Friday, April 28, 2017

The Fortress of Rudha an Dùnain

The eight-mile round trip walk to the promontory fort of Rudha an Dùnain on Skye is one of the shorter classic Hebridean walks. It has, as its destination, an historic set of structures: a passage grave, a chambered cairn, a Viking Canal, the fortress of Rudha an Dùnain, and the abandoned village of Dunan.

I was first drawn to this remote corner of Skye by Arthur Gardner’s photo of Rudha an Dùnain (plate 110, The Peaks, Lochs and Coasts of the Western Highlands, 1930). The photo shows a small headland of rock jutting into the sea, with a defensive wall separating a small bit of ground at its very tip. It also shows an odd pinnacle, perhaps an intact bit of wall higher than the rest, that looks like the crow’s nest of a ship, and gives the fort the appearance of a pirate stronghold. Rudha an Dùnain means the headland of the little fort, and it is a small-scale version of the great promontory forts of the Irish west. It was at Rudha an Dùnain that MacLeod of Skye based his coastal watchmen; ready to light a warning beacon should Clanranald, sailing from the isles to the south and west, be on the warpath. 

Rudha an Dùnain
It is a pleasant walk along the coast from Glen Brittle. And just before you reach the north side of Loch na Airde you'll come to a jumbled chambered cairn and a neolithic passage grave. The central chamber of the grave is intact and open to the sky. I hopped down into it and crawled along its passages. But I did not stay long, as the air was thick with hungry midges.

Central Chamber
On the south side of the loch you'll come to an amazing site, the Viking canal, that links the loch to the sea. It is not known for sure who built it, but the MacAskills, MacLeod’s coastal watchmen, are said to have used it to bring their sea-going ships to safe harbour in the loch. For more photos of the canal see the August 30, 2014 post

The Viking Canal
Just beyond the canal is the fortress of Rudha an Dùnain. Its defensive promontory wall is built of massive squared stones, the upper ones cloaked in moss. The eighty-foot long wall, some twelve feet thick, once completely sealed off the tip of the headland. The area of land it defended was small, and forty feet beyond the wall is the cliff edge, fifty feet above the sea. If the defenders ever failed to keep out invaders, there was nowhere to run.

At the first sign of an approaching enemy the MacAskills would light a warning beacon, and from the fort a series of lookouts along the coast could quickly relay information that trouble was afoot. 

From the headland it is a short walk north to the ruins of Dunan; a small abandoned township where one large building stands out: Rudha Dùnain House. It is fifty feet long, and twenty wide. One end has a normal gable, but the other end is rounded, and appears to have been a very large chimney. The last MacAskill of Rudha Dunain lived here in the 1860s.

Rudha an Dùnain House
From Dunan it's an hour's walk back to Glen Brittle; completing one of the best hikes in the islands. If you ever make it to Rudha an Dùnain, stand on its 3000 year-old walls and think on this verse from Alasdair Alpin Macgregor's Watchmen of the Sea:

Would that thou to Rudh’ an Dunain
Mightest go at ebbing light,
To review the phantom galleys,
As they steal upon the night;
Listen there with muffled breathing
For the sweep of oars below,
Dear was vengeance to Clan Ranald,
In the nights of long ago.

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