The Island Diary Part 7: discovering hidden treasure

Poet Kenneth Steven discovers the small paradise known as An Cala, set against a stunning backdrop of sea and sky. 

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You don’t turn down to Cuan and the road to the Luing ferry, or take the narrow single track which heads to the western edge of Seil. No, you keep on following the winding road that leads up and over the highest point, where the view to any number of jagged fragments of islands really opens up and your breath is taken every time, then down and down to the shore and the last mile to Ellanabeich and the road’s end.

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The entrance to An Cala from Ellenabeich Road

An Cala lies right against the sea. One of the old quarry pits, now flooded like the rest of them, is just beyond, where the odd piping oystercatcher with bright tuxedo and orange beak warns the world you’re coming. It feels like a piece of history when you start up the track to the garden – and it is. The whole place sits snug under the steep hills on this southern edge of Seil: a site that originally comprised a small distillery in a line of cottages.

Six men worked for a year to dynamite the rock and ready it with tons of imported soil – all this back in 1930. The house that looks now as though it was folded in to the side of the hill, is daintily painted bright white and duck egg blue, like something out of a fairy tale. All this the dream of Colonel Arthur Murray, who’d inherited this piece of treasure on the edge of the village of Ellanabeich, and who sought to make of it a little Eden.

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The house is truly a sight to behold 

He did. I remembered my own childhood: my deep love of little ‘rooms’ created in a garden, enclosed and enfolded by lush bushes and tall grasses. We had chosen our day carefully. When the sun poured from the cloud it was warm and still; we watched a pair of butterflies chasing each other in an intricate and ever-changing Celtic knot, and a dragonfly strummed the air, audible in hot stillness.

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The garden is thriving, despite the salty winds blown in from the sea

There are perhaps seven or eight little chambers that have been created, some joined by stone steps or natural gateways. Closer to the house everything opens and beyond the front wall the seas to the south become visible, full of all the jagged bits of island that make up the view we’re gradually learning by heart. We stood showing off a little, pointing out the furthest away grey smudge of Colonsay.

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The island of Scarba can be seen from the bottom of the garden

But there beside us, about our feet, a long pond with lilies. The nose was assaulted by a barrage of scents as bees drummed here and there on pollen missions. There on the far side of the pond was the lady who now keeps An Cala, her hands hard at work.

We complimented her on just how fine the place is, on how well the spirit of the original dream has been kept. Perhaps what it shows above all is that despite ferocious months of high winds and driving rain, there are no excuses in the end. You can create a hidden treasure of a garden, even here on Seil. 

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Photos by Kristina Hayward