Office of the Dean: St Andrew’s College, King George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 3TD
THE COLLEGE owns an ‘Outstation’ in remotest south Argyll, whence I have just returned with a group of colleagues after a strenuous weekend of walking, thinking, golfing and drinking – in short, we have been in nirvana. Here, jaded Dons and Deans can don faded jeans and spend a few days in peace and reflection. The location of this highland Shangri-La is Machrihanish, almost at the tip of the Mull of Kintyre. Sometimes when a major policy rethink is required at College, or when a group of Dons request a break to complete a major scientific paper or a grant application, I will say gravely, “Right, I think we should Mull this over!” and next weekend - it’s off to Kintyre.
The centrepiece of our retreat is Dalmore House a rather splendid two-storey erection right on the beach near Machrihanish. It looks due west to the island of Islay, beyond which there’s nothing till Boston. It was given to us a year or so back by a wealthy ex-Fellow of the College whose invention of the Bathing Wig™ has been such a boon to the boomers of either sex, now thickening below and thinning above. Dalmore is also within sight of our on-shore Marine Biology Research Station and our off-shore tidal serpent.
The latter is indeed a giant sea monster, but mechanical rather than biological, its prey being the tremendous local tidal surges. These it gobbles up and converts to electricity which in turn is ingested by the National Grid. It’s proving to be a powerful harvester of energy from the rip-tides which race past the southern end of Argyll between Scotland and Co. Antrim, clearly visible just 10 miles away. Although it’s only half the breadth of the English Channel, no one has ever swum the North Channel dividing us from the Irish - and no one ever will, thanks to the sheer speed of the tides. If our Dear Leader, Mr Eck Salmond is right and the Pentland Firth in the far north is the Saudi Arabia of wave power - then we are surely the Quatar thereof.
Kintyre, from the Gaelic ceann tir the 'head' or end of the Land is a remarkable piece of real estate. It not only looks south to Antrim and Rathlin island where Robert Bruce saw the famous spider, but also east to Arran and the distant Ayrshire coast. Looking west, in addition to Islay, there is Jura and Gigha of the Na h-Eileanan a-staigh, ‘the inner isles’ of the Southern Hebrides. The Gaelic language is extinct now among the locals here and that is a pity, since the splendidly named Dr Aonghais Mhor MacEachran my Head of Celtic Studies tells me it was a particularly pure form of the old Q-Celtic originating in Ireland.
My own maternal grandfather, a farmer in Kintyre and born in 1863, had it beaten out of him in the local school, corporal punishment being liberally applied to any child caught speaking the tongue of his ancestors in preference to that of the sassenach, or southron. He also remembered overhearing two shepherds talking on the day that Lord Lorne, son & heir of their landlord the Duke of Argyll was being married to Princess Louise, the queen’s daughter. His Grace of Argyll, by the way, is the head of Clan Campbell and is still known in these parts by his Gaelic title of MacChalein Mhor ‘son of the great Colin’ as his line descends from their patriarch Sir Colin Campbell of Loch Awe and Ardscotnish. Anyway, there was no doubt in the shepherds’ minds as to who was doing who the favour in these nuptuals which, Aonghais advises me, took place at Windsor in 1871. With all the fierce clan pride of the Highlander, one shepherd said to the other:
“Aye, it iss a proud, proud wumman that Queen Victoria must be this day - that a wee daughter o’ hers is being married on to the Son of MacChalein Mhor…!”
Aonghais himself, a man of Islay and a fluent Gaelic speaker took our group from Dalmore down to Southend, the village closed to the actual maol, or headland where Kintyre finally falls in to the sea. Here we were shown the famous ‘footsteps of Columba’ two foot-like impressions in a rock on the hillside where, says local tradition, the Saint stood in AD 563 on his first arrival in Scotland – and wept because he could yet see the hills of Antrim.
“Right, brethren, back to the currach and shove off !” the Saint must have cried to his long-suffering monks as they trooped back to their flimsy hide-covered wooden boat.
“Shove off where this time, boss?” they must have wearily asked
Back at Machrihanish we had an expedition to the Machrihanish Seabird and Wildlife Observatory which is essentially a large, well-appointed hut lashed to a rocky promontory. From this the splendid Warden, Eddie Maguire, maintains a watch over - and a record of - the extraordinary range of wild creatures that fly or swim into his ken. Squadrons of gannets from Ailsa Craig plunge into to the waters, cormorants and shags are diving, sea otters reclining on off-shore skerries between fishing trips, while Atlantic grey seals are lolling and rolling about on sandbars on the outer beach. It’s amazing that there’s fish left in the sea. Meanwhile, exotic species such as the Roseate Tern, the Grey Phalarope and even a Sabine’s gull enliven the scene.
Mention of the latter produced a splendid fire-fight back at Dalmore between two of my most respected biologists. When I finally retired to my eyrie and to the sound of the Atlantic combers rolling up the beach below, they were still slugging it out as to whether the Sabine’s gull was the sole species of the genus Xema , i.e. was it Xema sabini or was it just another species of the genus Larus, i.e. Larus sabini This is apparently of seismic importance. Ah-the joys of academia…