Travel: Paddling and puddling at Machrihanish

The beach at Machrihanish, where Mairi Hedderwick spent childhood holidays. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The beach at Machrihanish, where Mairi Hedderwick spent childhood holidays. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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KATIE Morag author Mairi Hedderwick has a lifelong love of the seaside where evocative childhood memories were made

MY childhood home was in Gourock, a small seaside town on the south side of the Clyde. All to the one side is its ambiguous tag; it is on a point of land where the river Clyde turns south into the inland sea of the Firth of Clyde, leaving behind the eastward industrial reaches of Greenock and Port Glasgow.

Gourock town and harbour. Picture: Contributed

Gourock town and harbour. Picture: Contributed

Our house was high on the hill facing west. Sunset and moon glow paths shimmered across the water ending on the stony shore below. After storms my father would fork seaweed into the garden barrow trundled lightly down the hill. I, as much as a small child could help, heaved over strands of the slippery strong smelling tangle. Uncovering a turquoise blue sea slug as big as a teapot halted my enthusiasm one unforgettable day. But I grafted on. How he managed that barrow up the hill, I’ll never know. That first seaside memory I treasure. My father died suddenly when I was 12 years old.

There was an open-air swimming pool further along the shore, which filled and emptied with the tide. Exceptional high tides decanted seaweed into the basin and who knows how many sea slugs. The pool was our summer haunt despite the possibility of the slimy things of the deep. We surfaced, blue and shrieking, to devour bread and jam ‘chittery bites’ whilst shedding our sagging woollen swimsuits. With careful pocket money control our bodies would thaw out with a poke of chips on the way home.

For a war child ‘going away for the holidays’ was an unknown. Slowly, however, the Clyde resorts repainted their promenade railings. Come the first fortnight in July, ‘doon the water’ excursions became fashionable again. We stayed with elderly great aunts in rocky shored Corrie on the Isle of Arran and wandered the shoreline. Paddling necessitated wearing school plimsolls and, latterly, pink plastic sandals which were the height of fashion. On regaining the comfort of the rug on the grass, the Aunties’ thickly buttered girdle scones made up for any stubbed toes or comparison with the superiority of the Gourock pool.

With more travelling freedom came the excitement of going further afield. The beach at Aberdeen was big and entirely covered in sand. There was the added blaring bonus of the fairground and candyfloss stalls. But there were far too many people; a selfish vexation that still manifests itself today in my solitary wild wanderings as an adult.

Cloch Lighthouse, situated three miles south-west of Gourock. Picture: Contributed

Cloch Lighthouse, situated three miles south-west of Gourock. Picture: Contributed

Summer visits to relatives in the south west coast of England were exciting. The long train journey through another country! “Where the houses have curtains not blinds,’’ my mother would intone.

Minehead on the Bristol Channel had sands that stretched for miles towards the sea when the tide was out. There was no point in walking all that way to paddle or swim and too many people on the way. Donkey rides passed the time till the sea crept up to their hooves and seeped into our elaborate sandcastles. So much effort and then the celebration of their collapse. Back home, with yet another set of aunts, a three-tiered cake stand displayed tiny sandwiches on the bottom doily white plate, muffins in the middle and fairy cakes and ‘fancies’ on the top. No sand in your teeth here.

The next summer holiday had a profound effect on me. I would have been about ten years old. We sailed south over the grey waves of the Clyde heading for Machrihanish on the south west of Kintyre. There I saw for the first time translucent green Atlantic rollers arch and crash and froth onto a long white empty beach edged by marram grass tufted sand dunes. The islands of Islay and Jura were blue hazed on the horizon line; my first awareness of the islands of the West coast.

To paddle and swim in bare feet was primal ecstasy! No strands of seaweed to coil round my legs! And afterwards to lie in the shelter and warmth of the dunes and watch the white gold of the marram grass heads swaying against the bluest of skies tremulous with skylarks. To scent the distinctive distillation of machair flowers and the silica source of their existence. Only in later years as I explored the islands was I able to label this distillation of sand, grass and sea as the tang of the Hebrides.

Machrihanish became an annual event and, for an only child, bringing a pal cemented a friendship that lasted into early adulthood when all childish things come to an end. Like competing for the reddest of sunburnt bodies, seeing how far out into the breakers we dared go and how swiftly we could dart, bare footed, across the golf course in the path of frowning golfers on our way to the little tin clad post office where chocolate coated mint ice creams were our new sophisticated chittery bites. I remember peeling back the ice cold foil, my teeth delicately breaking through the thin shield of black chocolate into the melting green centre.

There must have been wet and windy days and the post office shut but my memory will not acknowledge a single cloud. I had my first naked swim in the sea as an adult at Gorton, a remote little beach, on Coll. It was evening and time off from a student holiday job looking after small children. They had been naked on other beaches, paddling and puddling, all day long, now fast asleep with sand still between their toes. The sea was quite still save for a frill of little waves nibbling at the shore. The silence only broken by the whirr of a snipe on land and the whiskery cough of a solitary seal out by the headland. Splashes from my slow cleave through the water the only other sound. My childhood fear of those things of the deep had no hold. There was nothing but the light reflecting quivering sand below.

Floating on the surface of the water other reflections sparkled before half closed eyes. Golden glints of knowing that this part of the world was going to be home.

And so it turned out to be.

My children’s early childhood was on that island. Home of my third child, Katie Morag. She was a self indulgent reminiscence of those parenting days. How lucky was I to spend summer days lolling on the shore below our house at the end of a beach, vigilant only for incoming tide, skelfs from driftwood and sand in the chittery bites?

For some of my grandchildren the island is still their home. They are growing older and having to leave. But, like all children who have made sandcastles and dipped their toes into the sea, they will hold those first seaside memories for ever.

I am older now, too, and paddling and puddling at the seaside is still my pleasure – and very good for the bunion.

• Illustrator and author Mairi Hedderwick supports The Family Holiday Association which helps families dealing with issues such as bereavement and illness to have a simple break together at the British seaside. You can see a unique scrapbook of #seasidememories from many more British authors, personalities and celebrities at