Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dunscaith Castle

Bits of the ruin you see today of Dunscaith Castle date to the 13th century, but due to its strategic location on the west coast of Skye's Sleat Peninsula, there has been a fort of one kind or the other here for at least a thousand years.


Dunscaith is an intriguing ruin to explore, especially if, like the warrior Cuchulainn, you get onto the rock by crossing the wily Bridge of the Cliff. But not to worry, these days you have an easier time crossing the bridge than Cuchulainn did, as it involves tip-toeing across the ledge of a drawbridge the MacDonald's built a few hundred years later. Here's a view of the bridge from the landward side of the castle-rock.


In my opinion a visit to Dunscaith is one of the most rewarding short hikes in the islands (it's only a quarter-mile from the road). Aside from the history, the views west to Strathaird, and south to the Small Isles, make a visit there worthwhile. For a description of a visit to Dunscaith, see book Book 2, chapter 1. If tip-toeing across the bridge supports sounds boring, you can always try a Cuchulainn salmon-leap. See this RCAHMS page for more on Dunscaith.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Moel Blatha - The Refectory Stone of Iona

The stone Moel Blatha, also known as Blathnat, is said to have served as a natural table for the refectory of St Columba's monastery.

Moel Blatha - Mull in the distance
The stone lies 600 feet west of the Duchess's Cross, a memorial to Elizabeth, the wife of the eighth Duke of Argyll, which is easily found by walking the road north for a quarter mile beyond the Abbey.

The stone's name, Moel Blatha, is usually translated as the 'flat stone of division', as it marked the boundary of the monastery. And as you can see in the above photo, it still marks the property line between two fields. However, as St Columba blessed all food that would be placed on it, its name may mean the flat stone of praise. The refectory of the monastery was supposedly built around the stone, which served as a giant table. Some maps give the stone the boring name of Clach Mhor (the boulder).

Moel Blatha - the hill of Dun-I in the distance
Moel Blatha is one of many stones associated with Columba in Scotland and Ireland. Here is a list of a few others from James Bonwick's Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions (1894):

St. Columba, likewise, among the Hebrides, had a reputation for stones. There is his Red Stone, his Blue Egg Stone in Skye, his Blue Stone of Glen Columkillo, his stony beds of penitence, his Lingam Stones, which worked miracles. He was born on a stone, he was sustained in famine by sucking meal from the Holy Stone of Moel-blatha.

Moel Blatha - The Duchess's Cross (1878) can be seen on the horizon (left of centre)
What follows is a description of the stone from Edward Trenholme's 1909 book The Story of Iona. You can find a complete copy of that book here (an old photo of the stone faces page 8). 

'The great tabular glacial boulder lies between lomaire an Achd and the Sound, and Skene has pointed out how well it answers to a stone which some old Irish documents say was in the refectory of St. Columba's monastery. One scribe's preface to St. Columba's great poem Altus Prosator speaks of "the stone that is in the refectory in Hi ; and the name of that stone is Moel-blatha, and luck was left on all food that is put thereon." 

The stone survived the monastery, for the scribes who say "it still exists" wrote in the eleventh century. It was so remarkable that it had a special name, which is considered to mean "flat stone of division." The scribes mention the stone in order to relate how Columba composed a certain hymn, Adjutor laborantium, while carrying a heavy sack of oats, taken from off the stone, to the mill. Everything fits the stone which is still to be seen in lona, near the spot which there are independent reasons for regarding as the site of the first monastery. The refectory which enclosed the stone, to serve as a table or sideboard, was no doubt a wood and wattle building of the old Irish kind.'

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Ringing Stone - Tiree

Located on the north shore of Tiree, a half-kilometer north of Loch na Gile, is an amazing boulder. Its Gaelic name is Clach na Choire. It has several English names: the Kettle Stone, the Cauldron Stone, the Singing Stone, the Ringing Stone and the Gong Stone. There are other Lithophonic stones in Scotland; one is on Iona (but I do not know where), and another is near Burn o'Vat

The Ringing Stone is unlike any other rock on Tiree, and it is thought that it was moved from Rum by glacial action. The stone is covered by dozens of cup marks, and I wonder if the cups affect the pitch of the ring - perhaps a way to make different notes depending on where you strike the stone. Next time I'm on Tiree I'll have to test this theory.




Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Burma Road to Tamnabhaigh

The long and winding road to Tamnabhaigh is an 8-mile endurance test. But it is worth it. It was hacked out of the hills and bogs between Uig and Tamnabhaigh in the late 1990s to ease the access to Tamnabhaigh Lodge. If this road exisited 100 years ago there would still be communities at Tamnabhaigh, Ceann Chuisil, and Aird Bheg.

GoogleEarth view of the Tamnabhaigh track
From the Uig road the track starts as an easy, level walk. The three hills of Tarain, Tathabhal, and Teinneasabhal, which guard the high pass of Raonasgail, can be seen off in the distance.

Tarain, Tathabhal, and Teinneasabhal in the distance
The track seems to go on and on as it winds its way south, and after a mile you pass the road quarry. If your vehicle can take the rocky track, you might be able to drive this far and leave the car at the quarry. But I don't recommend it, as the track is very rough, especially after any heavy rainfall.


A short way beyond the quarry you will reach the locked gate. It's in a strategic spot; in other words there's no way to drive around it.

The Gate -1
The Gate -2
As you continue along the track you will notice a thick cable running along the roadside. This is probably the world's longest extension cord, which connects to Tamnabhaigh Lodge at the end of the track.
The extension cord
The track seems to take an eternity to reach the pass as it undulates around several lochs and bogs.

The track goes on and on and on and on....
After an hour or so you reach Loch Raonasgail, and the switchbacks up to the pass come into view.

Loch Raonasgail and the hill pass
Starting up the pass
I've walked this road four times now, and it does not get any easier with repetition. Last time I made the walk I had to detour around a couple of heavy duty vehicles being operated by two fellows rebuilding a patch of track that had washed out in a recent rainstorm. The rubble from the washout was threatening a nearby salmon spawning stream. 

Roadworks - 1
Roadworks - 2
Once the pass is reached wide views of Loch Cheann Chuisil and Loch Tamnabhaigh open up. At this point you can choose to leave the track and walk east through some amazing open countryside, or loop to the northeast to conquer the summits of Tarain, Tathabhal, and Teinneasabhal.

Loch Cheann Chuisil
Along the Shore of Loch Cheann Chuisil
After traversing the east shore of Loch Cheann Chuisil the road comes to an end at Tamnabhaigh Lodge. 

The Lodge
Just before the lodge you pass the old keeper's house, which is still in good shape.

Old keeper's house at Tamnabhaigh
From the end of the track you cross the green grass in front of the lodge to reach the footbridge over the Tamnabhaigh River. (In the four times I've passed by the lodge no one has ever been home.) Vague paths can be seen on the far side of the bridge which peter out after a few hundred feet. And from there on it's just bogs, rocks and heather. That said, this little bridge is not a bridge to nowhere. It is a bridge to some amazing walks; make your way south to the 12-chambered beehive of Aird Mhor, or west to the ancient settlement of Aird Bheg, or east to the summit of Beinn Ishobhal, and then on to Crola and Kinlochresort. I will be making my fifth trek through this area in May, and I hope to camp for the night in the shielings of Fidigidh or Loch na Craobhaig. 

The bridge to...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Teampull Easaigh - Ensay Chapel

Ensay chapel, also known as Christ Church, is an interesting little building. What you see today mostly originated in the 16th century, but bits of it are thought to date to the 11th century.

Christ Church - Isle of Ensay
The chapel, which is dedicated to St Columba, sits in a beautiful site above a small beach on the sheltered east side of Ensay. Also standing here are Ensay House, which dates to the 18th century, and a standing stone which can just be seen atop the knoll at the right side of the next photo.

From left to right - Ensay House, chapel, and standing stone (atop the knoll at right)
The Ensay Stone
When I visited Ensay the first thing I went to see was the little church. Its massive oak door was locked, and so I went over to Ensay House and asked if I could get the key. They invited me in, and I waited in the kitchen while they searched for it. With the key happily in hand I returned to the church. But even after unlocking the door I could not get it to open. The base of the door was swollen, and it did not want to budge. I gently pushed for a few minutes, and was about to give up when it finally opened.

The stubborn door - finally opened
The inside of the church was beautiful. The chapel had been misused as a barn at some point, but was restored in 1910. That restoration is commemorated in a stone plaque mounted above the door (you can just see the bottom of the plaque in the previous photo). According to a another plaque mounted on one of the inside walls another restoration occurred in 1971 (next photo).

Plaque for 1971 restoration
On the floor was something quite interesting, a stone piscina.

Piscina
In 1931 the chapel was bequeathed to the Episcopal Bishop of Argyll and the Islands on the condition that at least two services be held each year. I do not know if they've kept that up, but there is a service held here every June - near St Columba's Day, which is June 9 - by members of Harris Christ Church, which lies off the A859, four miles south of Tarbert. See this Scottish Episcopal Church page and this Isle Of Harris Page for more on the beautiful little church of Ensay.

The altar

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Walk Around Kebock Head - Lewis

Kebock Head, on the east coast of Pairc (Lewis), is one of the least visited parts of the Hebrides. I've only visited it once, on a six-mile, one-way hike from Grabhair to Leumrabhagh. Although Kebock Head is 160 miles from the island of Little Cumbrae, they may be linked in history; for its Gaelic name is A' Chabag, a name that usually refers to a toothless woman; but it may be a dedication to a St Bey. There were several female saints with names similar to Bey, and one was an early saint who called the island of Little Cumbrae her home. (See book 1, chapter 2 for the story of a visit of Little Cumbrae to find the chapel and grave of St Bey.)

I made the walk around Kebock Head in 2012 with John Randall, Chairman of the Islands Book Trust at the time. We started by driving to the end of the road at Tom an Fhuadain, a mile east of Grabhair, on the south shore of Loch Odhairn. From Tom an Fhuadain it was a rough, two miles to Kebock Head, where out in the Minch we could clearly see the Shiants. From there we walked south along the cliff-tops past Gob na Milaid to Cuiriseal. 

Beach at Mol Stiogh a' Chragain 
The settlement at Cuiriseal was famous for its boat building, and looking down from the clifftop we could see the stony beach of Mol Stiogh a' Chragain. It was there that the Smiths of Cuiriseal launched their boats. Although how they got them down the steep slope to the shore is a mystery (to me, anyway). Scattered about the moorland above the beach are several farmsteads, shielings, and large plots of once cultivated land.

Beehive type shieling at Cuiriseal
Old cultivation ridges at Cuiriseal

 House ruin at Cuiriseal
Cuiriseal Shieling
On the shore south of Cuiriseal we could see a large, detached rock, known as Stac a' Chomhraig. The name means the rock of discussion but, aside from the fantastic view to the Shaints (next photo), I don't know what was discussed there.

Stac a' Chomhraig - Shiants in the distance
Stac a' Chomhraig
From Stac a' Chomhraig John and I headed due west to 'cut the corner' off the south tip of the peninsula; after passing Lochan Tobhta Ruairidh Dhuibh (the loch of the ruin of black haired Rory) we crossed Gleann Ceann Eastail.  
Looking west over the mouth of Gleann Ceann Eastail
From there it was only a few minutes walk to Leumrabhagh.

Old jetty near Leumrabhagh
Looking north to Leumrabhagh
It was an amazing walk across some historical, but rarely visited country; made all the more interesting by John Randall's extensive knowledge of the area. If you are interested in the boat builders of Cuiriseal, see this link for more information.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Neil MacGillivray of Burg & Inchkenneth

I first read about Neil MacGillivray in Alasdair Alpin Magregor's book Skye and the Inner Hebrides (1953). Neil was the island boatman for Inchkenneth when MacGregor met him. MacGregor does not say too much about Neil, but you can read a good account of his life in Timothy Neat's When I was Young (2000). The chapter about Neil begins as follows (in his own words):

Looking at a photograph of me when young and looking at me now, aged 84, you'd never think I was a man who often danced with Hitler's mistress. That was Unity Mitford. Both she and her mother were very fond of me. They lived here on Mull, on the island of Inchkenneth. I was boatman and general manager of the island - but it's a long story and it seems a very long time ago.

Photo of Neil in his 20s - unfortunately later editions of the book have a different cover 
I won't repeat the story of the Mitfords on Inchkenneth. But it is one of the strangest tales of the Hebrides. Unfortunately I only met Neil MacGillivray once. That was in 2003 when I visited him at his home, Aird of Kinloch, near the head of Loch Scridan on Mull. Over a dram of Grouse he told me some stories about his life on Inchkenneth, and showed me one of his treasured possessions, Unity Mitford's swaztika arm band. I tried to get him to talk about Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, but he did not remember much other than "he had holes in his trousers."

Neil lived on Inchkenneth for nearly 20 years, and raised his family there. Their time on Inchkenneth came to an end around 1966, shortly after the Mitford's sold the island. There was some sort of dispute with the new owners, I have no idea what it was, but it was bad enough that Neil's house on Inchkenneth was subsequently knocked down (see photo below). As I was leaving I asked Neil if I could take his photo; here is the picture, which also shows his dog Dileas (which means faithful in Gaelic).

Neil MacGillivray at his home in 2003
The day after visiting Neil I went to Inchkenneth. (See book 1 chapter 12 for the story of that visit). Neil had told me where to find the spot where his house had been. The rectangular patch of rubble in the next photo is all that's left of his house.

Site of Neil's house
I always intended on visiting Neil again, but it was not to be. Neil passed away in March of 2009. In August of that year I paid a visit to his grave in Kilfinichen burial ground.

MacGillivary Tombstone in Kilfinichen
Also buried here is his wife Janet, who passed away in 1989. When I visited the cemetery the tombstone had yet to be inscribed with the date of Neil's death. That has since been done, and the final lines on the stone are now:

Neil MacGillivray, 
who died 30th March 2009
Aged 94 years
Devoted Father and Loving Husband

Next to the Neil's grave is the grave of another MacGillivray, Christina, better known as Chirsty Burg, who passed in 1989. Chirsty was well known to many who hiked through the Burg to see the Fossil Tree, and I wish I'd been able to meet her. An excellent book on Burg, and Chirsty (that also has some information on Neil), is Tea with Chrissie, by Rosalind Jones.

Tombstone of Chirsty Burg

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Cretetree Hulk

Last time I was on Scalpay I spent four nights at Dail-na-Mara, a B&B on Scalpay's North Harbour. On the shore below the house was a massive, derelict barge that appeared to be made of cement. It was quite an eyesore, but was making itself useful as a jetty and storage area for the local fishermen.

Later I would learn that this no longer afloat boat was the Cretetree, a 180-foot-long concrete barge built in 1919 for hauling iron ore. (The first five letters of her name come from her con-crete construction.) Cretetree's working life as a transport ended in 1953, and somehow they got her to Scalpay in 1955.  That's 60 years now, and she's so solidly built she'll probably be there for another 60 years. See this RCAHMS page for more on the Cretetree.