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Desperate to spot a hairy coo, Charles and I are up early this morning and, after the usual Full Scottish Breakfast (with some lovely blood sausages), we head out from our little B&B, The Glenartney, in Brodick, to cruise the emerald green pastures along the west coast of Arran where, Charles assures me, we will most definitely spot a hairy coo, an animal I’m starting to suspect might be as mythical as the unicorn.

Holy Island is owned by Buddhist monks from Samye Ling.

Holy Island is owned by Buddhist monks from Samye Ling.

We hike through a damp field that faces Holy Island, a tiny isle that has been a Buddhist retreat since 1995, and end up near caves where, Charles says, Robert the Bruce hid out for three months after being defeated by the bloody English. The story goes that Robert the Bruce was so depressed over his thrashing by the Brits that he considered leaving Scotland and never coming back. But while hanging out in the damp cave, he took to watching a spider build a web across the cave’s entrance. The spider was knocked down from time to time but always went back to working on his web. Which convinced Robert the Bruce to not give up and in 1314, he defeated the British in the Battle of Bannockburn even though his men were outnumbered ten to one.

Nice story and I greatly appreciate Charles telling it to me, but where the hell are the hairy coos?

Later in the morning Charles stops the car suddenly next to a large open field that slopes gently down to the sea. Charles is absolutely certain he’s spotted a hairy coo. So we tramp through the grass, soaking our pants up to our knees, only to find a couple of regular old dairy cows. Charles takes it all in stride.

Pladda lighthouse and Ailsa Craig. Photos by David Lansing.

Pladda lighthouse and Ailsa Craig. But no hairy coos. Photos by David Lansing.

“Glorious morning,” he chirps. Then, as if we weren’t looking for hairy coos at all but only a good view of the sea, he proceeds to go on and on about the two small isles directly in front of us. The first, a very small pear-shaped isle, with a lighthouse on the far end, is Pladda. Beyond that is Ailsa Craig, a thousand-foot tall plug of granite from an extinct volcano that was probably last active some 500 million years ago (or, as fundamentalist Christians prefer to think of it, around 1900).

“Curling,” Charles says mysteriously.

“Curling?” I repeat.

Charles nods in the direction of the island. “It’s where they quarry the granite to make curling stones.” Then, after a pause: “Quite something.”

Indeed. But where are the hairy coos?

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The best fish & chips in Scotland

Spent all morning driving around the coast of Arran looking for hairy coos but didn’t spot a single one. To console me, Charles took me to a fish & chips shop where, for a quid, I got a Mars bar battered and deep fried (in the same oil used for the fish & chips).

I’ve long heard about deep-fried Mars bars but, having never actually come across one, considered them an urban myth. Not so. They have them here in Arran. Charles tells me the first chippies to fry up Mars bars were in the little fishing villages around Aberdeen where, strangely enough, people rarely eat fish and where, he says, the preference is for deep-fried pizza.

I can’t even imagine that.

But that got us to talking about where you’re likely to find the best fish & chips in Scotland. A lot of folks like the Anstruther Fish Bar, just a few minutes from St. Andrews, and, in fact, this year they won the award for “Best Fish & Chip Shop in the U.K.” That’s got to stick in the craw of some chippies from London.

The Anstruther shop is run by a family of fishermen that can trace their work in the Scottish fishing industry “as far back as the late 1600s,” they say, and prides itself on using the best and freshest ingredients available. That’s the good news. That bad news is that it often takes as long as an hour to get a table (and almost as long for carry-out). And they charge 20p for a little packet of Heinz ketchup to go with your chips. Now that just doesn’t seem right.

George St. Fish & Chips in Oban.

George St. Fish & Chips in Oban.

Being a bit of an aficionado when it comes to fish & chips, I’ve tried several places on this trip. I liked the George Street Fish & Chips Shop in Oban (lovely fried mushy peas) and my first driver, Michael, and I stopped at the Real Food Café in Tyndrum, along Loch Lomond, where not only were the fish & chips fabulous but so were their venison sausages with juniper berries.

But my favorite has to be the fish & chip van on the fisherman’s pier in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. It’s run by a couple of women, Jeanette and Jane, and is as funky as it sounds with outside seating on lobster traps to go along with a sign noting that they’ve won the prestigious “Les Routiers” award. Yes, they do the usual fish & chips (and they’re quite good), but the thing to get are their fresh king scallops which simply melt in your mouth. Only problem is this fish & chips food wagon is only open April to October. I guess in winter, with the cold rain coming down, nobody wants to plop down on lobster pots on the pier to eat their lunch. Except for the seagulls.

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I’ve decided we need to go to the Isle of Arran, separated from Islay and Jura by the Kintyre Penninsula, part of the mainland. I want to go there because Charles says it’s the best place to see hairy coos. Officially called Highland cattle, hairy coos have shaggy reddish-brown hair and dopey eyes, mostly hidden behind their bangs, and look like they ought to be characters in a Muppets movie.

All this I’ve gleaned from looking at countless postcards of hairy coos wherever we’ve been. Everyday Charles has said, “Dunno’ worry, we’ll find you a hairy coo today.” But I’ve yet to see one on anything other than a postcard. So yesterday we headed for Arran.

Once off the ferry at Lochranza, we drove a GWR along the western coast, watching gannets divebomb for their Sunday brunch in Catacol Bay, before stopping at a cheese shop near Lamlash.

Photos by David Lansing.

Photos by David Lansing.

We are the only ones in the shop, except for the clerk, an elderly librarian-type who, from the way she follows me around, seems to think I’m here to make off with as much Hebridean herb cheddar cheese as possible.

There’s a mustard cheese and a garlic cheese and a claret-flavored cheese, called Balmoral, all wrapped in a green or red or black waxy coating, but best of all there’s a whisky cheese called Islander.


The cheeses are so colorful all stacked up in an open cooler that I decide to take a photo, but when I pull out my camera, the little lady running the shop says, rather snappily, “Here now, what do you think you’re doing?”

I tell her I’m taking a picture…of the cheeses…with, you know, a camera.

She looks at me in disgust.

“Is there a problem?” I ask her.

“I would ‘av thought you’d ask first,” she sniffs, arms crossed over her heaving chest.

“To photograph cheese?”


In the car, Charles smiles and tells me to take no notice of the old gal. “She’s just an old nippy sweetie,” he says. “Scotland is full of them. They’re the ones who don’t like whisky.”


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Curry chips and a bottle of ale

It’s a two-part process getting from Jura to our inn, the West Loch Hotel near Kennacraig. First, we must take the short ferry ride back to Port Ellen on Islay. I notice that as Charles drives off the boat, there is a single sign post with two words on it: ARDBEG, with an arrow pointing right, and BOWMORE, with an arrow pointing left. Islay, then, is a place where directions are defined by which whisky distillery you’re headed towards.

CalMac ferry to Islay with Paps of Jura in the background.

CalMac ferry to Islay with Paps of Jura in the background. Photo by David May.

We then have to wait 30 or 40 minutes in Port Ellen for the Isle of Arran to take us to Kennacraig. I’m feeling a bit washed out for some reason when we arrive back in Port Ellen. Something about the solitude on Jura and my time sitting in a dark, dank farm house drinking tea and listening to the stories of Mike Richardson—thinking of Orwell and the Future Stone and the island faeries has left me feeling reflective.

I’m thinking it might be nice to find a pub near the harbor and Charles tells me there’s one nearby that has several walls covered with excellent murals of island scenes depicting the local people. He says it was painted by an Irish artist, each character being placed in the composition in return for a dram—or two—of whisky.

“They say the chap died of drink shortly after finishing the mural,” Charles says.

Great. If that’s Charles way of suggesting we just sit in the car waiting for the ferry, he’s successful.

The wind has come up and there’s an icy chill in the air as we lumber on to the Isle of Arran, part of the famed Caledonian MacBrayne ferry line—what everyone around here just calls “CalMac.” Without CalMac, it would be almost impossible to get around the west coast of Scotland.

At first I’m thinking maybe I’ll just grab a pint and find a snug corner to read my book, but Charles talks me into getting a bite to eat with him. We both order the curry and chips with tomato sauce. As Charles says, “It the awful sort of curry we used to get in school, with a most unnatural yellow color.”

Just perfect with soggy chips and a bottle of Islay Ale. Afterwards, I do find a quiet corner on the boat where I quickly fall asleep. When I awake, an hour or so later, we are in Kennacraig. It’s a short drive to the West Loch Hotel, a sort of cozy farmhouse, where I find a most inviting fire crackling in the bar and men wearing fishing clothes sitting around quietly enjoying a whisky. I order a drink and stare at the fire. After awhile Charles comes downstairs and suggests we have dinner in the restaurant. I tell him I think I’ll pass.

The bar at the West Loch Hotel near Kennacraig.

The bar at the West Loch Hotel near Kennacraig.

“Are you feeling alright?” he asks.

“Yes, fine,” I tell him. “Just a bit tired is all.”

He heads off for the little restaurant overlooking the loch. I finish my whisky, order another one, and think about the Irish artist and his wall mural. I’m wishing now, for some reason, that we’d gone to see it.

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The storyteller of Jura

On an island where myths abound and the wee people are still thought to be responsible for life’s mishaps and mislaid possessions, I’m not too surprised when our Jura guide, Mike Richardson, a sprightly septuagenarian, tells me as we walk through thick green fields to his croft house about a mile north of Orwell’s Barnhill, that the island is full of fairies.

“I’ve had plenty of dealings with them,” he tells me, and then recounts the time he lost a farm tool and found it, a year and a day later, lying on the very road we’re walking on, just as an islander had predicted.

And then there’s the Future Stone, a huge piece of guartzite on the way to Corryvreckan, that was probably placed in the field we’re crossing some 5,000 years ago. Look at it from a low point towards a cleft in the western hills, Richardson tells me, and it marks the winter solstice.

“But more importantly, they say it could reveal the future.”

Richardson says he doesn’t know about that, but when he was having back troubles recently, he rolled his back on the crystals and “I was as good as new.”



Eventually we make it to an old croft at Kinuachdrachd—truly the end of the road—where Richardson and his wife, Joan, have lived for over 30 years along with a menagerie that includes a herd of goats, two geese, a one-eyed collie, a 40-year-old donkey, and an old ship’s parrot, called Charlie, that’s at least 85 and was given to his mother, he tells me, “by a young sailor heading off to The Great War.”

Over a cup of tea, Richardson points out features of the 250-year-old house, including it’s three-foot-thick stone walls, and the clever way he’s rigged water to flow to the kitchen from an outside well and electricity from a generator.

“When we moved into the house, it hadn’t been lived in for 25 years,” he says. “It was a sad, old house and we had to redo everything.”

While offering us another cup of tea, he tells us stories of the island: of being a stuntman in a BBC movie about Orwell, of his days as a fisherman on the island, and of the great difficulty in raising his three children here. It’s not until Charles clears his throat and purposefully looks at his watch that I realize several hours have gone by and if we don’t hurry, we’ll miss the last ferry off the island. Though Jura is only 30 miles long top to bottom, it will take us a good two hours to get back to Feolin to catch the ferry.

As it turns out, there’s an afternoon wedding going on at the little stone church in Craighouse and we get stuck in the wedding traffic (at least four cars) on our way back. We’re the last ones on the boat.

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