Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Pabay Mor - Loch Roag

Pabay Mor, in Loch Roag, was one of my first Island 'Consolation Prizes'. But it would be hard to find a better one. It was the year 2000, and I had tried to get out to the Flannans with Seatrek. But they had more lucrative business opportunities going on, and so my 'penciled in' Flannan trip was cancelled. But they did offer to drop myself, two friends, and a Baile-na-Cille dog off on the island of Pabay Mor.

Briomanish Village - Pabay Mor
Pabay was cleared of its people around 1820. It was briefly re-settled in 1840, but was cleared again in 1849. The village consists of about seven old houses and a kiln. Four of the houses still have roofs and are occasionally occupied.




In the distance in the next photo you can see the township of Valtos on mainland Lewis. The Valtos crofters have the right to graze their sheep on Pabay.


Pabay was a MacLeod island until 1800, and prior to that the Pabay MacLeods held a lot of territory in the Uig area. The following abridged excerpt from chapter 17 of book 2 tells how the Pabay Macleods lost control of their land on mainland Lewis.

In the fifteenth century the sons of MacLeod of Pabay Mor murdered the family of John Roy Macaulay, following a dispute over the ownership of a cow. Thirteen-year-old John Roy was away at the time, living with his foster-father in Mealista, on the west coast of Lewis. MacLeod of Lewis, not happy with the behavior of the Pabay MacLeods, ordered that in recompense they take young John Roy into their custody with a promise to keep him safe.

But John Roy's period of safekeeping did not last long. On a snowy November day the MacLeods took him on a hunting trip, and at Kenneth’s hut (NB 112 164), an old shelter near Kinresort, he was tied to rocks in the snow and left to the elements.

The ruin of Kenneth's Hut
John Roy’s foster-father had a premonition something was amiss. He hiked to Kenneth’s hut and found the near-dead boy. After resuscitating him with some warm milk, he carried him over seven miles of hills and bog to Mealista. Several years later John Roy would have his revenge when he pursued the eldest son of MacLeod to the shores of Uig Bay, killing him just before he could reach the sanctuary of St Christopher’s chapel. MacLeod of Lewis, in compensation for all John Roy had suffered, granted him some of the lands of Uig that belonged to the Pabay MacLeods. 

The most historical structure on Pabay is Teampall Pheadair, St Peter's Chapel. It dates to at least the 1500s, and lies above a beautiful white-sand beach a half-mile north of the village. 

St Peter's Church and beach
As you can see in the next photo there's not much left of St Peter's. A note on the CANMORE page for the church suggests it may have been bombarded by canon fire during the Scottish Crown's campaign against the MacLeods of Lewis in 1506.

What's left of St Peter's
At the north end of Pabay you will find a giant lobster pond. Lobsters caught at sea in creels were held here until market prices in England merited shipping them south. 

Lobster Pond and a visitor from Bailenacille
I have been fortunate to have spent many hours on Pabay in 2000, and again during a visit in 2011. I look forward to possibly returning again during our Hjalmar Bjorge cruise this May.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Double-Beehive - Tighe Dhubhastail

If you are looking for an amazing walk to a remote shieling, one of the best is a three-mile trek from Morsgail Lodge to Airighean Tighe Dhubhastail (the shieling house of Dubastal). The shieling lies in a pastoral site straddling a peaty stream at NB 0997 2128. Here you'll find the ruins of four rectangular structures, their stones covered with yellow lichen, along with what's left of an older double beehive cell. 

Tighe Dhubhastail - double beehive ruin hidden in the grass at centre
I wanted to see this site because of an evocative drawing of the double-beehive made when it was occupied. (See page 10 at this link of the Proceedings of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries Vol 7, 1866.) The drawing was part of a report on a visit to the shieling by Captain FWL Thomas. Here is a paraphrased version of the Captain’s report, where he refers to the beehives by their Gaelic name, bothan.

   Being Sunday-stayed at Kinlochresort, we thought to improve the occasion by visiting the shielings in the neighborhood. Along with the gamekeeper we were soon at Tighe Dhubhastail (Dubastal having been a freebooter who lived on the world at large). Here was a bothan, in which the family was at home. This was the summer pasturage of the tenants of Crolista on Loch Roag. The bothan was double of the usual beehive shape, with the dwelling and dairy attached, and green with growing turf. A doorway, easily closed with a straw mat, led to the boudoir within. Close to the door was the fire, the smoke escaping through a hole in the dome. In the circular wall were three niches containing drying cheeses. A low interior door led from the dwelling to the dairy, which was six feet square. 
   The occupants were three young women, dressed in printed cotton gowns, and, being Sunday, they had finished their toilette at the burn to good purpose. Some eight of us packed into the hut while frothed milk was handed about.

The cells have partially collapsed in the years since the captain visited, and some of their stones were taken to build nearby shelters. But their entrances, and the low passage between them, are intact. Thick grass clogged the entrance, but I was able to tunnel through it to crawl into the boudoir, the main dwelling chamber (unfortunately there were no young women in printed gowns to greet me). The chamber was about 10 feet in diameter, and must have been quite crowded when Captain Thomas and seven others sat inside to enjoy some frothed milk. Another bit of grass-tunneling took me through the low interior passage to the dairy chamber, from where more crawling led back outside via a small backdoor. 

The 'boudoir' chamber
After crawling through the beehives I found the spot where the drawing of them had been made 150 years ago. The following composite image gives you a then-and-now view of the beehives. It was an amazing place to visit and think back on all the summers once spent by the folks of Crolista in this beautiful oasis on the moorland.

Then and Now - upper drawing from Proceedings of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries (Vol. 7, 1866)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Dun Chonnuill of the Garvellachs

There is not much left of The Great Castle of Dun Dunquhonle. It sat atop Dun Chonnuill, the smallest of the Garvelachs, and it's easy to see why this tiny island was chosen for a fort. Its cliffs rise 200 feet above the sea, and the few access points to the top were easily blocked by small defensive stone walls. 

Dun Chonnuill
The landing place is a natural galley slip in the rocky shoreline. From there a short hike around the head of an inlet leads to the base of a steep, and once heavily defended, path to the top.

Landing place seen from the sea
Landing place seen from above
The path zig-zags up the narrow grassy slope. There are five segments to it; the final one passing through a narrow defile to reach the summit. 

Zig-zag path to the summit
Atop the island you'll find a large grassy plateau, about four acres in size where, to quote John of Fordun writing in the fourteenth century, the "great castle of Dunquhonle" once lay. The only signs of this once great castle are several earthen mounds and low stone walls covered with green turf and nettles. 

Summit of Dun Chonnuill
This small piece of ground has seen a lot of history. A Lord of the Isles had been imprisoned here seven centuries ago, and thirteen-hundred years before that it had been the stomping-ground for the warriors of Fingalian legend, led by Conall Cearnach, cousin to Cuchulainn. It was Conall who avenged Cuchulainn’s death by killing ten and seven scores of hundreds of the men of Ireland. If my math is right, that's about 34,000 men.

Grass-grown foundation of a building
Dun Chonnuill is an amazing little island, one with more history per square foot than most others. And the view from this rock in the sea is expansive. To the south lie Scarba and the Slate Islands; to the southwest is Garbh Eileach, the largest of the Gravellachs; Mull spans the view to the north; Colonsay floats off to the west; and to the northeast the sea narrows in to the Firth of Lorne between Mull and the mainland. 

A tale of Dun Chonnuill, one that tells how the Macleans came to rule the isle of Mull, is recounted in Fitzroy Maclean’s West Highland Tales. Maclean describes how, in the fourteenth century, two Maclean brothers, Lachlan (the brains) and Hector (the brawn), abducted John MacDonald, the Lord of the Isles. They brought him to Dun Chonnuill to coerce him into making Lachlan the admiral of his forces. Another concession he was forced him to make was granting Mull, Scarba, the Cairnaburgs, and the Garvellachs to the Macleans. They released him only after he swore to all this while seated on the Black Stone of Iona, a vow that could not be broken.

See this CANMORE page for more on the once Great Castle of Dun Chonnuill.

Dun Chonnuill seen from Garbh Eileach

Garbh Eileach seen from Dun Chonnuill

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Broken Heads of Eilean Mor

It was the OS map that sparked my initial interest in Eilean Mor. Some 15 years ago I was perusing Landranger 61 (Jura & Colonsay), thinking about possible hikes on Jura. Off to the right of Jura I noticed a tiny island on the map. What caught my attention were two words printed on the island in the font they use for ancient monuments; the words were Chapel and Cross.

Eilean Mor is so off the beaten path that there are no regular boat trips to the island. And so to get there to see this Chapel and Cross I had to arrange a day-charter. That was way back in 2002, when Mike Murray ran the catamaran Gemini out of Crinan Harbour. In addition to Eilean Mor, over the following four years I would charter Mike to take me to Scarba, Northern Jura, Belnahua, Dun Chonnuill, Cuil-i-Breannan, Garbh Eileach, and Eileach an Naoimh.

Gemini at Eilean Mor
The first interesting thing I came across while wandering on Eilean Mor was a headless cross.


This cross is said to have marked the spot where St Charmaig is buried. Seton Gordon, in his Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands (1935), describes that the cross was broken during a failed attempt to steal it from the island.

Standing next to the headless cross is St Charmaig's Chapel. It is about forty feet by twenty, and at one time had a second story where the priest lived. The western half of the building contains the nave and the eastern half the chancel where, at some point in time, a fireplace had been installed. The chapel dates to the 12th century, and was operated as an inn in the 1600s; perhaps housing pilgrims to St Charmaig's Cave, which lies on the coast of the island, 300 yards south of the chapel.

St Charmaig's Chapel - summit cross at upper right
In the fireplace of the radically altered chapel there rests a thin, grey-stone coffin lid, with the effigy of a man in a cassock. The stone dates to the twelfth century and may have once covered St Charmaig’s coffin. Pilgrims were said to have dropped coins into his coffin through gaps around the lid. The stone certainly looks like the image of a saint, for in one corner is carved a chalice, and a nimbus surrounds the head.

Coffin-lid effigy
When MEM Donaldson visited Eilean Mor 100 years (or so) ago, she commented on how the effigy in the church was headless. As you can see in the next photo, the 'head' was subsequently found, and cemented back in place. (Note the seams in the stone at the shoulders.)

The repaired (once-headless) effigy
When MEM visited the island she also photographed a cross that stood on the highest point of the island. It, too, was headless for many years. TS Muir, in his Ecclesiological Notes on the Islands of Scotland (1885), describes how the cross-head was found in 1864 when he was on the island, and how he considered taking it away, but in the end set it in the chapel next to St Charmaig's effigy. The cross-head would lay there until it was stolen in 1924.

MEM Photo of the headless Eilean Mor Cross - c. 1900
I do not know how the cross-head was eventually recovered, but it was, and you can see the complete restored cross standing in the National Museum of Scotland. In its place a cement replica was installed on the island. The following composite photo shows the two sides of the replica, and a front view of the restored original.

Eilean Mor Cross - the original at right, and two views of the replica
It was good to see that two of the headless stones of Eilean Mor have been restored, but sad that St Charmaig's cross, the one that once stood over his tomb, will remain forever headless. See this CANMORE page for more on St Charmaig's chapel and cross.

Friday, October 28, 2016

'Island' Cemetery - Loch Katrine

Writing the last post about the Magregors buried on Inchcailloch reminded me of another MacGregor burial ground 12 miles away in Loch Katrine. And yes, I did say 'in' Loch Katrine. 

Portnellen burial ground in Loch Katrine
In the 1800s Loch Katrine was dammed to provide water for Glasgow. In 1922 the water level was raised again, which meant the old burial ground at Portnellen would be submerged. Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, in his Book Wild Drumalbain (1927), has this to say about how the burial ground was protected from the rising waters:

The commissioners were bound to erect, previous to raising the level of Loch Katrine, a substantial stone wall around the burying-ground, on the identical site of the then existing wall... and prior to the raising of the level of the loch, they were required to raise the level of the ground within the said wall, and for a distance of 12 feet outside the same, to a height not less than six feet above the existing level, placing any gravestones in the same positions relatively to the raised surface, as they had occupied with reference to the original surface.

In 1993 my wife and I made the five-mile hike from Stronachlachar to Portnellen to see this 'island' cemetery in Loch Katrine. After walking across the narrow causeway we found about a dozen tombstones. None of the inscriptions were readable, but they are said to date to between 1699 and 1800.

Tombstones in the 'waterproof' enclosure
These tombstones lie some six feet above the actual graves - six feet of solid concrete. Alasdair Alpin wrote humorously write about this in Somewhere in Scotland (1935):

...the MacGregors buried there will require to be hefty fellows when Gabriel sounds the reveille, if they expect to break through the tons of cement which the Glasgow bailies have placed over and around their tombs by the shores of Loch Katrine.

See this CANMORE page for more on the 'island' burial ground at Portnellan.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Grey Stone of Inchcailloch

In the ancient burial ground on Inchcailloch (Loch Lomond) you'll find many old tombstones. One of them stands out historically. Known as the Grey Stane of Inchcailloch, it marks the grave of Gregor MacGregor, cousin to Rob Roy, and 15th Chief of Clan Gregor, who died in 1693.

The Grey Stane of Inchcailleach
This stone is sacred to the Macgregors. Sir Walter Scott used it in his novel Rob Roy, where Rob gives a guarantee of good faith with the oath: "I swear to ye upon the halidome of him that sleeps beneath the grey stane of Inchcailloch."

In his book Vanished Waters, Alasdair Alpin MacGregor describes how his father (the Colonel) taught him the importance of the stone:

    "Swear by the Grey Stane on Inch Cailleach!" the Colonel would command, when disciplining us in matters of truthfulness and honour. This ancient emblem of the Macgregors meant much more to him than did the historic Black Stone of Iona, upon which the most sacred and binding oaths were taken in olden times.
    One day he took me, as on a pilgrimage, to see the Grey Stane. We travelled Loch Lomond by steamer from Balloch to Balmaha. There we disembarked, and, hiring a rowing boat, ferried ourselves across to Inch Cailleach, the Isle of Old Women - the Nuns. Through long grass we went, following a path among dense and hoary woodlands. And there, sure enough, in a clearing just by the gate of an old Macgregor burial-place, in the heart of the Isle, was the Grey Stane itself. The occasion was one of great interest to us both; but I could see from my father's demeanour that, for him, it was a solemn moment.

MacGregor goes on to say, in his book Islands by the Score, that "In the Highland home of childhood and boyhood, one was called upon to swear by this ancient MacGregor emblem, rather than upon the Bible."

Burial ground of Inchcailloch
The stone
Like Alasdair Alpin Macgregor and his father, most visitors these days make their way to Inchcailloch via Balmaha, where you can hire a boat at Macfarlane's Boatyard, or take one of their regular foot-ferry crossings. You can find a guide to Inchcailloch here.

Inchcailloch ferrry
Inchcailloch seen from Balmaha

The view on an overcast day from the summit of Inchcailloch

Friday, October 21, 2016

Gleann Mor of St Kilda

It takes a lot of time and effort to visit the most remote and, to me, the most interesting, part of St Kilda: Gleann Mor.  A visit to the glen can take four to five hours, which allows for spending a couple of hours in the glen to visit all its amazing ruins and make the descent to Tunnel Cave. Day trips to Kilda just barely allow time to make this long trek, so the best way to see Gleann Mor without having to hurry is to visit the island on a cruise that allows at least a full day ashore.

The typical route to the glen first involves climbing 800 feet to the saddle below Mullach Sgar. From there you can descend directly into the glen. But since you've gone to the effort of climbing so high, before descending into Gleann Mor I'd suggest strolling to the northwest along the ridge to Mullach Bi and pay a visit to the Lover's Stone.

Gleann Mor seen from near Mullach Bi
Descending into Gleann Mor
Like many areas on Kilda, Gleann Mor is bonxie country. So as you walk down the glen be prepared for a surprise attack from behind.

Bonxie on the attack
Along the way down you will also come across pieces of the Sunderland flying-boat that crashed here the day after D-Day in 1944.

Flying-boat remains in Gleann Mor
The ancient ruins in Gleann Mor are astounding. Over a dozen sets of beehive cells, some linked together with odd, horn-shaped forecourts. No one knows for certain how old these things are, but some may date back as far as the 4th century. The most complex cluster is what's known as the Amazon's House (see this CANMORE page for more). 

Clusters of ruins in Gleann Mor
Horned structure
Soay sheep mowing the lawn of Glenn Mor
No visit to Gleann Mor is complete without making the descent to Tunnel Cave. At the tip of the cliff on the east shore of the bay you will find a natural ledge that leads down to the sea, and the entrance to the cave. (You can see the sloping ledge in the next photo.) The last bit of the descent can be slippy, so be careful. Once in the cave you can walk to its far end where there is a great view over to Boreray.

The sloping ledge down to Tunnel Cave
Boreray seen from the tunnel
From the tunnel you have your work cut out for you to return to Village Bay. The saddle below Mullach Sgar is a mile to the south (and 800 feet up). Alternately you can climb directly SE up the ridge to Mullach Mor, and then on to the top of Conachair. That route is only three-quarters of a mile as the gannet flies, but has 1234 feet of elevation gain. Either way can be tough going through thick grass and attacking bonxies. The climb up Conachair is one you'll remember for a long time; especially the view from the top down to Village Bay on one side, and Boreray on the other.



If you do make the effort to walk to Gleann Mor, chances are you'll have it mostly to yourself. My last visit there was in 2015. Five day-boats and three cruise ships were in village bay. A hundred visitors were ashore, but when I was in Gleann Mor I only saw one other person.