Thursday, September 22, 2016

Atop South Lee

At 922 feet, South Lee is the second highest mountain on North Uist. The highest, at 1138 feet, is Eaval, which lies three miles to the south. Both Eaval and South Lee are hard nuts to crack, as getting to them requires many long miles of bog-hopping. But they are worth the long march in. 

Here are some photos I took from the top of South Lee a year ago. When seen from above, the countless lochs that dot the interior are an amazing sight. And every time I see them they remind me of that fantastic scene in 2001: A Space Oddessy. The scene where Dave Bowman enters the star gate and is flung though the universe; traversing strange planetary terrains, multi-colored terrains; psychedelically altered images of the lochs of Uist.

Lochmaddy seen from South Lee
Lochmaddy (left) and North Lee (right)
Causewayed island forts in Loch Hunder
Looking west across Loch Hunder
Looking to Eaval from South Lee
The mouth of Loch Eport seen from the eastern slopes of South Lee
Looking south to Loch Eport and Eaval

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Monks' Field - Boreray

Cladh Mhanaich, the Monks Burial Ground, is an enigmatic place. It is found on the island of Boreray, in the Sound of Harris, and is usually referred to as 'The Monks' Field'. It is a large tract of ground, dotted with a dozen or more large mounds. Aside from the mounds, any obvious signs it had been a cemetery were destroyed when the area was cultivated, long after its use as a burial ground.

Mounds on the Monks' Field 
Erskine Beveridge reported seeing a crossed marked stone here, along with two cup-marked stones. You can see a drawing of the cross-stone on the CANMORE page referenced below, but on my two visits to Boreray I was unable to find it. But I was able to find one of the cup-marked stones, which also had a deep font chiseled in it.

Cup-marked stone & font
It is odd that no excavations of the mysterious mounds has been done, as it would be interesting to know if there are any remains to be found. It was Martin Martin, writing in 1695, who reported that:

The burial place is called the Monks-Field, for all the monks that dyed in the islands north of Egg. Each grave has a stone at both ends, some of which are 3 and others 4 foot high. There are big stones without the burial place, several have little vacuities in them as if made by art; the tradition is, that these vacuities were dug for receiving the monks knees, when they prayed upon them.

Martin’s report has an interesting interpretation of the cup-marked stones - the vacuities being made to receive the knees of kneeling monks. The two 'vacuities' can be seen in the above photo (my knees fit perfectly - maybe I was a monk in a previous life).

The Monks' Field
The people of Boreray did not make use of the Monks' Field for burials. They chose a patch of holy ground on Aird a' Mhorain, a mile away on the shore of North Uist.

Cemetery at Aird a' Mhorain
Boreray is a beautiful, peaceful island; covered in short grass that makes for easy walking. It also has spectacular views over the Sound of Harris. Speaking of those views, on my first visit, several years ago, I saw an amazing sight. Far off on the western horizon was Boreray of St Kilda - I was seeing Boreray from Boreray. During my second visit, last May, the sky was hazy, and Kilda was not visible.

Boreray seen from Boreray (Hirta on left - Boreray on right)
See this CANMORE page for more on Cladh Mhanaich.

Looking to Boreray village from the Monk's Field

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich

Some places shout out to be visited when you see their name on a map. One such place, in the Lewis interior, is Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich, which means something like the shieling of the cow of Murchie's daughter. I was already planning a long-distance hike from Morsgail to the Ardveg, and so I decided that along the way I'd pay a visit to this place with the long, and charming name, once occupied by Murchie's daughter (and her cow).

Route - Morsgail to the Ardveg
Before setting out I contacted the gamekeepers for the Morsgail and Uig estates (it was August, and there might be deer-stalking activity). They told me no hunts were on during the days I'd be hiking, and so early on a Monday morning I set out along the track to Morsgail Lodge.

Fifteen minutes after setting out, while still on the tarmac track to Morsgail, Malcolm, the Morsgail keeper, drove up. He told me I could take a shortcut past his house near Morsgail lodge. This saved a hard mile of bog-hopping, as I had planned to circle around the south side of Loch Morsgail in order to bypass the grounds of the lodge.

Looking back to Morsgail Lodge on the way to Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich
Once out on the moorland west of the lodge, an hour of hiking took me to Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich, where I found five ruined dwellings and a very large animal enclosure.

Shieling structure at Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich
Sadly, there is nothing written about Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich (that I can find, anyway). But it is recorded that the shieling of Tighe Dhubastail, less than a mile to the southwest, was occupied by the people of Crowlista. So perhaps the daughter of Mhurich (and her cow) came from that area.

House ruin at Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich
Another dwelling at Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich
It was a pleasant, pastoral setting. And in any other circumstances it would be a wonderful place to camp. But I'd only just got started, and was hoping to make it as far as the Ardveg, another six miles to the southwest. But before heading on I took some time to look at the massive livestock enclosure. It was quite complex, with two stone barns attached, each with its own passage to the enclosure. This makes me believe that Murchie's daughter (or daughters) must have had more than one cow.

Enclosure at Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich - Harris hills in the distance
Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich was a busy place in its day, but aside from the occasional deer-stalker, few people pass by now. From this oasis in the Lewis bogs, I turned south to search out a few more shieling sites shown on the map: Maghannan, Tighe Dhubhastail, and Fidigidh. And if I was lucky, perhaps a few not on the map. 

Inside the enclosure

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Midges Galore

It has been a few years since I've had a really bad experience with midges, so just how bad they can be had faded from memory. And I did not give them a second thought during the first few days of my time on Lewis last month because strong winds were keeping them away. But they were there, hunkered down in the grass, hungrily waiting for things to calm down.

During that time I made a three-day trek from Morsgail to the Ardveg, and then up to Uig. The first evening of the walk I camped in the Ardveg, pitching my tent in the same spot near the old blackhouses where I'd camped in 2001 (see the May 23, 2013 post). As I set up camp, Joe came over to check me out, sticking his big nose into my tent and knocking over my pack. That did not bother me, for Joe is a friendly horse that belongs to the new owners of the Ardveg estate, some 2700 acres that covers the Ardveg and Ardmore peninsulas. 

Joe of the Ardveg
I crawled into the tent around 11pm, after being treated to dinner and drinks by the new owners of Ardveg (an unexpected treat in the back of beyond, and very welcome after eight hours of bog-hopping). A gentle breeze was blowing, and the last thing on my mind were midges. The tent is too small to keep my pack inside, and so I left it out for the night.

In the morning I looked out the tent's mesh screen to see what the weather was like. All I saw was a blur. 'Oh,' I thought to myself, 'things sure look fuzzy, I should put my glasses on.' On went the glasses, and I took another look. 'Uh-oh, things are still blurry.' 

What I was seeing was a thick mass of hovering midges, greedily drawn to my tent by the carbon dioxide venting through the mesh. A vast horde, just waiting for me to come out and play. It's then I realize that I'd made a tactical mistake. My bug net was in my pack, and the pack was... outside .... uh oh...

What to do....  Then I realized there is something useful in the tent. Inside my kit-bag was a bottle of the island-hiker's best friend - no, not Scotch - it's a bottle of full-strength DEET. Now there are certainly better ways to start a day than by smearing yourself with a gallon of insecticide, but that's what I had to do.

Prepared for action, the next step was to retrieve the bug net. I unzipped the tent, stepped out, and started to quickly dig through my pack to find the net. During this time I'm engulfed in a cloud of nasty, thirsty, teeny-tiny bugs. As I find the net a look at my DEET-drenched hands showed them to be covered with a black mass of dying, squirming midges. I also started to notice a tingling, itchy feeling in my scalp, the only exposed area not drenched with DEET. Spurred on by desperation I grabbed the bug-net and dashed uphill to find a spot with a breeze.

With the net on I was prepared to break camp and move on to seek out the beehive cells of the Ardveg. Lesson learned: keep all your defensive midge weapons with you inside the tent. A lesson I learned the hard way.

Note: The story of the walk through Morsgail to the Ardveg is scheduled for the November/December 2016 issue of Scottish Islands Explorer.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Tom Ni Bharabhais

I am intrigued by the beehive cells of the Hebrides, and whenever I'm in the islands I make a point of seeking them out. Most of the cells that are near roads have been pillaged for stone, but walk a ways off the road and dozens (if not a hundred) intact, and nearly intact cells, are lying out there waiting to be found.

A few weeks ago I made two excursions in the Lewis hinterlands in search of beehive cells, One of those started at Tom Ni Bharabhais, the knoll of the Barvas Cattle, which lies just 300 yards off the B8022 road to Uig (Lewis), a mile before it crosses the Morsgail River.

Cairn on Tom Ni Bharabhais
If you drive this road to Uig you can't miss Tom Ni Bharabhais, for atop it stands a tall, slender cairn, easily seen from the road; a cairn made of stones robbed from two beehive cells that once crowned the hill. Here is the history of the cairn, as recounted by Alasdair Alpin Macgregor, in The Haunted Isles (chapter 2, The Road to Uig):

The cairn marks the spot upon which was decided the last encounter in the feud that for centuries distracted the MacAuleys of Uig and the Morrisons of Ness from peaceful pursuits. Two or three hundred years ago the Morrisons, in an attempt to recover a herd of cattle that the men of Uig had driven off from Barvas, set out from Ness for the territory of the MacAuleys, and overtook the cattle-rievers in the vicinity of this hillock. There, according to tradition current in Uig, the Morrisons suffered severe defeat at the hands of the MacAuleys.'

Tom Ni Bharabhais - beehive ruin behind to the right
These days they would not destroy beehive cells to create a cairn, but attitudes were different two hundred years ago. In the photo above you can just make out the meager remnants of one of the cells behind, and to the right, of the cairn.

Although these two beehive ruins are totally unremarkable, the country to the southeast of Tom Ni Bharabhais is full of cells, some completely intact. And so from Tom Ni Bharabhais I made a long circular walk to the south and east around Loch a' Sguair, visiting a half-dozen shieling sites with beehive cells. Here are two examples of what I found.

Beehive at Airigh a' Sguir - 1

Beehive at Airigh a' Sguir - 2
If these ancient dwelling fascinate, then put on a pair of good boots, get yourself to Uig, and head for the hills and lochs. I can almost guarantee you won't see another soul. Your mobile phone may not get a signal, so before setting out be sure someone knows your plans. Also be sure to wear gaiters, for there are hungry ticks out there waiting for a savory snack to pass by.

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.