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.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Missing Island Treasures

Over the years thieves have robbed the Hebrides of hundreds of sacred treasures. One hopes that some of the missing items are held locally for safekeeping, but who knows. Below is a summary of several treasures I would love to see, whose whereabouts are unknown.

St Kenneth's Bell - Inchkenneth
Last seen on the altar of Inchkenneth Chapel. Boswell and Johnson saw it in 1773:

Our attention, however, was sufficiently engaged by a venerable chapel, which stands yet entire, except that the roof is gone. It is about sixty feet in length, and thirty in breadth. On one side of the altar is a bas relief of the blessed Virgin, and by it lies a little bell; which, though cracked, and without a clapper, has remained there for ages, guarded only by the venerableness of the place. The ground round the chapel is covered with gravestones of Chiefs and ladies; and still continues to be a place of sepulture.

Inchkenneth Chapel
The Chin of McMarcus
I posted on this strange stone on Seil island three years ago (see this link). It was described by T. Ratcliffe Barnett in his 1937 book Highland Harvest:

A curiously shaped fragment of basalt, resembling a human chin, rests upon the slab. It is known as "Smig mhic Mharcuis" (the chin of MacMarquis). It is popularly believed that this stone, by some supernatural power, revolves upon its axis and points with the chin to a new-made grave, remaining in the same position until a fresh interment takes place. It is also said that should the "chin" be removed from its place on the stone it will always return. Certainly on more than one occasion the stone has been stolen, but sooner or later was found resting in its old position.

I have visited the cemetery where the chin once rested, and was fooled by a fake 'stand-in' stone. Based on an old drawing I came across later, the real chin looks like one of the water-worn Bodach and Caillach stones found on Gigha and in Glen Lyon. I have a feeling the true chin is safely stashed in a nearby home.

Drawing of the chin from Patrick Gillies' Netherlorn and its Neighbourhood.
The 'fake' chin-stone
St Kessog's Bell
St Kessog's bell was once rung from the top of Tom na Clag, the Hill of the Bell, on the island of Inchtavannach in Loch Lomond. It was last seen in the early 1800s hanging from a post in Loch Lomond.

Looking north from the Hill of the Bell
The Bell of Kilvickeon
Another missing bell is the Bell of Kilvickeon, last seen in the chapel of Kilvickeon on the island of Ulva. Bells seem to be a common item purloined over the years. One wonders how long before St Finnan's Bell, still to be found on the Green Isle of St Finnan, disappears.

There is hope that some of these missing treasures will be found someday. One such recovered item was the Clanranald Stone, which went missing from Howmore Chapel (S. Uist) in 1990. I do not have a photo of the Howmore stone, but I have visited two other similar stones at Airisaig and Kildonnan Chapel on Eigg. In 1995 the Howmore stone was found in, of all places, a London flat. It was returned to South Uist in 1999, and can be seen in the Museum at Kildonan

Eigg's Clanranald Stone
One hopes more missing treasures will be found someday. What would be astounding is if the most famous stone of them all, the true Stone of Scone, was found. Nigel Tranter speculated often that the stone, entrusted to the Lord of the Isles by Robert the Bruce, was hidden somewhere in the Hebrides. So next time you're hiking in the islands and come across a cave, take the time to explore it. Who knows what you may find.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Western Isles Hotel - Tobermory

On our first trip to Scotland my wife and I wanted to stay at the Western Isles Hotel. It is an historic hotel, built in 1882, high on the hill above Tobermory. A more scenic place to stay would be hard to find. 

Tobermory Bay - Western Isles Hotel at upper right
But they only had one vacant room. And so my parents, who were travelling with us, were able to stay, but my wife and I had to find a B&B on the other side of town. Since then my wife and I have stayed in the hotel twice, and I stayed there by myself for a few winter days in 2000 (see book 1, chapter 13). The price has gone up quite a bit since then, and now costs something like 200 a night in the summer. But it's well worth it to stay in this amazing place, which made an appearance in the 1945 classic island film 'I Know Where I'm Going' (see this link).

I happen to like the old building, but this excerpt about the hotel, from Frank Walker's excellent  book Argyll and the Islands, is not complementary:

A ponderous building constructed in whinstone rubble with red sandstone dressings...was erected at a time when it seemed that Victorian tourism might make Tobermory one of the most fashionable watering places in the west. High above the Mishnish pier ...its grim skyline dominates the bay.

It can be grim; on a wet and windy day. But on a bright spring day, with the harbour below full of ships, it is anything but grim. I have found myself 'stranded' in Tobermory several times over the years. By stranded, I mean on a cruise where the fellow passengers wanted to go ashore to visit the shops. I am not a shopper, so to pass the time I'll go for a walk east to Aros Park, or west to the Rubha nan Gall lighthouse. Then I'll spend whatever time is left enjoying a beer, along with the view, up on the patio of the Western Isles. Try it, I think you'll like it.

View from the bar patio

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Bothy of Poems

This story appeared in the November 2017 issue of the Uig News. My thanks to Sarah Wilson for the opportunity to write for them. 

The Bothy of Poems - Fidigidh 2017

I found a book of poems in a bothy. Not a bothy in the usual sense, but a ‘bothan’: one of over two hundred corbelled-stone beehive cells sprinkled across the Hebrides. To me, this ‘Bothy of Poems’ is a special place. It sits in splendid isolation along the cascading waters of Abhainn Fhidigidh, one of the traditional shieling sites for Islibhig, Brenish, and Mangersta.

Beehive cells are fascinating structures, ranging in age from 300, to upwards of 1400 years old. I was surprised when I found a book of poems in one of them, its name Both Ruadh. This particular cell spurred my interest in beehives twenty years ago, when I read of an epic walk to it in Daphne Pochin Mould’s book ‘West Over Sea’. Of the two-hundred plus cells remaining, only a handful are intact. Over the years I’ve made it a hobby to visit, and photograph, the more intact cells before they collapse.

Collapsed shieling - Lower Fidigidh
It has been a challenge to reach some of the best preserved cells; such as St Ronan’s Cell on distant North Rona, and Teampull Beannachadh, a beehive converted to a chapel on the Flannan Isles. Getting to these islands usually requires multiple attempts, as the sea-state often precludes a landing. But the effort is worthwhile; for as with Both Ruadh, the intricate beauty of Teampull Beannachadh and St Ronan’s Cell will take your breath away. As will the simple elegance of the tiny cell, with its garden of sea-pinks, on the island of Eilean Fir Chrothair.

St Ronan's Cell
Teampull Beannachadh - Flannan Isles
Both Eilean Fir Chrothair
You don’t need a boat to see Both Ruadh; just sturdy boots, midge repellent, and the ability to trek across difficult terrain. My first attempt, via the Tamnabhaigh track, failed. The track is a stony, seven-mile route that winds its way up Bealach Raonasgail. That day it had been raining heavily, and bits of the track were washed out. That should have been my clue to turn around, but I kept going. Once over the pass, I turned east to cross the southern shoulder of Mula. Then my walk came to a grinding halt at the raging waters of Abhainn Ghasacleit. I was less than a mile from the beehive, but there was no safe way to cross the river.

I returned in 2015, successfully reaching Both Ruadh by making the five mile hike from Morsgail. The cell, still retaining much of its turf covering, was stunning. But more treasures awaited. A ten-minute walk north leads to one of the best collections of intact bothans and shielings anywhere: Fidigidh Uachdrach (Upper Fidigidh).

Upper Fidigidh

Upper Fidigidh
I’ve returned to Fidigidh twice since then. During my visit this year, I found the book of poems. It is a travelling book, meant to be taken to another place. I will have to think of somewhere as fascinating as Fidigidh to leave it. It was left in the beehive a year ago, which shows just how few visitors ever make their way to far-off Fidigidh.

One of the poems in the book is Yeat’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. The first verse makes me think what it must have been like in Uig on an early summer’s day; crossing Bealach na h-Imrich, the pass of the flitting, to head off to the shielings. Off to a place like Fidigidh; as remote as Yeat’s isle of Innisfree:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Lonely Levinish - St Kilda

I doubt if it's in my future to climb any of the stacks of St Kilda, but it would be interesting to have done so. I have, however, had the privilege of motoring up close to the major stacks; Stac Dona, Stac Biorach, Soay Stac, Stac Armin, Stac Lee, and lonely Levenish.

Levenish is indeed lonely. Connected to Dun by a submerged ridge, it stands all by itself two miles out from Village Bay. Rising to just over 200 feet above the sea, it pales in comparison to the other stacks. But being visible from Village Bay, it shows up in the background of many photos.

Stac Levenish on a grey Kilda day

A Kilda landing - Stac Levenish in the distance
I've only come across one description of someone landing on Levenish, and that was Dr. A M Cockburn who visited it in 1927. He reported finding wild marguerites, sea-pinks, and scurvy-grass on the summit. When I sailed by a few dozen fulmars were nesting in cracks on the side of the rock, but nothing like the massive bird life found on the other stacks.

Levenish would be a star if was all by itself. It is four times as high as Rockall, and difficult to land on. But the superstar stacks, Stac Armin and Stac Lee, draw all the attention. If you ever sail to St Kilda, be sure to appreciate this rugged sentinel in the sea, one the Kildans of old could see most every day. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Taransay Walk

My favorite walk on Taransay begins with the climb to the top of Beinn Ra. From the summit, if the sky is clear, you'll be greeted with a view of St Kilda, 55 miles to the west.

Top of Taransay (1998) - Kilda on the horizon
Of course, the weather does not always cooperate. The above photo was taken the first time I visited Taransay in 1998. The next photo is from a gray and windy day in 2011. Kilda was not visible.

Once at the top the best part of the walk begins; the descent to the southwest toward Loch an Dùin. I love this part because the hard work is behind you, and as you drop down the hillside you are surrounded by stunning views of sea and islands. Navigation is easy, for as you descend you set a course directly towards something amazing; something you can see floating in the loch in the next photo: the fort of Loch an Duin.

Next stop - Loch an Duin
As you near the loch you can tell that the speck of land in it is more than just an island; a small causeway can be seen, one that you hope will allow you to get across to the island.

The causeway stones are a bit slippy, but if you are careful it is easy to cross to the fort.

There is a bit of a gap in the causeway, right after the Clach Ghlagain, the rattle stone. If you step on it, and you have to, it will crash against another stone with a loud clank, alerting the dun-dwellers that someone is calling.

The Rattle Stone (centre)
The fort itself is fairly small, but an impressive structure none the less. For a drawing of what it looked like in 1890 see page 397 of this link.

From the loch it is only a half mile down to the shore, where there awaits another island treasure: St Taran's Cross.

Near the cross is the Uidhe Bothy, a cozy place to hang around for a night or two.

Depending on where you were set ashore you'll either rejoin your boat on the shore below the bothy, or make your way back to the yellow sands of Corran Ra. Taransay is an ideal island for a long loop walk to see historic sites and beautiful beaches; all centered around a 900 foot climb to the top of the island, where you'll be rewarded with views of a beautiful island-studded seascape. Sea Harris offers day trips to Taransay, and many Northern Light trips include a visit to the island.

Corran Ra

Corran Ra beach landing