Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ring of Bright Water & Maxwell's Ghost

Although I did not know it at the time, my first exposure to Gaelic, the Hebrides, and the west of Scotland happened when I was 12 years old. That was in 1969, when my mother took me to a theater in downtown Seattle to see the movie Ring of Bright Water. Some scenes were filmed at Ellenabeich (Seil) and in Oban. And there are views to several islands in the Firth of Lorne, including Scarba and the Garvellachs. The story of the otter, and the scenery, made quite an impression on me.

It wasn't until 1991 that I actually read the book, which is very different from the movie, and much more interesting. After reading Ring of Bright Water (published in 1960), I went on to read the other two parts of the Bright Water trilogy: The Rocks Remain (1963), and Raven Seek Thy Brother (1969).

After reading the trilogy I came across a book about Maxwell called The White Island (1972), by John Lister-Kaye, who was involved in Maxwell's plans to construct a zoo on Eilean Bhan; the White Island that now lies under the Skye bridge. It has a sad ending as the author describes how, after Maxwell died, the zoo-in-progress had to be dismantled, and that they were worried about finding a home for Teko, the last of the famous otters. But they did not need to find him a home, because Teko died of a heart attack not too long after Gavin Maxwell died of Cancer.

Another excellent book that describes much of the back story of Maxwell's life at Sandaig and Eilean Bhan is Richard Frere's Maxwell's Ghost (1976).

It is easy to visit Eilean Bhan these days, and tours are offered by the Bright Water Visitors Centre. On the island you'll find a memorial stone that marks where Teko is buried. Teko and Gavin Maxwell both died in 1969, the year I first saw Ring of Bright Water.

Stone on Eilean Bhan - TEKO 1959 - 69

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Erraid Warning - Close the Gate or Pay Up

The first two photos show the 'main street' that runs in front of the old lightkeeper's houses on Erraid; houses now occupied by the Erraid community of the Findhorn Foundation. I took these photos during my first visit to Erraid, which was on a grey day in 2007. When the lighthouse board constructed the dwellings they wanted to insure that no sheep wandered in to cause a mess on main street. So they fabricated, out of iron, the sign you can see on the gate. It was a serious sign that threatened a 40 shilling penalty if you left the gate open. Quite a lot of money back then.

On my second visit, a brilliant sunny day in 2010, I was disappointed to see that the sign had gone missing. The gate where it was can be seen to the lower right of this photo of one of the houses and its beautiful garden. I hope the sign was put somewhere for safe-keeping, but I'm guessing it was stolen. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pigmies Island

One of the first Hebridean books I acquired, back in the 1980s, was Alasdair Alpin Macgregor's Behold the Hebrides. One of its chapters has an intriguing title, one that certainly grabbed my attention at the time: The Isle of the Pigmies.

It described a tidal island off the coast of Lewis, near the Butt of Lewis, that Macgregor said you could visit at low tide. Its legend of pigmies came from the reported discovery, in the 1500s, of many small bones and skulls. The Gaelic word for pigmie is Luspardan, and if you look at the modern OS map of Lewis you will find the island marked as Luchruban at NB 507 661, a kilometre SW of the Butt.

Location of Luchruban
In the early 1900s William Cook Mackenzie explored the island, and wrote about it in the Proceedings of Scottish Antiquaries, which you can find here. Mackenzie did not find any human bones, but he did uncover something amazing. He found what may have been a Christian hermitage with an oratory ruin, similar to the one on North Rona. A 10-foot diameter oratory connected by a passageway to a rectangular structure measuring eight by five feet.

The story of the pigmies, and the oratory ruin, made Luchruban an islet I had to see first hand. So in the early 1990s, on my first visit to the Butt of Lewis, it was not the lighthouse I came to see, it was Luchruban. From the lighthouse my wife and I followed the cliff tops south to a narrow cleft that would allow someone to descend to the shore. Just beyond it stood Luchruban.

Unfortunantely I was wearing street shoes. I did not know that Luchruban was a sea-stack, and to get on to it requires scaling a nearly shear rock face, with a few ledges and cracks that might make it doable. So I had to be satisfied with viewing it from the adjacent cliff top.

In the years subsequent to that visit my memory faded as to how steep the sides of Luchruban actually were, and I convinced myself that, with the right footwear, I should be able to climb it. And so, several years after my first visit I returned, sporting a good pair of hiking boots. But when I stood, once again, at the ravine that descended to the base of Luchruban, reality returned. The only route to the summit, that I could see, would involve some skilled rock climbing, and I gave up the attempt. I now think the only way to the top, for someone who is not a skilled rock climber, would involve bringing a ladder. Hmmmm... now there's an idea. Maybe I'll try that next time. See this CANMORE page for more on the Island of the Pigmies.

The top of Luchruban

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Stag from Rum

I just read A Stag from Rum - An Essay in Poaching, by Robert Atkinson, which was published by the Islands Book Trust. All who love the Scottish islands have a copy of his classic book Island Going (1949), and this newly published book is as good. At 85 pages it is a short book that I read in one sitting.  

A Stag from Rum
The book is a exciting tale about a poaching adventure in 1938 to the 'forbidden isle' of Rum. Here is the description from the Book Trust's website:

Contents: This tale of youthful derring–do, successful poaching and extreme sailing is published for the first time, as a tribute both to Robert Atkinson and his fellow bold spirits, John Naish and Hugh LeLacheur; who between them brought the fictional poacher ‘John Macnab’ to life on the forbidden hills of Rum. 

About the author: Robert Atkinson first came to the Hebrides in 1936 when he was twenty-one and was immediately smitten by the islands and their people, returning every summer up to the outbreak of WW2. In those years he travelled throughout the islands, reaching even the remotest of the uninhabited outliers. As an escape from the stresses of wartime he wrote both Island Going and A Stag from Rum while on active service in the RNVR. The former became a travel classic and is still in print while A Stag from Rum lay unknown and unread until just before his death in 1995.

In reading the book I was delighted to discover that Atkinson's poaching adventure was at Kilmory on the north end of Rum; an area I'd been to a couple of times. Someday I'd love to go back and camp where Atkinson and his friend Hugh LeLacheur did, above the little beach on the east side of Kilmory. You can order a copy of A Stag from Rum from the Islands Book Trust here.

Kilmory - the small beach in the distance is where Robert Atkinson & Hugh LeLacheur camped in 1939
Kilmory village ruins and burial ground

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Visit to Eileach an Naoimh

My first visit to Eileach an Naoimh of the Garvellach Isles was in 1997 (see book 1, chapter 8). The boatman who took me was Lachie MacLachlan, who lived in Cullipool on the island of Luing. The MacLachlans of Cullipool had been taking visitors to the Garvellachs for years and, as recounted in chapter 6 of her Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands (1921), it was an earlier Lachie MacLachlan of Cullipool who took MEM Donaldson to the Garvellachs.

I had made arrangements with Lachie (who has since passed way) to go to the island on a Sunday. I was surprised he agreed to this, as Luing is a fairly sabbatarian place. My wife and I were staying on the nearby isle of Seil, and on the Sunday morning she dropped me off at the ferry pier in Cuan. Since it was a Sunday, the car ferry to Luing was not running. But the little passenger ferry MV Oronsay was operating, and it took just a few minutes to cross the 900 foot wide Cuan Sound.

MV Oronsay - the foot-ferry to Luing in 1997
From the pier on Luing I was expecting to have to make a two mile walk to Cullipool. But I had no sooner started walking when I was offered a lift. The man who gave me the ride was Joe Hughes. He had just seen me walk by his house next to the pier, and wanted to be friendly and talk. As he drove me over to Cullipool he offered up several suggestions on things to see on Luing.

Joe Hughs and wife - Luing
Joe had no sooner dropped me in Cullipool when I saw Lachie climbing out of his boat, which was tied up to a rusty old fishing boat.

Lachie MacLachlan getting out of his boat in Cullipool
We were soon on our way to Aileach at full speed. But he did take time to slow down and give me a good look at Belnahua with its abandoned slate works, tiny Fladda with it lighthouse, and the once fortified island of Dun Connel. We then motored down the east side of Aileach, passing as we did a natural arch known as An Clarsach (the harp).

An Clarsach - the harp
Lachie then dropped me on slabs of rock east of the monastic site on Aileach. The island is best known for these ruins, which include two giant beehive cells that date to the sixth century.

The Beehives
Standing in front of the beehives is a 12-foot stone pillar with a natural overhang. It is called St Columba's Pulpit, and someone could preach here under rainy skies and stay dry.

Beehive cells and Columba's Pulpit
Columba's Pulpit
From the beehives it is a short walk to the site of the monastery. The most intact structure is a beautiful chapel (11th century), which you can see to the left in the next photo. The large structure to the right is a hodge-podge of altered buildings that were used as a residence when the island was last occupied in the 19th century.

Another relic of ancient times, one that many visitors miss seeing, is St Columba's Well; a little stone lined pool that lies above a narrow landing place known as Am Port, which had been the main gateway to the monastery.

Columba's Well
In my opinion the most evocative spot on the island is Cladh Eithne. It is a small circular burial ground with one of the few remaining cross-stones on the island. The cross is said to mark the grave of Eithne, St Columba's mother.

Cladh Eithne
Another interesting site is an underground chamber often referred to as 'the prison'; where it is said the prisoner was trapped by placing their arm under a wedge of rock. I did not see any such rock, but the cell had a beautiful little niche with a ledge that could be used as an altar. The cell may have been a solitary retreat for the monks; a cell of the penitential type, as opposed to the penitentiary type. During my visit in 1997 a prayer group was inside, and after they left I crawled in to find several lit candles sitting on the ledge.

Entrance to the cell
In the cell
To give them some privacy, while the prayer group was in the underground cell I wandered down to the south end of the island and climbed up to what may have been the shortest lighthouse in the world (established 1904). However the classic little lighthouse I saw then (1997) has since been replaced by a boring aluminum-clad tower, which you can see here.

Mini lighthouse at the south end (1997)
The world's shortest lighthouse?
From the light I climbed the spine of the island to Dun Bhreanain, the highest point on the island. From here you can see the other, and less visited, Garvellach islands of A' Cuili and Garbh Eileach. Those islands were so close, but so far, as it would take me five years to set foot on Garbh Eileach, and another two years to get to A' Cuili. Beautiful little islands all, but they don't have the history of Eileach an Naoimh.

Looking north from the top of the island
A' Chuli and Garbh Eileach
When the time came to go I heard Lachie speeding towards the landing spot. I jumped aboard, he throttled up, and we started motoring back to Luing at full speed. That didn't sit too well with the folks scuba-diving from a nearby sailboat, who bade us farewell with middle-finger salutes. Aside from that it had been an amazing day afoot. It was the first time I'd chartered a boat for a solo trip to an island - something I'd soon become addicted to - and it was not over yet. I still had time for a little Luing wandering (see postscript to chapter 8 of book 1). 

Eileach an Naoimh is an amazing place. One of the most accessible sites of its kind. After my visit in 1997 I returned two more times; reaching the islands from Crinan in 2002 and 2004 with Mike Murray, who owned the catamaran Gemini at the time. There are no trips from Cullipool these days (that I know of), but you can get a day trip with Seafari, operating out of Easdale. For more info on Aileach see this CANMORE page.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Eriskay - Urisk Isle?

Island names are often intriguing; the name Eriskay in particular. Nearly all references I've come across over the years say it means 'Eric's Island'; named after some Norseman from long-ago. But there's another possibility.

View indicator atop Eriskay
In his book An Island Odyssey, Hamish Haswell-Smith, says it means 'Island of the Water-nymph', but he gives no explanation of where that derivation comes from. But in his The Scottish Islands he says the name means 'Urisk Island'; a combination of the Gaelic 'uruisg', and Norse 'oy'.

According to John Gregorson Campbell's Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands (1971), urisks are:

A large lubberly supernatural, of solitary habits and harmless character, that haunted lonely and mountainous places. Some identify him with Brownie, but he differs from the fraternity of tutelary beings in having his dwelling, not in the houses or haunts of men, but in solitudes and remote localities....the race was said to be the offspring of unions between mortals and fairies...the leannan sith.

Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands is a fascinating book, and you can find a PDF of it here.

There are several Urisk place names in Scotland. The only island one I've read of is Slochd an Aoirisg on Tiree. It's not marked on the map, but is said to be near Hynish. A mainland site that is marked on the map is Coire nan Uruisgean, which lies above the southeast shore of Loch Katrine. It was said to be the meeting place of the Urisks in Scotland, and walkers in the area encounter a sign warning that Urisks are around. You can see a photo of the sign, along with more about the Urisks of Loch Katrine here.

Patrick Graham writes about Coire nan Uruisgean in Sketches of Perthshire (1806): 
"Ben Venue is rendered venerable in the superstition of the natives, by the celebrated Coire nan Uriskin (the cove or recess of goblins) situated on the northern side of the mountain, and overhanging the lake in gloomy grandeur. The urisks were a sort of lubberly supernaturals, who, like the Brownies of England could be gained over by kind attentions, to perform the drudgery of the farm; and it was believed that many families in the Highlands had one of their order attached to it. They were supposed to be dispersed over the Highlands, each in his own wild recess; but the solemn stated meetings of the order were regularly held in this cave of Ben Venue."
Below are a few photos from my walks around Urisk Island. Over the years I've seen most of Eriskay but, unfortunately, I've yet to meet an Urisk. Neither have I come across any written legends of Eriskay urisks. If you know any I would love to hear from you.

Acairsaid Mor from the south
Acairsaid Mor from the north
Acairsaid Mor
The Prince's Cairn
Eriskay Causeway

Sunday, November 1, 2015

2016 Guided Cruise

It has been my privilege to create an itinerary for an 11 day cruise on the ship Halmar Bjorge, operated by Northern Light Charters. They asked me to put together an itinerary that includes some of my favourite islands, and the cruise runs from May 21 through May 31, 2016. The weather, of course, will determine where we can go, but the goal is to visit the following islands:

Sandray and Pabbay in the Sound of Barra
The Monach Isles
Flannan Isles
Boreray and Pabbay in the Sound of Harris
South Rona
Eigg and Canna of the Small Isles

The following describes the walks we hope to do on each island. Guests can, of course, come along or explore on their own. For more information, and to book, refer to the cruise description on the Northern Lights website.

Pabbay (Sound of Barra)
We’ll land at Traigh Ban, the white sand beach on the east side of Pabbay to visit the village ruins; Taigh Bochdan (the house of spectres); and the burial mound with its Pictish Symbol Stone. If time permits, we’ll make a climb to the top of the island.
Pabbay seen from the sea (left) & Pabbay village and burial mound
Options are to visit the settlement and chapel site at Bagh Ban, and then wander around the east side of Sandray; or to visit Shader on the northwest side of Sandray (where some of the raiders lived), and then make a circular walk to Dun Sandray and the top of the island.
Sheader village ruins on Sandray (left) & Vatersay seen from the top of Sandray
We’ll land on Ceann Ear or Ceann Iar, and if the tide is out walk across the sand-bar to Shivinish.
Looking towards Shillay from Ceann Iar (left) & the tidal sandbar between Ceann Iar and Shivinish
We’ll explore the village and burial ground, then make a circular walk over the low pass to Loch Uidemul and then walk south to see Treasure beach via the Norse mills.
Scarp village (left) and Mol Mor (Treasure Beach)
If conditions permit, we’ll land on the lighthouse island of Eilean Mor, where the Lightkeeper’s mysteriously disappeared in 1900.
Eilean Mor (left) and the Flannan light
Pabbay (Sound of Harris)
We’ll explore the abandoned village of Baile Lingay, see the Pabbay Cross and St Mary’s Chapel, and if time and tide permits, we’ll climb to the summit of the island to see the view over all the islands in the Sound of Harris.
Pabbay Church ruin (left) and cross
Boreray (Sound of Harris)
We’ll make a circular walk around the island to see the old Maclean village and Cladh nam Mhanaich, the Monk’s Field, the traditional burial ground of the early monks who worked in the Western Isles. Also to be seen are Cnoc a’ Chaisteil, the site of a Norse stronghold, and the ruin of the Free Church of Boreray, last used in the 1920s.
Boreray beach (left) & settlement area
South Rona
If conditions are good, we hope to make one of the best cross-island walks in the Hebrides. Landing at the north end we'd pay a visit to the lighthouse before making the four-mile hike down the island to Big Harbour via the abandoned village at Dry Harbour. On the way we may be able to pay a visit to Uamh an Fhuamhair, the Cave of Giants, also known as Church Cave, on the remote eastern side of the island.
Schoolhouse ruin (left) and the South Rona light
We plan to hike to the ruins of Sgorr nam Ban-naomha, the Celtic Christian nunnery below the cliffs, a seven-mile round trip that involves descending a narrow sheep-track down the cliff-face.
Canna Church (left) and the Nunnery
Once ashore on Eigg we’ll crawl into Massacre Cave and/or climb to the summit of the Sgurr.
Loch nam Ban Mora and The Sgurr (left) & Massacre Cave