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.


  1. Thank you for this. I hope to visit Bernera some time soon. My understanding is that the yew is still there. Probably growing more like a shrub on the cliff. I look forwatd to visiting in the spring.

    1. Good luck. I hope you find one. If you do, could you please let me know?