Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Day on St Kilda

In October of 2014, some ten months ago, I signed up for an Outer Hebrides trip on Hjalmar Bjorge operated by Northern Lights Charters. The cruise was for this August, and included a visit to St Kilda. As the date approached I started paying attention to the weather news from Scotland. The news was not good: a record number of day-trip cruises to Kilda were being cancelled due to the bad weather. A week before the trip the weather looked like it was still going to be terrible, and the Northern Lights cruise during that week was unable to get to Kilda, and had to spend a good deal of time hiding from the winds in and around Skye.

But we were lucky. As we set out from Oban on August 8 the weather took a turn for the better, and we were able to get to Kilda. Greeting us as we arrived in Village Bay was the beautiful tall ship Bessie Ellen.

Bessie Ellen in Village Bay
The first few hours on the island were a bit crowded. For in addition to the passengers on Bessie Ellen, there were another 90 people ashore, as all the day-boats had taken advantage of the break in the weather to make the trip. I had about seven hours, long enough to escape the crowds and make a long walk around the island.

Once past the Helipad and beach, I started up the grassy slopes to Ruabhal and the Mistress Stone.

The Mistress Stone
From Ruabhal a gentle grassy slope leads to Mullach Bi and the dramatic west ridge of Kilda.

Day Boats from Harris, Lewis and Loch Alainn - Hjalmar Bjorge at far right

Looking NW to Soay
From the above viewpoint over Soay I made a steep descent into Glen Mor to take a close look at its cluster of horned structures that, from a distance, resemble ant-heads with giant pincers.

Glen Mor
Ruins in Glen Mor
Horned Structure - 1
Horned Structure - 2
Scattered across the glen are bits and pieces of the Sunderland flying boat which crashed here in June of 1944.
Sunderland Wreckage - 1
Sunderland Wreckage - 2
From Glen Mor it was a stiff climb of some 1200 feet up the slopes to the top of Mullach Mor, where I encountered the not-so-picturesque radar complex at the top of the hill

Summit of Mullach Mor
From Mullach Mor an enjoyable walk led to the top of Conachair, the highest point on Kilda. To the NE there was an amazing view over to Boreray, and the south side offered a view directly down to the village. I could see that all the day-boats had now left, and the only ships at anchor were Halmar Bjorge, Elizabeth G, and two others.

Boreray seen from Conachair
Village Bay seen from Conachair
From the top of Conachair it was a steep descent down the grassy hillside to the Gap. There I took a seat at the cliff edge to enjoy the view of Boreray.

Boreray seen from the Gap - with one of the day boats on its way to the stacks
Bonxies had harassed me all day, and as I descended to the village I had to keep a fist in the air to ward off their attacks. I still had an hour left, and so I leisurely wandered through the village before making my way to the cannon by the feather store.

Village Street
Site of the post office
Number 5
The canon - with Hjalmar Bjorge & Elizabeth G at anchor
I was soon back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge enjoying a cold beer and a wonderful dinner. The next morning we motored out of village Bay to head for the Monachs. The plan was to spend the night there, but the conditions were too rough, so we ended up at Loch Maddy, where I was offered the opportunity of making a through-hike across the hinterlands of North Uist. It would be a trek from Loch Maddy to Loch Euphort via North and South Lee, which will be the subject of the next post.

Friday, August 21, 2015

M E M Donaldson

I did something a few days ago that I've wanted to do for a long time: find the grave of Mary Ethel Muir Donaldson, better known as M.E.M. Two of her books, Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands (1921), and Further Wanderings: Mainly in Argyll (1926), are some of the best you'll find on the islands and Highlands. I vividly remember the first time I read her tales of camping on Staffa and the Garvellachs, and her visit to Eilean Mor mhic O’Charmaig, where she dropped into the dark pit of St Carmaig’s cave.

Her photos are a wealth of information on things that have changed in the last century since she saw them. For example; the cross on the summit of Eilean Mor (now in a museum), the Keill and the Kilmory crosses (both have also been moved indoors), and the cottage on Staffa (now a sad pile of stones). To capture these images she toted around Green Maria, a wagon packed with her photographic gear. There is a wonderful picture of her with Green Maria that graces the cover of an excellent book about MEM by John Telfer Dunbar: Herself: The Life and Photographs of MEM Donaldson (1979).

As much as I admire MEM, based on the following excerpt from her preface to Further Wanderings, I doubt if she would have approved of me:

…one of the most crying needs of the day is, in my opinion, an Anti-American Association, to rid the entire country of its present curse of American atrocities…American films, plays, raucous jangles, and clumsy gyrations in place of music and dancing, cacophonic gibberish, and idiotically named cocktails…and the hideous American spelling of Highland names, such as Urgard, Cahoun, and Chissim.
When I dance it is indeed a clumsy gyration. And I spell my name 'Calhoun' - one of several variations of the Highland name Colquhoun that stem from a history of emigration from Scotland, to Ireland, and then on to the States. It is a name I am proud of - but I do pronounce it “Ca-hoon”, not “Cal-hoon”, when I’m in Scotland.

It was in reading John Dunbar's book that I learned MEM, who died in 1958, was buried in Oban. And so on a trip there, some 10 years ago, I spent several hours searching the large cemetery on the hilltop north of town for her grave. The search was unsuccessful, and there was no one in the office that could help me. Then, a week ago, while on a Hebridean cruise, I met Iain Thornber (Oban Times). Iain told me where her grave was, and so when the trip ended in Oban I drove up to the cemetery to find it.

I searched in the area where I'd been told it was, but I could still not find the grave. Fortunately, someone was mowing the lawn that knew where the manager was. I asked the manager if he could help, and he went into the office, returning a few minutes later with an old book that listed all the burials. He found the entry for MEM, and I was delighted to see that listed with it was the name 'Bonus'. Isabel Bonus had illustrated many of MEM's books. Using the site number from the book we soon found the grave, a large cross atop a three-tiered pedestal. The lettering on the memorial had so faded into the color of the stone, that it was no wonder I'd been unable to find it when I'd wandered around the cemetery in 2005.

The memorial reads as follows:
Here Lies The 
Folded Garment Of
Isabel Bonus

Beloved Friend Departed This
Life August 9th 1941
When Thou Rewardest Thy Saints
O' Lord Remember Her For Good

Here Also Lie The Mortal Remains Of
M.E.M Donaldson, Her Beloved Friend
Who Wrote Books In Defense of Scotlands
Faithful Remnant, the Scottish Episcopal 
Church, Departed This Life On 17th Jan. 1958
"God Be Merciful to Me a Sinner"

So next time you're in Oban be sure to pay a visit to its cemetery high above the sea. It has some amazing grave markers; like the giant memorial stone to David Hutcheson, who founded what would become Caledonian Macbrayne; and a pyramid that marks the grave of a banker from the early days of Oban. But before leaving be sure to pay your respects to a modest cross-stone memorial, near the highway along the south wall of the cemetery. It marks the grave of an amazing woman who left a legacy of books and photos that will be immortal.

Note: For more on the history of MEM, and Isabel Bonus, see this page.

Update - June 21, 2016
On May 30 (2016) I motored around Ardnamurachan Point aboard the ship Hjalmar Bjorge. We passed Sanna Bheg just before reaching the lighthouse, which gave a good view of what's left of MEM's house at Sanna Bheag. It was gutted by a fire in 1947, and MEM left it after that. It was rebuilt in 1967, but it is a sad remnant of its former glory. As you can see in the photo below, it now looks like a bomb shelter; or the utilitarian military housing they built on St Kilda.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Barra View

I will be off-line for a couple weeks, so I thought I'd leave you with my favourite view in all the Hebrides. It is Castlebay seen from the slopes of Heaval, with the islands of Vatersay, Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay, and Barra Head floating off in the distance. 

Castlebay seen from the slopes of Heaval