Monday, January 8, 2018

Round Towers

Round towers are iconic, and interesting structures. Serving as a bell-tower (and possibly a place of refuge), many have survived intact for centuries. The first one I visited was at Ardmore in the south of Ireland, where I was disappointed to find that the interior was off-limits to the public. Oh how I wanted to climb that 100-foot tower, like the monks of old, to enjoy the view over Ardmore Bay.

Like Ardmore, most of the intact towers are locked up, but in the years since that visit to Ardmore I have been able to climb a couple in Ireland that are open to the public: Kildare and Devenish Island.

Kildare - a tourist waving from the top
Top of Kildare

Built between the 9th and 12th centuries, there were about 120 round towers in Ireland, 20 or so still  in good shape. Outside of Ireland there is one at Peel on the Isle of Man (Man's closest point to Ireland), and three in Scotland: Brechin, Abernethy and Egilsay. Of the three Scottish towers, the only one you can climb is Abernethy. Unfortunately Brechin is locked up tight, and the tower on Egilsay is hollow.

Inside  Egilsay tower

Abernethy Tower - tourists waving from the top
There is another Scottish round tower I've climbed: a miniature replica built in 1914 on Canna. There are no floors inside Canna's tower, just a series of stones embedded in its wall that can be used to climb to the bell.

Canna tower

Inside Canna tower
There is one more round tower replica in Scotland that deserves mention. Built in 1912, it commemorates a turning point in the history of the islands, and Scotland: The Battle of Largs.

Largs Tower
The round tower of Largs stands 60 feet tall, and overlooks Largs' Marina. I paid a visit to it after spending several days exploring the Cumbrae islands. As I approached the tower along the shore path I had hopes I could climb it, but once I stood below the padlocked door, which was 10 feet above the ground, it was readily evident that that was not going to happen. Even though it was off limits, the entrance was amazing, as they replicated the exquisite stone doorway carvings of the Brechin tower.

Brechin doorway (1990)

Largs Doorway
Later I would learn from Magnus Magnusson's Scotland: The Story of a Nation (2000) that, even if I had the key and a step-ladder, it's not possible to climb the Largs tower:

The only access is through a pad-locked oaken door, two and a half metres off the ground. Inside, there is absolutely nothing, apart from a generous legacy of guano, bequeathed by the local pigeons who use the memorial as a convenient dovecote. There were originally four wooden floors, which allowed access by ladder to the 'look-out' floor at the level of the small window at the top, but the flooring has long since been removed for safety. 

The Battle of Largs was a significant turning point in the history of the isles. I like the perspective put on this by Don Alick 'Splash’ MacKillop in his Sea-Names of Berneray:

When we, in the Western Isles, lost the Battle of Largs, it spelt the beginning of the end of the Norse influence in these islands, and all that is left today is their language in place-names and their blood in the veins of the islanders.

Don Alick (Splash) MacKillop - RIP: 1931-2009
In the words of Splash, despite the Battle of Largs, Norse blood, and place names, still figure prominently in the isles.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Scenes from Killegray

Killegray, in the Sound of Harris, is an interesting, but rarely visited island. I have only been there once (see chapter 15 of book 2). I believe the name means either "Island of the Church", or 'Burial Place Island". At its north end is Teampull na Annait, the site of a medeaval church and burial ground. (The place-name Annait signifies it was an early Christian site.)

This is the description of Killigray from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1882-4):

Calligray or Killigray, an island in Harris parish, Outer Hebrides, Inverness-shire, nearly in the middle of the Sound of Harris. It measures about 2 miles in length and 1 in breadth; is nearly all deep uncultivated moss in the south end, but consists of good cultivated land in the north end; and is inhabited by a people who are mainly supported by fishing. Faint traces of a very ancient building, supposed to have been a heathen temple, are in its north end

My visit was a day trip that started with a three-mile boat ride from Leverburgh. The boatman nosed his small boat into a reef on the shore below Killigray House, where it was easy to get ashore. The first thing I went to see was the house, which dates to the late 18th century, and is in fine shape these days.

Behind the house is a later addition, an excellent design that fits well with the original house.

Next to the house is a stone gateway; its pillars topped with stone balls, nearly identical to the sea-gate in front of the house on nearby Ensay. How I wished I'd taken a picture through the Killegray gate that showed more of the sea, like I'd done through the sea-gate on Ensay.

Killigrey gate

Ensay gate
After looking around the grounds of the house - no one was home, which was fortunate, as the owners are said to not like visitors - I headed north to what the old Ordnance Gazetteer called a heathen templeTeampull na Annait. 

Looking towards Pabbay from Teampull na Annait
There's not much left of the medeaval church and burial ground that once stood here; just a low rectangular outline in the turf, with several small, stumpy tombstones poking up here and there. You can read the CANMORE page on it here. A while back one of the graves was exposed by the sea. Its occupant was found with a hammer and scales. One theory for this is that the hammer was for the dearly departed to knock at the door of heaven, and the scales so that the weight of their soul could be determined. The Jethro Tull song Two Fingers comes to mind:

I'll see you at the Weighing-In
When your life's sum-total's made.
And you set your wealth in Godly deeds
Against the sins you've laid.

Nearby is the holy well known as Tobar na Annait. I looked for it, but could see no sign of a well anywhere. Later research showed that the well lies a quarter mile to the south, and is now used as the water supply for the house. (You can see a photo of the well here.)

Looking to Ensay from Teampull na Annait
From the old graveyard I walked down the west side of the island, enjoying the views to the many islands in the sound: The pyramid of Pabbay the most distinctive of them all.

Pabbay on the horizon
Killigray beach is a half-mile stretch of sand facing to the northwest. I believe that back in the day the queen picnicked here on occasion. No royals were about, so I had the whole beach to myself.

A slight wander inland took me to placid Loch a' Mhachair.

The next photo shows some of the cultivation ridges that cover much of the island. Like Ensay, Killegray had about 300 acres of arable land.

Halfway down the coast, sitting on a tidal mound 60 feet from the shore, was the fortress of Dunan Ruadh; bits of its defensive wall still discernible. There are quite a few forts named 'Dunan Ruadh' in the isles, and you can see a list of them all here. The word 'ruadh' can mean: red, reddish, strong, dried or scorched. Perhaps scorched is a reference to being vitrified; the walls exposed to fire to fuse them together.

From the fort I wandered down to the south end of the island, a marshy area that was wet to walk through, so I turned back north. The terrain in front of me was beautiful; rolling green hills surrounding the elegant house. Ten years or so ago there were talks of building a highway link from Berneray to Leverburgh. A two-mile causeway would link Berneray to Killigray; then a  short bridge to Ensay; then a mile long connection to Harris. I do not know if the project is still under consideration, but if it came true a highway would bisect the amazing terrain in the next photo.

From the south end I made the short climb to the top of the island. Crowning the summit is an extraordinary cairn, one I've not see the like of on any other island. It was partly hollow, with an opening at the bottom. I was told this was so you could build a fire inside the cairn. If you are ever stranded on Killigray, you can call for help from here the old fashioned way - if, that is, you can find any wood.

I had another 30 minutes until pickup, so I spent them sitting next to the cairn, enjoying the view over all the islands in the sound. I also enjoyed a beer.

If you ever get the chance, pay a visit to Killigray in the sound. It is not often visited, so chances are that you'll have the whole island to yourself.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Mysterious Little Colonsay

Over the years I've sailed past mysterious Little Colonsay a dozen times, but I've yet to get ashore. The closest I've been to it was on a walk to see the ruins of Kilvickeon, which lies a half-mile from Little Colonsay on the south coast of Ulva (see the March 9, 2015 post). From that vantage point the island looked like a giant submarine on the prowl (see the first photo). Based on this excerpt from Hamish Haswell-Smith's The Scottish Islands, it's an island I'd like to see firsthand:

This is a nice little island in a stunning setting...on a calm sunny day it is easy to be enthralled until you remember that the southwest is entirely exposed to the Atlantic with no sheltering landmass between Little Colonsay and the shores of America.

Little Colonsay seen from Ulva - Staffa in the distance (right)

Little Colonsay seen from the sea - Dutchman's Cap to the left
I'd also like to see it because it is a mysterious island; mysterious in the sense that, aside from Haswell-Smith's brief mention, Little Colonsay is conspicuously absent in Hebridean literature. The only historical information I've come across is the description of how the island was cleared of its people around 1850 by the Clarks, who also owned nearby Ulva and Gometra. 

Prior to the clearances the population peaked at 16 in 1841. An old map show a small cluster of ruined houses, but these days there is only one intact home on the island; a Victorian mansion that has been extensively remodeled. I've been unable to find any history on the mansion. It is not even mentioned in Frank Walker's excellent architectural guide book Argyll and the Islands; a book that covers most every structure of interest in the area.

Little Colonsay seen from Ulva - the house is just visible (left of centre)
Adding to the mystery, the author Thomas Hannan, who wrote extensively about the islands in this area in The Beautiful Island of Mull (1926), and Iona: And Some Satellites (1931), never mentions Little Colonsay. It is also unusual there are no (known) early Christian ruins on the island. No matter how small, most every island in this area seems to have them. 

Someday I hope to set foot on mysterious Little Colonsay. I would climb to the summit of Torr Mor to enjoy the view over the amazing constellation of historic isles that dot the sea between Ulva and Iona.

The mansion on Little Colonsay - its highest point (Torr Mor) to the left

Friday, December 22, 2017

Garbh Eilean - Three Ways Up

There are several islands in the Hebrides with the name 'Garbh Eilean'; a name usually translated as 'rough island', referring to unequal and varying terrain. The Garbh Eilean of the Shiants certainly qualifies in that regard; it is a lumpy island, with shear cliffs rising to 400 feet.

Garbh Eilean - North Side
Garbh Eilean - East Side
Garbh Eilean - South Side
It can also be a 'rough' island to climb. There are three routes; two difficult, and one relatively easy. The primary way up is one of the difficult ones. It starts at the isthmus between Eilean Taighe and Garbh Eilean. Then, after climbing a short section of natural stairway, it zig-zags up another 50 feet before traversing west to the base of a steep, narrow gully. The gully takes you to the top of a 'false summit', from where it is an easy walk to the true top. 

The route is marked in the next photo. Where it disappears on the left is where it climbs up a steep gully hidden from view. This is the route the shepherds use.

The other difficult way up is from Airidhean a' Bhaig (bay of the sheiling), on the northeast tip of the island. I have only gone up this route once. It is very steep at the end, and there is no way I'd ever consider descending this way. The route is shown in white in the next photo.

The third way up is the easiest route, but it requires being landed at Annait, on the west side of the island. (Annait is the possible site of an early monastic settlement). If the sea and wind cooperate it is easy to land on a natural pier of a (mostly) level reef - seen at the lower right in the next photo.

As you walk up the glen you come to an interesting ruin. Nestled in nettles, it was a substantial building in its day; and perhaps the chapel that gave the place its name.

At the foot of the glen lies a complex assortment of structures, including a couple of Iron Age and medieval roundhouses. Unfortunately many of their stones were robbed to build a large sheep fank. 

From Annait it is a gentle climb up the grassy glen to the top of the island. Along the way you have to watch your step. If not you might step on something fuzzy and cute.

Baby bonxie

Top of Garbh Eilean

Top of Garbh Eilean - Eilean Taigh in the distance
At the top of the glen you come to the north cliff. The walk along the cliff edge is amazing. The first time I made it I was surprised when a large sea-eagle took off from the nearby grass. It flew just six-feet over me before soaring out to sea.

From the east end of the island the views open up across to Eilean Mhuire, and below to the beautiful ruin at Airidhean a' Bhaig - see the September 16, 2014 post for more on this fascinating spot.

Airidhean a' Bhaig

Eilean Mhuire
It is only once you reach the top of Garbh Eilean that you realize how big the island really is. Time ashore is often limited, so you may not have be able to make the complete two-mile circuit of the cliff-tops. But be sure to stand atop the north cliff, where you will see something fantastic: thousands and thousands of puffins soaring below you, flying from their burrows to the sea and back. And if you're very lucky, perhaps an eagle will come calling.