Saturday, 16 August 2014

Kings Cave, Drumadoon Bay

You know the legend of Bruce and the Spider? It was the fag end of 1306 and Bruce was at his lowest ebb, his ambitions forced prematurely into the open after his murder of John Comyn in the Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries, his hurried coronation followed by excommunication by the pope and a couple of swift defeats by Comyn sympathisers, his wife a prisoner of Edward I of England. He was skulking in a cave in the west, hidden by one of his few remaining friends, Angus Og Macdonald of Islay, when he saw a spider spinning a web. Spitefully he swiped the web away, only for the spider to patiently begin again. "That spider inspires me not to give up!" thought the Bruce, and the rest was history. The story is not history though: it is fiction, first appearing in Walter Scott's Tales of a Grandfather.

The cave exists though.

Kings Cave:

It is an interesting cave, obviously in use for a long time, with Pictish carvings if you know where to look. There are a number of sandstone caves in the raised beach at this point, Kings Cave merely the most prominent. In others, guillemots nest, flying back to their chicks to trigger squawking and a fishy odour.

At the caves:

The walk to the caves is interesting, past the prehistoric coastal fort of The Doon. A path through the golf course leads past the Doon on its inland side. On its coastal side, you have to pick your way over cyclopean columns of fallen basalt.

The Doon from Kings Cave shore:

It is a tranquil family walk, improved by visiting the beach at Drumadoon Bay before returning to Blackwaterfoot. This beach is littered with beautiful pebbles from all of Arran's varied geology, with a view out to Ailsa Craig, Sanda, and Kintyre. You can get an ice cream in the village shop. A perfect place to while away an afternoon with a family.

Kintyre from the walk to the caves:

I hope you don't mind but I lied earlier when I told you about the cave. It is not the cave from Scott's apocrypha. It is thought Bruce spent the winter of 1306/7 in Rathlin, an island between Islay and Antrim. Here instead is a true story about Kings Cave. It hosted Bruce the day before he returned to the Scottish mainland to continue his campaign for the throne. From Kingscross Point, he saw the signal fire lit by his brother, who had landed secretly at Turnberry tasked with discovering if Scotland was ready to rise for the Bruce. In fact Scotland was not ready - Bruce's brother was captured and killed. It was sheer chance that someone lit a fire at the right spot that night. So Bruce crossed to Carrick anyway on this misunderstanding - and history was made.

Monday, 11 August 2014

South Arran Enchantment

Arriving on Arran at Brodick, you are met off the ferry by a choice of two buses. One says 'North Island'. The other, 'South Island'. It seems that a mini-tour of New Zealand is on offer. Instead, these buses take you clockwise - or anti-clockwise - round the island's coast road.

Above Kildonan:

To a hillwalker, there is only one possible direction - north, drawn like iron filings to a magnet by Arran's enticing northern skyline. But the opposite pole also has its attractions - subtler, and possibly more profound. Kildonan's lovely south-facing beach delights at any time of day, but especially at an evening low tide.

The last house in Kildonan:

At the last house in Kildonan, a path leads down to a beach, long black volcanic dykes fingering out to Pladda and Ailsa Craig. Seals arch themselves out of the sea on flat rocks, grunting and calling to each other.

Ailsa Craig:

Beyond an Icelandic-looking waterfall on the Levencorroch Burn, the path leads eventually to a boulder field and the Black Cave of Bennan Head, Arran's largest cave.

Bennan Head:

Beyond the seals, the lighthouses start flashing. I love lighthouses. The southern Firth of Clyde sees lights at Ayrshire, Pladda, Ailsa Craig, Sanda, Kintyre, even Northern Ireland. The electric lighting went on on a cruise ship, heading from Greenock to Kirkwall. I enjoyed watching the boat glide by in the distance from my hillside perch, the moor air mingling with the sea air along this coastal belt of fertile dairy fields.

Pladda light:

Beyond Bennan Head is a prehistoric chambered cairn at Torrylinn. There is not much to see here. But! There is such an atmosphere of rightness about this low, rocky, south Arran shore and modest raised beach.

Perhaps it was the company, perhaps it was the light, perhaps it was my mood. But though I had never been here before, it felt like coming home.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Holy Island

To some, the map of Arran is shaped like a peanut. To me Arran is a high-foreheaded man, about to swallow a peanut. In this paradigm, the peanut is Holy Island. There's a more famous Holy Island on the east coast off Northumberland, which I described a while ago. Now I'd like to tell you about Arran's Holy Isle.

Holy Island from Lamlash Bay:

Holy Isle is an island reached from another island. It got me thinking - what island requires most ferry journeys to reach? In Britain there are a number that require two boat trips, such as Sanday, or Raasay, but I can think of only one - Unst - requiring more than two boat trips. Of course, Britain itself is an island for someone coming from Europe.

My 1990 copy of the MCofS guide to the Scottish Islands suggests a swim from Kingscross Point on the Arran mainland as a sporting way of reaching Holy Island. I am not that much of a sportsman, and chose the ferry from Lamlash. Lamlash is a beautiful village in summer sunshine, elegant white houses gleaming against verdant west-coast greenery and a gaggle of yachties and wetsuited family activities around the pier. Holy Island closes off the east end of this attractive bay, used as a naval anchorage during WWII.


Holy Island was bought by the Buddhists of Samye Ling in Eskdalemuir in 1992 when the existing farmers decided to leave. They run a retreat, spiritual centre, vegetable garden and cafe at the pierhead, and a nunnery at the southern end where women go for four years intensive solitude. We were met at the pier by a Buddhist volunteer who gave us some suggestions for our visit. The owners request visitors don't stray from the paths, but on a day trip there is no time to do so and the things you will likely want to see are all accessible from the path.

The retreat:

As it was a rare fine day, we started up the hill path, views opening with altitude. Lamlash Bay and the Firth of Clyde open up, with Arran's northern hills coming impressively into view.

Summit View:

To the south, Ailsa Craig and Whiting Bay can be seen beyond the bay lighthouse and the nunnery. I wouldn't fancy a four year spiritual retreat myself. Imagine what you could do though with four years, dedicated entirely to one particular subject of interest?

View South:

The descent from the summit is precipitous, with deep, heather-covered fissures roped off to keep pedestrians safe. Holy Island's firth lighthouse can be seen from here, flashing its light across to Ayrshire.

Pillar rock light:

The return journey along the shore can take as long as you fancy, wild Soay sheep nibbling at the grass and largely ignoring passing pedestrians. There's Buddhist rock art and, at a gentle indentation in the island shore, protected by steep slopes above and a lip of land below, St Molaise's cave. As a sheltered site, Molaise chose well.

West shore of Holy Island:

This cave is a peaceful spot to contemplate Lamlash Bay. Molaise was a 6th century Irish monk, a nobleman who chose a life of spiritual contemplation (he later became abbot of Leighlin in Carlow). I wonder if he ever swam across to Kingscross Point?

Pathside Buddhist art:

Thursday, 24 July 2014

At the Book Festival

Edinburgh Book Festival's garden cafe is a great place for meeting interesting people. A stimulating talk, followed by a drink in the sunshine with a random stranger and a discussion of the talk you've both just seen. Time can be profitably spent whiling away the hours you should be getting home for dinner.

But watch out for a certain type of person! Authors. Not the author you've come to see, but other authors, authors who aren't on the bill, authors loitering specfically to tell you they have written a book. "I'm an author!" they'll say and expect praise and interest. Don't give it.

Turn and run.

Because authors who possess the need to talk about their own books are obsessive. No intellectual cafe-culture butterflies, lighting from subject to subject with subtelty and wit, but sons of the soil, ploughing monomanic furrows through the reluctant earth of captive minds.

Heed my warning: beware of authors at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Falls of Foyers

There are two sides to Loch Ness. On the west side the busy A82, with Urquhart Castle on Scotland's main Edinburgh - Glencoe - Inverness - Aviemore - Edinburgh tourist circuit.

Loch Ness:

The other side is almost deserted in comparison, and makes for a great bike ride from Dores to the Falls of Foyers, up into Inverness' mini 'lake district' around Lochs Mhor and Duntelchaig and back.

Our ride started at the car park in Dores. This is right on the shores of Loch Ness with a great view down the length of the loch. The panoramic situation means it is no surprise that one of the Loch's longest-standing monster hunters bases himself here.

Loch Ness from Dores:

It was a beautiful time of year, the summer leaves fresh and woodland flowers still in abundance all along the loch shore. A deer crossed the road in front of us, our silent bicycles enabling us to close in without spooking her.

Flowers in the undergrowth:

This is the side of the loch where the tabloid-styled 'wickedest man in the world', early 20th-century occultist Aleister Crowley, conducted rituals at his house of Boleskine - a gothic reputation that also led Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page to buy it in the 1970s. It is a peaceful spot today.


Across the loch, Urquhart Castle on its headland, crowds visible through binoculars, as we soaked up the peace and tranquility of the eastern side, the occasional fishing boat drifting by.

Urquhart Castle:

The road climbs steeply to a cafe and shop at the top of the Falls of Foyers, where what few tourists on this side of the loch had gathered. The falls were one of Victorian Scotland's premier attractions, but were severely attenuated in 1895 as the water was diverted for an aluminium works. However in heavy rainfall it reverts to something of its former majesty and is worth seeing in spate.

Below the Falls:

Below the falls a gorge drops steeply to Loch Ness, with Meall Fuar Mhonaidh rising above the opposite shore.

Above the Falls:

We had enjoyed our ride but had taken our time: and a deadline meant we left the lakes above Loch Ness for another time, retracing our outward route back to Dores.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Start Island and Scuthvie Bay

At the very eastern end of Orkney's easternmost island, Sanday, sits a beautiful bay of white sand.

Scuthvie Bay:

And at the very end of Scuthvie Bay, the land doesn't quite want to end. Another island, Start Island, can be reached at low tide from a landrover track half-crumbled into the sea.

Tidal Start Island from Scuthvie Bay:

Crossing the seabed is an adventure. The impermanent nature of the recently exposed land, water still draining off seaweed and fish in small pools, lends a frisson of urgency. The tide was coming in and sunset wasn't far off. We had a couple of hours to get back, or would spend the night on Start Island.

The ruined cottages bear exploration, crows nesting in chimneypots, their gardens gone wild. Flowers grow on the fertile machair in the shelter of low walls, and we found a rhubarb patch that provided the most delicious rhubarb crumble I can remember having.

Wildflowers on Start Island:

The wind streamed across the rest of the island, seabirds patrolling the shore edge at eye-level, indignant at our intrusion on their personal sanctuary. The lack of humans - and rats and dogs - on Start Island is evident by the large number of vulnerable ground nests. There is something special about these undisturbed places of Sanday.

We made our way over to the lighthouse, painted in black and white vertical stripes. I can't help think of the character Obelix from the Asterix and Obelix cartoons. It is the only lighthouse in the country painted like this - other stripey lighthouses have hoops - making it unmistakable during the day. Although automated in 1962, Start Point light continues to shine for shipping. I love lighthouses. I hope this beacon never stops providing its service.

A large solar panel at the side of the lighthouse reveals that it is self-powered. But the sun was setting, and we needed to see to get back across to the comfort and safety of Sanday...

Thursday, 19 June 2014


Of all the old houses in Scotland I've visited, I think my favourite might be Traquhair. It claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland (since at least 1107, maybe a 150 or so years earlier, if you're asking), the name being so old it is not English or Gaelic, but Old Welsh, the dominant language in the area before the Angles arrived in the 6th and 7th centuries. It sits in mature trees and parkland where the Quair Water meets the River Tweed, nestled - but not crowded - by steep Borders hills.

Traquhair House:

For centuries it was home to the Stewart family, today the Maxwell-Stuarts, an unostentatiously Catholic family. Whilst this is of only passing interest today, in centuries past the Stuarts had to exercise great discretion to avoid the suspicion of Protestant authorities. The old faith was easier for the landed gentry to retain than the common tenant, as they could afford to hire priests, worship behind closed doors, and were not subject to the same level of intrusiveness into private affairs - and in the Borders and Northumbria, Catholicism remained common amongst major landowners. Only when the law changed in 1829 were the Stuarts able to publicly build a chapel.

Their support of the old ways included espousing the Jacobite cause. Legend has it that in 1745, as the 5th Earl closed his new gates behind Bonnie Prince Charlie - a guest on his march to Derby - he declared that he would not open them again until a Stuart sat on the British throne. These Bear Gates remain closed to this day - and ever since, Traquhair has been accessed via a side entrance.

The Bear Gates:

I was last at Traquhair in March for the Deerstalker, a muddy hill-and-obstacle night race where the wearing of tweed is encouraged. But the most tangible souvenir brought home was not Tweedside mud, but a couple of bottles of superlative Traquhair Ale, brewed in a side building the old-fashioned way using ancient equipment found in a 1960s clearout. Founded in 1965, the Traquhair brewery must be one of the oldest existing microbreweries in the UK - if not the world.