Ailsa Craig: The Birth of a Song


I was walking one evening along the North Down coast

And as I walked I was thinking

Of the one I loved the most.

As the sun set on Bangor, far across the waves,

Dark against the horizon

I glimpsed Ailsa Craig.


On the night of my returning

To the land where I was born

The gulls cried till morning

Trying to chase me from the shore.

I had no thought of leaving till the end of my days

Then across the horizon

I saw Ailsa Craig.


Where is my love tonight,

Where has he gone?

He moved beyond my sight

To the sacred stone.


What once was a refuge is now deserted rock.

It stands as a milestone

Between the Irish and the Scots.

And if for a moment I felt at home to stay

I knew no home and no horizon

When I saw Ailsa Craig.



A friend asked me last night how I write a song… do I write the music or the words first? I don’t think I write the same way twice in a row anymore, but I’d like to share how two of my songs came about. Last year on my Master of Music course we looked at our influences and assessed where our writing came from but this isn’t meant to be an academic essay on composition or to say anything generic about songwriting itself, it’s just about the place I found myself in when I wrote Ailsa Craig.


I had lived in Bangor with my mother since my father died in 2005. During that time the rheumatoid arthritis with which I had suffered for some twenty years became very severe and by 2011 I had lost most of my mobility, using a wheelchair if I really had to go out and do the shopping. I had gizmos and gadgets to lift me out of bed, help me wash etc. and the pain was unbelievable, completely indescribable. I had had to stop working. The drugs I was on were failing and I was told there was no further treatment, so I decided I needed to be treated at the UK centre of excellence for the treatment of rheumatological conditions, the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Bath. I had attended the UK Songwriting Festival at Bath Spa University in 2007 and one day whilst stuck in a job where I was discriminated against on the grounds of my disability I had seen a link on the festival’s website to Bath Spa’s Master of Music in Songwriting course.  I enrolled on the course for the year 2010/11 but was too unwell to attend plus another member of my family was very seriously ill and I did not want to leave at that point.


 As I crossed the Irish Sea from Rosslare in September 2011 the sun was shining and the water was like a mirror reflecting the hope of a new lease of life. And for a while it was – I started on new drugs, spent a year writing songs and grew acquainted with a beautiful part if the world. As I sailed home on the last day of September in 2012 the skies were grey and the sea irascible. I was sick three times between Fishguard and Rosslare. My dream of building a new life had disintegrated. I was on no treatment at all for my RA, had had debilitating surgery and wasted my love. I had gone seeking to ease one kind of pain and simply traded it for another. It was well after midnight when I crawled through the back door of Augustaville, my family home, in defeat. I feel into the first bedroom I reached where a portrait of my grandfather seemed to say to me ‘You’re home now. Why did you ever go away?’


The next morning it was back to the old routine I had tried to escape from: as the sun rose the coast of Scotland appeared across the horizon visible from my bedroom window and the Vomit Comet (Stena High Speed Sailing) began the first trip of the morning to Ayrshire from Belfast Lough, accompanied by my malediction. I thought to myself that that was somewhere I would never return to; it would take a miracle to carry me to Scotland. Two weeks later I was passing from Cairnryan via Ayr to Glasgow to Edinburgh, with a nice detour to Argyll and Loch Lomond on the way home.


The milestone at Wilson’s point near my house points out Ailsa Craig, which is visible from my home but much clearer in Ayrshire. I wanted to write something based on my feeling of not wanting to be home but not wanting to be away; Ailsa Craig had been pointed out to me from early childhood during walks along the coast with my grandmother. She had introduced me to Irish folk music and I wanted to write something in that sean nos kind of style in memory of her, and that meant a large part of the song contained a sense of belonging to a specific place. Some of the lyrics come from my day to day experiences in North Down. Gulls do genuinely cry in the morning which can be a bit of a shock to visitors. Some of the lyrics come from Wikipedia, as un-ethereal and un-mystical as that sounds! Ailsa Craig means ‘fairy rock’ in Gaelic and I wanted that other worldly feeling, but I also gathered from wiki that it was used as a refuge for Catholics during the Civil War in England, although it is now inhabited by puffins and apparently for sale for £1.5 million. Wiki also points out that the Craig is sometimes called ‘Paddy’s Milestone’ because it is halfway between Belfast and Glasgow. The recent BBC programme ‘The Shortest Twelve Miles’ points out that Northern Ireland’s links with Scotland as a motherland to the Ulster Scots and an ancient trading partner and Celtic brother make Scotland a kind of homeland away from our homeland, exactly what I was trying to convey in the song, the idea of belonging somewhere but feeling drawn to another place. When I studied sociolinguistics at Queen’s University many years ago I remember one of the lecturers analysing my accent as ‘classic Ulster Scots’ and explaining that our accents are closer to Scotland’s than to the South’s because in sociolinguistics ‘land divides and sea connects’. After all, in the days before trains and motorways boats were the primary mode of trade and travel. So there is a sense of distance and closeness, close but far away...


To answer my friend’s question, though, in the case of this song the music was written before the lyrics. Today I wrote part of a song in Bloomfield Shopping Centre when a melody came to me and I hummed it into my phone. On this occasion I was sitting at my piano for no particular reason other than being drawn to the keys. I found a little melody that went from Em to D, then I experimented with either Am or C…. traditional music, such as ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, for example, is in AAA form. In other words you just sing the same melody about three times, it doesn’t have a chorus. I added a B section, or bridge, into my little piece because I’d recorded a cover of Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Leave a Light On’ recently and I loved the movement from D to Bb. Can’t explain why; just did. It’s funny, but if you’d asked me how I felt on the day I first played the then titleless song I would have said I was angry but the music that came out was terribly sad. I was watching an MTV documentary on bullying tonight and one of the bullying victims said ‘Like most artists I use my music as therapy’. That was what I was doing, too, but it is so instinctive I was probably not conscious of it. Afterall, I had just undergone the process of being bullied and mistreated in the most egregious manner and I had a lot of unresolved issues… they wormed their way out via music. I also had a huge sense of loss, that everything I thought I had achieved through making this huge life transition had been robbed from me, which is where the bridge comes from but it is fictionalized to some degree. I’m not a purely confessional songwriter;  there is a lot of my life in my songs but sometimes it’s about telling a story, maybe another person’s story maybe a totally invented story so long as there is an element of emotional realism in it. Also, music is collaborative so other people's visions add to the finished song. I produced the first draft of this song but it was later greatly enhanced by James Scott whose string samples are legendary!


The next song I wrote was Illumination. It was written to a brief: it had to be up tempo, uplifting and cheerful. I obviously tried to get myself into that headspace. I even listened to some Enrique Iglesias! I don’t think that makes it emotionally disingenuous because I purposefully wanted to create that feeling rather than writing it because I felt that way. After all, writing is therapeutic but it’s not therapy. Sometimes it’s about writing for a specific audience rather than writing for yourself. This was also produced by James.



I hope that covers the question John asked me. If you have any thoughts, feel free to post them!


  • David McKnight
    David McKnight
    Very interesting. Covers the lyrical, the musical and the personal.

    Very interesting. Covers the lyrical, the musical and the personal.

  • Eve Williams
    Eve Williams
    Thanks, David.

    Thanks, David.

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