Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Kerrera Ferry

William Winter's 1895 book, Brown Heath and Blue Bells, has a chapter called The Gateway to the Hebrides. The title of the chapter refers to the town of Oban, and it describes some of the author's wanderings in the area. One of his adventures is a walk along the coast south from Oban to the Kerrera ferry; saying about it that for a lovely twilight ramble I do not think a sweeter place was ever discovered.

William Winter made that walk over a century ago. These days a walk down the coast to Kerrera ferry can be a stressful ramble, as you spend half your time watching out for passing cars on the narrow road. I think a better way to walk there is via the five mile hike from south of Pulpit Hill.

Even with the traffic, the coastal walk is scenic, and I agree with William Winter when he says:

...looking across to that island, with its rich, green pasture lands, its broad stretches of breezy heath, its scattered farmhouses and its dark ravines, the stroller is strongly tempted to kindle the signal brand or wind the horn.

Looking across to Kerrera from the mainland
I have yielded to that temptation a half-dozen times over the years. But it is easier to get there these days, for you don't need to light a beacon fire, or go to the effort of cranking a sounding horn. In fact, you may need to do nothing but wait a bit; for in season the ferry runs quite often. But if it's not busy, all you have to do is turn a sign so that its black side is visible from Kerrera.

Turning the sign back to white-on-white as the ferry approaches
There is no better way to spend a day (or two) than exploring Kerrera. For a description of some wanderings around the island see the series of posts that start on April 21, 2013.

Kerrera landing
The Kerrera ferry crossing a sea like glass

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Thirsty Hugh

Five kilometres south of Uig (Skye) you'll find Caisteal Uisdein (Hugh's Castle). The Hugh it was named for was Uisdein MacGhilleasbug Chleirich, the factor of North Uist in the late 1500s. Income from the factorship must have been good, for around the same time Hugh had this castle built for him on Skye. The stone for the castle was quarried on the nearby Ascribs, a cluster of four little islands (and assorted reefs) that I hope to visit someday.

Caisteal Uisdein
Caisteal Uisdein has been called the castle with no windows or doors; the only access said to be through a high entrance reached by a ladder. But there is a small slit-window at ground level; a tight squeeze, but I managed to get inside.

The only way into the castle
Looking back to the narrow entrance from inside the castle
Hugh was an ambitious man, and hatched a plan to kill his cousin, Donald Gorm Mor, the chief of the Macdonalds of Sleat and North Uist. But his plan was foiled when a letter describing the plot ended up in the hands of Donald Gorm Mor. And so Hugh skulked off to North Uist, where he hid out in Dun an Sticir (the skulker's fort); a fort that is still there today, consisting of two linked islands in Loch an Sticir. This photo of Dun an Sticir was taken from the slopes of Beinn Mhor (the island off in the fog is Pabbay).

Dun an Sticir - Skulker's Fort - North Uist
Hugh was eventually taken prisoner. His fate was to die in the dungeon of Duntulm Castle, sixteen kilometres north of Caisteal Uisdein. The story of his death is well known: given only salty meat to eat, he was denied any water and died of thirst. Otta Swire, in Skye, the Island and its Legends, says that 'his screams and curses are said to echo through the castle today'.

On a visit to Duntulm a few years ago I searched for the dungeon where Hugh ended his days, but the building was such a mess of fallen stone that I could not tell what was what. I'd like to say I heard thirsty Hugh's curses echoing across the centuries, but I didn't.

Duntulm castle

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Hermit's Cell - Iona

A kilometre west of the Iona abbey you'll find Cobhain Cuildich, the secluded hollow. In this quiet spot lies the foundation of what's known as The Hermit's Cell, which may have been a place of retreat for the Columban monastery. It is an oval arrangements of stones 15 feet wide and 20 long, that may have once been quite a substantial building.

There's no proof it was the monastery's hermitage, or that Columba was ever there. But the site is certainly one of the most secluded areas within a relativity close distance to the monastery. Because of it's possible connection to Columba the cell is one of the usual stops on an Iona pilgrimage. I visited it during a long walk around the island, which you can read about in book 1, chapter 16.   

For more on the Hermit's Cell see this page of the Columba Trail website, and this CANMORE page.

The Hermit's Cell - 1
The Hermit's Cell - 2

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Lochbuie House - 3 Generations

Moy Castle, which stands above Loch Buie on the south of Mull, was the home of the Maclaine chiefs from about 1400 to 1752. The site was an important one long before the 1400s, as about four hundred yards to the north is an impressive stone circle. To the dismay of many visitors Moy is kept locked. But I was fortunate to be given a tour of the inside in 2003. One highlight of the tour was seeing the pit-prison: a deep hole half filled at high tide, with a rock for the unfortunate prisoner to stand on. You can read more about the castle's history at this link. The castle was also a focal point of the 1947 movie I know where I'm Going (see this I know where I'm Going website).

Moy Castle
Looking into the pit - the light is the reflection of the camera flash on the water
In 1752 the Maclaines must of had some cash on hand, for they abandoned the drafty castle (with its creepy pit prison) and built the first version of Lochbuie house (see this CANMORE page for more on old Lochbuie House). The house probably looked better when Johnson and Boswell stayed here in 1773 than it does today; for they've bricked in the upper windows and it's now used as a farm building. However, Boswell did not think much of the house at the time:

'It was strange to see a man of his fortune...have a poor house, though of two storeys indeed. The dining-room, where we sat, has a bed in it; and neither the ceiling nor the walls were plastered, though they were prepared for it.'

A plaque mounted above the door reads: After leaving Moy Castle the Lochbuie family resided in this house from 1752 to 1790 and it was in this house that Dr. Johnson and Mr. Boswell were entertained in 1773 by John Maclaine XVII laird of Lochbuie.

Old Lochbuie House
Plaque above door of old Lochbuie House
Around 1792 the Maclaines built the current Lochbuie mansion house, 100 yards to the northwest of the old house. And in the late 1800s they added the flanking wings you can see in the next photo. No Maclaines live at Lochbuie these days, for they lost the estate to debt about a hundred years ago. See this Clan Maclaine page for a history of the Maclaines of Lochbuie. See the May 7, 2015 post for the story of Ewen Little Head, the headless horseman of Lochbuie, who is said to still haunt the house of Lochbuie.

Lochbuie House

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Laraichean - Iona

At the far south end of Iona, between the Port of the Coracle and Columba's Cairn Cul Ri Eirinn, you'll find the ancient settlement known as Laraichean. Many visitors make their way to the Port of the Coracle, but few carry on the extra 200 yards west to see Laraichean.

Laraichean (which means 'foundations') is well hidden in a natural hiddie-hole above a small beach. If you make your way to the site you'll find the remnants of a half-dozen or so beehive type structures. As you can tell from the photos, my visit was on a grey and misty day.

The ruins here may predate the time of Columba, and so its residents, if there were any at the time, may have been the first to greet him when he arrived. Or, as the CANMORE page on the site mentions, this could have been the first settlement established by Columba and his companions.

Cattle grazing at Laraichean
I wanted to see Laraichean after reading this description of it in Trenholme's The Story of Iona (1909):

These are declared to be by far the oldest buildings in the island. The spot is a beautiful recess, enclosed by high rocks all round, and open only toward the sea, where the inclination of the ground towards the water is remedied by an artificial terrace. The hamlet could be well defended with bows and arrows, but whether it was the home of Picts or Scots who lived before Columba, or of later monks or hermits, is unknown. 

To get to Laraichean I climbed the small ridge west of the Port of the Coracle. When you approach it this way you can appreciate that it is indeed sited in a 'beautiful recess'; a pretty little spot far from it all. But unfortunately I did not have the place to myself, for a large herd of cattle were contentedly grazing on the lush grass that was growing all over the site. One big old cow wanted to make friends, and aggressively followed me as I walked around. So after taking a few quick photos I headed up and over the rocks in search of Columba's Carn Cul ri Eirinn. (See the April 12, 2013 post.)


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Shillay and the Seals

An island I've not yet been able to get to is little Shillay in the Sound of Harris. I wanted to go there after reading Robert Atkinson's amazing book Shillay and the Seals (1980).  

Shillay and the Seals is a great book, especially for those, like myself, who like to visit, and camp on, Scottish islands. Along with his puppy Shilly (named after the island), Atkinson spent about a month on Shillay. His struggles against the elements, while watching the seals, makes for some absorbing reading. In addition to Shillay, the book describes trips to the Monachs, Heisker, and many of the smaller islands at the east end of the Sound of Harris. The closest I've been to Shillay is the island of Pabbay, and someday I hope to set foot (and camp) on little Shillay of the Seals.

Shillay seen from Pabbay

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ring of Bright Water & Maxwell's Ghost

Although I did not know it at the time, my first exposure to Gaelic, the Hebrides, and the west of Scotland happened when I was 12 years old. That was in 1969, when my mother took me to a theater in downtown Seattle to see the movie Ring of Bright Water. Some scenes were filmed at Ellenabeich (Seil) and in Oban. And there are views to several islands in the Firth of Lorne, including Scarba and the Garvellachs. The story of the otter, and the scenery, made quite an impression on me.

It wasn't until 1991 that I actually read the book, which is very different from the movie, and much more interesting. After reading Ring of Bright Water (published in 1960), I went on to read the other two parts of the Bright Water trilogy: The Rocks Remain (1963), and Raven Seek Thy Brother (1969).

After reading the trilogy I came across a book about Maxwell called The White Island (1972), by John Lister-Kaye, who was involved in Maxwell's plans to construct a zoo on Eilean Bhan; the White Island that now lies under the Skye bridge. It has a sad ending as the author describes how, after Maxwell died, the zoo-in-progress had to be dismantled, and that they were worried about finding a home for Teko, the last of the famous otters. But they did not need to find him a home, because Teko died of a heart attack not too long after Gavin Maxwell died of Cancer.

Another excellent book that describes much of the back story of Maxwell's life at Sandaig and Eilean Bhan is Richard Frere's Maxwell's Ghost (1976).

It is easy to visit Eilean Bhan these days, and tours are offered by the Bright Water Visitors Centre. On the island you'll find a memorial stone that marks where Teko is buried. Teko and Gavin Maxwell both died in 1969, the year I first saw Ring of Bright Water.

Stone on Eilean Bhan - TEKO 1959 - 69

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Erraid Warning - Close the Gate or Pay Up

The first two photos show the 'main street' that runs in front of the old lightkeeper's houses on Erraid; houses now occupied by the Erraid community of the Findhorn Foundation. I took these photos during my first visit to Erraid, which was on a grey day in 2007. When the lighthouse board constructed the dwellings they wanted to insure that no sheep wandered in to cause a mess on main street. So they fabricated, out of iron, the sign you can see on the gate. It was a serious sign that threatened a 40 shilling penalty if you left the gate open. Quite a lot of money back then.

On my second visit, a brilliant sunny day in 2010, I was disappointed to see that the sign had gone missing. The gate where it was can be seen to the lower right of this photo of one of the houses and its beautiful garden. I hope the sign was put somewhere for safe-keeping, but I'm guessing it was stolen. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pigmies Island

One of the first Hebridean books I acquired, back in the 1980s, was Alasdair Alpin Macgregor's Behold the Hebrides. One of its chapters has an intriguing title, one that certainly grabbed my attention at the time: The Isle of the Pigmies.

It described a tidal island off the coast of Lewis, near the Butt of Lewis, that Macgregor said you could visit at low tide. Its legend of pigmies came from the reported discovery, in the 1500s, of many small bones and skulls. The Gaelic word for pigmie is Luspardan, and if you look at the modern OS map of Lewis you will find the island marked as Luchruban at NB 507 661, a kilometre SW of the Butt.

Location of Luchruban
In the early 1900s William Cook Mackenzie explored the island, and wrote about it in the Proceedings of Scottish Antiquaries, which you can find here. Mackenzie did not find any human bones, but he did uncover something amazing. He found what may have been a Christian hermitage with an oratory ruin, similar to the one on North Rona. A 10-foot diameter oratory connected by a passageway to a rectangular structure measuring eight by five feet.

The story of the pigmies, and the oratory ruin, made Luchruban an islet I had to see first hand. So in the early 1990s, on my first visit to the Butt of Lewis, it was not the lighthouse I came to see, it was Luchruban. From the lighthouse my wife and I followed the cliff tops south to a narrow cleft that would allow someone to descend to the shore. Just beyond it stood Luchruban.

Unfortunantely I was wearing street shoes. I did not know that Luchruban was a sea-stack, and to get on to it requires scaling a nearly shear rock face, with a few ledges and cracks that might make it doable. So I had to be satisfied with viewing it from the adjacent cliff top.

In the years subsequent to that visit my memory faded as to how steep the sides of Luchruban actually were, and I convinced myself that, with the right footwear, I should be able to climb it. And so, several years after my first visit I returned, sporting a good pair of hiking boots. But when I stood, once again, at the ravine that descended to the base of Luchruban, reality returned. The only route to the summit, that I could see, would involve some skilled rock climbing, and I gave up the attempt. I now think the only way to the top, for someone who is not a skilled rock climber, would involve bringing a ladder. Hmmmm... now there's an idea. Maybe I'll try that next time. See this CANMORE page for more on the Island of the Pigmies.

The top of Luchruban

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Stag from Rum

I just read A Stag from Rum - An Essay in Poaching, by Robert Atkinson, which was published by the Islands Book Trust. All who love the Scottish islands have a copy of his classic book Island Going (1949), and this newly published book is as good. At 85 pages it is a short book that I read in one sitting.  

A Stag from Rum
The book is a exciting tale about a poaching adventure in 1938 to the 'forbidden isle' of Rum. Here is the description from the Book Trust's website:

Contents: This tale of youthful derring–do, successful poaching and extreme sailing is published for the first time, as a tribute both to Robert Atkinson and his fellow bold spirits, John Naish and Hugh LeLacheur; who between them brought the fictional poacher ‘John Macnab’ to life on the forbidden hills of Rum. 

About the author: Robert Atkinson first came to the Hebrides in 1936 when he was twenty-one and was immediately smitten by the islands and their people, returning every summer up to the outbreak of WW2. In those years he travelled throughout the islands, reaching even the remotest of the uninhabited outliers. As an escape from the stresses of wartime he wrote both Island Going and A Stag from Rum while on active service in the RNVR. The former became a travel classic and is still in print while A Stag from Rum lay unknown and unread until just before his death in 1995.

In reading the book I was delighted to discover that Atkinson's poaching adventure was at Kilmory on the north end of Rum; an area I'd been to a couple of times. Someday I'd love to go back and camp where Atkinson and his friend Hugh LeLacheur did, above the little beach on the east side of Kilmory. You can order a copy of A Stag from Rum from the Islands Book Trust here.

Kilmory - the small beach in the distance is where Robert Atkinson & Hugh LeLacheur camped in 1939
Kilmory village ruins and burial ground

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Visit to Eileach an Naoimh

My first visit to Eileach an Naoimh of the Garvellach Isles was in 1997 (see book 1, chapter 8). The boatman who took me was Lachie MacLachlan, who lived in Cullipool on the island of Luing. The MacLachlans of Cullipool had been taking visitors to the Garvellachs for years and, as recounted in chapter 6 of her Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands (1921), it was an earlier Lachie MacLachlan of Cullipool who took MEM Donaldson to the Garvellachs.

I had made arrangements with Lachie (who has since passed way) to go to the island on a Sunday. I was surprised he agreed to this, as Luing is a fairly sabbatarian place. My wife and I were staying on the nearby isle of Seil, and on the Sunday morning she dropped me off at the ferry pier in Cuan. Since it was a Sunday, the car ferry to Luing was not running. But the little passenger ferry MV Oronsay was operating, and it took just a few minutes to cross the 900 foot wide Cuan Sound.

MV Oronsay - the foot-ferry to Luing in 1997
From the pier on Luing I was expecting to have to make a two mile walk to Cullipool. But I had no sooner started walking when I was offered a lift. The man who gave me the ride was Joe Hughes. He had just seen me walk by his house next to the pier, and wanted to be friendly and talk. As he drove me over to Cullipool he offered up several suggestions on things to see on Luing.

Joe Hughs and wife - Luing
Joe had no sooner dropped me in Cullipool when I saw Lachie climbing out of his boat, which was tied up to a rusty old fishing boat.

Lachie MacLachlan getting out of his boat in Cullipool
We were soon on our way to Aileach at full speed. But he did take time to slow down and give me a good look at Belnahua with its abandoned slate works, tiny Fladda with it lighthouse, and the once fortified island of Dun Connel. We then motored down the east side of Aileach, passing as we did a natural arch known as An Clarsach (the harp).

An Clarsach - the harp
Lachie then dropped me on slabs of rock east of the monastic site on Aileach. The island is best known for these ruins, which include two giant beehive cells that date to the sixth century.

The Beehives
Standing in front of the beehives is a 12-foot stone pillar with a natural overhang. It is called St Columba's Pulpit, and someone could preach here under rainy skies and stay dry.

Beehive cells and Columba's Pulpit
Columba's Pulpit
From the beehives it is a short walk to the site of the monastery. The most intact structure is a beautiful chapel (11th century), which you can see to the left in the next photo. The large structure to the right is a hodge-podge of altered buildings that were used as a residence when the island was last occupied in the 19th century.

Another relic of ancient times, one that many visitors miss seeing, is St Columba's Well; a little stone lined pool that lies above a narrow landing place known as Am Port, which had been the main gateway to the monastery.

Columba's Well
In my opinion the most evocative spot on the island is Cladh Eithne. It is a small circular burial ground with one of the few remaining cross-stones on the island. The cross is said to mark the grave of Eithne, St Columba's mother.

Cladh Eithne
Another interesting site is an underground chamber often referred to as 'the prison'; where it is said the prisoner was trapped by placing their arm under a wedge of rock. I did not see any such rock, but the cell had a beautiful little niche with a ledge that could be used as an altar. The cell may have been a solitary retreat for the monks; a cell of the penitential type, as opposed to the penitentiary type. During my visit in 1997 a prayer group was inside, and after they left I crawled in to find several lit candles sitting on the ledge.

Entrance to the cell
In the cell
To give them some privacy, while the prayer group was in the underground cell I wandered down to the south end of the island and climbed up to what may have been the shortest lighthouse in the world (established 1904). However the classic little lighthouse I saw then (1997) has since been replaced by a boring aluminum-clad tower, which you can see here.

Mini lighthouse at the south end (1997)
The world's shortest lighthouse?
From the light I climbed the spine of the island to Dun Bhreanain, the highest point on the island. From here you can see the other, and less visited, Garvellach islands of A' Cuili and Garbh Eileach. Those islands were so close, but so far, as it would take me five years to set foot on Garbh Eileach, and another two years to get to A' Cuili. Beautiful little islands all, but they don't have the history of Eileach an Naoimh.

Looking north from the top of the island
A' Chuli and Garbh Eileach
When the time came to go I heard Lachie speeding towards the landing spot. I jumped aboard, he throttled up, and we started motoring back to Luing at full speed. That didn't sit too well with the folks scuba-diving from a nearby sailboat, who bade us farewell with middle-finger salutes. Aside from that it had been an amazing day afoot. It was the first time I'd chartered a boat for a solo trip to an island - something I'd soon become addicted to - and it was not over yet. I still had time for a little Luing wandering (see postscript to chapter 8 of book 1). 

Eileach an Naoimh is an amazing place. One of the most accessible sites of its kind. After my visit in 1997 I returned two more times; reaching the islands from Crinan in 2002 and 2004 with Mike Murray, who owned the catamaran Gemini at the time. There are no trips from Cullipool these days (that I know of), but you can get a day trip with Seafari, operating out of Easdale. For more info on Aileach see this CANMORE page.