Thursday 28 August 2014

Reykjavik Marathon

When you are going through your mid-life crisis, at some point - after flying a seaplane, but before getting a ponytail and a motorbike - you'll want to tick a marathon off your list. Ideally you want to do it somewhere scenic, not too hot, somewhere where the locals are friendly.


Graham (my Island Peaks Race companion - he's not having a mid-life crisis, he's just mad) and I arrived at Keflavik Airport in evening light that would excite comment in Scotland for its clarity and purity. In the near-Arctic this light is apparently fairly common. The clear skies brought their own problems overnight - I didn't sleep well in the cold. A sheet of ice on the tent in the morning. In August! We had got chatting to folk on the plane - including experienced runner Mark, who wanted to qualify for Boston, the runner's marathon. To make things more difficult, he was camping too. He gave me great tips on staying hydrated and fuelled before and during the race, which helped immensely.


Race day was cool and almost windless - perfect conditions! 1144 people had entered the marathon, with another 8 or 9 thousand doing the half and 10k. Locals lined the route, cheering and banging spoons against pots. Bands played in makeshift combos on driveways. An elderly man in a suit and fedora played his saxophone. Small children waved Icelandic flags. The congested mass of runners started to thin out. "Too fast, we're going too fast!" I urged Graham. I was determined to keep some energy in reserve for hitting 'the wall'. Eventually Graham pulled ahead. I let him go. I had my own personal race to run.

Running a marathon in Iceland:

By 19km, the 10k and half marathon runners had left us, and all became quiet. (Iceland is a quiet country. There is almost no birdsong.) At each junction local kids directed the way and stopped traffic. We ran through a glen and along the shore, past a monument to the Great Auk. It was going to start to hurt around 30km. OK, 32km. When it didn't, I wondered what was going on. Where was the wall? I didn't speed up though, just hummed tunes to myself and kept trundling on... and there was the finish line. Woo hoo! I'd done my first marathon. And it was easy. I could have kept going at that pace for a fair way yet.

My time was 4:36. Graham did it in 3:59. Mark qualified for Boston with the excellent time of 3:22.

"What did you think of your first marathon?" asked Mark as we wallowed in the campsite's hot pools later that afternoon. My first marathon? Yeah, it was great. Would I do another?

I would if they are all like this.

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: