Monday, November 13, 2017

Islands from the Air

During my last flight to the UK I had a window seat. As we approached the Western Isles there was not a cloud in the sky, and I had am amazing bird's-eye view of the islands; starting with Scarp, then the islands in the Sound of Harris, all the way over Skye, the Small Isles, and Mull. But, sadly, I did not have a camera with me.

And so on the flight home a few weeks later I made sure I had a camera. But, of course, the weather was bad. Even so, between the clouds the occasional island made a brief appearance. I was blessed with tantalizing views of Colonsay, Insh, Mull, Iona, Inchkenneth, Hyskier, Eriskay, and South Uist. Shortly after passing Eriskay the clouds decided I'd seen enough, and closed in completely. I pulled down the blind, and went to sleep with visions of islands dancing in my head.

Here are a few island views from 10,000 feet.

Colonsay and Oronsay

Insh - once home to a Brownie and a naked hermit
Loch Buie - Mull

The Ross of Mull - Iona at the far end

Inchkenneth and Little Colonsay


Last view of the isles - Eriskay and Rubha na h-Ordaig (South Uist)

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Isle of Donovan and Rory the Venomous

I have only been to Isay once; on a dark, wet, and gloomy day in May 2009 (see chapter 4 of book 2). The Gaelic spelling is '√Ćosaigh'. I am not sure of the correct pronunciation; but I've heard all the following: "Icy", "Ice-ay", "E-oh-sigh", "E-shay", and "E-oh-say". Isay lies in Loch Dunvegan, six miles north of Dunvegan Castle. The first thing that strikes you when approaching the island is the gaunt outline of Isay House; last inhabited in 1860, and where a mass killing occurred.

Isay first caught my attention 30 years ago when I read the story of Dr. Johnson's visit to the Hebrides (1773). The following is from Boswell’s journal of the trip:

There is a beautiful little island in the Loch of Dunvegan, called Isay. MacLeod said he would give it to Mr. Johnson, on condition of his residing on it three months in the year, nay, one month. Mr. Johnson was highly pleased with the fancy… He talked a great deal of this island—how he would build a house, how he would fortify it, how he would have cannon, how he would plant, how he would sally out and take the isle of Muck.

Upwards of ninety people called Isay home in the nineteenth century, when it had been a fishing station with a general store. That era of occupation came in 1830, made up of people evicted from Bracadale, fifteen miles away on Skye. But life on the island came to an end in 1860 when it was cleared for sheep.

At the south end of the village lies the ruin of Isay House. The house is an eerie looking structure. Its roof is missing, and the jagged and split gable ends look like pincers pointing to the sky. Access to the first floor is via a once balustered staircase. The door is gone, and if you step through the opening you'll fall ten feet onto the rocky ground floor, as the house is now just a shell.

If he had taken MacLeod up on his offer, this could have been Samuel Johnson’s holiday home, from where he could have sallied forth to take the Isle of Muck. But there was someone who stood here forty years ago that did make Isay a holiday home of sorts, and that was the singer Donovan. Donovan bought Isay, the two neighboring isles of Mingay and Clett, and some nearby land on Skye in the late 1960s.

An earlier owner, 400 years before Donovan, was Ruairaidh MacAilein MacLeod, known as Nimheach (the venomous). MacLeod wanted his son to inherit Raasay and the lands of Gairloch, but his family was third in line for the inheritance. So Ruairaidh decided to host a banquet, and the families that stood in the way were invited to Isay. During dinner he invited each attendee, one by one, to have a private word with him and, one by one, they were quickly dispatched.

Isay is an island that's had a few moments of fame in its time, but is now mostly left alone. I visited it during one of the Northern Light cruises. My 2008 edition of Hamish Haswell-Smith's The Scottish Islands says day trips may be available from Dunvegan in the summer. I'm not sure if that's still true, and a search on the internet does not show any such trips on offer from Dunvegan. But you can get there for a few hours on the 'Go Ashore and Explore' day-trip offered by Diver's Eye Boat Trips, which operates out of Stein, two miles east of Isay. A more fascinating destination for a day out would be hard to find.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Calanais VII - Cnoc Dubh

Not all of the numbered Calanais sites are stone circles. One of them, Calanais VII, is a beehive cell. Of all the beehive cells in existence, this one is the easiest to visit. It lies on Cnoc Dubh (NB 232 302), just above the B8011 highway to Uig (Lewis), a mile south of Garynahine.

I must have driven by the Cnoc Dubh beehive a dozen times over the years and never noticed it. (It is visible from the highway). I first learned about it earlier this year when I read Alastair McIntosh's excellent book Poacher's Pilgrimage. The author pays a visit to the cell as part of an epic walk from Rodel to the Butt of Lewis. 

The cell had been vandalized many years ago by someone who thought it was a Druid's house, and as such, linked to the devil. About 15 years ago, armed with photos of how the cell once looked (see this link for an example), Seamus Crawford (of Lewis) restored this beautiful structure. 

Having read about the cell in Poacher's Pilgrimage last February, a visit to Cnoc Dubh was very first thing I did on a visit to Lewis in July. Mr. Crawford did some amazing work here, and inside the cell you can see the markers placed on the stones to aide the restoration. 

Aside from the monastic cells on the Garvellachs, the Cnoc Dubh cell is constructed of stones much larger than any other intact cell I've visited. No one knows how old the cell is, but it was know to be inhabited in the 1860s. With its turf covering in place it should last for at least another century.

Next time you are in Lewis be sure to pay a visit to Cnoc Dubh. You can park off the road just where a dirt track climbs the hillside east of the highway. A two-minute hike up the track will take you to the cell. It is a thing of beauty.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Calanais VIII

Usually, when I tell someone I've spent time on Lewis, they'll ask if I've seen the Calanais Stones. When that happens I'm always tempted to ask, Which Calanias stones?  There are about twenty sites: Calanais I, II, III, IV, V, and on up to XIX (see this map). There are even more sub-categories; for example there is a Calanais VIIIa.  For all I know there may even be a Calanais XIXf. All these site have more descriptive Gaelic names, which you can find here.

When I visited the unusual stone setting above the Great Bernera Bridge last July, I did not know at the time that it, too, had a designation: Calainis VIII. (It also has two Gaelic names: 'Tursachan' and 'Cleitir'). This site is unique in being an arc of standing stones; stones that stand like a megalithic shield facing the mainland across the narrow gap between Lewis and Great Bernera.

There is some thought that one of the purposes of this site was as a Beltane sunrise marker, halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. See this CANMORE page for a description of how this worked in conjunction with stones a mile to the northeast.  It is a complicated site, one that also includes outlying stones that mark extreme moon rise locations.

I learned something astounding while reading about Calanais VIII. About three miles due south, on the side of Beinn Fuathabhal, is a rarely visited stone circle; rarely visited because it's two miles from the nearest road. From inside this circle, which is at an elevation of 500 feet, all of the Calanais sites are visible (see this page). It sounds like a hike worth making, and one I plan to do next summer. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Wellies - Reborn

In the last post I had a photo of a unique set of planters I came across on Great Bernera.

This whimsical re-use of old wellies reminded me of another amusing, and very imaginative, recycling of boots I came across during a visit to Eigg in 2016. It was the 'Welly Bridge' that leads to the Singing Sands, and I was looking forward to showing it to the guests on my guide-trip last May (2017).

Singing Sands Welly Bridge in 2016
But when we reached the Singing Sands I was disappointed to find that the wellies had been removed. However, once over the bridge that disappointment was soon forgotten as we scuffed our boots across the sands to make them sing. Here is how Hugh Miller described his visit to the sands in 1844:

I walked over it, striking it obliquely at each step, and with every blow the shrill note was repeated. My companions joined me; and we performed a concert, in which, if we could boast of but little variety in the tones produced, we might at least challenge all Europe for an instrument of the kind which produced them.

I hope the wellies return someday to adorn the entrance to the sands. They made what was a utilitarian stile a memorable gateway to this iconic Hebridean beach.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Great Bernera Loop

Next time you are on Lewis, a great day-out is to pay a visit to Great Bernera. And while there, be sure you walk the magnificent Bernera Loop, a six-mile trek that usually starts at the museum in Breacleit. But I had the luxury of starting from home; Atlantic View Cottage, where my wife and I stayed for a week this summer. Better accommodation on Great Bernera would be hard to find.

Atlantic View Cottage
The route passes right by the cottage, and so on a fine July day I set out to make the walk. It starts by going up the west side of the island to Tobson, and then on up to the north end at the Bosta roundhouse.

The adventure really began when, after just five minutes of walking, I reached the end of the tarmac road and a footbridge over the Atlantic (a little bit of it, anyway). An old map from the 1800s shows stepping stones here - the bridge is a big improvement.

From the bridge the route leads out to open countryside, with amazing views over West Loch Rog.

After a mile of truly exhilarating walking the trail drops down to the road at Tobson near Thule House. Thule was one of the first 'white' houses built on the island (see this link). The author William Black, who wrote The Princess of Thule, stayed here often (see chapter 27 of book 2).

Tobson and Thule House
Once you cross the road a signpost points the way up and over a ridge to the north.

After a bit of huffing and puffing you reach a remarkable viewpoint atop the highest ground on the northwest corner of the island where all the isles of Loch Rog come into view.

Looking north - Little Bernera in the middle distance
I took a break here to savour the view (and a beer) before heading down to Bosta Beach and the Iron Age roundhouse. If you ever pass this way be sure to pay a visit to the roundhouse. The local guides give an excellent talk. I had been here two months previously (see the July 26, 2017 post), and so I walked by it to make my way to the road.

From here on the walk is on tarmac. As I followed the road over the high ground to the east there were some amazing views of Little Bernera.

The landing on Little Bernera
The road then turned south to cross a mile of open countryside, passing a couple lochs along the way. This is the least interesting bit of the walk, and the road can be busy with traffic going back and forth to the beach. I tried to hitch a ride here, but no one stopped for me.

When you reach the turnoff to Tobson there is a large memorial cairn to the 1874 Bernera Riot. See this Virtual Hebrides webpage for the story of the riot.

A mile past the cairn you reach Breacleit, the main settlement on the island. Here you'll find an excellent museum and cafe. Many who visit Great Bernera for the day park their cars here to make the walk. 

Near the centre you will find this hilarious set of pants-planters.

From the Community Centre I turned onto the Bhalasaigh road to make the half-mile hike back to our cottage. It had been an amazing hike, and the next time I'm on Bernera I hope to make the walk in the opposite direction.

If you are ever on Lewis, and looking for something to do, I can't think of a better day out than walking the Bernera Loop, and then having a meal in the cafe.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Oops! - A Cara Redo

Sometimes you have to climb a bit to get a good photo. And then, sometimes, you have to climb twice. That was the case on Cara, when I scrambled up the hillside to get a photo of the Brownie's Chair. I had found a good high spot for the photo, looked through the viewfinder, and then uttered an expletive (or three). The reason is evident in the photo below.

I had left my pack on the stone, ruining the shot. So I climbed back down to the chair, hid the pack, and then climbed back up. Ever since then I've always set my pack well away from something I want to photograph. Although that has led to a few panic attacks when I was unable (briefly) to find where I'd stashed my pack in tall grass.