Topography of Ailsa Craig
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Puffins are returning to the island

 Paddle Boat Waverley

Painting circa 1891

Turnberry lighthouse-Ailsa Craig

The map below and topographical details which follow are from the book AILSA CRAIG by the Reverend Roderick Lawson. It was published in 1888 and remains a popular and republished book about the island to this day. Click here for colour photos or here for sketches and a brief description of Ailsa Craig. Click on the map below or here to enlarge it. Read the story of a tragic accident on the island in 1887 here.

"Lord of the Isles, my trust in thee Is firm as Ailsa Rock!" -Sir W. Scott.

Landing on Ailsa is not always an easy matter. Still, either at the North or South Port, a boat can usually be run ashore safely enough. The Lighthouse Commissioners have erected a wooden Jetty at the North Port, with a line of rails and a stationary engine for landing supplies from vessels, and this Jetty is the one at which visitors are generally put ashore. When the visitor lands, he finds a considerable space formed of earth and stones, in front of which stands the Lighthouse and its attendant buildings, while the tenant's cottage keeps its old station by the North Port. On the place where the gaswork now stands, there formerly stood the chapel and burying-ground mentioned by early writers; and in corroboration of this, it may be mentioned that four stone coffins were recently discovered there; two in the neighbourhood of the tenant's house,(1) and two when the workmen were digging a pit for one of the gasometers.

But the gaswork was not the immediate successor of the chapel and burying ground; for about fifty years ago, a company of Glasgow merchants erected upon the same site a row of houses to accommodate a colony of fishermen whom they proposed to settle on the island, for the purpose of supplying Glasgow and Liverpool with fish, through a line of steamers then recently started betwixt those two ports. Before the project had been fairly commenced, however, the gentleman who had been the leading spirit in the enterprise died, and the houses were dismantled. For many years, the ground inside the walls served as a kailyard for the tenant of the island.

Standing then at the landing place and looking upwards, the visitor finds there are two paths by which the summit may be reached. The first is called "The Highlandman's Road," and begins close by the tenant's house. It is a dangerous, zig-zag pathway, seemingly impracticable when looked at in front, but quite safe to a cool head and a steady foot. In fact, old Craig hands think nothing of the danger, and are in the habit of making use of it when going to their work. But there is another and safer pathway which leads in a slanting direction to the castle, and this is the road always taken by visitors. This pathway is about three feet broad, although occasionally narrower; and as there is no ledge betwixt the climber and the steep slope below, the task is trying to those who are apt to be giddy.

After climbing the first ascent (supposed by Dr M'Culloch to be 250 feet high, but found by the Ordnance Survey to be 392 feet), a fiat is reached, extending across the face of the Rock, called the Castle Comb, or hollow; and on the edge of this is built the Castle of Ailsa; a small rectangular fort of three storeys, with cellar below. This tower is thirty feet in height, and each of the apartments is fourteen feet long by eleven feet broad. One of them contains a stone oven similar to that in the Abbot's House of Crossraguel. There is a broken spiral stair leading to the roof, and there are also the foundations of what seems an outhouse stretching for seventeen feet towards the north. The only carving on it is an armorial shield with three cinque-foils arranged in the form of the letter V. The three cinque-foils are well known to belong to the arms of the Hamilton family, and the wonder is that these should have taken the place of the three cross-crosslets of the Kennedys.(2) The only clue to the mystery that has as yet been proposed was indicated in the previous chapter. If this clue be correct, the last repairer of the castle has usurped the honour of the builder of it; for we know from other sources that there has been a castle on Ailsa since at least 1580, and probably long before. Indeed, one would say, the proprietor of the island must always have had some such way of justifying his ownership. The stone of which the castle is built is the common stone of the island, with the exception of the lintels, quoins, and stairs, which are sandstone of the same colour and quality as that which abounds on the opposite coast of Ayrshire.

Continuing our toilsome way we pass the Castle Well, and then after a scramble which brings us about 400 feet higher, we descend to the Garry Loch, which is nearly dry in summer, and bordered with a fringe of soft green moss and a luxuriant crop of marsh marigolds. The bottom of this loch has been probed to a depth of seventeen feet without touching the rock. And now, at last, after devious wanderings, the climber is rewarded by reaching the cairn which stands on the summit, at a height of 1114 feet. From this point, the view is magnificent. Passing vessels look like toy-boats on a pond. Loch Ryan and Belfast Lough you look into. Cantyre and Arran lie behind you while South Ayrshire stretches itself out before you like a panorama, with every farm house distinct, and the blue hills standing finely in the back-ground. We see Carlock and Beneraird in Ballantrae Parish, Knockdolian and Carleton in Colmonell Parish, the Byne and Saugli hills of Girvan, Mochrum and Carrick hill in Maybole, while away in the horizon stand shouldering each other Shalloch-on-Minnoch, Canine's Cairn, Merrick, Cairnsmore of Carsphairn, and the other monarchs who hold their court near the head of Loch Doon.

As seen from the sea, there appears to be no level surface on Ailsa, but this a mistake. There are many little stretches of soft green sward upon it, where rabbits nibble and goats browse, and where one is apt to forget for the time that he is on the summit of a huge Rock, cut off from the lower world by ranges of cliffs 400 feet high. The surface of course is very uneven, and every little hollow has its distinguishing name. One large hollow on the south end rejoices in the name of Clashwaun, and another parallel to it is called Garryloo. One portion is known as the Coach Road, another as Mochrum Steps, another as the Kailyard; while a deep valley on the north end receives the appropriate name of the Nettley Howe.(3) The brink of the precipices all round the island are called locally the Barrheads; and the openings in these Barrheads are known by such quaint cognomens as Dory's Yett, Rotten Nick, Sliddery, and Slunk.

But after all, the grandest treat at Ailsa is not to climb to the top of it, but to sail round it, and to do this, if possible, in a small-boat. It is true one may walk round it at low water; but this is very toilsome work, and not at all conducive to comfort. Besides, the visitor then is too near the cliffs to see them properly. Starting, therefore, from the Lighthouse and going south, the first cliff we arrive at is Craigna'an,(4) and here we begin to come upon the cliff-building birds, although in small numbers; for the Ailsa birds, generally speaking, do not build on the east or north sides of the island, but on the south and west. The next range of cliffs after Craigna'an is known as the Trammins, east and west; and at their base stand the South Fog Horn House and Signal Post. Here also we come upon a grove of Bourtree or Elder bushes, the only apology for a forest the island possesses. The vast mass of fallen rocks on the south end form the principal abode of the puffins, and it is here the nets are usually spread to catch them. The Trammins are more densely thronged than Craigna'an, but as soon as we turn a corner and pass the Rotten Nick (the outlet of Clashwaun), we come upon the Main Craigs, where the bird hive is seen in full activity, 'with all its noisy and confusing accompaniments.

The cliffs of Ailsa, it may be here remarked, are formed of basaltic columns, four, five, and six sided. They resemble the columns of Staffa or Giant's Causeway, although not so perfectly formed. From the base to the summit, every here and there, the tops of these columns have been broken off; and it is on the flat surface of these broken columns that the birds nestle. The eggs are laid so close as almost to touch each other; and as the nests are very loosely built, it seems wonderful that the whole are not some stormy night swept off into the sea. It is awe inspiring to look up into the face of these cliffs from the heaving sea below, when the very rocks seem alive with the many thousands of birds sitting on their nests, or wheeling above your head and uttering their incessant cries. It resembles the din of a rookery, but multiplied a thousandfold.

Before turning the corner of the Main or Goose Craigs and passing northwards, there are three interesting objects to be pointed out. The first is a rock jutting out from the shore, and called from its shape Little Ailsa. Behind this, and at the foot of Kennedy's nags (as the rocks above are named), is a cave of considerable dimensions called MacNall's cave. This cave is 113 feet in length, with a width of 12 feet, and reaching in the loftiest part a height of 21 feet. Its entrance is not easily noticed, being about 40 feet above sea level, and is reached by climbing an immense bank of debris. Some years ago when the floor of this cave was being cleared of a stock of guano which in the course of ages had accumulated in it, the labourers came upon two stone coffins containing bones. Whether one of these was that of MacNall himself is not known; but it is not at all unlikely that a bold smuggler like him, with every man's hand against him, would like to be buried away from gaugers, beside the sounding sea. I have not been able to learn anything of MacNall except that he was a smuggler who lived in this cave. But it is well known that about the end of last century, smuggling was very prevalent along our Ayrshire coast,(5) and a safe plate for receiving the goods would be a desideratum. In these circumstances, what would be more natural than to land these goods on Ailsa, and hide them in this cave, which would probably be little known, till opportunity occurred for taking them quietly ashore in a fishing boat, and disposing of them to the best advantage? Such, at any rate, was the plan adopted by MacNail; and it is said that one of the tenants of Ailsa, David Bodan, who lived in the early part of this century, used to follow MacNail's example. On one occasion he was beset by six armed men of the Coast Guard, near Dunure, and called on to surrender. Bodan, however, put his back to a rock, and taking his assailants one by one as they approached, forcibly seized their guns, hurled the men back, and after breaking their weapons across his knee, threw the fragments down the cliffs.(6).

But MacNail's Cave is tame in appearance compared with another cave close by it. For turning Stranny Point, the visitor notes the entrance of a cave whose beauty might well make it famous. This is the Water Cave or Mermaid's Cave; the pillared sides and roof of which render it a fitting companion to Fingal's Cave itself. The total length of this cave is 142 feet, the height in the middle is 36 feet, and the width varies from 11 feet to 2 feet 2 inches. It is not straight like MacNall's Cave, but has a twist to the right, winding into the solid rock till it comes to an abrupt ending with a width of 5 feet and a height of 6 feet 6 inches. There are just two drawbacks to the visitor's comfort in exploring this cave. In the first place, there is a bar of rock at the entrance with a deep hole beyond it, which makes it difficult to enter it dry shod at low water; although at high water a small boat may be floated into its very mouth. In the second place, a lighted torch is necessary to explore it fully. But both of these difficulties may be surmounted, and the sight well repays the trouble.

Continuing our course round the island, we come to the West Craigs, the highest and grandest of them all. The multitude of birds here baffles description, while the confused Babel of sounds, from the croak of the puffin, the scream of the gull, the cackle of the gannet, and the sharp scolding of the kittiwake, furnish a concert of a decidedly novel kind. It is to be noticed, too, that amid all their confused circlings, each tribe of birds keeps its own layer, and wheels in its own direction, so as to lessen the risk of collision: for there seems to be a "rule of the road" in the air as well as on the nether earth. The main body of the solan geese build on the West Craigs, although a number build also on the Main Craigs; while the guillemots and razorbills seem to confine themselves to the West. The vast height of the cliffs here may be brought home to us by calling to mind that they are nearly of the same height as St. Roliox Stalk in Glasgow, or the Pyramids of Egypt. And the great shelves on which the birds sit, are apt to suggest to a Scotch mind a gigantic Kitchen Dresser of the olden times, where living birds and their eggs take the place of crockery ware.

On the West side of the island are certain objects to which special names have been given. For instance, the Loutin' Stane is a basaltic column above Stranny Point, which has become semi-detached from the rest, and the Hingin' Stane is a similar column a little farther on. Dory's Yett is an opening in the range of cliffs leading down to the Bed of Grass below. The Ashydoo Craigs form a lower range of cliffs towards the North, while behind them rise the Balvar Craigs. Two veins of trap here rejoice in the appropriate names respectively of the Slunk and Sliddery; a large flat rock on the sea-shore is called the Boating Stone; and a sort of cavern formed by several huge masses of rock which have fallen from the cliffs above, has received the fanciful name of the Ashydoo Kirk.(7)

Round the North-West corner of Ailsa, as round the South-West, there cluster a number of points of interest. Chief of these is the huge Bare Stack, or "jutting-out rock," which forms the loftiest precipice on the island. Its blunt perpendicular outline may be traced from the opposite Ayrshire coast. On a tuft of grass growing in the face of it near the top, eagles used to build, though these have now given place to hawks. The last eagle that visited Ailsa was an erne or sea eagle, and was shot by the tenant in 1881. It measured seven feet from tip to tip of its wings, and is now preserved in Culzean Castle. At the foot of the Bare Stack, towards the North, is the Swine Cave, where, in all probability, the hogs formerly kept on the island were penned. This large cavern has a width at the entrance of fifty-six feet, a length of seventy-two feet, and a varying height of twenty-four, thirty, and forty feet. Immediately beyond the Swine Cave rises the Pinnacle, a high pointed rock, and in front of it stands the North Foghorn House, while in its vicinity we see the Red Hone Quarry, whence the red coloured curling stones are taken. From this point, the road to the Lighthouse is made easy by a pathway cut in the rock, with a number of foot-bridges spanning the various ravines which occur. But at one time the road was of the most difficult sort, as may indeed be guessed from certain of the chasms being called to this day The Loups.

(1)The two skulls were sold for half-a-crown a-piece to some curiosity hunters from Glasgow. Certainly the original owners had no further need of them!

(2) It is true that the Hamilton cinque-foils are usually arranged in a line, while these are in a triangle; but this makes no difference, as a note I have received from the Heralds' College, Edinburgh, informs me that the arms as given above are "those of the Hamilton family correctly represented."

(3) As seen from Girvan, the Nettley Howe is the indentation in the northern outline, and Clashwaun the corresponding indentation in the southern.

(4) Pronounced Craignyawn

(5) "Smuggling of tea, tobacco, and brandy was carried on in South Ayrshire formerly. Large vessels, then called Buckers, lugger-rigged, carrying twenty and sometimes thirty guns, were in the habit of landing their cargoes in the Bay of Ballantrae; while a hundred Lintowers, some of them armed with cutlass and pistol, might have been seen waiting with their horses ready to receive them, to convey the goods by unfrequented paths through the country, and even to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Many secret holes, receptacles for contraband articles, still exist, in the formation of which much skill and cunning is shewn. The Old Kirk of Ballantrae itself contained one of the best."-Paterson's History of Ayrshire.

About a mile from Ballantrae, on the Colmonell Road, there may still be seen in a brae-face called "the Heck," a large hole named "the Brandy Hole," and most of the fishermen of those days had secret trap doors in their kitchen floors. In later days smuggling was confined to carrying salt from Ireland, and the exploits of the fishermen in "doing" Dowie's cutter were fireside stories fifty years ago.

(6) At another time a certain noble lord had gone out to the Craig for a day's shooting at the goats. On his return with Bodan, he used the tacksman's dog unmercifully. Bodan at once seized his lordship by the neck of his coat and the loose part of his nether garment, and soused him over the boat's side in the sea. A second dip was threatened unless an apology was given, which the noble lord at once acceded to.

(7) Small boats rowing round the Craig should be on their guard against a sunken ridge of rocks called the Rig, which are exposed at low tide. Off the Bare Stack, the bottom sinks to an unknown depth.

Note respecting MacNall.- When beginning my inquiries about Ailsa, I was informed that a life of MacNail had been written, which of course I was anxious to see. Through the kindness of a friend, I at last procured a copy, but found it to be one of those historical romances so common in certain newspapers, and which of course was worthless for my purpose. According to this tale-writer, William MacNall was a persecutor in the covenanting times-seduced a young woman, daughter of one who had been martyred-went to sea-became a smuggler-was left on Ailsa to guard a portion of the cargo-suffered much there, both in body and mind-was taken by some fishers to the mainland, where he became a vagrant-was attracted by an open-air preaching, conducted by his son, on the spot where the covenanter had been murdered-and was converted. As a specimen of the "tall" style in which it is written, take the following description of MacNall's cave :-" To the west was seen a lengthened range of the hills of Erin, and straight above the cave were rocks of a tremendous height, from the craggy clefts of which, amid the interlude of the lashing waves, the mournful creak of the solan goose was heard." The writer, too, is guilty of the anachronism of linking together the covenanting of the seventeenth century, with the smuggling of the eighteenth. Altogether, no reliance can be placed on the book as history.

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