Eileach an Naoimh

The striking remains of the beehive monastic cells on Eileach an Naoimh

There’s something about islands. That unique sense of wholeness, containedness, apartness. A sense that you can really get to know a place where the borders are so clearly defined by the surrounding water. It’s not a new idea. And it’s one that has been used often in literature.

But islands have also long been seen as places of retreat from the demands of life. As places of sanctuary, where peace and tranquillity allow time for reflection and decision.

Early Christian monks favoured islands. Partly because the sea was the way people travelled, especially between Ireland and the western seaboard of Scotland. It’s not surprising therefore, that so many Scottish islands have been – and some still are – home to monasteries, chapels and religious settlements of many different shapes and sizes.

Though these early travellers still had to live – grow food, build shelter, survive wind, weather and ill-health – so not easy in any physical sense, as few lives were in the past, but lives with a purpose, which in all probability, made a difference.

Today many people choose to visit these remote islands to see where these early Christians lived. What is it draws us? There’s the excitement and sense of adventure of the journey at sea in a small boat. Then there’s an interest in history and archaeology, for it’s fascinating to see how others lived in the past without the many resources we see as essential to life today. Life pared down to the minimum.

But there’s also something about setting foot on an island knowing that others have done exactly that all those centuries ago and felt this to be a special place. A holy place. A place where they could live and talk to their God. Be apart for a while and re-connect to what is essential in life. I suspect that’s a longing many of us feel at times throughout our lives.

Eileach an Naoimh is a good example of one of these islands. Favoured by Brendan, Columba and also his mother, Eithne, it was seen as especially holy – hence it’s lasting name, which means Rocky Island of the Saint(s). A visit there is one that offers a real adventure if you chose to reach it by crossing the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, as we did.

And it’s a place to explore and spend time on. To stop for a while and ponder on the lives of those men and women who chose to live here in the past. And perhaps even to wonder what they would make of our lives today? Of our priorities and beliefs? Of our feelings and actions towards our fellows? What would they think of us, I wonder? Now that would be interesting!

You can read more about this fascinating island in my article in the current issue of  Scottish Islands Explorer

Dun an Sticir – Uist’s Finlaggan?

There’s no doubt about it – North Uist can be windy! But that didn’t really bother us when we spent our summer holidays there a year or so ago. We’re used to Scottish weather, whatever the season. And we know how to dress for everything Scottish weather can throw at us – be it spring, summer, autumn or winter (and sometimes they can be hard to differentiate!)

That summer we walked, drove, climbed and explored this strange, at times almost lunar landscape, but one place in particular caught our attention: Dun an Sticir – Fort of the Skulker. I’m not sure if that’s the original Gaelic name, or one that came about much later due to dark and dire deeds that took place on the island. Whatever the truth may be, though, there’s a strange air to this island within an island.

Not just one island though, but three, all linked together in a small tidal loch. Leaping from ancient causeway to ancient causeway with the water rising around us, was excitement in itself. But definitely not as exciting as some of the events that took place here! From an Iron Age Dun to a medieval hall, (along with a Viking interlude!) life was seldom static, nor without risk. And we probably don’t know half the story even yet.

The last resident of the island came to a sticky end – thrown into a dungeon in a castle on Skye and left, not to starve to death, but given salted beef with nothing to drink and left to die slowly and agonisingly of thirst. Not a pleasant way to go!

If you want to find out more, there’s plenty to get your teeth into in the May-June issue of Scottish Islands Explorer!

 

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.

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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

 

The Camping Coach of Adventure!

British Rail camping coaches“A CAMPING COACH. Another recent form of holiday-making by rail is in the camping coach. These coaches stand in some remote, rural siding and come under the care of the local station-master.” (From Railway Wonders of the World, April 1935)

Can you imagine how exciting it must have been for children to have their very own railway carriage to live in? In the summer of 1963 we had just that, and had one of the best family holidays ever! A converted railway carriage that sat on a siding beside the station at Plockton. Perfect accommodation set in a stunning location on the north-west coast of Scotland.

The carriage was fitted out with a kitchen, living and dining area and three ‘bedrooms’. The only thing lacking was a toilet, but we were free to use the station toilet, with ‘potties’ to hand for young children in the night!img003-1

In those days Plockton, a Highland village on the shores of Loch Carron, had yet to acquire fame as the fictional home of PC Hamish Macbeth (and who can forget Robert Carlyle in the role?). But it was definitely well-known as a wonderful place to spend the summer.  Close to sea, loch, hill and glen.

The very first 'Alison' book by Sheila Stuart

The very first ‘Alison’ book by Sheila Stuart

As children growing up with books like Swallows and Amazons, the Famous Five and Sheila Stuart’s Alison books, there couldn’t have been a more perfect a place for a holiday. We were ready to swim, row, fish, cycle, explore caves, find treasure, climb trees, scale cliffs, foil dastardly crooks: in short, we were ready for adventure! And while the Famous Five might have had their own island and lighthouse, we felt we were doing just as well spending the long summer holidays in a railway carriage!

img002-2Why camping coaches? The first coaches made their appearance in the 1930s at a time when cycling, hiking and camping were becoming increasingly popular among Britain’s urban population. Very many people still lived crammed into the grimy, heavily-industrialised cities, where pollution, in particular smog, was a problem.

We might think that smog was only a problem in late Victorian times; a useful cover for criminals in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, or the infamous and creepy pea-soupers of old black and white films watched on wet Sunday afternoons. But in reality smog was deadly problem long after that. In fact, as late as 1952 the Great Smog in London is believed to have caused up to 12,000 deaths and ultimately prompted the 1956 Clean Air Act.

The very first of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, 1942As holidays became more common, and for longer periods, people sought the fresh, clean air of the countryside. For families with children camping coaches held a greater appeal than spending your holiday under canvas. In the railway coach you had a proper roof over your head and more space, but were still away from home. They were also usually set beside beautiful remote rural and coastal areas of Britain. Cheaper too than a guest house. Private cars were not common, so being able to take the train right to your holiday doorstep was an additional bonus.

World War II saw the coaches taken out of service, but for two decades after the war they flourished again, better equipped and more luxurious than before.  Till along came Richard Beeching with his axe: lines were closed, stations closed and many of the most popular camping coach sites disappeared. Cheap flights and holidays in the sun also played their part in ending this unique type of holiday.kyleakin-lighthouse-eilean-ban-500p-copy

The camping coach at Plockton may be long gone, but today the station building itself is available for holidays. And in a few places the camping coach is making a come-back. So if you have fond memories from your childhood, or have children who revel in Thomas the Tank Engine, then one of today’s new camping coaches might just be the place for you!  It certainly was a brilliant ‘Camping Coach of Adventure’ for us !

Estonia: The mysteries of Kihnu Troi – or how traditions can save a nation (Part 1)

Underway! Using a traditional Kihnu pattern

Underway! Knitting mittens from a traditional Kihnu island pattern

Kihnu Troi – it sounds like a character from a Star Wars film, but is in fact a very distinctive style of Estonian men’s sweater with a unique two-colour braided cast-on!  Kihnu (the ‘h’ is sounded) is an island lying in the Gulf of Riga, Troi their famous traditional knitwear originally worn by the men of this fishing community.

Like exquisite Shetland lace, or Fair Isle sweaters, each region of Estonia has its own unique, intricate and colourful designs. Socks, mittens, jumpers; all as bright and hard-wearing as anything we have in Scotland. Kihnu patterns use black and white wool, with contrasting red bands around hems, cuffs and necks: bands that were believed to grant protection to the wearer.   Knitted from very fine wool, all these garments can last for more than a lifetime.

The powerful medieval Bishop's Castle of the Teutonic Order on Saaremaa

The powerful medieval Bishop’s Castle on the island of Saaremaa

Estonia’s geographical position has had a profound influence on its turbulent history. Being flat and fertile this small country has found itself repeatedly in the path of invading empires: from ferocious Viking raiders to German, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Nazi and Soviet occupations. It’s a country that has certainly experienced more than its fair share of history!

I’ve visited Estonia a number of times now.  Like Scotland, it’s a country with many islands around its coast, and while geographically different from Scotland (unlike Scotland Estonia is very flat), the inhabitants of these Baltic islands have experienced harsh and difficult conditions that have influenced their lives just as much as times of great hardship have shaped the character of Scotland’s island communities.

But trials and tribulation can breed determination and resilience. Difficulties are overcome and life goes on.  In 1991 Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union and the road to recovery began.  Huge changes had to be faced politically and economically, but face them they did.

Smoked herring Estonian style on the island of Muhu

Suitsuräime – smoked herring Estonian style on the island of Muhu

As in Scotland, the days of the great fleets of trawlers are gone: instead the focus is now on good, sustainable local produce, with smoked Baltic herring, sprats and eels being the most popular.  We tried some of these specialties: suitsuräime (smoked Baltic herring),  suitsuangerjas (smoked eel) and suitsukilu (smoked sprats).  Not quite Arbroath Smokies, but tasty nonetheless!  And if you’re on foot on the island of Saaremaa, the Pithla Õlu, a beer so close to home-made that it only comes in barrels, and Saaremaa vodka (especially the rhubarb one) are worth a shot (or two)!

Beautifully restored wooden houses from the Tsarist era

Beautifully restored wooden houses from the Tsarist era

The knitters among you will know just how complicated Kihnu Troi cast-on is, and I have to admit that I didn’t quite manage it this time.  But the end result – my first pair of Estonian mittens – give me real pleasure and they will stand me in good stead in the coming winter months.  It wasn’t easy to find wool as fine as that recommended in American knitter Nancy Bush’s pattern book “Folk Knitting in Estonia” but I was fortunate to find a Shetland wool equivalent in The Yarn Cake, a great little knitting shop in Glasgow.

Estonian mittens I knitted based on Kihnu patterns

Estonian mittens I knitted based on Nancy Bush’s Kihnu pattern

I’ve written about some of the similarities between Scottish and Estonian islands in Scottish Islands Explorer (see below): Two countries very different in some ways, but also with many shared characteristics when it comes to their islands.  Long-standing and deep-rooted traditions help hold these communities together through thick and thin.  And that adds strength and stability to the nations they are part of. Estonia is a beautiful country, steeped in history and well worth a visit.

And perhaps the madder-red bands of my Kihnu mittens will indeed give me added protection from danger!  I hope so.

Links: The Yarn CakeKihnu Troi Braided Cast-on  and  Nancy Bush: Folk Knitting in Estonia

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

 
 
 
 

Plague, Priests and Pirates – Islay’s intriguing past

The standing stone by Cill Tobar Lasrach

From Port Ellen on the south of Islay to Kildalton, five miles to the east, lies a wealth of archaeological and historic sites, all of which add to the rich story of this beautiful island.  Ancient place names, standing stones, early Christian ruins, a battle-scarred castle, deserted villages, shipwrecks, the tragedy of the plague village of Solam, beautiful and weathered medieval crosses – all speak silently and potently of the lives of those who lived here in days gone by.  It’s an area of the island that I know well and have written about in Scottish Islands ExplorerI would recommend a visit to everyone.