Surviving Scotland's weather - Part Two

“ contains crystals of feldspar and strongly resembles a decomposed, sheared, porphyritic epidiorite full of carbonates”

Peach, B. N., Wilson, J. S. G., Hill, J. B., Bailey, E. B. and Grabham, G. W. 1911 I. The geology of Knapdale, Jura and North Kintyre.

Image by Daoudi Aissa
A storm cloud looking for a home...

Weird formations of rocks rose before me, gnarled, covered in strange coloured circles and exhibiting all the features of a diseased troll. I am no geologist so trying to work out what has happened to create these monoliths was a non-starter. However, the internet is useful for a few things and later on I was to find out just exactly what these strange edifices were. The short answer is ‘a volcano’.

Well, not exactly a volcano because they tend to be rather larger than the stubby collection of rocks before me, but rather extruded by volcanic forces. The structures in question appeared to have been bubbled out of the ground and to that extent I was not wholly wrong because somewhere in the distant past the landscape I was standing upon was a rather vigorous place. Somewhere in the region of 600 million years ago the ground in these parts was actually underwater. Scotland itself was drifting around under what scientists call the Iapetus sea and would continue to do so for many millions of years hence before rising to become the land we know and love. The earth at that time wanted to extrude all that heat in the form of molten rock and the place that would become Knapdale was just one of the places that was thin enough to experience the huge geological up-welling. Lava just exploded out of the planet here, creating what is comfortably known as ‘pillow lava’. It is definitely not something you would have wanted to lay your head against, though, because the temperature was somewhere in the thousands of degrees Celsius, and, as it contacted the cold waters surrounding it, the molten rock instantaneously formed a glassy bubble. Like some kind of red-hot fondue, the interior lava continued to burst through this bubble, cooling and bubbling, to form ribbons of rock many metres wide which now exist as a silent succession of rounded grey, vaguely pillow-shaped dunes upon the Scottish seashore. Other explosive volcanic forces created the jagged pillars which confronted me now. You really didn’t want to be here 600 million years ago. We sat down to consume a quick snack I had the foresight to bring with us. The Sound of Jura swept outwards and away to the island herself, majestic and brooding. I say brooding because the huge hills, the ‘paps’ give one a sense of being looked over. Made of quartzite, these three splendid structures, the highest of which is over 2,500 feet look like they are slowly falling apart. Anyone who has the stamina to try and reach their summits must first pass a boggy terrain which then gives in to what is lightly known as ‘scree’ and is in fact a jumbled collection of sharp rocks given off, dandruff like, from the paps themselves. The culprit was a glacier or two around 12,000 years ago whose combined frosting and thawing converted these giant hills to giant piles of rubble. Despite this, some life clings to these wonderful places although it tends towards the very small (some mosses and algae). Their existence, in a place where the weather and temperature can swing wildly, is amazing in itself and perhaps best describes the hardy nature of life in Scotland. It is also likely that these scraps of growth face another setback every time a visitor scrubs away the inevitably loose scree. A micro environment build up over perhaps decades can all but be removed in an instant by a single unknowing boot. Unfortunately, whilst people still wish to gain the incredible views from these summits (and why should they not?) life will continue to have a fragile and transitory existence here. I always thought that a Pap was just another name for a mountain and if you thought the same, you would be wrong.

As usual, the sources on (hopefully not a real website!) has many and varied things to say about this, but usually along the lines of ‘because they look like huge breasts, and pap is a Nordic word meaning 'Breast.’ Well, not quite. I will admit there is a certain ‘breastly’ shape about these mountains, but the fact is there are 3 of them. Apparently that doesn’t matter though because you can also have a single Pap. And the name doesn’t actually mean ‘breast’ but is vaguely Nordic (probably from Scandinavia) and definitely not Norse. Collins Online dictionary will tell you that it probably originated as the sound imitative of sucking (I’m beginning to get the gist, I think) and that Pap is also a Scottish dialect word meaning Nipple (OK, really, I’ve got it!). Collins online dictionary also matter-of-factly tells you that Nipple is one of the 30,000 most used words, apparently enjoying robust usage in the 1730’s, briefly falling out of favour 100 years later and popping back into regular use after the 1950’s.

And let’s leave it at that.

As we finished eating I was mildly concerned to see that the dark sliver of cloud had ballooned quite quickly. Really quite startlingly fast, as a matter of fact, and appeared to be heading not just generally in our direction but straight toward us and me in particular. Scottish weather can be like this. Stay calm and make no sudden moves. Unless, of course, the weather appears to have taken a dislike to your presence; in which case run like hell. Well, I say ‘run’ but there’s really no point because those clouds/ storm front/ cyclone (dependent on what you wish to call it) are going much too fast.

Pretending not to notice the onrushing wall of darkness that was rapidly filling the air and obscuring the view of Jura, I collected my charges, somehow scaled the drop over which I had earlier unthinkingly leapt and marched quick-step towards the disappointingly distant horizon. I have never really appreciated the word ‘roaring’ as applied to wind but the noise I was hearing behind me was doing just that. The urge to run was quite acute but I am, after all, from these islands; we do not flap and we most assuredly do not run from the weather. As if to make a point, the roaring swept up the hillside and in an instant was upon us, closely followed by the kind of rain that really wants to get you hydrated. And this is where I learned that Scottish rain is not normal. It hit me back and sideways and then, obviously not satisfied, lunged back on itself so it got me in the face. I thought the storm was going to come from the direction we had just traversed, but against all probability it came from everywhere.

The journey to the car was a miserable one. Half-blinded by the onslaught, I tried to pick my way over the blasted terrain and go around the boggy bits until one of my children helpfully pointed out that it really didn’t matter. We were so wet that actually stepping into a puddle probably made us marginally drier. It was a real relief to get into the car, despite the squelching and clammy clothes, and drive the few miles home. The storm, however, had no intention of letting up. Opening the car door was an interesting experience as I had never seen one try and bend in half before. It was a busy few minutes before I managed to wrestle it shut, noting that my children, forever helpful at times like this, had already retreated into the house. When I had finally got inside, I closed and locked the front door which was making a concerted attempt to be torn from its hinges. Outside, the wind moaned and whistled in obvious frustration at not having ripped me limb from limb.

Have you noticed how very difficult it is to remove completely wet clothing? I struggled, panted and heaved for what seemed an age before divesting myself and leaving several buckets of finest Scottish rainwater on the porch floor. I then made the mistake of lighting the open fire. It was certainly easy enough and as the flames brightened I decanted to the kitchen to reward myself with a scotch, but not, as it turned out, for long. The wind, bless it, had not quite finished with me. A ‘swirly’ sounds like some kind of wood sprite, but is in fact what happens when the wind wants to come down your chimney after it has been lit. I re-entered the living room to find that I couldn’t see the far wall. This was not because my living room is the size of a banqueting hall but because it was full of smoke which chose that moment to set off the smoke alarm. The peaceful end to the day I had envisioned just a few short hours earlier was shattered. In scenes reminiscent of ‘Towering Inferno’ I simultaneously tried to put out the fire with some water, turn off the smoke alarm and open the windows, all the while trying not to breathe. Loose items were thrown around the room as the wind didn’t wait for an invitation to come in. By the time I had got the fire out, the room ventilated and the darn alarm to stop its shrill screaming I felt physically exhausted. Retrieving my drink I stood before the (now closed) window and looked out upon the shrieking maelstrom seeking further victims amongst the low scrub and boulders that lead down towards the loch, finding just a few cowering sheep and a raven trying gamely not to fly backwards. A strange peace descended upon me. Scotland might be home to murderous winds, super-soaking rain and some landscapes that would look at home on Mars, but it provides all this with a kind of majestic grandeur that reminds one that we really are quite small. It wishes to perhaps tell us who is in charge.

After my initiation, I was in no doubt.