Friday, 14 August 2015

The Children of the May Tides

Six year old Luke's first climb.The Coves,Knapdale,Scotland.

The following essay was recently re-discovered literally in the bottom of a drawer amongst various unpublished essays,journal extracts and poems. It recalls a magical week on the west coast of Scotland with some of my children and a family friend with her two offsprings. Despite the prose at times reading as purple as a Wino's nose and occasionally straying into 'Swallows and Amazons' territory, it nevertheless, captures-I hope- a special time in a special place. Staying in the West Wing of a magnificent Georgian house on the shores of West Loch Tarbert on the Knapdale Peninsular.Set amidst the wild coastal countryside which defined  the 1500 acre estate. An estate which sadly was quickly falling into disrepair and which would, within a few years, be sold off by the court to settle a complicated family dispute over ownership. Nevertheless, for one week in May it was paradise. The peninsular simmered each day under endless blue skies,mussels were gathered and mullet was hauled. Smoke curled from beach fires and virgin rock was climbed. We would return several times but never again would we quite capture the magic of that first week. Tragically, Debbie my companion that week died all too young three years ago.
Beyond the seal stacked rocks of Rubh'a Bharr Ruaidh,the morning ferry to Islay could be heard. Its fathoming engines breaking the fragile silence that lay over Ardpatrick point. Despite the early morning hour, the sun had ignited an azure sky and promised us another day of simmering shadows amongst the jagged, saltwater shores which corralled the bearded cliffs known locally as 'The Coves'. As climbing parties go, this was an elfin band of eager youngsters and a female friend with a chronic back problem and no climbing experience. However, the coltish spirit of my charges fermented in the warm Highland air and suggested that this would not act as a barrier to our climbing ambitions. Upon this day we would feast our limbs on rock as untainted by human hand as the furthest flung Himalayan peak. The pleasure of unwrapping the sharp cast of unburnished sea cliff, a tactile experience worth a thousand polished ascents of an established route.

The touchstone of our experience moulded under the same northern skies which had looked down upon George Orwell as he fought his final battle with TB and struggled to complete '1984' on Jura's mesmeric north eastern shore. I had always found an echo in Orwell's leftist libertarianism. His stubborn romanticism in the face of conventional political sensibilities a heady draught from which to draw inspiration. His 'crystal spirit no power could disinherit' as true now as it ever was.

A wrong turning and a long but ultimately rewarding journey around the peninsular on route to our temporary base, had revealed a crenelated frenzy of sea cliffs and caves which looked out to the salmon dusted islands of Islay, Jura and Gigha. 'The Coves' had never entered climbing folklore as the Gogarth of the north. I am sure that given the lack of scale on this gently woven mid western edge of the Scottish mainland, Patey, Smith, Marshall and Nimlin would have been frying bigger fish to the north and east of this gentle, luminous land of sea and sky. The only ghosts to haunt these quiet shores were the ghosts of fishermen and sailors whose lost lives gilded the rusting lobster pots and caught on the Atlantic winds.

Tumbling from our overloaded Citroen, we fell down through thistle rich fields which spilled into banks of fern and bramble. The rasping tendrils drew blood from Daisy's pale, bare legs; the crimson stains quickly drying in the warm, salted air. Emerging from the verdant groves we tumbled onto the cobbled shores of Porth Mor, which reeked of rotting seaweed. We gradually found the air sweeter as we moved beyond the arc of shore beneath the bramble groves. Slipping and sliding through shifting silver sands and clacking rocks, our raggle-taggle caravan wound its way through the secret rock pools and fingers of sea which reached into hollow channels of pocketed stone cleft by infinite tides.

Amongst the dessicated, blackened ribbons of seaweed, Siobhan stumbled upon three speckled eggs of an Oystercatcher who, upon being disturbed, arced away in alarm and berated us from the haven of a crusted rock half submerged in the crystal waters. In the shadow of a green tower we set down our sweat stained burden of rucsacs and ropes and toasted our arrival with Ki-Ora. As we lay on the pebbles beneath the tower, and out of reach of the rising tide, I contemplated the monolithic feature before us. Although the tower carried a fair amount of vegetation, there was enough clean rock winding down like the polished rail of a helter-skelter to suggest a feasible passage lay through the green sward. As we shook our sacs out, Luke stripped off and took to the aqua green waters beneath the tower, amazed at the shoals of tiny fish which exploded from his shadow. As Luke waded towards the fronded rocks which guarded the pool I anchored Liam to the rock and started to paw the pale stone before rising up on holds which were good and true. After 20ft of easy climbing I tossed a sling over a spike of rock and looked down upon upturned, brown faces, curious to discover if our Lilliputian sea stack ‘would go’ ?

Passing through a grassy section I descended into shadows and grappled with rock which was now steeper and looser than before. Pausing to place a cam, I gingerly crept through the difficulties, taking care not to trust these brittle stone bones with anything more than brief caress. After 90ft of gentle meandering I pulled out onto the virginal tip of 'Oystercatcher Pinnacle'. After passing a sling over a pale boss I tied on and settled back in my heather chair to drink in the day. To the west, the island of Gigha –‘God's Island’- sent its whistling white sands across the sound: Islay sweated; its rich, whisky brown body rolled in the Atlantic surf while Jura's paps drew lustful glances. Within this ultramarine canvas, sail cloth whispered and beyond the dazzling Sound of Jura, the amorphous surge of stone and wood drew out of shadows, fixing its sacred image on my yielding eye.

Oystercatcher Pinnacle.
One by one the youngsters-minus little Luke-clambered up the tower. Debbie delicately picked her way through the shingle bands knotted with driftwood and seaweed to frame photographs and offer encouragement to the brown limbed dancers who would join me in my green eyrie. Daisy, Henry and Liam all found the key to unlock the door; Siobhan let it slip from her delicate white hand and drifted back to earth on a nylon thread to offer her tears to the salted grass. Sometime later she emerged at my shoulder to after a death defying scramble up the back of the sea stack. Expecting my admiration and pleasure at her achievement, I could only of offer a parent’s anger and admonishment for her suicidal ascent. Once more I lowered her tearfully back to earth. The following day reprised the last with regard to the weather. A full blooded sun dazzled down and almost to the minute we found ourselves once again passing through the shadows which fell from our now vanquished tower.

The previous day I had reconnoitered the southern reaches of the coves and spied a delightful looking ridge which arched out of the sea like a gilded scallop shell the spine of which was pitted with stone  honeycombs. When I pointed out this obscure object of desire it was unanimously met by the approval of all concerned. ‘Honeycomb Ridge’ began as a lovely rough slab which ran up to meet the main body of the ridge. The ridge itself unfolded as a delightful dance over a rough, bleached cockscomb which sprang out of the sea to meet the heathery headland above. Technically little more than a scramble, nevertheless, the plunging exposure that was experienced once the ridge was gained shook Debbie's knees to jelly -it was her first ever climb- and prompted Daisy to curse Liam and Henry with the tongue of a stout soaked navvy when they attempted ill advised criticisms of her elegant climbing style! Siobhan put the disappointment of the previous day behind her and whooped with pleasure as she pulled up beside me.

Honeycomb Ridge
When we got down I geared Luke up and gave him a taste of rock with some little rites of passage over the lichen crusted rocks beneath the ridge. He grappled manfully with the task in hand, his scuffed trainers scraping the rock while tiny fingers coiled around sharp flakes. Reserving his smiles for later, his concentration was total and his expression showing his serious commitment as fingers danced over rock; feeling for holds unseen by naked eyes. Whether you are poised beneath 'the pudding stone' on Cenotaph Corner, or six feet above the shingle of Rubha Cruitiridh-five years from heaven or seventy five-this is it; the slow dance which all who climb experience. The steps once learnt never forgotten.

With most of the party content with the day's haul, Liam Henry and I left the rest of the party to beach comb whilst we wended our way further down the shore where the final climb of the day waited for us. Before I left base camp I wrapped one of the girl's swimming costumes around my velveteen head in a belated attempt to protect my burnt crown. Indifferent to the mocking sniggers of these disrespectful shavelings. ‘Yellow Buoy Climb’ bookended the Coves climbs. A 'severe' climb which started out as a wonderful slab which breached an overlap halfway and ended as a desperate struggle up a crumbling chimney which resembled poorly mixed concrete.For the first time in two days I contemplated the possibility of taking flight from the rock as I struggled to place protection in this nerve wracking chicane of sun dried merde!

Below and indifferent to my struggle, Debbie dozed on the melting rocks lapped by languorous waves. Occasionally she framed an action shot for posterity before retreating back into the warm arms of the sun. Eighty feet above the brown skinned boys of summer I tried to alleviate my anxiety by singing 'Mull of Kintyre'. McCartney's paean to these sacred western shores of Argyll worked its magic and soon my scratched, dusted hands grasped a sharp, solid edge and with one bound he was free ! As I brought up Liam and Henry, Luke and the girls wandered up to catch the action before retreating back with Debbie along the shore to strike camp.

As the earth began to turn its back on the sun, Luke and I followed the ragged caravan back through the headlands, stopping at a freshwater waterfall to dip our heads and cup the peat scented nectar to our lips. Feeling our way through the eye deep bramble and fern banks I scrambled above the rasping tendrils onto a boulder and pulled Luke up beside me to look back upon the canvas we had painted that day. Gigha sank  back and pulled the little island of Cara into its shadow. Islay and Jura shimmered in the gloaming as blood red fingers of cloud parted the temporal sky. In the field beyond the crooked stone wall which divided us, a farmer shouldered a lifeless lamb through his thistle studded field before tossing his cold burden into the boot of his Ford Escort van. All around us, in quiet rapture, this fine may day began its procession into night. Our sojourn in her season a blessed vacation from the dark winter we had experienced in the south.

Dunskeig could be seen across the loch from the ferry cottages beneath Ardpatrick. A rounded hump fringed with rough,untamed woodland from which pale steep cliffs rose above the dark hem which looked out over the entrance to West Loch Tarbert like the Gates of Troy. The cliffs could have been anything from 30 to 100 ft in height. From a mile away across the loch it was difficult to tell but rock is rock and we had our curiosity to satisfy.

The approach to Dunskeig involved either a twenty mile car journey around the loch or, more simply, a water bourn approach across the mile wide loch. The latter being no quicker but certainly, given the beautiful location, a more romantic approach to a crag you could not dream of. Liam, Henry and I stashed our climbing gear in the stern or our pea green boat and maneuvered her down the slipway, taking care not to tumble on the polished, seaweed coated rocks. With the launching trolly wheels submerged, the tiny craft floated free.

After dragging it clear of submerged rocks I threw in the line and scrambled aboard. Liam and Henry took an oar each whilst I made myself comfortable in the stern Apart from the occasional fishing boat returning to the narrow isthmus which connects Kintyre with the mainland, the loch was quiet and after a pleasant hour our little craft was pulled ashore in a craggy inlet. After dragging her clear of the tide we wound our way through the alder and birch groves which were rooted in a dark, wet, peat bog and emerged into sunlight on the heather slopes of the hill. It was clear that the cliffs of Dunskeig did not have the scale or quality we had anticipated. Little more than 50ft high and clothed in a luxuriant growth of lichen, I pondered the possible lines and settled for a feasible line which began from a sharp corner. Groove and Slab began as lovely ascent of a fine steep corner. Beneath the lichen was rock as sharp and firm as you could wish for. After 20’ of climbing, an awkward pull on to a narrow ledge allowed a pause in the proceedings and a glance to  right revealed a nice slabby finish. The final slab was delicate in places and required some conscientious gardening, but despite the lack of protection the line never felt serious.

The only heart shaking moment came when as I pulled through the final crack and a salvo of sound exploded from within the deep, dark confines of the crack. It appeared that the fissure was home to a nest of hungry young gulls. I expect they were as shocked as I when, for a brief moment in time,our worlds collided! We decided to pick out one more climb before rowing back home. Red Chimney was just that. A deep chimney of rust red rock which was reached via a short slab. Like its near neighbour, the difficulties never exceeded V Diff but nevertheless it passed off as a pleasant excursion which gave Liam and Henry the chance to practice the lost art of 'back and footing'. Given the time and inclination Dunskeig could cleaned up to provide say 10 short routes but given its inaccessibility and its lack of scale, this lonely fortress is forever destined to remain an echoing haven of seabirds- and who is to argue that this is not how it should be.

The cliffs of Dunskeig above the mouth of West Loch Tarbert
This was to be our last day of exploration on the gentle virgin cliffs of Kintyre and Knapdale. Under a delicate patina of viridian and ochre wisps of lichen lay rock which reflected the honest, unspoiled beauty of the land from which it grew.The cold, dispassionate descriptions of our modest explorations would lie unrecorded save this brief outline of our activities. The soft white page is no place for a rainbow of memories. Memories which nourish the soul in times of hunger.

There are places I'll remember,All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better,Some have gone and some remain.All these places have their moments,With lovers and friends I still can recall.Some are dead and some are living,In my life, I've loved them all.

John Appleby: 1997