Cowal- listed as one of the worlds best under rated holiday destinations!

…according to travel writer Nikki Bayley writing for yahoo travel.

Cowal is placed alongside The Azores, Newfoundland, the Falkland Islands and the West Coast of Australia. If this seems like a piece of Hyperbole- then you need to come and check us out.

And if you do- perhaps you might like to make use of our cosy annexe!

If you are looking for a great value summer holiday we still have some spaces- or if you are looking to organise something for later in the year- check out the calendar on the website here.

Here is a photo we took looking over towards Sgath an Tighe from the middle of the Clyde…

New website for Sgath an Tighe…

I have spent much of this weekend working on our new website for all things Sgath an Tighe. I hinted at a possible change of direction for the family recently- well here it is made real in cyber space!

Eventually this will be a portal for a number of different things happening in or around out house-

  • Self catering accommodation (already available)
  • B and B accommodation (still a work in progress)
  • Craft workshops (Blue Sky programme is on the website)
  • Crafts- woodworking, pottery, all sorts of other things
  • Retreats- both in the house and wilderness retreats
  • Photography
  • Writing
  • Information about our lovely area
The website is still under development, but there is a lot there already. I have used a wordpress platform, which has not been without the odd frustration, but is mostly OK, even to a relative novice like me.
Call by and let me know what you think!

Life cycles…

Towards the back end of 2007 a walker went missing in the hills above Colintraive. I wrote about it here, and here.

The area in which she went missing is not particularly dramatic- it is rough hill country, rising to a maximum height of around 300 meters, and heavily forested. The woman concerned was fit, well equipped and very experienced- a former teacher from Perthshire in her early sixties.

Despite extensive searches of the area, she was never found. I have often thought of her as I have driven, walked and canoed around where she was lost.

A couple of weeks, two sea kayakers were exploring Loch Striven, and set up camp in an area I know well- a flat patch of land that is only reachable by boat, and has signs of old habitation- I have canoed there with my family, and explored the remains of the houses. It is a lovely, romantic spot. We took a trip there in 2008-

The two Kayakers ventured a little further into the woods then we did- climbing up a steep gully through the trees.

And by some miracle, they stumbled across an orange survival bag and a rucksack.

More out of curiosity they cut the bag open- and discovered the remains of the missing walker.

I feel strangely satisfied that the walkers body has been found. It feels like a circle completed. Family are able to lay their loved one to rest, and a mystery has been solved. Or at least- partially solved. We will never know why she died, or what combination of circumstances contributed to her death.

The other thing that feels right is the humanity that the community celebrates in relation to this lady. The extensive searches- by police and by her friends in a mountaineering club (searches that must have passed very close to where she actually lay.) These searches were not done with even a flicker of resentment- just concern and care.

Then there was the final discovery- the kayakers, the doctors who examined the remains, the police who stayed with the body all night before it could be recovered, the contact with family…

It sometimes seems that our hold on life is so tenuous- a bit like the settlement in the photographs above, all too soon we are overtaken by time and sucked back into the ground.

But humanity is not just bones and buildings- we also have spirit and soul.

May one soul be climbing still.

A Victorian sugar baron and Spurgeon…

We went to the James Duncan exhibition at Benmore Gardens today.

Quite a story- which captures the character of Victorian industrial expansion, philanthropy, sponsorship of the arts and the importance of religion.

Duncan was born in Greenock, to a father wealthy from selling books, but who died young. His son was a bit of a clever lad, who did very well in his studies- particularly chemistry. As a young adult in early Victorian Britain, he had a choice of industries to apply his science within, and chose the sugar industry- one of the engines of prosperity for the West of Scotland. Perhaps even one of the reasons my house was built back in 1840.

After working for various companies, whilst on a wee trip down Loch Long, Duncan came up with a new way of refining sugar- slow boiling it to produce less waste and a higher quality product. He set up partnerships, factories first in Greenock, then in London- and made a vast fortune.

But for this Christian tycoon, born into an age of philanthropy, with such wealth came responsibility. Or perhaps guilt. Duncan began to sponsor all sorts of philanthropic schemes- sewer works, slum improvements, hospitals, libraries, churches (interestingly, despite his Free Church background, he supported both Protestant and Catholic church plants. He was reputed to be giving away 20% of his £100,000 annual income.

Around 1870, he bought Benmore Estate, and set about making huge improvements to the landscape. He built the biggest glass houses in the whole of the country, planted millions of trees, and opened his land for vistitors.

He also began to collect art. He was the first Scottish collector to buy impressionist paintings, and pretty soon, he needed more space to display his collection. He built a massive display hall next to his house at Benmore, and opened it to the public too.

He lost his fortune as the sugar market was transformed by the lifting of trade barriers, and opening the British Empire to cheap imports. He vanished into relative obscurity, forgotten within his own lifetime.

The place of my small sleepy town at the heart of the Empire is a surprise.  The morality tale of the rise of huge wealth at the expense of poor people half way across the world, whilst opening up a philanthropic urge to use this wealth responsibly at least in part for the poor people of this country, is also one that seems archetypal of the Victorian age.

There is another interesting footnote to this story. Duncan was a close friend of Charles Haddon Spurgeon– hero of the current Evangelical right wing, super-preacher and Pastor of the Christian world’s first mega church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

Spurgeon took holidays at Benmore each year, and regularly preached to thousands of people on the grass of the formal gardens- people who flocked to hear his particular brand of muscular, Bible-first theology.

Both Spurgeon and Duncan were men of their age- forged out of the fires of the enlightenment during a time when everything seemed certain and the world was ripe for improvement. God may or may not have been an Englishman, but he certainly showed favour on the righteous and industrious men of the British Empire. Or so it seemed.

The legacy that these men left is far from insignificant. But from our perspective, it is nuanced and shadowed, like a finely carved marble statue, gathering layers of grime and bird droppings, belonging to another age.



Gunpowder, Empire and old industry…

I took a walk out into the woods with my friend Simon this afternoon. I had been wanting to explore an old overgrown collection of buildings out along Glen Lean for a while. The last time we tried, the heavens opened, but today the sun was shining- until we got there that is, but this time we decided that a little rain should not put us off.

The old buildings were part of the former Argyll Gunpowder works, which operated over 4 sites in the county from around 1840 to 1903.

There is very little information about the Glen Lean site on the web- apart from this entry on Secret Scotland. There is however a good article by Kennedy McConnell summarising the history of one of the other locations where gunpowder was manufactured in this area (near Tighnabruaich on the other side of the peninsular) here.

It tells of a time when Argyll was famous for its manufacture of fine quality gunpowder, which was exported all over the world.

Powder used to blast and shoot our way towards the creation of an Empire.

Here is a quote from McConnell’s article-

The conversion of the raw materials from Kames into gunpowder at Millhouse required ten separate processing stages, each accommodated in a specially constructed building known as a “house”. A detailed description of these processes is outwith the scope of this article, but the names used to identify the various houses were Mixing, Charging, Breaking-down, Pressing, Corning, Dusting, Glazing, Stoving, Heading-up and Packing, These processing houses were widely dispersed throughout the grounds to minimise the risk of an explosion spreading from one building to another. Trees were planted in the intervening spaces for the same reason. Horse drawn bogeys were used to convey the goods around the works, and these ran on a small gauge railway system. The production machinery was driven by water power.

It was a dangerous business. He lists a whole series of accidents and explosions in which as many as nine people died. I think we can assume a similar history in Glen Lean.

The location of these mills was no doubt chosen at least in part because of their remoteness, as well as the availability of water power and raw materials. Whole communities developed that were dependent on the mills for work, and were decimated when we found more efficient ways of blowing each other to kingdom come, and so closed the mills one after the other.

I suppose you could say that this area has continued the tradition of providing the means of causing very large explosions. The Faslane naval base, location of the nuclear submarines, is just across the water from here.

Walking round the old buildings today was a walk through our military-industrial history. They are being swallowed by the encroaching trees, like an Aztec temple in the rain forest.

There has been no attempt locally to make this part of our history known. No footpaths into the site- you will need some serious footwear to get anywhere near it- and certainly no interpretive history boards.

Soon it will all fall into the river below.

The whole thing seems to be to be a poignant visual analogy of Empire. Our former means of producing arms and ammunition have mouldered away. Obscured and forgotten in a forest of new trees.

And much of what we were, I am glad to leave behind.

And yet there is something still that pulls at me with pangs of regret. Memories of a something precious that we might also have lost. A simpler, more idealistic time, where all things seemed possible.

Or perhaps these are constructed memories, projected onto these old walls.

Old ruins like this tend to foster this kind of thinking.

The old birch woods above the Kyles…

I have had a lovely day today.

It has been a gorgeous warm spring day, and I took a walk in the hills with Andy. We drove over the Cowal Peninsular to Colintraive- around a 20 minuite trip- and walked up through the farm into some lovely high country- broken craggy tops with little walkways and ridges to climb through. We disturbed only the odd sheep, accompanied always by lambs.

The views out over the Kyles of Bute were great- a little hazy, but full of the movement of yachts taking advantage of a favourable wind to fly through behind brightly coloured spinnakers.

We came down through some birch woods, just coming alive. We were surrounded by the noise of brooks and birds, and walked through a carpet of cowslips.

I have wanted to explore these woods for ages. They look so inviting from the road at any time of the year. In the winter they are almost purple-bare, but around the spring time, they start to wear a bright bright green as the buds come through.

A couple of years ago, a woman who was staying at the Colintraive hotel went for a walk somewhere in these parts. She was never seen again, and not a trace of what happened to her has ever been found, despite extensive searches. It must have been incredibly sad and difficult for those she left behind. She kept coming to mind as we walked. It must be incredibly difficult for the loved ones she left behind, but today, it did not seem to me to be such a bad place to have your last resting place. May she rest in peace.

A few years ago I took a little walk in these parts on my way home from work- and wrote a poem. So here it is!

With all the optimism of the early spring

I turned the car from the road home and looked to the hill

Taking the camera more for motivation I head for the high point over the Kyle.

I feel the old excitement in the smell of wild places

All around I can almost hear the soil coming alive

The whisper of the wind in the larches sounds like blood flowing

Sap rising

And, unconcerned as my unsuitable shoes take on water,

I climb through heather and the old years dry grass

Up through ancient Gneiss outcrops

Still holding the shape of their birth in lava poured out in days so distant

That there seems no point calculating.

My feet cut into slow growing mossbanks

And scatter the stalks of bracken

And in the moment, I fear that I bring a human rhythm,

In this place unwelcome, discordant

Drowning out the stillness

Oil on water

I notice blackened heather stalks swept by fire

Perhaps lit by a smouldering cigarette last summer

And remember that this place is everywhere marked by men

Close cropped by the sheep, the land curves towards

The regimented contour crop of Spruce trees in the valley below

And half hidden, there is the evidence of older dwelling places

Now memories in the soil

Barcodes in bracken and dead nettle

Feeding on the residual richness

Leached from these poor houses

Whose people drained away.

Then perspective shifts again

To the far horizons

Across the sparkling Kyle lies Bute

Then beyond, Arran’s hills rise above Lochranza

Still wearing winter white against the blue sky

I stood and gloried.

Awed by things much bigger than I

By creative forces far beyond my understanding

But by Gods grace

Not beyond my reach

Blessing received, I take photographs recording only human spectral light

Then scramble back to shiny car, and head, too fast, for home

Anxious to see my loved ones

Eager for my own slice of civilisation.

Wide open spaces…

I went for a walk.

Thanks to all of you who have been so kind and supportive in relation to my earlier post. In particular there were lots of comments about risk. Life without risk, it seems, is not really possible, but should we try to live like this, we may find that we have no life at all. Being drawn out to adventure seems to me to be an essential characteristic of the life of faith, as well as being essential to psychological and physical health and well being.

Let be honest though- some of these activities can indeed be self indulgent. They can be about the pursuit of an adrenaline high, or an experience that disconnects us from the wider community we embrace and serve. Seeking after transcendent experience in wild places can be a form of idolatry too. Yesterday a friend who was planning to come with me instead helped another friend erect a garden shed. He may well have made the better choice…

However, yesterday I just needed space. My head was full of ‘stuff’, and my temptation was just to find a hole to hide in.

So instead, I climbed up some mountains, and found some deep snow.

An activity of course that was not without risk…

Mountains in good company…

I have just spent a lovely weekend on a ‘Mountain skills and navigation’ course. I decided it was time to refresh some of my long forgotten skills- which I have lazily discarded over the 20 years since I last did a similar course.

The course was very well led by Keith, who has a lovely relaxed way about him that I very much appreciated, and I very much enjoyed the company of the other course members. In fact, the conversations took over from the learning at times (sorry Keith!)

We spent two days in the Cowal hills- above Loch Striven (to Cruach nan Capull- 611m) on Saturday, and from Lock Eck up to Clach Bheinn (648m) descending down to Benmore via Creachan Beag (545m.) We managed to find a lovely airy ridge today too.

Anyone who has ever walked these hills will know that the slopes are steep and pathless, and the peaks hard won. But I have been reminded again that they are very much worth it. Our maximum height was less than 700m, but the rough terrain had its challenges. Enough to make us feel a sense of achievement anyway.

So here I am. Bathed. Well fed. Big blister burst.


Some photies. (Click to enlarge.)