When I was small …

and Christmas trees were tall, I was easily spooked by big things.  Taken to the local fire station by my grandfather, I was reduced to tears by the sheer enormity of the engines.  Given the opportunity to climb Portland Lighthouse, the endless stairs sent me scurrying outside.  The railway viaduct near Goostrey in Cheshire towered so high, I would not go near.  In the nearby fields an enormous and strange structure was taking shape and I took exception to it.  In the 1950s, Bernard Lovell’s radio telescope at Jodrell Bank was only partially complete.

Many years later, living in the foothills of the Peak District at Bosley, on clear days, the entire Cheshire Plain was visible from our bedroom window.  And there, at its centre, the Jodrell Bank telescope – no longer something to be feared, no longer a stranger in the landscape, it had come to define it.

Around the same time in the 1950s, many miles further north, a  more threatening structure was emerging from the white heat of technology.

At the outbreak of the Second World War it became apparent that the air defences in the far north of Scotland must be improved, primarily as a consequence of the  British Navy’s safe anchorage at Scapa Flow which was particularly vulnerable to air attack.  As a first step an airfield was constructed at Wick and then later in the war, another at Dounreay.  However, the Dounreay facility, not completed until April 1944, was immediately mothballed. Apart from occasional usage by the Navy as HMS Tern II and later as a camp for displaced Polish servicemen, it remained unused until 1954 when the Government announced that Dounreay was to become the centre for UK fast reactor research and development.  Between 1955 and 1958, the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) sphere mushroomed into the landscape and, like Jodrell Bank, it has come to define it.  Lovell’s creation says ‘here we can reach for the stars’; Dounreay’s says ‘here we can tinker with the tools of Armageddon, tame Einstein’s monster’.

The Caithness Death Star achieved criticality in 1959 and, in 1962, became the first fast reactor in the world to supply electricity to a national grid.  Just fifteen years later it was switched off.  Since then it has been a long slow process of decommissioning, an exercise that will not complete until 2025 with the demolition of the sphere.  Sadly, retention is not practical – according to the Dounreay Heritage Strategy document 2010,SES(09)P007, Issue 2 : The DFR sphere is contaminated throughout and recent core samples from the vault indicate that the concrete has deteriorated more than anticipated and that original construction techniques may have been lax in some areas … despite the most rigorous decontamination efforts, the risk of receiving a significant radiation dose may never go away.

I have some connection with the Dounreay site having been responsible for establishing an Office Systems field trial there between 1988 and 1989, housed in the buildings adjacent to DFR.  This exercise had more to do with my love of travel and wild landscape than the practicalities of running a software trial in this faraway place. It was during one of many site visits that I was given access to the sphere, much smaller on the inside than it appears from without.  Fortunately I had grown more tolerant of ‘big things’ in the intervening years.  Now it is the things I can’t see that worry me, rather than the things I can.

This image from the archive shows Reay’s par 3 7th, Pilkington.  Not quite visible, over the horizon to the left, is the DFR sphere:


An earlier post, Seaside Golf, explores the fall out from this atomic energy site (pun intended).

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Fairway and tarmac …

There are no signs.  The implication is that if you don’t know where to go then you shouldn’t be here.  It will be different when the Open arrives along these shores but at all other times, Muirfield is discreet, understated, almost forbidding.

It starts in the car park.  Should I really be here.  Is this row of covered stalls really intended for guests.  The pewter grey Elise looks perfectly at home, more at ease in its surroundings than me.  The walk to the course and clubhouse is no less a pilgrimage than first steps along Magnolia Drive.  Still there are no signs but the imposing P Johnson & Co Iron Gates is the obvious direction – if Bates Motel had boasted a golf course, this is how the entrance might have looked.  To the right is the pedestrian gate and this alone solemnly announces that you have arrived at The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

Inside the clubhouse my generous host for the day gives me a tour of the inner sanctum: the wood panelling and changing room reminiscent of a boys grammar; the polished trophies, some of the earliest ever played for; the tall red-coated portraits; the maps portraying the evolution of the course; the dark bust of the 1950s Captain, C J Y Dallmeyer; the scorecards from past Opens and a replica of the Claret Jug, complete with up-to-date engravings – 2017 Open Winner, Jordan Spieth.  Quiet as a library, this place is special.  In the hall I meet the Recorder, various members and later the Captain – all welcoming, polite, men of standing.  This is not the stuffy, jurassic establishment portrayed by the social and print media, this is the polar opposite.

The seventh, Muirfield

We play foursomes, the traditional Muirfield game – my playing partner takes the odd tees and I take the evens such that I will take the final drive up the eighteenth. I had no preconceived agenda about setting a score so assistance and a joint responsibility suits me fine.  More than that, it is a thoroughly enjoyable team game and we rise to the occasion, hitting fairways and sinking putts – a birdie at the par 5 ninth puts us five up.  At the turn, we head to the clubhouse for lunch. This is how all golf should be played. ‘And, if it be retorted that a player plays twice as many shots in a fourball game as in a Foursome, the Muirfield man would reply – “Play 36 holes in 4 ½ hours and you will get the same number of shots, twice the exercise, far more fun, and you won’t have to wait between shots.  Furthermore you will learn to play better golf.” ‘ – Foreward to G Pottinger’s Muirfield and the Honourable Company.

The thirteenth – unlucky for some, we made par 😉

Lunch is taken in the lounge, jacket and tie being mandatory.  I have brought a tie from the funerals drawer for the occasion – I am a guest and I must honour club traditions, no matter that such attire is at complete odds with my late hippy demeanour.  A generous tray of sandwiches is accompanied by a gunner (ginger beer, ginger ale, dash of lime and a measure of angostura bitters), followed by coffee and the traditional Muirfield and Prestwick liqueur – kümmel, a sweet, colourless drink flavoured with caraway seed, cumin, and fennel.  First impressions are mixed but I warm to it as the glass empties. I am unsure of the effect it may have on the back nine.

Sure enough, post lunch, our partners make a comeback.  We are playing to Colonel Dallmeyer’s rules.  Individual handicaps are ignored – each team plays level until one pair goes three-up and your opponents receive strokes until the leading pair are back to one-up.  After the sixteenth we are playing level again – we lead by one with two holes to play.  All of the Muirfield holes have witnessed high drama and historic occasions, none more so than the 17th at the 1972 Open.  Trevino has hacked his way into rough at the back of the green in four, Jacklin is sitting comfortably on the green in three:

On the same hole we are lying three in the semi-rough to the right of the green having avoided some monstrous bunkers – our opponents have been in several:

… Hew extracting himself from a bunker on the 17th – not for the first time.

I chip within a distance short enough to be given the hole – we have won 2&1 – what Jacklin would have given for five at the 17th in 1972.  That year I was oblivious to the high drama being acted out at Muirfield.  On the same day and around the same time I know exactly where I was – at Brands Hatch for the 1972 British Grand Prix, watching Emerson Fittipaldi take the flag for Lotus.  In those far-off days, major sporting events were concluded on Saturdays, not Sundays.  The modern migration to the Sabbath has less to do with the slackening of religious observance and more to do with maximising TV exposure.  This fuzzy clip from Brands was filmed by BBC Eurovison and the commentary is in Austrian:

This youthful obsession explains the Lotus in the Muirfield car park – it is not about prestige or one-upmanship, it is about history, teenage dreams and the joy of driving – as Andrew Frankel recently observed in Motor Sport – ‘The secret is not to go lobbing it around – the pleasure comes not from power and slides but feel and finesse’ – it has ‘a level of feel that makes all other sports cars seem like you’re driving them wearing oven mitts … the car is simply fabulous’.

However, I confess, given the choice now, I would be at the Open – modern day F1 is a pale shadow of its former self.  It has been a convoluted journey from Kentish tarmac to the fairways of East Lothian.

The eighteenth – as a consolation, our opponents win the hole with par.

With sincerest thanks to David S-S for organising my visit and to Hew and Mark for their excellent company. A very memorable day.

St Enodoc

In previous years I have approached St Enodoc Church from Daymer Bay but this time we parked at Rock and ended up walking down the tenth in the company of a local four-ball.  At stroke index 1 (i.e. ranked the hardest hole on the course), it looks a real stinker with thick trees and bushes all the way down the left, steeply banked rough to the right and the narrowest of fairways in between.  The pin remains out of sight to the last.

Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman  was buried in St Enodoc churchyard in 1984.  His coffin was carried down the tenth in the heaviest of weather, perfect conditions for a bleak Cornish funeral.  As a middling golfer I doubt he looked forward to playing this hole.  His poem, Seaside Golf, was inspired by the 13th:

I played an iron sure and strong
And clipp’d it out of sight,
And spite of grassy banks between
I knew I’d find it on the green.

And so I did. It lay content
Two paces from the pin;
A steady putt and then it went
Oh, most securely in.
The very turf rejoiced to see
That quite unprecedented three.

The parody, written by fellow member Sir Robin Butler, must surely have been inspired by the tenth:

I played an iron sure and strong,
A fraction to the right
I knew that when I reached my ball
I’d find it underneath the wall.

And so I did. I chipped it low
And thinned it past the pin
And to and fro, and to and fro
I tried to get it in;
Until, intoning oaths obscene
I holed it out in seventeen

This well known view from the St Enodoc churchyard captures all that Sir John loved about this place – the ancient church rooted to the landscape, the wild Atlantic Cornish coast and the links course in between:

We caught up with the same four-ball as we crossed the fairway to Daymer Bay:
Golfer: ‘Been to seek forgiveness?’
Me: ‘Nope, to pray for a better a golf swing’
Golfer: ‘I’ve tried that – it doesn’t work’.

Despite the prospect of the tenth, St Enodoc remains on my golfing bucket list – the game is fundamentally a masochistic endeavour.

The background to St Enodoc on Wiki is so good, I thought it worth repeating here:

The church is situated in sand dunes east of Daymer Bay and Brea Hill on the River Camel estuary. Wind-driven sand has formed banks that are almost level with the roof on two sides. From the 16th century to the middle of the 19th century, the church was virtually buried by the dunes and was known locally as “Sinking Neddy” or “Sinkininny Church”. To maintain the tithes required by the church, it had to host services at least once a year, so the vicar and parishioners descended into the sanctuary through a hole in the roof. By 1864 it was unearthed and the dunes were stabilised. The church is surrounded by the course of the St Enodoc Golf Club.

Some grief, some joy …

… memories are made of this.

The joy comes from the company, the startling landscape and the occasionally well struck golf ball.  The grief comes from the sliced drive into a rising westerly, the ball never to be seen again.  Sconser and Traigh are the distilled essence of Golf in the Wild – when the going gets tough, the tough don’t get going, they stand and stare.

It has become an annual ritual – drive part way into Scotland on Thursday night; head for Skye on Friday morning and meet up with David C of ScottishGolfbyTrain; play Sconser on Friday afternoon; catch the Ferry to Mallaig from Armadale on Friday evening; play in the Traigh Open on Saturday.  People might question the sanity of driving such distances (760 miles) for golf but that’s life, some will get it, some won’t.  It’s like riding a motorcycle at high speed or throwing an Elise into a long sweeping corner – until you have done it, there is no understanding.

I cannot get enough of Traigh so when the golf is done, I head for the ridge across the top of the course to watch the setting sun – there is nowhere else that provides such a magnificent panorama of the long day closing:

… Skye Golf Club, Sconser – more #GolfintheWild http://www.golfinthewild.co.uk

… the most spectacular places to play golf on the planet. The 2017 Traigh Open – more #GolfintheWild http://www.golfinthewild.co.uk

… below the golf course at Traigh.

… the clubhouse from the beach at Traigh

… the third green at Traigh.

… the view from the second tee at Traigh.

… below the golf course at Traigh.

… the ninth green at Traigh

On an entirely different topic, music has become a too cheap commodity. As a full subscriber to Amazon Music, I have access to a vast library way beyond my teenage imaginings. New releases are immediately available, listened to and then largely forgotten as I move on to grab the next handful of free sweets. I have lost touch with the cherished LP, the carefully considered purchase and the endless plays until every track was imprinted. I mention this because I hooked up my phone to the hire car’s sound system to find that only three albums were accessible, all by The Boxer Rebellion. After twelve hours behind the wheel, all the tracks are now reassuringly familiar:

Distant relatives

It has taken time but, with the persistence of an unreformed trainspotter, I have concluded that this motorcycle is a Triumph 494cc Model P.  Standing proudly in front of the sidecar is my mother aged about four while Mrs Kipper sits, queen-like, on her mobile throne.  The motorcycle was introduced  at the 1924 Motor Cycle Show and fits perfectly with family chronology – this photograph was probably taken by my grandfather around 1926-27 and I would guess the machine is nearly new, just possibly on its maiden voyage.

Motorcycle diaries

The tell-tale signs are the shape and markings on the fuel tank, the forks and the size and shape of the guards which distinguish it from the Triumph Ricardo.  All of the minor details match images of other Model Ps. The number plate indicates it was registered in Portsmouth, an invigorating fifty mile ride from Andover.

According to Bonhams, the Model P was a landmark machine in the development of the motorcycle in Britain.  A no-frills, sidevalve-engined model, the newcomer was priced at £42 17s 6d, at which level it undercut every other 500cc machine then on sale in the UK. The first batch manufactured was not without its faults, but once these had been sorted the Model P was a runaway success. Output from Triumph’s Priory Street works was soon running at an astonishing 1,000 machines per week, and the Model P’s arrival undoubtedly hastened the demise of many a minor manufacturer.  At auction, a restored Model P will now sell for around £9000.

As the owner of a Triumph Scrambler, I now know there is a distant connection with my maternal grandfather’s choice of machinery, at a time when there were many more manufacturers to choose from. My Scrambler is an 865 cc, air-cooled, DOHC, parallel-twin.  You can trace the origin of this machine back through the 1959 T120 Bonneville, the 1953 Tiger T110, the 1950 Thunderbird and the 1938 Triumph Speed Twin.  My bike and that of my grandfather’s are not so distantly related as might be imagined.

The Scrambler, back at Crindledykes on new rubber – Michelin Anakees

 

 

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.

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: