Category: Ireland

On Northern Ireland

Having moved very definitely now into a period of strong winds and rain we find ourselves once again at sea in rough conditions, far rougher than we signed up for when we started out, I might add. We are fortunate indeed to have a boat that can handle this type of thing but it is our own comfort that invariably suffers. The best position to adopt when the cockpit is writhing about, tossing up and down violently in a turbulent sea, is a standing one since legs have built in springs and shock absorbers, something strangely missing from the human bottom. But many hours at sea take their toll on the leg springs. From a place where the currents collide just south of the Mull of Kintyre, in a stiff westerly breeze and horizontal rain there is little to choose anyway between sitting and standing in terms of comfort. Many hours later, landfall finally arrived in the shape of Carrickfergus marina, a place to which we were drawn by the magnetic promise of a ‘Stay one night, second night free’ offer. Well who can blame us.

We find we have timed our visit perfectly to coincide with my mother’s eighty-eighth birthday (Hi Mum!) and also with the anniversary of something that happened a few centuries earlier, the Battle of the Boyne. But it is the latter of these events that has precipitated a countrywide incineration of rubbish on bonfires across the land. The air is full of soot which floats down on our decks and stains the sails, the smell of burning is everywhere and from out at sea columns of black smoke rise heavenwards. The intensity of these ‘celebrations’, if this is what they are, is startling to us. (In a similar vein some Dutch sailors we met here were surprised to find themselves face to face with a statue of King Willem III van Oranje who they regarded as their own.) Here is a country where we understand the language (just) but the historical perspective is alien. Whereas elsewhere in Britain national flags have become a commonplace sight, hung from houses, fluttering from boats, and sticking out of car windows – in England there is the cross of St George, in Scotland the Saltire (St Andrew), the Welsh have their dragon – many here in Northern Ireland think not of individuality but of unity and it is the flag of the union that flutters from every lamp post, covering the streets in red, white and blue. In the rest of our land this flag is largely reserved for public buildings and the queen’s residence but history has given the people who live here a different outlook on the world.

Carrickfergus marina let us down badly in the end. Marine diesel was not to be had due to the public holiday then our berth close to the entrance out into Belfast Lough made us vulnerable in a southerly blow, waves charging in to toss boats and pontoons around like toys. We began to long for something that didn’t move around quite so much, I think they call it ‘land’. Our plans to sail for the Isle of Man are swiftly abandoned under a torrent of rain.

Which is how we find ourselves in Strangford Lough, a name derived from the Norse for Strong Fjord but which the Irish call Cuan, meaning calm. The Vikings were clearly more impressed by the fearsome current that runs through the narrow, five mile long, neck that connects to the sea, not a place to be tackled when the tide is running against you. A tidal generator planted on the bottom here can produce enough electricity for a small town.

This place provides us with the same calm that the Irish found, needed after so much rough. We may not be exactly where we intended to be but we are where we need to be. We hear on the News of conflict just a few miles away in Belfast – it appears that there are people who still cannot live comfortably with each other even after so many years – but the evidence of our eyes tells us that such single-mindedness is by no means universal and there are many who have other priorities. The Lough fills with clouds of colourful sails as the Irish take to their boats and go sailing, racing about in competition or just drifting slowly like us. Then, gradually, the wind subsides as the sun sinks lower until we are almost alone, unless of course you include the flocks of noisy wildfowl and the seals, all of whom are here because of the life swimming around beneath our keels. For Strangford Lough is a nature reserve, a vast area of water and the land around it preserved and protected from human interference.

The Mull of Kintyre

One of the nice things about travelling slowly around Britain is being able to get to know the places we stop at on the way, places that start out as just a name on the map, or in this case on a record sleeve, and slowly fill in to become a series of memories, of people we meet or things we see and do. One of the curious things about the Mull of Kintyre is just how well known the name is, to anyone over the age of 20, as a result of a very famous song, yet how unknown is the place to most people. For me, Kintyre was just a thin finger of land jutting out southwards, a place one might imagine to be rocky, desolate and largely uninhabitable. The people who live here would certainly dispute this description and the rolling green hills around us here are clearly far from desolate. The city of Glasgow is, after all, a mere three hours away by road and only fifteen minutes by plane into Campbeltown’s tiny airport. Also, interestingly, this place has its historical roots not in Scotland but in Ireland, a land within sight to the south just across the North Channel and it is easy to see how the Mull might have been regarded by those looking north as just another piece of their own land.

The broad sea loch into which we gratefully sailed on our arrival here provides good shelter from the worst of the elements, protected as it is by the large lump of Davaar Island which sits in the mouth, but even in the most secure anchorage the fiercest of gales will always test a boat, its crew and its equipment. Campbeltown boasts a short pontoon where visiting boats can tie up and if no room exists, rafting up outside another boat is the accepted practice. Around midnight after our own arrival a solo Norwegian sailor aboard his thirty-three foot yacht made landfall here after his passage from Largs on the Firth of Clyde. We discovered later that he had been blessed with a gentle sail to Campbeltown Loch but he knew from the omens in the clouds (we had photographed this earlier) that later in the night a severe gale was forecast. However rather than wake anyone by bringing his own boat alongside another yacht, he chose to moor as best he could on his own off the end of the pontoon and away from other boats.

By six in the morning the rain was being driven across the harbour by a south-westerly gale and the surface of our sheltered loch was being whipped into a frenzy. Our Norwegian sailor’s boat was being bounced about so much that he decided, reluctantly, he needed to move elsewhere, hopefully to somewhere more secure. The difficulties of carrying out boat manoeuvres on his own in a strong wind and with the added unpleasantness of torrential rain must have been daunting but nevertheless he cast off from the pontoon and motored away.

The noise of the storm had woken us and we caught a glimpse of his boat as it faded into the mist then, with no apparent way we could help, we decided to leave him to it and return to our own bed to try to sleep some more. We have long since learnt the trick of being able to filter out wind noise, the sound of halyards rapping on masts, water lapping against the hull or heavy rain on our decks so we can sleep soundly. But strangely, from the inside of a boat, the vibration of a propeller is transmitted through the hull by the surrounding water and barely fifteen minutes after we had put our heads down this is what woke us again, even over the noise of the storm raging outside. Peering out we could see a yacht approaching our starboard side where we had left fenders swinging in case of late arrivals. Guessing that this was our lone sailor we knew that in these conditions he would not be able to moor alongside us without some assistance, someone to catch his lines. Quickly we got up, dressed, then dug out our waterproofs and pulled them on. The moment we stepped outside and away from the shelter of our cockpit we were both drenched from head to toe as the water ran in rivers off our backs, rushing off Cirrus’ decks into the sea. A grateful head appeared from the yacht as we beckoned him in, quickly making his lines fast to our deck cleats then taking extra lines onto the pontoon behind us. With a smile he waved his thanks before diving below to catch up on lost sleep, safe at last. We live in a community where giving such assistance is second nature to all its inhabitants; others have offered us help when we have needed it. It is usual and polite practice to take lines from an incoming boat’s crew and secure them to a pontoon, no matter what the weather.

Campbeltown has been our home for a week now, giving us the chance to explore further afield. The name Mull of Kintyre refers to a headland at the extreme end of the Kintyre peninsula, a twenty minute bus ride away and a place where we can sit and admire the coast of Ireland just twelve nautical miles away. Some years ago, 563AD to be more accurate, a middle-aged Irishman stepped off a boat here, left his footprints in a lump of rock then very quickly went on to Iona to found a monastery and convert large parts of Scotland to Christianity. Although one of these facts is certainly not true (the footprints were carved later) the name of this man, Columba, (later canonised) has followed us around Scotland for many months. We have passed islands named after him, churches bearing his name, hotels, restaurants and pubs galore which claim patronage and more particularly I have received my own name from this man, Malcolm meaning follower of ‘Colm’, which inevitably stimulates my interest when I find myself treading in the footsteps of such an important historical figure. It is strangely moving to be sitting right where his boat would first have touched the sand so he could step ashore. Did he have someone to take his lines, I wonder? While we meditated on these things a small creature that those not visiting this region will miss, the six-spotted Burnet Moth whose British range is now confined to Argyll, came and sat by us.

There is one fact about the Kintyre peninsula that appears in no tourist guide or pamphlet and I suspect does not figure in the education of most locals either. It is perhaps only known to those who monitor broadcasting standards that the shape of the land here was once considered appropriate to be used as an unofficial test for the propriety of images of naked men! Anyone wanting to know more on this should follow the link to find out about the Mull of Kintyre test.