Saturday, 26 July 2014

Astonishing Ailsa Craig

We had deliberately left kayaking around Ailsa Craig until the afternoon in order to get the best light on the cliffs of the south and west coasts.  It was around 5pm when we started our clockwise circumnavigation and still very warm.  In distance it is just 4.5 kilometres around the island but what an extraordinary hour of paddling it is.


Leaving the lighthouse, the first point of interest is the south fog signal.  This is one of two fog signals installed at about the same time as the lighthouse was constructed, one at the north and one at the south of Ailsa Craig.  They were powered by gas engines until 1911 when oil driven engines were introduced and these continued in service until 1966 when both signals were permanently discontinued and replaced by a single Tyfon fog signal situated close to the lighthouse.  This was itself discontinued in 1987 along with most other coastal fog signals.

A little way past the south fog signal the cliff scenery begins to dominate the view, first shattered basalt then more structured basalt columns.  Also here are some of the few Elder (Bour) trees which are the only type of tree to be found on the island.

Farther along and the columnar basalt gets really impressive; some of the individual columns are 120 metres/400 feet high.  The slight lean of the columns is quite strange whilst close in and looking straight upwards!

But then, as a corner is turned the scene goes from dramatic to truly jaw-dropping.....

Stretching away up the west coast of Ailsa Craig are cliffs covered in birds.  The sight, noise and smell seem to arrive almost simultaneously; this is the greatest and most impressive sight on the whole island and it's only when the eyes adjust to the scale that the true impact hits home.  The specks above the 300 metre cliffs are Gannets with a two metre wingspan.  Douglas has paddled here several times and says that it's the same each time - absolute astonishment.

The cacophony and smell can't be conveyed in an image, but the whole is so overwhelming that it is as much felt as heard or smelled.  And that's even before you look upwards........

.....into a sky which is simply full of Gannets.  Streaming from the cliffs, wheeling around and sometimes crashing into the sea around us; it's a stupendous sight.  Looking up comes with a fair risk - there is a steady rain of guano and our boats and clothing were soon liberally spattered, but it's a small price to pay for one of nature's great spectacles.

There are about 36,000 pairs of gannets breeding on Ailsa Craig, together with Guillemots, Razorbills, Black Guillemots, Cormorants and Puffins.  The cliffs of St Kilda are higher, but the Gannets on Ailsa Craig are more concentrated in one area... there are more Gannets at the Bass Rock, but the cliffs of Ailsa Craig are three times higher.  It's pointless to compare sites; all are magnificent but perhaps here at Ailsa Craig the combination of a sudden revealing of the cliff, the noise and the smell have the most effect.  We were particularly pleased to see good numbers of Puffins; they formerly bred here in huge numbers but were almost completely wiped out by Rats which arrived on the island on ships.  A comprehensive programme to eradicate the Rats has been successful and the "Tammie Norries" are, happily, breeding again and increasing their numbers.

While I moved off a little to get a sense of the scale and perspective of the west facing cliffs Douglas moved in close and captured some wonderful and intimate images of the birds close by the shoreline.  As we approached the end of the western face of the island the cliffs rear ever steeper until they are vertical and even overhanging; even the seabirds can't find nest sites here.

The astonishing cliff scenery culminates in the Eagle's Seat, an impending  230 metre/750 ft crag which looms over the north tip of the island, making paddlers feel very small.  White Tailed Eagles once nested here, finding good hunting amongst the seabird cities.  Maybe the great birds will return one day; it's good to think that they might.

Turning the corner on the last leg of our circumnavigation, we passed the Swine Cave and the north fog signal.  This twin to the signal at the south end of Ailsa Craig points towards the Arran coast; we reflected that it was only a few weeks previously that we'd looked down the bearing of the Pladda fog signal towards Ailsa Craig.

All too soon our circumnavigation was completed and we landed back at the lighthouse for a leg-stretch prior to the 14 kilometre crossing back to Lendalfoot.  The paddle around had been an astonishing wildlife and scenic experience, but not all of the interest had been avian......

For most of the way we'd had close company, and as we got on the water to  start the crossing back to the mainland we were again the subject of intense scrutiny.  A swirl of water, a snort and a fleeting underwater shape seemed to be leading us out......

.....this is "Gollum", the Grey Seal who followed us closely and probably the same animal with whom we shared the water whilst swimming earlier in the afternoon.  After the widescreen wildlife of the western cliffs, this was an enchanting and intimate experience.  We were followed for several kilometres on our crossing of the Firth of Clyde before the seal turned for home.

There aren't any images from our paddle back to Lendalfoot.  Soon after heading out into open water a dark squall line to the west brought a rising wind and a short, tricky swell from just on our beam.  The wind was from ahead of the beam and we experienced some interesting conditions as we crossed great swirls of tidal movement, sometimes the swell helped and sometimes it definitely didn't, requiring a couple of sharp and energetic brace strokes on occasion.  It's this distance from the mainland, the exposure to the prevailing weather and the potential for conditions to change rapidly which combine to make Ailsa Craig one of the more challenging paddles, even on the most benign of days.

We made the 14.2km crossing in under two hours and at an average speed of 7.4km/hr; it's amazing how a bit of adrenaline can increase the paddling rate!  We arrived about 12 hours after setting out from Lendalfoot and though I still had a four hour drive home I was absolutely buzzing from a superlative day.  I got home at 0130, having set out at 0430 the previous day, so it was a day trip but not actually in one day!

Much as I love the far north of Scotland for its mountainous and wild scenery and the north east for cliff scenery and bird life, Douglas and I are in complete agreement; we don't believe that there is a better combined day paddle and hillwalk to be enjoyed anywhere in the UK than the astonishing, awesome Ailsa Craig.


  1. And, save the driving time, all in the daylight hours. You "seized the day"...and didn't let go. :) Great account, Ian. (Did you really look UP at the Gannets? Haha!) Warm wishes, Duncan.

  2. Hi Duncan, we do have a preference for extracting the maximum from a day..... Carpe every Diem!

    Looking up at the Gannets is risky, but the guano eventually washes off :o)

    See you soon

  3. Fantastic! At last a close up on this island which so often is in the background of your and Douglas' photos. Thank you!

  4. Thak you Leif - having been so used to seeing Ailsa Craig from a distance, to get up close and to climb to the top was a really great experience :o)

    Kind Regards