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. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

To the Flannans!

I was browsing through photos from my last trip to Lewis and came across this one that brought a smile to my face; a 'toast' to the Flannan Isles, made from the slopes of Mealaisbhal. (The Flannans can be seen on the horizon.) Two months earlier we had been fortunate to land there during my guide trip on Hjalmar Bjorge. There is one spot left for next year's cruise, which will visit the islands to the south and west of Mull. See the Northern Lights website for more information.

Slainte - To the Flannans!
Here is a very abridged version of the Flannan poem by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson. You can find the full text at this link.

Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer'd under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night!

We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climb'd the track in single file,
Each wishing he was safe afloat,
On any sea, however far,
So it be far from Flannan Isle:

And still we seem'd to climb, and climb,
As though we'd lost all count of time,
And so must climb for evermore.
Yet, all too soon, we reached the door--
The black, sun-blister'd lighthouse door,
That gaped for us ajar.

Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But all untouch'd; and no one there:
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come; and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat:

Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men's fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouch'd meal,
And an overtoppled chair.

We seem'd to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought on three men dead.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Lugworm at Ensay

It is always exciting to come across an old book that describes someone's experience on a small Scottish island. Especially if it's an island I've been to, and one rarely written about.

Such a book is Lugworm Island Hopping, by Ken Duxbury (Pelham Books, 1976). I just discovered this book, and was delighted to find an extensive section on the island of Ensay. (My one, and only, visit to Ensay is described in Chapter 13 of Book 2). That visit in 1998 was all too short, just a few hours, but I did manage to see the inside of Ensay house and its restored chapel. Reading Duxbury's book made me very jealous: he lived for a month or two in the house, and attended a wedding in the chapel. 

One (of many) interesting events in the book involves the old burial ground at the north end of the island. (I have written about the burial ground and chapel at Manish before - see the May 30, 2013 post). The chapel and cemetery were excavated and extensively studied by Dr A.E.W. Miles, and the findings written up in the British Archaeology Review, Series 212, 1989 (ISBN 086054673X).

Manish Chapel and burial ground
Dr Miles stored many of the bones and skulls he found in the burial ground in a room of Ensay House. Duxbury did not know that until one night when he felt something odd. He went exploring, entering a room he'd never been in before. Here is an excerpt from the book:

...ranged row above row on shelving from floor to ceiling were scores of grinning human skulls. On more racks in the centre of the room were piles of skeleton bones - tibias, fibulas, clavicles, humeri, ribs, pelvic saucers...clutch yourself - it was there, even down to the phalangea of the fingers and the ghastly eloquent mandibles, thier teeth leering in silent laughter.
    But what gave the whole nightmare a touch of the macabre was the fact that every skull, every pile of sifted bones, was enclosed in a transparent polyethylene bag neatly stapled at the top. It was hideous...Alfred Hitchcock hadn't got a look in, and Psycho seemed a health resort by comparison. 

Must have been quite eerie to be living alone in an old mansion on a deserted island and stumble upon a room of skulls.

Ensay House
My interest in Ensay was rekindled a few months ago when I someone recommended I look into the photography of John Mayer. On Mayer's website the first photo is an incredible shot of Ensay Chapel seen from one of the bedrooms of Ensay House. (You can see the photo here.) And it was one of the on-line comments on that photo that led me to Ken Duxbury's book.

Now I really need to get back to Ensay. I've been on two cruises in the past ten years that tried to anchor nearby, but conditions were not right. What I'll have to do is spend a week on Harris, wait for a calm day, and try to get a day trip to the island. An adventure to look forward to. For more on Ensay see The Friends of Ensay website.

Ensay Chapel

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Shieling of the No Night

In the July 28th post I described spending a night in a (mostly) intact shieling; one that had provided good shelter for a wet hiker on a stormy Hebridean night. The next day, as I was hiking out to Pairc Shiabost, I came across another, and very similar shieling, at Gearraidh Rahacleit.

From the outside the structure looked to be in good shape, its turf covered roof seemingly intact. But a peek inside the door revealed that the ground inside was a swamp. The shieling's timber and turf roof had half collapsed. And I realized then just how lucky I'd been to find decent shelter the previous evening.

In one corner there was a small section of ground just barely above the muck. On it lay a moldering sleeping bag; one that looked like it had been rotting away for several years. There was also a scattering of old utensils; an overturned teapot, and a colorful child's thermos bottle: signs of better times.

From the ruined shieling, above the shores of Loch Rahacleit, it was only a mile's walk north to the water works and the track to Pairc Shiaboist.

With some love, the shieling at Gearradh Rahacleit could be made livable. But it would take a lot of love. So for now, it is an Airidh na Neoni Oidche, a shieling of the no night. (I apologize to my Gaelic friends if I got that wrong).

Shieling of the No Night

Monday, September 18, 2017

Shieling of the One Night

In the Nov 11, 2014 post I wrote that I'd yet to visit an Airidh na h-aon Oidche; a shieling of the one night. So when I was on Lewis in July I decided that the time had come to visit one. The 'one night' typically refers to some scary incident, or how someone died, on the first night a shieling was occupied, and that no one ever stayed there again. See this link for one such story. Another, and more prosaic possibility, is that they got the name because they were halfway houses of a sort. When the community had to travel more than one day to reach their shielings they'd spend a night at one of these in-between shelters. 

The one night shieling on Lewis I decided to visit lies at NB 01971 28500, two miles northeast of Ishlibhig. I first learned of it from an article in the Uig News by Dave Roberts, that you can find on this Comman Eachdraidh Uig web-page.

Mealaisbhal seen from the walk
Visiting the Ishlibhig one-night shieling would be an interesting side trip to a climb of Mealaisbhal, at almost 1900 feet the highest hill on Lewis. But I was about to set out on a three-day hike, so I decided to save my legs and just make the short walk out and back to the shieling.

It is easy to find. All you have to do is park your car near the bridge over the Allt na Gile, a mile north of Ishlibhig. From there, 45 minutes walking due east through soft, grassy terrain, leads to the site.

Looking to the northwest from the one night shieling
There are two ruined shielings here, separated by about 50 metres. I believe the easternmost is the one night shieling. As you can see from the photos, it is a beautiful location. And so I have to disagree with the description in the article referenced above that it's 'not very inviting'. The sea is visible, as are the Flannan Isles, 20 miles off to the west.

Flannans on the horizon

There are quite a few one night shielings in the islands: Benbecula's is a mile southeast of the Market Stance, North Uist has one near the air ambulance memorial at Clachan an Luib, and Raasay's is a half-mile east of Torran. There is also another on Lewis, four miles east of Carloway (see this CANMORE page).

The Ishlibhig site has a great view north over Loch na Faoirbh, and beyond it you can see the Hamanavay track winding its way across the moorland. See the February 17, 2015 post for a description of walking the Hamanavay track.

Looking north - Hamanavay track in the middle distance

Loch Druim Grunavat, the St Kilda visitors centre site, and the Flannans seen from the walk to the one night shieling
For more (but not much) on the Ishlibhig one night shieling see this CANMORE page. Next time I am on Lewis I think I'll camp (for one night, anyway) at Airidh na h-aon Oidche. And if I hear any strange noises in the night, it'll be a short scamper back to the safety of the car. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

St Kilda Visitors Centre

In July I paid a visit to the site in Uig (Lewis) where they are going to build the St Kilda Visitors Centre. It lies on the clifftop a mile north of Islibhig. In WWII the site was home to an aircraft detection radar base, one of a whole system of stations built across the country with the code name Chain Home. You can read about the Islibhig station on this CANMORE page.

These old abandoned radar sites dot the Long Isle. Another station was just down the road at Mealasta, and there were ones on the Eye Penninsula, at Cross and Eorodale near Ness, and above Rodel on the south tip of Harris.

I do not know if they are going to incorporate any of the old radar buildings into the new centre, but they are substantial structures, and demolition would not be trivial. The site has a magnificent view over the sea, and north to the dramatic Mangursta cliffs.

On a clear day, St Kilda, 60 miles to the southwest, is just visible from the site. (If it was another five miles away it would be below the horizon.) When I was there low lying clouds blocked any view of Kilda, but what was visible, only 20 miles to the northwest, were the Seven Hunters, the Flannan Isles. I hope the centre will include something on the Flannans, as they are visible from the site, and the infamous lighthouse would be clearly seen through a telescope. In the following photo (not zoomed), you can just see the Flannans on the horizon (above the boulder to the left of the building). The photo after that is a zoomed in shot.

For more on the future St Kilda Centre see their website at I look forward to visiting the centre when it opens. I'm not sure what admission will cost, but my visit to the site cost a lot. After seeing it I drove south through Ishlibhig and Brenish to road's end at Mealasta. Along the way there is a wide gap running completely across the road. I hit it doing about 30 mph and ruptured a front tire, causing £200 worth of damage. (Fortunately insurance covered it.) If you visit the area, be sure to drive very, very slow.

That said, the drive down this road is pure magic. At its end there is a magnificent view over to Mealasta Island. Mealasta is in a very exposed position, so you need calm seas (and calm wind) to land. It's one of those islands that has eluded me over the years. Five failed attempts so far, but I hope to try again, someday. 

Mealasta Island