Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Visit to Eileach an Naoimh

My first visit to Eileach an Naoimh of the Garvellach Isles was in 1997 (see book 1, chapter 8). The boatman who took me was Lachie MacLachlan, who lived in Cullipool on the island of Luing. The MacLachlans of Cullipool had been taking visitors to the Garvellachs for years and, as recounted in chapter 6 of her Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands (1921), it was an earlier Lachie MacLachlan of Cullipool who took MEM Donaldson to the Garvellachs.

I had made arrangements with Lachie (who has since passed way) to go to the island on a Sunday. I was surprised he agreed to this, as Luing is a fairly sabbatarian place. My wife and I were staying on the nearby isle of Seil, and on the Sunday morning she dropped me off at the ferry pier in Cuan. Since it was a Sunday, the car ferry to Luing was not running. But the little passenger ferry MV Oronsay was operating, and it took just a few minutes to cross the 900 foot wide Cuan Sound.

MV Oronsay - the foot-ferry to Luing in 1997
From the pier on Luing I was expecting to have to make a two mile walk to Cullipool. But I had no sooner started walking when I was offered a lift. The man who gave me the ride was Joe Hughes. He had just seen me walk by his house next to the pier, and wanted to be friendly and talk. As he drove me over to Cullipool he offered up several suggestions on things to see on Luing.

Joe Hughs and wife - Luing
Joe had no sooner dropped me in Cullipool when I saw Lachie climbing out of his boat, which was tied up to a rusty old fishing boat.

Lachie MacLachlan getting out of his boat in Cullipool
We were soon on our way to Aileach at full speed. But he did take time to slow down and give me a good look at Belnahua with its abandoned slate works, tiny Fladda with it lighthouse, and the once fortified island of Dun Connel. We then motored down the east side of Aileach, passing as we did a natural arch known as An Clarsach (the harp).

An Clarsach - the harp
Lachie then dropped me on slabs of rock east of the monastic site on Aileach. The island is best known for these ruins, which include two giant beehive cells that date to the sixth century.

The Beehives
Standing in front of the beehives is a 12-foot stone pillar with a natural overhang. It is called St Columba's Pulpit, and someone could preach here under rainy skies and stay dry.

Beehive cells and Columba's Pulpit
Columba's Pulpit
From the beehives it is a short walk to the site of the monastery. The most intact structure is a beautiful chapel (11th century), which you can see to the left in the next photo. The large structure to the right is a hodge-podge of altered buildings that were used as a residence when the island was last occupied in the 19th century.


Another relic of ancient times, one that many visitors miss seeing, is St Columba's Well; a little stone lined pool that lies above a narrow landing place known as Am Port, which had been the main gateway to the monastery.

Columba's Well
In my opinion the most evocative spot on the island is Cladh Eithne. It is a small circular burial ground with one of the few remaining cross-stones on the island. The cross is said to mark the grave of Eithne, St Columba's mother.

Cladh Eithne
Another interesting site is an underground chamber often referred to as 'the prison'; where it is said the prisoner was trapped by placing their arm under a wedge of rock. I did not see any such rock, but the cell had a beautiful little niche with a ledge that could be used as an altar. The cell may have been a solitary retreat for the monks; a cell of the penitential type, as opposed to the penitentiary type. During my visit in 1997 a prayer group was inside, and after they left I crawled in to find several lit candles sitting on the ledge.

Entrance to the cell
In the cell
To give them some privacy, while the prayer group was in the underground cell I wandered down to the south end of the island and climbed up to what may have been the shortest lighthouse in the world (established 1904). However the classic little lighthouse I saw then (1997) has since been replaced by a boring aluminum-clad tower, which you can see here.

Mini lighthouse at the south end (1997)
The world's shortest lighthouse?
From the light I climbed the spine of the island to Dun Bhreanain, the highest point on the island. From here you can see the other, and less visited, Garvellach islands of A' Cuili and Garbh Eileach. Those islands were so close, but so far, as it would take me five years to set foot on Garbh Eileach, and another two years to get to A' Cuili. Beautiful little islands all, but they don't have the history of Eileach an Naoimh.

Looking north from the top of the island
A' Chuli and Garbh Eileach
When the time came to go I heard Lachie speeding towards the landing spot. I jumped aboard, he throttled up, and we started motoring back to Luing at full speed. That didn't sit too well with the folks scuba-diving from a nearby sailboat, who bade us farewell with middle-finger salutes. Aside from that it had been an amazing day afoot. It was the first time I'd chartered a boat for a solo trip to an island - something I'd soon become addicted to - and it was not over yet. I still had time for a little Luing wandering (see postscript to chapter 8 of book 1). 

Eileach an Naoimh is an amazing place. One of the most accessible sites of its kind. After my visit in 1997 I returned two more times; reaching the islands from Crinan in 2002 and 2004 with Mike Murray, who owned the catamaran Gemini at the time. There are no trips from Cullipool these days (that I know of), but you can get a day trip with Seafari, operating out of Easdale. For more info on Aileach see this CANMORE page.

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