreading, and any plant that can grow up through concrete floors and bring down houses is definitely a real menace!

Give me gorse spikes (and a pair of secateurs) any day!!

A bank of gorse protects the grass and sand dunes along the shore at Brodick Bay

The Problem with Ponticum

 

What is it about islands…?

Just what is it about islands that authors, playwrights and poets are drawn to use them as settings for their works? Especially crime writers? I wrote an article on this very topic, which is now in The Island Review.

If you haven’t come across The Island Review before, it’s an online magazine which is: ‘dedicated to great writing and visual art that comes from, is inspired by, celebrates or seeks to understand the extraordinary appeal of islands, as places and as metaphors.’

So if you like books, enjoy crime stories, are intrigued by islands and wonder what William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Peter May and Enid Blyton have in common? Then read on, Macduff!:  ‘A distant isle, where darkest deeds are done’

It’s Tintin’s Birthday!

Today Tintin turns 88 and he and Snowy are still going strong! His enduring appeal is due partly to the exciting stories, partly to the wonderful drawings and partly to Hergé’s use of authentic locations. One of my favourite books is The Black Island and it was a thrill to discover that real places in Scotland had inspired Hergé and his team when they updated the original edition for publication in the UK.

Which places? Which castles? Which islands? I hear you ask: and so, without further ado, here are the answers, as we go:

In search of Tintin!

Lochranza Castle on Arran

There’s something very dramatic about a castle perched on a rocky island, waves crashing against its rugged walls, its turrets defiant against all comers. Hergé, the Belgian creator of the redoubtable reporter Tintin, obviously thought so too and looked to Scottish islands for the inspiration of one of the most famous and best-loved of Tintin’s adventures – The Black Island.

Hergé wanted an adventure set somewhere remote and mysterious – and Scotland’s islands provided just that. The story was originally published in 1937 at a time when the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were still little-known at first hand to most people; shrouded as much by myth as by mist. By using a small mysterious, frightening island, Hergé created the perfect setting for strange goings-on.

The Black Island 1966 cover

The Black Island 1943 cover

In the 1960s the British publishers Methuen asked for the book to be updated and inaccuracies in the original edition to be corrected. Accordingly Hergé sent his chief assistant, Bob de Moor, to Scotland where he visited both Arran and Barra. De Moor was impressed by what he saw – wild landscapes, ancient castles and remote windswept locations.

The Black Island xxxx cover

The Black Island 1966 cover

And so Castlebay on Barra became the template for Kiltoch, the fictional Scottish village where Tintin ends up during his hair-raising pursuit of a gang of dangerous counterfeiters. While Lochranza Castle on Arran provided the inspiration for the ruinous and supposedly-haunted Craig Dhui Castle, perched menacingly on the mysterious and unwelcoming Black Island.

Hergé’s stories were often set in real-life situations, dealing with contemporary events and headline news – as befits a reporter hero. Forgery and counterfeiting were growing concerns in the 1930s, while the growing number of light aircraft made it easier for the wrong-doers to flee to distant parts and escape justice. But obviously not when Tintin was around!

The village of Castlebay on the Isle of Barra became Kiltoch in The Black Island

The village of Castlebay on Barra became Kiltoch in The Black Island. Photo courtesy of Annie Houston

In many ways The Black Island is a straightforward detective thriller, its lasting popularity boosted by the “ripping yarn” nature of its plot. Hitchcock’s film version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps had come out not long before the first edition of The Black Island and there are similarities between the two. Both have a hero who accidentally stumbles across a gang of villains, who is then wrongly accused of a crime, but escapes capture and heads for the wilds of Scotland, all the while being pursued by criminals and police alike. Both share that exciting pacing and plotting, leading to a denouement on a rugged, wild and isolated Scottish island.

King Kong 1933

King Kong 1933

Cinemagoers would also have recognised The Black Island’s terrifying ‘beast’ as King Kong had hit the silver screen not long before. And contemporary newspapers were full of reports surrounding first ‘sightings’ of the Loch Ness Monster. In his tale, Hergé skilfully uses the power of superstition as a tool used by the villains to discourage people from visiting the Black Island, while they use the island as the centre of their counterfeiting ring.

All in all, it’s one of the best constructed and thrilling of Hergé’s Tintin canon – thanks in no small measure to the islands of Arran and Barra!

In search of Tintin: or how Arran and Barra played their part in Hergé’s best known ripping yarn!

Lochranza Castle on the Isle of Arran became the eerie Craig Dhui Castle in the Black Island

There’s something very dramatic about a castle perched on a rocky island, waves crashing against its rugged walls, its turrets defiant against all comers. Hergé, the Belgian creator of the redoubtable reporter Tintin, obviously thought so too and looked to Scottish islands for the inspiration of one of the most famous and best-loved of Tintin’s adventures – The Black Island.

Hergé wanted an adventure set somewhere remote and mysterious – and Scotland’s islands provided just that. The story was originally published in 1937 at a time when the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were still little-known at first hand to most people; shrouded as much by myth as by mist. By using a small mysterious, frightening island, Hergé created the perfect setting for strange goings-on.

The Black Island 1966 cover

The Black Island 1943 cover

In the 1960s the British publishers Methuen asked for the book to be updated and inaccuracies in the original edition to be corrected. Accordingly Hergé sent his chief assistant, Bob de Moor, to Scotland where he visited both Arran and Barra. De Moor was impressed by what he saw – wild landscapes, ancient castles and remote windswept locations.

The Black Island xxxx cover

The Black Island 1966 cover

And so Castlebay on Barra became the template for Kiltoch, the fictional Scottish village where Tintin ends up during his hair-raising pursuit of a gang of dangerous counterfeiters. While Lochranza Castle on Arran provided the inspiration for the ruinous and supposedly-haunted Craig Dhui Castle, perched menacingly on the mysterious and unwelcoming Black Island.

Hergé’s stories were often set in real-life situations, dealing with contemporary events and headline news – as befits a reporter hero. Forgery and counterfeiting were growing concerns in the 1930s, while the growing number of light aircraft made it easier for the wrong-doers to flee to distant parts and escape justice. But obviously not when Tintin was around!

The village of Castlebay on the Isle of Barra became Kiltoch in The Black Island

The village of Castlebay on Barra became Kiltoch in The Black Island. Photo courtesy of Annie Houston

In many ways The Black Island is a straightforward detective thriller, its lasting popularity boosted by the “ripping yarn” nature of its plot. Hitchcock’s film version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps had come out not long before the first edition of The Black Island and there are similarities between the two. Both have a hero who accidentally stumbles across a gang of villains, who is then wrongly accused of a crime, but escapes capture and heads for the wilds of Scotland, all the while being pursued by criminals and police alike. Both share that exciting pacing and plotting, leading to a denouement on a rugged, wild and isolated Scottish island.

King Kong 1933

King Kong 1933

Cinemagoers would also have recognised The Black Island’s terrifying ‘beast’ as King Kong had hit the silver screen not long before. And contemporary newspapers were full of reports surrounding first ‘sightings’ of the Loch Ness Monster. In his tale, Hergé skilfully uses the power of superstition as a tool used by the villains to discourage people from visiting the Black Island, while they use the island as the centre of their counterfeiting ring.

All in all, it’s one of the best constructed and thrilling of Hergé’s Tintin canon – thanks in no small measure to the islands of Arran and Barra!

Kildonan – Seal Song on Arran

It was a quiet morning as we followed the path along the shore from Kildonan towards Bennan Head on the southern coast of Arran.  The air was calm, the water unruffled – a lovely September day.  We’d heard that this was a good spot to see seals and sure enough there were people sitting near the start of the path armed with cameras and binoculars.  But not a seal in sight!

So we decided to go further afield and follow the path as far as the Struey Rocks boulderfield.  A sandy beach on one side, dramatic waterfalls on the other made for an interesting walk.  But it became so very much more interesting when we rounded a corner to see dozens of seals basking on the rocks, among them a large number of young animals.  It was a thrill to see so many of them in one place.

Seals basking on the rocks at Kildonan

Seals basking on the rocks at Kildonan, Isle of Arran

But what really made the day special, however, was their singing.  At first we weren’t quite sure what it was we were hearing, but soon realised they were ‘talking’ to each other – or rather singing to each other!  It was a sound that I remembered from the time when my parents lived in Shetland and my mother would sit on the shore and sing – the seals joining in with their own special song.  And so at Kildonan we sang and to our delight there was a whole chorus of seal voices in response!  It was a wonderful experience and not one that we will forget in a hurry.  And a reminder of just how fortunate we are in Scotland to have so much fascinating nature right on our doorstep.

Arran: Corrie Connections

Cottages in Corrie

Cottages in Corrie

Corrie: It’s been called the prettiest village in Europe and has been both inspiration and home to many artists.  Elegant sandstone villas and sturdy sandstone cottages face out to sea, while the mountains of Arran rise majestically behind.  It’s a beautiful village, one full of history and character, but which only really came into being as we know it today during the major social upheavals of the 19th century.  When the surrounding land was cleared of small farming communities, the inhabitants of these areas had to leave their homes and find work elsewhere.  Some went to the growing industrial cities of the central belt of Scotland, others emigrated to new lands such as Canada.  But some were fortunate enough to be able to take up quarrying and fishing in the new village along the shore, Corrie.

Transport improved and slowly but surely the the famous Clyde steamers made access to the beautiful islands of the Firth of Clyde quicker and easier.  Tourism grew and the villages of Arran became a favourite haunt of the growing urban middles classes from mainland Scotland. Then World War Two brought a new wave of visitors when large numbers of children were evacuated from Glasgow and sent to the relative safety of Arran.  Some found the contrast between town and country too much and went back to the mainland – despite the risk of bombing.  For others it was the start of lifelong connection to Arran and Corrie in particular.

Corrie Port

Corrie Port

Life is never static and Corrie is a good example of this.  For different people it’s meant different things.  The artist Joan Eardley loved it, as did the Sandeman family.  For the author and illustrator Mairi Hedderwick it was the beginning of a lifelong love of Scottish islands.  While the family of the founders of the great publishing house of Macmillan started life there too. And it’s a place we can make our own connections with today as well.

 

Scalpsie Bay – A Walk through Time

Scalpsie Bay looking across to Arran

Scalpsie Bay looking across to Arran

The Isle of Bute, although lying in the Firth of Clyde and close to the main centre of population in Scotland, is often called ‘The Undiscovered Isle’.  Many people think of it only in terms of the main town, Rothesay, once a thriving summer coastal resort, now rather run-down and tired.  But beyond the town lies beautiful countryside, magnificent bays and a wealth of history – just waiting to be discovered!

Scalpsie Bay, on the south-west of Bute, is home to a populous seal colony, as well as having magnificent views over to Arran.  It also holds thousands of years of history – from a Bronze Age barrow and Iron Age dun, to the water channels built by the 19th century engineer Robert Thom to power the islands then flourishing cotton mills and the “Russian Cottage” used during the Cold War to listen for possible Soviet submarines in the Firth of Clyde.  But there is much, much more to this beautiful bay than this, so go and discover it for yourself!

Fragments of Bronze Age pottery found in the Scalpsie Barrow in 2010

Fragments of Bronze Age pottery found in the Scalpsie Barrow in 2010