Distance: Approx 3 miles.
Difficulty: Medium (There are area of boggy and uneven ground) Unsuitable for people with mobility issues).
Time: 2 hours.
Start Point: Car Park at Southern end of Ettrick Bay.
It’s the beginning of July and the sky is overcast although the day is warm and muggy. Having already been here in the Winter and experienced the joy of bog trotting, I opt for the wellies although I am in hopes that things may be a little drier at this time of year. After locking the car and crossing the long grass at the head of the bay, I cross directly onto the beach and turning left make tracks in the direction of a headland which the OS map has given the curious name of Island McNeil. As the tide is out, it is possible to make a bee-line across the sand and shingle, however, at high water it may be easier to walk a couple of hundred meters along the road to the bird hide and join the beach at that point. Once past the bird hide, walk on for another couple of hundred metres, but not as far as the headland, and on your left you will come a gate. Go through this gate and follow the rough track which sweeps left hugging the coast line.
On this walk I intend to talk about a class of people that defy the modern mind’s tendency to caterogrise in terms of their national identity and one individual in particular whose Bohemian ways has led some to conclude that she was mad. Unlike the Lowland travellers who are first recorded in Scotland during the reign of James IV in the 16th Century, their Highland counterparts are thought not to be ethnically Romani, but are more related to the Celtic or Gaelic population of the Highlands and Ireland. It was whilst researching the Tinkers’ Heart – a Traveller wedding site and meeting point at the junction of the A815 and B839 on the eastern shore of Loch Fyne at which the outline of a heart has been outlined with quartz stones inset into the tar-mac of the old Dunoon-Cairdhu Rd. http://canmore.org.uk/site/320140/tinkers-heart – that I first became aware of these people. Until very recently, this nomadic community made an annual journey from Ireland via Campletown to Cowal, Bute and anywhere else in Argyll where they could obtain work tattie howkin or potato harvesting.
Once through the gate you are confronted with a riot of colour as wild flowers peep through the long grass. Over to the left, banks of yellow Iris betray the location of bog land and ahead to the right, across the blue water, the dramatic visage of Arran with her rugged and mountainous landscape dominates the horizon. As you make your way along this raised beach you’ll notice a cliff-line ahead to your left. This is the old coast-line where the seas once reached previous to the last ice age around 10,000 years ago. Once the ice melted, the land literally ‘raised’ up released from the weight of ice and creating this wonderful wild flower meadow. Walk on for ten minutes or so and you’ll come to an old drystane dyke. It does get a little boggy at this point, so the welly-less should take care in maintaining dry feet. Once through the gap in the wall, you are at a little confluence of rocky outcrop which is carpeted with grass and is a more than suitable place to rest and enjoy your surroundings.
It was around here that many the Ceàrdannan or Highland Travellers camped. I use this term cautiously as these folk were referred to by the settled community as ‘Irish’ and, no doubt, referred to themselves as such. This takes us back to a deeper level of concern and raises an interesting question: At what point did Highlanders stop identifying with their Hiberno-Celtic roots? It is commonly believed that the original Scots under the leadership of Fergus MacErc shifted their capital from somewhere in Antrim to Dunadd in Central Argyll in the late 6th or early 7th Century (there is a school of thought, given the close proximity of the Irish coast, that there may have been Irish speaking communities on the fringes of Argyll for much longer). Perhaps the publication of Ossian – an 18th C. falsification of ancient Gaelic poetry pilfering stories from Irish mythology and placing them in Scotland – and the influence of the Romantic movement along with its notions concerning the ‘noble savage’ that convinced Scottish Gaels that Ireland didn’t have much to do with them. Whatever the case, what we have here is a population of Gaels who flitted across the Irish Sea at will, but who still, nonetheless, considered themselves as Irish even though they spent a substantial part of the year in Scotland. Maybe these people displayed a last vestige of an older ideology which was replaced by a new Romantic fiction which placed Scotland at the centre of the Gaelic world?
From here, as I gaze out over the water, Tighnabruich at the southern extremity of the Cowal Peninsula can be spotted nestled between hill and sea. A deep rumble announces the passing of the paddle steamer SS Waverley long before she can be espied and the song of the sky lark fills the air. Time is getting on and it’s time I got on the move again.
At this point, there is a very faint track branching off to the left skirting along the edge of the old cliff-line. I head this way fighting my way through bracken and nettles as I go. Straight ahead, there is a protruding buttress of the cliff face, This is Castle Cree, where Late Bronze or early Iron age farmers one built a fortification for protection in times of inter-tribe hostility, however, I don’t want to travel that far. Maybe 150 metres or so before you arrive at Castle Cree there is a small area of exposed cliff which is very easy to walk by and is hidden behind thickets of bracken. Just beyond here there is another and more prominent cliff-face, but this is the wrong one. It is this first outcrop we’re after and it is here that you will find Jinty’s Cave.
I first came across the story of Jinty in McDowall’s excellent book Bute which is a cornucopia jam-packed with a thousand and one facts and anecdotes concerning the history of the island. Jinty was born in Rothesay in 1846. Her father was a local labourer called John Muldoon and her mother was from Carradale on in Kintyre. From an early age Jinty worked in the sweatshops of Rothesay’s cotton mills so the opportunity to join in on the tattie-howkin would have seemed like an attractive opportunity. It is at this point that fact and myth appear to intertwine in the most adventurous of ways.
Before I make my case, there are a couple of facts to consider. Firstly, Jinty’s mother was from a thoroughly Gaelic speaking area and, given that the Highland Clearances were in full swing at the time of Jinty’s birth, we can imagine that the sound of the Gaelic language would have been very commonly heard over the looms and shuttles of Rothesay’s mills. In other words, she could easily converse with these exotic strangers. Therefore, when McDowall states that she was merely a ‘spiritual descedant of the Irish Travellers’ and not a traveller herself, he is failing to take cognisance of these crucial facts. If Jinty did run off with the Gypsies, she may well have viewed it as running away from the dull drudgery of industrialised society, but she may also saw it as returning to a way of life she considered to be her inheritance. By her thirties she seems to have abandoned any possible wandering habits as she has a child – reportedly out of wedlock by a local man – and is living down here in this cave, but contrary to McDowall, I can see no reason for supposing her to be some kind of tortured recluse.
There are a couple of things to consider here. For part of the year this strip of land would have been festooned with bow tents. If Jinty was the type of person to shun human contact, would she not have chosen a more private place? Certainly, post-Clearances, we would not expect to find multiple families living on the farm of Upper Ardrosscadale or Baile Uachdrach, nevertheless, there was a farmer in residence and he was happy to tolerate an unmarried single mother in permanent residence on his farm. I can only imagine the farmer in question found Jinty’s presence to be useful. Maybe she did odd-jobs for him right through the year including at times when there were no potatoes to harvest, however, perhaps the biggest piece of evidence re-butting the disturbed Jinty hypothesis is the presence of a time piece as a visitor to her abode in 1902 reported.
And then again in 1914…
This time the clock is ‘bravely’ ticking away. This sounds like a lady with things to do. Why on Earth would she have need of knowing the time if this were not the case? Why have McDowall and others been only to eager to label her a deviant? Is it because she chose a way of life contrary to establishment mores and values? Now, I’m not saying that anyone has went out their way to slander her, but when confronted with an individual whose actions appear contrary to what you would expect of a ‘normal’ person, it is easy to ascribe them to the actions of someone insane. I prefer to remember Jinty as someone who has simply adopted an alternative lifestyle. Far from leading a miserable life, I suspect she had an adventurous and exciting one and I also suspect that she had a real great time with those Irish Travelers.
The sky to the West is appearing darker and darker. I suspect a storm is on it’s way and with this mugginess I think it could be a wild one. Loath as I am to leave this idyllic spot where Jinty spent many happy hours meditating on life, much as I am doing right now, I had better be making tracks back to the refuge of the car. I’m sure this hole in the rock was snug and warm when Jinty was in residence, but if I stay here much longer I’ll get soaked. So, I turn and head whence I came with thoughts of Ireland, travellers and a way of life that is no more. It is interesting how when people finally manage to destroy something, they then start reminiscing and Romanticising about it, don’t you think? Now all I can do is peer back into the mists of the past and meditate upon this remarkable woman and a life well lived.