SCOTLAND’S Winter Olympics double medal success was deeply remarkable, but how many people glued to their TV screens didn’t realise all 132 Beijing curling stones hailed from just one small Scottish island?

Bashing out to Ailsa Craig in search of curling stones, I discovered it’s also alive with smugglers, pirates and Spanish invasions; a deeply dramatic isle of leaping porpoises and soaring solan geese.

Ailsa Craig has something of the Holy Grail about it for many Scots, a place we see on ferry rides but which seems tantalisingly out of reach. My late sailor dad may have won Clyde Cruising Club’s Murray Blair trophy three times, but he never made it the 18km from the mainland to Ailsa Craig. It means a lot to many people – one of my best friends named her daughter after her own father’s love of the island.

I was determined to get there. So determined I got into position a night early at palatial Glenapp Castle in South Ayrshire. There was Ailsa Craig was outside my window, an unmistakable granite leviathan bursting from the Clyde in all her sturdy granite glory. Sturdy granite indeed, a rare riebeckite granite – also known as “ailsite2".

The National:

Curler Eve Muirhead during the Winter Olympics

Glenapp Castle has its own private RIB, which we joined in Girvan, where other boats also push out in search of Ailsa Craig when the weather is right. “It can get quite feisty out there,” said our skipper. “It’s wild place all right but the effort is always worth it.”

We bash across the surf, solan geese skimming the waters beside us – Ailsa Craig is home to one of the world’s biggest colonies. We look out for marine mammals too – you find dolphins and whales around here, but we’re content to spot a brace of porpoises as Ailsa Craig looms larger, her bulk unveiling in front of us like the moment a cinema curtain peels back.

From a distance Ailsa Craig looks like the brooding, mysterious Black Isle from Tintin. I’m surprised up close to see that – unlike its granite cousin in Scotland’s east, Bass Rock – it is not as unwelcoming and steep all round as it looks. A stony beach spreads in front of us – there is plenty of space to wander around even if you don’t want to hike to the 340m-high summit.

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I do, but the hike is not for the fainthearted – you need decent boots, a head for heights and to know where you’re going. As the rest of my family picnicked on the beach with the seals, I pushed on from the vague remnants of man.

Eking on ever up I was utterly alone bar that flying barn door of the Scottish ornithological scene: a sea eagle. It swooned around high on the thermals and stole my attention for a joyful break. Sweating onwards,

I finally made the summit. It is one of those summits you have to talk to someone on, to share with someone how special it is. I shared it with my smiling father.

The whole Firth of Clyde billowed out below like a CalMac map. Kintyre, too, to the west, casting its mystical Celtic finger deep out into the Irish Sea. In the distance – but feeling remarkably close – was the island of Ireland. From the top of Ailsa Craig you can easily see why it has been called Paddy’s Milestone, lying roughly halfway between Glasgow and Belfast.

After the selfishness of my solo adventure I bundled back down, losing what path there is to battle through some gnarly terrain. Eventually back on the flat, I shared learning about the lighthouse complex and old quarrying operation with my two daughters and my wife. The lighthouse has been unmanned since 1990 on this wild and wildly remote island, while a brace of narrow-gauge railways have been become ghosts too.

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My girls liked the stories about the pirates and smugglers who once eked out a living in the crags and coves. I don’t tell them about the solan geese culls that Robert Burns’s uncle Samuel Burns was involved in.

I’m fascinated by the episode in the late 16thy century when Hugh Barclay of Ladyland took control of the isle to establish it as a refuge for Catholics, and also as a staging post for Spanish vessels during the Spanish invasion that never came. The Atlantic took him when he was discovered.

Ailsa Craig is, of course, still gloriously productive today, lending the nation her curling stones. They have been fashioned just across the water in Mauchline, Ayrshire, by Kays Curling since 1851 – the landowner, the Marquess of Ailsa, has granted them exclusive rights to Ailsa Craig’s granite.

I’m thinking now of our glorious Olympians, of the land that forged them. Of an island whose even wilder southern Atlantic-facing rock walls, where no hint of man interrupts the gannets and puffins, is Scotland at its most dramatic, most stoic. There could be no more apt isle behind Scotland’s remarkable Olympic success.

Glenapp Castle –

Ailsa Craig Trips –

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