We had imagined our trip to Scotland to be one of movement. Of travelling along lonely roads between the glens. Of walking trails along the loch shore or up into the hills. Of trains across the moor and ferries to the islands. And although all of those things remained on the agenda, the strongest memory we came away with from our time on the banks of Loch Fyne was that of being stationary. Of spending time in the garden or the conservatory. Stilled. Waiting. Watching.
This was the Rubha nam Frangach or the French Farland, a few miles south of Inverary on the western shore of the loch. It was a place named for a different time, when Loch Fyne was at the centre of a herring fishing industry that saw over 500 boats a day operating on the water and what was pulled from beneath the surface was sold far and wide.
Although there was little trace of it other than the name of the promontory where our cottage stood, we were occupying the same place where once a small settlement of traders bought, cured and packed herrings from the local boat. These would be shipped to France, where the traders would in turn pick up supplies of silk and laces, brandy and red wine, to be sold to the aristocracy back in Scotland.
It was a good deal, until it wasn’t. A cholera outbreak in 1848, a time of great convulsions across Europe, was blamed on the French traders and the settlement was abandoned, leaving behind little more than a Gaelic place-name to pique the curiosity of the visitors who came more than 160 years later.
Although Loch Fyne still gives its name to a popular chain of seafood restaurants, when we looked out on the loch, any fishing boats we saw were surely ghosts. On a still morning we spotted a kayak, the paddler piercing the glassy stillness of the water. Another day, when the wind picked up, a white sailing boat appeared, tacking down the loch towards the open water, far away in the distance. It wasn’t possible to tell if they made it, although we would see them later, the wind behind them now, racing for home.
But apart from these occasional appearances of people out on the loch, what we were waiting for were the other residents of Loch Fyne. We watched with our naked eyes and through binoculars and telescopes, from behind the conservatory glass and down at the water’s edge. And we scribbled what we saw in notebooks and on scraps of paper, as aids to the memory of all that we saw.
Otters and porpoises, oyster-catchers and cormorants. There were red breasted mergansers, shags and a heron that came and went, spotted most mornings stalking the shallows. The garden attracted long tailed tits and chaffinches, out on the water we spied eider ducks and seals. Buzzards hovered and an osprey dived. Pied wagtails and hooded crows. Bullfinches and even, far away in the distance, circling high over Glen Fyne at the head of the loch, a juvenile golden eagle.
And sometimes there was little to be spotted. When the mist rolled up the loch and it was no longer possible to make out the low hills of the peninsula on the opposite shore. Or when the cloud descended, obscuring everything more than a few metres away while the sky shone blue overhead. But as always in those days by the banks of Loch Fyne, it was simply a matter of letting time pass. At some point the sky would clear or the cloud would lift. The kayaker would appear around the headland and the porpoise would break the surface.
Sometimes you need to keep moving, to search out the moments of beauty and wonder. And sometimes you just need to stay where you are. On the French Forland, it seemed, it was better not to go looking but simply hold your nerve, and wait.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton