Ard Neakie

I am travelling the north coast of Scotland from Durness and have reached Reay.  This, I should emphasise, is purely in a virtual sense.  In the real world I remain tied to my keyboard and screen in deepest Northumberland, still waiting for signs of Spring.

Having turned left off the A836 into the car park at Reay Golf Club, I have become distracted by Ard Neakie, a place not far from my starting point.

Ard Neakie is a would-be island on Loch Eriboll’s eastern shore, attached to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand and shingle.   Viewed from above, on the main road, it appears a bleak and abandoned place, the main evidence of earlier human endeavour being the lime kilns.  It was not always like this.

The kilns processed limestone quarried from the high ground of Ard Neakie and from Eilean Choraidh, an island in the middle of Loch Eriboll.  The quarry workers’ lodgings are on the northern side of the approach to the 19th century Ferry House.  This is how it looked when I last walked down to the strand in the late 1980s:

The quarry workers’ lodgings, taken in the late 1980s.

By the end of 2009, it looked flimsier still and there is a suggestion it may have since collapsed entirely. The nearby Ferry House is a different proposition.  I may have neglected to take pictures back in the 1980s but Canmore, the online catalogue to Scotland’s archaeology, buildings, industrial and maritime heritage, provides the opportunity for a virtual tour, inside and out.

The Ferry House was not only home to the ferryman and his family but also a shop providing supplies to North Sea trawlers seeking shelter from the storm.  Trawlermen, quarry workers, the shop, the ferryman and his passengers, the boats transferring limestone from Eilean Choraidh and the ships dispatching lime to east coast farmers, on some days Ard Neakie bustled.

The history of this place, and Sutherland in general, is encapsulated in the lives of one family – without these stories, Ard Neakie is just a collection of old stones and rotting timbers.

When Anne and her husband Alexander Mackay were cleared from their croft at Totaig, they were resettled at Achnahuaigh, Melness, just south of Port Vasgo at the head of the Kyle of Tongue.  It was here that they raised their daughter Dolina who would in 1887, marry local cabinet maker, George Mackay. George had been planning to better himself by emigrating to Canada but was persuaded by the Duke of Sutherland to use his woodworking skills as a boatbuilder and to run the Heilam Ferry from Ard Neakie across Loch Eriboll to Portnacon. They raised seven sons at the Ferry House, the eldest being Hugh who would eventually qualify as a teacher, having studied at Aberdeen.  Hugh’s highway to Aberdeen was by sea, regularly catching a lift from trawlers as they stopped by at Ard Neakie.  This connection with the sea is significant and points to a time when these coastal communities were better served by water than by land.

Hugh served with the 1st battalion Seaforth Highlanders during the Great War and survived despite being declared ‘missing, presumed dead’. He returned to teaching, married his first love, Catherine Sutherland and eventually retired to Connel Ferry, near Oban.  Once he left home, he never lived again at the big house on Ard Neakie, unlike younger brother Alec.

Alexander Mackay was born in 1889 and attended Eriboll School before joining his father George, to run the ferry and to learn the trade of boatbuilding.  Like my grandfather Fred, Alec was in the Territorial Reserve and both would see active service at Gallipoli.  Both Fred and Alec were transferred to Alexandria but whereas Alec fought in Macedonia and France, Fred transferred into the Royal Flying Corps and served the rest of the war at the RFC Training School, Aboukir.

Fred is in the middle, back row,

Alec survived the war but suffered disfiguring facial injuries in France and was not finally discharged until March 1920.  The expectation was that Eriboll Farm would be divided to provide land for returning local servicemen and Alec was fully expecting to receive a share.  In another example of shoddy behaviour by the estates and landowners, this never happened so Alec returned to boat building and operating the Heilam Ferry with his father.

There is a photograph of the young Alec standing in front of the workers’ lodgings holding a large salmon by the gills.  A prize catch for an innocent young man dressed in heavy tweed.  The man who returned to Ard Neakie was not the same boy who went to war in 1914.  Like Hugh, the young Alec never returned and we will never know the demons that accompanied him as he walked back down the strand to the front door of the Ferry House in 1920.  He would live out the rest of his days on Ard Neakie where he died a bachelor in 1957.  The last of the family did not leave the Ferry House until 1990 since when the lease has not been renewed and the building remains empty, except for the echoes from the past.

This story is told because I have a soft spot for the small ferries of Scotland – I have written elsewhere on this subject – my first such crossing being at Ballachulish in the late 1950s.   It is an oft repeated ‘fact’ that the Heilam Ferry closed in 1890 when the road around the loch was completed but this makes no sense. Firstly, when Alec returned from the Great War in 1920, he returned to operate the ferry and T Ratcliffe Barnett writing in 1930 (Autumns in Skye, Ross and Sutherland) refers to the operational ferry at Portnacon. Secondly, bearing in mind this was a passenger service (you might be allowed to to take a bike), why would the opening of an eleven mile road around the edge of the loch negate the need for a one mile crossing by water.  I am on a mission to find out when it really closed and what the ferry looked like in operation – we will be there again in late April.

Having driven the road around Eriboll many times, I am always surprised that there was never a car ferry between Portnacon and Ard Neakie – I would pay a premium, even in the 21st Century for the novelty of the loch crossing, for the convenience and to avoid the tedious eleven mile round trip, destination, almost where you started from. While digging around looking for small ferry images, I came across this wonderful photograph of the ferry at Dornie (The Face of Scotland – Batsford and Fry, published 1935) – it seems precisely the sort of device that should have been used at Loch Eriboll:

Loch Duich – Eilean Donan Castle and Dornie Motor Ferry

The stories of the Mackays is taken from A Full Circle – The journey through time of the Mackay Family of Heilam Ferry, Loch Eriboll from 1841 – 2014 – The Clearances to the Present Day, produced by Fiona Mackay while working as a voluntary archivist at Strathnaver Museum.  The story of Alexander Mackay’s war service is taken from Pibrochs and Poppies – A commemoration of WW1 Pipers from North West Sutherland.

The Lakes

A few days in the Lakes has become an almost annual ritual.  Spectacular though it is, in the summer months I find it intolerably busy, the hotels over-priced and the car parks full – hence my preference for late February. The problem with this time of the year is that the only thing predictable about the weather is its unpredictability but that is probably true of the Lakes at any time.

Consistent with tradition, one night was spent at the cinema followed by dinner at Fellini’s. This year it was Lion, a remarkable true story designed to exercise the tear ducts – casting the human equivalent of Bambi as the the five year old Saroo only serves to enhance this effect.  It certainly put things in perspective – compared to some people’s lot, moaning about the weather doesn’t seem appropriate. Anyway, who wants blue-skies in every scene – except for the first two sunsets at Waterhead, the remainder were taken on a walk between Ambleside and Skelwith Bridge:

The sun going down ...

The sun going down ...

Lily Tarn ...

Ranbows over ...

Loughrigg Tarn ...

Snow on the tops ...

Windermere ...

Monte Carlo or Bust …

… or, how one thing leads to another.

I blame Tish Farrell for this line of thought – it was the story of the allotment bottom test that had me thinking of Donald McGill and smut 😉

I walk into a shop in Hexham and announce to the lady behind the counter – “I am interested in your bust” – pregnant pause – “Ah, yes sir, you mean the one in the window”. Smirking like a schoolboy, “But of course, what else”.  That’s more or less how it happened which goes some way to explain why our house resembles a Scandi Noir crime scene (and that came from an exchange with the wonderfully creative Katherine Anne Griffiths at Photobooth Journal).

To explain – there is a torso in the bedroom created by Dennis Kilgallon and the aforementioned bust.  In the second bedroom there is half a head attached to the wall, a cast from a statue at either Belsay or Wallington Hall, I forget which.  In the lounge there is another bust and in my study/playroom, a pair of lips act as a paperweight.

Stay with me – as regular readers of this blog will be aware, I have spent three years persuading Nikon they needed to exchange my flawed Nikon D600 for the D610 and eventually they came good.  So here I am with the an expensive and very fine full frame DSLR supported by a variety of equally expensive prime lenses and what do I do – spend £26 on eBay buying a Holga pinhole lens and attach it to the D610.  These are the results:

Through a pinhole ...

Eleanor Rigby ...

Another Holga ...

The inspiration for pinhole photography came from fellow Blipper – Flashcube.

On an entirely different topic, I was back in Newbiggin again yesterday – more golf in perfect condtions. Having levelled some criticism at the Couple for being inaccessible in the previous post, I was told there is a land based equivalent, so I went looking.  I was not disappointed and yes, John Updike would be delighted to know, there are Couples:Eb and Flo ...

The Couple ...

PS – in conversation with a local, I learned they are known locally as Eb and Flo. Opinion is still divided; this particular resident would have preferred a miner and fisherman.

It started with a kiss …

Now I have your attention, I confess it started with something much more mundane – a trip to Newbiggin by the Sea to collect a waterproof jacket and trousers from the golf club.  An entirely appropriate purchase given the links were empty, the rain coming down sideways, the skies forbidding and the gulls struggling to maintain their flight plan.

We have been meaning to see the Couple for years, and so it works, public artworks attract visitors.  On the bitterest of days we walked the prom and the beach to see them staring out to sea:

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
John Masefield

When first installed, as with most public art, opinions were divided but I would be surprised if many now object; they are part of Newbiggin’s fabric, not just the couple but locals.  If I have a criticism it is that they are too inaccessible – Sean Henry‘s works are finely detailed and should be seen up close but this remains the preserve of strong swimmers and gulls.

And what came next was a desire to give the couple a permanent residence on this blog – so after nearly five years the theme has has been replaced and they have joined a number of images that randomly appear in the header – a change was long overdue.

The Couple ...

The Couple ...

The Couple ...

The Couple ...

A late addition:

HyperNormalisation

The term “HyperNormalisation” is taken from Alexei Yurchak’s 2006 book Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, about the paradoxes of life in the Soviet Union during the 20 years before it collapsed.  A professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, he argues that everyone knew the system was failing, but as no one could imagine any alternative to the status quo, politicians and citizens were resigned to maintaining a pretence of a functioning society.  Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the “fakeness” was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed “HyperNormalisation” – Wiki.

Here is my small contribution to “fakeness” – it occurs to me that none of my images reflect reality.  The same field in July, December and February:

Young pheasants ...

... Beaufront Woodhead

The sky is still ...The same “fakeness” is at play in this video:

Over the rooftops and houses …

When you’re asleep they may show you
Aerial views of the ground,
Freudian slumber empty of sound.

Over the rooftops and houses,
Lost as it tries to be seen,
Fields of incentive covered with green.

Steve Hackett, Tony Banks, Anthony George Banks

Second flight ... Second flight ... Second flight ... Second flight ...

As someone who has dabbled with pole photography (don’t Google that – you could come away with entirely the wrong impression 😀 ) – it was inevitable/compulsory that some day I should acquire a drone.  With wide open spaces and unrestricted airspace I am ideally placed to practice being the Red Baron.  These were taken on my second flight – on the maiden ascent I used video but the still camera produces much more interesting and better quality results. In enlarged view you can see as far as the bridge at Corbridge and there is even a selfie – the white dot to the left of the arched window is me with the controller 🙂

The first surprise has been evidence of ancient ridge and furrow farming in the surrounding fields, something not at all apparent at ground level.

Expect the sequel to Golf in the Wild to include a host of aerial images 🙂

Grasping water …


007-amongst-womenIt was like grasping water to think how quickly the years had passed here.  They were nearly gone. It was in the nature of things and yet it brought a sense of betrayal and anger, of never having understood anything much. Instead of using the fields, he sometimes felt as if the fields had used him.  Soon they would be using someone else in his place.  It was unlikely to be either of his sons. He tried to imagine someone running the place after he was gone and could not.  He continued walking the fields like a man trying to see.

John McGahern – Amongst Women (1990).

 

Abandoned and silent ... Abandoned and silent ... Abandoned and silent ... Abandoned and silent ... Abandoned and silent ...

I last walked these fields in March 2014, how quickly the years have passed.  Nothing much has changed in the land between the Wall, Hangman’s Hill and Davy’s Brig Well. On that occasion I had recently watched Pat Collins’ Silence,  a remarkable, meditative film about loss, silence, history, memory and exile.  In a similar moment of coincidence, today I was brought back to the words of John McGahern by this film, A Private World.  I am indebted to Poetry and Environment for posting this video and reminding me of McGahern’s great art …

All we have is the precious moments, and the hours, and the days.