Thursday, January 29, 2015

Go Seahawks!

My local team, the Seattle Seahawks, are playing a big national game this Sunday. Here are some fans I found in the Treshnish Isles - they may have misheard the name...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Carraig Mhic a' Phi - The MacPhee Stone - Colonsay

John McPhee opens his book 'The Crofter and the Laird' with a description of how the MacDonalds hunted down Malcolm MacPhee, the last MacPhee chief of Colonsay: 'captured him, refused him mercy, saying that a man who had never showed mercy should not ask for it, tied him to a standing stone, and shot him.'

Coll Ciotach MacDomhnuill (AKA Colkitto) captured MacPhee in 1623 near Eilean nan Ron (Seal Island) at the far southwestern tip of Oronsay. He was then tied to a standing stone near Balerominmore (perhaps the big marshy farm?), a stone that would become known as Carraig Mhic a'Phi, and shot. The stone is now a pilgrimage site for all the MacPhees who visit Colonsay.

In 1623 the stone was 8-feet-tall, and stood about 30 feet northeast of its current location. Sometime after MacPhee was shot the stone fell and broke. In 1977 it was pieced together with iron straps and erected in an enclosure. (Unfortunately it was mounted upside down.) 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cill Chatriona - Colonsay

One of the best walks on Colonsay is the trek to the beach of Traigh Ban via Balnahard farm. Traigh Ban lies at the north end of Colonsay, and is a six mile (round trip) walk from Kiloran Bay.

To get there, climb the track that ascends north below Carn an Eoin, the highest point on Colonsay. From the top of the road the summit of Colonsay is easily obtained by making a small detour to the east. A little farther on another detour is well worth the effort; a short side trip down towards the sea to visit St Columba's Well.

St Columba's Well
From the well, return to the track, and then carry on to the north. After a mile you'll pass Balnahard farm, and in another half mile you will come to the end of the track above Traigh Ban. On the hillside here lies the old church and burial ground of Cill Chatriona, (I've also seen it referred to as Cill Cairine and Cill Cabrine.)

Cill Chatriona
All that's left of the church are low walls of rubble, as the site was pillaged for stone in the 1870s. Although there is not much of the church left, there are two interesting stones here. One is a beautiful cross, its black stone polished to a glossy sheen by centuries of cattle using it as a rubbing stone.

Cross/Bovine Scratching post
Another cross once stood here; an elaborately carved stone with four holes in the head (see this RCAHMS page - the cross was given to a museum in Edinburgh in 1881). I'm not sure what the holes represent, and the only other holed-cross I know of is the odd three-holed cross of North Rona

Another stone of interest that is still here is Clach a'Pheanais - the penance stone. It is tilted, four feet high, aligned east to west, and one of several penance stones in the Hebrides. See the February 28, 2013 post for a photo of the Penance Stone on Canna, and see this RCAHMS page for more on Cill Chatriona.

Colonsay's Penance Stone

From Cill Chatriona it is a short walk to the beach of Traigh Ban. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the beach, as I ran out of film shortly after visiting Cill Chatriona. That visit was back in the pre-digital days, when I'd pack a bag of 20 rolls of film whenever I visited Scotland, and then try my best to ration them out over a three-week period. Occasionally, on a hike like the one to Balnahard, I'd forget to take an extra roll, and so there are several sites in the islands I've visited, but returned without any photos. 

don't miss those film-days. Especially the week-long delay after a trip waiting for the film to be developed, only to find out, on far too many occasions, that many of the photos were either under or over exposed. That said, one of the best investments I've made is a film scanner, as many of those film-photos were poorly printed, and when I scanned them, and printed them myself, they turned out much better. An example of that is the next photo of the church on nearby Oronsay. The original print from the developer was dark and disappointing, but the scanned negative turned out much better.

Photo of Oronsay Church from a scanned 35mm negative

Monday, January 19, 2015

Shillay of the Monach Isles

I have a vivid memory of small Shillay of the Monach Isles. During a sailing trip to St Kilda in 1999, we had to make a quick escape from Kilda due to an incoming gale. And so we left Kilda in the late afternoon, and then flew with the wind to the Monachs. It was getting dark when we arrived, and I watched as the skipper, Donald Wilke, used two marker cairns on a small skerry near Shillay to navigate to a safe anchorage between Shillay and Ceann Iar. It was my first time sailing in the twilight, and I was amazed by Donald's skilled seamanship, as he kept the cairns aligned against the darkening horizon while we sailed through a skerry-studded sea, After dropping anchor he could finally relax, and made us big steaming cups of hot chocolate. It was a sail, and a night, to remember, and we stayed on deck until the tall tower of the lighthouse on Shillay was no longer visible in the darkness to the west.

I promised myself then that someday I'd return to see the lighthouse on Shillay, and touch the navigation cairns that had guided us to safety. It took 14 years, but I did make good on that promise. Below are a few photos from a visit to Shillay made on Hjalmar Bjorge in 2013. The tide was low, and so I was able to wade from Shillay over to the skerry to touch the navigation cairns I'd seen so long ago (last photo).

Approaching Shillay (2013) - the nav-cairns can be seen to the left

The landing place on Shillay - ship's dog Seven (aka Fatty) leading the way
Looking back to the lighthouse from the skerry of the cairns
The lighthouse and the temporary light that operated until 2008
One of the navigation cairns - Hjalmar Bjorge in the background

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Vatersay Pay and Display

This is what happens on Vatersay when you forget to Pay and Display.

East Beach Car Park, Vatersay

Friday, January 16, 2015

Kisimul Castle - Atop the Now Forbidden Tower

I fondly recall my first visit to Kisimul Castle. I had wanted to see the castle ever since reading the tale of how a piper would stand atop the castle ramparts every evening after the chief had his supper, and proclaim:

"The MacNeil has eaten, the lesser princes of the earth may now dine."

That first visit to Barra was in 1993. The ferry from Oban arrived in the dark at 11pm. And as we approached Castlebay we could clearly see the castle, seeming to rise out of the sea, brightly illuminated by several spotlights. It was an amazing sight. The next day we took a little boat out to the castle, where we were allowed to wander at will.

The highlight of seeing the castle was climbing to the top of the tower and stepping out onto the ramparts. All of Castlebay could be seen, with Heabhal towering high above the village. The tower-top remains one of my favourite places in the isles. I did not know it at the time, but I would never be able to stand there again.

My wife on the tower roof
Standing at one of my favourite places in the isles. Was this where the piper stood?
The next time I visited Kisimul I was looking forward to climbing the tower and stepping out onto the ramparts again. Coincidentally, my visit was at the same time as a Clan MacNeil gathering, and there were several MacNeils on the boat to visit the Castle. But when we reached the top of the interior stairs we found that the door to the roof was locked. I made my way back down to the entrance kiosk to ask if they could open the door. They looked at me as if I was crazy. Why would anyone want to go out there? They refused to open the door, and so I left a bit disgruntled. At least I have that memory of standing atop the tower back in 1993.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

South Rona - Then and Now

My first week-long visit to South Rona was in 2004, when my wife and I stayed in the renovated Mission Hall above Dry Harbour. There are some 40 ruins in the village of Dry Harbour, including a couple of substantial houses finished with dressed stone. One of these substantial ruins stood atop a bit of high ground near the ruined schoolhouse with a great view over the harbour. Marked on an old map of Rona as the Catechist House, its four walls still stood, but the inside was an empty shell.

The Catechist's House (or Manse) - 2004
As I wandered around the nettle- and bracken-grown interior of the house in 2004, little did I know that in a few years I would be spending eight nights in this house; for in 2005-2006 it was extensively renovated into a self-catering cottage.

The Manse - now Escape Cottage - 2007
It is called Escape Cottage, and a stay there is truly an escape. My wife and I spent an amazing eight nights in the house. The usual let is for a week, but on our last day the weather turned a bit nasty, and the trip back to Skye had to be postponed for a day. After informing us of the delay, Bill Cowie, the island manager, brought us a complimentary bottle of wine, and we enjoyed our bonus day and night in comfort - I was able to get in another walk, and my wife was able to complete her jig-saw puzzle. For island-goers I can recommend no better place to spend a week (and maybe a bonus night or two).

Jigsaw puzzle in work (and what a view!)

My wife and I at the cottage - 2007

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Farthest Flannans

Those who are lucky enough to get ashore on the Flannans usually only set foot on one of the Seven Hunters: Eilean Mor, the lighthouse island. Due to the mystery of the missing lightkeepers, Eilean Mor gets all the publicity. But the three farthest Flannans, Brona Cleit, Roareim and Eilean a Ghobha, are also amazing places, as they host a large gannetry nearly as impressive as Sulaisgeir.

Eilean a' Ghobhar, Brona Cleit and Roareim seen from atop Eilean Mor
In 2004 I was on a trip that sailed past these outliers on the way to St Kilda. I have never read anywhere that there were bird-hunter bothies on Roareim, but I did see some sort of stone structures on the island (see last photo). It was a wet, grey, dreary day, and all my photos turned out wet, grey and dreary. I hope to return in the future to get some better photos. 

Eilean a' Ghobhar, Brona Cleit and Roareim seen from the sea
Natural arch on Roareim
The white dots are gannets
Bothy ruins on Roareim?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Gylen Castle - Kerrera

The walk to Gylen Castle is one of the best in the islands. Making it a loop, by going via Barnamboc on the west side of Kerrera, makes it even better. Gylen is an impressive ruin, a 50 foot high tower house standing atop a cliff at the south end of Kerrera. I have seen its Gaelic name, Caisteal nan Geimhlean, translated as 'Castle of Springs', but the word Geimhlean can mean enslavement, or imprisonment, so its name may better translate to 'The Prison'.

For more on Gylen see this RCAHMS page.

Gylen Castle - seaward side seen from the courtyard at the edge of the cliff (stitched photo)
Gylen Castle - Landward side with Oriel window (top left)
Gylen from the west - Scarba in the far distance
Gylen from the east
Gylen from the sea
Gylen is also known for its oriel window. Inset in the window is a carving of a woman’s head; her long hair spreading down and out in both directions to become a cable moulding that runs along the bottom of the window. One braid of her hair winds around to the carving of a man in a skull-cap, who is pulling on this rope of hair (left side of photo). Her other braid winds around to the carving of what looks to be a man wearing a helmet or, as was reported by a visitor in 1800, a bagpipe player, who is also pulling on the rope of hair. It would be interesting to know the story behind this tug-of-war for the lady’s attention. Which course in life do you think she chose? Life with a musician, or life as a religious?

Oriel Window
Oriel window carving detail
A visit to the castle is not complete without a stop at nearby Gylen Tearoom. Last time I passed by it was closed, hopefully it will be open next time.

Gylen Tearoom

Monday, January 5, 2015

Getting to Eigg

These days you walk onto the ferry at Mallaig, and then walk directly onto Eigg via the ferry Lochnevis. Prior to that the Loch Mor waited off Glamisdale, and passengers and supplies were loaded onto the flit-boat MV Ulva. I never had the pleasure of doing that. The only time I saw MV Ulva was while returning from Rum in June of 2000. After departing from Rum, MV Loch Mor stopped off of Eigg, and several people, and pallets of supplies - food, beer and coal - were loaded onto Ulva.

Ulva underway off Glamisdale
The Ulva approaches Loch Mor
All the necessities: beer, cider, crisps and coal
MV Ulva - Kildonan Church can be seen in the trees on the hillside
Another way to get to Eigg was (and is) via MV Sheerwater out of Arisaig. I have taken the Sheerwater on two occasions. Once was from Arisaig to Eigg (book 1, chapter 24), and the other time was a trip from Eigg to Muck and back (book 1, chapter 26). Unfortunately I have no photos of her at Eigg, but here are two from Muck. 

Sheerwater passing the RO/RO slip as it approaches Muck
Amy of Muck and Sheerwater at the old Port Mor jetty
The days of the flit-boats are gone, and MV Lochnevis is the main way to get to Eigg. From a tourist standpoint that makes the journey less of an adventure, but for those who have to make the journey regularly it's a good thing.

Although I've taken Lochnevis to Eigg, the only photos of her I have were taken while hiking in the hills east of Mallaig. The last photo was taken from the slopes of Cruach Mhalaig, and shows Lochnevis tied up to the pier. Also shown are the ferries MV Western Isles and the Mallaig-Armadale ferry (it think it's MV Coruisk).

Mallaig Harbour with the MV Western Isles, MV Lochnevis and MV Coruisk

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Getting to Jura

Three boats been taken me to Jura: the Eilean Dhiura, the Sound of Gigha and Gemini. Sound of Gigha began life in the spring of 1966 as the Isle of Gigha. She capsized in the winter of that year, and after being refitted to be more stable she was renamed Sound of Gigha.

According to Wikipedia, Sound of Gigha made the Islay-Jura run from March of 1969 until July of 1998, when it was replaced by Eilean Dhiura. Something is wrong there, because my first visit to Jura was in the spring of 1999, and it was on Sound of Gigha. That visit included an amazing walk around the north end of Jura to see Corryvreakan (book 1, chapter 5).

Below are some photos of the three boats that took me to Jura. The other way to get there, and one I want to take someday, is the passenger ferry from Tayvallich.

Sound of Gigha at Port Askaig in 1999

Gemini arriving at Jura in 2005- Scarba in the distance

Eilean Dhiura at Port Askaig (2010)
Eilean Dhiura and the Caol Ila distillery (2010)
Eilean Dhiura on its way to Jura (2010)