A caravan holiday on a Scottish island – by Punya.
From the sofa I can comfortably look out onto the stretch of water between our island, the Isle of Luing, and Torsay Island. The wind is rocking the caravan from side to side as if we were travelling on a train – even the tea in the mugs shakes about. The raindrops create a diagonal curtain on the large windows which adds to the effect of travelling…
The night before, the caravan was shaking so badly and the noise through the chimney was so loud that – had I been alone – I would have asked for shelter at the Bothy with the owners of the caravan park. But Amiten’s presence and his reassuring words made me stay, “I have checked how the caravan has been fastened to the ground, don’t you worry!” Amiten has spent many holidays in a caravan park, as a child, with his family, at the sea side. But for me this was a first.
I have enjoyed watching the surface of the water. When the tide comes in, through the narrow gap between another neighbouring island, the island of Seil, where the 4-car ferry, the Belnahua, had brought us across, the water speeds in like a mountain river (they talk about 9 knots). No wonder that at this spot and at this time we find the seals. It would be enough to open one’s mouth and the fish swoop in effortlessly between the teeth… We see the small black dot of the face, then the hump curving above the water. It could have also been one of the giant otters… it is difficult to tell.
And from the South, between our island and the Isle of Scarba, more water gushes in from the Atlantic creating in front of us flat, unmoving ponds between flows of water in all directions creating almost a whirlpool. We watch how a yacht gets caught in the current unawares.
Next spring I want to see the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan (the name sounds scary enough!). On our boat trip on the Sea Leopard around the (uninhabited) Isle of Scabra, during which we saw sea eagles, deer, three porpoises and families of grey seals resting on the rocks, the skipper stopped at the point where the whirlpool would be. What we could see was merely a flat, silent spot of water – but I was impressed enough by the sonar picture he showed to me. The Gulf of Corryvreckan has at some points a depth of 219 metres and, to make it more interesting, has a submerged pinnacle. Both these create whirlpools when the tides come in. The skipper told us that one day he went out and saw in front of his boat a huge wave with a white crest and expected it to come towards him and ease out, but the wave did not move. He understood that it was a standing wave, created by the tide and by the wind from opposing direction – he quickly turned the boat and opened the throttle… (whirlpool-scotland.co.uk)
The following spring we did go back and I took this video:
On an excursion to Easdale on the Isle of Seil we found a sign: “Village built on slate.” This was not to be understood metaphorically, but literally! Next to the Isle of Seil there was another island, more like a big outcrop. This was quarried for slate until it was flat and then until there was only a hole 80 meters deep. The refuse from the quarry was thrown into the water between the two islands until it filled up – upon which they built the village of Easdale. In 1881 there was a big storm, the levies around the quarry were breached and the 80 meters filled up with sea water. If we had not visited the local museum we would have mistaken the old quarry as a natural harbour as there is a yacht moored in it now.
In the museum we saw moustachioed slate workers posing in front of the camera, we could touch and wield some of the tools they had used and came to know about how the sizes of the slates were called (Duchess = 24” x 14” and the Countess = 20” x 10” and then there were smaller sizes for the cottages). The slates were shipped on boats and roofed thousands of houses in London, Canada, South Africa and India. As life should be, at our ferry landing we saw a few crates of slate – imported from Spain…
I also remember reading in the museum that people were working in teams of four (probably family members). They would carve out the slate from the quarry, transport it to the shore and then work on it to create perfect slates. The team would then be paid according to the amount, size and quality of the slates. It was then up to them to divide the earnings among themselves.
How was slate created? This is now going to be quite scientific: about 700-550 million years ago, mud sediments deposited in an ancient ocean, called Iapetus. The sediments were then compressed about 400 million years ago when the American continental shelf crushed into the European. The mud particles oriented themselves perpendicular to the great pressure and so formed a laminated, striated rock. It was used many centuries ago to build castles, which stand to this day, and only later it was discovered that it was ideal for roofing material as it easily splits into fine sheets. The slate on one of the islands we visited contains pyrites (fool’s gold) which shines in the sun!
More recent history: The islands of Luing, Seil and Easdale and Belnahua were highly populated for 200 years thanks to the slate industry (a hub of workers, teachers, engineers, doctors, etc.). Boats would regularly sail from Glasgow to Easdale.
The slate was quarried in dips below sea level. Some were so close to the sea that the retaining walls of a few quarries were breached during that bad storm of 1881. Later, the First World War took many men from the islands and the industry stopped in the 1950s. Rainwater (which was constantly pumped out during the quarrying) – and in some places sea water – has now filled the quarries to form lakes, ideal for skimming competitions… (which I recently heard have become international: www.stoneskimming.com)
Now tourists like us and nature-loving English pensioners have brought life back to the islands. (Belnahua is still abandoned as it lacks water supply and is way too windswept – they used to say that living on Belnahua was like living on the underside of a wave.)
The Isle of Luing (the skipper had repeated the name, not so much to correct the way I had said it but more to make it clear to himself – and he said something like “Isle of Lüng”) has one shop which we reached on foot after two hours or so – it took so long as there were so many brambles with ripe blackberries along the road – which I love to pick and eat right then and there.
Before the village of Cullipool (which also has a disused slate quarry) we came across three bulls. I wondered why so many bulls for such a small village. They looked quite peaceful, munching their grass, but still had that archetypal minotaurean vibe. No horns, curly tufts on the forehead and a beautiful rust coat. We later came to know that the island was also famous for the Luing breed. Apparently sturdy like the long-haired highland cows, but more docile. We saw, in the museum, an old photo of a cow being shoved and lifted into a wooden rowing boat to be transported to the mainland. What a picture! Now the cattle come across on the ferry in an aluminium trailer pulled by a tractor.
This was going to be a holiday for peace and rest, a bit of a honeymoon again, after 14 years! But there was so much to see and discover. I have not even said anything of the cormorants and their outcrop not far from our window. I could see them with naked eye – and thus discovered that my long-distance eye-sight had really improved – lined-up on the island drying their wings in the wind. A youngster, still grey-feathered but with a white front and neck, is diving below in the rocks. Its body hardly floats above sea level as if it was too heavy and suddenly it jumps in the air – to get a kick start for the dive – sticking its bum high up in the air. Then it comes back up with the tail of a fish in its beak. With a quick awkward manoeuvre the fish ends in its throat.
And I did not even talk about the herons chasing each other down the shores, the sea gulls sailing sideways in the wind, or the grey-breasted crows (like the ones in India, just a couple of sizes smaller). And neither did I say that Amiten is a bad loser – when we play cards – and sings (had never heard his singing voice before) when he starts winning again.
Also I almost missed out on talking about the marmalade and the chutney I bought from a retired hypnotist in Tobernochy, a forlorn village in the south of the island, but with splendid gardens. I think the villagers are competing against each other who has the most perfect lawns and flowers.
On the last day I dreamt that I was creating a background for a website which had a pattern of gentle, light grey waves. Yes, I am still designing websites, and they haunt me even onto the Isle of Luing.
Illustration by the author, photos by Amiten
Holidays in autumn 2008 and spring 2009 (video and some photos)