Sunday, September 29, 2013


As you can see in the photo I was fortunate to have had good weather on the day I visited the Cairnaburgs. These two little islands are large in history, each having been fortified in the past to control the sea lanes west of Mull. The photo was taken on Cairn na Burgh Beg, the smaller of the two islets, looking over to Cairn na Burgh Mor. Sitting atop Cairn na Burgh Mor are its barracks and chapel, and in the far distance you can see Lunga. The little peak on the right side of Lunga is Dun Cruit, Harp Rock, home to a large colony of seabirds. Hundreds of people visit Lunga every year to see its Puffins, but only a handful ever set foot on the tiny Cairnaburgs. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

The MacVarish Crosses - Isle Finnan

It took me several years to make it An t-Eilean Uaine, the Green Isle of Loch Shiel. The first time I tried to get to the island there was not a boatman to be found, and all I could see from the mainland were the two crosses shown in the photo below. From a distance they looked human.

Many years after that distant glimpse of the crosses I finally made it to the island. The highlight was to see the old hand bell on the altar of St Finnan's Chapel. But it was just as exciting to finally see the crosses up close. They were carved by Donald Mor MacVarish in the 18th century, and it is not known whose graves they mark. But whoever they were, those buried here are blessed with two of the most beautiful memorials I have ever seen in an island burial ground - memorials that will stand forever on the Green Isle of St Finnan.

The Macvarish Crosses

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Way Out Where?

Here is a view of the lighthouse on Bass Rock, built on the site of an old castle. Walking among the gannets here was a surreal experience, one I am not sure I would want to repeat.

Early versions of the books included a chapter on a visit to The Bass. But I cut it out as it did not fit the 'Isles of the West' theme.  But direction is relative, for someone living in Dunbar The Bass is certainly to the west.

This perspective became evident when I had my first article published. It was in Scottish Islands Explorer back in 2003 when the magazine was based on Fair Isle. The article was about a visit to North Rona, and I anxiously waited for the magazine to arrive to see how the story looked. (This was long before you'd get a PDF to proof). When the magazine arrived what did I see on the cover? A teaser for the story that read: "Rona: Way out West", and here I was thinking I had ventured way up north. But to Linda Grieve, putting the magazine together on Fair Isle, Rona was not way up north, it was way out west.

Rona : Way out West
This directional perspective is also evident in Scottish Gaelic culture where "going up" meant a trip south, hence the term "Suas gu Deas" (Up to the south, or "Up sous").  A wonderful book that captures this perspective in an actual journey is Suas gu Deas by Angus Peter Campbell.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Puffins Galore

Here is a minute long video of the massive puffin colony on Garbh Eilean of the Shiants. The video quality is bad as it was taken using my cheapo point and shoot. But it still gives you an idea of what it's like to be among thousands of Puffins. The date was August 12, shortly before the puffins left for the season.

Of all the anchorages in the Western Isles, the sheltered bay in the middle of the Shiants, which you can see in the video, is my favourite. Standing on the deck of a boat in the twilight of a summer evening, looking up to a sky filled with tens of thousands of puffins flying back and forth between the sea and their island burrows, is something you'll never forget. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Glengarrisdale Bothy

While we're on the subject of Glengarrisdale, here are a few more photos of the bothy.

Refreshments on the mantle - 1

Refreshments on the mantle - 2

In the Loft - 1
In the Loft - 2

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Skull Shots - Glengarrisdale

If you've read the books (and I'm sure you have) you know about the hike to Glengarrisdale (Jura) where I carried in a skull. Here are a few photos I had to cut out of the book for space.

Skull and friend enjoying a beer and crisps
Skull's last night of comfort
Skull in his rocky bed in Glengarrisdale

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wet Camera

Last month I was hiking in Glen Uisinis on the north east side of South Uist. The weather was miserable with a steady drizzle and a low fog shrouding the hilltops. I visited the three souterrains marked on the OS map. But they were disappointing to see as they were encased in a dense covering of soggy heather and tall bracken. It was still a good hike as I found a great viewpoint looking over Loch Corodale. And the walk ended on another good note when I came across the Uisinish bothy.

The bothy was a welcome sight. I was soaking wet, as was my camera. The effects of which you can see in this photo of the bothy. Many of my photos from that day have that blurry look because I only noticed the wet lens after going into the bothy to dry off.

The bothy looked a great place to spend the night, and I would have done that except a cozy bunk awaited on the Halmar Bjorge, which was anchored two miles away in Uisinis Bay (last photo). 

A Wet Lens view of Uisinis Bothy
Inside the bothy

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Sheela-na-gigs are intriguing objects. All the more so because no one knows what they really are. I put together the following composite image of some of the possible Scottish Sheelas to use in the chapter on Iona (Book 1, chapter 16).  Not shown in the image are the Sheela in Kirkwall Cathedral (which stands high on a column near the memorial to John Rae), and the newly-noticed Sheela on the Abbey Church of Iona (meaning Iona has two Sheelas). A great resource for information on Sheelas is John Harding's Sheela-na-gig project.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Belnahua of the Slate Isles

Here are two images of Belnahua of the Slate Isles. The first was taken from the highpoint of the island looking over the flooded quarry pits to the Sound of Luing (Fladda is the next island over with the  lighthouse). The second photo shows the ruin of the powerhouse on Belnahua. 

I have seen two versions of the island's name: Bal na Uamh (the place of the cave), and Bal na Uaigh (the place of the tomb). These names make me wonder what was here before they started carving away all the slate. For an excellent description of these islands see Mary Withall's Easdale, Belnahua, Luing & Seil: The Islands that Roofed the World. Another good source of information is the Slate Islands Heritage Trust.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Iona - Cross of St Martin

Here are two different images of St Martin's Cross on Iona. One was taken on a bright spring afternoon. The other on a dark and dreary day, made all the more dreary by the hungry crow perched atop the cross giving me the Evil Eye.. Maybe it was the Morrigan...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Lismore & Glensanda

I used a photo of Castle Coeffin on Lismore for the cover of Book 1. Here is another photo of the castle taken the same day. It is not quite as picturesque, for it also shows the massive super quarry at Glensanda.  I have always wanted to hike in to see Glensanda Castle, also known as Castle Mernaig (or Bhearnaig), but being on the grounds of the quarry it's pretty much off-limits. 

So why do I want to see the castle?  It is because of this quote from Nigel Tranter: "This must surely be one of the most elusive fortalices in all of Scotland, both as to its remoteness and inaccessibility and also in its identity, for it is also sometimes named Castle Mernaig, and is marked on the OS map as Casteal na Gruagaich."  (Gruagaich being the mythical creature also known as a Brownie.)  

Nigel Tranter wrote the above long before the quarry arrived, so these days it is even more elusive. But I still would like to find a way to see it. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bizzare Rum

This mausoleum, lying in a far off corner of Rum is, to me, the weirdest sight in the Hebrides. To see it involves a long hike across the island from Loch Scresort. But it is a hike well worth making for the views across the interior of Rum and to the surrounding isles. 

The castle at Scresort is itself an oddity, but this Grecian Temple standing atop a field of lazybeds at Harris Bay is Twilight Zone surreal. The small white patch on the hillside (to the left of the temple) is all that remains of the Bullough's original marble-tiled grave, blown to pieces after someone compared it to a public toilet. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Lighthouse Cruise 8 - Tobermory

From Canna we motored into the Sound of Mull past Rudha nan Gall lighthouse, and then tied up to the pontoon dock in Tobermory harbour. The weather was still wet, the sky grey and gloomy.

Also berthed at the dock was the catamaran Gemini. I'd been to many an island on her back when Mike Murray was the owner (see book 1, chapters 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10). These days she's in different hands.

Tob was full of tourists, so I escaped them by climbing up to the Western Isles Hotel where I enjoyed a solitary pint on their deserted patio overlooking the harbour.

Our cruise was, sadly, almost over. We spent the night in a calm anchorage off Ardtornish Point, and then motored into a busy Oban Harbour the following morning. By the way, you can read John Humphries' account of our trip at this link.

I will be sailing again with Northern Light next year, that's an easy decision. The hard part is to decide which of their many cruises to take.  This link will take you to their Halmar Bjorge cruises, and this one will show you their Zuza sailing cruises. If you want to experience the islands, I can suggest no better way than taking a cruise with Northern Lights.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Lighthouse Cruise 7 - Canna

From Hyskeir we motored west to Canna. The weather was terrible, and we anchored in Canna Harbour under grey skies and a steady drizzle. Just after we anchored several large RIBs started to leave the harbour after landing people on Canna for a short visit. The drivers of the RIBs (they do not deserve the title skippers) jetted out from the pier at full speed, their heavy wakes bouncing us around just as we were trying to board our RIB to get ashore. Totally irresponsible, not to mention rude and dangerous.

We spent a few wet hours ashore, and I was saddened to see that the Gille Brighde Cafe is no longer in business. In the pouring rain I visited several familiar sights: the old burial ground, the Celtic Cross, the Penance Stone and the two chapels. 

One of the rude RIBs leaving Canna at full speed
Canna Cross, Punishment Stone on hillock to the left
I have spend many pounds over the years calling home from this phonebox
After a night at anchor in Canna Harbour we headed to Tobermory.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Lighthouse Cruise 6 - Hyskeir

Hyskeir light was built in 1907 and automated in 1997.  On two occasions over the last 10 years I have been on cruises where we've attempted a landing, but both times there was too much swell. On this occasion we first attempted to get onto the main landing stage, but had to give that up due to the 4-foot swell. We next tried the stone beach where we were able to get ashore. 

Hyskier is a series of four or five reefs linked by little footbridges. The most substantial bridge (below) is intact, but most of the others have been washed away. However the tide was low, so we could step (or jump) over the channels that those long-gone bridges once spanned.

I have read that the keeper's had a 3-hole golf course (some say 1-hole). I searched each reef, but found nothing that looked like a golf course. But, as you can see in the next photos, there were lots of seals.

Getting off the island proved difficult. The tide had dropped and the shallow beach made it hard to get the RIB out to open water. So Mark Henrys had to step out of the boat and push as a couple of us poled out using the oars. It was a hard go but we managed to do it. Our next stop  - Canna.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Lighthouse Cruise 5 - Shiants

After leaving Little Bernera we headed north around the Butt of Lewis, getting a good look at the lighthouse from the sea.

We then motored south to the Shiants, where we anchored under thousands of puffins flying between their island burrows and the sea. I have been to the Shiants a few times, so I had seen most of Eilean Tighe and Eilean Mhuire. But one area I had never set foot on was the little peninsula at the north end of Eilean Garbh. So I asked to be set ashore there next to the massive puffin colony.

From the puffins I climbed to the top of the island and then traversed the eastern cliffs. The next photos show some of the sights along the way.

To get down from the top of Eilean Garbh involves a steep descent of what's known as the Eiger Pass. It was so steep that I had to slide on my backside in several spots. Just before I descended a herd of sheep were herded down to be sheared in the fank on Eilean Tighe. Once at the bottom I crossed the stony isthmus to Eilean Tighe to watch the shearing.

A sad side note here is that the fleeces were all left to rot, as it costs more to process them than they are worth. 

The next morning we sailed south, our destination the elusive lighthouse on Hyskeir rock.

Lighthouse Cruise 4 - Little Bernera

After leaving Scarp we headed towards the Flannan Isles, the site of the mystery of the missing light keepers (see book 2, chapter 26). But it was not to be. The sea was too lumpy, large swells bashing the ship as we headed west. Ten miles away from the Flannans the decision to give it up was made, and so we sought shelter to the east in Loch Roag. 

Although we missed the Flannans, our consolation prize was to spend the day on one of the most beautiful of the Hebrides: Little Bernera. This island is special to me as it was the inspiration for one of my first magazine articles. The article was about a visit to Little Bernera in 2003 to find the grave of Isabella MacDonald. Isabella was one of the inspirations for the main character in William Black's 1873 novel The Princess of Thule

The article appeared in the May 2005 issue of The Scots Magazine, and is included in Book 2 (chapter 27). A month after the article was published I received a letter from Rhoderick Macleod. Rhoddy was the great grandson of Isabella Macdonald, and he was so happy to see the story he invited my wife and I to visit him at his home near Canonbie, where we spent an enjoyable few hours. Rhoddy also took us on a tour of a section of Hadrian's wall near his home (first two photos). 

Rhoddy and my wife at Hadrian's Wall
Rhoddy and myself at Hadrian's Wall
Rhoddy also provided me with these two images of his grandparents: Isabella and her parents in the first, which I included in the book, and Rhoddy's grandfather Dr. Rhoderick Ross in the second. Dr. Ross was the physician who went to North Rona to perform a postmortem on the two men from Ness who died there mysteriously in 1885.

Isabella MacDonald and parents, c1860
Portrait of Dr. Ross
Rhoddy asked me for a print of a photo I used in the article of the beautiful graveyard on Little Bernera where his grandparents are buried (next photo). The building at the right - that looks like a chapel - is the enclosure where his grandparents are buried.

One of the most rewarding things that have come from writing my island stories was to see the joy it brought Rhoddy to see the story. I had not spoken to Rhoddy since 2006, and so it was a bit of a shock when I visited Little Bernera on August 10 and found this memorial stone mounted on the wall of the burial enclosure.

Rhoddy was a kind gentleman. The last line on his memorial says "Here he lies where he longed to be". I am so glad he is at peace in the resting place of his ancestors.