Tuesday, June 30, 2015

In Search of Beehives - Eilean Fir Chrothair

It was in 1998, while sheltering from the wind in a small tourist information kiosk on the road north of Tarbert (Harris), that I first learned about the beehive cells of the Outer Hebrides. The reader-board in the kiosk had a drawing of them, and mentioned that they are scattered about the remote countryside of Lewis & Harris. And so on a long walk, a few days later, I made a point to find the beehives of Abhainn a 'Clair Bhig. (See chapter 17 of book 2 for a description of the walk to the Clair Bhig cells.)

Beehives at Abhainn a' Clair Bhig
I found those cells so interesting that I've made many walks on Lewis & Harris since then specifically to find beehives. I've posted in the past on the cells at Both an Aird, Morsgail, Aird Mhor, Miavaig and the Flannans. But there were two sites that, over the years, have proved elusive: Fidigidh and Eilean Fir Crothair. Fidigidh, which I believe has the largest concentration of cells, lies in one of the most remote spots in Lewis (about 4 miles NW of Kinlochresort).

On a wet day in 2013 I tried to reach Fidigidh from the west by walking the track from Uig to Bealach Roansagail and then heading east. But I was stopped a mile short of Fidigidh by the raging waters of Abhainn Ghasacleit. It had been raining for days, and I was unable to cross the stream. It was so very frustrating, as I'd fought wind, rain, and sleet for several hours just to get that far. I promised myself then that I'd try again someday by coming in from the east. 

The other elusive beehive site was on the tiny island of Eilean Fir Chrothair. It lies 800-feet off the island of Little Bernera, and on a visit to Bernera a few years ago I was able to take some long-distance photos of the cell. (See the October 7, 2014 post, which included the following two photos). 

Eilean Fir Crothair seen from Little Bernera
Zoomed view of the beehive
Over the years getting to Fidigidh and Eilean Fir Chrothair became an obsession. And so last May, while in the Western Isles for two weeks, I decided to make an all out effort to get to both sites. A visit to Fidigidh meant loading my pack with a sleeping bag and tent, and making a long like from Morsgail to Fidigidh, and then north to Cairisiadar, some 15 miles of bog- and loch-hopping.

Getting to Eilean Fir Chrothair would be much less physically demanding, but much more financially demanding, as it meant chartering a RIB from the good folks at Seatrek. I had thought about kayaking there, but from what I'd seen of the island from Little Bernera, getting ashore on rock-girt Eilean Fir Chrothair looked to be a bit hazardous - perhaps that's why some monk, centuries ago, decided to build his cell there. And so I arranged for a charter with Seatrek.

Location of Eilean Fir Chrothair
Seatrek RIB at Miavaig
Along for the trip was John Randall, former chairman of the Islands Book Trust. From Miavaig pier we motored out into Loch Roag. After traversing the west side of Great Bernera we motored past the Bosta Tide Bell before passing through the narrow gap between Little and Great Bernera.

The Bosta Tide Bell
Into the gap - Little Bernera to the left
We then rounded the east of Little Bernera, passing as we did the ancient burial ground with the Macdonald enclosure that looks like a chapel. (See the September 2, 2013 post, and chapter 27 of book 2 for more on the Macdonald enclosure.)

Macdonald burial enclosure on Little Bernera
Once around the north side of Little Bernera we slowly approached the rocky shoreline of Eilean Fir Chrothair. The beehive cell is hard to see here - it lies in the centre of the photo.

Shoreline of Eilean Fir Chrothair - the beehive cell is at the centre
Kenny (our skipper) expertly nosed the RIB up against some rocks, and then John and I scrambled ashore. The beehive was a beautiful little structure, with a cluster of sea-pinks beside its entrance.

The beehive - Eilean Fir Chrothair
We took turns crawling into the perfectly intact cell. It is the smallest beehive I've seen to date, and would barely hold one person. After exploring the cell we spent a half hour on the tiny island, admiring the view to all the other islands in Loch Roag. It's possible that at one time many of these islands were connected, and that in addition to Little Bernera, with its association to St Donnan, there may have been a monastic settlement on nearby Cealasaigh (Church Island).  

Cealasaigh seen from Eilean Fir Chrothair
John and I carefully descended to the shore and climbed over several boulders to get back into the RIB. We then motored south to a small inlet called Loch Riosaigh to take a look at its giant lobster pond. (See the April 21, 2014 post for photos of the lobster ponds on nearby Pabay Mor.)

Massive wall of the Riosaigh lobster pond
We also floated for a while off the Breacleit Norse Mill, which was completely restored in 1995, including its thatched roof. Someday I want to hike to it. It's a rough half-mile off the road on Great Bernera, and there is talk of creating a path to make it easier to reach.

Breacleit Norse Mill
I'd only chartered the RIB for two hours, so it was time to head back to Miavaig. We rounded the south east corner of Great Bernera, turned west, and motored under the Bernera Bridge (1952), the first pre-stressed concrete bridge in Europe. Standing above the bridge were several massive standing stones often referred to as Callanish VIII.

Approaching the Great Bernera Bridge
Standing stones (Callanish VIII) at upper right
Landing on Eilean Fir Chrothair, and seeing Great and Little Bernera from the sea, were highlights of our two weeks in the Western Isles. Another highlight, one I'll describe next time, is the hike to see the beautifully intact beehives cells at Cleite Fidigidh and Cleite Mileabhat.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Tobar Chiarain - St Ciaran's Well, Laimisiadar

I first visited Laimisiader in 1997 by walking in from Borghastan along the route Alasdair Alpin Macgregor describes in the prologue to The Haunted Isles (see book 2, chapter 18). It was only after that visit that I learned there was once a monastic settlement at Laimisiader with a holy well dedicated to St Ciaran. 

So in 2010 I decided to revisit Laimisiader to look for the well. That time I walked the coast from the Gearranan Blackhouses down to Laimisiader. 

The routes to Laimisiader
It was a great cliff-top walk, but when I reached the site of the monastery I could not find the well. These two photos date from that walk in 2010.

Laimisiader (2010)
Laimisiader (2010)
I was disappointed, but it still had been a good walk. Then, a year ago, I came across Finlay MacLeod's book The Healing Wells of the Western Isles (2000). 

It is a great reference book. Regarding Laimisiader it says that anyone with a lingering disease was taken to Ciaran's shrine (near the well), and that the priest would bless them with water from the well. The book also includes the exact location of the well: that it is to the east of a bend in the headland wall. 

Now I had seen this massive stone wall on both visits, but had not even thought of looking east of it because the wall hugs the hill on that side, and you would never suspect there'd be anything in the small (10-foot wide) bit of terrain between the wall and the steep hill. So last May I walked there again from Borghaston. 

Laimisiader (2015)
It was easy to find the bend in the wall, and just east of it was what looked like a small pile of stones.

If you were not looking for the well, would you pay any attention to this pile of stones?
I lifted off the two cover stones to reveal the well. Someone had left a cup there, but I decided against taking a drink as the water was a bit scummy. It was a remarkable little well, and I'd like to thank Finlay MacLeod for his wonderful book. It describes some 80 sites, and I've used it now to find a half dozen remote wells. You can't have a better great day out than combining a Hebridean walk with a search for a once venerated site like this.

St Ciaran's Well

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Wanderings on Raasay - A Walk to Eilean Tighe

Two weeks ago I made a walk I'd wanted to do for many years. Back in 2007 Bill Cowie (of South Rona) sent me a copy of Julia Mackenzie's book Whirlygig Beetles and Tackety Boots, in which she describes her life on Eilean Tighe and at Kyle Rona. While at Kyle her father, Norman Cumming, was the postman who rowed to South Rona to deliver mail to the residents of Rona and the lightkeepers at its far, north end. The book is wonderful. And in it she tells her story during a walk from Arnish to Eilean Tighe. I wanted to make that walk myself, so two weeks ago my wife and I went to Raasay for a few days. The weather had been terrible for a week, but the day I'd set aside for the walk dawned with beautiful blue skies. And so I eagerly drove north to Brochel Castle, and then followed Calum's Road to Arnish.

The route to Eilean Tighe from Arnish
Start of Calum's Road from Brochel to Arnish
Brochel Castle
From the end of the road at Arnish I set out along the path to Torran Schoolhouse (now a self catering house).  As the sign shows, I had about 8 km to go. I had not studied the map very carefully, and what I thought was going to be an easy, level stroll, turned out to be five miles of ups and downs separated by stretches of soupy bog.

Start of the path at Arnish - five miles to go
A short way into the walk the path forked, the route to the left led to the tidal island of Fladda, but I took the route to Kyle Rona and Eilean Tighe, which headed uphill to the right.

Path Junction at Torran - left to Fladda, right (and uphill) to Kyle Rona and Eilean Tighe
A mile later I came to another junction, where the path to Fladda rejoins the one to Rona. It had been raining for a week, and this stretch was a swamp.

Swampy junction with the Fladda path - three miles to go to Eilean Tighe
After another mile of gradual climbing the path reached its highest point (700 feet) at Faireadh an Da Mhuir (view of the two seas), where you can see both coasts of Raasay. From there the descent was gradual for the most part, but there was a steep section down a narrow slot in the rocks called Bealach a' Chruidh (cattle gap). It had been paved with stones to keep it from turning into a slide; stones solidly packed underfoot by years of cattle (and people) passing through. 

The cobbled (sort of) path down Bealach a' Chruidh (cattle gap)
The steep end of Bealach a' Chruidh
Soon I rounded a corner and came to Taigh an Achaidh (the house of the field), also known as Kyle Rona House. The only photos I'd seen of the house were the ones in Julia Mackenzie's book, but the house has deteriorated a lot since then (the northern half of the roof has collapsed). Julia, on her walk to the house (in what I'm guessing was in the late '90s) was disappointed to see how it had been taken over by shepherds and used to store wool. She would be even more disappointed to see it today, as with the collapsed roof the interior is pretty much ruined.

An t-Achadh (the field) with Taigh an Achaidh
Kyle Rona House on the cover of Whirlygig Beetles and Tackety Boots (Julia Mackenzie)
Kyle Rona House (May 31, 2015)
From the house the path descended to the shore opposite Eilean Tighe. About halfway there it passed Taigh Thormoid Dhuibh, once the house of Norman Mackenzie. It was a ruin when Julia Mackenzie passed by, but since then it has been fixed up into a very nice bothy.

Taigh Thormoid Dhuibh bothy
Inside the bothy
I had been to the bothy once before, back in 2007, when I'd been landed here during a day-trip from Rona. On that occasion I did not know about the bothy, and it was a truly welcome discovery. I was drenched from walking in heavy rain and was able to dry off.  (See the November 29, 2013 post for the story of that walk.)

A wet hiker in Taigh Thormoid Dhuibh - 2007
The path ended a half mile north of the bothy at a landing place for small boats. From there a vague trail led me 500 feet west to the narrowest part of the tidal channel that separates Raasay from Eilean Tighe.

Eilean Tighe
The walk had been timed to arrive at lowest tide, and the only challenge getting across was finding a place to get down to the shore. There I came across the remnants of An Stairean, a causeway of boulders that may have once allowed crossing at all but the highest of tides. It was extremely uneven, and the last bit, just before it reached Eilean Tighe, has washed away. But I did not need to use it. The tide was low, and it was an easy (but slippery) walk across the seaweed covered channel.

The crossing to Eilean Tighe at low tide
What's left of An Stairean - a small causeway to Eilean Tighe
Once on Eilean Tighe I followed the coastline north to the ruin of the house where Julia Mackenzie had been born in 1923. Her family lived here until they moved to Kyle Rona House when she was nine-years-old. It must have been an amazing childhood, growing up in this wonderful setting.

The main house on Eilean Tighe
It was almost time to start back, but I wanted to end the walk at the highest point of Eilean Tighe, so I carried on until I found an easy route to the top. The view was amazing: Raasay lay spread out to the south, and to the north I could see much of South Rona. Directly across the water, a kilometer to the northeast, was Rona's An Teampull, a beautiful little chapel that I've hiked to several times over the years.

Looking south to Kyle Rona from the top of Eilean Tighe
The chapel of An Teampull (South Rona) seen from the summit of Eilean Tighe (zoom)
From the top of Eilean Tighe I enjoyed the view for a while, along with a beer. When the time came to leave, worried about the tide, I hurried to the crossing. But I need not have worried, as the tide was still low. The views were completely different as I walked back to Arnish, and I enjoyed the return trip as much as the walk out. 

If you are looking for a wonderful hike I can recommend no better day out than the trek to Eilean Tighe. But be sure to read Julia Mackenzie's book first (which you can get here or maybe here); then get yourself to Raasay, check out the tides, put on some sturdy waterproof boots, and do it!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Tigh nam Bodach - Glen Cailliche

I first came across Bodach and Cailleach stones when I visited the island of Gigha (see the March 18, 2013 post). After that visit to Gigha I came across a site called 'Tigh nam Bodach' on OS Landranger map 50 (NN381427). A little research showed it to be a another pre-Christian shrine; a little stone house with not only Bodach and Cailleach stones like Gigha, but a nighean (daughter) stone, along with other stone children.

Even more fascinating was that a local shepherd still took on the responsibility of storing the stone family securely in their little house every Samhain, and then returning on Beltane (in May) to set them out for spring and summer. A tradition that has been carried on for centuries.

And so seeing Tigh am Bodach of Glen Cailleach was always on my list of things to do after an island adventure. But doing so requires dedicating a day to walk up Glens Lyon and Cailliche, a 10-mile round trip that also requires a long drive to Loch Lyon Dam. And so last week, twenty years after learning about the stone family of Glen Cailliche, I finally made the long drive, and walk, to Tigh nam Bodach.

To do that my wife and I decided to end three weeks of island-going this May with a stay on the mainland at the the Bridge of Lochy Hotel in Killin, a 25-mile drive from Loch Lyon. It was a beautiful drive up the western shoulder of Ben Lawyers to Bridge of Balgie, and then west to Loch Lyon. I parked below the dam, and then hiked up to a jeep-track that took me along the north shore of Loch Lyon.

The 10-mile (round trip) route to Tigh nam Bodach
Loch Lyon Dam
Loch Lyon Dam seen from the start of the track
As it turned out, the walk to Tigh nam Bodach was easy. For although the OS maps shows that the jeep track along the north shore of Loch Lyon ends halfway to Tigh nam Bodach (at the entrance to Glen Meran), a track now goes all the way to the site, and beyond; possibly part of the survey effort for the power line route that was considered, and eventually rejected, through Glen Cailliche.

The track heads west along Loch Lyon
After two miles I came to a little waterfall called Eas Eoghannan.

Eas Eoghannan
Then, another mile on, after passing several ancient settlement sites, the track turned north to follow the Allt Meran into Glen Meran; a glen that may be named after St Mirrin of Inchmirrin on Loch Lomond.

Old settlement site
Up into Glen Meran - the muddy jeep track at the right
As you can see, although it was late May, the weather had been atrocious, and there was still snow on the hills to the north. Halfway up Glen Meran the main jeep-track turned left to ford the Allt Caillaiche river, and continue along the northern shore of Loch Lyon. But I kept going north along another muddy track that forded the Allt Meran before turning west up Glen Cailliche. The track climbed the hillside below Beinn a' Chreachain, and a mile later I saw a cluster of sheep grazing around a small structure a few hundred feet below the track.

Sheep at Tigh nam Bodach
The sheep fled as I approached. Soon I was standing before Tigh nam Bodach; just myself and the stone family. The sheep had knocked over all the child-stones, so I spent a minute setting them upright.

Their house is small (just the right size for them). I would have crawled inside, but the sheep had been in it, and the straw put on the ground to keep the family warm in the winter was a bit messy. (See this link to learn how the little house was restored in 2012.)

Inside Tigh nam Bodach
Before heading back down the glen I gave each of the family a drink of Icelandic spring water I'd saved from the flight to Glasgow - though I doubt if they were thirsty, as it had been raining for several days. Fortunately the rain paused for most of my walk, and I was blessed with sunshine at Tigh nam Bodach.

It had taken me an hour to drive from Killin to Loch Lyon, and then nearly three hours to walk the five miles to the site. All-in-all I invested eight hours to visit the stone family of Glen Cailliche; eight hours well spent.