Friday, July 31, 2015

The Marble Quarry - Iona

In 1790, the Duke of Argyll thought it would be a profitable enterprise to quarry the green-veined Iona marble. But the cost of operating from such a remote location doomed the effort. In 1907 the quarry was reopened. It had a more successful run that time, staying in business for a dozen years. But since 1919 the only marble that’s left the quarry are small chunks carried away in the pockets of tourists, and pieces taken to produce items of local Celtic craft work. 

On my first visit to Iona, back in 1989, I tried to find the quarry. All I had with me at the time was the 1:50000 scale Landranger map 48. The quarry is not marked on that map, and I incorrectly thought it was about halfway down the east coast of the island. I searched, but was not able to find the quarry. 

A few years later I acquired the 1:25000 scale Pathfinder map of Iona (Pathfinder 341). Using that map, in combination with info from some old sketch maps of Iona, I was able to pinpoint the location of the quarry (NM 269 218), which is just a short distance north of the south tip of the island. Using those coordinates I was able to find the quarry in 2003. Here are a few photos from that visit. (Also see chapter 16 of book 1 for a description of a walk around Iona that includes the quarry.)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

On the Shiants

As is the case with most people, the first time I saw the Shiants was a tempting, long distance view of them from the Uig to Tarbert ferry. The islands lie a dozen mile north of the ferry route, and their profile from the ferry is nearly as dramatic as St Kilda's.

My first vision of the Shiants from the ferry was in 1990. At the time I thought there was no way I'd ever set foot on them. But, as it turned out, the Shiants are a regular stop on cruises around the Outer Hebrides. And so I was finally able to go there in 2002. I thought, at the time, I'd never return. And so I did the most exciting thing I could think of, and made the steep climb to the top of Garbh Eilean from the isthmus between it and Eilean Tighe. When time came to leave I made the scary descent back to the isthmus, and with only 10 minutes left paid a quick visit to the house on Eilean Tighe. 

Although I'd explored much of Garbh Eilean, I regretted not having spent much time on Eilean Tighe. But that regret is now long forgotten. Nearly every cruise I've taken since 2002 has paid a visit to the Shiants, and so I've had many leisurely strolls around Eilean Tighe. Here are a few photos from a visit in 2006 that I took aboard MV Chalice.

The isthmus between Eilean Tighe and Garbh Eilean

Iron Age farmstead at left

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Kinlochresort From Up High

Here are a couple summer evening views of one of my favourite places in the Western Isles. They are photos of Kinlochresort taken from the heights of Beinisbhal. Although it doesn't look like it, each photo shows two islands; the house on the left is on Lewis, the one on the right is on Harris. The stream winding up the middle, Abhainn Mhor Ceann Reasoirt, marks the boundary here.

Kinlochresort seen from atop Beinisbhal
Campsite on Beinisbhal - The Harris hills in the distance

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Crosses of Raasay

One of the jewels of Rassay is its Pictish Symbol Stone. It lies in a small patch of ground east of the road north of Raasay House. The top of the stone has a square Chi-Rho cross that appears to be carved inside a Pictish mirror symbol. Below the cross is what's described as a tuning fork (or tongs), and at the bottom a crescent and V-Rod.

Raasay Symbol Stone
Although the symbol stone is easy to find, there was another Raasay cross, carved into the bedrock near the landing place below Raasay House, that I was only able to locate on my third visit to the island. I first read about this rock-carved cross in Boswell's Journal, where he mentions that 'on one of the rocks just where we landed...there is rudely drawn a square with a crucifix in the middle.'

On visits to Raasay in 1995 and 1998 I searched in vain for this cross. I walked back and forth all over 'The Battery', looking on every rock surface I could find. But I saw nothing that looked like a cross. The Battery is the little peninsula below Raasay house that was the main point for landing on the island before they built the ferry slip a mile and a half to the south.

These days the ferry lands at a new slip on The Battery, and on a visit last May I looked for the cross again. But this time I found it thanks to location details and photos on this CANMORE page. The cross lies just above the original landing place, on the southeast side of The Battery, where Boswell & Johnson landed in 1773. The cross is a sad sight, nearly completely worn away. So there is no way someone can find it without specific directions, and most everyone who arrives on Raasay these days drives (or walks) past the cross without even knowing it's there.

The cross is the same design as the mirror chi-rho cross on the symbol stone; and you can find a comparison drawing of the two crosses on the last page of Proc. Soc Antiq Scot Volume 41. Other good images can be found on page 64 of Proc. Soc Antiq Scot Vol 67, and on this Pictish Stones of Raasay page. Next time you are on Raasay be sure to pay your respect to this vestige of the past before it completely disappears.

The cross is on the exposed rock face at centre
Cross incised in the bedrock of the battery - Can you see it?  Probably not
Cross highlighted

Friday, July 10, 2015

Mangurstadh Bothy - The Hobbit House

Tucked away atop the remote, and wild cliffs of Mangurstadh, you will find an amazing stone structure: The Mangurstadh bothy. From the photos below you'll understand why some people have referred to it as a 'Hobbit House'.

It was built by the parents of Linda Norgrove, who was taken hostage in Afghanistan in September of 2010, and died during a rescue attempt a month later. Her parents created the Linda Norgorve Foundation to carry on Linda's work in Afghanistan.

Mangurstadh lies five kilometers southwest of Uig beach. To get to the bothy you drive a half kilometer north from the road junction in Mangurstadh, and then walk a half-kilometer west to the cliffs. The bothy is small, with a platform that might just fit two people, a bench, and a small wood/peat burning fireplace. 

I was looking forward to spending the night there, and seeing the blink of the Flannan Isles light, which lies 30 kilometers offshore. But when I was in the area there were two fellows in extended residence. It would be a bit tight, so I decided to try again next year.

If you want to spend the night in the bothy, the Norgroves, who live in Mangurstadh, ask that you let them know ahead of time (contact details are posted in the bothy). Here are a few photos of the spectacular Mangurstadh bothy.

Mangurstadh Cliffs
Bothy seen from above - Eilean Molach in the distance
The Bothy - 1
The Bothy - 2
The bothy - 3
The fireplace
Sleeping platform, window, and bench

Saturday, July 4, 2015

In Search of Beehives - A Hike to Fidigidh

In reading what little I could find about beehive cells, there were two remote sites that sounded fascinating: Fidigidh Uachdrach and Fidigidh Iochdrach (Upper and Lower Fidigidh). The Fidigidh is a river in the interior of Lewis that flows south into Loch na Craobhaig, a mile and a half north east of Hamanavay. One of the sites at Fidigidh is depicted in the following drawing in the Proceedings of Scottish Antiquaries, Vol 3, p. (1857).

Depiction of how Fidigidh once looked
There is no easy way to Fidigidh; a walk from the west means hiking the track from Uig over Bealach Raonasgail to Cean Chuisil, and then cross-country to the east, for a one-way distance of about 9 miles. An eighteen mile round-trip in one day is just at the limit of my capability, so I tried to do this in the summer of 2013. The first seven miles was along the private track to Hamanavay, which I left at a point south of a hill called Mula. From there I headed east across the open countryside. It was then that the heavens opened up; wind, rain, and the occasional sleet storm. It was slow going. With a mile to go I came to the Abhain Ghascleit, a river that flows south out of Loch Dibidale. It was in spate, and I walked up and down its banks in a fruitless search for a safe crossing. I had to give up, and as I retraced my steps back to Uig I promised myself I'd try again someday by coming in from the east.

So last May I decided to make a through-hike. I'd go from Morsgail to Fidigidh, then up the west side of Loch Grunavat to Carisiadar (and the highway) on the shores of Loch Roag. The distance would be 16 miles. A possibility for a one day hike, but since there was so much to see I wanted to take my time, and decided to take a tent and make it a two-day expedition.

The route to Fidigidh
The first few miles were familiar territory: south past Morsgail Lodge, down the east side of Loch Morsgail, and then south along the boggy quad-bike track to the Morsgail beehives.

Morsgail Lodge
The Morsgail Beehive Cells
From the beehives I crossed the telegraph pole bridge over the Abhainn Bheinn na Gile, and then carried on another half-mile to start following the Postman's Stones that lead the way south to Kinlochresort. I only followed them a short ways, as Fidigidh lies to the west. But I did want to follow them for a little bit to the south in order to pay a visit to my favourite postman's stone.

Telegraph pole bridge over the Abhainn Bheinn na Gile.
The stone is my favourite because on a walk here in the summer of 2012 I noticed the top of a bottle sticking out of the turf next to it. (See the February 24, 2013 post.) It was an old, mostly empty, bottle of whisky with the cap still on it. I had read that Malcom Macaskill, who'd set up the postman's stones, stashed a bottle at one of them to quench his thirst when he passed by. I can not say for certain this was Malcolm's bottle, but it could be. I was happy to see that the bottle was still there. I pulled it out from the turf under the stone to take a photo, then tucked it carefully back in.

My favourite Postman's Stone
From the stone I turned west and started marching across the open moorland, zig-zagging as needed to pass through the endless bog to reach the shielings that lie in the isthmus between Loch Leatha and Loch nan Creagan Groid.

Shielings at Loch Leatha
Then I turned to the northwest to traverse the shoulder of a small hill called Cleit Duastal. I was carrying my old pathfinder maps (1:25000) - oh how I wish they still made this series, they are small and easy to use in the field. Cleit Duastal is at the corner of four of them (79, 80, 88 and 89), and after figuring out which was the next map to use (it was #79) I carried on to the north shore of Loch Cro Criosdaig. From my experience in 2013, when I'd been stopped by the Abhainn Ghascleit, I was a little worried I'd encounter a river that would be an obstacle, but the few I crossed as I made my way over the moorland were easy to cross.

Crossing Allt Leatha
Loch Cro Criosdaig
After reaching Loch Cro Criosdaig I continued to Loch na Craobhaig and Abhainn Fidigidh. It was 5 pm, and it had taken me seven hours to reach this Mecca of shielings and beehive cells galore. The first thing I looked for was the big beehive known as Bothan Ruadh, which Daphne Pochin Mould describes in chapter 19 of her book West Over Sea. I finally found it just above a bend in the Abhainn Fidigidh, a partially turf-covered bump on the terrain.

Can you spot the beehive?  (Bothan Ruadh is at the centre)
Bothan Ruadh and the Abhainn Fidigidh
Bothan Ruadh
The cell was quite spacious, and an ancient, desiccated plank had been inserted to act as a table. It was an beautiful structure that competes with the cell at Both an Aird for the title 'most remote beehive on Lewis.'

I needed to cover more distance before calling it a day. So I followed the Abhainn Fidigdh up to Fidigidh Uachdrach (Upper Fidigidh).

Fidigidh -1
The most unusual structure was a giant beehive that, like the Blessing House Chapel on the Flannan Isles, had been drastically remodeled into a rectangular building (next photo). The original cell is said to have held 11 people.

Fidigidh -2
Fidigidh - 3
Fidigidh - 4
By now I was getting a bit worn out. I'd covered eight miles, and was tempted to spend the night there. But I'd told my wife I'd be at the road in Carishader at 2 pm the next day, which was across another eight miles of unknown territory. So I decided to get a few more miles under my belt before finding a campsite.

I followed the east bank of the Abhainn Fidigidh north past several other shieling sites, then crossed the stream to head up the glen between the hills of Kirabhal and Mula Chaolartan. The map showed a large cluster of shielings on the ridge of Lurga Kirabhal, just above the shore of Loch Chaolartan. Thinking it might be a good campsite I made my way there.

What I found was a shieling site that had been cannibalized to make what looked like a giant sheep fank. It looked like it had not been used in years, and was not an appealing place to camp. So I carried on north thinking to cross the stream that flows out of Loch nan Uidhean.

Fank at Lurga Kirabhal - Loch nan Uidhean to the left
But it was not a stream, it was a substantial river, the Abhainn an Easa Dhuibh (the river of the black falls). I could not cross it, so there was nothing to do but follow its banks to the east. A half-mile on I came to the waterfall that gives the river its name, Easa Dubh, the black falls.

Easa Dubh
I eventually found a place to cross the river, and around 9 pm, just as the pack seemed to be mysteriously getting heavier and heavier, I came to Gearraidh Chromadh an t-Seile. It was a beautiful little site with a dilapidated shieling at the bend of a stream. I was now six miles from Carishaidar, so I thought I could get there by 2 pm the following day to meet my wife. But I needed to start early as there were still two things I wanted to see: the grave mounds on the Black Point of Loch Grunabhat, and the Cleit Milebhat beehive.

Several deer stood on the hillside above, watching as I pitched the tent, occasionally barking at me like dogs. Dinner was a delicious tuna sandwich my wife had made, and a bag of smoky bacon crisps washed down with a can of Export. Beer never tastes better than after you've lugged it across 10 miles of hard terrain, the tent is pitched, and the sleeping bag awaits.

Campsite at Gearraidh Chromadh an t-Seile
I slept well. Under a gray and rainy sky I was afoot at 8 am, and after an hour came to a viewpoint over Loch Grunabhat. What I wanted to find, Rubha Dubh (Black Point) was easily spotted: a large peninsula jutting into the loch.

Rubha Dubh - The Black Point
In chapter 14 of West Over Sea, Daphne Pochin Mould recounts a story that links the Black Point to the death of Angus, one of the sons of Somerled, the Lord of the Isles. It seems the people of Uig were being plagued by the Norse, with no help from their chief, Angus, the son of Somerled. So they nominated someone else to be their chief. Whoever this fellow was, he insisted on being formally inducted by placing his foot on the coronation stone stored in Rodil Church (Harris).

So the people of Uig stole the stone and started carrying it back to Uig. Angus found out and pursued them by sailing north to Mealasta. There was a battle, and Angus and his three sons were killed. In West Over Sea, Daphne Pochin Mould mentions that she was told there were four mounds on the Black Point of Loch Grunabhat that marked the graves of Angus and his sons.

Although it was just an old story (Angus and his sons were killed fighting the Norse in 1210), I still wanted to see the mounds on the Black Point. Fortunately the point, which is almost an island, is fairly small. I walked over ever square foot of it, but the only mounds I found were natural humps of turf. There was no sign of anything man-made. It was disappointing, and the three wild sheep on the point must of thought I was trying to catch them.

On the Black Point - no graves here
Although Black Point had been a bust, my next stop was not. I climbed northwest from Loch Grunabhat for a half mile, and on rounding the side of a hill reached the perfectly preserved beehive cell of Cleit Milebhat.

Cleit Milebhat beehive
I always like to crawl into these cells, but this one was a challenge due to its tiny entrance and muddy floor. But I was soon ensconced in my hermit dwelling to rest for a while. But I couldn't stay too long. It was 10:30, and I still had four miles to go.

The corbelled roof of the Milebhat cell
The tiny entrance to the Milebhat cell
From the cell I walked due north, following a series of posts that mark the route to the cell if you come in via Carisiadar. Once around the north end of Loch Grunabhat I climbed through the narrow pass between the hills of Suainabhal and Ainebhal to reach a peat track that took me to the highway at Carisiadar. I was on time, and saw my wife sitting in the car with a big smile on her face. I gave her a kiss, and she gave me a cold beer in return.

Carisiadar - the end of the walk