By Marg Greenwood
On MV Finlaggan, the the ferry I took from Kennacraig in Kintyre to Islay, I was amused to find dozens of hand sanitizers – the only ferry I’ve ever taken which thinks it’s a cruise ship. Display boards about the Finlaggan story caught my interest, so as soon as we landed at Port Askaig I drove there, taking a little detour from the road to Bridgend.
Finlaggan is a prime historic site, the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles in mediaeval times. For three centuries, the Lords ruled the islands and most of the west coast of Scotland, their power dependent on their mastery of the sea. On the tiny, “Big” island there used to be more than 20 buildings, some of wood, turf and clay, which have disappeared. But there are remains of the chapel and a stone-built Great Hall which was used for feasting and entertaining.
An even tinier island lies about 50 metres from the southern tip of Eilean Mòr. Eilean na Comhairle (Council Island) so called because it was where the Lords built their council house, and where the parliament met to adjudicate on matters of law. These two islands are connected by a stone causeway, substantial remains of which can be traced under the surface of the loch.
Later I drove to the pretty village of Port Charlotte, with its whitewashed cottages overlooking the sandy beach of Loch Indaal. It was planned and built around 1828 to provide housing for workers in the local distillery.
In the village I met Effie, now retired, who had been a teacher at the Port Charlotte school. She used to take children to some of the old settlements, including a large ruined site, part of which is on her croft. She discovered information about ‘her’ settlement from the Islay cultural database which is a great resource for people wanting to know more about their heritage. “It had an inn, so many horses and cattle; it was quite a big place. The crofters weren’t exactly ‘cleared’ like in the Clearances, they were given a building plot and lime to build a house site and a garden site. That’s how Port Charlotte grew in the 1820s,” she explained.
I set out next day in pouring rain to the RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart. Last time I was in Islay I’d seen thousands of Greenland barnacle geese picking over the marshy land; a marvellous sight. This is the best place in the UK to see these geese, apparently.
After a few minutes of pottering in the Visitor Centre at Bushmill Cottage, I put on my wet weather gear and plunged into the rain making for the first bird hide. It was empty of bird watchers. I peered out of the opened shutters. Absolutely nothing. No geese or any wading birds.
But I was captivated by the posters pinned to the wooden wall behind me. There was a poem by Norman Maccaig called Ringed Plover by a water’s edge, whose running style is matched by the wording of the text.
They sprint eight feet and —
stop. Like that. They
sprintayard (like that) and
I loved it.
There was also a poster depicting a Goose Barnacle Tree. When I went to Muck last year, I’d seen and photographed a curious find. At the time I thought it was a section of a very thick rope with what looked like colourful mussels attached to it.
Centuries ago, before people realised that birds migrate, and since nobody ever saw geese nest, they believed that barnacle geese developed from barnacles. The goose body was seen as similar to the barnacle in colour and shape. Barnacles were often found on driftwood, so people thought that they had attached themselves onto tree branches before they fell into the sea.
The image on the poster, possibly dating from the 16th century, was stylised - a woodcut or a drawing in pencil. A crooked tree trunk growing out of a small grassy cliff, and the sea below. At the top of the ‘tree,’ five branches ended in large tulip-shaped ‘flowers’, or buds, or shells, just like goose barnacles. Two ‘buds’ showed the heads of fully-formed geese peering out as if to dive into the water.
Studying the poster, the penny dropped. My photograph of the ‘mussels’ on Muck didn’t depict mussels at all. They were goose barnacles!
Having at last connected, in my head, barnacle geese with goose barnacles, I drove along the Rhinns peninsula to another planned village, Portnahaven. This village was built originally for the fishing and crofting communities. Again, a collection of whitewashed cottages around a sheltered harbour where a number of grey seals were frolicking in the water. On my walk around the houses I came across a rogue cottage painted in an ochre colour; I wondered how popular the owner was with the neighbours.
I parked in front of the pub and went in to have my evening meal. I’ve long lost any shyness entering a bar full of men. All fell into a friendly silence, but that morphed into chatty banter, which I joined in.
The next morning in Port Charlotte I spoke to Alasdair who used to make creels from hazel cut from local woodland. These woods have sadly declined owing to rhododendrons engulfing the hazel saplings. He also told me about the Toothache Stone.
“In the village it was believed that if you had toothache in the night, you went up to the stone. It was a large chunk of rock up the burn that runs behind the old distillery garden, and you hammered a nail in it. That was supposed to take the toothache away. It’s still there, full of old nails, rusty nails, horseshoe nails, all sorts of nails,” he said.
We agreed that the exertion of hammering a nail into the stone would take your mind off your pain. Fortunately I wasn’t in pain at all in Islay- only the pain of leaving a lovely island without having explored further.
Marg Greenwood has been writing short stories, travel pieces, memoirs and poems for about 15 years, gaining success in local and national competitions. She has travelled widely in Scotland and the Scottish Islands; and subsequent travel pieces have been published in magazines such as The Scottish Island Explorer, the SYHA magazine and The Oldie. She is now working towards a book about her personal ‘take’ on a few of the smaller islands. Her musical and teaching background is currently tempting her to compose songs based on folk legends of the isles which she hopes to share with island schools. Marg is a very keen walker.
Visit Marg's website at margstravelinscottishislands.wordpress.com.