Isle of Gigha

The Isle of Gigha
By Mark Walford
Date: Friday September 7th 2007

See Route on ......

I only heard the name Gigha for the first time as we were driving the final leg of our journey to Kintyre and our destination at Muasdale. We had noticed a village called 'Half Life' and we were joking about the area being a secret nuclear test site. My friend Bod had his maps open. "Well, keeping with the theme, there's a small island opposite where we are staying called Geiger."
That's how he pronounced it 'Geiger', as in the counter. Only later did we learn to pronounce it correctly as 'Gear' which spoilt any allegorical reference to nuclear testing although subsequently we did discover Fission Bay, the village of Glowindark, and a whole flock of two headed sheep....
After my enforced retirement from the Kintyre Way hike I had sulked in the apartment for a day before setting off to explore the Isle of Arran on Thursday. I still had a day to kill before we went home so I decided to take the ferry across to Gigha to see what small island life was like, which is why a damp and grey Friday morning found me standing on the access ramp of the less than lovely ferry terminal at Tayinloan.
I had already dropped off my companions for their final day on the Kintyre Trail (a day which proved to be long, arduous, and at times frustrating as captured in Colin's excellent diary scribblings. I didn't really know what to expect from my stay on Gigha. By comparison Arran although an island community with a sense of gentle isolation, still had busy links to mainland Britain and enjoyed a tourist industry worth almost thirty million pounds a year. It had a major road, a circular route that linked all the towns and villages, and a resident population of 4500. Gigha by comparison was tiny, a mere speck of granite off the western shore of Kintyre, just six miles long by one and a half miles wide. Its only road ran from end to end and terminated in car parks, its population was less than 150, and tourism was a low key affair as the community had only one hotel. What little I had learnt of the place came via the guide books from our apartment. Gigha had a garden open to the public - it's principal tourist attraction - and the islands name was an evolution of the old Nordic term for God's Island.
Gigha was visible from the lounge of our apartment and we had all spent time scanning its low undulating profile with binoculars, straining to see signs of life. At the south end, wind turbines twirled lazily and a large house could be made out on a rocky promontory, at the north end there was some sort of concrete bunker but all other details were obscured by distance and drizzle.
I was of course a seasoned ferry traveller by now (yes, that was meant to be tongue in cheek) so the embarking and ticket buying were mere formalities. I went up to the observation deck where a blustery wind tugged at my cap and a fine sea spray coated my lips with salt. There were more people then I expected on the journey across to Gigha but I suspected that many of them were locals who had some business on 'mainland' Kintyre. For a while all was peaceful, just the steady throbbing of the ferry's diesel engines and the background sighing of the sea. This was spoilt when three teenage girls began to giggle incessantly and compare ring tones on their mobile phones. At least the crossing was relatively short - maybe twenty minutes - so I stood at the front of the deck and watched Gigha glide into view.
From a distance of a few miles across the waters of Gigha Sound the island had looked like a fairly flat and uniform lump of rock but now, as we drew near, the geometry of the island changed. The shoreline began to throw out rocky piers and bays began to appear along the emerging coastline. What had appeared to be a flat line of hills took on a more three dimensional aspect which gave the island depth and perspective. I could now see the ferry landing at Ardminish - the islands only settlement - and a few cars waiting on the access ramp. It was time to go below decks.
Soon I was driving onto the main road of Gigha, realising as I did so that I hadn't a clue as to what to do or where to go next. As the choice was fairly limited - left or right - I decided to head left toward the southern end of the island, but not before I pulled into the car park in front of the Gigha Hotel for a proper look at Ardminish.
Gigha Pic 1

The Gigha Hotel

There was something about the architecture of the houses and bungalows, and the way they meandered hither and thither over the uneven terrain that reminded me of villages in Scandinavia or some of the small settlements I have seen depicted in Iceland. I'm sure this is just my own subjectivity and others would disagree, but the overall effect was pleasing yet also a little alienating. Here I felt like a stranger - an outsider: and of course, that's exactly what I was. I had got out of the car to look at the rocky bay that formed a natural harbour for the village when the Giggling Trio pulled into the car park in a Vauxhall Corsa and got out to have a noisy discussion about whether to use the hotels bar or not. It was time to move on.
As I followed the road south I found myself unexpectedly surrounded by mature woodland. Somehow I never equated Gigha with trees - I imagined a sort of heather strewn tundra - but here I was driving through a forest of Beech and Oak with giant specimens well over a hundred years old. It wasn't an extensive forest by any means but several acres of established woodland habitat were a pleasant surprise and a pleasure to drive through. I have learned since that, relative to its size, Gigha is one of the most productive and fertile places in Scotland. It is influenced by the North Atlantic Drift and this provides for a drier and milder climate than other areas of western Scotland. Despite this, for most of its history Gigha was indeed treeless and the small forest I drove through was planted as recently as the 18th century.
When the trees finally gave out I had reached the southern end of the island, more abruptly then I had bargained for. The large house we had spied at the 'southern' tip of Gigha was in fact on its own separate island (Gigalum) across a narrow channel of water. It was an old ruined armhouse, unoccupied for many years on account of its reputation for being haunted. Unfortunately from the vantage point of South End Pier the house was hidden behind a shoulder of rock. The Pier had the feel of a place seldom used. A few wooden huts leaned together against the wind rushing in from the Atlantic and a rickety wooden jetty ran out into the channel between Gigalum and Gigha. I tried to make out Muasdale across the sound but a fine drizzle was obscuring any fine details of the Kintyre coast. The wind turbines we had picked out with our binoculars were close by, across a small meadow. They loomed above us, pale white and alien, whispering ghostly gossip to each other. Known locally as Creideas, D'chas and Carthannas (Gaelic for Faith, Hope and Charity) the wind turbines were set up in 2005 and wholly project managed by the islanders. Excess electricity being sold back into the national grid with profits ploughed back into local programmes for the benefit of the island community Unlike the companionable silence that enveloped me whenever I left the car on Arran there was a somewhat forlorn feel to South End Pier, rather like a long neglected corner of a garden. This may or not have been improved by the arrival of the Giggling Trio but I didn't stay long enough to find out. With a feeling that I was being stalked I left the Pier to the chorus of atonal ring tones and drove back to Ardminish.
I had missed the entrance to Achamore Gardens on my way down to the Pier but now the impressive stone gateway appeared from amidst the trees to my left. I considered paying the entrance fee to explore the grounds. I love gardens of all shapes and sizes but I knew I would be inviting trouble from my still unhealed foot if I spent too long on it so reluctantly I decided to give it a miss. As it is a garden known principally for its Rhododendrons and Azaleas I would not have been seeing it at its best anyway, which was some consolation.
Back in Ardminish I decided to sit and have a pint or two in the garden of the Gigha Hotel. I walked into the tiny bar to find it all but deserted. A couple of local builders propped up one corner of the bar counter. I ordered a pint of Deuchars and was poured a pint of Guinness. This was corrected by one of the builders so I asked for a pint of Deuchars again only to be told they didn't have any. Finally we settled on a pint of McKewans and Anglo-Scottish relationships were restored. On my way out, and almost inevitably, the Giggling Trio entered and filled the room with much tittering and polyphonic versions of 'Sexy No No No' and 'Umbrella'. It was like being haunted.
I went outside to lean against the hotel's stone wall, overlooking the harbour. As I stood there a car pulling a trailer clanked and clattered past me. The car may have once been a Renault or perhaps an Audi but it was hard to tell as the front end was missing. No lights, no radiator grill - nothing. It was a mechanical miracle that it could move at all. In the trailer a large farmer stood holding a sheet of glass easily six feet square balanced edge-on to the floor of the trailer. He wore no gloves and there were no restraining straps. Everything swayed and bounced erratically, including the collie dog that occasionally bobbed its head above the side of the trailer. It all looked like a disaster waiting to happen but the driver and the guy in the trailer both gave me a cheery wave as they rattled by.
I was beginning to realise that with just two hours gone I had already explored half of Gigha. I needed to spin the time out a little so a second pint of beer followed. Now I'm not a great lunchtime drinker and even two pints normally makes me drowsy and lethargic - add the clean wholesome air of Gigha and the effect was close to narcolepsy. Bleary eyed I drove north along the single track road into wilder hilly terrain where heather grew in abundance. The road began to twist and turn lazily, passing scattered farmsteads and rough meadows where hardy sheep grazed. One lonely house stood out against the dull sky with walls of a startling peacock blue recalling Scandinavia once again.

ED: Five years later I was contacted by the owner of this house to tell me that they had finally finished building it - along with an invitation to revisit the island.

This was merely the insulating material however and the wooden skin of the house was stacked neatly by, ready for installation. Winter would soon be on its way so they needed to be quick. Further on, the view across the Atlantic from the Gigha's south-westerly coast opened up so that the Inner Hebridean isles of Islay and Jura with its prominent twin peaks, could be clearly seen. A large ferry, much larger than the one I had travelled on, plied its way towards Islay on its return journey from distant Oban.
Abruptly the road ended in a grassy car park and I was
Gigha Pic 2

A very blue house

obliged to walk the last few hundred yards to the true end of the island. If the southern tip of Gigha had the air of abandonment about it - man made objects left to the weathering of the elements - then here at the northern extremity it was just wild and lonely. A heron stalked intently amongst the rock pools but other than that I was alone. The most puzzling thing here was the large concrete cube that had been built right out on the rocks. We had spotted this through our binoculars but its purpose was no clearer even on closer inspection. A lurid sign warned of the dangers of climbing on it and I could see that its base had been dangerously eroded by the sea so that it balanced delicately on a few large rocks. Sooner or later a good storm would blow in from the Atlantic and the whole thing would be sent to the bottom of the sea. I wandered about aimlessly, enjoying the solitude and the views across to Jura. The air was bracing and managed to blow away the foggy influence of the lunchtime beers. Eventually a car appeared from around the corner of a heathery hillside. I watched it warily but this time it wasn't the Giggling Trio, only a few ramblers out for an afternoon stroll.
I made my way back to Ardminish, stopping here and there when a particularly eye-catching view afforded itself or when I needed to answer natures call. Once back in the town I began to run out of ideas. Gigha is a beautiful place, no question of that, but on a drizzly day when you are semi-lame the options run out quite fast. I contemplated a third pint and, as I needed another comfort break, my bladder made the decision for me. I walked back into the tiny bar and almost got wedged in the doorway. The place was heaving. It seemed as if the entire population of 150 plus a crowd of assorted tourists were jammed into the place, all clamouring for pints of Deuchars and being served Guinness instead. I couldn't face the challenge of fighting my way to the bar so I used the gents and squeezed my way back out again.
It was odd really - living in a big city you often left the clamour and bedlam of the street in order to enter the calm oasis of a pub. Here it was exactly the opposite. The all encompassing silence of Gigha wrapped itself around me as soon as I left the hotel and the distant shouts and laughter of the people inside seemed to be coming to me through layers of cotton wool.
Next to the hotel was a smart new craft centre, partly funded (so the sign told me) by lottery money. On impulse I wandered inside. I immediately regretted this as a woman pounced on me, shoved a program into my hand, and invited me to browse at will 'all local artists, prices very reasonable'. I had to go through the motions of studying each and every exhibit as if I were an art expert. inching my way around the gallery until I could duck back out through the exit. There were some nice photographs for sale - mainly of Gigha and Kintyre - taken by a talented local photographer, but I wasn't in the market, primarily because I was all but broke. I felt the reproachful eyes of the exhibition organiser burn into my back as I slipped furtively outside.
At this point I knew it was time to leave. I had seen Gigha, found it a charming place, but had nothing left to do. I could have bought a Mars Bar at the local village shop except it was firmly closed for the day. If the weather had been warm and sunny I would have found a nice sheltered cove (probably deserted and entirely at my disposal) and had a snooze, but the forecast didn't look good. Even more frustrating was the fact that I missed out on Achamore Gardens.
I had to wait perhaps thirty minutes for the ferry to arrive so I sat and dangled my legs over the concrete ramp and considered Gigha. Traditionally the ancestral home of the Clan MacNeill, it has its own tartan and Clan badge and had its own part to play in the bloody and tumultuous history of the Western Isles. However, human occupation stretched much further back than this as evidenced by the numerous Neolithic standing stones and monuments scattered across the isle.
Gigha Pic 3

The northern tip of Gigha

Although geographically remote Gigha does have a grassy runway that can be used as an airstrip (a mere twenty or thirty minute flight for a light aircraft setting out from Glasgow airport) and has the regular ferry link to Tayinloan. In terms of recent habitation the island has had a chequered history. In the eighteenth century the population of Gigha peaked at over 700, but by the 1960s it had fallen to 163 and by the beginning of the 21st century it was down to only 98. During the 20th century the island had numerous owners, which caused various problems in developing the area. Most famously this came to an end in March 2002 when the islanders managed, with help from grants from the National Lottery and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, to purchase the island for 4 million pounds and they now own it through a development trust called the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust. If I were born and bred on the island then I would never wish to leave it. Why would I? The islanders own their precious piece of land, are responsible for their own affairs, and are justifiably proud to be in this privileged position.
I never found the place to be unfriendly, but by the same token I never found it particularly friendly either. I got the impression that it was simply neutral to strangers. The sense of community was very strong here and it is this strength that ensures that settlements like those on Gigha survive against the odds of financial pressures and government bureaucracy. I'll never be an islander (except in the British sense) but long may places like Gigha continue to exist. Maybe some of the values and ethics to be found in such a tightly knit community could find there way back on to the mainland. God knows we need them.
The ferry arrived on time and a motley group of people emerged carrying musical instruments of various types and antiquity. There was to be a folk festival on the island that night. I wish I could have stayed - maybe grabbed a room at the hotel. This would have been a great opportunity to mix in with the islanders and get to know them a little better. A few beers (yeah Guinness even) and some local music thrown in. A great night in prospect! But, alas, I had to return to Mausdale and so the ferry chugged away from Gigha taking myself, the Giggling Trio, and a dog that appeared to have no owner, back to Kintyre. Would I go back to Gigha? Yes. So long as I was fully mobile, the weather was better (a lot to hope for in that part of Scotland I know) and the folk festival was on.
Most definitely I would.

See Route on ......

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