Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cairnaburg Chapel

During a trip to Staffa, the boat I was on passed through the narrow channel between the islands of Cairn na Burgh Mor and Cairn a Burgh Beg. Standing atop Cairn na Burgh Mor were two ruins; one was a low rectangular structure known as the Barracks, and the other, a much more intriguing structure, a 15th century chapel. As the boat continued on its way back to Ulva Ferry I promised myself that someday I'd find a way to get ashore on the tiny Cairnaburgs.

There were (and still are) no regular boat trips to the Cairnburgs. If you want to get ashore your options are either to sign up for a cruise that visits that part of the Hebrides, or to pay (a lot) for a charter day-trip. I have tried both methods. On a cruise in the area on Halmar Bjorge, the wind and sea were a bit agitated, and we were unable to land. But I did manage to get ashore to see the chapel by arranging a day-trip from Tobermory on one of the Sea-Life RIBs. Here are a few up-close photos of the chapel, and for a complete description of that visit to both of the Cairnaburgs see book 1, chapter 18.

Sea-Life RIB off Cairn a Burgh Beg
Cairn a Burgh Mor chapel
Chapel seen from the interior of the island
East gable and the altar
The Altar

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Mermaids of Raasay

The mermaids of Raasay, which date to the 1840s, were originally intended to sit astride the entrance to Raasay House. But they turned out to be too heavy, so they were left on the battery at Clachan. Their expense, along with alterations to Raasay House, helped bankrupt the last MacLeod of Raasay, who was forced to sell out and emigrate in 1846. Clachan has seen a lot of changes since I took these photos in 1995. It is now where the car ferry from Skye lands, and so these not particularly attractive mermaids now greet everyone who visits Raasay.

Mermaid #1 (Raasay House in the distance)
Mermaid #2

Friday, October 24, 2014

John Wilson Dougal

It was back in 1998 that I made the classic Tolsta to Ness coastal walk on Lewis (see chapter 19 of book 2). Along with Dune Tower and its chapel (described in the previous two posts) I also paid a visit to the Dougal monument. 

Dougal monument seen from the north - it's the white spot atop the small hill (below the soaring skua)
The monument, a 10-foot tall obelisk, stands atop a knoll overlooking the sea. Its white paint is worn, and it has a metal plaque embedded on one side. The plaque has an engraving of a rock-hammer, along with the words 'John Wilson Dougal' and the date '1905'. It was in 1905 that John Wilson Dougal noted the flinty-crush bands of the Outer Hebrides.

The Dougal monument (1998)
Plaque on the monument
Dougal was the founder of a chemical company in Edinburgh and an amateur geologist. For many years he explored the geology of the Outer Hebrides, and had been the first to describe their flinty-crush rock formations.

Dougal, who died in 1935, thought it was a band of this tough material stretching the length of the Western Isles that helped them survive glacial erosion. He wrote up many of his adventures in the Hebrides, and after his death they were published in Island Memories, a jewel of a book for anyone interested in the islands. His walks around the Lewis coast while staying at Dune Tower, and in the Uig hills on the west side, inspired me to explore these remote places for myself. In book 2 (chapter 19) you will find a photo of Dougal with a rock-hammer, like the one on the plaque, hanging from his belt. It is a wonderful photo, and was sent to me by his granddaughter who lives in Australia.

Dougal monument seen from the sea (2013)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bilascleitear Mission Hall - "Dune Chapel"

Standing atop the cliffs, five-hundred feet southeast of Dune Tower, is the ruin of a small mission hall. It was built for John Nicolson at the same time as Dune Tower (1920s), and when I saw it in 1998 the hall was in better shape than the house. Perhaps the hall was better constructed, or perhaps its site, below a small rise that separates it from the house, is not subject to as intense winds in the winter.

I've only seen one photo of the interior of mission hall taken when it was in use. It was a sadly worn black and white snapshot, that I'd guess was taken in the 1960s. It was shown to me by a woman who attended my book launch in Stornoway in June of 2012. I was so overwhelmed by what was going on that evening that I did not think to ask her name, or if I could make a copy of the photo. If anyone out there has a photo of the mission hall from back when it was used I would love to see it.

See this RCAHMS page for more information and photos of the Bilascleitear mission hall.

The mission hall from the north
West gable
East gable, door and fireplace
Looking east over the Minch

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dune Tower

It has been far too long, over 16 years, since I've visited Dune Tower. In its day it was the most spectacularly located house in the Hebrides: standing high atop the edge of a cliff overlooking the Minch. It was built by Iain MacNeachail (John Nicolson), a Baptist minister who grew up on Lewis, went to America, and then returned to build this house, and a nearby mission hall, way out on a remote stretch of moorland between Toltsa and Ness.

Dune Tower - 1998
The "Dune" name came from the fact that a broch known as Dun Bilascleitear once stood here, and some of its stones were used in making the house. See this RCAHMS page for more information on Dun Bilascleitear and the house.  For a more evocative description read Alasdair Alpin Macgregor's The Haunted Isles. It has a chapter about Dune Tower entitled: The Loneliest Place, and it was Macgregor's description of its history that enticed me to hike out to see the house. It was in sad shape when I saw it in 1998, so it must be in even worse shape today.

Inside Dune Tower
In the foreground of the next photo you can see two rocks that look to be tombstones - said to mark the grave of a man who died while hunting birds on the nearby cliffs.

Tombstones at Dune Tower
When I visited this beautiful spot back in 1998 I promised myself that someday I'd return to spend the night. I hope to make good on that promise in May.

Dune Tower from the south
Dune Tower from the north

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Beehives of Clan 'ic Phail

There are three beehive cell ruins on Eilean Mor of the Flannan isles. The largest, and most intact, is Teampull Beannachadh, the house of blessing. It lies near the lighthouse on the east side of the island, and has been altered into the form of a rectangular chapel.

Teampull Beannachadh
The other two beehives lie on the west side of Eilean Mor. They are often referred to at Bothan Clan 'ic Phail (the bothies of the Clan of the son of Paul). Donald MacDonald, in his book Tales and Traditions of the Lews, dedicates a short chapter to the MacPhails of Lewis. To quote MacDonald: 

The MacPhails made their power felt throughout the ages, and we find that they were used as wardens by the Macleods of Lewis and placed along the west coast...to prevent the Macaulays of Uig from passing north to raid the Morrison territory.

Below are some photos of the MacPhail beehives that I took during a visit in 2003. The two cells were probably shelter for those who came to the island to harvest birds. See page 132 of Bill Lawson's Lewis (the West Coast) in History and Legend for some descriptions of the abundant wildlife once found on the Flannans. See this link for some information on the various branches of the MacPhails.

The MacPhail bothies (the two bumps on the slope) 
The larger of the two cells
The smaller cell - ready to collapse
The smaller cell - not much of a shelter these days

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

St Finnan's Bell

Today I am guest posting on Dia Calhoun's 7:30 Bells.

St Finnan's Bell on the Green Isle of Loch Shiel

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Devil's Cauldron

There is something about place names with 'Devil' in them that attracts. Scotland has several, like the Devil's Staircase and the Devil's Elbow. The island of Bute has a 'Devil' place, and so on a visit to the island I decided to see it.

My wife and I were staying at St Blane's Hotel in Kilchattan. I left the hotel and followed the roads inland to the south end of the island near Suidhe Bhlain, the hill of St Blane's Seat. From there I walked past a farm with the odd name 'The Plan' to enter the precincts of St Blane's Monastery. The monastery was founded in the 6th century, and the main ruin is St Blane's Church (12th century). See this RCAHMS page for more info on the church.

St Blane's Church
St Blane's Church
Inside St Blane's Church
A ridge of 70-foot cliffs rises to the west of the monastery, and nestled below them is the Devil's Cauldron. To quote from Robert Angus Downie's Bute and the Cumbraes

The Deil's Cauldron is a massive circular wall, nine feet thick, of huge unhewn blocks, enclosing a roughly circular space about thirty feet in diameter. It is said to have been a place of penance, and may have been put to that use in monastic times, though it was not the original function of the place. The age of the Deil's Cauldron - also called the Dreamin' Tree Ruin, Druim an Tre being the Gaelic for little ridge dwelling - is unknown; but it was probably formed at an early date as an inner stronghold for use when the place had to be defended.

The Devil's Cauldron
Some kind of stone structure once stood here, and one wonders if monks in the old days were sent to it for penance. Or perhaps it was a place of retreat for the monastery, similar to the Hermit's Cell on Iona; or an isolated dark place to be tested against the devil, like St Patrick's Purgatory. See this RCAHMS page for more photos and info on the Devil's Cauldron.

After seeing the mysterious cauldron I made a windy hike to the top of Suidhe Chatain, the hill of St Catan's Seat. There I was greeted by a view over to the Great and Wee Cumbraes. I didn't stay long, as 40 knot winds were blasting the summit. So I quickly descended east to the sea where I joined my wife for a pint at St Blane's Hotel.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Deserted Stiomrabhagh

A great walk on Lewis is a visit to Stiomrabhagh. To get there drive south from Stornaway, and at Baile Ailein turn east on the B8060. Follow the B8060 towards Leumrabhagh, then just before you reach Leumrabhagh turn right on the road to Orasaigh. After about a mile you will see a reader-board high up on the right side of the road that marks the start of the walk to Stiomrabhagh. 

Stiomrabhagh lies a mile to the west and there is no real path. When I visited I made it a longer, and more scenic walk, by driving to the end of the road and then following the coast to the south. The village stands on a beautiful bit of high ground at the head of a small bay called Tob Stiomrabhagh. On its west side is a narrow inlet that looks almost man-made, which leads to a sheltered inland loch called Lodan Stiomrabhagh, the pool of Stiomrabhagh (second photo).

Stiomrabhagh
Before you visit Stiomrabhagh be sure to read the Islands book Trust booklet Life on the Edge: Growing up in Steimreway: The Story of Chirsty Maggie Carmichael by Bob Chambers. It will tell you how the village was occupied until around 1850, when the people were cleared to Leumrabhagh. Then, some 70 years later, four families raided the land. That was in 1922, but by 1939 only two families remained. Shortly after that the village was abandoned. For more info on Stiomrabhagh see this Pairc Historical Society article.

The view north over Lodan Stiomrabhagh

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Eilean Fear Chrothair - The Beehive Isle

I have wanted to visit little Eilean Fear Chrothair for 20 years, ever since reading about its beehive cell in Donald Macdonald's Tales and Traditions of the Lews. The only other mentions of the beehive I've seen are in the Scottish Antiquaries article mentioned below, and this short RCAHMS listing, which calls it a 'possible chapel'. 

The closest I've been able to get to the island is the north end of Little Berneray, from where Eilean Fear Chrothair lies just 500 feet offshore. Someday I hope to set foot on this tiny island to see the beehive cell. They are fascinating structures, and if you're interested in them, see an article entitled Notes on certain Structures of Archaic Type in the Island of Lewis - Beehive Houses, Duns and Stone Circles in this Proceedings of Scottish Antiquaries issue from 1904 (Eilean Fear Chrothair is mentioned on page 182).

Eilean Fir Crothair seen from Little Berneray
Eilean Fir Crothair (with the beehive cell position noted)
Closeup view of the beehive

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Dun Torcuill

Dun Torcuill is possibly the best of the causewayed brochs on North Uist. But don't take the route I did when you visit it. The broch lies a quarter mile off the A865 highway, and I thought it would be easy to get to the dun by leaving the highway at its nearest point. But barb-wire fences lined the banks of several streams, and it was a slow struggle to find safe places to cross the streams (and the fences). 

But I did manage to reach the dun, and carefully walked across the slimy stones of the causeway to get a close up look at this amazing structure.

Dun Torcuill

Inside Dun Torcuill


Instead of returning the way I came, I headed northwest towards a small hill called Laiaval. The OS map indicates there's a a holy well on the hill dedicated to St Columba, Tobar Chaluim Cille, so I headed for it. But unlike Dun Torcuill, the well was a disappointment, a muddy pool near some rocks in a field trampled by cattle (see last photo). From the well it was an easy walk to the nearby B893. If you want to see Dun Torcuill, start your walk from the B893.

Tobar Chaluim Cille