Monday, June 26, 2017

Mealasta, Pabay Mor, Little Bernera

This is Episode 5 in the Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge (Hebridean cruise, May 20 to 29, 2017).

After our longer than expected walk to the Ardveg we motored out of the shelter of Hamanavay Bay to head north. As we passed the lonely island of Mealista, which faces the full brunt of the open Atlantic, Mark throttled back the engines to take a look at the beach landing. I have tried several times over the years to get ashore on Mealasta, but it is so exposed that a heavy swell always seems to be bashing the landing spot. 

Mealasta Island seen from Scarp
With the engines idled back we took a good look at the inviting golden sands. But it was not to be, that rolling swell, so often seen in the past, was still bashing.

Mealasta Island Beach
So we carried on north to sweep around Gallan Head, once the site of an RAF communications center. The base was abandoned in 2010, and the property acquired by the Gallan Head Community in 2014. Once around Gallan Head we entered the waters of West Loch Rog, where the anchor was dropped into the turquoise waters off Traigh an Teampull (Chapel Beach) on the west side of Pabay Mor: an island name that means something like the big island of the priest. Although it was a bit cloudy, there were still several hours of daylight left, and in short order we were ashore on the white sands of Chapel Beach. 

Pabay Mor Landing - Photo: Liz Hamilton
Appropriately, sitting in the little glen above the beach, are the remnants of a small chapel dedicated to St Peter. There's little left, as it was used for target practice by the British navy around the year 1506.

St Peter's
A gentle walk up the glen from the chapel took us past a large loch dotted with lily-pads and encircled by a moat of mud. Can you guess the loch's name?  Yep...  you guessed it, Loch an Teampull (Chapel Loch). Here we did our good deed of the day by rescuing a sheep half sunk into the mud, unable to rescue itself. Grasping its horns, one of us on each side, we huffed and we puffed and we pulled it out of the muck. But did we get a thanks? Nope. It just scrambled away as fast as it could, wagging its muddy behind at us. I wanted to start singing Born Free.

Born free - one very lucky sheep
In the south side of the glen we came to Briominish Village, the only settlement on the island, and until 1800 home to the Pabay branch of the Macleods. (See the November 30, 2016 post for more on Pabay and the Macleods.) The people of Valtos, on the adjacent shore of Lewis, still graze their sheep here, and the owner of the island has fixed up some of the old houses.

Inspecting the ruins of Pabay Village

Old Pabay houses updated (a bit)
No visit to Pabay is complete without climbing to the airy summit of Beinn Mhor, all 226 feet of it. Now that may not sound like much, but it's high enough for a grand view over all the islands of West Loch Rog, and across to the mile-long white sands of Riof Beach on Lewis.

Atop Pabay

Hjalmar Bjorge afloat off Pabay Mor
With our exploration of Pabay complete, the hook was lifted and Mark motored a mile south to drop the still-wet hook off the sparkling white sands of Riof Beach. A delicious three course meal prepared by Chef Mark was followed by calm night at anchor.

In the morning Mark gave us the forecast. It was not looking good for the Flannans; winds were still a problem, and the sea outside the shelter of the loch was still jumpy and lumpy. With any significant swell the Flannans are a no-go. So the plan was to head around the top of Great Bernera to nestle into Kyles Little Bernera, a sheltered anchorage between Great and Little Bernera. Then we'd spend a few hours ashore on Little Bernera before heading to Carloway for the night. It would be on the following day we'd decide whether to try for the Flannans.

I love Little Bernera; aside from the beauty of the island, it's historic in both Celtic Christianity and Hebridean literature. Its chapel of St Donnan was once an active outpost of early Celtic monks, and since those days the cemetery on the site has became a cherished place to be buried. The island's fame in Hebridean literature comes from William Black's use of it in his 1873 novel Princess of Thule. See the September 2, 2013 post for more on St Donnan's and The Princess of Thule.

St Donnan's
After paying our respects to St Donnan's we followed the shoreline north across the sandy machair. I took everyone this way to see the fantastic white sands of Traigh Mhor (the great beach). Just offshore from the beach we could just make out a solitary beehive cell on a tiny island called Eilean Fir Chrothair, and next to it another small island, Cealasay (church island). Both Cealasay and Little Bernera had monastic establishments, and it may be that the cell on Eilean Fir Chrothair was used as a place of retreat when a monk wanted to get far from the madding crowds of Little Bernera. See the June 30, 2015 post for more about the cell on Eilean Fir Chrothair.

Traigh Mhor
Beehive Cell - Eilean Fir Chrothair
After our jaunt on Little Bernera we boarded the inflatable, then Mark and Anna took us up to storm the beach at Bosta on Great Bernera; yet another white sand beach. Compared to the deserted islands we'd been on, Bosta beach was a bit crowded. But that did not deter us from joining all the holiday-makers as we landed next to the tide bell. Neither did it deter several of our party from taking a refreshing swim. The tide bell is an interesting structure, which you can read more about here.

Tide Bell and swimmers
Those of us not brave enough to swim headed up the beach to take a look at the restored Iron Age Round House. An unexpected bonus here was that a local guide gave us a great tour and explanation of what it was like to live in the house fifteen hundred years ago.

Bosta Round House
A pleasant, 10 minute walk, took us back to a jetty opposite Little Bernera, where we boarded Hjalmar Bjorge to make the short crossing to anchor in Carloway Bay for the night. At that point there was a bit of tension, in my mind, anyway. The following day would be make it, or break it. Would the Flannans be possible, or not?  If not we'd be starting the long journey back to Oban in the morning.

Hjalmar Bjorge in Kyles Little Bernera - Photo by Liz Hamilton

Friday, June 23, 2017

Remote Hamanavay and Ardveg

After leaving Scarp we found a sheltered anchorage at the head of Loch Hamanavay (Haven Bay). This remote corner of Lewis is one of my favorite places in the isles. It was once a thriving backwater, several small settlements living off the sea. But, aside from an estate lodge, it has been abandoned since the 1950s.  Hamanavay, and the adjacent Ardveg Penninsula, see few visitors, as the only way to get here is by a hard 12 mile hike, or by boat.  (For a description of the hike from Uig see the February 17, 2015 post - for the hike in from Morsgail see the Ardveg Walk post.)

Adding to the sense of remoteness, we awoke to find the surrounding hills enshrouded in a dense, grey fog. It looked very prehistoric. It took two trips in the inflatable to get us ashore, where I was looking forward to taking the guests on a hike to the blackhouse village of Ardveg.

Hamanavay landing
Route to Ardveg
The hike to Ardveg starts easy enough, we just followed the estate track around to the head of the loch. The track ends at the estate house, where a soggy path leads a short distance farther to a footbridge over the Hamanavay River.

From the bridge a vague path traverses up the hillside, but it soon disappears into heather, rocks, and bracken. The view east to the vast, deserted interior of Lewis was expansive, and inviting. Just two miles to the northeast lies an amazing collection of sheiling ruins, including many intact beehive cells. But they would have to wait for another time. 

Looking northeast into the Lewis interior
The hill tops were still foggy as we climbed on, and after 15 minutes I didn't know it, but I missed the turn to the west that leads over the top to Ardveg. It was the sight of one of the old war-time telegraph poles that once stretched between Ardveg and Kinresort, and then a couple of collapsed beehive cells, that told me we'd gone too far east. It was time to make an about face to the west. Then a stiff climb up the grassy hillside, followed by a half-mile descent to near sea-level, finally brought us to the blackhouse village of Ardveg.

An Ardveg Panorama (photo Liz Hamilton)
The story of Ardveg was briefly told in Alasdair Alpin Macgregor's book The Haunted Isles; a wonderful book that ignited much of my interest, some 30 years ago, in the Hebrides. It inspired me to hike in to camp here for the first time 2001. Another visit was just as special, as it was part of the book launch for An Trusadh (The Gathering). Published by the Islands Book Trust in 2013, the book is the story of John Macdonald, whose family lived in Ardveg in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s (see the July 8, 2013 post.) Sadly, John passed away on Christmas Day 2016. John's sister Ina, who was born at Ardveg, also accompanied us in 2013, and if the weather cooperates, she will be returning to Ardveg as part of an Islands Book Trust event on July 15. 

We spent the better part of an hour exploring the old houses and the walled garden enclosure. Alan also took the opportunity to fly the drone over the village and down the track to the jetty once used by the MacDonalds.

Is it a drone - or a giant midge
Adjacent to the old blackhouses in the 'modern' house built by the MacDonalds in 1934. It is occasionally occupied by the artist Julie Brook and her family; the new owners of the Ardveg estate, which was sold just last year. Julie is well know for her stays in a Jura cave and Mingulay. I was hoping she'd be in residence, but no one was home.

Ardveg House (1934)

The mist was still thick on the hills as we left Ardveg to make the climb back up and over the hill. On the far side we paid a visit to the Hamanavay Mill before dropping down to sea-level and making our way back across the river to the shore track.

Hjalmar Bjorge afloat on the loch was a welcome sight to tired hikers, and we were soon back aboard. Sea and wind conditions were still unsettled to head out west to the Flannans, our ultimate hoped for destination. So the anchor was lifted and we set a course north. There was plenty of daylight left, and two islands were calling: mysterious Mealista, and Pabay Mor. 

Which would it be?

Hjalmar Bjorge at Hamanvay

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Scarp Calling

After a calm night tied to the Leverburgh pier, we watched the three St Kilda day-boats head out at 8am. The island on our plate for that day is as interesting as St Kilda, and much less visited: the island of Scarp. After breakfast we headed up the Sound of Harris, out past Toe Head, and into the Atlantic. After two hours of steaming we circled the top of Scarp to motor into Cearstaigh Bay at its north end. It's a good spot for eagles, and we floated for a while searching, but none were seen.

Cearstaigh Bay
From there we headed down the east side to drop the hook off Scarp Village. The island looked as inviting as ever from the sea, and we were soon ashore.

Scarp Landing
Like St Kilda, Scarp has a line of old blackhouse dwellings, long abandoned, and we started our tour by wandering among them. In 1881 over 200 people called Scarp home, but by 1971 the population had dwindled to seven. The island’s moment of fame came in 1934, when Gerhard Zucker experimented with rocket powered mail delivery. After the fuse was lit, instead of shooting 1000 feet across to Harris, the rocket exploded, and the mail got a little charred. Zucker's rocket experiments were depicted in the 2004 film The Rocket Post, which was filmed on nearby Taransay,

Our next stop was to take a look at the crumbling remnants of the school. It's a sad sight, but next to it stands the beautifully redone church. When I first visited Scarp (2004), the church was also in a sad state; full of sheep, half its floorboard rotted, and there were missing doors and windows. But unlike the school, it was rescued several years ago.

Ruined school (left), restored church (right)
After exploring the village we headed to the top of Beinn fo Tuath. Even though mist topped the distant hills of Harris, the view over to the three large sea-lochs that cut into the west of Lewis is truly spectacular. A group photo was called for.

Atop Scarp - misty hills of Harris in the distance
From the top we descended to Loch a’ Mhuilinn (Mill Loch). It is a special spot, for lying in the stream that runs from the loch to the sea are a pair of Norse mills, their millstones still in place. It was here that Alan fired up his drone and got some footage flying over the mill loch and the interior of Scarp.

Loch a' Mhuilinn
Alan prepares the drone
Following the stream downhill we came to the mills, their grinding stones still in place. For more photos of Hebridean mills (including Scarp's) see this link.

Where the mill stream reaches the sea we came to Mol Mor. The Gaelic name means big pebbly beach, but it's locally known as Treasure Beach, for the occasional treasures that wash ashore. There was no sign of anything valuable, unless you treasure old fishing floats and plastic flotsam.

Looking for treasure...
An easy coastal walk took us back to the village, where there was time for a brief visit with Brian and Shiela Harper, who call Scarp home part of the year. Their resilience in making it to Scarp every year is impressive. Getting here, even in the summer, can often be a challenge. See the August 6, 2013 post for photos of Brian, single-handedly, landing his inflatable on a windy, and wavy, summer day.

It was getting late, and so we had to leave Scarp in our wake to steam five miles around the Ardveg Penninsula to look for an anchorage for the night in Loch Hamanavay. Hamanavay is the one of the most remote, and least visited places in the Western Isles. We were in the Hebridean Back of Beyond.

To be continued...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Ensay Attempt - Then Over to Rodel

In the morning of May 22nd we left the Small Isles in our wake to journey up the Minch. After four hours on a northwesterly course we passed the dramatic headland of Neist Point, with its lighthouse that marks the westernmost point of Skye.

Neist Point
Another two hours of steaming took us into the Sound of Harris, where we set our sights on trying to land on Ensay. I was hoping to get ashore so we could wander its rolling hills and take a look at its chapels and standing stone. The anchor was dropped just off Ensay House, but the wind was too strong and it wouldn't hold.

Ensay (2016)
It was a disappointment not to be able to land, but the sea and wind don't always cooperate with the best laid plans. If you are interested in Ensay, you can find a stunning photo of the interior of Ensay House that also shows the chapel at John Maher Photography - see the first photo on the left. (William, thanks for the tip on Maher's work, it's amazing stuff.) You can see more photos of Ensay in the February 27, 2017 post.

Unable to anchor off Ensay, Mark decided to motor over to Leverburgh, where we would spend the night tied to its pier. Leverburgh is not one of the most scenic spots in the isles, but once ashore we left the cluttered harbour behind to follow a meandering grassy shore path to St Clement’s church at Rodel.

On the path to Rodel

St Clement's Church
I think St Clement's is the best example of early church architecture in the Hebrides. A unique feature is that its tower is decorated with carved pagan stones, stones that may have once decorated an earlier structure on the site. The highlight inside the church is the magnificently carved tomb of the church’s founder, Alastair Crotach Macleod; the best preserved medieval wall tomb in Scotland.

Two of the carved panels are especially fascinating: one shows a highland galley (upper right). Another, below and to the left of the galley, shows Macleod's soul being weighed. I guess good deeds make for a fat soul. Macleod had a few sins to account for; including the massacre of 400 MacDonalds in a dank cave on Eigg on a snowy winter's day. In an effort to balance the scales Macleod built several churches. It all brings to mind these lines from Jethro Tull's Two Fingers:

I'll see you at the Weighing-In,
When your life's sum-total's made.
And you set your wealth in Godly deeds
Against the sins you've laid.

Alasdair Macleod's soul at the Weighing-In
In the morning, a sign that sea conditions were good, was the sight of the three St Kilda day-boats heading out at 8am. It was going to be a busy day on Kilda. With the boats gone the harbour was quiet as we enjoyed breakfast before heading up the Sound of Harris. Our destination wasn't St Kilda, but an island just as interesting; an island that's always a highlight of a visit to the Hebrides: Scarp of the Rockets.

To be continued...

Excited passengers looking forward to seeing St Kilda

The Kilda convoy leaves Leverburgh

Monday, June 12, 2017

Destination Eigg

On May 20th, under clear skies, the good ship Hjalmar Bjorge left the busy port of Oban to head up the Sound of Mull. Aboard were twelve guests looking forward to a ten day cruise around the Hebrides: Alan & Jacky, Janet & Tom, Adam & Margaret, Alan & Katherine, Hazel, Liz, Michael, and William. The crew consisted of Skipper Mark, Anna, Cook Mark, and Guide Marc (a lot of Marks). This was my second guide-trip, and I was looking forward to sharing some of my favorite island walks.

Hjalmar Bjorge and sister ship Elizabeth G at Oban
We did not know it at the time, but over the coming days we’d visit eleven islands. Thirty miles out of Oban we tied up to the pontoon dock in Tobermory, where several guests enjoyed a stroll in town before settling in for the first night. My stroll was with Michael, and we went as far as the old ferry terminal at the west end of Tobermory. There I saw something I'd not seen before, a dredger unloading its vast haul of scallops. We saw several giant bags of scallops being lifted by crane off the rusting boat and into a waiting truck. The damage these dredgers do to the seabed is terrible.

In the morning the forecast confirmed what was suspected the day before, conditions would not allow us to head over to Mingulay as planned. So we decided to head north towards the Small Isles with hopes that conditions would improve later in the week to allow us to get out west. It's always exciting to pass Ardnamurchan point, the westernmost part of mainland UK. Our destination was Eigg, and as Mull receded behind us the Small Isles came into view; Rum off to the left, and Eigg to the right; reminding me of that line from the Skye Boat Song:

Mull was astern, Rum on the port, Eigg on the starboard bow.

In the past, all my visits to Eigg involved landing at Glamisdale on the southeast corner of the island. But this time was different. We made an exciting beach landing in Laig Bay on the west side.

Laig Bay (on a sunnier day)
Once life-vests were stowed above the beach in a waterproof bag we paid a visit to the beautiful St Donnan’s Church. St Donnan was the island’s saint who was martyred in the 5th century. I did notice something significant had changed since my last visit. Another of Scotland's 'buildings at risk' no longer existed, as there was no sign of the large rectory that once stood next to the church. When I saw it ten years ago some of the upper floors had pancaked down, and it was filled with nesting birds.

St Donnan's - rectory gone

Rectory to the left of St Donnan's in 2006

Inside St Donnan's
The church looked the same on the inside as before, with the exception that the ancient carved stones that used to be on the porch of Eigg Lodge are now on display in the church. That's a good thing, as they are no longer exposed to the elements. The bad thing is that the gem of the collection, the dual-carved cross-shrine slab, is mounted such that it is hard to see its older side. The newer side, with the beautiful Celtic cross, faces the interior of the church. While the noble, and much older, hunting scene is only a foot away from the wall, making it nearly impossible to see the carving. For a description of the cross-shrine see the April 15, 2015 post.

Cross-shrine now in St Donnan's - St Donnan pictured at upper left
The two sides of the cross-shrine (photographed when it was at Eigg Lodge)
From St Donnan's we followed the shore path north to Camus Sgiotaig: the scattering (or squeaking) bay, better known as the Singing Sands. Apparently the sands can disappear in the winter, hence the scattering name, but they never fail to return. A well trod foot track led to the head of the bay, where a large stile made it easy to cross the fence that divides the sandy grazing grounds from the shore. Once on the sand we slid our feet across the sand. It took some effort, and you had to scuff your boots at just the right angle, but when you did the sound was immediate, a squeaky (almost musical) squeal. The geologist Hugh Miller described the sands in The Cruise of the Betsey. He had not heard of them before, so his description (in 1844) is one of discovery.

I walked over it, striking it obliquely at each step, and with every blow the shrill note was repeat-ed. My companions joined me; and we performed a concert, in which, if we could boast of but little variety in the tones produced, we might at least challenge all Europe for an instrument of the kind which produced them.

Making music on the Singing Sands

The Singing Sands on a sunnier day
Once our legs tired of making music (of a sort) we hiked up the hill pass Bealach Thuilm to enjoy a windy view north to a fog covered Skye.

The view from Bealach Thuilm
On our way back to the shore we passed the house known as Howlin, which has a fantastic view of the jagged mountains of Rum. J.R. Tolkien stayed in the house for a while, and it’s said the dramatic skyline of Rum (which you can see in Singing Sands photo) was inspiration for the Mountains of Mordor.

An easy road walk took us back to Laig Bay, where we donned our lifejackets. Soon Mark and Anna motored in on the inflatable to take us back to Hjalmar Bjorge. It was getting late in the day as the engines were fired up, and we set off on a northwesterly course. An hour's cruising took us to the shelter of Rum’s Loch Scresort, where the anchor was dropped and we settled in for a delicious Sunday Roast, followed by nightfall over Rum.

Loch Scresort - Rum
The forecast the next morning indicated things were improving. So we motored out of Loch Scresort to head for the Sound of Harris: the gateway to the outer isles.

To be continued...