It shouldn't have taken the Tartan Army to remind us what a peculiar shape we are. Above the central belt, all those pies and puddings. Underneath, the kilted pudenda. What is less often remarked is what a peculiar shape our country is. Think not of the BBC's logo. Look at a map
. Above the central belt, the Highland Fault (typical to blame the Highlands) has cut the country in half, leaving the west shredded. All those bits trailing into the Atlantic. Of these, the most conspicuous loose piece is Kintyre. For a summer trip with spouse, thereto I sped.
Not. One doesn't speed to Kintyre. In summer there are particular choices. Start off slowly by Loch Lomond or very slowly by Loch Long; the first slowness induced by traffic, the second by a road which makes the Minch look flat. Further into the odyssey, go slowly by Inveraray or very slowly indeed behind three caravans by Inveraray. After Lochgilphead, fresh choices: take the labyrinthine single track road advertised on Radio Scotland as the Kilberry diversion, or do a U-turn, and go home. These last options are available every time Kintyre's artery, the A83, submits to its land-slipping addiction and the peninsula is garrotted. Kintyre then becomes effectively an island, upon which that nasty Mr Hyde CalMac becomes that nice Dr Jekyll who lays on emergency ferries to save rotting shellfish and tourists; though he does charge.
To go back to the beginning.
Sometimes at dawn I wake with an unease. What have I done to deserve such luck? Give or take a world-destroying submarine or two, from my Helensburgh home every prospect pleases. Across the Clyde, Greenock in the sunrise glints like Naples. On the north side, roads lead to bournes from which no traveller returns unparadised. In respect of a Kintyre trip, I already knew some of the components. Rest and Be Thankful (Western Approaches passport control). Loch Fyne, Scotland's vastest sea-loch. Jura, Islay, Gigha, Arran, Ireland, cloud-parting apparitions seen from Kintyre. Tarbert Loch Fyne, jewel of harbours. Campbeltown, an extreme answer to Wick. And the Mull of Kintyre, that bourne from which no helicopter returns.
But now to go back to before the beginning.
Not aeons ago I knew nothing about Kintyre. Had I even heard the name? Then we came to live in Helensburgh and were thus near a friend who was heir to a country seat near the Mull of Kintyre. It was that kind of Highland building unable to decide whether it is a cottage, a house, or a retirement home for midges; of which one thing can be stated with impunity, that it is not a bungalow. But more: when our children were young, we rented a cottage at Skipness, Kintyre. We'd never heard of Skipness. Has anyone? I can tell you: it exists. Now that by some mysterious process the children have become big, my wife and I sometimes point the car at Loch Fyne to be refreshed by the views. Rain stotting off Loch Fyne has an attraction not always perceptible in rain stotting off the Helensburgh pier car park. And let's be honest. Seeing the rain from the inside of one of the seafood restaurants dotted around Loch Fyne is not half bad either.
So yes, I know Kintyre a little, but it retains a certain secretiveness. Perhaps a wee summer excursion would probe the secret further.
So, we abandoned Helensburgh. Viewed from the deck of that paddling duck, the Waverley, Helensburgh looks like any other solid town on solid mainland; you wouldn't guess that it clings to a narrow strip of hilly land between three lochs and an estuary. Was this a metaphor, I asked myself, driving out of town, for it was my birthday; how many years had I left clinging to the ledge? An addiction to metaphor isn't necessarily a cultivated pretension, it can just be a habit, the way some Highland brains work: you look at something and see something else. Would one see something else through Kintyre, or would it prove entire of itself? What kind of animal was it?
Something so far south couldn't be Highland. Somewhere reached by mountain and flood couldn't be lowland. It might cling to the mainland tenuously, but cling it did, so it wasn't an island. Mainland, island, what's in a name? John Donne launched the human island metaphor but here I was four centuries later passing the strip of water which prepares men to launch not metaphors about the unity of the world but missiles to destroy it. If St Augustine had been minister of St Giles he might have prayed, 'Make Scotland a nuclear-free zone, but not yet.' As we reached the head of the Gareloch, Faslane's barbed wire heralded guards with guns – to keep out the peace campers hanging by their principles to a narrow ledge of grass and creative graffiti? Soon they are to be evicted because, unlike the grey fortress opposite, their splashes of colour to Argyll and Bute Council constitute an 'eyesore'. But enough! This was my birthday and I was off to a mainland-free zone. I was off to a thin place.
To get there we had to squeeze through a thick place, the bulbous clump of mountains dubbed the Arrochar Alps. The head of the high pass is dubbed Rest and Be Thankful
, but bucket-loads of tourists were ignoring the advice. The buses may have been resting, but the humans were clicking cameras. Some weren't: they'd chosen to queue at the mobile snack bar. Into Dutch, German, English stomachs bacon rolls rolled. We smirked, thinking of their nemesis to come: lunch. I patted my tummy. Well, a bacon roll...
Down from the summit, Elizabeth sitting beside me, was finding Loch Fyne as inspirational as ever (Latin spiro
– I breathe, therefore I am), and I also felt its thinning effect. Not thinning in the sense of compressing, but of spacing out. Where Loch Lomond has glamour, Maree majesty, Ness shadows, Awe awe, Tummel sweetness, and Sutherland a hundred lochans sheltering between monster mountains, Loch Fyne spreads wider and wider a watery plateau of light.
Lochgilphead, essaying a mild hauteur as befits its possession of a hospital, council headquarters, and the Smiddy Bistro, smelled like a wet dog. Two men were having an argument as to whether one inch or two inches had fallen during the day. Did this bode ill for the landslip site down the road?
With helmeted men looking anxiously above, we got through, but would we ever return? A mile north of Tarbert, the atmosphere changed. The road was dry, the air freshened, the wind climbed a notch or two. Kintyre, which begins at Tarbert, is nearly an island; we were entering an island climate. Chesterton said that whereas other countries have climate, England has weather. What Scotland has is whether; whether the rain will stop? Well, quite suddenly, it had.
Tarbert harbour is surely a watercolour cover of a paperback entitled 'Murder on the Yacht' but this can't be Cornwall, the tiered Highland houses are too solid. We lunched at the heritage centre. Such places, in deference to ubiquitous kids, usually have cautious menus, but here among the nature trails, paintings and aromatic soaps were fish and shellfish straight from the sea. No wonder, when we discovered the new maitre
to be the ex-detective who for years ran the Anchorage restaurant in the harbour. His fish was so fresh you could see lobsters jumping out of the boats to race langoustines into the Anchorage kitchen. Eat your heart out, Leith.
Tarbert has jolly looking hotels round the harbour. With quite a crowd of yachts in, perhaps too jolly. We booked in at the West Loch Hotel, a mile down the A83. An 18th-century inn, it faces the narrow loch which opens out to the sea past Kennacraig; the pier for which residents here regularly leave at dawn to catch the Islay ferry. Everywhere, the ferries. The age of Clyde steamers is past, but not the eternal crossing of water. The farther you get from central Scotland, the more you realise CalMac is not just boats to Dunoon; it's the infrastructure of a civilisation.
In the West Loch Hotel I enjoyed an immediate success d'estime. The dinner table was set immaculately, cloth napkins folded in a fan shape planted in wine glasses. With a flourish I aimed to jerk my napkin out of the glass, but the glass declined to part from the napkin until sufficient momentum had been obtained to lift it to the ceiling from which it crashed to the table; yet not in fragments. Two pieces of sculpture now enhanced the cutlery and drapery: a glass stem and a glass bowl. The waitress cut short my explanation. Sweeping up the artefacts, she addressed my wife: 'Can't take him anywhere, can you?'
When a different and sunburnt waitress took our order, I was decisive: 'I'll start with the whitebait.' She screamed with joy. 'In that case I'll have a double helping.' But she was pointing at the window. 'A friend of mine I haven't seen in years has just driven into the car park.' Two courses later, she returned. She was, it transpired, a yachtsperson and so was he.
At breakfast, a more mature waitress told us her husband came from Islay and had worked on CalMac ferries for 28 years. Water, water, everywhere. We talked about the A83 road crisis and she expressed the frustration I heard subsequently on all sides, directed at Argyll and Bute Council. This may be unfair; I just report it. The water-friendly people of Kintyre might be better off as real islanders than as economically threatened mainlanders. That afternoon we visited the church at Clachan, its brownness offset by a blue dove painted on the white ceiling; and signed a petition on the communion table which summed up things pretty well; it asked for safe access to the rest of Scotland at all times. Reasonable?
The next day, while my spouse browsed in the Anne Thomas bookshop, Anne being an artist who etches the most pellucid postcards in Scotland, I sat in the car eyeing the Tarbert harbourscape. Two swans were conducting their cygnet on a glided tour of the lobster boxes.
As the car radio played Sibelius's 7th sombre symphony, the windscreen became an impressionist painting, the rain washing the colourful yachts on the other side of the harbour into tears. I thought of someone dear to me currently going through hell and tears became not a metaphor.
The following morning I wanted to turn those impressionistic yachts into documentary so I drove round to the opposite side of the harbour and parked at Yacht City.
To a non-yachter, it was as strange as the inside of a wasp's bike.
Placed strategically in front of the showers and toilets, I saw it all. Along the intricate system of berthing pontoons extending far to the left and the right, the population moved. Off their yachts they were revealed not to be gods. Some looked as if they'd slept in a drawer. There was no yachting type; all species were onshow: young, old, male, female, dog, other dog, yet other dog. (I'd thought seadogs were metaphors.) Bearded Sean Connery lookalikes strode with grandsons, brisk young couples carried posh toilette bags, a teenage girl with toothbrush swung her hair as in commercials.
And out of a plastic blue canopy on a very little yacht popped four tiny faces, just like the baby swallows peering over the nest in my mother-in-law's Galloway barn. The tiddliest of them clutched a golden teddy which she held out to the morning.
The yachts were as diverse as their names, ranging from metamorphic (Footloose, Drifting Sands) through zoological (Flamingo, Red Rooster) to mystical (Valhalla, Quantum). But the great leveller was the Co-op. Wherever human need is found, up there with the Sally Army is the Divi. The only extant food mart in Tarbert is the Co-op, and a convoy was trudging back over the pontoons, laden with distended carrier bags. Some clanked more than others. Gradually, one by one, yachts cast off and glided towards the sea. Whereupon humans vanished; the figures guiding the gliding were again gods and goddesses – or at least Swallows and Amazons. They were replaced by the Waverley, which in a sudden sleight of hand rounded a headland and glided to her pier. Yes, glided. Not a duck at all. A swan. A motley collection of accents disembarked, but none, so far as one could hear, emanated from the Cygnet library.
Three days later, on the Sunday afternoon, there appeared at that pier a vessel from outer space. Unlike the new Portavadie ferry jetty, the yacht pontoons, and the fishing boat quay, this old Clyde steamer pier is normally deserted apart from the Waverley and boys fishing. But suddenly here was the Dunoon-Gourock car ferry. Instead of disgorging platoons of briefcased men and women looking for an electric train, it produced several thousand – it seemed like that – pedestrian trippers. 'Saturn' had been converted into a pleasure boat by planting red plastic stacking chairs on the open car deck. I spoke to the local lady with a lilt waiting to sell kippers to the mainlanders. They were Loch Fyne herring freshly smoked in her smokehouse, the only one left in Tarbert. Aficionados off the boat made a beeline. One disabled man had to be assisted down the gangway, bought a bulging bag of kippers and was at once helped back on board to nurse his booty.
Kintyre is so thin that it seems not to exist for itself. At Kennacraig, signs with arrows pointing every way indicated ferries to Islay, Arran, Gigha, Ireland and Portavadie. From the top of the single track road which runs across the A83 to Skipness, we renewed our acquaintance with one of Scotland's astonishing sights. Ahead, the full panoply of Arran's north peaks seemed about to fall on us. Behind, the Paps of Jura rode across the sky.
A mile before Skipness village and castle we stopped at Claonaig, which is a pier. And there, we remembered; this was where as a family we first discovered Kintyre. Like explorers do, we just happened on it. The four of us plus dog set off on a Saturday 15 years ago to take the big ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick and drive across Arran to Lochranza. From there we embarked on the tiny ferry which water-spidered across to this thin line on the horizon. Once the few cars had driven away and the ferry gone, we sat on the shingle opposite Arran and decided by hook or by crook to holiday here. It all seemed a long time ago, now, but here was the magic again, the clear waves lapping and the eider ducks bobbing up and down, imitating Frankie Howerd. History hadn't ended. It had never begun. When the heart beats in rhythm with things around you, time is immemorial, even thinness goes, all is flux, and peace does pass understanding.
In this afternoon light, the sun was chasing cloud across Arran and the mountainscape over Kilbrannon Sound was the visual equivalent of a Wagner brass choir, piling on escarpment upon escarpment of tone till the multi-layered mass builds its bridge to Valhalla.
We drove on the mile to Skipness. Round a rock came a Renault Clio with an 'L'.
'There's Sheila,' we said.
Sheila Oakes is founder, chief executive, and so far as we know, only operative of the Acorn Driving School in Kintyre, and married to Simon of the Oakes family which acquired Skipness House and Estates three generations ago. One branch of the family began the Seafood Cabin beside Skipness House. Being full of fish we repaired there for a cup of tea. At our feet, tiny ducklings, chickens and human babies, as well as fully formed hens and two collies played. If I was a sylvan poet, I'd have written a sylvan poem.
From the final long run of the A83 down to Campbeltown the views are better than any seen from the royal box at a command performance. Here be bays, beaches, Atlantic surf, and islands. Not least Jura, seen from Ronachen Point, complete with eight seals dozing on rocks, and a ninth rolling on its back just beneath us. I once played Mahler's Resurrection symphony on the car radio while watching Jura in a sunset, from here. Too much, you say. No, you can't have too much of that kind of too much.
Campbeltown is sensible. Since only Venice or the Taj Mahal could climax all we'd seen, this town contents itself with being the orderly bustling centre of a province. But there was a new thing to intrigue and an old thing to celebrate.
The always business-like harbour was now proud host to a sauncy ferry – the 'Claymore' doing a new run to Antrim.
And for our lunch Mr McLchere's delicatessen still dispensed his own hot gungy hamburgers.
One act of obeisance remained. The peninsula comes to a climax beyond Campbeltown. The road runs through rolling country to Southend (See Saint Columba's footprints embedded in rock, oh yeah) and then climbs higher and higher across sinister terrain, with intimidating glimpses of a far below sea, till suddenly: dead end, other than an Alpine zig-zag track down to the lighthouse which is far above the Irish Sea. I have a photograph of the last time I stood here. It's of my son who processes all my words, including these ones. It shows him as a small boy holding up his hand to say STOP.
Since then a flying machine did stop here, with appalling suddenness. We lacked the footwear to cross the soggy hill and stand before the cairn.
So after all its transparency and thinness, at Kintyre's end, and at the end of Scotland, the land rears up with a fist. In so doing it mirrors Scotland's other end where Cape Wrath has forever been chucking the Minch into the Pentland Firth. Here on the Mull we were looking across a sea grey but calm, to a dark shape brooding under low cloud. It was Ireland. Fists have not been the worst things there nor in our own past. What of the future? Will ignorant armies always clash by night? Will that kind of history ever have an end?
An hour later, stopping above Bellochantuy, we gazed at a seascape transformed by sunlight. Islay, Jura, Gigha were laid out under a turquoise sky, and 30 seals sprawled on a cluster of rocks. Elizabeth went as near as she could and communed. One waved a flipper. Atlantic breakers crashed gently. The sea is different even from a sea loch. There is this feeling that it has come a very long way.