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

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