Our exploration of the north of the island began by taking the road at the foot of Glen Rosa; the B880 known as ‘The String’. I have still not managed to track down how or why it acquired that name. It crosses the moors and divides – we took the road to Machrie, our first stop. Humans have lived on Machrie Moor for 3.500 years and farmed there until climate change made this impossible. Arran has numerous archaeological sites, but this is perhaps the most well-known and is also an excuse for a walk. The obvious remains are six stone circles of granite boulders and sandstone pillars but not all of the area has been excavated and there are other remains. If there are any concerns about the condition of the remains you are encouraged to send a photograph to the researchers: details on signs at the site. A track leads to them from the car park. It is just under three miles there and back and round all the stones. The first circle you come to is Moss Farm Road stone circle which is actually a cairn. The farm road used to run right over the centre.
Further on, near the derelict farm, are more circles with views over the surrounding countryside and the mountains. At one point we spotted a curlew in the distance.
Back in the car and after topping up the caffeine levels at the Golf Club Tearoom in Machrie, we continued north up the coast, spotting a seal and a rock full of shags en route.
By the time we reached Catacol, it had started to rain. Many people stop here to admire the row of cottages known as the ‘Twelve Apostles’ and they are depicted on many Arran postcards. Unfortunately, theirs is not a happy history. They were erected by the Duke of Hamilton in the 19th century to house the crofters who were cleared from Catacol Glen. It seemed appropriate that it was still grey when we arrived in Lochranza.
We visited visit the castle and spotted some red deer in a derelict garden. James had to make a pilgrimage to the distillery which was opened in 1995 and is definitely on the tourist map with coaches arriving and leaving during the short time we were there.
As we reached Corrie with its sandstone coastline, I went looking for something I had read about in The Scotsman last year: The Bath of Arran. It is carved out of the rock and dates from 1835. A Doctor McCredy who lived on Arran (but was originally from the mainland) is said to have used it to cure his patients with saltwater therapy, having been told it made you live longer. The bath is about 12ft long by 5ft wide and 5ft deep and could accommodate several patients at any one time.
It fills up daily by the tide and has man-made steps down into it. Apparently, some tourists have tried it, but we were not tempted. There is a video on YouTube of some swans enjoying it. I followed the instructions in the article: go to the southern part of the village: opposite the house with red railings stop in the passing place and drop down to the shore to your right. It was then time to head back to the cottage to relax and then enjoy our evening meal at a restaurant in Brodick
A coach-load of Rangers fans en route to the Old Firm match in Glasgow, accompanied us on the 7.30am Larne to Cairnryan ferry.
They were very well-behaved despite some having cider for breakfast but G4S security were lurking in the background just in case. As we disembarked there was a police presence at the port. We were heading for Wigtown, Scotland’s book town but en route stopped at Torhouse Stone Circle. It is about 4 miles west of Wigtown and dates from the Bronze Age. It is thought to have been designed to represent the midwinter sun. There are 19 granite stones. The three large upright stones in the centre of the circle are known as King Gauldus’s Tomb (he was a mythical Scottish king). This type of stone circle is most commonly found in north-east Scotland and unusual for this part of the country.
At Wigtown we browsed in the shop which says it is the largest bookshop in Scotland, Byre Books in a cowshed surrounded by greenery and Reading Lasses which is devoted to women’s literature. Another was holding a reading as there is a festival on this weekend so we could not look in there and one was inexplicably closed.
Laden with books and a few plants from a market stall we drove into Newton Stewart to find Elmlea Plants, a nursery specialising in perennials and grasses. More purchases were made for garden renovation projects at home. The A75 follows the edge of Wigtown Bay amongst gently undulating fields with the southern uplands ahead. We cut inland to Kirkcudbright where we had arranged to spend the night. In the harbour fishing boats were returning and the tide was coming in.
We visited Broughton House, the former home and studio of the artist E.A Hornel. He was influenced by Japan, used photographs rather than drawings as the basis of his paintings, collected books and was also interested in local history. Here is his studio which has his palettes and paintbrushes as well as several paintings.
Kirkcudbright ‘Castle’ in the centre of town is really a fortified townhouse dating from the 16th century. the original castle down by the river was captured by Robert the Bruce in 1313 and destroyed. There were attempts at excavating it in 1913 to 1914 but many of the stones had been removed by the townspeople for building projects. Hornel had a collection of some maps, drawings and dig notes from the excavation which was never completed because of the First World War. At the back of the house is a long garden extending right down to the marina. The house and garden are now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.
We stayed in the Selkirk Arms which dates from the 18th century. It has been claimed that Robert Burns wrote the Selkirk Grace here in 1794 but this has not been confirmed. Just before we left we visited the plant sale in the centre of town and found a few more unusual plants for my woodland garden. There were only two stops on what was a quiet run home from Kirkudbright. The first was at Dundrennan Abbey, a former Cistercian monastery.
The last stop was at Annandale Distillery so that I could add some shots to the Book of British Distilleries I am compiling for James. This was only reopened recently after closing in 1918. They have excavated the place the old stills stood when it first opened in 1830.
Many years ago, when our son was young, we had a number of trips to Brittany, Cornwall, West Cork and the Outer Hebrides. All these have important neolithic sites but his cry was ‘not more old stones!’. Hopefully now, he would be more appreciative. We had planned to start at Stenness and then work our way to Skara Brae via the Ring of Brodgar. However, just as we were about to get out of the car at Stenness, a very wintry shower fell and everyone ran for cover. We decided to do things the other way round as we could see that the clouds were clearing in the west. Skara Brae was a real treat as I had learnt about it in primary school but never visited it. We know something about those who lived in them but there is even more we do not know about their culture and language and beliefs. The exhibition in the visitors’ centre was very busy so we pushed on outside to look at the real thing and afterwards had a walk on Skaill Beach and looked in the house.
We then decided to head off to the Ring of Brodgar ahead of the coach and minibus who were gathering to leave Skara Brae. Once there, we got into conversation with a local guide about some comments we had heard from acquaintances in various parts of the Highlands and Islands relating to English people moving there (‘white settlers’) and the fact that very few locals want to work with visitors. She was more optimistic about Orkney, saying that some of the Orcadian diaspora (some of whom I have known at school and university) are now returning and that the population had increased by 5% in the last census. She also said that cruise ships now stop off in Orkney with 4,500 people on board. I was quite glad that the stones were quiet when we were there.
Our last stop was Stenness, whose stones are some of the oldest in Britain.
The high winds today triggered my trigeminal neuralgia so I took some time out before planning tomorrow’s activities.