Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Birdman of Ardmore Point

On a grey, soft, windless, listless day, the sort of day when time seems frozen and spring is just marking time, we took a walk around the Ardmore Peninsula. This is a special yet neglected place, the western end of the Highland boundary fault that runs the length of Scotland from just near Stonehaven on the east coast. The rocks here are the same conglomerate so noticeable on Conic Hill on the other side of Loch Lomond:

Ardmore Rocks:

Ardmore's bedrock is a knobbly height that was offshore just after the ice age, but is now connected to the rest of the land by a rasised beach. A handsome Georgian mansion sits in a commanding position looking up the Clyde, with its back to the prevailing westerlies and surrounded by wind-sculpted trees. Just from its location alone it feels that it must have a dramatic history, but there is little on the internet about it.

There were half a dozen cars parked at Ardmore, but it felt deserted, other walkers hidden in the bushes and folds of rock of the peninsula. The Clyde was asleep, the only noise coming from a container ship making its ponderous way upstream. The docks opposite - that once hosted scores of hammer-ringing shipyards - were utterly silent.

Inverclyde from Ardmore:

As we came around the point, off the muddy path and onto the coast rocks, it felt a long way from anywhere. The air was fresh, human noise non-existant, only the sound of ducks and their splashes on the still water. Crocuses and the first daffodils of the year brought a dash of colour to drab scene. The rocks of the peninsula petered out to a viewpoint over the Clyde. To the left: the Lowlands. To the right: the Highlands.

Soft Loch:

It was in this quiet area one of aviation's forgotten pioneers practiced his inventions. Although human gliding and the internal combustion engine were largely German innovations towards the end of the 19th century, everyone knows that it was the American Wright brothers, in 1903, who were the first to sucessfully marry the two together. But several men across Europe and North America had been in the race. One was Percy Pilcher, an English naval officer then technician at Glasgow University, who held the world distance record for a flight in a glider.

Fields behind Ardmore:

The fields where Percy perfected his craft lay on the low hills behind Ardmore Point. On each flight he would have looked beyond the point to the shipyards of Port Glasgow and the hills of Argyll. Towards the end of the 19th century he had built a 4hp engine, and married it to a triplane. The big exhibition flight was to take place in public on 30 September 1899 at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire.

Pilcher's plane:

Engineers in 2003 proved that Pilcher's machine could have flown in 1899, four years earlier than the Wright brothers. So why is Percy Pilcher not the name written into the history books? On that fateful day of 30 September 1899, he decided that the weather was too bad to risk his new aeroplane, and he would give a demonstration instead in his glider. He crashed and died, Britain's lead in aviation dying with him.

Ardmore and the fields west of Cardross is a peaceful place. But it was very nearly the place that incubated the first heavier-than-air human flight.


blueskyscotland said...

Very interesting post.Never even heard of Pilcher and I,ve worked out that way for years.
Ardmore was also the subject of a horror book by a Scottish Stephen King style writer. I remember reading it years ago.It wasnt bad.

Robert Craig said...

I've always been interested in aviation so Pilcher was one of my heroes as a lad. His is one of the great 'what if?' stories.

Talking of Scottish Kings - I've just finished a book by Alex Gray, the Glasweigan Rankin... quite good!

Billy said...

Was looking for photos to reccy bouldering potential - imagine seeing you here

Robert Craig said...

Try the other end of the highland line at Dunottar as well - must be loads of bouldering there! When's the trip to Loch Morar/Knoydart?

Billy said...

When my knee's better. Found this BTW http://www.hmag.gla.ac.uk/neil/geology/RIGS/Ardlflt6b.pdf Went there on a field trip once. It's a pretty cool place

Billy said...

BTW, I recall there are outcrops in the centre of the point. How high are they? been 22 years since I was last there. I also recall there is a quarry at Rhu (with plant fossils - it's pretty hard to track down though

Robert Craig said...

They are not very high, maybe 10-15m. Part of the old raised beach. Made of conglomerate. I've not tried to access them as there is dense tree cover in the way and it is near a house. Probably be ok on the seaward side of the peninsula though.

Billy said...

Finally got round to visiting. there is a path around the bottom of the crags, but didn't find the "official" route in to it from the neck. There is an obvious way out from near the unconformity. There is an old tower (since found out there are two. Do you know anything about them?
You can see the photos on my facebook album "boulder hunting".