Saligo Bay to Machir Bay, Islay
I am walking with my friend and colleague, Adrienne. Late August in Scotland can feel like early autumn, but waking up in Port Charlotte today, the sun glistening off a calm and beautifully clear Loch Indaal, summer is still here at least. It’s many years since I’ve visited Islay and my return this weekend is a trip that pays homage to an inspirational teacher and unforgettable role model, Dr. Alasdair Cameron. Alasdair, a Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow, taught both Adrienne and me during our undergraduate degrees. His door was permanently open to whoever should happen by, and no matter how busy, the interrupter was always greeted with a warm smile and a witty bon mot or three. Impeccably turned-out, always in-the-know and generous with his naughtily camp but razor-sharp insights, Alasdair’s open-door was irresistible to me. I suspect he was my gay version of Miss Jean Brodie and I sought desperately to be one of his ‘girls’. A couple of years after graduating I remember asking Alasdair if he thought I should do a PhD. His reply might very well have been the tipping point: ‘There should be more people like you in the academy’. In 1994, at the age of 41, Alasdair died from an AIDS-related illness. The sudden death of this gregarious man was truly inconceivable.
Alasdair is buried on Islay, his gravestone overlooking Loch Gruinart. The day before our walk we visit and I leave a small bunch of purple blooming heather. Alasdair, an expert in Scottish theatre, taught me about repetitive stage representations of tartan and kaleyard. He would, I am sure, smile at this Romantic and overly-dramatic mise-en-scène, one that nevertheless brought tears to my own eyes as I looked over the wall onto the peaceful loch. Och Alasdair, Alasdair, could ye no have bided a wee while longer?
The walk Adrienne chooses the next day goes from from Saligo Bay, located to the west of Kilnave chapel and looking out to the Atlantic, to Machir Bay. The land just south of Saligo Bay is known for its ‘Arches’ and a sign on a roadside gate, ‘TO THE ARCHES’, helpfully points our way. (We do carry a guidebook but simply keeping the sea to our right is easier than matching the description on the page to the land we are on.) Avoiding a herd of cows – with calves in their protective sights we drift towards the rocky edge to inspect the geology. I expertly pronounce this as ‘like filo pastry’ (by which I mean, of course, lava residues). We are looking out for the ‘Arches’, anticipating large arch shapes worn into the rock. Staying well away from precarious looking edges we come to a dramatic, deep inlet, and conclude that this is must be the ‘Arch’. Our walk then moves a little inland, crossing short, sheep-worn grass – boggy in only a few places. The horizon is long, the skies blue. Flocks of sheep are the only visible other animals sharing this space. Looking back, we see the impressive rocky outcrops just north of Saligo Bay that resemble the architecture of Sydney Opera House (Dun Bheolain hills, apparently known locally as the Sleeping Giant). A small bothy-like structure on our own horizon acts as a magnet, pulling us up a short incline and southwards. On closer inspection, it’s a breeze block shed – complete with locked door – rather than a shelter, but we stop for a drink anyway and a look at the guidebook (which we manage to leave behind – luckily the sheep are uninterested and it awaits our retrieval on the return journey). From this vantage point, the curve of the next bay – our destination – begins to reveal itself and we head towards the shore.
A wooden shed has been strategically erected between the two remaining gable-end walls of an old stone croft. Around the corner and we get our first view of the stunning Machir Bay – a huge expanse of sand – some 2 kilomeeters – with just a few dark dots – ant-like people – scattered over it. A meadow alongside us is sunned with hundreds of large blazing-yellow dandelions.
On the beach at last, the tide is far out. The huge space is almost empty, save for a few families, one building a dam of sand across a rivulet, another walking a dog and flying a kite. The beach is also startlingly clean, no flotsam or jetsam or even any shells. We take off our boots and socks and head over the cold, rippled sand towards the water. Our step into the ocean is heralded with sharp intakes of breath and startled exclamation: It’s absolutely freezing! Albeit utterly invigorating. No-one is swimming out there today. Moments of sunshine still glance through the now low-gathering silvery clouds, but the water is pure Baltic (as we’d say in Glasgow). It’s too cold to get ‘used to’ so our paddle is appreciated but short. The waves are streaked with a thin strip of white surf. We drift along the beach towards the one piece of driftwood spotted on the far side. A perfect spot to eat our packed lunch and rest our feet for a bit, digging toes into sand to enjoy the softness and warmth.
This is the final walk of 40 Walks and there’s a predictable irony in the fact that this last one is taken in the company of a friend I see on an almost daily basis. It’s taken more than four years to organise, but what a wonderful place to end. And of course accompanying me on this final walk is not only Adrienne, but also my inspirational teacher Alasdair. It’s a surprise and a joy to be walking with him close by me today. Looking out onto the empty, beautiful Machir Bay, my view is wide open.