I WANTED to be alone, to have space to think gorgingly and without distraction about someone I had lost, so I made for a place where no-one lived, indeed where no-one had ever lived – the so-called ghost village of Pollphail.
Skeleton village would be more accurate. Pollphail is all shell, no soul. It was built high on a hill above Loch Fyne, by Portavadie, in 1976. This was early in the oil boom and the intention was to house the hundreds of workers who were employed building concrete platforms for rigs. But technology moved too fast. Steel platforms were what the industry wanted, and so Pollphail was never occupied. It has lain empty ever since, moldering in the salty breath of the Argyll coast.
Recently, it has been in the news. The site has gone on the market. It is expected that the eventual buyer will raze the village and build holiday homes; exorcism by bulldozer.
It was fitful weather when I visited, the sky steely with coming rain. The loch was a tarnished mirror on which yachts flashed like shards. Pollphail is half-hidden from the road by a screen of silver birches; a dense coverage of prickly whin bushes is more likely to deter explorers than the fence.
It looks extraordinary – a Bauhaus version of Cumbernauld, a post-apocalyptic Brigadoon. Wildflowers soften its harsh geometrics. Ragwort, red clover and ragged robin; foxgloves rocket up from open manholes; brambles thrust through broken windows. Underfoot, crunching glass. The skull of a lamb lies on a bedroom floor. Swallows flit from mud nests built around light fittings.
Pollphail is eerie. There is a feeling of being watched. Graffiti artists have painted pale hooded figures here and there. Someone has written, “There is a man behind you now.” Even more unsettling is catching sight of oneself in a shattered mirror hanging on one of the walls. No-one, I repeat, ever lived here, yet the sense of abandonment is very strong. Hanging on hooks are keys that have never, will never, unlock doors.
The oppressive sensation of a lost future reminded me of a walk I made with family and friends two years ago to the ruined village of Hallaig, in the south-east of Raasay. There, the people had been driven from their homes in 1854 as part of the Clearances, an event elegised by the poet Sorley Maclean. It was poor weather the day we set out. Sea eagles were anchors in a storm-tossed sky.
The rain had made the path muddy and sucking, and washed it away altogether in places; no joke as there is a steep drop down to the Inner Sound. It was too much for the children with us, so we sheltered in a birch wood and explored the mossy shell of an old stone house. There was a feeling of deep sadness. The word ‘haunt’ has its roots in ancient words for home or village, so perhaps it makes sense that Pollphail and Hallaig feel haunted. There is something about their emptiness that clutches at the heart.
What is it that attracts us to places like this? Pollphail has become a beacon for artists and filmmakers, and for those urban explorers willing to travel to such a remote spot. Clearance villages such as Hallaig are an increasingly popular aspect of tourism in Scotland. They remind us, I would suggest, of our own fragility and transience, the daft vanity of our desire to own material things. Arguably, too, abandoned places help us access in a controlled way our feelings of personal loss – brokenheartedness, homesickness, grief – which we otherwise suppress.
I came to Pollphail having lost someone I loved. I had hoped that in its ruins I might find silence enough in which to think about him properly. But it didn’t work. My thoughts, like swallows, wouldn’t settle. I stood on a concrete balcony looking across the loch to the clouds shrouding the hills above Tarbert, and all I could feel was the bloody never-ending rain.
A crow rasped in the rotting rafters as I walked back to the car. There were no ghosts here and soon there would be nothing at all.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west