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Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer

Articles - wildlife


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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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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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Kelpies and Canals

2017-06-11 15:06:34

In Celtic folklore, kelpies were believed to take the form of fearsome, powerful horses. When one of those beasts was seen, it would be easily identifiable by its white and sky blue colouring and constantly dripping mane.

It was also believed a kelpie could swim, keeping just one scary eye out of the water before changing its form to become a beautiful woman, all the better to lure men into a trap.

The Kelpies seen near Falkirk of late may therefore have been wrongly named as large numbers of people have been getting up close, unafraid, craning their necks for a better look!

These particular Kelpies, representing two horses’ heads, are a massive work of art made of thousands of pieces of stainless steel. Glinting in the sunlight, about 30 metres tall, they stand on either side of a new extension of the Forth and Clyde Canal.

From some angles, perhaps like the mythical creatures they have been named after, they appear benign, caught in two vaguely realistic poses – one head is downturned while the other reaches for the sky. And possibly because the sculptures are so big, some curious visitors are happy to pay to take a guided tour to ‘see the horse’s insides’ as it were.

As well as being monumental, complex pieces of engineering, artist Andy Scott’s Kelpies also commemorate the thousands of heavy horses that worked with their handlers during the construction of the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals.

The cutting of the first sod signalling the start of this endeavour took place in 1768 near Grangemouth at the River Forth end of the excavation that would become the Forth and Clyde Canal. It would be 1790 before this vast undertaking was completed at the village of Bowling on the River Clyde. As well as being a magnificent feat of engineering, this linking waterway between two great rivers was of immense importance in Scotland’s industrial past.

The Union Canal was built later, mainly to carry coal and building stone to Edinburgh. Goods and equipment could then be hauled across country between Glasgow and Edinburgh by barges pulled by heavy horses while sailing ships were saved a long, often arduous journey, round the north coast.

For the itinerant labourers who dug what were essentially elongated trenches, conditions must have been desperate. Consider the enormity of their task when picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, plus a few horses and carts were the available tools.

Labouring across this ‘waist of Scotland’ was nothing new, of course. Centuries earlier, the Roman Army had built a line of forts roughly parallel to where the Forth and Clyde Canal now runs. To better these defences against enemies to the north, Emperor Antonius Pius in AD140 ordered the building of a wall. It consisted of a wide, deep ditch and an earthen rampart interspersed with new forts and platforms for beacons. Though it was abandoned some 20 years later, the Antonine Wall replaced Hadrian’s Wall for a time, as the far northern frontier of the Roman Empire.

After circling the Kelpies, you might want to extend your walk or cycle (the sculpture is no distance from the Helix Park car park) along that part of the Forth and Clyde Canal in the immediate area, or explore the extensive paths in the newly created Helix Park.

Another option is to take a bus, or drive the four miles, for a look at the remains of the Antonine Wall on your way to the iconic Falkirk Wheel. In the passing you might notice the Union Inn, sited where the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal were first connected by a flight of locks at Lock 16.

It was from the basin at Lock 16 that the Charlotte Dundas, the world’s first practical steamboat, headed for Glasgow in 1803.

By 1836 the number of passengers travelling on the canals had risen to 200,000. Just as today, some of them would have enjoyed a meal or perhaps a small libation in the Union Inn beside Lock 16 before continuing their journey.

Sailing between Edinburgh and Glasgow took around 7 hours in boats called ‘swifts.’ Slower night boats, the ‘hoolets’ (Scots word for owls) were popular with honeymoon couples.

In 2002, the No.16 Lock gates were superseded by the Falkirk Wheel when the world’s first rotating boatlift was opened by H.M. Queen Elizabeth. Like the Kelpies, the Falkirk Wheel is a marvellous feat of engineering. From a basin off the Forth and Clyde Canal, it can lift 8 boats at a time (more usually 1 boat full of visitors) and deposit them some 25 metres higher on the Union Canal.

While gazing up at this mechanical marvel, also keep in mind there may be objects still more mysterious overhead. This area, particularly the town of Bonnybridge, west of Falkirk, has a reputation for witnessing many occurrences of unidentified flying objects.

The canal towpaths can be walked in sections or on one long trek from end to end. Considering that the waterway runs through some of what was Scotland’s industrial heartlands, much of it is now gratifyingly rural with expansive views. From the Union Canal towpath you can look over Falkirk to a distant, silver sliver of the River Forth, to the Ochil Hills beyond and further still to the peaks of the Highlands.

Swans and herons and a variety of ducks seem unperturbed by passing footsteps while stretches of woodland on each side are alive with noisy birdlife. Anglers are welcome, as are other water users such as rowers and canoeists.

In places, speeding trains on the nearby rails are reminders of the progress that led to the early demise of these canals. But in a recent turnaround, for the first time in years, material has been transported by barge instead of by road or rail.

With the opening of the new Forth and Clyde Canal extension which runs between the Kelpies, the waterway is now ready for vessels arriving from or making for the North Sea and beyond.

The Kelpies were officially opened to the public on the Easter Weekend of 2014 with a spectacular sound show and late evening blaze of lights.

Days later, the John Muir Way, running between the towns of Helensburgh in the west and Dunbar in the east, was also opened.

Now this latest long distance trail which makes use of some sections of the Union and Forth and Clyde Canals is ready for walkers, cyclists, or riders on horseback.

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The Beauty of the Isle of Bute

2017-03-27 16:34:33

There had been no need to rush on this warm sunny afternoon. Relaxing into ‘Bute time’, I was happy to drive a stretch of one of the island’s narrower roads particularly slowly – there was no other traffic but I was behind a large hare. It had taken up the middle of the road and just kept on going, straight down the middle, seemingly unconcerned.

Now I was on a well-defined, sign-posted path leading up a hillside. With each step of the way I felt I was reaching back in time.

The path ends at a flat walled area with a graveyard and the remains of a small church. This ruin dates back mainly to the 12th century. It was built on the stones of a much earlier monastic settlement founded by St. Blane and is thought to have been in existence in 574.

It’s believed Blane was born on Bute. At some point he travelled to Bangor in Ireland where he was educated before returning as a missionary. He would have been familiar with this hillside.

From his churchyard he could look over the fertile land sloping down to the sea and across the water to the mountains of the Isle of Arran that fill the background. It’s an impressive sight and probably little changed from Blane’s day.

The pioneers exploring Bute some five or six thousand years before Blane also left their marks on the island. Now we can only make an educated guess at the significance of their standing stones.

Not all visitors were welcomed wholeheartedly. Eight years after the last abbot died in 790, Viking raiders set fire to the monastery. However, they weren’t all bad. Many of Bute’s place names suggest some of these Norsemen were farmers who stayed to work the land and fish the surrounding sea.

More recent visitors to Bute have included the wealthy Glasgow merchants who built large houses along the seafront, or, perhaps because their view was obstructed, further up the slopes behind Rothesay Bay.

Whole families, including domestic staff would have arrived in their own yachts. As well as a grand holiday home, a yacht was the other status symbol of the day.

Sea bathing, donkey rides and hydrotherapy treatments, including cold baths and drinking the water from a mineral well on the shore, were popular pastimes then.

After the days of sail, when steam ships became the usual way to get to Bute, the island became the holiday destination for huge numbers of people, especially from the central belt of Scotland.

These were busy days for Rothesay when some families booked accommodation with the same landlady year after year. It’s said there were certain landladies, though this tale might be apocryphal, who would fill their rooms to bursting point by drawing chalk marks on the floor – sleeping arrangements by number!

If even more people wanted accommodation, the chalk marks got smaller! It was even known for families to sleep out in the woods having arrived to find all the accommodation taken.

At that time, visitors would have been transported to other parts of the island in horse drawn vehicles and later in electric tram cars.

Today it’s much easier getting to the Island of Bute. Trains run from Central Station, Glasgow to Wemyss Bay, from where Caledonian MacBrayne car and passenger ferries sail across to Rothesay in thirty five minutes.

The attractions of the Isle of Bute haven’t changed all that much over the years and though Rothesay may be crowded in the summer months there’s plenty of space at any time for everyone.

To enjoy the splendours of the south side of the island, drive off the ferry, turn left out of Rothesay and head along the shore road.

Your passengers may want to keep a look out for seals lazing on the seaside rocks and for the sign for the entrance to Ascog Gardens.

The private house, Ascog Hall, once belonged to Alexander Bannatyne Stewart, a prosperous, philanthropic Glasgow merchant with Rothesay roots who became Convener of Bute County.

About 1870, he commissioned Edward La Trobe, the designer of the Botanic Garden in Melbourne, Australia to landscape the garden in front of the house and construct a fernery.

Over time however, the fernery fell into disrepair and when it was uncovered in 1997, was found to be in a near ruinous condition. Amazingly, one fern from the original collection had survived – a Todea barbara or King Fern. When that same fern was dated in 1879, it was reckoned back then to be more than 1000 years old.

King ferns are indigenous to the damper areas of New Zealand, South Africa and parts of Australia. Some of the many other sub-tropical fern species thriving in the nooks and crannies in the fernery’s weathered sandstone rock walls have equally exotic origins.

With a grant from Historic Scotland, the sunken fernery with its glass roof was rebuilt to the original design and replanted with knowledgeable help from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

It had obviously been constructed and planted with care; each rock carted from Bute’s beaches, as well as each pebble making up the path, appears to have been specifically chosen to enhance the overall setting.

Wander round the garden and you might imagine you’ve been transported to somewhere tropical. There are a number of different ‘rooms’ with profusions of candelabra primulas, yuccas, azaleas, rhododendrons and the very large leaves of Gunnera mandicata providing a backdrop behind the formal pool.

This is a haven full of delights. Before leaving, take a few minutes to read the information on boards dotted round the garden which give an insight into the indefatigable plant hunters who sent back seeds and plants from far corners of the world to make such gardens possible.

From Ascog garden, your next stop should be Mount Stuart House.

The surrounding woods and gardens are vastly more extensive than those at Ascog, so you may decide to concentrate on one aspect only, be it a woodland walk, the kitchen garden, or rock garden before going inside the house for a guided tour.

The first Mount Stuart House was built by the 2nd Earl of Bute between 1719 and 1721.

After a fire destroyed the central section of the building in 1877 the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who has been described as ‘the greatest architectural patron of the Victorian era’ embarked on his hugely grand, expensive undertaking.

Everything about the building is lavish.

The workmanship and artistry involved in creating the carved wood features, the tapestries, the white marble chapel, the brilliantly coloured stained glass windows and star spangled ceilings has to be seen to be believed.

After being shown around this ostentatious display of serious wealth you might crave a few simpler pleasures.

From Mount Stuart it’s no distance to Scalpsie Beach on the west side. Build a sandcastle, paddle in the sea or just sit and marvel at the views out to Arran before heading back to Rothesay.

Leave a visit to Rothesay Castle and the north end of the island for another day.

But before you leave Bute, give a nod to the raised statue of Alexander Bannatyne Stewart which overlooks a section of the formal floral gardens on the seafront.

Then like thousands of other visitors before you who have enjoyed a trip ‘doon the watter’, make time for a game of putting, a last stroll round Discovery Centre for any last minute information or gifts and a visit to the nearby Victorian Toilets.

Understandably, public conveniences are not usually a visitor attraction but this building and its fittings are an example of Victorian munificence – for the men at least - all gleaming copper pipes and highly polished black marble.

Nowadays though, it’s hard to believe that women weren’t provided for at that time - it was much later before a separate section was added to complete this facility.

Back on the ferry take a few moments to study a map hanging on one of the lounge walls – then step outside. As other smaller islands and mountainous parts of the mainland disappear into the distance you may more readily appreciate Bute’s favoured, sheltered position in the middle of the sea lanes in the Firth of Clyde.

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