Sunday, November 30, 2008

The ancient keep of Ailsa

From the lighthouse, we made our way up to the ancient keep of Ailsa Craig castle. It was built in the late 14th century and granted to the abbots of Crossraguel Abbey by a charter of King Robert III in 1404.

The final approach to its austere walls was up a steep bank of bluebells whose colour matched the sky.

Although it was never laid ruin by a siege or by later builders looking for stones, its ancient corners have been weathered by centuries of winds.

Inside it is possible to climb to the great hall, if you step over the hole which leads to the dungeon.

Inside the hall the great fireplace and a side oven can still be seen. If you are very brave, it is possible to ascend to the roof by climbing on just the remaining outside edges of the spiral staircase.

It was a relief to step onto the security of Ailsa's rock again.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

The siren calls of Ailsa.

Emerging from the shade of Bare Stack we passed the north fog horn of Ailsa Craig. The north and south sirens were built at the same time as the lighthouse. An oil engine in the lighthouse buildings ran a compressor which fed air through pipes two and a half inches in diameter to the siren towers.

In Greek mythology, sweet singing sirens tempted ships to destruction on the rocks. Ailsa's sirens bellowed like a bull and had quite the opposite effect on sailors.

This warning sign is redundant. The sirens are long silent.

Soon the lighthouse came into view again.

We landed gently in a little bay of stones....

...before starting on our long climb to the lofty summit of Ailsa Craig.


Friday, November 28, 2008

The lost puffins and last sea eagle of Ailsa Craig

As we continued round Ailsa Craig from the main gannet colonies, we came across some places where banks of grass grew on great heaps of rocks that had long ago broken free from the heights above.

At one time, 250,000 pairs of puffins bred here but they were exterminated by rats.

The rats were exterminated in the 1990 by poison and the puffins have now returned. In May 2008 we saw several hundred. Two years earlier we had seen only five!

Once past the puffin colony, we approach the brooding mass of Bare Stack. It was these still bare contours that took the brunt of the glacier which at one time scoured the Firth of Clyde. The spring air chilled as we enterd the shade of these heights.

High on the great overhanging cliff is a small ledge called the Eagle's Seat. The last breeding sea eagle was shot on Ailsa Craig in 1881. It measured seven feet from wing tip to wing tip and was displayed in Culzean Castle for many years. This year we saw sea eagles on Islay and the Mull of Kintyre.

One can only hope that like the puffins, they too will return to the rocky fastnesses of Ailsa.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Gannets of Ailsa Craig

As we rounded Stranny Point at the SW corner of Ailsa Craig we were struck by two things. The first was the wonderful quality of the light and clarity of the air.

The second was the sheer number and noise of thousands of croaking gannets. Over 40,000 pairs of gannets return to breed each spring after wintering in west Africa.

Every available ledge was occupied by a gannet nest and every inch was fiercely defended from any of its neighbours' encroachments.

Oh, I think I might have forgotten to mention the rich smell! Truly a visit to Ailsa Craig at breeding time is one of the natural world's great experiences!


I am sorry not to have posted during my visit to Taiwan or during my recovery from jet lag!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The missing mermaids of the water cave, Ailsa Craig

Immediately to the west of Stranny Point on Ailsa Craig lies the beautiful Water Cave, with its pillared entrance at sea level. It is sometimes known as the Mermaids’ Cave and winds for 43m into the heart of the Craig and is best entered by kayak at high tide before exploring the remainder on foot. Low tide leaves a rocky sill with a deep pool within, which is difficult to cross on foot. On our visit we could hear the mournful wails of seals within so we decided not to disturb them. Of course we saw no mermaids either!

Despite not gaining access to the interior, we were entranced by this enchanting place. On top of surrounding rocks, left high and dry by the receding tide, seals basked in the sun. Could these be the missing mermaids of the cave?


There will now be a break in posting. I am off to Taiwan for 10 days, after which normal service from will be resumed!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ailsa Craig, Rev R Lawson,1888

I found this little book recently. It is beautifully written and illustrated with line drawings. It describes the history, topography and natural history of the isle of Ailsa Craig. The Rev Lawson was a minister in Maybole, Ayrshire. He was a keen historian and wrote several books on the history of Ayrshire.

This map folds out from the front piece and to this day it remains the best map of Ailsa Craig available anywhere.

I like old books.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Landfall on Ailsa Craig

Seeing Ailsa Craig on the horizon from our recent tour of the Ayrshire Carrick coast has brought back memories of a fabulous trip back in May. We made landfall on the spit of granite blocks which extends to the east of the isle. Above us the castle clung precariously to the steep slopes.

The Ailsa Craig lighthouse lies at the easternmost end of the spit. It was built in 1886 by Thomas and David A Stevenson. It has a white flash every four seconds.

After a brief lunch we set off to circumnavigate the island anticlockwise. If it is sunny this will give you the best light for photography on the dramatic west side. As we approached Stranny Point the air was filled with gannets.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Nae man can tether time nor tide": the return to Ayr.

We emerged from the Anchorage bar to see the World bathed in a rosy glow. The "Sleeping Warrior" of Arran lay still on the far western horizon.

Our timing was impeccable. Beyond the Castle and the skerries and even beyond distant Ailsa Craig, the golden orb of the Sun was just kissing the horizon as we made our way to sea again.

After a few pulls on our paddles we turned back to catch a last glimpse of the sun but it had already gone.

The temperature dropped like a stone, the pipping of the oyster-catchers' calls died away and the flocks hunched together on shore for the night. The silent winter silhouette of Ailsa Craig invited a return, but in the Spring when it would once again be surrounded by a cacophony of noisy breeding birds!

As the cold began to seep into our bones we felt another calling.

After a refreshment stop at Dunure, Bracken Bay is conveniently located for a final stop before landing at Ayr. Our last 5km were paddled in the dark, but once we rounded the Heads of Ayr the myriad stretch of the town's lights did little assist navigation. A quick compass bearing indicated that the constellation Plaedes would be our main navigational aid. However, our noses guided our final touchdown. The light north easterly breeze was blowing directly from Ayr India. The mixed pakora eaten on the sea front provided a spicy end to a perfect day and night's paddle!


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Enlightenment at Dunure.

We now approached the grim and impregnable walls of the ancient castle of Dunure. Its walls are now silent witness to a bloody past. Unlike its neighbour, Culzean, it was not gentrified during the period of the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century.

Approaching from the sea it is easy to see why this site was chosen....

... the castle seems to grow out of the cliffs by the shore.

We landed on the shingle beach below the castle.

Sadly we had arrived somewhat too early for the best of the sunset. It was rather cold and we had at least another hour to wait before the sun sank towards the horizon...

...well what else could we do? We reluctantly entered the portal of the Anchorage Bar in Dunure.


Friday, November 07, 2008

Traditional meets new school by the Carrick skerries.

One of the great pleasures of meeting people on the water is exchanging ideas about kit and technique. Four of the paddlers on the water had taken their first strokes in skin on frame kayaks. Dave from the Garnock club may now use a composite hull but he still prefers Inuit paddle, a rudder, a woolly jumper knitted by his gran and a buoyancy aid of uncertain manufacture (though I could just make out "SS Tita...." on the back). It was a delight to observe his and Duncan's effortless and fast paddling styles.

Alan on the other hand has just started sea kayaking. He loves his carbon fibre paddle and is wearing the latest Lomo breathable dry suit.

Under an amazing winter sky, traditional and new school paddled together past the skerries of Carrick.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A meeting with Garnock Canoe Club in Culzean Bay.

Leaving Culzean we paddled across the broad expanse of Culzean Bay. Arran and the Holy Isle were clear on the western horizon....

.... and Turnberry Point and Ailsa Craig stood out to the south. However, our eyes were on the coast to the north. David was due to paddle south from Dunure to meet us.

Instead of a solitary David we met him with members of the Garnock Canoe Club: Duncan, Dave, Jim, Alison and Alison.

Duncan Winning OBE is a long standing member of the Garnock club which has a fine reputation for training its sea kayaking members. Gordon Brown is a former member and Richard Cree is another current member.

We had a good chat before we all paddled northwards, bound for Dunure.

Tony, David and I paddle this coast regularly but this is the first tme we have met anyone on the water! First we met Alan then the Garnock club! Sea kayaking in Scotland is a growing activity.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Culzean Coastline

From Turnberry Point we crossed Maidenhead Bay (in truth it was not our first time) and found ourselves at delightful Port Carrick at the south end of the Culzean coastline.

Long winter shadows stretched across the sands but the north end of the beach was bathed in wonderful low winter sunlight.

Port Carrick is a great place to stop for lunch. In winter you will have it to yourself but at the height of summer it can be very popular.

After a sandwich we paddled out to sea under an amazing sky. The sunset promised to be fantastic!

We turned a corner and found ourselves in a bay with a shingle beach backed by a round bath house, a ruined laundry and Dolphin House.

The next headland is dominated by the magnificent Culzean Castle. It was built for the 10th Earl of Cassillis by Robert Adam in 1770. Its great central staircase is actually built within the interior of the original square keep which is now surrounded by these newer and more ornate walls.

What a wonderful coastline Culzean is and I haven't even mentioned the caves or the blow hole!