Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Arran and the appeal of legends

We had a great trip to the Isle of Arran last week. Off South West Scotland and on the way to Ireland, it has open sea to the south and two branches of what is in effect inland sea on either side, bounded by Kintyre to the West and the coast of Ayrshire to the East. An enclosed sea has a special air of its own which is strangely attractive.

Of course, Arran’s in Scotland so visitors have to play roulette when it comes to the weather. From the ferry port, my wife Danielle announced that it was clearly raining on the island. ‘Nonsense,’ I replied, ‘what we can see is just haze.’ I maintain that to this day though I have to confess that once we reached the island, the haze just got thicker and thicker and we got wetter and wetter.

The next day was fine, however, or at any rate dry. We set out for a pleasant ramble to the King’s Cave. This is a place rich in legend. It’s said that Robert the Bruce, when his long fight to be King of Scotland was pretty much at its lowest ebb, took refuge there for a while, waiting for the beacon to be lit in Ayrshire to herald the reopening of his next campaign. It was here, they say (whoever ‘they’ are), that he watched a spider struggling up a thread, only to fall back down repeatedly and start again each time. From that sight, he drew the heartening lesson ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.’

This is one of those enchanting tales to come down to us from history. We have so many, even in Britain alone. Poor King Harold, quintessentially English, killed by an arrow to the eye by those dastardly Normans at Hastings. The dashing Francis Drake, as the Spanish Armada emerged into the Channel and came bearing down towards the very spot where he was enjoying a bowls competition on Plymouth Hoe, refusing to stop and declaring ‘we have time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards too.’

These stories all have so much in common. They’re uplifting, heart-warming and taught to every school child in the hope of making history a little more palatable. They are also all based on absolutely no evidence that anything like the events they describe ever actually happened. Did Robert I (yes, he did eventually succeed in becoming King) really have that inspiring meditation on spiders? No one knows. He certainly didn’t sit in that cave and wait for a beacon on the Ayrshire coast: it doesn’t face Ayrshire but Kintyre.

But who cares? It’s no part of the essential characteristic of legend that it has to be literally true. It just has to be appealing – ‘se non è vero, è ben trovato’ as the Italians say, if it isn’t true, it’s well invented.

We were treading soil imbued with legend, we were breathing the stuff of legend. What more did we need?

Especially as it was such a beautiful place.

The view from the mouth of the King’s Cave on Arran. And that’s Kintyre in the background, not Ayrshire.

No comments: