Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Canna Phone Box

I have posted before on Canna's red phone box, once a communications oasis in a large area of the Hebrides with no mobile phone coverage (see this link).  On many occasions it was the only place I could call home during a Hebridean cruise.

The Canna box (about three years ago)
It was not only myself that found the phone useful. In 2009 a 100+ million dollar business deal was concluded here (see this link).

Sadly, the phone, installed in 1955, was not destined to reach its 60th birthday. On a visit to Canna last month I found the box to be derelict and rusting away. What was once an iconic site in the isles will soon look like the moldering boxes on Scarp and Soay.

Canna box - August of 2015
Canna Box

Update: When I visited Canna in May of 2016 I was happy to see that the phone box had been repaired.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Wanderings on Sanday - Dun Beg

I love the old sailing journals that recount adventures in the Hebrides in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of my favourites is Log of the Blue Dragon by CC Lynam (1908). It is illustrated with photographs and drawings of various locations in the Hebrides, and among them is this drawing of Dun Beg, a tall sea-stack off the island of Sanday (near Canna).

Drawing of Dun Beg from Log of the Blue Dragon (1908)
Athough I'd been to Canna numerous times, I'd never had the time to walk out to see Dun Beg; for to get there requires a six-mile round trip walk from Canna Pier. But last month I was able to get there by a much shorter route. I was on the ship Halmar Bjorge, anchored in Canna Harbour, when the skipper, Tim Wear, offered to run me across in the RIB to Sanday. From there it was only a mile to Dun Beg. Here are a few photos of Dun Beg and its sister stack Dun Mor.

Dun Beg - 1
Dun Beg - 2
Dun Beg - 3
Dun Mor
Dun Beg from the sea

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Day on Lismore & Back to Bernera

Back in 2006 I spent the better part of a week on Lismore. On one of those days I waited until low tide, and then crossed over to the tidal island known as Bernera of the Noble Yew. There was once a giant yew there, said to have sheltered hundreds, where Saint Columba once preached. 

Although the giant yew was cut down many years ago, I still wanted to find the site of the tree, as I'd wondered if there were still yews to be found there. And so once on Bernera I made my way to the old burial ground and chapel ruin said to be built on the site of the yew. I found the chapel ruin in a small glen above St Moulag's Well. There were several trees growing around the glen, which I thought, at the time, were yews. This photo is from that visit in 2006.

Bernera chapel ruin and trees (2006)
So let's jump ahead nine years. Two months ago Mavis Gulliver sent me a message questioning whether the trees I found were yews. She was preparing a story on Bernera for Scottish Islands Explorer, and had noticed that there were graze lines on the trees in my photo, indicating that animals may have been munching on them. If they were yews, whose foliage is poisonous, it would be unusual to have graze lines. I had no close up photos of the trees to confirm what they were, and so I decided a return to Bernera was needed.

As it turned out, I was shortly going to have a free day in Oban before an upcoming trip to St Kilda; a day that could be spent getting to Bernera. But there was a complication. You need a low tide to get to Bernera, and on the only day I could go to Lismore low water was at 6:30pm. The complication was that the last ferry back to Oban was at 6:15. Since the distance from Bernera back to the Lismore ferry dock is four miles, I'd have to cross to Bernera no later than 3:30pm, three hours before low tide.

To attempt a crossing three hours before low tide would be a close call. But I decided to see if I could do it. Since it would be so late in the day, I also decided to take an early ferry to Lismore and spend some time exploring the island as I worked my way to the Bernera crossing.

The route around Lismore to the Bernera crossing
There were only 5 passengers on MV Loch Striven as I made the 9am crossing to Lismore. It was threatening to rain, but as it turned out I would have a dry and sunny day afoot. As the ferry approached the pier at Achnacroish I noticed how much the old pier house has deteriorated since the first time I saw it in 1998.

Achnacroish pier house (Lismore) in 1998
Achnacroish pier house in 2015
MV Loch Striven at Achnacroish
From Achnacroish I decided to walk the shore path up the east coast to the broch of Tirefour. I'd tried to do this several years ago, but decided not to back then as I was not sure about walking so close to the homes there. But this time I noticed a sign with a giant arrow whch left no doubt about the way to go.

The arrow points the way
It was an easy path, and once past the houses it carved its way north through swaths of tall bracken, wet with the morning dew.

Through the wet bracken
A half mile up the path I came to this memorial cross that had been erected "by his sorrowing father" to Waverley Arthur Cameron. Cameron was an editor of the Oban Times who drowned near here on a visit to Lismore in 1891 (see this link for the newspaper report of the drowning).

Memorial cross to Waverley Arthur Cameron 
The path was a bit vague at times, but I eventually came to a sign indicating the way to the broch.

This way to the broch
A bit beyond the sign I made a wrong turn, and ended up in the middle of a boggy field south of Balure farm. But I could see the broch from there, and eventually reached it after marching through an unpleasant stretch of bracken and brambles. 

Tirefour broch is one of the best preserved in the country. Its inner courtyard is nearly 40 feet in diameter, and it must of been an impressive structure in its day. See this CANMORE page for more info on the broch.

Tirefour Broch
Inside Tirefour Broch
I was a bit tired of bracken bashing, so from the broch I followed the farm track up to the north-south road that traverses the spine of the island. I then followed the road south to the church at Clachan, passing, along the way, the old school and Bachuil House. A house on this site has been home to the chiefs of the Clan Maclea since the days of St Moluag.

Old schoolhouse
Bachuil House
I then came to the church at Clachan, once known as the cathedral church of the isles. It has several stained glass windows; one that depicts Saint Moluag holding a crozier (his staff), which is still held in safe-keeping on the island, and another that shows Saint Columba standing in front of the Bernera yew. 

Clachan Church
Stained glass in Clachan Church- St Moulag (left) and St Columba under the yew (right)
Columba under the yew
A half mile south of Clachan I came to the Lismore Heritage Centre, where I took a break to have lunch. Then it was time to head cross-country to the west coast of the island, where I crossed another stretch of bracken and brambles to see the giant abandoned lime-kilns (early 18th century) and pier at Grogan Dubh and Salen.

Lismore Heritage Centre
Old pier at Grogan Dubh
Lime-kiln at Salen
From Salen it was a long road-walk south to Achaduin, where I had stayed in a B&B during my visit in 2006. Then it was cross country to Achaduin Castle before dropping down to my final destination, the tidal crossing to Bernera.

Achaduin Castle -1
Achaduin Castle -2
The Bernera crossing (3 hours before low tide)
It was three hours before low tide, and the crossing to Bernera was still flooded. So I sat down and made myself comfortable while waiting for the tide to drop. I was getting a little disillusioned, thinking I'd not be able to cross over - I needed to start back to Achnacroish in 90 minutes or I'd miss the last ferry. After 45 minutes of waiting the tide had dropped a bit, and I decided to go for it. So I put on my rubber kayak shoes and started wading across. It was slippery going, but was only about three feet deep in the middle.

Time was short, so I put my boots back on and hurried down the east coast of Bernera along the same route I'd followed in 2006. It was not pleasant going; steep terrain with tall grass, bracken and brambles hiding slabs of sharp limestone. I then came to Bernera Bay, where I climbed up past Saint Moluag's Well to reach the ruin of the chapel.

The glen of the chapel
It was now discovery time. The trees I'd seen in 2006 were still there, and I walked up to the one next to the chapel ruin to take a close look.

Chapel ruin and tree
It was definitely not a yew, and all the other trees in the small glen were the same. When I showed samples of the foliage to someone a few days later they told me it was probably a hawthorn. 

Close up view of one of the trees
I was disappointed, not only in that I'd mistakenly thought they were yews nine years ago, but that it looked like there were no yews on Bernera. Mavis Gulliver had mentioned to me that there may be a few on the cliffs on the northeast side of the island. And as I returned to the crossing I looked all along that area, but saw nothing that looked like a yew. When I reached the crossing the tide had significantly dropped, so I did not need my kayak shoes, which I'd left on the shore, to cross back to Lismore.

The Bernera crossing an hour or so before low tide
At that point I had less than two hours to make it the four miles back to the ferry. The first mile or two was across trackless terrain to climb back to the road. When I reached the road a look at the watch showed I had 45 minutes to cover two miles. It would be a close call, but as I passed the side-track up from Salen a car came along. I stuck out my thumb, the car stopped, and I was soon on my way in comfort. Martin, who was visiting friends at Salen farm, kindly dropped me at the road down to the ferry, where a short walk took me to the ferry terminal with 15 minutes to spare.

Loch Striven arriving at Lismore
Oban seen on the way back from Lismore
I'd had an excellent day on Lismore, covering 12 beautiful miles. I'd also confirmed that I'd made an error about the Bernera yews. It turns out they are hawthorns. The hawthorn, like the yew, was a tree sacred to the early people of the isles; so perhaps they also graced the landscape of Bernera fifteen centuries ago when Saint Columba preached on Bernera of the Noble Yew.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Wanderings on North Uist - South Lee

Have you ever planned a long, overnight hike, in remote country to see an historical site?  Did you plan this trip months in advance, and have it be the centerpiece of a fortnight's holiday? And to finally reach your destination, did you set out on foot, crossing miles of bogs, with 35 pounds of gear on your back, looking forward with every step to seeing something you've only read about, a place rarely visited, the only photos of it nearly a century old?

And when you finally reached this much anticipated place, did it disappoint? Was it nothing like you pictured it?  Did you say to yourself, "Oh well, at least I had a good hike in the islands".

That's what happened to me last May. I'm addicted to finding old beehive structures: the stone corbelled cells and chambers that dot the Western Isles. One of the most unique such cells is built atop the ruin of a fort on the southern slopes of South Lee, a hill on the island of North Uist. The fort is called Dun Caragarry, and the only photos of it, and its beehive chamber (that I know of), were taken by Erskine Beveridge nearly a century ago (they can be found in his epic book North Uist, and on this CANMORE page).

It was last May, near the end of a full day of hiking around the base of South Lee, that I found what I thought was Dun Caragarry. It was a stone structure, but much smaller than I envisioned it would be, with a small pile of stone in it that barely rated being called a beehive. I was so exhausted after marching across miles of bog, and then climbing up several hundred feet of bracken infested hillside, that I convinced myself I'd found the site I come to see. After taking a few, uninspired photos, I went on my way to find a campsite for the night. Below is the structure I found, which I thought was Dun Caragarry (also see the May 24, 2015 post).

Dun Caragarry outbuilding
Dun Caragarry outbuilding - it too, has a small remnant of a beehive type structure
When I returned home a few weeks later, I compared these photos to the ones Erskine Beveridge took. It was readily apparent that what I'd found was not Dun Caragarry. A little more research revealed that Dun Caragarry had a small outbuilding 50 feet below it. That was what I'd found. I'd been so close, if I'd only climbed another 50 feet up the hill I would have found the real fort and its beehive.

After realizing my mistake, I thought it would be a long time before I'd have another chance to visit that remote part of North Uist. To do so meant dedicating another week of island-going, staying in North Uist while waiting for descent weather, and setting out once again to walk across miles of bog to repeat a hike I'd already done. But, as things turned out, three months after that missed opportunity, another chance arose; one that would allow me to visit the real Dun Caragarry without 35 pounds of gear strapped to my back.

I was on the ship Hjalmar Bjorge a month ago, and after a visit to St Kilda we anchored off the Monachs. A stiff northerly made the anchorage uncomfortable, so we motored over to Lochmaddy. After a couple hours wandering around town (where I enjoyed some of the best fish & chips in the islands at the Lochmaddy Hotel) the skipper, Tim Wear, ran me the short distance across Lochmaddy harbour to the base of North Lee. The ship would then head down to Loch Eport, where I would meet them in a few hours.

The distance to Loch Eport from Lochmaddy is about three trackless miles. But that's as the gannet flys. The route I had in mind would be five miles, as I wanted to reach the top of South Lee, try to find the real Dun Caragarry, and then drop down to the shore to be picked up at Acairsaid Falach, a small, hidden harbour in Loch Eport.

Lochmaddy seen from the slopes of North Lee - Hjalmar Bjorge at right
The skipper (Tim Wear) and first mate (Craig) head back to Hjalmar Bjorge after dropping me at the base of North Lee
The Route to Loch Eport
Having climbed North Lee many years ago (see book 2, chapter 15) I decided to bypass it, and head directly for Loch Lee, which lies in the pass between North and South Lee. This would allow me more time to wander around the various tops of South Lee before searching for Dun Caragarry. From the shore of Lochmaddy an easy bog walk took me south along a fence to a stile that marked the route of the 10.5 km Beinn Lee Hill Race. (See this link). A little further on I came across a series of marker posts that shows the runners the way down from the top of North Lee.

Where the Beinn Lee hill race route crosses the fence 
Guide posts down the slopes of North Lee 
I did not follow the posts. Instead I traversed up to Loch Lee, which lies in the pass between North and South Lee. At one point I got a glimpse of Hjalmar Bjorge motoring down to Loch Eport.

Loch Lee
Hjalmar Bjorge on the way to Loch Eport
From Loch Lee it was a straightforward climb to the summit of South Lee. The spectacle of the hundreds of lochs that dot the interior of the island was amazing. I believe some of the psychedelic scenes from the movie 2001 - A Space Odyssey, where Astronaut Dave Bowman passes through the star gate, were filmed here.

Another fantastic sight was the view down to the causewayed duns in Loch Hunder (also see the  Sept 21, 2014 post).

Causewayed duns in Loch Hunder
Duns in Loch Hunder
To the south stood the mountain of Eabhal, and I could also see that Hjalmar Bjorge was already at anchor in Loch Eport. I was scheduled to be down to the shore for uplift in an hour, so it was time to search for Dun Caragarry.

Eabhal - with Halmjar Bjorge at anchor in Loch Eport
After enjoying a beer at the summit of South Lee, I headed down towards Dun Caragarry, which is marked 'Dun' on OS Landranger map 18 at NF 922 640. It was slow going, as the hillside was cloaked in a dense covering of bracken and heather. I eventually came to a rocky ridge, and the sight of defensive stone-work on the side of the ridge confirmed I'd found the fort.

Dun Caragarry
I climbed up to the center of the fort, and there I found the beautiful little beehive chamber I'd come to see. The top of its roof had collapsed, and looking down into it I could see that it was built atop a six-foot deep hidie-hole in the ground. I would have crawled into it, but the stonework looked fragile, so I settled for pulling out a few of the ferns growing in it in order to take some decent photos.

Beehive chamber in Dun Caragarry
From the fort there was a great view down to the mouth of the loch, and it was easy to envision that this was once a strategic outpost guarding the entrance to the inland sea of Loch Eport. Some 50 feet down the hillside I could see the outbuilding I'd mistakenly thought was the fort a few months before.

Outbuilding seen from Dun Caragarry
From the fort it was a battle down the hillside through thick bracken, brambles and heather to reach the shore of Loch Eport. I reached the shore a half mile east of Acairsaid Falach (Hidden Harbor), so I had to bash my way west through more of the bracken jungle to get to there. Just as I reached the harbour I saw Tim and Craig in the inflatable, and in short order I was back on the ship.

Eabhal seen from the north shore of Loch Eport
Acairsaid Falach  - The Hidden Harbor
I had been incredibly fortunate. Events had conspired to let me rectify a mistake, and find one of the hardest to reach, and most beautifully situated beehives in the islands. This wasn't the first time I'd been given the chance to make a long, one way hike in the islands while on a boat trip; and opportunities like this are one of the many reasons I enjoy small boat cruising. Try it, you'll like it.

Beehive chamber in Dun Caragarry