To See a World in a Grain of Sand /and Eternity in an Hour

Ailsa Craig Granite When we were boys we collected birds’ eggs. It’s illegal now, as I understand. It’s even illegal to possess them, without some sort of permit. My criminal past…

Source: To See a World in a Grain of Sand /and Eternity in an Hour

To See a World in a Grain of Sand /and Eternity in an Hour

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Ailsa Craig Granite

When we were boys we collected birds’ eggs. It’s illegal now, as I understand. It’s even illegal to possess them, without some sort of permit. My criminal past is all behind me. The evidence has been destroyed by time, by swaps, malevolent rivals, faulty cardboard boxes crushed under junk and a gradual feeling that the eggs were probably better off if left in the nests to hatch. ‘Nest’ would be overstating things with regard to most sea birds. The birds rely on camouflage. The eggs may be in a depression scraped in the beach or under the lee of a rock. In some cases the eggs are laid on vertiginous rocky ledges and shaped in such a way as to prevent them rolling off. Like Mr. Wobbly Man, the weight is at one end.

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There are wonderful maps on Lambay Island showing the nesting grounds of the various birds and the times at which they laid. This was to facilitate commercial exploitation of a valuable source of protein, until the advent of large-scale poultry farming. How do you like your eggs in the morning? Preferably with no little feathery scaldy inside.

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The luminous midsummer night gave way to a bleak and blustery dawn. The wind picked up and Ailsa Craig peeped above the horizon. A pyramid rising from the sea; a hanging garden viewed from afar; ‘Paddy’s Milestone,’ a landmark for homesick labourers leaving Ireland to earn a few pounds in the potato fields of Scotland. It’s the plug of an ancient volcano from the time when Scotland’s Highlands tore away from the Appalachians and the Atlantic Ocean swelled up to fill the void. It took some time. It is still happening. ‘Preposterous time’ William Goldsmith calls it, a length of time too vast for our puny minds to comprehend. Time enough for living things to evolve, to swim in the oceans and rivers, to creep upon the Earth and take to the air on flimsy wings, colonising islands and cliffs and laying their eggs in relative safety.

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The sun emerged. The  rock took on some colour. It crept closer. We could see the white of gannet colonies on the slopes. The Solan Goose. A delicacy. Robby Burns’s father was said to be in the solan goose trade. I would never have dared, had it been possible, to try to collect a gannet’s egg. It has angry eyes. It is armed with a fearsome weapon. It takes no prisoners. Someone suggested a dip off the jetty. The early morning cold and a vast brown jellyfish, knocked that idea on the head. The chef prepared porridge with honey, to put some volcanic warmth into his torpid crew. It worked. We went ashore. That’s probably illegal, to judge by all the cautionary notices. The island is for sale for a paltry £1,500,000. Would the Marquess of Ailsa take a cheque? I doubt it. The birds live rent free on what is, and always has been, their territory. It is now officially a bird sanctuary. There goes the egg and solan goose trade. The smugglers gave up centuries ago and migrated to Rush, in County Dublin. The granite quarry is abandoned. The railway could still run if enough muscle power could be made available. (That was powerful porridge.)

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Modernity has rendered all the industry of Ailsa Craig obsolete. There are living quarters abandoned while still undergoing renovation. There is no need for coal or oil. Engine rooms are filled with rusty metal. The fog horns have fallen silent, their windpipes and lungs decayed and shattered. Modern navigational devices, guided from space, can see through fog and darkness. There is a Marie Celeste air about everything: old newspapers and books musty with damp; broken windows; lath-and -plaster hanging from walls and ceilings; tattered and battered furniture; roof-trees giving way under the weight of time and neglect. Only the lighthouse, automated, with  pristine solar panels, abides. There is no shortage of stones.

The Scots invented the sport of curling, just as they invented golf. Golf has taken over the world. It has become a vast industry, while curling remains a minority sport, an amalgam of bowls and housework. For golf you need an array of specialised equipment. For curling you need some ice, a polished stone and an accomplice with a sweeping brush. It has become an Olympic sport. It has a mesmeric, balletic quality about it. Even the sweeping becomes dramatic. The best stones come from Ailsa Craig. The granite, blue-hone granite, is fine-grained and takes a high polish. A curling stone is a piece of sculpture in its own right. Intriguingly, Ailsa Craig granite crops up on the North Strand in Skerries, several hundred miles to the south, carried by the gyre of the Irish Sea tides. The stones are polished almost as smooth as the curling stones by their long and grinding journey. They lie, speckled like birds’ eggs on the shelving strand, where Vikings once grounded their keels.

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When the keel begins to converse with the stones on the bottom, it is time to leave. Time to pack up memories and impressions of this melancholy but beautiful place and hand it back to the stewardship of rabbits and teeming flocks of seabirds. We headed northwards to Troon and the teeming hordes of golf pilgrims. I took a little pebble with me; probably illegal. It’s about three billion years old, give or take a few million. I like old things.

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I left plenty behind.

Martello tower and Empire

.  Without it, the island would be  a ridge of rock and boulder clay.  The tower is the focal point. That was the whole point of its existence.  It had to be seen  to perform its function. Interv…

Source: Martello tower and Empire

Brexit, Strawberries, July and Enterprise.

At one time The Golf Path, a narrow cinder track along by the railway, was an adventure trail. Nowadays you have to brave nettles, thistles, briars, waist-high weeds, David Attenborough and sundry …

Source: Brexit, Strawberries, July and Enterprise.

Brexit, Strawberries, July and Enterprise.

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At one time The Golf Path, a narrow cinder track along by the railway, was an adventure trail. Nowadays you have to brave nettles, thistles, briars, waist-high weeds, David Attenborough and sundry gorillas, to get to the other end. Before the high, metal fence was installed, all that separated you from the track were several strands of bull-wire threaded through fence posts made from upright sleepers. There was a good chance of being in close proximity to a train, a demure diesel rail-car humming along or a steam engine huffing and puffing up the slight gradient, in a cloud of smoke and smuts. It was always obligatory to wave to the driver, just as he was obliged by his terms of employment, to wave back. When The Enterprise express went through from faraway Belfast, with pistons hammering , it was time to grip the wires or uprights for fear of being whisked into the vacuum behind the roaring monster. The Enterprise blasted children into delicious, shuddering terror. The whistle screeched. White smoke streamed behind, as windows, with anonymous white faces looking out, flashed past. As suddenly as it came, it was gone. It is no wonder that Captain Kirk, when he decided to boldly go where the hand of man has never set foot, called his star ship after the Belfast express.

King James, when he fled ignominiously from the battlefield of the Boyne, would have been glad of a seat on The Enterprise, a nourishing dinner in the dining car and a few pints in the bar. Alas for him, The Enterprise didn’t stop at Drogheda for another two centuries. He had to be content with a fast horse, an overnight in Hacketstown House, no time for a round of golf, early breakfast, headlong flight southwards and ‘o’er the watter’ to France. He never came back to claim his three kingdoms. Britain opted for a commercial union with Holland and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. Business is business.

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When we picked spuds on Hacketstown land, we could peer into the walled garden where the strawberries grew. These were hand-reared strawberries, tended lovingly by the farmer himself. It was a shrewd business decision not to let hungry schoolboys into the rarified micro climate of the walled garden. The farmer picked and packed the berries at regular intervals and took them to the fruit and veg market in Dublin. There was benefit in this for us also in that we could lie around in the drills and maybe share a Woodbine or have a spud fight, until we heard the sound of his car coming back down the track to the field. On the way home we could forage for strawberries that had been ‘liberated’ onto the railway embankment along the Golf Path, old plants and runners that had been cast out from the farmer’s loving care. This required a degree of bravado and a reasonable knowledge of the railway timetable. The strawberries were green and miserable but still a bonus.

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One day in the early seventies, the farmer was unable to get his crop to market. The narrow street was blocked by an enormous lorry with a cargo of fresas from Spain. Roll On Roll Off ferries had arrived in Irish ports. He turned his car around and came, disconsolately, home. ‘Take those strawberries down the town’, he said to his foreman, ‘and give them away to anyone that wants them.’  We were heading, pell mell into the Common Market.

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For several years I was intrigued by a bright blue ship that passed by every week from Drogheda and back again to Drogheda. I made enquiries. It belonged to Tyrrels of Arklow. It was bringing cement to the builders of The Channel Tunnel, a scheme to provide closer links between Great Britain and the Continent. No longer would The Continent be at risk of isolation by fog in The Channel. Good business for everyone. The other notable change is the growth in container ship traffic. They pass like floating castles, usually hull-down beyond the horizon with the sunlight catching the superstructure and the soaring piles of Lego blocks on  deck.

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Up to a week ago business seemed to be on the up and up. Confidence was growing. While the strawberry and cream farmers, the tennis players, the ticket tout/entrepreneurs and fans were limbering up for Wimbledon; while the British were commemorating the young men sacrificed in a war ostensibly to protect Europe, the Brexiteers shot themselves with unerring aim, in the foot. The collateral damage  leaves everyone else in Europe and beyond, among the walking wounded.

The older generations who grew up with the aftermath of wars that dismembered and impoverished Europe, chose to turn away from the project of greater unity and greater opportunity. The young can go fend for themselves. Great Britain is now Britain, a tenuous association of conflicting interests. The Scots should go out and beat the bushes for some long lost Stuart to fly over the sea to Skye, in his bonny boat and rescue them. Even Boris, about a year ago, was suggesting that London should declare independence from Britain. You do remember Boris, don’t you? Can even the Welsh live in harmony after Brexit?  Does Dave remind you of the skipper of the good ship Exxon Valdez?

I blame that scoundrel, Louis Bleriot, for all this nonsense about closer links with damned foreigners.