22nd February 2018
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Mulling over the fine texture of basalt

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BASALT sand is wonderful stuff. Black, fine, rounded grains as even as over-toasted coarse oatmeal.

In the isle of Mull there are whole beaches of it. There are larger basalt chunks too and a host of small rounded ones filled with white spots, a bit like the ones found at Eshaness.

A late autumn holiday has lured me away from Shetland for a few weeks to very different scenery. The skyline of the Ardmenach peninsula climbs in giant steps to the flat-topped summit, over ancient slabs of frozen lava flows. Each eroded lava face is a sheer, cracked glory of ferns and sparkling waterfalls.

Find a route up the face to the next level and the ground reaches away across deep bracken and a sea of heather. In summer rare butterflies skim this aerial wilderness; silver washed fritillaries, skippers, Scotch argus, pale, frail blue and little chunky orange and brown ones too quick and dithery to be sure of.

At the western limit, wild goats graze and scramble, gigantic horns sweeping the sky as they clamber up the ridges. Peer cautiously over the rim of new high ground and if the wind is in your face, the gazing herd will continue mooching and munch­ing without noticing you.

Youngsters frolic, matrons muse and the great grand daddy chieftain goat stands magnificent against the sky, staring seawards. Iona lies in a straggle of granite and marble away to the south west and other Hebri­dean islands interrupt the sea line with more flat blocks of inhabited and uninhabited rock.

This hidden, little visited world was once busy with cattle and islanders, living for the summer months in the shielings; curious stone built dwellings somewhat reminiscent of our Neolithic houses, as all that now remains is an overgrown scatter of circular foundations.

Now and again, in a crevice between boulders you might find the broken spout of an old kettle or a shard of blue patterned china. You can sit here and imagine the smoke trails on a mild evening, the tea and porridge in the morning, the milking and butter making, the shouts and the songs.

Now only the goats move across the overgrown upper pastures, while buzzards, occasionally a golden eagle and even a sea eagle swing past overhead, eyes raking the ground for small prey.

Just two miles east and a little to the south, down a few ledges towards Loch Scridain, the old farmhouse of Burg stands beside a foaming burn. Well sheltered from northern gales, Burg was home to generations of MacGillivrays.

The last of the family to live and work here, Chrissie MacGillivray, used to tell me tales of life in the shielings. A native Gaelic, speaker she would spend hours on the phone, when her chores were done, catching up on island news in Gaelic. To my then teenage ears, the soft flow of this wonderful, impenetrable langu­age was magical and I would struggle to master phrases and the odd whole sentence to impress Chrissie with later.

When I first visited Mull, part of a school trip in 1965, Chrissie’s brother Duncan was here too. The cattle, the sheep, the hay making, the vegetable garden, the fruit bushes were all fit and demanding.

Occasional breaks in routine came with the Bunessan Show, a film night in Commander Hudson’s marvellous little cinema at Tiroran, or a sudden rush to the small boat for a fishing trip.

Duncan would stare down across the loch at intervals during the day, his eye keen for the tell tale signs of fish, shoaling near the surface. When the time came, he was out of the door and away in no time.

Later on in the evening, the savoury tang of frying mackerel on the range filled the kitchen and tea that night would be full of unusual silences, as the mouth watering meal sank deeper into appreciative bellies.

This year, mist blanketed the Ardmenach and the white chip of Burg, as seen from the far side of the loch, wasn’t even visible. Rain streaked our brief three day return.

But even if we had found fine weather, the walk out to Burg is a fading memory, as Chrissie is no longer with us and relatives now stay in the old farmhouse, creating a different chapter of history and our link has grown slender with time.

We are becoming more familiar now with a different Mull scene, the farm at the Head of the Loch, Airds, where Chrissie’s nephew Neil still lives. Kenny, one of his three sons, now farms the croft, with Neil at 92 keeping an eye on it all. But back to the basalt sand.

If you gather a jar full, you can store it until you come across some stark, white shell sand and then the fun begins. Armed with two jars of contrasting sands, gather a few more empty jars and remove their labels. Give them a hot wash, a thorough dry and a good polish.

Now shake some basalt sand into the first one until a distinct layer of black is visible on the bottom. Give it a gentle tap to settle the sand, then pour in a similar quantity of white shell sand. Build up alternating layers until the whole jar is stripy right up to the very top, if not a bit more. Now screw the lid down really tightly to keep the layers secure and under pressure.

The best sand pattern glass containers are probably those with unusual, or particularly graceful shapes. Long, narrow jars are great; so are small, quaint ones like certain marmalade or honey kinds.

For that matter, serene, symmet­rical bottles can be equally suitable; Christmas or birthday gifts, simple, interesting ornaments, these sand pattern catchers are great fun to make and bring back many a happy memory as the winter steals across the retreating autumn scene.

Jill Slee Blackadder

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