High Corrie: Some Lesser Known Memories

Personal reflections from Peter Finlay

The small group of white cottages that shine for you on the lower slopes of Goatfell as you cross the Firth on your way to Arran is well known in some ways but it also has its lesser known stories.

The most forgotten people are those without whom there never would have been a High Corrie at all. The cottages were, of course, all built by people – people who worked the land around, herded their sheep and grazed their cattle and who somehow without having attended art school or studied architecture yet built dwellings for themselves and their families that had a natural beauty that still attracts us today.

We do not know their names. In those days no one would have thought that making a name for him or her self was in any way part of what life was about. You would never have set out to become an artist or a poet or a writer or anything of the sort. You just lived your life and did what you did and somehow loveliness, perhaps surprisingly, came as a gift with it all. Just as throughout the Highlands and Islands remarkable poetry and music seems to have been an integral part of ordinary people’s lives.

Robert McLellan

They created the place that many years later attracted people who, perhaps oddly we might think, have actually got names that are known and sometimes very well known.

The best known here on Arran now has to be, perhaps because he has a festival named for him, playwright Robert McLellan. He was known to me from my early years as my parents were good friends of him and of his wife Kathleen. When his plays were being performed at the Edinburgh Festival he would stay with us as we lived near Edinburgh. It was hard for him not knowing what the critics would say so, at breakfast on a morning before a first performance, he would appear sometimes a bit ashen faced in his anxiety about what the verdicts might be. The titles of his plays fascinated me even then. Toombyres, Torwatletie The Flours O’ Edinburgh, Jamie the Saxt and so on. I used to like his dropping into our cottage in High Corrie as his tall lean figure stooped in the low doorway where he would talk standing half way into our sitting room. He would talk in not much more than a whisper, sort of out of one corner of his mouth and usually there was something of a twinkle as his eyes crinkled with amusement at something or other. His daughter Kate was my senior by a few months and she took delight in telling me scary stories especially about the ‘Ghosty House’ nearby with its low black tarred roof and maroon painted wooden outside and cobweb filled permanently shut windows. If you dared to peer in, she would tell me, you would see the witch with her long pointed red tongue sitting there in the gloom. She would have her eye on you!

Self portrait, John Maclauchlan Milne

That was one ‘red house’ and there was the other at the top, and in those days it actually was red washed not white as now. It also had a ‘presence’. Not that of a witchy ghost but the two old ladies who lived in it. Mrs Hynd and Mrs Logan and one was the mother of the other but I cannot remember which was which now. But the older one was so very very old that us youngsters believed the story that she had never been outside her house for some unimaginably long time, something as unimaginably long as twenty years!

There were characters like Jock Kerr who lived in what became Goatfell Cottage. He did all sorts of building jobs including the kitchen extension to our own cottage. I love it that you can still (just about if you look hard!) see his two initials JK carved into the sandstone block that forms a bridge across the tiny stream on your way down to the Sandstone Quay not far before the steps.

Portrait of Alix Dick

Then there was John Maclauchlan Milne the leading Scottish colourist, much influenced by the French Impressionists, who would transform High Corrie in his flowing vibrant paintings, its white blossomed cherry trees and its cottages glowing in something more like a Mediterranean light than the dimmer light of these cloudier northern shores. I have no personal memories of him but his name was always a part of High Corrie for me with his cottage the first you come to as you enter the place and just before thelittle ford. Above his cottage was another we knew as ‘Miss Dick’s’. Alix (Alexandra) Dick was also an artist and she taught at Glasgow School of Art. A large self portrait hung in the School till sadly it was lost in the fire of 2014.

There were writers like my own father, Ian Finlay, with his many books on Scotland including his first of which the Scotsman said ‘he had laid Scotsmen in his debt’ and it won praise from people like Hugh MacDiarmid the leading Scottish poet of the time. There was the editor of the Guardian, Alastair Hetherington. There was the extraordinary Axel Firsoff giving High Corrie an early connection to Ukraine as he was born in the centre of that country which is now at the forefront of our daily news. He was an outstanding mountaineer and skier and once coached the British Olympic ski team. He wrote books about Arran and many parts of Scotland illustrating them with his beautiful little sketches. In 1947 he published a book called ‘The Unity of Europe’ – so interesting that back then there was someone who would soon be living in little High Corrie with a view of Europe so in line with that of so many in Scotland today. He was also a leading amateur astronomer with writings on the planets, the moon and the galaxies with thoughts about life elsewhere in the Universe and theories about the mind itself speculating that “mind seems to be an entity of the same order as energy and matter”, an idea well before its time.

A totally surprising thing about Axel Firsoff is that his name will be for ever spinning through space around our sun! There is indeed on our next door planetary neighbour, Mars, a feature that bears the name the Firsoff Crater! It was even selected as one of the possible landing places for the 2020 Rover mission to the red planet! So High Corrie will always have a special place in our night skies!

An image showing the crater named after Firsoff on Mars
Axel Firsoff

My memories of him are of this man who would come down from a day in the hills offering me and my brother as boys some of the semi-precious stones he had found up there and with which he had filled his pockets. I know he also had some problem or other with Robert McLellan. I do not know what it was and I liked both of them well enough but I know McLellan once expressed his feelings by attempting to drive the great grey mare, Norah, who grazed the hillside around us, past Burnbank gate until her head was well inside the cottage door! To help him in this endeavour he was wielding a good-sized pan smacking her ample rear end with it, poor beast! Norah’s main occupation was to pull Sandy Watson’s well maintained milk cart all around the villages below to deliver the daily milk to the residents along the way. She definitely deserved better than to be used as a weapon of war!

No wonder my uncle, John Pringle (who also became a High Corrie resident), had his own name for the clachan – High Korea. It was the time of the Korean War in the early fifties. As a former editor of the BBC Listener which printed notable radio talks from the previous month he also nicknamed High Corrie ‘the Third Programme Village’ poking gentle fun of its reputation with artists and ‘intellectuals’ and those who would elevate such folk as if they were in a special category above that of ordinary mortals!

Perhaps this should take us back to where I started, especially to that place where we can picture the ordinary people of Arran quietly living their lives and making for us a place that can shine for us and others both across the sea and hopefully in our memories for as long as our memories hold.

Featured image shows Maclauchlan Milne’s view of High Corrie with a corner of his own cottage, of Burnbank then the McLellan’s cottage.