Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Sandaig - Ring of Bright Water - Camusfearna

In the November 29, 2015 post I mentioned that my first exposure to Gaelic, and the Hebrides, was in 1969, when my mother took me to see the movie Ring of Bright Water. Many years would pass before I actually read the books of Gavin Maxwell and, many years after that, the three fascinating books about him: The White Island by John-Lister Kaye, Maxwell's Ghost by Richard Frere, and the recently published Island of Dreams by Dan Boothby.   

After re-reading the Bright Water books a few years ago I became obsessed with the idea of visiting the lighthouse island of Eilean Ban, and Sandaig (Maxwell's Camusferna), his house that tragically burned in 1968, killing the otter Edal. Eilean Ban was easy to get to, sitting (somewhat sadly) under the Skye Bridge, and I paid it a visit a few years ago (see the July 18, 2013 post). But Sandaig takes some planning to see. It is fairly remote, a few miles south of the Glenelg ferry to Skye. And so after many years of thinking about it I decided to visit Sandaig on my way to the Western Isles a few weeks ago. Before taking the ferry from Uig out to Harris, my wife and I stayed for a couple of nights at the Tingle Creek Hotel in Erbusaig, a mile or so from the Skye Bridge.

From Erbusaig I set out for the 30 mile drive to Glenelg via Shiel Bridge and the Mam Ratagan Pass. From Glenelg I continued south along the single track for another four miles, parking at the start of a forestry road that led down to the sea.

Start of the track to Sandaig
Any doubt you are in the right spot is helpfully resolved thanks to a sign that says "Ceum Sanndaig - Sandaig Path."

Sandaig - this way
I had directions on how to walk down to Sandaig that I found on the Eilean Ban website. But, as I quickly learned, they were obsolete due to all the timber harvesting on the hillside. And so I just carried on along dusty forest roads that led down to the sea. Maxwell would be saddened with how the area above his beloved bay looks, the trees have been clear-cut and it's an ugly mess.

Clear-cut fields above Sandaig

Once through the devastated hillside you drop down to the still beautiful bay of Sandaig.

The spot where Maxwell's house stood is marked by a large stone. On it is a plaque that reads:

Beneath this stone,
the site of Camusfearna,
are buried the ashes of
b. 15th July 1914, d. 7th September 1969

Memorial Stone -1
Memorial Stone -2
Memorial Stone -3
Under a large tree near the Sandaig burn is another memorial stone that marks where the otter Edal is buried. It reads:

Whatever joy she gave to you, give
back to nature.    GAVIN MAXWELL

Edal's Stone - 1
Edal's Stone - 2
Next to Edal's stone the bright water of the Sandaig burn ran to the sea; an interesting rope bridge spanning the stream. (One walk description I've read says that if you're brave enough to cross the bridge (or ford the river), you can find an alternate way back up the hillside.) After spending a while in this peaceful place, touched by a man whose legacy of books will be immortal, I started back up the hill.

The rope bridge across the bright water of the Sandaig burn
Back at the car I decided to visit the original Sandaig lighthouse. It once stood on Eilean Mor, an island just offshore from Maxwell's house. In 2004 it was replaced by a solar-powered light, and the original moved to the Glenelg ferry. After looking in the mini-lighthouse (which is now a tourist shop) I drove onto the Glenelg turn-table ferry to go over the sea to Skye.

Old Sandaig light at Glenelg ferry
The turn-table ferry to Skye
If you are interested in visiting Sandaig, good directions can be found on the Walk Highlands website.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Kyles Stulaigh - and more

After visiting the Stone of Sorrow, I made my way 250 yards northeast to a souterrain known as Tigh nan Leacach (the house of flagstones). There are the ruins of three circular cells here, and at the base of one is a passage that extends 33 feet underground. But its entrance is so clogged that there is no way to crawl into it these days. (See this CANMORE page for more on Tigh nan Leacach.)

Entrance to Tigh nan Leacach
The plan from this point on for my two-day trek was to carry on another mile through Bealeach a' Chaolais (the pass of the the narrows), to reach an abandoned settlement on the coast, Kyles Stulaigh. Then I'd spend the night there before returning to Lochboisdale the way I'd come. I had picked this destination because Kyles Stulaigh was briefly touched by history 270 years ago.

It was not an easy mile through Bealeach a' Chaolais. There is no trail, and the steep descent to the coast was through thick bracken and heather. At one point I had to get through a gate in a deer fence; a gate securely tied with about a hundred feet of knotted rope, and jammed shut with pieces of timber. It would take a knife and a saw to open the gate, so I tossed my pack across the fence and climbed over.

The 'locked' gate
From the gate another stretch of heather- and bracken-bashing took me down to Kyles Stulaigh. Just offshore lay the island of Stulaigh.

Kyles Stulaigh - Stulaigh Isle in the distance
Kyles Stulaigh, an abandoned township with the ruins of about four blackhouses, was occupied as late as 1911 - see this CANMORE page for more on the township. This small, remote settlement, was touched by history for a day in 1746.

After the loss at Culloden in April of 1746, Prince Charles went into hiding, spending nearly 10 weeks, from April 20 through July 4, in the islands. Those 10 weeks were hectic. Ever on the run, he moved from place to place, his only respite a three-week stretch at Corradale, five miles north of Kyles Stulaigh. (See the March 14, 2014 post for the description of a visit to Corradale.)

The prince left Corradale on June 6, and headed north to Wiay island. But a week later he was heading back south past Corradale to spend the night of June 14 at Kyles Stulaigh. To get a feel for how hectic his travels were, below is an extract from The Itinerary of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, by Walter Biggar Blaikie (1897). You can find a PDF of the Itinerary here - pages 34 to 36 cover his time on South Uist.

MAY 15 – JUNE 5: At Coradale in a forester’s cottage. Here the Prince remained for twenty-two days in comparative comfort and safety; he was visited by his friends and enjoyed shootings at which he was very expert. Learning that troops had landed in the Long Island and were hemming him in, he was obliged to move.

JUNE 6: Sailed to Island Ouia (Ord. Sur. Wiay).

JUNE 7-9: Remained at Ouia where they heard the troops were following them.

JUNE 10-12: The Prince and O’Neil went to Rossinish by land, and remained three days, until they learned that the boats of the militia were patrolling the place. Donald Macleod and O’Sullivan, hearing of this came in a boat, brought them away and steered for Coradale.

JUNE 13. Forced by storm to put in at Uishness Point, they spent the night at Aikersideallach (Ord. Sur. Acarseid Fhalaich) in the cleft of a rock.

JUNE 14. The enemy being within two miles of them they sailed to Ciliestiella (Ord. Sur. Kyle Stuley).

Kyles Stulaigh lay in a beautiful, sheltered nook on the coast, and to the north I could see Corradale, and farther off the lighthouse at Uisinis (see the October 3, 2015 post). Kyles would be a great place to spend the night, but being sheltered from the wind meant the midges were thick. And if I stayed here I would have to return the way I'd came. The thought of climbing back up the rough hillside was not appealing, neither was spending the night in midge-land. So I looked at the map and made a quick decision to return to Lochboisdale by following the coast to the south.

When the prince left Kyles Stulaigh he sailed south along the coast I was now following. Going by boat he probably had an easier journey than I did, as the coast consists of a series of lumpy headlands covered with bracken and heather. Deer trails made the going easier. Without them it would have taken twice as long. 

Deer trails through the bracken
I had to go inland three times to get across the heads of narrow ravines cut deep by peaty streams. The prince sheltered at the outlet of one of these streams on his way to Lochboisdale, but I don't know which one.

A ravine to cross
A sheltered inlet on the coast
Aside from thick bracken and ravines, there was a man-made obstacle at one point. Yet another deer fence, this one with neither a gate nor a stile. So I had to toss the pack over and climb it.

Up and over
The coastline seemed endless, but the views east were amazing. At one point I came across a baby seal snoozing on a boulder.

The lumpy coastline
Baby on the rocks
It was starting to get dark when I finally came to where the coast turned west at the mouth of Lochboisdale. As I was setting up camp Lord of the Isles, the ferry from Mallaig, came steaming by.

Lord of the Isles arriving from Mallaig
Campsite at the mouth of Lochboisdale

During the day's hike I had managed to eat most of my food. So after pitching the tent all I had left to eat was a bag of crisps and a red-tinny of Export. But it was refreshing after a long day of hiking.

The night was windy, which kept the midges away, and I slept well. A little after 7am in the morning I was woken by the loud chugging of an engine; the culprit was the ferry on its way back to Mallaig.

Morning ferry to Mallaig
Breaking camp was quick, and I was soon on the homestretch to Lochboisdale. After rounding one last ridge the big marina came in sight, and a few minutes later I could see the Lochboisdale Hotel, where my wife was probably still comfortably sleeping.

Lochboisdale Marina
An hour later I was soaking in a hot tub, and in the afternoon we went for fish & chips at the Politician Pub down on Eriskay: a great way to end a two-day trek to see a historic, and rarely visited corner of the Hebrides.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Carragh Broin - The Stone of Sorrow

When I was on South Uist this week I made a two-day-trek around Beinn Ruigh Choinnich (the hill of Kenneth’s shieling). With a tent, sleeping bag, and midge net (among other things) strapped to my back, I crossed the footbridge at Auratote (NF 787 205). From there a soggy footpath led up to the reservoir of Loch nan Smalag (loch of the coal-fish), the water supply for Lochboisdale.

Footbridge at Auratote
From the loch I started across the boggy moorland to the northeast. To my right lay Beinn Ruigh Choinnich and the triple heights of Triuirebheinn (the hill of three peaks). Once around the shoulder of Triuirebheinn I climbed Bealach na Doillaid, the pass of the saddle. From the top of the pass I could see Loch nan Airm (the loch of weapons) lurking in a crater at the bottom of the slopes.

It was slow going down the trackless, bracken and heather clogged hillside to the Loch of Weapons. On the way down I met a shepherd out gathering sheep, on what was the first day of decent weather in over a week. Once down at the loch I made my way to its southeast corner. Hidden under the bracken here is a squat, rectangular boulder; marked on the map as 'Carragh BrĂ²in' (the stone of sorrow). 

Some descriptions of the Stone of Sorrow say it's a standing stone. But there are no standing stones in the area, and this is the only substantial stone anywhere near the location marked on the map. As I made my way to the stone I nearly took a fall, tripped up by a run of rusty fence wire hidden under the bracken. It was a close call. Then, wanting to take a photo of the stone, I started pulling out some of the bracken that hid it. In doing so a sharp frond of bracken slashed open my index finger. The blood was flowing, and of course, my first-aid kit was buried at the bottom of my pack. The Stone of Sorrow was certainly causing me some sorrow.

Looking across Loch Nan Airm from the Stone of Sorrow - Loch Stulabhal in distance
Stone of Sorrow under the bracken
The story of the stone’s name, and that of the loch, is in Otta Swire’s The Outer Hebrides and their Legends (chapter 7). In it she recounts the tradition that the last battle between the Vikings and the people of South Uist occurred here. The battle was indecisive, and both sides stopped fighting. The wounded where brought to the stone, and the combatants threw their weapons into the water as a sign of peace.

Another version of the stone’s name is in DDCP Mould's West Over Sea (chapter 8). This one is not so dramatic. It says a duel was fought here, and that one of the contestants, after being wounded, collapsed on the stone.

After taking a few photos of the stone I carried on to the east. My next stop, Tigh Leacach, a large souterrain on the hillside above the loch. Then I planned to carry on through Bealach a' Chaolais to spend the night in the old settlement of Kyles Stuley, one of Prince Charlie's hideouts in 1746.

To be continued...

Carragh Broin - The Stone of Sorrow

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Flannan Attempt - And a Disaster

Heavy swell precluded getting out to the Flannans today. So the MV Lochlann, operated by SeaTrek, took us on a tour around many of the islands in Loch Roag. But before doing that we motored up to Dalmore to see the oil rig, Transocean Winner, that broke lose from its tow cables during the storm that blasted through the Western Islands a few days ago. It was bound for Malta, but may end up being a tourist attraction, of sorts, one that Dalmore does not need. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Flannan Attempt

I will be island-going for a couple weeks. During that time I hope to get out to Eilean Mor of the Flannans. Of five attempts to get there over the last 16 years, only one was successful. That was back in 2003, and I've wanted to return ever since.

This attempt will be with Seatrek on August 10. They operate out of Miavaig on the west of Lewis, and if you are reading this before then there may still be places available. The weather forecast is a bit dismal, but maybe we'll be lucky and get out there. Since the Flannans feature in Peter May's excellent mystery 'Coffin Road', I have a feeling there may be more day trips on offer in the future. (Hopefully I won't find anything grisly in the chapel, and then wash ashore on Luskentye not knowing who I am...)

West Landing - Eilean Mor of the Flannan Isles

Sunday, July 31, 2016

All Four of the Smalls

On May 27th, after a few hours ashore on the Shiants, we headed south down the west coast of Skye. This is always a scenic run; the cliffs of the Skye headlands to the left, and the low coast of the Uists to the right. The Neist Point lighthouse marks the westernmost point of Skye. And just north of the light is an unusual pyramid shaped headland; one of the landmarks of the Skye coast. I have passed by many times in the past, and have never seen anyone climbing it. But this time we saw what appeared to be a rescue in progress.

Neist Point
Neist Point peak
Another three hours of steaming took us to our next overnight anchorage in Canna Harbour. The following morning we went ashore to see the Rocket church, the grounds of Canna House, and to see the Celtic cross that is all that's left of the monastery of Keils. Although there was a sign in front of Canna House saying there were tours of the house, the resident warden told us there were no tours. Very frustrating. (Dear NTS, why do you put up signs describing tours that are non-existent?) We'd find an even more flagrant example of such disregard for visitors when we'd arrive on Rum the next day (see below).

Canna House
Canna Harbour
My primary goal on Canna was to lead some of the guests to Sgorr nam Ban-naomha, a 7th century monastic enclosure (sometimes called a nunnery), that lies at the base of 300-foot-high cliffs on the west side of the island. It is a seven-mile round-trip hike, and so I only had two takers, Nigel and Clare. The three of us set out to follow the track to Tarbert Farm, from where a mile of cross country hiking took us to the cliffs high above Sgorr nam Ban-naomha.

Cliffs above the Sgorr
I have only been down to the Sgorr once, that was way back in 2002, and was looking forward to seeing it again. But it was not to be. The steep sheep track that give access down the cliffs had been severely eroded by rabbits, and look unsafe, so we had to settle for the view from above.

The eroded path down to the Sgorr
The Sgorr
On the way back to the harbour we made a detour to crawl into the souterrians that lie in the lonely interior of the island. (See this CANMORE page for more on the souterrains of Canna.)

The souterrains
Clare explores the souterrian
Once back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge we decided to head over to Rum for the night, and under brilliant sunshine we motored around the north side of Rum to find an anchorage in Loch Scresort. At the head of the loch we could see the red sandstone Kinloch Castle, built by the Bulloughs in 1902.

The ferry Loch Nevis arriving at Rum
Kinloch Castle
We went ashore on Rum the next morning. At the pier there was an info-board listing castle tours. I wanted the guests to see inside the castle, and even though it was a Sunday, there was a tour listed for 9:30. And so we all headed over to the castle. 9:30 came, and went, as did 10:00. We asked the few folks we could find about the tour, but no one knew anything. (We got the definite feeling they just didn't care.) I wandered over to the shop/pub to find it open, but vacant, its outdoor tables littered with empty beer and wine bottles. It looked like we'd missed quite a party. 

Kinloch Castle
We missed the party
I won't dwell (much longer) on the complete disregard whoever runs Rum has for visitors. But if you are not going to offer tours, why in the world do you put up signs saying you do. And I know for a fact that our experience that day was not just a one time mixup - it happens all the time. If you ever go to Rum, don't plan on seeing the castle, get as far away from it as you can and spend your time in the hills.

The sun was shining bright as we left Rum and made the journey over to Eigg. Rounding the north end we motored down its east coast below the high cliffs of Striudh. It was at Striudh that Hugh Miller met a lass "who was more than merely good looking" (see book 1, chapter 26).

Striudh - Eigg cliffs
We were soon ashore on Eigg, where we arranged for a taxi to take us the five miles across the island to the Singing Sands. It was the only taxi on the Small Isles, an old London cab, that had somehow made its way to Eigg via Dundee.

Eigg taxi
We had a bumpy, but fun, ride up Eigg's M-1 to road's end at Howlin, where a short walk took us to Camus Sgiotaig, the Squeaking Bay (usually known as the Singing Sands).

To the Singing Sands
The Singing Sands - the mountains of Mordor in the distance
East of the Singing Sands, and just under the high cliffs of Cleadale, we could see the house at Howlin. It's said the JR Tolkien stayed here, and that the view he had of Rum from the house was the inspiration for the Mountains of Mordor.

Howlin House (at left)
Could this be Mordor?
After an hour or so making the sands sing and wading in the sea we headed back to the road-end to find our chauffeur patiently waiting to take us to Glamisdale. (Listen to the April 19, 2013 post for a recording of the singing sands.)

Our taxi awaits
Back in Glamisdale we still had an hour, and so Nigel and I set out to see Massacre Cave. There was a sign in the shop that said due to a rock-fall you could not get into the cave, but we decided to take a look for ourselves. It is an easy half-mile walk to the cave, and when we reached it there was no sign of a rockfall, and with flashlights in hand we crawled in. In the late 1500s several hundred people perished here - see chapter 24 of book 2 for the story.

Nigel at Massacre Cave
In the cave
Thirsty, and ready for a beer, Nigel and I returned to Glamisdale only to find that the pub had just closed. The rest of our group had been more fortunate, making their way to the pub in time to get a drink. And so we spent a leisurely (and beer-less) half hour sitting in the sun until it was time to depart. Our next destination, and the last island of the trip, would be nearby Muck.

Glamisdale Harbour - Eigg
We dropped anchor at Muck around 7pm. And after another excellent dinner prepared by Lynda we settled down for the night. The next day dawned without a cloud in the sky, and we went ashore for a few hours. As we stepped ashore we set a record for a Hjalmar Bjorge cruise, as we'd visited all four of the Small Isles. I led the guests across the island to beautiful Gallanach Bay, and then several of us continued on to the MacEwen graves on Aird nan Uan, the headland of the lambs, on the far west tip of the island. (The MacEwens own Muck.)

Gallanach - Mordor in the distance
MacEwen Graves
Then in the mood for a climb, Nigel and I decided to make our way up Beinn Airein, at 450 feet, the highpoint of Muck. At the base of the hill, just before we started to climb, we came across an amazing stone cottage. Its turf roof was intact and the house still appeared to be used. It is a listed building that was restored in the 1960s (you can read more about it on this CANMORE page).

Someone's home sweet home
Nigel atop Beinn Airein
Looking to Eigg from the top of Muck
Unlike our experience on Eigg the day before, when we returned to the harbour the tearoom/pub was open, and so we were able to quench our thirst before returning to the boat.

Muck Tea Room/Pub/Shop
While talking to the folks who run the tearoom I was sad to learn that Amy had passed away. Amy was a little dog that had followed me all around the island on my two previous visits (see the October 13, 2013 post for more on Amy). But I was happy to learn that Amy's daughter, Mattie, still greeted visitors, as I found out when I stepped out of the tearoom.

Mattie of Muck
Amy of Muck - RIP
We said goodbye to our last island and set a course east to the Sound of Mull, where we motored into Lochaline harbour for a short visit ashore. Lochaline is where many of the St Kildans were sent, some to do forestry work, when they left their far off (and treeless) island in 1930. Most of the guests went for a long walk up the lochside road. But I decided to get a beer at the Lochaline Hotel, and then take a look at the houses where the Kildans had lived.

Lochaline Marina
Lochaline Houses - near where the Kildans lived
We spent the last night of the cruise at anchor in nearby Ardtornish Bay. The house at the head of the bay is the sometimes residence of Adam Nicolson, the author of the best book about the Shiants (Sea Room).

Ardtornish House
In the morning we had a short sail to Oban where we had a gigantic breakfast that would keep everyone going for a day or two and, in short order, everyone went their own way. It had been an interesting trip, one that visited quite a few islands not normally seen on these cruises. I would like to thank Nigel and Clare, Janet and John, Joey, Patricia, Francis, and Elaine for being such good company. I hope you all had a good time. And many thanks to Mark, Anna, and Lynda, for making my first trip as a guide go smoothly. We will be doing another trip next year, from May 20th to 29th. Check the Northern Lights website (and this blog) in the next few weeks for details.

Hjalmar Bjorge at Oban