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.

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Rockabill Lighthouse. Abel Rock.

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A man at Speakers’ Corner told a sad story; “When I was a young lad goin’ to school in Dublin long ago.” he said, “I learned trigonometry. Do y’know what trigonometry is?”  I kept my head down. Of course I know what trigonometry is, but I have a mortal fear of street performers of any kind. Didn’t I give some of the best hours of my young life to Tan a over 2, Sines and Cosines, Logs and Antilogs? I even painted the Cosine page in my log tables red, to avoid a tendency to read the Cosine instead of the Sine. That could result in my space probe failing to rendezvous with the comet, Giotto, by several million miles and probing the Bog of Allen instead.  ‘It’s Tan a over 2. Stupid boy!’  I never quite cracked the language of mathematics. Napier filled a whole book with page after page of numbers and it became a best-seller. Pure genius.  ” It’s all about angles and triangles,” explained the man. “I learned how to measure the height of any tree or a lighthouse or a skyscraper. It was amazin’. I decided to get a job measurin’ lighthouses, but when I left school I found out that all the lighthouses in the world had already been measured. That cured me of ambition. I’ve never worked a day in me life since then”.

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As a child, I suspected that Rockabill was a ship. It has a chimney. It has a tender for the coal, just like a steam engine. It definitely moves, shunting up and down the horizon, depending on where you are standing. You need to keep your eye on it to see how it moves. Walk along the coastal path and it follows you, sometimes hiding behind the islands and then slipping out suddenly to surprise you with a new vista. I painted a picture of it and was roundly abused by a man who could see it when he was shaving every morning.  “Where’s the gap?” he challenged me. “There’s a gap between the two rocks.”  “Not where I was standing,” I replied lamely. “I was further to the south. Everything depends on your point of view.” He snorted derisively. “You’re wrong, you know,” he insisted. “There’s a gap.”  There is a gap.  A German U Boat sat up on that gap at low tide to effect repairs. It then went on to torpedo the mailboat Leinster  with great loss of life. My father missed that boat, because he went on the beer. Who says that beer is bad for your health?

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How could you do trigonometry anyway, with all those noisy neighbours? The rocks are covered by clouds of kittiwakes, terns and gulls, shags and cormorants. Look at your man showing off, the king of the castle. Little guillemots bobbed and dived on the calm surface of the water.  There is abundant guano, often deposited in elegant triangles, the apex pointing to the nest. The British War Office appointed the artillery branch of the army to begin the great Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Ordnance relies on mathematics for accuracy. They began at Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin Bay, fixing the Ordnance Datum (OD) at a low  spring tide and triangulated from that point, covering the whole island with a web of triangles. They then went on to anglicise all the place names, e.g.  Skeheenarinky. It sounds like gibberish. It was Sceachín an  Rinnce , the little thorn bush of the dancing—The Little People dancing  at midnight in the moonlight. Be wary of the Little People.  There are stories and myths in the old Irish place names, if you have the time and patience to tease them out. The Ordnance Survey nailed everything down. Now they use GPS and satellites to keep everyone in their sights. Even the OD has moved to Donegal. We have come up in the world.

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Alice took us around the rock in a gentle curve. The islands swam from one point to another. The birds screamed at our intrusion. Perhaps they knew that Mike was about to catch some of their fish. We spliced the main brace to christen Michael’s new boat. A porpoise rolled on the surface. He shrugged and went below. Porc pisces —sea pigs?  A gannet dived like white lightning. We noted a few brown jellyfish drifting languidly in the tide. Alison and Margaret took time out. Where else would you rather be?

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I looked out this morning to check on that gap. The Rockabill was gone. There was a sea mist. Maybe, of course, it had merely gone walkabout. There was a time when it warned us of fog. Waw wah, waw wah, like a sick cow. It was a comforting sound when you lay in bed at night. Someone was keeping watch. Then it changed to Woop woop, woop woop. It had become a destroyer, steaming out of harbour to hunt for U Boats. Now it is silent. There is no need for watchers on the tower or foghorns to talk to the ships. All is electronic and of course, infallible.Tara, Rockabill, Harbour  end 065

There is a groove on the garden wall where the lighthouse keepers rested their telescope.  They focussed on the white wall of Flower and MacDonald’s coal yard. I was talking to a lady about this one time, when suddenly, to my surprise, she went into a spasmodic dance, waving her arms about like a mantis. I thought it might be because of some hypnotic power that I might have over women—but no. “What was that all about?” I asked. “I was saying goodnight to my Daddy,” she said. “We used to talk by semaphore at the  the coal yard wall.”

How the image  in the lens, of his little girl with her flags, must have warmed his heart , during his lonely vigil on Rockabill.