I didn’t know until recently that the Ailsa Craig, a big hunk of granite in the middle of the Firth of Clyde, is twelve times the area and three times as high as the Bass Rock, its doppelganger in the Forth. Having grown up in Dunbar, I am considerably more familiar with the Bass and so I always think of the Ailsa Craig as being the lesser relation, even though I now know the western version is much, much larger. Things always have to be bigger and better through here, eh? Anyway, it got me thinking about Ayrshire. Going down there is always exciting to me. I grew up at the other side of the country so the rolling coastline south of Ayr and Girvan is exotic, with an unfamiliar vista to the Ailsa Craig and beyond on a good day to Arran, Kintyre and Northern Ireland. The first time I went was when I was a kid and there was a brief stopover at Girvan en route somewhere else. I was entranced by the Ailsa Craig and bought a postcard of it to take home. (My main memory of that particular trip, though, was getting a can of Mango and Mandarin Lilt, which was my favourite and can never be found anywhere.) Ever since, I love being in that part of the country. When I went to Northern Ireland last year, I thought all the way down to the ferry at Cairnryan that even this journey was enough to see me for a while, let alone the trip across the North Channel. (For posts on that particular trip, please see (North) Channel crossing, Ulster Museum, Trains and that.)
The Bass Rock is far more familiar to me. When I see it, I have a similar response to when I clap eyes on the Ailsa Craig: I just smile, sigh and relax. I may have written before about how it looks different from different angles, whereas the Ailsa Craig looks remarkably similar from wherever you happen to see it. From Dunbar, the Bass looks craggy and intimidating while from North Berwick it is more of an island affair. Across the Forth in Crail, Cellardyke and Anstruther the Bass looks more like a tooth, a monolith as opposed to the bumpy land just beyond it in East Lothian. I’ve never actually been though I have been close. When I was a teenager we went out on a fishing boat and went quite close to the Bass, if not right up to it. It is one of the largest seabird colonies in the world and in the summer there can be thousands of gannets on it, turning the rock a bright white. I gather that the Ailsa Craig has quite a few gannets on it too but I’ve never quite seen that shade of bright, glossy white anywhere else.
Hugh MacDiarmid wrote a poem which began ‘Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?’ Our country is a multiform and that is particularly evident when thinking of our coastline. Both sides of the country are rugged with lots of jagged edges that Slartibartfast of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would be very proud of. Scotland isn’t very symmetrical but the Ailsa Craig and the Bass Rock make up for it, two lumps of rock in the sea at either side of the country, at either side of the Lowland Fault. For a Dunbar boy like me, the Ailsa Craig is still a tribute act, even if it is far bigger than I realised before.
Sources and further reading –
Haswell-Smith, Hamish, An Island Odyssey, 2014, Edinburgh: Canongate
MacDiarmid, Hugh, ‘Scotland small?’, accessible via http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/scotland-small