Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ardtornish Castle

I've lost count of how many times I've seen Ardtornish Castle from the sea. The first time was in the early 90s when I took the ferry from Oban to Barra. Over the following 16 years I must of sailed by it at least a dozen times, always wanting to get ashore to see it close up.

Ardtornish Castle
This historic castle dates to the 13th century. It was a principal stronghold of the Lords of the Isles until the late 1400s, and Sir Walter Scott placed the opening scene of The Lord of the Isles in the castle's hall. Although it is easy to visit the castle from the mainland (by driving to Lochaline), over many years of island going I never found myself in that part of the mainland, and so I had to settle for seeing the castle from the sea for about 15 years.

Then, in 2006 while on a cruise aboard MV Chalice, we anchored for the last night of the cruise in Ardtornish Bay. We went ashore to wander a bit, and to see the castle. The castle ruin was extensively 'fixed up' in the early 1900s, when its most notable characteristic when seen from the sea was added (a large arched window). Here are a few photos of the castle from that visit in 2006. For more on Ardtornish see this RCAHMS link.

Approaching the castle from the mainland
The remaining south wall seen from where the hall may have been
On the shore below the castle are a couple remnants of galley slips. The worn stone shown may have been used as a mooring post.

Landing place below the castle
Mooring stone?
Looking up from the landing
The 'add-on' window
When the time to go came we departed from the beach below a large house known as Innibeg (also called Bay Cottage), which I believe is owned by Adam Nicholson (the author of Sea Room). What a marvelous location (except maybe when cruise boats show up).

Departure time - Innibeg (aka Bay House) in the distance

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Smig mhic Mharcuis - The chin of McMarcus

Oh how I miss the old days of haunting used bookstores on the prowl for old Scottish books. It was so exciting to find a remote bookshop in places like Iona or Colonsay, and then discover a book I'd been searching for for a long time. Even back home, my wife and I would often make forays up to Vancouver and Victoria BC, where we'd also find an amazing selection of old Scottish books. Although easier, and quicker, the internet has taken much of the adventure out of searching for old books.

Back in those exciting days of bookshop-prowling, one of my favourite shops was Maclaren's in Helensburgh. It was there that, back in 1993, I purchased T. Ratcliffe Barnett's Highland Harvest (1937). It was while reading this wonderful book that I first heard of an island 'oddity' known as 'Smig mhic Mharcuis' - the chin of McMarcus. The 'chin' is a chunk of stone that is still to be found sitting in the cemetery of Kilbrandon on the isle of Seil.

I have only come across two other mentions of the chin, an 1896 article (see page 25 of this link) in the Proceedings of Scottish Antiquaries, and the following from chapter 2 of Patrick Gillies' book Netherlorn, Argyllshire and its Neighbourhood (1909):

A curiously shaped fragment of basalt, resembling a human chin, rests upon the slab. It is known as "Smig mhic Mharcuis" (the chin of MacMarquis). It is popularly believed that this stone, by some supernatural power, revolves upon its axis and points with the chin to a new-made grave, remaining in the same position until a fresh interment takes place. It is also said that should the "chin" be removed from its place on the stone it will always return. Certainly on more than one occasion the stone has been stolen, but sooner or later was found resting in its old position.

When I visited Seil in 2006 I found what I thought was the chin sitting on a tombstone under the arch in the next photo; an arch that is all that's left of the medieval chapel of Kilbrandon - I set the stone atop the arch to take a few photos, and then returned it to its perch on the tombstone, ready to point to the next internment in Kilbrandon.

Arch of the old chapel
The chin - pointing to the next grave?
Smig mhic Mharcuis?

Update (Oct 9, 2015): This post has been so popular recently, that I realized I needed to make a comment. I've left the above text as originally written, but following a discussion with Iain Thornber (Oban Times), I now believe that the stone I found in the burial ground is an impostor, and that the real chin has been hidden away. Below is a drawing of the chin from Patrick Gillies’ Netherlorn, Argyllshire and its Neighbourhood (1909); hopefully it will be found and placed in a museum someday.

The chin from Patrick Gillies’ Netherlorn, Argyllshire and its Neighbourhood (1909)


Yet another update (Nov 20, 2015): After some discussions with Iain Thornber, I've been digging through my old books, searching for a newer drawing of the chin that I saw in a book on walks in Lorn. I've not been able to locate that book, but what I did come across were photos from 1997 that I'd forgotten all about - photos that brought a smile to my face. They were shots from my very first visit to Seil, when I found another 'chin-ish' looking stone in the burial ground. It sat on the spot where the chin was said to rest, and I convinced myself at the time that I'd found the chin. In hindsight it was obviously not the chin, and probably just the footing of some table-tombstone. It was quite different from the stone you'll find there today, which I saw on my visit to Seil in 2006 (see previous photos). All this leads me to believe someone is purposely leaving fake chins to keep visitors to the burial ground from looking any further. The real chin must be hidden nearby.

Is it the chin (left foreground)? - 1997

The gullible young fellow who thought he'd found the chin in 1997

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Scenes from Hyskeir

As you can see in this Google Earth image, the Hyskeir (Oigh-Sgeir) skerries are a set of five reefs.

Google Earth view of Hyskier
Hyskier lies six miles southwest of Canna, and it took three attempts, over a period of ten years before I was able to get there. It is an extremely difficult anchorage, and if there is any significant swell it can be dangerous to get ashore. Although if you are lucky, and the sea is dead calm, you can land at the quay, which lies on the east side of the north-south gap between the lighthouse island and the last reef to the west (left of image).

The 128 foot lighthouse started operating in 1904, and was automated in 1997. The lightkeepers had a small garden and a 3-hole golf course. That successful third attempt to get ashore was in 2013, when we landed in a small inlet just north of the lighthouse. 

Hyskeir Light seen from the east
Hyskier seen from the northeast
Hyskier Light (1904)
Four of the five reefs were once connected by three small bridges. Two of them have washed away, but the one that connects the lighthouse island to the reef on its east side is still intact.

The one remaining bridge
I wanted to cross over all the reefs to see the foghorn building that stands on the eastern-most reef. Fortunately the tide was low, and it was easy to step across the first of the other two narrow channels whose bridges had been washed away. But the second crossing required taking my boots off and getting wet.

One of the washed-away bridges
The eastern-most reef is also the largest. It had several sections of what look like cement steeping stones (next photo) that crossed some of the many pools that dot the reef. I believe these once supported a pipleline used to transport fuel pumped ashore from the eastern landing.

Old pipeline supports? 
From there a final stretch of cement pathway leads to the foghorn.

To the foghorn
Foghorn building (where's the horn?) - Rum in the distance
From the foghorn there is a good view back across all of Hyskier to the lighthouse. It had taken me almost all of my allotted time ashore to reach the foghorn, and a glance at the watch told me I needed to be back at the lighthouse in five minutes. It took ten, and I felt bad about that, as the falling tide made it very difficult to launch the fully loaded RIB. Mark Henrys (our skipper) had to get out and push while some of us used the oars to pole-out. 

View west from the east end of Hyskier
It was fascinating to see this remote place where men once lived, but my best memory was watching the 40 seals taking it easy in a sheltered inlet on the south side of the middle skerry.

Seal haven

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Prison - Canna

My first visit to Canna lasted 45 minutes. It was in 1997, and my wife and I were returning from a week long stay on Rum. On the way to Mallaig the ferry stopped briefly at Canna, and I dashed ashore, intent on seeing An Coroghan, also known as 'The Prison'. (See book 1, chapter 29.)

An Coroghan
The Prison (upper left of the stack)
I wanted to climb this 80-foot-high stack to see the small fortification that stands atop it; a mini-castle built some 400 years ago, that Sir Walter Scott mentions in The Lord of the Isles:

From Canna's tower that, steep and grey,
Like falcon-nest o’erhangs the bay.
Seek not the giddy crag to climb
To view the turret scathed by time:
It is a task of doubt and fear
To aught but goat or mountain deer

It took 10 minutes to walk from the pier to the base of the Prison. But when I reached it I noticed this tiny sign staked to the ground.


Having thought about it for years, I was tempted to climb the stack anyway. But there was a family with children picnicking on the nearby beach. They would witness my 'transgression', and so I decided not to climb up.

Looking up the steep approach to The Prison
I returned to Canna five years later, thinking that the castle, and the steep trail up to it, would have been stabilized by then; but no, that little sign was still there. I decided to scramble up to the tower's entrance anyway, and then crawled on up to the flat top of the stack.

The Prison seen from the nearby hillside
The Prison seen from the small beach to the east


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Ancient oak lintel above the entrance

Was I wrong to climb to the castle? Maybe. But I doubt if it will ever be shored up, as it would be an expensive proposition (and they'd never collect any admission fees). In 2007 I returned for a third visit to show the Prison to a friend from Wales. It had been 10 years since my first visit, and that little sign was still there. (I'm guessing it's there now.)

Be careful if you decide to make the climb, and do not touch or step on any of the crumbling stonework. If you do get up there, here is the view over Canna Harbour that awaits you from the top.

The view towards Canna Harbour from the top of The Prison

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Airidh na h-aon Oidche - Shielings of the One Night

Over the years I've taken many shieling photos, like these of the intact beehive types near Abhain a'Clair Bhig, and the collapsed shielings on the moor south of Morsgail.

Clair Bhig Beehive shielings
Collapsed shielings south of Morsgail
But I have yet to visit an Airidh na h-aon Oidche; a shieling of the one night. There are quite a few of them in the Western Isles, but I've only seen two named as such on the OS maps. (One example is on Benbecula at NF 817 525.)

The 'One night' typically refers to some tragic, or scary story about how someone died the first night a shieling was occupied, and then no one ever stayed there again. See this link for one of the tales of the Benbecula shieling.  For the story of a one-night shieling on Lewis see this article on the CEUIG website.

I believe most of the one night shielings got their name because they were halfway houses of a sort. When the community had to travel more than one day to reach their traditional shielings they'd spend a night at one of these in-between shelters. If the shieling life interests you see this link for a dissertation on some of the shieling settlements of north Lewis.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Barra Walk

On a foggy Barra day in 2012 I drove to the north end of the island and parked near the old chapel and burial ground of Cille Bharra. My little car looked a little lonely in the little empty lot; little did I know, that while I would be out hiking, the car park would fill up and block access to my car.

My goal was to walk up to the high ground at the north end, and spend some time watching airplanes land on the beach of Traigh Mhor. The first photo shows the two amazing beaches that sit astride the northern peninsula: Traigh Mhor and Traigh Uais. I wonder if this sandy isthmus qualifies as a gigantic tombolo.

Looking south from Beinn Eolaigearraidh
From Cille Bharra I hiked around the old walled garden of Eoligarry House. The house was demolished quite a while ago, and in its place there are several blocks of non-descript apartments. All that's left of Eoligarry House are the garden walls, and inside them is the RC Church of St Vincent DePaul. My wife and I attended Mass there once, as it was advertised as being in Gaelic. But, disappointingly, it was 'anns a' Beurla' (in English).

I found a gateway through the old wall, and then headed north-west to the summit of Dun Sgurabhal.

Traigh Mhor and the airfield terminal buildings
Dun Sgurabhal is an Iron Age galleried dun that sits atop the hill. It is sadly dilapidated, so I did not linger for long.

Dun Scurabhal
A cave is marked on the OS map just to the south of the summit of Dun Sgurabhal; ever the cave lover I decided to pay it a visit. I found its small entrance below the lip of a short cliff, and as I stepped into the dark cave I got quite a fright as a whole flock of pigeons suddenly took flight from the back of the cave.

Cave below Dun Sgurabhal
From the cave I climbed to the top of Beinn Eolaigearraidh. At 102 metres it's the highest bit of ground at the north end of Barra, and provided some amazing views.

Looking north from the summit of Ben Eolaigearraidh - Dun Sgurabhal (left), Ben Sgurabhal (right)
I made myself comfortable at the top of the hill and cracked open a beer. While waiting for the plane to fly in from Benbecula I noticed the ferry from Eriskay on its way south to Barra.

The ferry from Eriskay traverses the Sound of Barra
Below me lay the vast beach of Traigh Eais. Wondering what the name means, I just looked up 'Eais' in Dwelly's Gaelic dictionary. Nothing was listed. So I dug out my favorite book on Barra, AA MacGregor's Summer Days Among the Western Isles. There was no definition of the name there, either. However MacGregor spelled it 'Traigh Uais', and 'Uais' is listed in Dwelly's as relating to the word 'Uasal; a word that means something noble. So perhaps the name of the beach comes from its location near Eoligarry House, where the MacNeil's lived after abandoning Kisimul Castle: i.e., The Beach of the Noble-Man. Or perhaps it simply means 'The Noble Beach', for it is quite grand.

Traigh Uais - the Noble Beach?
Right on time I heard the buzz of an airplane, and looked up to see the Twin Otter descending across Traigh Uais.

Flight from Benbecula on the approach to Traigh Mhor
After finishing the beer I descended the hill to return to my car, parked down at Cille Bharra. When I got there I was surprised to see about 30 cars in the small car park; my little hire car blocked in at the rear of the lot. A funeral was in progress, and so I sat to the side as the mourners slowly departed. It was an interesting way to spend the end of an interesting hike on one of my favorite islands. 

Full car park - Cille Bharra
Funeral at Cille Bharra

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Scenes from North Rona

In 2011 I was fortunate to spend two consecutive summer days on North Rona. The grass was tall, the sun was shining, the sea was calm, and the skuas were dive bombing. I spent my time exploring the village and St Ronan's cell, enjoying the view from atop the lighthouse on Toa Rona, climbing over the ridge to see Tunnel Cave and the site of Fraser Darling's camp. Best of all was standing at the western tip of this fascinating isle, where the only land to be seen in the sea were the two humpy rocks of tiny Sulaisgeir.

Here are a few photos from two long Rona walkabouts.

Memorial stone to Malcom MacDonald and Murdo Mackay
Inside St Ronan's Cell
St Ronan's Church and Cell
Memorial stone and the church
Toa Rona and the lighthouse
The north end seen from the ridge
Tunnel Cave

Toa Rona seen from the north end
The lighthouse
North end panorama
Skua soaring over the village
Entrance to Ronan's Cell

Researcher's shack
A well stocked shack
Beehive dwelling in the village - Sula in the distance
Sula seen from Rona (zoom)