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A hundred years of change on Scotland’s coast

With no caravan and no bay of any worth, The Family moved, taking advantage of compensation to have an alternative hut built further down the coast, in another isthmus bay – another bay of pole-stumps and ruins.

To this hut, in successive years, thereafter came The Family. Some couldn’t bear to glance back at the old bay; others put on a brave face and explored this new, had-to-be-accepted face of the 1970s commercial world. They found the yard, the wharf and the workers’ village waiting…. waiting for an order for one of the new concrete designs which were bound to be a success.

But the waiting extended into years – and no order came. Not one order was placed. So the firms pulled out and admitted defeat, realising that this concrete design was out-of-date even before it was born. So they left – the old bays, wrecked, gouged out. They left their buildings, their barbed wire, their tall poles with floodlights. They left their village, unoccupied by man or beast.

Well – only partly true because, as the 80s passed, the village did indeed become occupied. Sheep got in through broken windows, through doors blown off rusting hinges; they covered the dining room carpet with droppings and left tufts of wool on the edges of the tables. They clambered into bedrooms and bathrooms – even died there, starved by a door blowing shut, blocking their final exit. Members of The Family saw the yearly degradation of this ‘hall of residence’, more glass gone, looters helping themselves. But alongside the building, nature took control – grass grew in the cracked concrete driveways; rushes colonised the banks under the perimeter fence, sundew and butterwort thrived, bats took up residence, the tender Grass of Parnassus took advantage of the wildness and lack of human interference – and dragonflies flew over the gorse which increasingly threatened to take over the whole area, giving it a sharp, unwelcoming aura.

Down at the sea’s edge the yard area was slowly cleared. Ten years had gone by and a contractual agreement required the removal of buildings, lamp-posts etc; though much was cleared, the barbed-wire and concrete-posted fence remained – and still remains today. But out of the ashes of an abortive oil platform yard there rose three positive ventures, a phoenix which encompassed a fish-farm and yachting marina – and a new roll-on/roll-off pier to take a car-ferry. So today you can drive from Glasgow to Tarbert (the lamp-twinkling village), drive south down Kintyre to Claonaig, onto another car-ferry to Lochranza, cut over the north-east corner of Arran, onto the (larger) ferry at Brodick and, from Ardrossan back to Glasgow. And you can do this grand trip without taking your slippers off.

You could, of course, go to Kintyre direct by boat, to that cottage where the sun once glass-glinted in the eye of an Edwardian teenager. Easy enough. You set off from the Kerry shore (as the eastern side is called) and row straight across. Make for the white, bracken-fringed beach of Fionnphort and row down the shore a few hundred metres. Pull the boat up on the rocks and walk diagonally up a swathe of soft, long grass to the cottage ruin. Moss and lichen and birch and bog-myrtle surround you in the bracken and tree-clad hillside. Scotch Argus and Meadow Brown butterflies brave the breeze, but midges avoid your small driftwood fire – you feel in touch with the past. Dimly back across the loch in the heat haze you can make out the outline of your home and it is there that you make your eventual landfall, weary after a final 90-minute return row.

It is not yet dusk; the mackerel didn’t bite as I trawled a spinner for the last mile or so and the tide is almost full. My dinghy scrapes with relief onto the shingle and I sat there for a moment, resting, thinking. The water is just reaching the top of a net-pole stump and the past surges in again with the tide. Voices shout and call, but not fisher voices.

Instead you incline your head a little to the left and see the smoke of a shore fire and the excited, waving figures of children, your own children – the New Family – as they call you in to tea.

Later on, leaning out of the barn half-door after supper, the washing-up done, four games of knock-out whist won and lost, I look across the small pole-bay again. The water is just about to recede in the dimming light, when suddenly a cloud breaks free of the eastern moon and light floods the ebbing tide-bay. A glow-worm shines amongst the bracken roots, a Curlew calls and the lights across the loch twinkle as they have always done, pointing the way to shore-side homes. To the north of us – at the edge of another bay, Orion looks down on a small, square patch of gorse and birch beside a car-park, marking the site of an old gypsy caravan. And just as children of the 1920s settled down there to sleep, the New Family children in a different bay are settling into their own fish-box based beds as I turn away from the open door, stoke up the stove and put on the milk for cocoa.

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