Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Happy Halloween from Jura

No, I'm not on Jura now, but I hope Skull is. In the summer of 2010 I left him in a small cave in Glengarrisdale. I heard from someone (who sent me the second photo) that Skull was still there in the summer of 2014. Aside from deer hunters, I doubt if Glengarisdale receives many visitors in late October. But if one of them does wander into a small cave near the bothy, I hope Skull is there to give them a fright.

Skull  - 2010
Skull - 2014

Monday, October 26, 2015

William Black Memorial Light

Here are a few photos of the William Black Memorial Light, which sits near Duart Point, the black point, a mile south of Duart Castle on Mull. The light was built in 1900, two years after William Black died.

Black Memorial Light - 1
Black wrote some 30 novels in the 19th century. And it's appropriate that his memorial is on an Hebridean isle, for one of his most popular books, A Princess of Thule (1873), takes place on Lewis.

Black Memorial Light - 2
Black Memorial Light - 3
A metal plaque is mounted above the door of the tower which reads: To the dear memory of William Black, Novelist, Erected by his friends and admirers, in many lands, on a spot which he knew and loved.


In A Princess of ThuleWilliam Black made use of this legend of Gealachos. During the early days of the Norse raids on the Hebrides, there lived on Little Bernera Gealachos, the daughter of the island priest. Her name meant Fairfoot, and her favorite place on the island was a knoll near St Donnan’s Chapel above Temple Strand. She was kidnapped from there by Sweyn, king of the Norseman, and taken to Norway. Ensconced in Sweyn’s great hall for seven years, she led a sad existence, resisting the king’s persistent wooing. The king finally relented, returning her to Little Berneray to live out the rest of her life, which she devoted to helping the people of the island. To quote from the end of the story of Gealachos, as told in Donald Macdonald’s The Lews:

She made merry with those that made merry, and visited the bereaved and mourned with those that mourned; and where there was illness she was there to lend a hand and help with the nursing, for she was a born nurse. She lived to a great age, and when she died she was taken and buried on the edge of the temple strand, where she sleeps so peacefully within sound of the waves which gave her such great pleasure in the happy days of her youth.

No one reads Black's novels these days, but the story was so popular that in 1882 L Frank Baum based his first play on it: The Maid of Arran. Baum would go on to write The Wizard of Oz.

Little Bernera burial ground and Temple Strand
Where Gealachos sleeps peacefully within sound of the waves

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Rubh 'Aird-Laoigh - A Hidden Corner of Vatersay

A hidden corner of Vatersay that I've visited twice over the years is Rubh 'Aird-Laoigh. I'm not sure of the translation, but it may mean something like the headland of the tall calf. It is a spectacular place, a rocky headland just beyond a white-sand beach, where tremendous breakers roll in from the open Atlantic.

Route to Rubh 'Aird-Laoigh
The headland is hidden only in the sense that you can not get there by car, but is easy to reach on foot. Take the bus to Vatersay from Castlebay and get off at the bus shelter a half-mile after the causeway. From there follow the side road west a half-mile to a white-sand beach called Traigh Bharlish. 

Traigh Bharlish
Where the track ends above the beach you turn left to go through a gate to reach the open hillside. Keep going a short way west to reach Rubh 'Aird-Laoigh.

Rubh 'Aird-Laoigh
On my last visit to the headland I had to tip-toe past a herd of cattle. Slow-going was required because a big old bull, with a ring in his nose, was watching my every step. Several calves were grazing nearby and, appropriately, considering the name of the place, they were quite tall.

Under observation on Rubh 'Aird-Laoigh
The headland is a beautiful place. And if you are in the mood for more coastal hiking you can carry on westwards to the fortress islet of Birusalum before climbing 600 feet to the top of Heishibhal Mor, the highest point on Vatersay. From there a scenic traverse can be made to the top of Heishibhal Beag before dropping down to the road near the Vatersay Community Hall where you can catch the bus back to Castlebay. If you make this walk it will be one where, chances are, you'll not see another soul, even on a beautiful summer day.

Rubh 'Aird Laoigh

Monday, October 19, 2015

Massacre Cave - Eigg

If you like crawling into dark caves with even darker histories, then Uamh Fhraing is for you. The name has been translated as St Francis Cave, but it's usually called Massacre Cave. Sometime in the 16th century (some sources say 1577), about 400 residents of Eigg were smoke-smothered in the cave by the Macleods.


The cave can be reached by a one mile walk from the pier. The first time I crawled into the cave was in 1997, when I took MV Shearwater to Eigg from Arisaig. Most of the passengers were hillwalkers intent on bagging the Sguir. I was the only one who'd come to see the cave (which was fine by me). After walking a quarter-mile up the road from the jetty I crossed a stile and headed south across a stretch of boggy ground. After passing a derelict croft house, a turn to the southwest led to the bluffs above the shore. A trail down a ravine led to the shore, and after walking a little way to the east I found the small mouth of the cave.



The entrance was three feet high and two wide. Flashlight in hand I crawled inside. After a dozen feet the cave expanded enough for me to stand. I wished I'd brought a powerful lantern, for my small flashlight barely lit the way as I walked two hundred feet to the end of the cave.



The cave was full of bones for a long time after the massacre. The geologist Hugh Miller entered the cave in 1844 and wrote this about it in The Cruise of the Betsey (1869):

The floor, for about a hundred feet inwards from the narrow vestibule, resembles that of a charnel house…the skulls, with the exception of a few broken fragments, have disappeared…but enough remains to show that the hapless islanders died under the walls in families, each little group separated by a few feet from the others.

At some point the bones were gathered up and buried. But even so, in 1979 a skull was found here. Once you've found the tiny entrance to the cave, and crawled inside to see how large it is, you'll realize what a good refuge it had been. But not good enough on a winter's day four centuries ago, when footprints in the snow are said to have allowed the Macleods to find it. See this CANMORE page for more on Massacre Cave.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Wanderings on Sanday - St Edward's

Over the years I've visited Canna about eight times. On three of those occasions I made the long walk to Sanday to see if I could get inside St Edward's. Each time the church turned out to be locked. While on Canna again this August, I thought I'd make another try at getting inside. To my surprise, the church wasn't locked.


The church was in use from 1890 to 1963, and then for the next 35 years was neglected and vandalized. If you ever have the chance to go inside St Edward's, there is a book you should read first: Restoring Canna's Chapel, by Alasdair Ross McKerlich (2007). It is a fascinating book that details the restoration work done from 1998 to 2001. The author's company did the work, and his book is highly critical of the architects running the project; especially of the plaster mix they specified, one not appropriate to the climate and the porous stonework. Water ingress had been a problem since the church was built in 1890, and continues to this day.


I believe I met Mr. McKerlich in 1998. It was a Saturday, August 1, and I was on my way to Rum on MV Loch Mor (see book 1, chapter 25). We departed from Mallaig at 5 am, and the first stop was Canna. Aboard was a builder on his way to Canna - unfortunately I did not write down his name. Here's an excerpt from my journal for that day:

I met a builder this morning on his way to examine the old church (St Edward's). He said there was a project going on to refurbish it as a visitor centre, and was investigating how the locals got materials to the island. Will have to come back in a few years and see what they've done.

As it turned out, it took me more than a few years to see what they did, it took seventeen years. The work started in 1999, and when finished there was a grand opening ceremony with Princess Anne on June 5, 2001.

The church with construction debris
Since 2001 there have been several other efforts to stem the water ingress, none very successful. And at the end of Restoring Canna's Chapel there is a sad scene, when the author, who'd put so much time and effort into the restoration, returned in 2005 to find the church vandalized and stripped bare of furnishings.

Below are some photos of the interior of St Edward's I took on August 9, 2015. It was a sad sight. As you can see, even after some two million dollars of work, the walls are severely damaged by water ingress. The church was restored with the intent of being a study centre for all the Gaelic poems, songs, and books collected by John Lorne Campbell and his wife, Margaret Fay Shaw. But I doubt if that will ever happen.





Handicapped accessible bathroom - note the water damage
Steps to the upper floors
Rose Window and more water damage
Bunks on the first floor
More bunks
The original cross that stood atop the bell tower - what's on the tower now is a replica of this one
St Edward's today

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Flannan Shore Station

At Breasclete, a mile and a half north of the Callanish stones, is an impressive building that was once the shore station for the keepers of the Flannan light. Like the lighthouse, which lies 30 miles to west, it was completed in 1899. When the light was automated in 1971 there was no need for a shore station, which has since been converted into a block of apartments.

Breasclete Shore Station (2015)
Breasclete Shore Station
Above the door is a depiction of the Flannan light on its sea-girt rock with the words In Salutem Omnium (for the safety of all). My picture of it (below) is a little grainy. I did not want to trespass, so I had to settle from taking a distant photo from the street. See this CANMORE page for more on Breasclete (and a better photo of the emblem).

Flannan Light depiction over the door
Flannan Light

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Caisteal a' Bhreabadair - Reiver's Castle

Standing atop the highest spot on the Stack Islands is Caisteal a' Bhreabadair; a landmark seen by all who take the ferry from Castlebay to Lochboisdale. 

Caisteal a' Bhreabadair atop the Stack Islands (photo taken from Ben Stac of Eriskay)
The name means castle of the reiver (robber), and it was the base of a MacNeil pirate known as Reaubaidair Stache. 'Reiver' became corrupted as 'weaver', and so the little building is often called Weaver's Castle. It is a small structure, measuring only 12 by 10 feet, with a remaining bit of wall standing 15 feet high. In Portrait of Skye and the Outer Hebrides (1967), W Douglas Simpson writes that the reiver's wife was an accomplice in her husband's depredations, and:

'When boats sheltered in the Sound of Eriskay or in Barra Sound, so it is said, the pair cut the hawsers and let the vessel drift to wreck upon the rocky shores, whereupon they helped themselves to its content.'

Stack Islands and the castle seen from the east
DDC Pochin-Mould mentions the castle in West Over Sea, and says:  There is only one way up to the castle and that is difficult...for ease of transport, the walls were made of very small stones, and the cementing mortar was prepared with lime made from the shell sands of neighbouring beaches.

The reiver and his family were such a nuisance that they were attacked while on Eriskay, where the reiver, and three of his four sons, were killed. The further adventures of the fourth son can be found in John Macpherson's Tales From Barra: Told by the Coddy (1960).

Someday I hope to land on the Stack Islands and climb up to the reiver's castle, but it will not be easy. The sea needs to be calm to land, and the islands are a long way from the charter boats in Castlebay. See this CANMORE page for more on Caisteal a' Bhreabadair.

Reiver's Castle - 1
Reiver's Castle - 2

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Uisinis Light - North Uist

Standing on a remote corner of South Uist is little Uisinis light. It was established in 1858 and automated in 1970. The nearest road to the light is at Loch Skiport, some 5 miles away; so to get to Uisinis requires either a long walk, a boat and a short walk, or a helicopter.

Location of Uisinis light
I have not made the long walk from Loch Skiport, though I hope to someday. My visit to Uisinis only required a two-and-a-half mile round-trip walk from Mol a' Tuath (the rocky north beach). Mol a' Tuath is a good anchorage, and is where they landed supplies for the light. There is a small shed there, and an overgrown track leads east to the light.

Mol a' Tuath and the shed
The shed - 1
The shed - 2
I first red about Uisinis in Keith Allardyce's book Scotland's Edge (1998). In it, the author describes a visit to the light with Iain Macleod, one of the attendants:

'...we reached a little shingled beach in a sheltered bay. Above the beach, Iain kept his 1958 Ford Dexter tractor, gleaming in a recent coat of blue paint, in a grand NLB shed.'

The author is then towed to the lighthouse in a trailer pulled by the tractor. That was a long time ago, for the tractor was a sad sight when I saw it in 2013; parked inside the now derelict shed, it was falling apart; bits of blue paint barely visible under a heavy coat of rust.

The 1958 Ford Dexter tractor in 2013
It is a half-hour walk to the lighthouse from the shed. It is a bit of an anti-climax when the tower finally comes into view; as it is only 39 feet high. But being sited atop the cliff it is visible for nearly 20 miles. The keepers houses were dismantled when they automated the light, so there is not much of interest here other than the light itself, and its dramatic position atop the cliff, looking east to Skye over the Sea of the Hebrides.

Some day I hope to visit Uisinis again as part of a three day hike up the east coast of South Uist. I would start at Loch Aineort, and spend the night in Glen Corodale (see the March 14, 2014 post for a visit to Corodale). I'd then head up around Loch Corodale to spend the second night at Uisinis bothy. On the third day I'd swing by Uisinis light on the way out to the road at Loch Skiport. It would be a fantastic walk.

Here are a few photos of Uisinis from a visit made in August of 2015.