After a 10-mile journey from Girvan harbour, at a speed of 28 knots - and two lifetimes of waiting - we are finally approaching Ailsa Craig.
Ailsa Craig. Paddy’s Milestone. The Fairy Rock. That igneous intrusion which, 62 million years ago, thrust its way through the Permo-Triassic strata, then resisted the erosive power of several glaciers. That volcanic plug which, if pulled, would surely allow all the water in the Firth of Clyde to drain away.
Famous chiefly for its Reformation skirmishes, its blue hone granite from which curling stones are hewn, and its status as an RSPB reserve, the island has an almost mystical hold over those who have lived or holidayed on Scotland’s south-west coast.
It's partly its unusual shape. Has any 240-acre patch of land ever been asked to bear the weight of so many metaphors? Depending on who you ask, Ailsa Craig is a scone or a Tunnock's teacake; a clootie dumpling or a tea cosy; a muffin or a bunnet. It’s a stepping stone for giants crossing from Scotland to Ireland. Or a cannon ball left over from some fantastical conflict. Or a stone thrown in a competition to decide the fate of an ancient kingdom. The poet John Keats saw it as a "craggy ocean-pyramid"; the song-writer Nick Mulvey as "a beacon on the shore in the New Year morning mist".
Visible from Cairnryan and Kintyre, from Arran and County Antrim - yet formed of sheer, foreboding cliffs - the island is both ubiquitous and inaccessible; solid and mercurial.
Though a wooden fishing boat, The Glorious, and the Glenapp Castle, which belongs to the Glenapp Castle Hotel, run regular trips, the shifting winds and fluctuating tides mean landing is rarely guaranteed. A reliable waymark on clear days, it disappears from the horizon when fog descends, only to re-emerge, days later, like a craggy Brigadoon.
Ailsa Craig is equal parts familiar and alien. It is instantly recognisable. Paintings and photographs hang on thousands of living room walls. They capture it in its various moods: at sunrise or sunset, brooding or with a diaphanous mist scarf draped jauntily around its neck. But few people have actually stepped ashore. And so, Ailsa Craig is capable of taking on whatever meaning we invest in it: escape, home, childhood. Summers so golden they can scarcely have existed.
Here's a faded photograph from the late 70s. The MacLaverty siblings - Ciara, Claire, John and Jude - their skinned knees wedged together in the back of a Ford Cortina, as it moves down the A77. It’s an annual ritual. First: the drive from Ratho outside Edinburgh to the ferry in Stranraer. Next: the voyage to Larne, and the land their soon-to-be novelist father, Bernard, and mother, Madeleine, escaped, but still hanker after. They are eating banana sandwiches and divvying up the Spangles. No seatbelts, of course. The temperature is rising, the squabbling intensifying, the bets on who will vomit first being laid, until - Wow! - on the brow of a hill, close to Hansel Village, a small floating mound hoves into view and Madeline cries: “Look, it's Ailsa Craig!”. “Spotting it was a sign you were making progress; that you were almost on your holidays,” says John, a documentary-maker. “It’s such an interesting rock to look at, with its weird Close Encounters vibe.”
Shift your gaze to Troon, a few years earlier, and you might see David Ross aged 11 or 12, on a promontory with his dad, their fingers greasy from fish and chips. They didn’t chat much, as a rule. Ross’s mum had died when he was seven; his dad, a railwayman, raised him with the help of his in-laws, until he remarried and they moved from Glasgow to Kilmarnock. “We weren’t close,” says Ross, an architect and author. “He never talked about anything I thought was important. It wasn’t until I was older I realised it probably hurt too much.”
On those trips, though, they would sit on a bench, looking towards Ailsa Craig. Ross would pretend it was the “living island” from the children's series H.R. Pufnstuf. He would imagine that, while the east side, facing them, was dark and barren, the west was a riot of magical happenings. “There was a connection between my dad and me about what this panorama represented,” he says. “We had daft conversations, told each other daft stories.”
For some people, the unknowability of Ailsa Craig is the point; they don’t want to unlock its mystery. “It is a monolith. You stare at it, but it doesn’t give you any answers,” says John MacLaverty.
Though the island features in several of Ross's books, he has never been there. “I’ve had lots of offers, but there’s part of me that doesn’t want to go," he says. Instead, he scattered some of his father’s ashes in Troon, in the hope they would wash up on its shores.
But for my mum and I - west coasters both - reaching it became a lockdown obsession. “Once this is over, we will sail to Ailsa Craig,” we’d say. It was a promise that sustained us through thwarted get-togethers, glitchy Zoom calls, and the Christmas Eve we sat chittering in her garden.
The pandemic is not over, of course. Yet here we are on a bright, hot day, hurtling towards a sacred place. Scotland’s Uluru. Ayr’s Rock. A cormorant skims the water; porpoises flash their sleek backs at the sun; seals poke their noses up to say hello. On the beach, close to the Stevenson lighthouse, herring gulls guard chicks the colour of the boulders on which they rest. As the Glenapp Castle slows and lists, we gaze at it all in tilted wonder.
My mum - Margaret - moved to Prestwick when she was two, so Ailsa Craig was always in her sightline. But her connection with it strengthened between 1956 and 61 - the years she spent at St Joseph of Cluny Convent Boarding School in Girvan.
This was the town’s Doon the Watter heyday. It was a time of ice cream sliders, courting at the boat pond and saving up coins for the amusements. “Did you visit the local attractions?” I asked on the way to the boat. “We *were* a local attraction,” she laughed, “walking in a strict crocodile in our blazers and berets, led by nuns whose giant rosary beads clanked so loudly you’d hear them before you saw them.”
It was a cloistered existence, full of random pettiness and pointless prohibitions. “At the weekends, we would be allowed to watch Sunday Night at the London Palladium on one of those televisions with doors," she recalled. "But the second the Tiller Girls appeared, lifting their bare legs, one of the nuns would jump up and close them."
On the rare occasions they were allowed to swim, they were taken to the room closest to the seafront to change into their swimming costumes, then told to put on their gabardines, so not an inch of flesh would be flashed on the few hundred yards that separated the boarding school from the beach.
From the dormitory at the top of the red sandstone building, the pupils could see Ailsa Craig. It was a source of fascination, not least because the biggest event in St Joseph of Cluny convent school life was the Sixth Year trip to the island. For the five preceding years, my mum witnessed the excitement as older pupils set off on their adventure. But when her turn came, the trip was cancelled.
It was a blow. Still, my mum, who had been at boarding school since she was seven, knew how to deal with disappointment. She was a voracious reader, used to pitching herself into other, more vibrant worlds. “In a way, a convent school was a good training ground for a pandemic,” she said; and it was true. She had coped well with lockdown, her head always in a story more redemptive than the one we were living through.
When we reach the pier, the tide is still too low to land, so Leitch motors slowly round: past the northern foghorn - one of two giant sirens - past Swine Cave and Eagle's Seat to the far side of the island. And, guess what? Ross was right: it *is* a riot of magical happenings.
Here, irregular granite columns form higglety-pigglety hill towns, swooshing upwards to their citadels, like a miniature Mont-Saint-Michel or King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. These hill towns thrum with birds: tens of thousands of them, in the sea, on the shoreline, on the rocks, cramming themselves into every nook and cranny. Swarms of gannets drift like snow flurries in the azure sky. Others swoop low over the turquoise water, flaunting the fine black markings around their eyes and the underside of their wings.
The gannets dominate. But there are other species. We see cormorants, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars. The sight of puffins, bobbing along beside the boat, makes us squeal with pleasure. Later, I look up the collective noun and discover it is “an improbability”, which is perfect, not only because - to me - puffins have always been unlikely Alice in Wonderland creatures, but because, on Ailsa Craig, they have returned from the dead.
Until the second half of the 19th Century, puffins were so plentiful they "darkened the skies”. But then, a succession of ships ran aground. The accidents sparked a campaign for the lighthouse, which started operating in 1886. But by then a handful of rats had already swum ashore from the wrecks.
Feasting on rabbits, eggs, and the carcasses of gannets that fell from the cliffs, they bred rapidly. The first was spotted in 1889. In the spring of 1890, it was noted that “it is not safe to put your hand into a hole for a puffin, for the chances are you will get a rat instead”. Nesting in burrows on the ground, the puffins were easy prey and, by 1934, they had all but disappeared.
And so it was until 1991. By then, the rats were eating the chicks of fulmars and gulls too. Glasgow University ornithologist Dr Bernard Zonfrillo decided something had to be done. He set up a team which co-opted two Royal Navy Sea King helicopters based at Prestwick to drop five tonnes of Warfarin Rodenticide onto the upper slopes. The poison was placed under rocks and down deep holes, so the rats would eat it, but - hopefully - the seabirds would not.
To monitor activity, chewsticks smeared with rancid butter were scattered round the island. Before Operation Eradication, there were ratty teethmarks everywhere. After it, the chewsticks went unbitten. There have been no rats on the island since. It took a decade for the puffins to return; but return they did. Now, there are more than 400 pairs. Keen to meet this latter-day Pied Pier - the man who drove the rats out of Ailsa Craig - I had emailed Zonfrillo at the university before our trip. He had not replied.
On the Glenapp Castle, we sail past cliffs and inlets with evocative names: Bare Stack, Doras Yett, Ashydoo, Rotten Nick, Kennedy's Nags. Leitch points out the two quarries: North and South, close to the respective fog horns. There are three types of granite found only on Ailsa Craig: Blue Hone, Common Green and very small quantities of Red Hone. The blue hone is found in North Quarry, the Common Green in South. The granite is mostly grey, until polished, but, today, with the bright sun bouncing off it, the South Quarry is a dazzling white: Fingal’s Cave meets Carrara.
Leitch, a former Girvan harbour master, tells us that, in 1915, there was a mass exodus from the island after one of the quarriers spotted an advertisement seeking workers for Australia’s Granite Belt.
Eight decades later, a man - who had emigrated as a babe-in-arms - turned up in Girvan and asked to visit his birthplace. “The week he came, there was a storm," Leitch says. "We tried to take him out on the lifeboat, but it was impossible. Ailsa Craig was half hidden. He sat on the promenade looking out to sea. Then, on his last day, the island came out of the clouds and he cried.”
Ailsa Craig was quarried continuously (albeit seasonally) until the late sixties. A narrow gauge railway was built so the granite could be transported to the crushing mill. Large boulders were lifted onto bogies by a steam crane, smaller rocks loaded by hand. The bogies were then either pushed by workers or pulled by a pony.
Founded in 1851, Mauchline-based Kays Curling now has the exclusive rights to harvest Ailsa Craig granite. From this, it produces stones for export all over the world. The only other source of curling stone granite is Trefor in Wales, but the stones used in competition by the World Curling Federation and in the Winter Olympic Games are all Kays'.
The company takes the granite as and when it needs it. Last year, with supplies of blue hone on the mainland running low, it harvested 600 tonnes. It was a major operation hindered by the weather and the need to factor in Ailsa Craig’s wildlife and ecology.
To further complicate matters, for the first time in 60 years, the blue hone had to be blasted from the cliff rather than picked up from the beach. Kays used gas cartridges which deflagrate rather than detonate (dynamite would have distressed the birds and damaged the stone). Footage shows the cliff face crumbling. The boulders were then loaded onto The Red Baroness landing craft and taken to Girvan.
Such is the paranoia about rats, the landing craft and other boats were inspected and traps laid. “They even searched my pockets,” says Leitch, who took some of the workers across.
When we have circumnavigated the island, our skipper proclaims it safe to disembark. It’s strange to finally step onto the pier; a wisp of an idea taking solid shape at last.
We joke about kissing the soil. Instead - in an attempt to recreate my mum’s lost school trip - we lay a rug next to the lighthouse and open our picnic hamper. We eat sandwiches followed by cannoli, a touch of decadence I hope the nuns would have disapproved of.
Then we explore. My mum decides the climb to the castle is too much, so I clamber through waist-high ferns alone, as she charts a course along the shore.
The tower house was built by the Hamilton family at the end of the 16th Century. Ailsa Craig, which once belonged to Crossraguel Abbey, was a haven for Catholics fleeing persecution and was once envisaged as a stopping off point for an invasion by King Philip II of Spain, something the fortification was designed to prevent.
Leitch cites its spiral staircase as the inspiration for the one which ends in an abyss in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. I have my doubts, but they don’t stop me pretending to be David Balfour as I mount its steps.
Reunited, my mum and I wander around the area close to the pier, looking at the remnants of the old railway, the old gasworks and the old tacksman’s cottage which served as a tearoom until the early 70s. We sit on an old bogie, then try to push it, but it is rusted fast.
The lighthouse itself is well-maintained, freshly-painted - white with a peach ruff. But the cottages were abandoned in 1990 when automation prevailed over romance. Businessman Bobby Sandhu bought the cottages from the Northern Lighthouse Board, which owns 4.9 acres of Ailsa Craig, 18 years ago. He has recently received planning permission to turn them into holiday homes but no-one seems convinced it will ever happen.
The rest of the island is owned by the Marquess of Ailsa, who put it up for sale in 2011 for £2.5m. Though the price was reduced to £1.5m in 2013, no-one has bought it.
We peer in through broken windows and down through rotten floorboards; look at old beds and armchairs and a cooker, vestiges of lives once led. But what were those locked down lives like? Were they lonely?
Once home, I will go looking for lighthouse keepers and track down two: Peter Henderson and Peter Hill, both based on Ailsa Craig in the 70s, though their shifts never crossed. Henderson, originally from Fair Isle and now the leader of South Ayrshire Council, was born to the job: his grandfather was an Ailsa Craig lighthouse keeper, while his grandmother ran the tearoom. Henderson helped build the island’s helipad which meant keepers were no longer at the mercy of the weather.
Hill was a hippy who craved an escape from the relentless news of the Vietnam War. “I wanted to step off the world and view it from afar,” he says. He spent six months on three Scottish lighthouses and went on to write a book - Stargazing - about his experiences.
There were always three keepers on Ailsa Craig. And the men say they were too busy to be lonely. When not on watch, they would be cooking, painting, building jetties or digging the garden. It was while digging the garden that Henderson found two stone coffins. The remains were later identified as monks from Crossraguel.
Hill remembers the noise of the foghorns could go on for days. By then, the giant trumpets had fallen into disuse, replaced with a bank of smaller ones close to the lighthouse. “People 10 miles away in Girvan would complain about the noise we had outside our living room,” he says. The keepers learned to stagger conversations, speaking between the blasts.
In their downtime, the men would read books shipped over from Girvan library. “I think the life gave us a certain resourcefulness,” Henderson says. “There’s only the three of you, and you quickly understand there’s no-one to depend on but yourselves.”
Around 4pm, Leitch tells us the wind is veering and we have to go back to the boat. I am packing up when I notice a wild-looking man - Ben Gunn in a beanie - fussing with a net on the beach. “Who’s that?” I ask. “Oh, that’s Bernie Zonfrillo, he’s...”. I am off to catch him before Leitch can finish his sentence.
It turns out that, 30 years after the rat eradication, Zonfrillo still spends much of his time on Ailsa Craig, catching and ringing the birds whose populations he helped to swell. The net has been set up to catch storm petrels, which only fly in after dark. "Storm petrels are tiny," he tells me. “They take the same size of ring as a house sparrow."
I think of all Zonfrillo has achieved. “It must be amazing to look at the puffins and guillemots and gannets and know that you played a part in saving them,” I say. “Oh, not the gannets,” he interrupts. “Gannets would rip a rat to shreds,” and he shows me a bloody gash on his right wrist as proof of their ferocity.
On the return journey, my mum and I sit at the back of the Glenapp Castle and watch Ailsa Craig moving into the distance. The boat creates a fierce wake which spreads out symmetrically on either side, so the island is framed like the Taj Mahal.
Back in Girvan, we walk to the boarding school. It has long since been converted into stylish flats but externally the structure is unchanged: a sandstone building linked to the Gothic Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Church by a corridor (now terraced houses).
My mum can still point to the dormitories, the study room, the refectory. The courtyard no longer resounds to the cries of girls in grey gym skirts, but St Joseph still casts his censorious eye from an alcove high up on the side wall.
“Does it upset you to be here again?” I ask. “Och no,” she says. “It was a long time ago. And the nuns didn’t know any better.”
We turn our backs on the statue and head for a cafe, where we buy cones: mint choc chip for her, honeycomb for me.
"Freedom Day" feels a long way off but the beach is full of children, making their own summer memories. We find a bench, lick our ice creams and watch them play. Ailsa Craig sits, inscrutable once more, on the horizon.
The Glenapp boat is part of Glenapp Castle, a five star Relais & Chateaux Hotel on the South Ayrshire coast. It is available to guests to explore Ailsa Craig, Arran, or to take a 4-5 night Hebridean Sea Safari. For more information contact Glenapp Castle on [email protected] or visit their website www.glenappcastle.com
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