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A hundred years of change on Scotland’s coast


To the left is the glow of Glasgow, an orange sky-light over the western horizon. To the right is a cluster of lights, twinkling in a black fold of the hills where they meet the water on the outskirts of the small town. Behind me the dark woodland makes its smooth-edged way towards the sky. It is two hours after midnight and the dome of the heavens is filled with stars: Orion, firmly positioned ahead and above, Casseiopea’s zig-zag; the Plough and Pleiades shine clearly amid the myriad points of light.

The tide is in, a quiet filling of the little bay, water colour as dark as the isthmus-island a hundred metres away. In the morning, when the tide has fully ebbed, I’ll walk the rim of the high tide mark and find again the stumps of wood set into the pebbly beach.

It was on my first visit here over forty years ago that I had found them – 43 stumps of wood, but I wasn’t to know then of The Awful Event that would, paradoxically, bring me back here year after year in the future. Further back in time I ‘see’ the bay alive with voices, with fishermen in action around the water’s edge rimmed with poles up to 3-4 metres high. They were set about 4 metres apart on either side of the bay; chains fixed long cross-pieces on which the nets were hung to dry in the summer sun. The wooden skiffs are pulled up on the shore or left to lie drunkenly against the rough stone piers. The catch is sorted, ready for shipping ashore across the loch in the far village-on-two-lochs.

This scene is typical of the west of Scotland in the decades from the mid-nineteenth century. Dotted along the shores of the great Loch Fyne are many wee bays with their crumbling piers and pole-stumps which still protrude above the mud and shingle, still 4m apart and still home to the winkles scraping a living off their surface.

There were cottages too, huts where the fishers sheltered – and possibly spent longer periods of time at the season’s height. They remain too those cottages, seen by some to be a sorry sight, to others a live link, a glimpse back into years beyond our birth. Stone built, strong-gabled with firm foundations, they must have taken a huge amount of human energy to cut, transport and position the stones – often in areas inaccessible but for the sea and hill-track. It’s still possible to deduce the room layout amongst the nettles, foxgloves, brambles, and bracken. Even more special was to talk with Martha about Lagganroaig, ruined four miles away across the loch; in her eighties, she recalled the glinting of the sun in the window-glass of that far cottage when she was a girl. And she recalled how the father of that house carried his ill daughter twelve miles across the rugged hills to find a doctor (she survived).

The ring-net fishermen who used these net-drying bays had gone some time before a Family arrived at one such nearby bay. Direct across the loch from that same fishing town with its twinkling street lights is another bay, with six poles. It’s up the coast from the first bay, smaller but also positioned on one side of an isthmus; nearby is a third bay where this Family placed an ancient gypsy caravan. The caravan doorway faced away from the shore edge and its wheels were hidden by the growth of two lean-to constructions. In the right-hand one there were two bunks, rather like one’s imagined appearance of the huts of polar trekkers in the hey-day of exploration and adventure. Other gear was stowed in and around – Primus stoves, boxes of clothes, food, kindling, games; it was a dark, friendly place like its sister lean-to on the other side of the caravan which was full of rowlocks, balers, oars, centreboards, sails and – in winter – the dinghy itself.

In the caravan was all that you’d need for holidays in the 1920s. Shelves with books, a mirror-frame, a wardrobe and, across the seaward end, a high level bunk special for a wee child – with a four-inch diameter port-hole cut into the corner, just exactly where your head could turn right on the pillow to let you gaze lazily to a circular world of waves, the dinghy riding at anchor and – far away – the same twinkling street lights across the loch. On the beach were the ever-present Oystercatchers and gulls – just Being, at home between the tides.

It was at this idyllic place that the Family spent their bare-foot 1920s summer holidays. For six weeks they were like the birds – just Being. The days were a mixture of routine and regular ploys sharpened by special events: climbing the flat-topped hill at the back (now forestry-covered), sailing across the loch to the town (and on one occasion being marooned there overnight leaving a patient, anxious and trusting Mother waiting at the shore past midnight…). To be swum to only by the intrepid was a rocky islet a mile off-shore, lichen-yellow in the sun, but cloud black at dusk.
Here youngsters Grew Up.

The caravan stood for many years, looking across the water to the wee bay with six pole stumps. The pole-stump bay looked back and saw the caravan – and the beginnings of mechanisation: tractors, balers, horses out to grass. The war of 1939 came; a bay further down this eastern shore of L.Fyne became an ideal practice beach for the D-day landings. The Clyde was bombed, but the caravan heard nothing; the wee bay with six poles would not even have noticed the submarines exercising out in the deep loch. Through the noise and black shapes of war this haven remained at peace, despite being only thirty miles’ gull-flight west of Glasgow. But though thirty more years passed of proper peace, the noise of battle and conflict and mechanisation eventually reached the bay – in the shape of The Event.

For this area was seen from Westminster as a political pawn. North Sea oil offered much to European economies and the British Government was not slow to claim its due share of the bonanza. So in the early 1970s there was a race to explore and to build oil rigs, platforms, terminals, refineries. The Labour government saw a need to build platforms, preferably quicker than their European rivals. So planning consent was bulldozed through giving permission for an oil platform yard on the shores of deep Loch Fyne. And the perfect spot was, yes – The Bay.

Thousands of tons of rock were blasted away to make a deep construction bay out of a peaceful and shallow lagoon. This dock was to be separated from the open water of the loch by huge gates through which the completed rig/platform would be floated out and around the north of Scotland to the promised land. The building of accommodation for all the workers was also needed, which took the shape of a huge complex of flats and rooms in the next bay; it always reminded me of a typical university hall of residence, set not twenty metres from the barnacles and wrack of a wild, rocky shore.

To think what it must have been like for the dozen or so local families during this phase beggars the imagination. Though prosperity perhaps beckoned, the pain of seeing old areas destroyed must have been almost unbearable. It was certainly too much for The Family, the oldest of whom took it upon himself to remove the caravan permanently; and because it had stood there for around 60 years, ever more frail and patched, the only kind thing to do was to set it on fire.
I’m glad I wasn’t there.

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