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Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer

Articles - nature


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The Isle of Skye - Where Dinosaurs Walked

2018-03-18 17:46:44

Dugald Ross remembers the day when his interest in archaeology was first sparked. He was helping his parents at their peat bank at Ellishadder on the Isle of Skye. On the way home, his father had drawn the boy’s attention to a large boulder which seemed out of place. His father went on to say that the previous tenant of their croft had named this particular rock the ‘money stone’.

For reasons unknown, possibly while he was cutting peat, that gentleman had dug below the rock and found shards of pottery which, it was believed, he eventually sold to some place or person in Edinburgh.

Being interested in pre-history, Dugald began scraping away the turf under the ‘money stone’ at his earliest opportunity. To his delight, as well as shards of pottery, he also uncovered six finely shaped arrowheads.

The boy had discovered a Neolithic site. Here, some five thousand years ago, perhaps only five or six thousand years after the last Ice Age a family, or a larger group of people, had set up an encampment.

Though there was no sign of a chambered cairn, the frequently found indicator of a Neolithic burial site, Dugald suspects the arrow heads and shards of pottery may have been placed there carefully as part of a burial ceremony for an important member of that community.

As well as being of ceremonial significance, someone, all those years ago, may have tied one of those arrow heads to a straight length of tree branch, added feathers to the other end and fired the arrow to catch their dinner.

With the arrowheads as a centre piece, Dugald founded Staffin museum in the 1970s at the age of 19. The museum is located just off the A855 at Ellishadder near Staffin in northeast Skye. As well as the arrowheads, the museum houses an impressive array of dinosaur fossils which are of international significance.

The first evidence of dinosaurs ranging across Skye came from the discovery of a single footprint in 1982. After much research and argument amongst scientists, the print found at Rubha nam Brathairean, not far from Ellishadder, is now thought to be that of an ornithopod, a large herbivore that would have stood up on its two long legs.

It was fifteen years later before more prints were found in blocks of sandstone in roughly the same area.

For visitors looking at the artefacts on display in the museum, probably the most impressive exhibit is a thick length of dinosaur limb bone. There are several separate broken parts to it which, when lined up, fit together. After these sections were found, Dugald went searching in the same area and eventually came upon other parts of dinosaur skeleton including a large vertebra and a tooth.

Now the limb bone, possibly the femur of a Cetiosaurus which roamed around 175 million years ago, gives an indication of the size its owner might have been. At 10metres tall this beast was closely related to the Diplodocus, a huge herbivore which would have been similar in size to the even better known Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Dr. Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, who was alerted to the dinosaur finds on Skye, has studied the fossil evidence and has also made his own remarkable discoveries there. As well as slabs of rock bearing numerous dinosaur footprints, he also found what are believed to be the world’s smallest dinosaur footprints (according to his entry in The Guinness Book of Records) on the northwest corner of Skye’s Trotternish peninsula.

He had had taken a particular lump of rock with black markings back to his office in Glasgow. It was only when he lifted the rock to look at it in bright sunlight that footprints could be made out more clearly, one almost on top of another. On measuring the clearest print he found it to be just under 1.7 cm in length. The rock is now on display in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.

‘The significance of these prints,’ he said ‘is that they show evidence of dinosaurs breaking out of their eggs and leaving the nest at a very young age.’

It may be hard to imagine, but this area of the earth’s crust we now know as the Isle of Skye extends back some 3 billion years. At different times it has been part of an ocean floor, a tropical sea, a desert, a volcano and an estuary upon which dinosaurs roamed.

‘I’m constantly amazed,’ said Dr. Clark ‘that so much evidence of dinosaurs has been recovered from the storm swept beaches of the Atlantic Isle that is the Isle of Skye, Scotland’s Jurassic Isle.’

Sometimes, searching for dinosaur fossils is not for the fainthearted. After a particularly strenuous day on Skye when Dr. Clark and a few helpers had been hammering, drilling, chiselling and sawing apart a large rock, his leg broke and he had to be airlifted in a dramatic helicopter rescue to hospital in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis.

However, some of the most spectacular finds were first spotted by local people walking on An Corran beach, not far from Staffin Museum at Ellishadder. After the sand had been washed away by heavy seas, a big three-toed footprint of a very large meat eating dinosaur was discovered in a flat expanse of exposed rock.

Dugald Ross continues to search for dinosaur fossils. In summer 2013 he recovered a boulder from the shore nearby. Embedded in the boulder was a very large bone – from the time of this finding the process of identifying the bone has been on going. First published in The Scots Magazine

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Take the Train

2018-01-16 11:20:12

Sestri Levante in Liguria in north-west Italy is a coastal town on the lyrically named Riviera di Levante. An especially lovely part of the town overlooks the curve of the Bay of Silence where moored yachts and work boats of a few fishermen add to the picture postcard seascape.

A relaxing way to reach this corner of Italy is to go by train. Two hours after leaving London St. Pancras you can be stepping down from a Eurostar onto a platform at Gare du Nord, Paris. An overnight stay, or even better, a few days exploring Paris might be a delightful option before continuing your journey.

From Gare du Nord it takes only a few minutes by Metro, the city’s extensive underground train system to reach Gare de Lyon and a train bound for Venice. On any train journey there may be a few anxious moments on boarding and getting settled but on this long distance train the seating is comfortable with plenty of leg room, individual reading lights and a table.

From Gare de Lyon, the train crosses an expanse of rural France where fields of flat farmland appear to stretch for miles before meeting distant uplands. Further south in Switzerland the train passes through tunnels and alongside lakes and grey green rivers. On the terraced slopes of nearby hillsides, precisely spaced rows of vines grow in every available space. In the background, jagged mountain peaks pierce the sky.

Our first stopover was in Geneva, Switzerland. When we arrived in the late afternoon it was already growing dark so we didn’t manage to see a whole lot of the city. But while exploring quiet streets near the Hotel Edelweiss where we stayed overnight, we came across a busy restaurant serving typical Swiss dishes including fondue and local wines. It proved to be a good choice.

From Geneva we travelled to Milan where we changed trains again, this time within the same station before heading to Sestri Levante.

In late autumn, at the end of the main tourist season, Sestri Levante is pleasantly quiet with a restrained air of confidence. The town offers a choice of stylish hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, upmarket shops and hard - to - resist gelaterias selling variously flavoured ice creams.

With one of those ice creams to hand, it’s a delight to join the passaggiata, the early evening procession, as dog walkers, pram pushers, strollers dressed to be seen and those on mobility scooters or in wheelchairs make their way slowly along Via Roma.

In the restaurants, fish and sea food dishes including lightly battered anchovies, sea bass, hake and octopus are some of the specialities on the menus. If pasta appeals there’s plenty of choice especially as Liguria is known for its varieties of pasta and for being the home of pesto sauce made with locally grown basil, believed to be particularly pungent and flavoursome due to the area’s combination of salty air and sunshine.

While some visitors may not stray far from the beach loungers placed a few metres away from the gently breaking waves of the Bay of Silence, thousands of others head further south to the Cinque Terre, to explore the five colourful villages - Monterrosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore that sit dramatically on cliffs above the deep blue sea.

Not so long ago, these villages were emptying. Young people were moving out in search of further education and employment opportunities but now year round tourism keeps each village busy. They can be reached by road though a less stressful option might be to arrive aboard one of the ferry boats which leave from Sestri Levante and from other towns further down the coast.

Walking the coastal path between the villages is popular and though guide books suggest the14km will take between 2.5 and 5 hours, it is a strenuous walk in places and for many people of a certain age would not be a mere stroll in the park.

The Cinque Terre was hit by a flash flood on 25th October 2011which caused a lot of damage. In mid-October 2017, the coastal path was closed between, Riomaggiore and Manarola and Manarola and Corniglia due to landslides. However, should these parts of the path be closed long term, it is well worth taking the train to Riomaggiore, exploring the village and the coastal path as far as the National Park safety barriers allow, then heading north on a train to Manarola to spend some time there.

For our next day of walking the coastal path, we took a train from Sestri Lavante to Corniglia. From the station, it’s a stroll along the pavement before starting up the zigzag staircase of 382 steps, the ladarina, which leads walkers on to the coastal path to Vernazza. Along the way there are other similarly steep sections though thankfully with fewer steps. Other lengths of the path have been paved with flat rocks while on some corners, larger, rougher rock serves as steps between levels.

On one side the terraces are contained behind dry stone walls that were built and repaired over centuries. On the seaward side there are wooden railings in place where the path runs along particularly precipitous parts of the hillside sloping down to the sea.

Over the years as people moved away from the area, these terraces were farmed less and soil erosion and landslides added to the environmental damage. However, in 1997 this area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been given further protection through its National Park status. Behind the miles of dry stone walls there are rows of productive vines and groves of lemon and olive trees. To help the full time workers, a small army of volunteers from many parts of the world are given the opportunity to help in the maintenance of this beautiful land.

From many points on the path the views of the colourful villages, out to sea and along the coast, are stunning and vast. In the villages, the narrow lanes and squares appear timeless though a few premises now house shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants. When conditions are fine, sunbathers and swimmers head down to the shore to enjoy the sea and sunshine.

With hindsight, should we visit the Cinque Terre again, we would walk just one section per day, say, between Corniglia and Vernazza and allow ourselves more time to stand, stare, and find the perfect spot where we would sit in the shade with a picnic.

On heading home on the train journey north we stopped off in Turin. As darkness fell, we joined the crowds mingling in the impressive city centre squares lit with coloured light. Large numbers of people, out for the evening, strolled by the attractive shops along the length of the covered passageways. Other groups watched the proficient buskers playing music ranging in style from pop to classical. Having enjoyed our short time in Turin, we would definitely like to visit the city again.

This trip by train was a relaxed affair allowing us to people watch and enjoy the passing scenery and ways of different countries. Definitely recommended.

Further information: Ferries sail between Siestri Levante and the 5 villages between April and mid-October

There is a ticketing system allowing walkers access to the coastal path and other parts of the National Park.

Railbookers.com organised our train travel and hotel bookings.

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Chatelherault

2017-07-06 13:33:28

Have you ever noticed road signs on the M74 pointing the way to Chatelherault near the town of Hamilton? Like thousands of others you may have wondered where the unusual name came from.

It’s derived from the French town, Chatellherault. The Duchy of Chatellherault was a gift from King Henry 11 of France to the 2nd Earl of Arran, a Hamilton, for his part in the betrothal of Mary Queen of Scots to the French heir in 1548.

Later, the 5th Duke of Hamilton used the similar name for a building that has served as a hunting lodge, a summer palace and a dog kennel. Essentially though, Chatelherault, which is only one room deep, was especially designed as a sort of ostentatious terminus to catch the eye at the end of the tree-lined Grand Avenue stretching south from Hamilton Palace which was once the largest non-royal residence in Britain, possibly even in Europe and the main residence of the Dukes of Hamilton from at least 1591 until 1919.

Unfortunately, Hamilton Palace is no more. It became a casualty of Lanarkshire coal mining operations and had to be demolished in the 1920’s. Chatelherault meanwhile, was also falling into disrepair.

Today however, after extensive restorations, it has been brought back to its former glory and now forms the impressive centre-piece where visitors usually begin their explorations of Chatelherault Country Park.

Let’s start from the front door with a turn along the paved path that edges the borders on three sides of the pink sandstone building. These borders contain some trees and ornamental bushes but it was mainly herbs that were grown here.

The Duke’s table in the 18th century would have been fairly dull without them. In fact, flowers rarely got room in his garden unless they were edible. Among the herbs for use in his kitchen were parsley, thyme, rosemary and basil. Some plants were also cultivated for drying before being spread on the floors to mask the smells of everyday living. Others were used to scent the air. There’s nothing new in today’s pot pourri!

Herbs were also grown for medicinal purposes. Rosemary twined in your hair was thought to be an aid to better memory. Lemon balm, it was believed, given every morning, ‘will renew youth, strengthen the brain and relieve languishing nature’. If only it was that easy!

At a gap in the border there is a low gate in the garden wall. Behind it, patterns have been created in the grassed area with low box hedging.

Continue along the path and the views stretch all the way to the towns of Hamilton and Motherwell with the distant hills of Ben Lomond and Drumgoyne beyond.

From the lawn area at the back door it’s a steep drop down to a much lower green sward. This different level is the result of quarrying in the past. In fine weather the space is enjoyed by children playing and picnicking. What, I wonder, would the Hamilton aristocracy have made of all this fun and games? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the local populace were seen merely as a source of income while they dug out sand and mined the coal on the Duke’s estate.

The women in this collier population were serfs or slaves like their husbands, fathers or brothers and worked with them in the mines. ‘Muscular strength in a female, not beauty was the grand qualification by which she was estimated and a strong young woman was sure of finding a husband’. If the women attempted to escape, they were liable to be seized and brought back to servitude.

However, in a letter written to the Duchess of Hamilton dated January 2nd 1851, the Duke’s factor, Robert Brown, who must have been more enlightened, described how an Act of Parliament passed on 13th June 1799 changed a way of life. In his letter he was attempting to persuade the Duchess to finance the education of these young women. Education, he pointed out, would be their saving. Their refinement would benefit the whole country and prosperity would follow.

Off to one corner at the rear of Chatelherault stands a small, square red sandstone building. Over the years it has served many purposes. Most times it was just a posh garden shed but along the way it became known as the Leopard House where the Palace leopard was kept. On other occasions it housed the 6th Duke’s polar bears! Other animals known to have used the facility included a monkey, wolf, eagle, peacock and peahen.

Before completing your walk of the square and returning to the front door of Chatelherault, look out for a small herd of Cadzow cattle. They may be seen grazing amongst the sheep in the distance. The estate is one of only a few places in the country where this rare breed with white coats and long, black - tipped horns are kept. They are possibly the descendants of wild cattle that roamed the ancient Caledonian Forest which once covered large areas of Scotland.

Wild white cattle were the sacrificial beasts of the Celtic Druids and the Romans. When the Romans left Britain, large numbers of these beasts were turned loose to roam the forests. Tradition has it that King Robert the Bruce hunted wild bulls around here in 1320 as did James 1V of Scotland two centuries later.

But never fear! As you wander the woodland paths, keep in mind that the cattle of old were rounded up and driven into parks more than three hundred years ago during the time of the enclosure of the great estates. Wild things to look out for now include bluebells, butterflies and birdlife. Stroll out to the Duke’s Bridge and you may spot, far below, a grey heron standing stock still studying the slow flow of the Avon Water.

This twisting path runs past the remains of Cadzow Castle and further on, the venerable Cadzow Oaks. Some of these trees are thought to be up to nine hundred year old remnants of the great Caledonian Forest. Although they are hollow they still support a vast amount of insects and other wild life.

Chatelherault Visitor Centre has a wealth of information in the display area covering the natural history of the Clyde Valley and work that took place here on the estate.

In the banqueting room and Duke’s room you’ll have to crane your neck to appreciate the marvellously restored plaster work on the ceilings and walls.

Now try and imagine what life was like here for the bright young aristocrats who charged on horseback through the Chatelherault woods by day and danced at parties in these rooms by night. A dog’s life in the dog kennels? Not a chance

Further information: The visitor centre has a shop and a café/restaurant and information on the various woodland walks. At the entrance to the Country Park there is a play area for children.

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Portpatrick

2017-04-24 14:50:19

In that dozy time between sleep and wakefulness, the squawking of a seagull was more effective than an alarm clock. The harsh cry prompted me to leave the warmth of a hotel bed, pull back the thick curtains and open the window to smell the salty air. Across the road an incoming tide was filling the harbour. Stretching up on tiptoes, I fancied I could make out the coast of Ireland, some 22 miles away.

I was in Portpatrick. The village is stacked in a cleft of the cliffs on the west coast of the Rhinns of Galloway. Behind, there’s a valley leading inland that allows easy access to the hills beyond, to Stranraer, Galloway, and the rest of Scotland.

Historically, it was this ease of access, helped by the construction of military roads, which made Portpatrick strategically important. Its position was a factor when troops were being rushed to quell insurrections in Ireland. The soldiers however, must have discovered many times that this shortest of sea routes between Britain and Ireland was not necessarily the quickest. That was all of three and four hundred years ago, yet Colonel Street and Barrack Street are still faint reminders of these times.

Later, Portpatrick was the port of entry for huge numbers of Irish cattle and their handlers making the journey to markets in Scotland and England. In more recent times, it has been a terminal for the mail boats to and from Ireland and a landing place for catches from a once great herring fishing fleet.

Though huge amounts of material and effort went into making the harbour safe, it never really worked as a haven for passenger ferries. Regular poundings by the forces of nature couldn’t be mastered. In stormy weather travellers might have to wait a long time until calmer conditions allowed them to get clear of the harbour. Even then, they could still face a crossing lasting hours, or days in some extreme instances, when the sea was being whipped into a fury.

“Gone with the wind, my romance has flown away,” is a line from a once popular song. When the village was the Gretna Green for Ireland perhaps wild weather was the cause of some relationships faltering. In those days, proclamations were made in the church immediately upon a couple’s arrival. If they required a hurried or a secret wedding the ceremony was completed without delay as long as they could convince the minister there was no legal objection. In 1826 the Church Courts suppressed the practice.

Another old custom had ended a few years earlier. For years, infirm persons including children suffering from rickets were brought to a cave north of Portpatrick on the first night of May. It was believed they might be cured if they could be washed in the spring water flowing from the cave.

Today, walkers heading in the same direction go past the north end of the harbour, putting green, tennis courts and children’s play park before finding the first signpost for the start of the Southern Upland Way. This is Scotland’s only coast-to-coast long distance footpath. For the start at this western end a zigzag of wide steps lead up the cliff face.

At the top, vast views over Portpatrick, southwards down the coast and out to sea are worth the effort. Carved into one of the first steps, is the information that there is only another 212 miles to go (minus the fifty yards you’ve just done), to complete The Way at Cockburnspath on Scotland’s east coast.

The path here passes the golf course where, I can imagine golfers fuming as they compete against the wind. On a flat calm day, our route led back down to sea level, across pebble beaches, round fierce, fanglike towers of rock, then up more steps built into the cliff face. Here though, some aid is provided. On the seaward side there are lengths of strong chain to pull on that also act as a fence of sorts. Easy walking follows on grass slopes where sheep wander at will.

The Way leads past Killantringan Lighthouse which shines a warning to ships to steer clear of the dangerous promontory known as Black Head. The name aptly fits this treacherous headland. Other names including Hairyhorroch, Slouchnawen Bay and Cubbies Hole seen on maps of this coastline may need a bit more explanation.

Portpatrick derives its name from that great apostle of Ireland, St. Patrick, who according to legend crossed the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland in a single stride and left a deep footprint on a rock. Unfortunately, that rock was later removed during the construction of the harbour.

Near the south end of the harbour another scenic walk also starts with steps leading to a narrow path passing Dunskey Castle. On the seaward side, waves foam and gurgle far below filling inlets between great thrusts of rock. On the landward side there’s a deep canyon that must have taken huge amounts of dynamite and digging. Its floor carried the rail track to the harbour from the station at the top of Portpatrick’s Main Street. Unfortunately, right from the start, this line suffered from competition from the Stranraer to Larne Ferry. The last train left Portpatrick on 6th February 1950.

From records it would appear Dunskey Castle became a ruin early in the 17th century. Standing on a bleak site, its rocky base slopes quickly away on the seaward sides. In front, on the landward side, a moat would have added extra protection.

One story goes that in association with a castle in Ireland, Dunskey controlled the seas here and levied dues on passing ships. Galleys were kept in readiness for this nefarious purpose. The castle has featured in a few films. Its very bleakness was the attraction for filmmakers.

You may have seen other Portpatrick locations that have also appeared on cinema screens. Fans of the television series, 2000 Acres of Sky, might recognise the boat, Solstice, at anchor in the harbour. For that series, Port Logan, further down the coast, became an island, the mythical Ronansay.

Lots of people have reasons to be grateful for another boat berthed in Portpatrick harbour - that’s the lifeboat. Nowadays, around the country, volunteers from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution are called out as often as 5000 times a year. Some 1500 lives are saved and hundreds more helped out from potentially dangerous situations.

On the lifeboat station information board I read that 540 services (until then) had taken place from there since 1877. The most recent happened just a few days before my visit.

Time: 6.00 a.m.

Weather conditions: slight.

Type of casualty: yacht.

Rescued: 3 men

Details of service: The yacht ran ashore on rocks at south side. Boat towed off next morning but sank within two minutes.

In the middle of Portpatrick, by the round tower of an early parish church, gravestones commemorate sea captains, crew and ship’s passengers who weren’t so lucky.

There have been many shipwrecks on this beautiful but, at times, savage coast. We all know the sea can be cruel but thankfully storms can also offer lighter moments as I learned from the following tale.

The width of the roadway separating Portpatrick’s houses from the harbour doesn’t always keep the sea at bay. During severe gales, spray from waves has been known to splatter on the house roofs. This once benefited a local fisherman. One stormy morning he was wondering what he would be able to get for his breakfast, “then surprise, surprise, a fine cod came down the chimney with a swirl of water.”

Portpatrick stands in a quiet, beautiful part of Galloway in south west Scotland. The whole area is well worth visiting.

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