Tuesday 26 May 2015

The Finest Beach on Colonsay

To many casual visitors, Kiloran Bay on Colonsay is the finest beach in the Hebrides.

Kiloran Bay:

To others, it is not even the finest beach on Colonsay. Once you get to know the island, it is usual to meet people whose favourite is anywhere but Kiloran Bay (which due to its popularity, can sometimes be unbearably busy, sometimes with two or three other people on the beach at the same time). More than one person, for example, has indicated a preference for Balnahard Bay at the very northern end of Colonsay.

Balnahard Bay and Jura:

But Balnahard and Kiloran aren't the only beaches on Colonsay. The island has what seems like dozens of them. And at least one person I met swore by Traigh Tobar Fuar. This, he exclaimed, was the best beach on Colonsay.

Traigh Tobar Fuar:

I am not so sure. For those in the know, at the end of farm tracks, are other, even more exquisite beaches. By a fairly large margin, the jewel of those who know Colonsay is Cable Bay, with its turquoise water and otter tracks in the sand.

Cable Bay:

We're getting warmer, but there is another beach not too far from Cable Bay that captured my heart. It doesn't have a name on the map, but it sits right at the edge of Colonsay, facing Oronsay. A narrow tidal channel cuts the beach in two, temptingly wadeable at very low tide. The wind whips the marram grass as you approach but on the beach itself, there is shelter, and a complexity in the lagoons and rocks left behind by the receding tide, seabirds pecking in the shallows. The atmosphere is different to other beaches. Neither intimate nor big and oceanic, it feels at the edge of everything, yet also secluded, a world in itself.

My favourite Colonsay beach:

There's other things to do on Colonsay, but with beaches like these, you'd need more than a couple of weeks to see and do them all!

Thursday 21 May 2015

Kiloran Bay

"We're looking to go to Kiloran Bay. We haven't been yet."

"Your first time on Colonsay?"

"Yes, how do you know?"

"If you'd been to Colonsay, you'd have been to Kiloran Bay."

Kiloran Bay:

Kiloran Bay is Colonsay's best known feature. In 1904 Donald Smith - Canada's richest man and recently ennobled as Lord Strathcona - was on holiday in the Hebrides with his wife Isabella. She reputedly fell in love with Kiloran Bay, so Donald bought the island. It is in the possession of his descendants today. They preside over what seems, from a tourist outsider's view, to be a well-run community. Their base is the attractive 18th century Colonsay House, a wonderfully lush place for a windswept island. Colonsay is known for its bird conservation, but for me the real bird of the island is neither chough nor corncrake but the cuckoo, abundant thanks to the surprising number of trees for the Hebrides.

Colonsay House estate:

The beach itself is a lovely stretch of pale yellow sand, orange when damp, and calling anyone with any aquatic bent whatsoever to go for a swim. We walked its length, lazy waves lapping the sands.

Kiloran Waves:

Now to some, this is the finest beach in Colonsay. But not everyone thinks this.

Monday 18 May 2015

A Hebridean Cruise

A holiday usually begins when you arrive at your destination. But when you are going to an island off the west coast, the fun can start as soon as you leave Oban.

Leaving the port of Oban:

Given good weather, the Calmac ferry to your island is a pleasure cruise in its own right.

The whole seaboard of Drum Alban was visible (seen here from our island destination). Behind the twin peaks of Beinn a' Bheithir, Ben Nevis is visible on the left, its southern flanks still full of snow. Bidean nam Bian, Ben Starav, and the distinctive double peak of Ben Cruachan.

The boat pulls south into the Sound of Kerrera, island views opening up...

The slate island of Easdale, a quarry until a storm filled the mines with seawater. These peaceful lagoons now host the annual World Stone Skimming Championships.

Mull with Ben More, barren, dark and high...

The unpopulated island-hill of Scarba...

I was excited to pass close to the Garvellachs, a remote, uninhabited island group I had never seen before.

The boat passed down the little-seen north-western side of Jura, a barren shore of low seacliffs, mottled brown moors, and undisturbed streams. To the south, the Paps of Jura rear into the sky...

With the sky clouding over and the wind dropping, we pulled into the peaceful harbour of our destination. What would a holiday on a Hebridean island bring?

Arriving at Scalasaig:

Friday 8 May 2015

The Scottish Bloc

To outsiders, the electoral behaviour of Scots over the last year may seem puzzling. To reject independence in the referendum, but then colour the map SNP yellow just eight months later.

UK General election results, 2015 (source, BBC):

However it makes sense when you realise two things.

The first is the constitutional desire of the Scottish electorate has not changed - as much power as possible whilst still remaining in the UK. Polls before the referendum consistently showed it as the most popular option - but it was not offered in the referendum. Nor has it been offered in the general election, except as an SNP pledge. And it still seems to be the Scottish electorate's desire. Hence the logic of voting No in the referendum, and SNP in the General Election.

The second is that tactical voting in Scotland is not new. It is normal. Scots have voted tactically for decades, if not centuries, and down the ages the occasional commentator has sneered that the Scots don't do democracy, evinced by their historical habit of returning a phalanx of identical MPs. But being tied to a neighbour with numerically superior representation in Parliament, Scots have tended to vote en bloc as the only way of ensuring their voice was heard at all. For decades, Labour was seen as the best party to protect Scottish interests.  Before that, the Unionists, then Liberals and the Whigs. As far back as the 18th century, when parties were not quite so well formed and Henry Dundas had huge powers of patronage, the purpose of Scottish MPs and the tiny electorate was clear - to support the government of the day, in exchange for the best deal for themselves in the form of the government sinecures, pensions, and imperial positions distributed by Dundas.

Thus the SNP's blanket domination is just the latest, if most explicit expression of that understandable, age-old phenomenon - Scots trying to get the best deal for themselves from a parliament dominated by non-Scottish interests.

Monday 4 May 2015

The English 3000ers - Skiddaw

A slow start. A first, healthy breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, spinach and coconut oil. A second, unhealthy breakfast of bacon, beans, fried mushrooms, sausage, and toast. There was no hurry with the rain, weather that matched the hungover mood. I had climbed Helvellyn plus three other hills the day before, and met old friends in Keswick on Friday night. We had drunk far more than was sensible for middle aged guys with mortgages and families. In our delicate state we were going to drive nowhere. Skiddaw might be bland and boring to walk on, but it rises directly behind Keswick in a majestic sweep and so we tenderly set off in the rain for what we expected, if we are honest, to be a slog.

Derwentwater from Latrigg:

The first of the day's objectives was Latrigg. Reaching this took us two hours, having got lost in Keswick first, then bimbling amiably up its steep flanks. But by the top, the rain had stopped and the cloud lifted. It was going to be a no bad day.

Skiddaw contains a Dodd, of which there are many in this area. "Graphite," said Cammy, dod being the local word to denote hills containing this pencil-making material. (Keswick did used to have a pencil factory, after all.) This also makes for rounded outlines. Skiddaw and the northern hills of Blencathra and Knott are quite different to the rest of the Lake District, more Scottish in character, the glen between the three hills unrelieved by quaintness.

Blencathra from Skiddaw:

It was freezing cold on top, the winter weather resolutely determined to stay despite spring's lengthening days. I was happy though. This was my last English 3,000ft hill - The Scafells, Helvellyn, and now Skiddaw. Twenty years separated the first and the last. Now for the Welsh 3000ers. Another place I'd like to go is the Isle of Man - visible from the top of Skiddaw. I've been to Snaefellsnes in Iceland. It would be nice to climb its British namesake.

Man from the top:

The views down to Derwentwater are good. Did we really have to walk all that way back to Keswick?

Derwentwater from Skiddaw:

As we descended, the sun came out. Something we'd not have expected when we set off. Had we been sensible the night before and had an early start, we would have missed this!

Derwentwater in sunshine:

It was a glorious walk back down. We headed into Keswick basking in sunshine, and while the others planned dinner, I headed back up the road towards Edinburgh, taking the A7 to re-familiarise myself with more Borders countryside and towns. A good trip to the Lake District.

Helvellyn from the Latrigg car park: