Dear fellow travellers
The land thundered and a great rumble echoed over the loch. It was felt over in Glendaruel to the east. The land tremored south to Loch Gair and beyond. The seals which from time to time sun themselves on Eilean Aoghainn slipped quietly into the watery safety of Loch Fyne. In the days and weeks thereafter, the media celebrated the great explosion as the biggest in the history of the British Isles. Five hundred pounds of gunpowder had been packed into boreholes, and its detonation dislodged 30,000 tons of rock.
The distinctive fine-grained pinkish feldspar found on the west shore of Loch Fyne around Crarae and Furnace was in great demand at the time of the great explosion of 1875. It was durable and attractive, but needed a skilled hand. Only the best masons were up to the task, but prices were good and stone from these great quarries was used in setts and ornamental masonry.
In Victorian Scotland, the public took great interest in technology, and before long the detonations at Crarae became something of an attraction. The regular steamer from the Clyde to Inveraray would pause at Crarae so that passengers could witness the spectacle of the hillside crumbling.
The city of Glasgow was the main customer for the Crarae rock and in September 1886, a party of dignitaries from the city boarded the Lord of the Isles steamer to witness an especially large explosion to mark the loyal bond of commerce which linked Crarae with Glasgow. Some 200 eager visitors went ashore at Crarae Pier and watched the detonation at close quarters. 50,000 tons of rock fell in a cacophonous roar. Ignoring the cautionary advice of the expert quarrymen, the spectators surged forward to inspect the damage and many were overcome by fumes. Seven people died in this incident, and many more returned to Glasgow in a state of great discomfort.
More than 130 years on, Crarae is no longer noted for its rock, although quarrying continues on a more modest scale just up Loch Fyne at Furnace, where there is still the occasional detonation in the quarry, usually on a Friday, and always well advertised in advance at the village post office. No one, bar the seals, is taken by surprise these days.
But Crarae remains on the tourist map. Amid the woodland which covers the hillsides on this western shore of Loch Fyne, the plant hunters have been at work. The native species include hazel, oak, ash, rowan, birch and Scots pine. But these have been augmented by exotic collections of beech, eucalyptus and a variety of decorative hardwoods not normally found in the British Isles. Throw in some fabulous rhododendrons and a dazzling range of mosses and ferns, and it is almost as if one is transported by some miracle into the hill country of northern India. The wee burn which tumbles down to the loch shore at Crarae cascades through a glen of Himalayan demeanour.
Skilful planting by three generations of the Campbell family has shaped the gardens at Crarae, relying in part on contracted plant hunters who scoured remote areas of the Himalayas for a fine range of exotic plants which might tolerate the climate of western Scotland. Here is a garden which is an antidote to Victorian and Edwardian formality.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)