Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Kerrera Ferry

William Winter's 1895 book, Brown Heath and Blue Bells, has a chapter called The Gateway to the Hebrides. The title of the chapter refers to the town of Oban, and it describes some of the author's wanderings in the area. One of his adventures is a walk along the coast south from Oban to the Kerrera ferry; saying about it that for a lovely twilight ramble I do not think a sweeter place was ever discovered.

William Winter made that walk over a century ago. These days a walk down the coast to Kerrera ferry can be a stressful ramble, as you spend half your time watching out for passing cars on the narrow road. I think a better way to walk there is via the five mile hike from south of Pulpit Hill.

Even with the traffic, the coastal walk is scenic, and I agree with William Winter when he says:

...looking across to that island, with its rich, green pasture lands, its broad stretches of breezy heath, its scattered farmhouses and its dark ravines, the stroller is strongly tempted to kindle the signal brand or wind the horn.

Looking across to Kerrera from the mainland
I have yielded to that temptation a half-dozen times over the years. But it is easier to get there these days, for you don't need to light a beacon fire, or go to the effort of cranking a sounding horn. In fact, you may need to do nothing but wait a bit; for in season the ferry runs quite often. But if it's not busy, all you have to do is turn a sign so that its black side is visible from Kerrera.

Turning the sign back to white-on-white as the ferry approaches
There is no better way to spend a day (or two) than exploring Kerrera. For a description of some wanderings around the island see the series of posts that start on April 21, 2013.

Kerrera landing
The Kerrera ferry crossing a sea like glass

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Thirsty Hugh

Five kilometres south of Uig (Skye) you'll find Caisteal Uisdein (Hugh's Castle). The Hugh it was named for was Uisdein MacGhilleasbug Chleirich, the factor of North Uist in the late 1500s. Income from the factorship must have been good, for around the same time Hugh had this castle built for him on Skye. The stone for the castle was quarried on the nearby Ascribs, a cluster of four little islands (and assorted reefs) that I hope to visit someday.

Caisteal Uisdein
Caisteal Uisdein has been called the castle with no windows or doors; the only access said to be through a high entrance reached by a ladder. But there is a small slit-window at ground level; a tight squeeze, but I managed to get inside.

The only way into the castle
Looking back to the narrow entrance from inside the castle
Hugh was an ambitious man, and hatched a plan to kill his cousin, Donald Gorm Mor, the chief of the Macdonalds of Sleat and North Uist. But his plan was foiled when a letter describing the plot ended up in the hands of Donald Gorm Mor. And so Hugh skulked off to North Uist, where he hid out in Dun an Sticir (the skulker's fort); a fort that is still there today, consisting of two linked islands in Loch an Sticir. This photo of Dun an Sticir was taken from the slopes of Beinn Mhor (the island off in the fog is Pabbay).

Dun an Sticir - Skulker's Fort - North Uist
Hugh was eventually taken prisoner. His fate was to die in the dungeon of Duntulm Castle, sixteen kilometres north of Caisteal Uisdein. The story of his death is well known: given only salty meat to eat, he was denied any water and died of thirst. Otta Swire, in Skye, the Island and its Legends, says that 'his screams and curses are said to echo through the castle today'.

On a visit to Duntulm a few years ago I searched for the dungeon where Hugh ended his days, but the building was such a mess of fallen stone that I could not tell what was what. I'd like to say I heard thirsty Hugh's curses echoing across the centuries, but I didn't.

Duntulm castle

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Hermit's Cell - Iona

A kilometre west of the Iona abbey you'll find Cobhain Cuildich, the secluded hollow. In this quiet spot lies the foundation of what's known as The Hermit's Cell, which may have been a place of retreat for the Columban monastery. It is an oval arrangements of stones 15 feet wide and 20 long, that may have once been quite a substantial building.

There's no proof it was the monastery's hermitage, or that Columba was ever there. But the site is certainly one of the most secluded areas within a relativity close distance to the monastery. Because of it's possible connection to Columba the cell is one of the usual stops on an Iona pilgrimage. I visited it during a long walk around the island, which you can read about in book 1, chapter 16.   

For more on the Hermit's Cell see this page of the Columba Trail website, and this CANMORE page.

The Hermit's Cell - 1
The Hermit's Cell - 2

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Lochbuie House - 3 Generations

Moy Castle, which stands above Loch Buie on the south of Mull, was the home of the Maclaine chiefs from about 1400 to 1752. The site was an important one long before the 1400s, as about four hundred yards to the north is an impressive stone circle. To the dismay of many visitors Moy is kept locked. But I was fortunate to be given a tour of the inside in 2003. One highlight of the tour was seeing the pit-prison: a deep hole half filled at high tide, with a rock for the unfortunate prisoner to stand on. You can read more about the castle's history at this link. The castle was also a focal point of the 1947 movie I know where I'm Going (see this I know where I'm Going website).

Moy Castle
Looking into the pit - the light is the reflection of the camera flash on the water
In 1752 the Maclaines must of had some cash on hand, for they abandoned the drafty castle (with its creepy pit prison) and built the first version of Lochbuie house (see this CANMORE page for more on old Lochbuie House). The house probably looked better when Johnson and Boswell stayed here in 1773 than it does today; for they've bricked in the upper windows and it's now used as a farm building. However, Boswell did not think much of the house at the time:

'It was strange to see a man of his fortune...have a poor house, though of two storeys indeed. The dining-room, where we sat, has a bed in it; and neither the ceiling nor the walls were plastered, though they were prepared for it.'

A plaque mounted above the door reads: After leaving Moy Castle the Lochbuie family resided in this house from 1752 to 1790 and it was in this house that Dr. Johnson and Mr. Boswell were entertained in 1773 by John Maclaine XVII laird of Lochbuie.

Old Lochbuie House
Plaque above door of old Lochbuie House
Around 1792 the Maclaines built the current Lochbuie mansion house, 100 yards to the northwest of the old house. And in the late 1800s they added the flanking wings you can see in the next photo. No Maclaines live at Lochbuie these days, for they lost the estate to debt about a hundred years ago. See this Clan Maclaine page for a history of the Maclaines of Lochbuie. See the May 7, 2015 post for the story of Ewen Little Head, the headless horseman of Lochbuie, who is said to still haunt the house of Lochbuie.

Lochbuie House

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Laraichean - Iona

At the far south end of Iona, between the Port of the Coracle and Columba's Cairn Cul Ri Eirinn, you'll find the ancient settlement known as Laraichean. Many visitors make their way to the Port of the Coracle, but few carry on the extra 200 yards west to see Laraichean.

Laraichean (which means 'foundations') is well hidden in a natural hiddie-hole above a small beach. If you make your way to the site you'll find the remnants of a half-dozen or so beehive type structures. As you can tell from the photos, my visit was on a grey and misty day.

The ruins here may predate the time of Columba, and so its residents, if there were any at the time, may have been the first to greet him when he arrived. Or, as the CANMORE page on the site mentions, this could have been the first settlement established by Columba and his companions.

Cattle grazing at Laraichean
I wanted to see Laraichean after reading this description of it in Trenholme's The Story of Iona (1909):

These are declared to be by far the oldest buildings in the island. The spot is a beautiful recess, enclosed by high rocks all round, and open only toward the sea, where the inclination of the ground towards the water is remedied by an artificial terrace. The hamlet could be well defended with bows and arrows, but whether it was the home of Picts or Scots who lived before Columba, or of later monks or hermits, is unknown. 

To get to Laraichean I climbed the small ridge west of the Port of the Coracle. When you approach it this way you can appreciate that it is indeed sited in a 'beautiful recess'; a pretty little spot far from it all. But unfortunately I did not have the place to myself, for a large herd of cattle were contentedly grazing on the lush grass that was growing all over the site. One big old cow wanted to make friends, and aggressively followed me as I walked around. So after taking a few quick photos I headed up and over the rocks in search of Columba's Carn Cul ri Eirinn. (See the April 12, 2013 post.)


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Shillay and the Seals

An island I've not yet been able to get to is little Shillay in the Sound of Harris. I wanted to go there after reading Robert Atkinson's amazing book Shillay and the Seals (1980).  

Shillay and the Seals is a great book, especially for those, like myself, who like to visit, and camp on, Scottish islands. Along with his puppy Shilly (named after the island), Atkinson spent about a month on Shillay. His struggles against the elements, while watching the seals, makes for some absorbing reading. In addition to Shillay, the book describes trips to the Monachs, Heisker, and many of the smaller islands at the east end of the Sound of Harris. The closest I've been to Shillay is the island of Pabbay, and someday I hope to set foot (and camp) on little Shillay of the Seals.

Shillay seen from Pabbay