“Some people come to Arran to climb the mountains,” said a lady of a certain age to everyone within earshot, “I come here for the chocolate.”
From the Chocolate Shop, she had crossed the shore road to sit and savour her sweets at a picnic table set in a well-tended area of grass and flowerbeds overlooking Brodick Bay.
Behind her, passing cars carried bags of golf clubs, mountain bikes, canoes or surfboards. There was activity on the putting green, crazy golf course and bowling green.
On the strip of sandy beach to her left, the bucket and spade brigade were also busy, possibly too busy to notice an artist attempting to capture on canvas the shifts of light and cloud patterns that played on the backdrop of forest and mountains.
Completing this postcard picture, moored yachts bobbed in the gentle swell as the Waverley, the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world, chuff-chuffed away from the pier.
The Isle of Arran, known as Scotland in miniature, has long been a magnet for a diverse range of visitors. As well as sandcastle builders and adrenaline junkies, it’s also an ideal get-away for those who would pursue ‘soft adventure’ and good food.
Being in the soft adventure age group, my ploy was to drive the coastal road, get sand between my toes on the beaches, and walk some of Arran’s way-marked paths. My efforts would be rewarded with stops along the way, on the Arran Food Trail - a smattering of businesses, cafes, restaurants and hotels that make splendid use of local food supplies.
For my first foray, Brodick Castle was perfect. As well as fabulous formal gardens and a famed display of rhododendrons, a network of paths meander through tree covered slopes and lead back to the castle restaurant where the lunch menu boasts home-made soups, locally produced smoked salmon pate, cheeses, ice cream, breads and oat-cakes amongst many other delights.
From Brodick, Arran’s “capital”, the A841 road twisting southwards, gains enough height to give superb views over Holy Isle, before it slopes down to the coastal resort of Lamlash. Holy Isle’s great bulk shelters Lamlash Bay where conditions are generally favourable for water activities of all kinds. On a day of blustering wind with sunny spells between showers of lashing rain, I watched a group of youngsters gamely attempting to control their kayaks in the added safety of the harbour. A caravan on the pier was advertising sailing trips across to Holy Isle (see Peace Perfect Peace on Holy Isle at www.writearoundscotland.com) where everyone is welcome to stay in the Centre for World Peace and Health that opened in May 2003. The centre aims to become a focal point for interfaith work and retreat and offers a peaceful refuge from this hectic world.
The name Holy Isle has only been in use since 1830. Before then it was named in Gaelic, Eilean Molaise, from eilean, (island) and from Molas, after an Irish monk born in 566 who went there to live in a cave. As was often the case with holy men then, he was imitating Christ’s period in the wilderness.
To get as close as possible to Holy Isle, without taking to sea, (I left that for another time), I drove on to find the turn-off to Kingscross Point. From the road-end, a path bordering a field where horses graze, leads down through trees to an area of short grass ending at a strip of pebble beach. Holy Isle seems to rear up a short distance away. Near the south end, the white lighthouse is striking in the sunshine above the blue of the water and backdrop of green slopes patched with purple.
With such a view, on such a beach, it’s easy to linger, to search for that perfect flat stone to beat a previous, best stone-skimming record, but I wanted to get higher. Trimmed grass paths lead upwards past waist high ferns, tangles of bramble bushes, and rowan trees loaded with orange-red berries to the ruined outline of an Iron Age fort. With extensive views back to Lamlash Bay and Brodick Bay, to Holy Isle and much further out over the Firth of Clyde, it’s easy to appreciate why the ancient builders chose this commanding position.
Further along the coast, Whiting Bay is the next village and the usual start of a sign-posted trail to Glenashdale Falls. It’s a walk of great contrasts. From near the seaside, the way leads past well-tended gardens growing palm trees, eucalyptus, vivid blue hydrangeas, hedges thick with red-pink fuscia blossom and orange monbretia. A board at the end of one garden reads,
“Drive carefully. Beware! Children! Animals and Frogs”!
The going gets slightly rougher on a farm track which narrows to a path leading into the dark, coolness of a spruce forest until an area above the falls is reached. This is an ideal spot to rest and make use of the picnic bench conveniently placed a few steps from the river before it plunges over the rock edge to the valley below. To get the best views of the falls, there is a bridge here that crosses the few yards of river and leads to a path going down the opposite side of the gorge. Further down the path there are fenced areas and a platform that offers a great view of the waterfall.
Driving south again, the road leaves the coast to climb round the side of hills, dipping and bending and offering views of fields of sheep and cattle and, more unusual, Shetland ponies. Even more of a surprise is the sight of a party of peacocks at the end of a driveway.
It's worth leaving the A841 at the road sign for Kildonan and parking at the hotel, or further along the road at a smaller parking area near where the row of houses ends. From there, find the gate for a walk along the beach. Spot cormorants drying their wings and seals hauled out on the rocks. Inland the waterfalls dropping from the height of the raised beach can be impressive. Out to sea, look for the great lump of volcanic rock on the horizon that is Ailsa Craig, sometimes called Paddy's Milestone and the small island of Pladda. Blackwaterfoot is the next sizeable village with shops, a hotel, small harbour and other facilities for visitors. It’s a busy spot. People come to enjoy the fine sandy beach or walk the coastal path to the King’s Cave where Robert the Bruce supposedly watched that spider. The way leads alongside Shiskine golf course, where anyone, from grandparents to grandchildren are encouraged to come and play.
Similarly, further round the coast at Machrie, golfers and non-golfers alike, are welcomed into the clubhouse to enjoy home cooked delights such as chicken broth and plum and date crumble.
“Spike shoes must not be worn in the tea-room” seems a reasonable admonishment on a noticeboard.
Hardly any distance on, at Auchagallon, there’s a stone circle just a short distance from the road. From here, views are vast - out to sea, over farmland and the Machrie golf links. The few remaining upright slabs of the stone circle hint at the outline of a large cairn. It’s now grassed over but some 4000 years ago this would have been an impressive mound of stones for all to see, covering the stone-lined graves of important people.
The road here hugs the shore past the small settlements of Pirnmill and Catacol. Pirnmill takes its name from a type of bobbin used in the cotton industry. When production of cotton continued to increase on the mainland, a mill for the manufacture of bobbins was established here.
The village of Catacol is well known for its twelve, almost identical cottages, known as the twelve apostles. Attractive as they are, the row is evidence of a sad episode in Arran’s history. The cottages were built in 1863 to house islanders cleared from Glen Catacol in favour of deer, which at the time were more profitable than sheep.
The road continues to follow the shoreline until it reaches Lochranza. With its castle, distillery, ferry connection to the mainland and safe mooring for yachts, Lochranza is a popular spot. Though getting there is still a little bit of a delightful adventure, a trip here, to the north end of Arran, wasn’t always so easy. Before cars were commonplace, a bus company in Lamlash ran mystery tours costing 3 shillings - the price included tea and entertainment. These outings were much in demand even though it was known that they always ended in Lochranza. Seemingly the best part was the community singing, with the bus owner conducting with a stick of rhubarb. Ah, innocent days.
After Lochranza, the road bends inland to pass through Glen Chalmadale, an area almost Highland in character where jagged peaks reach for the clouds. A steep run down then leads back to the sea and our starting point.
Further Information: The Arran Arts Heritage Trail has been recently established around the island. Twenty hand carved, red Arran sandstone blocks mark the physical trail. They denote places where artists including Joan Eardley, Jessie M. King and Alasdair Gray were inspired to create work while on Arran. Some of the stones are fairly easy to find. Other stones are not so easy to find. Information booklets can be obtained from the Visitor Centre near the bus stances in Brodick
For the short time the Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry is tied up at Port Askaig pier near the north-west corner of Islay (pronounced eye-la), this small port is very busy. Though most passengers drive off the ferry, for foot passengers a local bus awaits.
We’re heading almost diagonally across the island to the farthest south-west corner. At the bend at Bridgend, one arm of the the road carries on to Islay’s other ferry terminal at Port Ellen, but we’ll make a right turn here and head along the side of lovely Loch Indaal where small groupings of geese are searching for food. Many more will be pecking at farmers’ fields inland.
As we pass through Bruichladdich there’s no mistaking there’s a distillery here. The village name is picked out in large capital letters in front of a whisky still.
Port Charlotte is the next village we pass through and some would argue it is Islay’s prettiest. The white painted buildings with window and door surrounds picked out in blues, blacks and reds, gleam after each shower of rain. The road becomes a single lane but we can see far ahead and know to stop at the nearest passing place should we meet an occasional oncoming vehicle. In one field by the roadside there’s a small flock of alpacas. These beasts, like shorn sheep with very long necks, are more usually at home in Peru, but they appear content here. A few hairy Highland cattle with wide pointed horns search for sustenance on the poorest grass. These hardy beasts can get by in even the worst weather.
The road sign tells us we have reached Portnahaven. But first, let’s walk towards the sea down a side road that will take us through Port Wemyss. This township is an extended T- junction of neat, white, well-kept houses plus a bus shelter, telephone box and post box.
Across the narrow road fronting the strip of houses, gardens slope downwards towards the coastal path. Across the channel of fast - flowing sea the island of Orsay lies straight ahead. It’s this great lump that saves Port Wemyss from an Atlantic battering.
Orsay Lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1826 and was once manned by three light house keepers. Now it is fully automated.
Another notable feature on the island is the gable end remains of an ancient chapel dedicated to St, Columba. Orsay may well have been one of Columba’s stopping off points on his way from Ireland to Iona.
From the coastal path it’s only a short walk to arrive at the end of the Portnahaven roadway that runs down this side of the long U – shaped bay. Potnahaven came into being when, to make more money from sheep than from people, the landlord moved his tenants from their crofts and persuaded them to become fishermen. As they became more efficient, bigger boats allowed the fishermen to sail as far as Ireland to fish and sell their catches. There’s no commercial fishing from here nowadays but a few small boats lay creels to catch lobsters and crabs.
Overlooking the village and looking straight out to sea is Portnahaven church. Designed by Thomas Telford, it is unusual in that it has two entrances. It is said that Port Wemyss people would go in through one door while Portnahaven folk would enter by the other.
As we leave Portnahaven and head north we pass what’s known locally as OK corner. These big letters have been kept on the wall over the years. One explanation I was offered was that they may have been painted here first by American servicemen who used the expression.
We’re now travelling up the west side of Islay. The single track road dips and bends giving views of the rock-strewn shoreline which takes the full force of Atlantic gales. Many ships have been wrecked along this coast and now the sunken remains are an attraction for visiting divers.
At a grass car park, a track leads down to Claddich sands, a small crescent of clean beach. From there it’s no distance to the world’s first experimental wave station. Islay Wave Power Station was developed by Queen’s University Belfast and linked to the National Grid in 1991. Apart from a low, flat - topped grey building there’s not much to see, but it’s heartening to know that the energy from the waves hitting this coast is being utilised.
We’ve nearly completed this tour. We’ll go as far as the Port Charlotte Hotel where we’ll get a lovely meal and perhaps a wee dram of one of Islay’s famous whiskies. There may be fiddle and accordion music from local musicians and a blazing peat fire. It will be the perfect end to a grand day out.
First published in The People's Friend magazine
The musician sits hunched, concentrating, fine tuning his guitar. With a final flourish of fingers, an arpeggio of thrumming sound signals his readiness.
Rhythmically clicking thumb and finger, a diva dressed in black, scarf of scarlet silk, leads into the first song. Now she claps her hands above her head. Her tapping feet add a back beat that builds into fierce drumming. At intervals she hollers, or praises particularly pleasing guitar accompaniment.
From a dark doorway, a dancer, varnished black hair, pink dress with flounces, steps dramatically into the circle of light illuminating the small performance area. High-heeled boots become percussive instruments as she batters the boards in an ecstatic, passionate dance. This is Flamenco-the sensual dance form that originated here in Spain’s south west corner, in the gypsy communities of Andalucia.
The mesmerising performance took place in an inner courtyard of Seville’s Cultural Centre. Overhead, a ceiling of wispy clouds drifted below stars that glistened in an inky black sky.
Similar open roofed patios usually serve as family living rooms in the heat of Seville’s sultry summers and can be glimpsed through wrought iron doors. The walls are often richly coloured ‘azulejos,’ Moorish inspired, patterned ceramic tiles. Floors are of pale marble. Huge potted palms add greenery and shade.
The flamenco performance ended around 11.00 o’clock and the audience wandered away, some in search of sustenance. Eating out at this time of night is usual in Seville and there is a good choice of restaurants - particularly in the maze of narrow streets of the old town, the Barrio Santa Cruz, and the adjoining, medieval Jewish quarter.
Tapas bars offering selections of small separate dishes, including fish, quiche, bull tail, potatoes with various spicy sauces and mixed salads are also popular. It’s an added bonus finding a pavement table where you can eat, drink and watch people stroll by the floodlit Cathedral of Seville.
This immense confection in stone was first build as a mosque in the late 12th century by conquering Moors and later demolished before being rebuild as a Christian cathedral, ‘on so big a scale that posterity will think we were mad,’ mused the architects. An in-depth tour, as you might imagine, takes some time. Should numerous side altars, rooms full of religious treasures, the largest and richest altar piece in the world and the sepulchre of Christopher Columbus leave you less than three steps to heaven, consider a walk to the top of the ornate bell tower.
The Giralda(bell tower) was twelve years in the making (1184-96). Once it was a minaret from where the faithful were called to prayer. Inside, instead of the expected flights of stairs, a series of 35 gently inclined ramps built wide enough for two guards on horseback to pass each other lead to the top. As you walk further up the ramp, open windows give close-ups of cathedral buttresses and statuary. At the top, beneath enormous bells, far-reaching views across city roofs justify the effort.
Nearby, the Reales Alcazares, encapsulates the complex history of Seville. The fortified palace gives an insight into the lifestyle and opulence demanded by succeeding rulers including the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians - though once it was even more fantastic. Supposedly, one sultan suitably extended the accommodation for a harem of 800 women. What remains of the exquisitely decorated Moorish architecture, luxuriant gardens and sumptuously tiled rooms with intricate wood panelled ceilings, gives some idea of past amassed wealth.
In contrast, the Museo de Bella Artes, a jewel amongst art galleries, was converted from a convent that lay empty for years. Many of the paintings are on religious themes by Spanish artists including Alonso Vasquez, Murillo, Ribera and Goya. While galleries elsewhere are often so large that even great masterpieces eventually cause your eyes to glaze over, here roomfuls of artworks are impressive without being overwhelming. A painted baroque ceiling crowns a room that was once the main chapel. Doors open on to restful courtyard gardens of sculpted myrtle bushes.
In the more lush gardens of Casa de Pilatos, an early 16th century mansion inspired by Pontius Pilate’s house in Jerusalem, you can wander past cascades of purple bougainvillea and trickling fountains that vie for attention with Moorish arches, Roman statuary, and rooms decorated with brilliant coloured tiles.
Showiness of a different kind is found near the River Guadalquivir at the opera house and the bullring, Plaza de Toros. Should the attraction in bulls being goaded and killed be beyond understanding, missing the small museum of bull fighting within the building won’t be a hardship.
Directly across the road is a statue of Carmen, cigar factory worker, feisty femme fatale and inspiration for the opera of the same name by Georges Bizet. In the novel penned in 1845 by French author Prosper Merrimee this was where Carmen died, stabbed, in a crime of passion.
Lower down, a landscaped walkway follows the riverside to Torre del Oro, a twelve-sided, 13th century fort from where a great chain once stretched across the river in defence of the city. The stronghold was also a store for gold brought back from the Americas. It now houses a small museum of naval curiosities.
From nearby, you can take a guided tour of the city in an open-topped bus or take to the water. Cruise boats head down river a short way, before turning to sail upstream past yellow, blue and white painted house fronts of Triana, a down-to-earth district off the tourist trail.
The trip goes as far as Puente de la Barqueta, one of the futuristic bridges built for the World Fair, Expo ’92. A reproduction of Victoria, the ship that first circumnavigated the world, is passed almost unnoticed, dwarfed by the exhibition features in the background.
Seville is very Spanish with a hint of North Africa, modern yet faintly decadent, where the present and historical merge. The real factory where the imaginary Carmen rolled cigars is now part of Seville’s University. Broad avenues lined with orange trees buzz with traffic yet there’s a place for horse-drawn carriages that clip-clop visitors round the sights or through the cool greenery of a city centre park.
The flags were out. So was the bunting. Between lampposts on the town’s main street, a thousand triangles of green white and gold fluttered in the wind. Teenagers blew whistles. Younger children toot-tooted cardboard trumpets while in every other passing car a not-so-young driver sounded the horn.From the church a few yards back from the road, came the murmur of a Mass in progress for this was a Holy Day as well as a public holiday in Southern Ireland.
The cacophony of noise was merely a warm up before the main event, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Celbridge, a small town to the west of Dublin.
Now, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City may be the biggest in the world. In Dublin, they boast their parade is best. But here, in Celbridge, the whole community appeared to be out on the street and involved. They took part in the parade, or lined the pavements to cheer and wave their flags, while local dignitaries looked on from the stage. .
In March 2007, the enthusiastic crowd had an added bonus - Ireland’s Strongest Man was there to give a demonstration. In a show of strength he went on to lift an amazing amount of weight!
Near the middle of the main street, final adjustments were made to the microphones and the loud speaker system that had been installed on a make-do stage on the back of a lorry. Now the music, Irish jigs and reels, could be heard all over. You could sense the anticipation mounting. Then as parade time neared all went quiet.
“Can youse hear me out there,” bawled the man testing the sound system.
The crowd on the pavement opposite acknowledged him by waving their flags and cheering even louder.
“The parade will begin in a few minutes,” he shouted again, ‘’but first, let’s give a big, Celbridge cheer for Jason Reilly, Ireland’s strongest man!”
On the roadside near the pavement where the crowd was deepest, a car had been backed up onto a raised metal ramp. Now Jason took hold of the handles on this ramp affair, bent his knees, huffed and puffed, then proceeded to lift the back of the car. The crowd, at least those who were near enough to witness this spectacle, were delighted.
For his next feat of strength, the big, ‘broth of a bhoy’ grabbed hold of a barrel - ‘20 stones it weighs’ said the commentator from the stage. Red faced with exertion, the strongman lifted the barrel above his head. The crowd were impressed and applauded his every move.
When the Parade came in sight it was led by a leprechaun holding tight to a pair of waist height, Irish Wolfhounds.
“They must be awfully good dogs,” said a wee girl waving her flag to distract them.
“Well trained,” said her mother, smiling.
Next there was a long line of vintage cars. One driver wearing a bishop’s hat waved slowly to the crowd. “Who’s he meant to be?” someone asks.
Then St. Patrick, complete with bushy beard and bishop’s staff, marched up the middle of the road to a great cheer.
In turn there follows troops of girl guides, boy scouts, children from a playgroup and a very young school group playing recorders. On instructions from their teacher, they stop marching, turn to face the dignitaries on the stage and play a slow air, the theme tune from the film, Titanic.
Next in line come the motor bikers, decorated tractors and three - wheeled tricycles. One tricycle is pedalled by Superman. Other huge agricultural machines are driven by more leprechauns.
Whenever a new group reaches that part of the road overlooked by the stage, they stop and give a short performance of their skills. There’s a show of martial arts and a mock fight by characters from the film, Star Wars. This is followed by a demonstration of juggling by a cohort of colourful clowns.
Gymnasts were led by a girl doing cartwheels. She keeps on cartwheeling - down the middle of the road.
There were groups from various sports clubs and a team of high kicking Irish dancers stepping out in colourful dresses and soft leather dance shoes.
As the theme music from Riverdance, the world famous Irish Show, was belting out over the loudspeakers another troupe of dancers, this time wearing hard black shoes, rapped out their steps in quick time on the tarmac. Some in the crowd couldn’t resist joining in with a few steps of their own.
Nearing the end of the parade, the pipe band of the Dublin Fire Brigade stopped in front of the stage. The drummers and pipers formed into a circle then played a set of tunes. Meanwhile the two mace carriers stood to attention.
For the final tune the band played the Irish National Anthem. Now the dignitaries, each wearing a bunch of shamrock, rose to their feet, adding their voices, singing in Irish. Many in the crowd, young ones as well as much older, stood with hand on heart and sang along. It was a poignant moment.
Celbridge’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade ended with a few “Hip, Hip, Hoorays,” everyone being thanked who had contributed to the occasion. As the pipe band marched away up the street, mothers pushing prams, young fathers with infants on their shoulders and older people, elbows linked, fell in behind, carried along with the music.
I suspect the pubs were soon overflowing and many a drop of the “black stuff” would be taken. The “craic”, as they say here, ‘’would be mighty’’.
What St. Patrick would make of the Celbridge celebration in his honour, we cannot imagine. But while it continues to bring local people and some of the many incomers to Ireland together, it must be a good thing.
Since 2007 when I enjoyed the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Celbridge, the event has continued to grow.
Want to Know More? Saint Patrick was born sometime between 387and 390 AD to a wealthy, high ranking Romano-British family. It’s uncertain exactly where he was born, but it is believed to have been in the village of Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton. Patrick was not overly religious as a child but this changed when he was kidnapped by Irish raiders, taken to Antrim and sold as a slave. For the next six years he worked as a shepherd. He eventually escaped and spent the next few years studying at a monastery in Auxerre. In 432 he was called to Rome where Pope Celestine consecrated him as a bishop. From there Patrick travelled to Ireland with 25 followers. Over the next few years he made extensive and successful missionary journeys throughout Ireland, spending his time preaching, teaching, building churches, opening schools and monasteries and converting chiefs and bards the length and breadth of the country. After his death, Patrick became a legendary figure and was credited with many miracles, the most famous of which is that he chased snakes from Ireland. However, it is believed that this referred to him eliminating paganism as snakes are a pagan symbol. He is also famous for describing the concept of the Trinity by using a shamrock leaf. Patrick is remembered as a bishop and missionary and is best known as the patron saint of Ireland, whose feast day is 17th March. However, he is also recognised as the patron saint of Nigeria, engineers and excluded people. The National Museum in Dublin has the little hand bell he used to summon his congregation as well as a tooth which is believed to have been Patrick’s.