When young, I spent most of my holidays on the west coast of Scotland — in a place only thirty or so miles from where I stayed. Those of us who stayed in and around Glasgow were lucky to be within an hour or less of the little villages and towns on the coast of the Clyde estuary. A century previously intrepid adventurers had ‘discovered’ this playground on their doorstep. These were the West of Scotland merchants, men who had accumulated enormous fortunes from coal and iron, shipbuilding and trading, thread manufacture and heavy engineering.
Vastly increased wealth saw them buy large new homes on the outskirts of the city, and fill these with furniture and furnishings from the new emporiums that had opened to cater for their needs. Works of art were purchased too, and new galleries sprang up to entice them to purchase. Servants were employed to ensure the lady of the house had sufficient time to indulge in shopping, instructing her dressmaker, meeting friends, arranging dinner parties, and participation in charitable societies to help the less fortunate.
Along with all this, new rail links meant any merchant worth his salt should own an out of town property by the coast, somewhere away from the smell, smoke and pollution of the city, where family holidays could be enjoyed and the man of the house could indulge in a spot of sailing. The Clyde estuary was an ideal place for yacht sailing and attracted sailors from local areas as well as from the south of England and countries like Germany and Russia. Royalty came with their entourages, and many had their vessels built in one of the renowned yacht building yards on the Clyde coast.
Wealthy families decamped to the coast for the summer months, taking servants, clothes, carriages and horses, and everything else they might conceivably need. The man of the house would travel by boat, or boat and train, to the city early on a Monday morning and return late on a Friday afternoon to spend the weekend with his family and on the water — competing with others — or in the yacht club — socialising after a race or series of races. So it wasn’t surprising that others followed in the trendsetters’ footsteps, whether for a day out, or a few days spent in a boarding house during the annual holidays.
In the 1960s cheap air travel moved holidays from the Clyde coast to more exotic destinations abroad. Nevertheless, I still remember with a feeling of nostalgia the holidays spent by the coast, possibly because the world, in these towns and villages, was an enjoyable and safe place. In the days when the doctor’s car was the only car on the island, I would be left on the beach to play while my parents shopped. When older, I spent my days playing with friends on rocks, imagining they were whatever we wanted them to be. After the death of my grandparents our room and kitchen accommodation for holidays was no more, so my parents lashed out and bought their own ground floor room and kitchen, with toilet in the close (so not quite outside), in a building by the shore.
Instead of the jet set, my friends and I joined the ‘jetty’ set and sat on upturned pails shelling cockles for use as bait by fishing parties, and leant how to row, mooring boats in the bay in the evening and bringing them in to the jetty in the morning for bailing out and hiring out. That fact that males of the species hung out there too was no doubt part of the attraction, though we all tended to pong from the cockles which became quite ripe after a few days, the smell ingrained in hands and clothes.
Sometimes we would take off and cycle the twelve miles round the island, stopping when three quarters of the way round at a ‘tearoom’ (corrugated shack) by a sandy beach for an ice cream. My bike was my pride and joy, a blue and black effort cobbled together for me by an uncle from bits of other bikes. Mobility, the ability to zoom from home to jetty, was what mattered, not the appearance or the logo emblazoned (or not emblazoned, as was the case) on it.
Given such a childhood, it’s hardly surprising I feel an affinity with the coast, the sea, sand, shingle, shells and seaweed. My first novel, In the Wake of the Coup, has a chapter in which my main characters, McTavish and Ludmilla, visit the island of Barra, in the Hebrides. Many years ago my husband and I spent a holiday there. The long June days, the empty beach, the scheduled flights from Glasgow that land on the sand, the boat that called twice a week, the vast expanse of sea between the island’s west coast and America, the weather-washed and ocean-washed air, and the stories of locals, made it a memorable visit.
But back to the beach and seaweed. Last weekend we had another afternoon with the cameras to photograph shingle, sand and seaweed. Why? Because my next book, The Seaweed Cage, is at pre-publication stage, and thinking ahead I wanted more photos for the version for iBooks. Paperback and ebook require only a photo for a cover. But the version for iBooks lets me go to town with photos, not of the west coast of my childhood, but of the east. No matter, there is still an abundance of all the treasures that make a wander along a beach so fascinating.
The Bass Rock off the East Lothian coast of Scotland. In the 17th century the government rebuilt an old fortress in which to imprison Covenanters and then Jacobites. Today, apart from the lighthouse, the rock is home to 80,000 gannets, and is said to be the largest single-rock gannetry in the world. The birds can be studied by remote controlled cameras from the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick.