The Falls of Dochart

Falls of Dochart, Killin

It certainly knows how to rain in Scotland. It can be torrential. Bucketing. A smirr. A drizzle. A downpour. Dreich. Pelting. Horizontal. Lashing. Pouring. Raining cats and dogs (why them, I wonder?). Coming down in sheets. Weather for ducks. Spitting. Soaking. Wet. Stotting. Chucking it down (who is?!) Driving. In floods. Well-drookit. And many, many more. They say the Inuit have dozens of words for snow – but it wouldn’t surprise me if we have more words than that for rain!

On the other hand, take a trip out on a wet day and you’ll be rewarded with some astonishing sights. Today we drove up to Killin and watched the fast-flowing waters of the River Dochart as they roared down the falls. And there were plenty of others out doing just the same.

Water can be very powerful and very impressive. No doubt also very dangerous if not treated with respect. But it’s not hard to understand why writers, artists and poets have all found inspiration in its ceasless motion.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c.537-c.475 BC) once said, “You can never step in the same river twice.”  For me, that conjures up a striking image, one that mirrors the idea at the heart of his doctrine. For Heraclitus believed the very essence of the universe is change. Everything changes. Nothing stands still. Everything flows. Nothing stays fixed. Everything is in a state of flux.

A Glenelg burn

That change can be the infinitesimal movement of the great tectonic plates that wrap the Earth and grind imperceptibly beneath us. Or the swift unstoppable destruction caused by a tsunami thrown up by a powerful undersea earthquake.  The slow growth of a fingernail. Or the all-too-rapid melting of an ice-cream on a hot day.

Fast or slow. Visible or not, change is happening all the time. And although it can be frightening, it can also be wonderfully freeing. You make a terrible mistake, but you can atone for it. You get a disastrous haircut, but your hair will grow again! An election brings a bleak result, but you can vote again. Yet it’s surprising how often people fear change so much that they choose to stick with the known, the familiar, no matter how bad that familiar is. We’re a strange contrary lot, the human race!

But, like the river rushing over the rocks at the Falls of Dochart. Or the burn roaring down the hillside at Glenelg. Or the breakers being driven ashore on the back of an Atlantic gale, life’s rarely static. Rather, it’s always changing and moving in new and unexpected ways.

How we deal with change has a huge bearing on how we live our lives. We can try to pretend it isn’t happening (think ostrich, head in the sand). Or try to hold back the tide of change (think Canute, though that wasn’t the point of the original tale). Or, despite the unknown and unfamiliar, we can look on change as bringing the possibility of new and better things, and embrace that. And I think that’s the one I’d like to go for.

Atlantic breakers crash ashore on Barra

Glenelg – Spacemen and Spies!

It’s easy to dismiss small or seemingly remote communites as offering nothing much of interest. But that’s a very mistaken assumption. Everywhere has a history. Everywhere the impact of human life leaves a mark. And small places are no different. In fact, it’s in these places that change is often felt more intensely and with far greater repercussions.

Glenelg in Lochaber is a good case in point. As the title of this article shows, a lot more has happened there than you might expect! Sometimes it can take a bit of digging to discover past events and fully appreciate the legacy they’ve left behind. But echo down the years they do: leaving their mark on the land and the people.

Iron Age brochs, redcoat barracks, Gavin Maxwell and his otters, sailing over the sea to Skye: Glenelg has all that and much, much more. I know Glenelg well and have visited often, but I still find there’s always something more just waiting to be experienced.

If it’s a place you don’t yet know, or even if you have visited, but would like to find out more, then my article in the June issue of the iScot magazine is just right for you: and costs less than a pint of beer in the pub! So treat yourself to something that will last a lot longer than that pint – and probably do you more good to boot!

iScot from Pocketmags

Eilean Bàn – dwarfed but not diminished

Scottish Islands Explorer May/June 2015

Scottish Islands Explorer
May/June 2015

I have the good fortune to have an uncle who lives in Glenelg. It’s a great starting point for exploring a vast area of the north-west of Scotland: Skye, Lochalsh, Knoydart, North Morar, Lochaber, Badenoch, Ardnamurchan, Wester Ross, Mallaig – the list is almost endless!

Yet in the midst of all that grandeur sits tiny Eilean Bàn, home of a Stevenson lighthouse, ghost stories and the former lighthouse keepers’ cottages that became the final home of the author Gavin Maxwell. Maxwell was a naturalist, who became known world-wide for his Ring of Bright Water trilogy, books that opened the eyes of millions to the wonder of otters and the natural world.

The Gavin Maxwell Museum on Eilean Ban

The Gavin Maxwell Museum on Eilean Ban

It could be easy to overlook Eilean Bàn as the mighty Skye Bridge soars overhead.  But it’s an island with a long and interesting history and a visit to the Gavin Maxwell Museum or the island’s impressive wildlife hide is a worthwhile day out.

I’m glad that Maxwell’s life and work is celebrated on this island. I grew up with his books and laughed – and cried – through the eponymous film starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.  And I’ve paid many a visit to Sandaig, the beautiful bay south of Glenelg, that was Maxwell’s home for so many years and immortalised as the ‘Camusfeàrna’ of his books.

The MV Glenachulish at Glenelg

The MV Glenachulish at Glenelg

In the current edition of Scottish Islands Explorer is an article I’ve written about Maxwell, the lighthouse and Eilean Bàn. In it I look at the island and its surrounding area, as well as the last days of that gifted, but troubled and complicated man, who, despite being a mass of contradictions, did so much to bring an awareness and understanding and love of the natural world to so many people.

So I’m glad to have an uncle in Glenelg and be able to explore this wonderful part of the world. I’m glad too that it’s still possible to enjoy the little ferry across to Skye. And an interesting thing about Glenelg?  It’s the only palindromic glen in Scotland!

Gavin Maxwell

Glenelg

Eilean Bàn