Sunday, August 22, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #15 - Ailsa Craig

We were delayed getting away from Holy Island for a few weeks. Just before we were to sail, the guide jumped ship. He'd been enchanted by the beautiful Buddhist Warden on Holy Isle, and decided to join up. At first, the 'No Alcohol' rule had deterred him from joining, but he decided he could do what the Castaways on Taransay had done, and cross over to the mainland every weekend to visit the pubs.

The first time he tried this they caught him. For punishment they made him sleep in a cold, drafty, mildew-ridden cell: hard ground for a bed and a stone pillow. That did not bother him at all, as he said it reminded him of some of the Oban hotels he'd stayed at in the past.

The next weekend they caught him trying to go on another pub crawl. They asked me for a punishment that might be so horrific that the guide would quit the monastery, and return to the ship. I knew just the thing, and sent a note to the Lama telling him the guide's Achilles heel, his Kryptonite.

The next day the guide rejoined us in a belligerent mood. He'd quit monkhood, renounced his vows. When asked why he told us there were two reasons. The first was that the beautiful island warden had repeatedly spurned his advances, and after being told to "Get lost" twenty times he'd finally given up. But the last straw had been this morning. The refectory menu for the coming week listed fish pie for every meal. (My note to the Lama had been received.)

So with a light scattering of clouds overhead and smooth seas ahead, we set out from Holy Island to Ailsa Craig. As we approach Ailsa, hundreds of gannets are seen circling high over the summit. Like its twin, the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, Ailsa is home to a large gannetry.


The boat is nosed up to an old timber dock built for servicing the lighthouse, the rusting remnant of a crane at its centre. We step onto the dock and carefully walk over the slippery moss-grown planks to the shore. From there the overgrown tracks of a narrow-gauge railway leads to the lighthouse, which we follow past a small building in which sat the stationary engine that once powered the railway.

To the right of the engine house is a large brick building. Its arched red tin roof is half missing, and several large iron tanks are set into the ground beside it. This is the ruin of the gasworks, where mineral oil was heated with coal in retorts (large pressure cookers) to produce the gas that powered the lighthouse. The gas also powered the pumps that sent compressed air to the foghorns on the north and south side of the island. Unfortunately, the construction of the works obliterated most of Ailsa’s religious history, as they are said to stand on the site of the island’s church and cemetery.

The lighthouse enclosure lay just beyond the gasworks. The Stevensons built the lighthouse in the 1880s, and it was manned for over 100 years. As we wander around the buildings, some open and derelict, some securely locked, we saw no signs of Ailsa’s famous brown rats. In his book Stargazing, one of the keepers, Peter Hill, recounts his first sight of them in 1973, ‘My jaw dropped in amazement when I saw the rats, thousands and thousands of them, racing about in the beam of the light.’ 

We leave the lighthouse to start up to the summit. After a ten-minute climb in the sweltering mid-day heat, Ailsa Castle comes into sight, perched atop Castle Comb, 400 feet above the sea. The three-storey tower, which dates to the sixteenth century, rises to a height of thirty feet and is fifteen feet square. Its main claim to fame comes from an attempt to establish Ailsa as a base for a Spanish invasion. 

In 1592, fourteen men landed on the island, led by Hew Barclay, the Catholic Laird of Ladyland, forty miles away on the mainland. He had brought his men here to take and surpryse the island and house of Aylsaie, a place of good strength whych micht much annoye the west parts of Scotland.’ In addition, he planned to ‘sett up and manteyne ane public Masse, quhilk should be patent to all distressed papists, and to provide ane place of releife and refreshment to the Spanyart.

Unbeknownst to Barclay, twenty men were laying here in wait. When the conspirators stepped ashore they were attacked. Barclay drowned during the skirmish, as did all hopes of establishing a Spanish base on the island. The entrance on the north side of the castle lay five feet off the ground. Using projecting stones as toe-holds, we boost ourselves up and scoot onto the first floor. A square opening to the cellar is easily stepped over to reach the spiral stone staircase. The stairs are in surprisingly good condition and take us up to the second floor. But we could go no further, for the top floor has collapsed. From a window opening on the second floor we have an airy view down to the lighthouse.


After leaving the castle we follow a path that leads up the hillside for 100 feet to a level patch of ground. Here we find the castle well, overflowing with clear water. 

Once past the well, all traces of the path disappear. The guide seems to know where he's going (at least he says he does), so we follow him on a gradual traverse up the steep hillside. Eight hundred feet above the sea we come upon a patch of level terrain, a sheltered slot in the hillside known as Garraloo. At its centre lay Garra Loch, a small pond of scummy water. (Garra may come from the Norse garĂ´r, meaning fertile.) It appears to be a popular watering hole for the birds, and several hundred take flight as we walk by, serenading us with a deafening chorus of squawking, along with a fertile rain of guano.

After climbing another 300 feet the summit comes in sight, the trig-pillar at the top surrounded by a stone windbreak. Clouds are scudding south from Arran, so the view comes and goes every few minutes. In the swirling mist the Holy Isle of St Molaise, and the high summit of Arran’s Goatfell, occasionally pop into view. And from our high perch we can also see thousands of gannets circling above the cliffs.


After enjoying the view for a while the guide tells us it's time to return to the ship (in other words, he's getting thirsty). So we retrace our route down to the landing, Once aboard Hjalmar Bjorge we make a circular tour around the rock, passing along the way the southern foghorn, its trumpet mounted atop a large air tank. Also to be seen are the magnificent columns of basalt, even more impressive than those of Staffa and the Shiants.



Leaving the gannets of Ailsa astern we set a course around the Mull of Kintyre. Our next destination: Cara of the Brownie - if, that is, the guide does not cause any more problems.

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