MarySmith’sPlace -What a difference a day makes

Capricious – a rather lovely word to describe Scotland’s changeable weather. I can think of others less flattering. My last post was about a very wet walk along part of the Ayrshire Coastal Path when it rained on us for the entire walk. Yet the following day the sun shone out of a brilliant blue sky.

It was supposed to be a writing day but I couldn’t resist going out to enjoy the sunshine and decided on a short walk along the shore at Sandyhills, on the Solway coast. It’s about twelve miles from where I live. In the summer, the beach is crowded with holiday makers, some of whom stay at the caravan park and there is a charge for parking. In the winter, parking is free. Most of the other people on the beach are dog walkers or, like me, simply out to make the most of a bright, sunny – if cold – day.

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In the 19th century and early part of the 20th century the Solway Firth was a major shipping channel bringing and taking goods to and from the ports of Dumfries. The treacherous Barnhourie Banks were responsible for a number of shipwrecks including, among others, the William Levitt bound from Quebec to Greenock in 1888, the St Patrick (four days after the ship ran aground one crew member was found alive, clinging to the rigging), and the Village Belle heading for Glasgow from Penzance in 1914. She ran aground at Barnhourie, the crew took to the lifeboat, which also ran aground and they then walked across the sand for three miles to the Southwick Burn where a local farmer helped them.

Apart from history, which includes the remains of a Bronze Age cremation burial site, the area abounds with legends of mermaids – some of whom save drowning sailors, while others who sing them to their doom – smugglers, and excisemen.

It’s a lovely walk from Sandyhills over the coastal path to Rockcliffe but today I don’t have time so content myself with a walk along the shore before climbing up and returning along the clifftop path.

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Entrance to one of the many caves along this coast

Stake nets are a traditional form of tide fishing. Long ago, before stake nets were developed, fishermen created a hollow in the sand which trapped fish in a pool of water left when the tide retreated. Later, rocks and hurdles were used to form the pools and eventually the stake nets. These consist of nets hung vertically on stakes driven into the sand, often in a zig-zag pattern. The nets have narrow openings which salmon can easily enter but not so easily exit.

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Stake nets with wind turbines behind them



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The rocky cliffs are peppered with caves and incredible shapes.

From the clifftop path the views are stunning. You can see why this is such a popular place with both visitors and locals alike. Despite how empty it looks in the photos I met many people out walking – it’s just such a big, big space!

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The square shape out to sea is an RAF bombing target used in World War Two by the Number 10 Bombing and Gunnery School based at the Heathhall airfield, Dumfries.

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Perfect outdoor poetry performance space!

This final photo is looking across to the snow-covered hills of Cumbria.DSC01370 (Custom)


MarySmith’sPlace – Walking (a bit of) Ayrshire’s Coastal Path

Maidens to Dunure

My friend and I met at Dunure, a small village in Ayrshire, where she left her car and I drove us to Maidens, another small village in Ayrshire, from where we would walk along the coastal path to Dunure.

It was raining. The first stage of the walk was across the beach, deserted apart from a woman walking her dog. The rain became a bit heavier. The last time we did a stretch of the Ayrshire Coastal Path we walked from Ayr to Dunure and it rained non-stop then, too.

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A dreich scene

We headed up from the beach into the grounds of Culzean Castle and Country Park. The huge cliff-top castle is cared for by the National Trust for Scotland.

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Culzean Castle

In 1569, the 4th Earl of Cassilis, who lived at Dunure Castle, gave Culzean Castle to his brother Sir Thomas Kennedy who expanded the tower house. It was not until his descendent, David Kennedy, inherited Culzean in 1775 that major transformation was begun. He commissioned architect Robert Adam but both men died before the work was completed. David Kennedy died with debts of £60,000 (£4m today), mostly from the costs of rebuilding Culzean. However, he ensured the castle (and his title) passed to a distant cousin, Captain Archibald Kennedy, a wealthy naval captain from New York who had the means to finish the work.

It was his grandson, the 3rd Marquess of Ailsa, who completed the final development of Culzean Castle, providing modern accommodation for his family by building the three storey west wing. In 1945 the widow of the 4th Marquess handed the castle and grounds over to the National Trust for Scotland, keeping the right to use the west wing for the remainder of her life. She also insisted the top floor of the castle was converted into a flat for General Eisenhower as a gesture of gratitude from Scotland, for his part in securing victory during World War II. Apparently, you can hire the flat for your wedding.

We tramped along in the rain, passing the Swan Pond and a line-up of small cannons pointing out to sea, round the back of the castle and down a path to the Gas House. As the name suggests, it provided gas (coal gas) to the castle from the mid- 19th century.

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The gas house. And raindrops on my lens.

Back on the beach we looked back up at the castle on its clifftop. The views from there must be stunning but both Ailsa Craig and Arran were well hidden from us. DSC01293 (Custom)

At least we had the wind at our backs and not driving the rain into our faces.  walked on, sometimes over firm sand, sometimes rocky outcrops, sometimes over seaweed slimy rocks until we reached Croyburnfoot Holiday Park. A burn ran across our path and the bridge was gone. We wandered through the caravan park hoping we’d find a route back down on the other side of the burn. Finally, we climbed over a barbed wire fence and back down onto the shore.

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Rachel on the rocks – and more raindrops on my lens!

Then we had a nasty bit over a rocky outcrop which was lethally slippery. I decided to climb up and over through bracken and brambles; only realised the next day how much the brambles ripped my jacket.

The next bit was uphill off the shore. The walk guide I read (but left in the car) said we passed a Protected Ancient Monument called Katie Gray’s Rocks. If we did, we missed it as we ploughed on through the rain over farmland, though some woodland and finally onto a path leading to Dunure Castle. The rain began to ease and we were granted glimpses of Arran beginning to show through the clouds.

Dunure Castle was once the main fortress of the Kennedy family although it has been a ruin for at least three hundred years. One member of the family married  a daughter of King Robert III and another went on to become Bishop of St Andrews. Mary Queen of Scots stayed here for three days in August 1563 as the guest of Gilbert Kennedy, the 4th Earl of Cassilis.

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Dunure Castle has a long, often brutal, history.

On reaching Dunure village we discovered the pub where we had intended eating had shut down. Luckily, the café was open. The macaroni cheese was excellent.

I am determined to do this walk one day when the sun is shining. It must happen. I’ve seen photos.

MarySmith’sPlace -Remembering Silvana

Artist Silvana McLean sadly passed away last year and The Whitehouse Gallery in Kirkcudbright, south west Scotland is paying tribute to this wonderful artist with a solo exhibition of her work.

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credit Euan Adamson

As well as a large collection of Silvana’s prints and original paintings, there will also be items on loan from her family, such as a much treasured painting called ‘The Lighthouse’, which was part of Silvana’s school work, submitted in her application to Art School.

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Fold (This is my favourite painting. I could lose myself in it forever)


Something very special to me will also be on display – a portfolio of Silvana’s prints accompanied by five of my poems. This was the result of an arts project on which Silvana and I collaborated.

In 2007 when we were commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage to work on a project called ‘Voices of Glentrool & Merrick’ Silvana and I had never met, but there was an immediate rapport which led to a lasting friendship. The project was designed to reconnect people to the landscape around Glentrool, including the village purpose built to house forestry workers.

The completed work, which was based on stories and memories from the people interviewed, was the portfolio of Silvana’s etchings and my poems. A small pamphlet of the images and poems was also printed. The portfolios were placed in a number of public venues including visitor centres in Galloway, Newton Stewart Library, Ewart Library in Dumfries and the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh and National Library of Scotland. Silvana also presented everyone who had taken part in the interviews with one of the limited edition prints at a launch event in June 2008.

When we began the project we each went off to do our research, explore the landscape and, in my case, interview people who lived or had worked in the area. As well as emailing updates to each other we met meet regularly to exchange information and ideas. I vividly remember the first time we met in the Glentrool Visitor Centre, to report back on our initial findings. We were both fizzing with excitement – and we fizzed very happily over huge and delicious scones. ‘Ruthy’s’ scones we discovered were extremely conducive to creative collaboration and to cementing friendship.

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Loch Trool, Dumfries & Galloway. Who couldn’t find inspiration here?

Silvana went to view the Silver Flowe, an area of bog land, which gets its name because from high on the hills above, the pools of water look like silver.

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On the Silver Flowe (credit Silvana McLean)

When I met her afterwards, she was bouncing with excitement and ideas. Of course, she hadn’t just wanted to see it from above but to experience it herself. Luckily, she had a guide from the Forestry Commission because this unique bog is a treacherous place for the unwary.

Silvana had always been fascinated by the remoter islands and seaboards of Scotland and Ireland and her work reflects the stark beauty of these coastlines. The Glentrool project provided the impetus to head even further north to Iceland. A few years after we’d worked together I interviewed Silvana for a magazine feature in which she explained:  “The research into the geology and glacier activity which formed the hills was a vital stepping stone. People who lived on that land were shaped by the forces that shaped the landscape. I was fascinated by how glaciation created the landscape and I thought – Iceland – that’s got glaciers – let’s go and see. I think you should always follow your instinct.”

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After her first visit, Silvana was in thrall to Iceland’s landscape and she returned several times, including for a five-week residency in the winter with snow all around her. Not that the cold would worry Silvana. Despite her Mediterranean background (her mother was born in Rome) she always felt more of a connection to cooler climes.

Our friendship continued after the project. A catch up for coffee could segue seamlessly into lunch because we had so much to talk about. We both had cats. We both had fathers with dementia. In fact, Silvana was sure one her cats had dementia, too. We still talked about geology and glaciers and tectonic plates. One day, I hope I will go to Iceland and see for myself the landscape, which so enthralled Silvana, with its volcanoes and glaciers re-forming and shifting.

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Fractured Landscape

The Whitehouse Gallery exhibition opens on Saturday 2nd February at 11am and runs until 23rd.  Four local makers who Silvana greatly respected have been invited to take part in this exhibition, each taking inspiration from Silvana and her work. These include Amanda Simmons (glass), Lizzie Farey (willow sculpture), Ruth Elizabeth Jones (ceramics) and Hannah McAndrew (ceramics).

If you are anywhere near Dumfries & Galloway do go and see it. If you can’t visit the area you can see some of Silvana’s work on the website gallery along with work by the four other makers.

Silvana’s own website remains as a testament to her many talents and achievements.

The world lost a remarkable artist and a truly beautiful person when Silvana McLean passed away in 2018. And I lost a wonderful friend.

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Silvana McLean RSW 1953-2018