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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Marc. Always enjoy your articles