Sunday, June 15, 2014

Handa Isle

None of the island cruises I've taken over the years ever visited Handa, so it was good to finally get here. It is a large island managed by the National Trust. The wardens greet you when you arrive by rolling out a unique landing ramp mounted on a ball. They roll it over the sandy beach and, after the boat noses into the beach, you step onto the ramp to get ashore. They then lead you over to the NTS shelter to tell you a bit about the island and emphasize the 'stay on the path' rule.

Landing on Handa
A wonderful circular walk takes you past the ruin of the island's village, and on occasion great Skuas swooped overhead in places where the path neared their nests. The path then climbs to the western cliffs and the great stack of Handa.  Every nook and cranny of the stack was full of nesting seabirds.

Great Stack of Handa
I was hoping to see some puffins, but the only one I saw was the one on this 'keep away' sign.

Keep away from the puffins
Handa is an amazing island, but when the path reached its highest point I was disappointed that the summit, although just 100 yards away, was not included on the 'legal' path. No birds were nesting near the top, so I violated the rules and made a quick dash to the trig-pillar. I find it odd they don't have a short spur trail to the top, as it is a spot everyone would want to see with its view over the Summer Isles.

The summit

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Isle Maree

I finally made it to Isle Maree. My wife and I stayed for a few days in Gairloch, and on one of them we made our way to the Loch Maree Hotel, where I'd made arrangements to go to the island. As I arrived the owner of the hotel, Raymond Gault, was just bringing some campers back from one of the other islands. They were a sorry-looking lot. They'd planned to spend two nights, but forgot their midge-repellent. The bugs are fierce right now, and after one miserable night on the island they'd called for rescue.

As I walked towards the centre of the island the first thing I saw was the coin tree; an oak tree (long dead) impaled with hundreds of coins, many tarnished a dark blue green. The holy well of St Maelrubha was on this spot, and the coin offerings date to when pilgims came to the island to seek a cure for insanity. There is some thought St Maelrubha had a cell here, and crowning the island is a circular enclosure containing many old grave stones. See this RCAHMS link for an extensive description of the island. St Maelrubha probably came here in the 7th century to Christianize it, as it may have been an important site of pagan worship (including the sacrificing of bulls).

Queen Victoria visited Islee Maree in 1877, and put a sovereign (gold pound-coin) in the tree. As the story goes, the boatman returned the next day to get it. My visit to the island was on a small, open fishing boat. The owner of the Loch Maree hotel is fixing up a tour-boat (The Isle Maree - second photo) to do regular trips to the islands later this summer, and hopes to set up a web-site where you can book on-line. As for now, you need to call the hotel to make arrangements. 

Next stop - Handa Island.

Coin tree
Future Tour Boat

Monday, June 9, 2014

Vatersay of the Beaches - 4

We'll end our tour of Vatersay's beaches with a visit to Traigh Caragrich and Traigh Uinessan on the northwest tip of the island. They are easy to reach. Once over the causeway drive a mile and a half, turn left, and then follow the road past the church of Our Lady of the Waves and St John. Continue to the bus turnaround at the end of the road and park on the turf. Standing here is Taigh Sanna, a self catering house in a wonderful location. Traigh Caragrich is a 30-second walk to the east. 

Traigh Caragaich at road's end
Once past the beach, a five minute walk to the east takes you to Uinessan. Although many references say Uinessan is a tidal island, I have visited it several times over the years, and never once checked the tides beforehand. Perhaps, like the tidal isle of Erraid, it is only isolated at extremely high tides.
Traigh Uinessan
On the east side of Uinessan you will find a low mound. On it stands the ruin of Cille Bhrianain, the chapel of St Brendan. Buried there is Mór nan Ceann, Mary of the Heads, the wife of a MacNeil chief. Her name is said to have come from her preference for fresh ox tongue, a once-a-day habit that cost the lives of several hundred cattle a year. Another version of her name says that she beheaded two of her two stepsons so that her son Ruari would become the Chief of the MacNeils. 

Mary wanted to be buried within sight of her native island of Coll, and so it was decided to bury her on Uinessan in a standing up position, facing southeast (towards Coll). It was a foggy day when they buried her, and when the fog cleared they discovered that the nearby island of Muldonach blocked the view to Coll. There were some who wanted to move her, but the chief decided to leave her buried where she was - or so the story goes.

The ruin of Cille Bhrianain (on the mound at centre) - Castlebay in the distance
Whats left of the chapel
Here we end our tour of Vatersay's less-visited beaches. Next time you are on Barra, pack a lunch, get youself over to Vatersay, and then spend a few hours on one of these remote beaches. Chances are you will have it all to yourself.
Looking toward Castlebay from Cille Bhrianain

Friday, June 6, 2014

Vatersay of the Beaches - 3

Traigh Bharlish may be Vatersay's least visited beach. The locals know it well, and call it Caolas Beach, but most tourists never see it. I visited the beach by taking the bus from Castlebay to Vatersay, and then climbing to the top of Heisival Mor, the highest point on Vatersay. From the top I had a great view down to Traigh Bharlish (first photo) and the Vatersay Causeway (second photo).

Traigh Bharlish seen from the slopes of Heishival Mor
Vatersay causeway seen from the slopes of Heishival Mor
From the top of Heishival Mor I descended to the sea to take a look at the fortress isles of Birisalum, and then headed north to Traigh Bharlish. It is an amazing beach, and there was not another soul around. From the beach, a mile and a half hike took me to the causeway, where I caught the bus back to Castlebay. Next time we'll see the two small beaches that lie on the northeast tip of Vatersay.

Traigh Bharlish seen from the south
Traigh Bharlish seen from the north
Traigh Bharlish seen from Traigh Bharlish

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Vatersay of the Beaches - 2

Just west of Traigh Eorisdail is Traigh a' Deas, the south beach of Vatersay. When I first arrived, I had the beach all to myself. But after spending an hour there, two other people arrived intent on taking a swim (second photo). I left them to it - the water was too cold for me - and hiked to the top of Ben Rulibreck, the highest point on the SW corner of Vatersay. From the top I had a wide, panoramic view over most of Vatersay (third photo). Next time we'll head north to see beautiful Traigh Bharlish.

Traigh a' Deas seen from the east
Traigh a' Deas seen from the west
Looking north from Ben Rulibreck - Heabhal (on Barra) in the distance

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Vatersay of the Beaches - 1

Vatersay is known for its wonderful beaches. There are seven beaches, but the vast majority of visitors only see the two largest: Traigh Siar and Traigh Ear, which are near the road. The five other beaches, going sunwise around the island, are Traigh Eorisdail, Traigh a' Deas, Traigh Bharlish, Traigh Caragrich and Traigh Uinessan. 

I first visited Traigh Eorisdail and Traigh a' Deas during on a circular walk around the south end of Vatersay. At the time I did not know that these two beaches were worthy subjects of a walk on their own. I made the walk because I wanted to get as close to the island of Sandray as I could, as my plans to get to Sandray, which lies a half mile to the south, had been foiled by a week of bad weather.

The first photo shows several kayaks ashore on Traigh Eorisdail, and in the distance you can see Sandray shrouded under a bank of dark, menacing clouds. Above the beach (second photo) are the ruins of the settlement of Eorisdail. It is an eerie place, just the gable ends of the houses still stand. Apparently it was common, in the early 1900s, to build stone gables, and use timber for the walls. No roads lead to Eorisdail, and it was finally abandoned in 1966. Next time we'll take a look at nearby Traigh a' Deas.

Kayaks on Traigh Eorisdail
The ruins of Eorisdail

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Dun Eistean

Off the north end of Lewis lies Dun Eistean, a small island separated from the Lewis mainland by a 40 foot gap. I first learned about Dun Eistean 20 years ago, when I read the chapter about the Morrisons in Sir Ian Moncreiffe's The Highland Clans. The fortified stack was a stronghold of the Morrisons, and on it are the ruins of several generations of fortifications.

And so on a sunny spring day in 2010, having read about the possibility of getting on to the stack by climbing down the 50-foot cliffs at low tide, I made my way on foot along a track that led north to Dun Eistean.

A pleasant surprise awaited me as I reached the cliffs opposite Dun Eistean. There would be no need to scramble down any cliffs. What I found was a sturdy steel footbridge, built in 2002, that spanned the gap to Dun Eisean. And so I leisurely strolled across the bridge to spend a hour on Dun Eistean and the broch ruin that crowns its summit (which is known as Tigh nan Airm, the house of weapons). 

Here are few photos from that visit in 2010. See this link if you are interested in an extensive description of the ruins that are to be found on this historic little island. Some time I will relate my two failed attempts to reach another historic stack that also lies off the north end of Lewis. It is Luchruban, also known as the Pygmies Isle. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point to view) no bridge has been built to Luchruban.

Dun Eistean seen from the sea - note the bridge at left
Footbridge to Dun Eistean
Display at Dun Eistean
The track to the bridge - the site of the broch can be seen on the horizon
Looking to the Butt of Lewis from Dun Eistean