Monthly Archives: July 2011

Paps and posties

Looking out to islands

The rugged coastline of Knapdale with views of Islay and Jura.

On Monday morning I woke up to a fresh blue sky – the perfect day for a two-wheeled trip someplace new. And where better than Kintyre, the mysterious mass of land across the loch. I caught the ferry from Portavadie to Tarbert, stocked up on snacks from the co-op, and set off along the single-track road that winds its way along the western coast of Knapdale. After climbing up through shady woodland, I emerged into dazzling sunshine. The road stretched ahead of me, shimmering in the heat. Beyond the rolling, rough farmland and dark patches of pine forest, there was a splash of blue loch. White butterflies passed like pieces of tissue paper caught on the breeze. Foamy meadowsweet, thistles and harebells filled the verges, and honeysuckle draped in the trees. I raced on, listening to the bleat of sheep and wondering if my rattling bike chain was anything to worry about.

View of beach at Loch Stornaway

Looking back to the beach at Loch Stornaway. No sign of a bull...

Further on a streak of yellow caught my eye and I pulled up by a gate. There, beyond a grassy field dotted with clover and freshly shorn sheep, was a wide, empty beach. It would have been a perfect place to stop for lunch and a dip, but for the sign on the gate that said: ‘BULL ON SHORE’. I dithered, and like a big chicken decided not to take the chance and pedalled on. As I rounded the next headland, Jura and Islay came into view. They seemed to float, other worldly, in a sea of misty blue. It was as if I were looking down on a mountain range, the islands the peaks poking up through the clouds. A beetle landed on my hand, turned a few circles like a dodgem and then flew on its way. I too went on my way, hurtling along the road next to the sea with the smell of salty, sun-dried seaweed ripe in the air.

Road with view of the paps of Jura

The view of Jura just minutes before my bike broke.

I was thinking how perfect this all was and how I might describe the paps of Jura that rose, in a matronly manner, before me, when I heard a loud crack and my bike careered off into the verge. The derailleur had snapped off. The bike couldn’t be cycled or, indeed, pushed, and I was in the middle of nowhere in the midday sun. I sighed, fiddled half-heartedly with the chain and then resigned myself to hitching a lift on this, the quietest of roads. In a stroke of luck, a postvan rounded the bend. I flagged it down and begged a lift back to Tarbert. ‘Nae bother’, said the postie and threw my bike in the back of the van. As we motored back, stopping to collect the post and chat to passing farmers, he told me his story. At school his English teacher, a young Ian Crichton Smith, had spotted his talent for writing, but he was too young, too restless, to follow it through. Later in life, after years spent in the hills along the west coast working as a forester, he began to write. He was inspired by the landscape, its wildness and his place in it. ‘It seeps into you.’ ‘Aye’, he replied. ‘That it does.’

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Hunting for scallops

I’ve always fancied catching scallops. Back in the day, before commercial trawling, my dad and his pal Bill used to dive for them in sandy bays all along the west coast. Wearing home-made wetsuits and weight belts, snorkels and masks, they were – so the stories go – pretty successful at it, coming home with bucket loads clacking like castanets in the back of the car.

View of White Bay

Heading over to White Bay. It's the little strip of white in the distance.

Inspired by these tales, one sunny morning last week I set off to White Bay with my swimmers and snorkelling mask to try and snare a scallop or two. At high tide the bay doesn’t look like much – just a small crescent with a fringe of dried seaweed – but it’s a great swimming spot. The clear water warms up nicely as it washes in over the sand. I waded out to the small island that sits at one side of the bay. Swaying seaweed licked my legs, tiny fish darted into the shadows and empty mussel shells, midnight-blue and pearl, shimmered in shafts of sunlight. The rocks on the island are sharp and black and wink with mica. I clambered over them to reach a smooth, flat slab. From here I planned to launch myself into the deeper waters where, I thought, scallops might lurk. I screamed like the gulls as I hit the glinting iciness. It was, of course, far too cold to stay in long. I gave the seabed a speedy scan before dragging myself out, dripping and shivering. The scallops will have to wait until I’ve invested in a wetsuit.

Hens in the vegetable patch

The pesky hens are caught raiding the veg patch.

Still, I haven’t been short of delicious food to eat, and most of it’s been grown, foraged or caught locally. The mackerel shoals have well and truly arrived, and if you know the right spots to fish you’re pretty much guaranteed a catch. If truth be told, I’m a bit bored of eating grilled mackerel, so it was quite a treat when my neighbour dropped off four freshly smoked fillets the other morning. Still hot from the smoker, they oozed an oily, oaky, smoky, fishy, salty loveliness. I guzzled all of them for breakfast. A few days later his wife arrived at the back door with some hot-smoked salmon fillets, which were, quite possibly, the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. My next mission is to buy (or build?) a smoker. I’ve also been feasting on big brown crabs. I’ve become quite an expert at picking the meat. I eat it clean, sweet and simple on toast or make a pasta sauce with butter, chilli, basil and lemon.

Blaeberries in the wood

Blaeberrries in the woods. You need to lift up the leaves of the bush to spot them.

And if all that sounds a bit protein-heavy, don’t worry. My vegetable patch is on the cusp of feeding me (as long as the hens don’t trash it) and there’s plenty of wild fruit to be found. Yesterday I collected a punnet of blaeberries from the woods; they were small and sweet and so much tastier than their flabby supermarket cousins. I’ve also been experimenting with edible flowers. The elderflowers are just about to go over and off, and I’ve been roaming the countryside furtively collecting the final few frothy white blooms. I’ve made elderflower champagne (six bottles that should be ready for Christmas), cordial and flatbread. The flatbread, with its hint of hedgerow, was a roaring success, and I finally had something nice to give to my generous neighbours. The pale-yellow cordial, decanted into small diet coke bottles, wasn’t quite so well received. It looked, rather unfortunately, like I was delivering urine samples to the village.

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Fowl weather

Rain is part and parcel of the west coast. It defines everything here. Someone landed on my blog the other day by googling: ‘What to do on the west coast of Scotland on a rainy day’. I’d say get out and experience its sodden glory. It’s a beautiful place in the rain: pungent, moist and dripping. The landscape is even more mysterious and magical on a misty, wet dawn. You can feel its history, its essence.

me and my neighbours around the beach fire.

The mackerel fishing trip and BBQ with my neighbours was a roaring success despite the rain.

The rain can stop as quickly as it started. And that’s when the west coast is at its most exquisite. After a downpour, when dampness is still in the air, everything looks brighter, more vivid – like it’s been freshly washed. Take yesterday evening when the clouds, which had poured soaking rain all day, suddenly cleared. I sat out on the blue bench at the front of the cottage and looked over to the land across the loch. Every small mound, hollow and feature was clear and defined. I had to blink to believe it. It was as if my eyes had become better at seeing. Smells, too, are more intense in the aftermath of rain, and the thick perfume of clover and honeysuckle, as sweet as melting sugar, wrapped around me in the still, warm air. Rain is the west coast’s beauty secret.

Field in the evening sun

The field in front of the cottage shimmers in the evening sunshine.

I wasn’t the only one out enjoying this lovely post-rain evening. Crackles and buzzes and chirrups filled the undergrowth and hedges. The hens tottered over and settled under the bench clucking softly. The daisies opened their petals to the sun, yellow faces soaking up the warmth. Two ganets, black-tipped wings set wide, circled higher and higher above the sea until they dived, as straight and fast as arrows, into the glittering water below. Little birds sat chattering and jittering with nervous energy in the brittle old hawthorn tree. Larks – I think – bounced low over the waving amber grasses of the field in front, rising and falling like carousel horses. The field used to be kept clipped and neat by sheep until the farmer sold the land. Now the sheep have gone and the bracken advances relentlessly – nature is reclaiming its space. One scraggy ram remains, seemingly forgotten. He wanders the shore on his skinny legs looking lonely and bad tempered, his bedraggled pelt half hanging off. Like the hawthorn tree, I’d be surprised if he survives another winter.

The chickens tasting freedom

Freedom! Minn, Martha and Marilyn are released.

The chickens have provided me with endless amusement this week. On Saturday they’d served their time being ‘homed’ and I set them free. Led by big ginger Minn they roamed the garden like a trio of trouble makers. My neighbour called over the fence ‘I’m going to get an ASBO put on those three’. They squawked and carried on pecking. They’ve actually being very good. They don’t really go beyond the garden and they always go into their hen house at night. There’s something soothing about watching them go off to bed. It’s at dusk, a time when everything feels still and hushed. They bustle around, and then Minn hops up into the hen house followed by Martha followed by Marilyn, who pauses at the doorway to give her fluffy derriere a final shake and a swish before disappearing in to roost. They all lay one egg a day each. It’s an incredible thing to lift open the nest box and see three speckled eggs there among the oak chips. When you pick them up they’re still warm, like sea-smoothed pebbles soaked in morning sunshine. Of course I’m completely over-run with eggs. Egg recipes anyone? Delightful as they are the hens have developed one bad habit. They sit at the back door, which is very sweet. They also shit at the back door, which isn’t so sweet. And believe me – they shit a lot.

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