If you seek them out, it is easy to find the many threads which link our world, no matter where you are. Synchronicity, and the connections it spawns, are what makes life magical.
Recently, for the first time in a very long time (longer than I even care to admit), I walked on foreign ground. Over recent years, circumstances had prevented any sort of ‘proper’ holiday so it was ridiculously exciting to be spending a few days in a completely new place. It wasn’t the case that I was desperate for a break – in fact I was a little concerned that I was going to miss home and ‘my’ hills whilst I was away, but as it turned out I ended up finding myself in what I instantly described as being the ‘Greek Upper Nithsdale-by-the-Sea’.
Kefalonia lies off the west coast of mainland Greece, and is one of seven of the Ionian Islands; the small island of Ithaca lies close to the west, while the larger island of Zakynthos sits a little further away to the south. We stayed in the small coastal resort of Katelios on the south-east tip of Kefalonia and I was smitten from the moment we arrived. Indeed the taxi ride from the airport was spectacular enough, but when we saw what would be our daily view for the rest of the week, I couldn’t believe our good fortune.
I instantly thought of the Cushie Knowe poem, Shades Around Glen Aylmer, written about the hills I see from Rigg House every day. The first line of the poem describes the Kirkconnel hills as: “The encircling hills like a chain” – words which suited Katelios equally as much as they do for Kirkconnel. There before me sat Kefalonia’s version of Kirkland Hill followed by a wide semi-circle of green and brown humps connecting round to the coastline, laced with white tracks winding up and around the hills. Although the Greek hills were much larger than the Kirkconnel hills, their silhouette in the evening sun felt comfortingly familiar.
Of course I knew I had to have an adventure in those hills, and a bloody incredible one I ended up having. I replaced pine tree plantations with olive groves and vineyards, and I swapped Covenanter graves with roadside shrines. That adventure is a whole other story in itself, but it is safe to say that I will, without a doubt, be exploring more of those hills again in the future – I have already plotted out a weeks worth of further Kefalonia walks on Google Earth (although doing so has given me the post-holiday blues big time).
The tale I want to share doesn’t actually belong to Kefalonia, but to it’s neighbouring island, Zakynthos which we visited on a day trip boat cruise (complete with a sleezy, leering skipper). The trip included a stop off at Navagio Beach, a small pebbled cove in the shadow of 200m-high limestone cliffs which, according to greekreporter.com, is ‘one of the five most popular beaches in the world’. Another website, keeptalkinggreece.com, states that 70% of tourists in Zakynthos visit this particular beach; almost unbelievably in peak season up to 10,000 visitors PER DAY set foot on this small white cove. Why this beach you ask? To see the rusty carcass of a 40 year-old shipwreck.
The tale of the freight liner MV Panagiotis should already be a Hollywood action classic, with plenty of versions of the ‘truth’ for producers to choose from. Seemingly the most accepted version of events, and the one which sleazy boatman told us, was that on 2nd October 1980 the ship was washed up onto the beach during a storm with no one on board – just a massive shipment of illegally smuggled tobacco and alcohol, which was all subsequently looted, resulting in no evidence to prosecute the smugglers. And now this rusty, rapidly decaying hulk of iron, sits sinking into the sand, permanently decked out with dozens of brightly coloured bikini-clad Instagram ‘influencer’ wannabes all doing identical poses. It is such a strange place to be…and not a place I particularly want to return to, despite how much fun it was climbing over the wreck.
But the thing which interested me about the ship was when I learnt that she was a Scottish ship, built in 1937 – although that was all the boatman knew about the vessel’s history. I wasted no time in being stupidly reckless and climbing up on to the boat to try and find some evidence of this Scottish link – although there is absolutely no way that people should be ‘allowed’ to climb all over the massively dangerous hunk of rust, I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity for a bit of foolishness. (A quick google search after visiting the wreck revealed that in the last 8 years at least 4 tourists have died at this spot, either falling from the clifftops or drowning, and only last September there was a massive landslide which injured a number of people and resulted in the beach being closed off for a number of months – some kind of safety measures are massively overdue here I reckon).
Anyway, it didn’t take long to find the thing I was looking for – something to give me a bit more information about the ship’s Scottish links. It turned out to be it so wonderfully obvious, and one of the best preserved features of the wreck.
The Carron Company was an ironworks established in 1759 on the banks of the River Carron, near Falkirk, Stirlingshire which prospered during the Industrial Revolution and through its development of a new type of naval cannon, the Carronade. Throughout the 19th century, the company was one of the largest iron works in Europe, before insolvency saw it bought out by an American company in 1982. I initially thought that it was this company which built the boat, but it turns out that the actual ship was built by a company called Scott & Sons. But we can assume that because of the evidence of The Carron Company, this ship (originally named Saint Bedan) was a war ship, before it became a pirate ship and then an Instagram backdrop and a death trap.
Upon reading a bit about the history of The Carron Company, a name jumped out at me; William Symington. Symington was an engineer with the company during the early 19th century, but he also has a special link to Nithsdale, and in particular to a beautiful loch not far from Rigg House.
Born in Leadhills in 1764, Symington went on to becoming a talented engineer and built engines for mines and mills in Wanlockhead and in Sanquhar. But it was his pioneering work with steam-powered boats which he is perhaps most remembered for. In 1788, in partnership with the banker Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, Symington successfully trialed the first ever steamboat across Dalswinton Loch. A full size replica of the boat sits at the edge of the loch today. Later, when working for The Carron Company, he continued to perfect his steam engine design, with newer versions of the Dalswinton boat being made by the same company which would go on to built cannons for war ships.
So there we go. It might seem like a tenuous link but I love the fact that a boat built in Scotland over 80 years ago now sits on a picture perfect Greek beach. And I love how this rusting piece of engineering contains a clue to a connection to a celebrated Scottish engineer, born just up the road from Rigg House, whose work impacted on the industrial progress of Upper Nithsdale, and indeed the world. This world really is connected in many ways when you look for the clues.