He took me to The Island

11th June 2015

ailsa craig

It is oft seen, but rarely visited.

Across great swathes of Ayrshire coastline, locals wake to its burnished flanks, radiant in the morning sun, and retire in the thrall of its muscular shadow, battling the embers of day.

Everyone in these parts knows something of ‘the Craig’. Its granite. Its birds. Its lighthouse. Its owner. But the island is both charismatic and forbidding. Few locals have set foot on her balding, beautiful shores.

‘How much do you have?’, the Captain asked me. His pleasure boat charged £20 a head and carried 12 people.  I was alone. I wanted to go, and go early in the morning. So I would be his only passenger. There was something charming, almost naive, in his question. He was no predatory deal-maker, I thought. The conclusion disarmed me, as one cannot win a bargaining stand-off when one is the only participant.

We landed a fair price, and were on our way.

His stories began as we puttered out of Girvan harbour. Captain spoke of lighthouse keepers disappearing, of rats running rampant and killing the puffins by eating their eggs. Rats the size of rabbits. Until the Bird Sanctuary people got serious and killed off all those rodents.
That’s when the rumours that you can’t land on Ailsa Craig took hold. The poisoning season had lasted two years (successful) but ‘visitors can’t set foot on Ailsa’ is a widely -held belief in its 25th year.

Porpoises play in these Clyde waters, but not near the boat. The engines frighten them. True, the engine seemed to make more noise than progress. To my untrained ear, it seemed like we never left second gear.

Captain popped out of the wheelhouse for a smoke. I took over. This boat – called Glorious – was built in 1979 in Northern Ireland.  A great boat, he thought, measured by her low repair bills over the years. She looked weathered, beautiful, simple. The kind of boat I might have drawn, as a boy.

I played with the wheel. Left idle, Glorious would end up in Antrim. The winds and the tide were pulling from the north. She had to be kept in line.

12 miles is a long journey in second gear. We chatted on. I heard of his fisherman tourist who arrived in white t-shirt and white shorts and returned at the end of the expedition in red t-shirt and red shorts. Mackerel blood accounted for the difference.

Or the day Captain had to pick up a researcher stranded in the only habitable dwelling on the Craig. The poor chap – his name was Bernard – had been alone for six weeks. The swell forbade mooring on the jetty. Rather, Captain directed him around the island’s shoreline to a rocky outcrop known as Little Ailsa. Tiny, it nonetheless cast its form out into deeper water. On the 23rd of December, in frigid, dangerous conditions, Bernard jumped from the rock into Glorious. A man needs company for Christmas.

We approached Ailsa Craig, and our conversation fell to hush. The bracken and heather thinly clothed this hulking mass, so enthrallingly beautiful, and in the shape of a near perfect dome.

Underneath the bracken – purest granite. Noble, hard, oft-quarried granite. To the island’s north, the granite took on a special hue. ‘Blue hone granite’ is a kind of stone found nowhere else in the world, and is the hardest, most impermeable of rocks. This quality has given it a worldwide reputation. It alone is used in the crafting of competition-quality curling stones.

Captain suggested we circle the island, because it is two worlds in one.

Around the other side a haven for 50,000 nesting gannets, puffins, guillemots and kittiwakes unfolded. I had the impression we were thrust into an ancient, other time. The form of the wheeling gannet – angular, dinosaur-like – reinforced the feeling. On the sheer cliffs of Ailsa, not a single perch is left unused. The birds, busy in their June routines, carried out chores like well-mannered citizens. Order ruled.

Returning to an easterly heading – Girvan once again in sight – we stopped at the jetty for a chat. Bernard, that rescued researcher, awaited. His love of the craig was unabated, it seemed, as he was on another of his three-day research trips. Rosy-cheeked and warmly silent, he tied up the boat, even though there was little need. The waters were lazy and the wind somewhat weary.

I jumped ashore and stood on solid ground. Granite ground. As Captain chatted to his friend (they had bonded through crisis), I was given ten minutes to explore. Boyhood once again. I scurried over rocks and rusted rail, past a dead gannet, and spied a ruined castle in the distance.

This is a place of pared, elemental beauty. I breathed in, slowly, and savoured a sense of being suspended by time. In those split seconds, I became a child again, viscerally connected with the ways of nature.

With that, I meandered back to the jetty where Glorious awaited. The conversation of those two giant men carried towards me, on the gentlest breeze.


Brian McIntyre. 2015.

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