Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Cara's Chapel of St Fionnlugh

My favorite island souvenirs are the little history books about an island that I find on the island. One of these was The Antiquities of Gigha, by the Rev. RSG Anderson. The book has been very popular. Originally published in 1936, a second edition came out three years later. The copy I bought on Gigha in 1992 is a reprint published in 1978.


I had come to Gigha back then to see if I could find someone to take me to the tiny isle of Cara, which lies a half-mile off the south tip of Gigha. I mainly wanted to sit in Cara's famous Brownie's Chair, but Anderson's little history book also led me to spend some time taking a close look at another of Cara's attractions: the chapel of St Fionnlugh; also refereed to in a 17th century document as Cella Sanctissimae Trinitas - the Cell of the Holy Trinity.

The Chapel
The 6th century St Fionnlugh (the fair-haired hero), that the Cara chapel is dedicated to, was associated with a monastery on Eilean Mor, an island in Loch Finnlagan, 20 miles to the northwest on Islay. Saint Fionnlugh was a contemporary of St Columba, and is said to have saved Columba from a spear-wielding assassin on the island of Hinba. Fionnlugh is also known as the Hermit Saint of Islay, and so perhaps when he needed a break from the hustle and bustle of Islay he escaped for a little contemplative R&R on Cara.

Cara House and the Chapel seen from the south
In the 18th century the chapel was used as a kitchen for Cara House, which is only 20 feet away. The house itself dates to the 1730s, and many of the missing stones from the chapel probably form some of the substance of the house.

Cara House and the Chapel seen from the north
Cara is a beautiful name for an island. But it may not have a beautiful derivation. Alasdair Alpin Macgregor, in his Skye and the Inner Hebrides, says the name means corpse, and its profile seen from the mainland does resemble a prone body. Along those lines, TS Muir, writing in 1885, says the locals called it Dead Man Island. But I prefer a different derivation, one I found in a book on place names that says Cara means 'Dear One'. Another similar definition comes from Dwelly's Gaelic Dictonary, which lists C├ára as a Gaelic word for friend. 

If you ever get the chance to go to Cara take it. I found it to be, like its name, a friendly island that likes to be visited.

Cara (looking slightly corpse-ish) seen from Gigha

The boatman awaits - Gigha seen from Cara

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Walk to the Ardveg

The last issue of Scottish Islands Explorer (Nov/Dec 2016) included an abridged article on a walk in August of 2016 from Morsgail to the Ardveg in search of beehive cells and old shielings. For space considerations the article was cut down to 800 words. The full length article, along with several photos not used in the magazine, can now be found on the Ardveg Walk tab.

Joe of the Ardveg

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Soay of Our Forefathers

I love memoirs written by people that grew up on remote Hebridean islands. One good example is Angus Duncan's Memories of Scarp. Another one I recently re-read is Laurance Reed's The Soay of our Forefathers. I first read it in 2006, and during a cruise on the sailboat Zuza in 2008 I had the unexpected pleasure of spending a few hours on Soay. 


Soay was Macleod territory for centuries. But the Macleods left the island in the 1700s. It was resettled in the 1800s, and by 1851 over 150 people called it home. The population gradually declined after that. Gavin Maxwell bought Soay in 1944 where he established his basking shark-oil factory. Maxwell wrote about his shark hunting business in Harpoon at a Venture (1952)Also working the sharks with Maxwell was Tex Geddes, who wrote his own book, Hebridean Sharker, in 1960.


In 1953 most of the population, some 27 people, left the island to live and work in the Craignure area on Mull. Only one family remained: the Geddes, who eventually acquired the island in 1963, and lived in the old Mission Hall (built 1890). They had to sell the island shortly after that, but managed to re-acquire their property on Soay in 1993.

Mission Hall (1890), later the home of Tex Geddes & family
The only full-time residents of Soay these days (that I am aware of) are the Davies, who live in a beautiful house called Ceann a Stigh at the head of Camus nan Gall (Stranger's Bay on the east side of Soay). You can visit Soay on a day trip with Skye Boat Trips, and if you are lucky the skipper will be Oliver Davies of Soay. I was fortunate to meet Oliver on Muck last May (they also do trips to the Small Isles). What follows are a few photos of a beautiful sunny day spent on Soay in 2008. I hope to return someday.

Zuza (and a RIB from Skye) in Soay's Bagh Clann Neill

Ruins of the Shark Factory

Debris filled ruin of the shark-oil factory

Shark factory overlooking Soay harbour

Shark factory building - Fish curing station on ground floor and accommodation for fishermen on upper floor.

Site of the radio-telephone exchange

Phone box (Post Office behind it).
Below is a photo of the school built in 1878 (it was in use until 1950). Some point after that it re-opened, for when Hamish Haswell Smith wrote about Soay in his epic The Scottish Islands it was in use. But when I visited Soay in 2008 it was boarded up.

Boarded up schoolhouse (built 1878, photo 2008)


Ruin on Soay - Skye Cullins in the distance

Camas nan Gall

Thursday, December 8, 2016

2017 Cruise - Only 2 Spots Left

There are only two spaces left on the May 20 Hjalmar Bjorge cruise that I will be guiding through the Outer Isles. We plan on starting with Mingulay, and then work our way north to the Flannans. For more information see the 2017 Cruise tab above, or the Northern Light Cruising Website.

Hjalmar Bjorge at the Shiants
Hjalmar Bjorge at Vatersay

Hjalmar Bjorge in the Sound of Mull

Eilean Mor of the Flannan Isles

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Pabay Mor - Loch Roag

Pabay Mor, in Loch Roag, was one of my first Island 'Consolation Prizes'. But it would be hard to find a better one. It was the year 2000, and I had tried to get out to the Flannans with Seatrek. But they had more lucrative business opportunities going on, and so my 'penciled in' Flannan trip was cancelled. But they did offer to drop myself, two friends, and Freddie (a Baile-na-Cille dog) off on the island of Pabay Mor.

Briomanish Village - Pabay Mor
Pabay was cleared of its people around 1820. It was briefly re-settled in 1840, but was cleared again in 1849. The village consists of about seven old houses and a kiln. Four of the houses still have roofs and are occasionally occupied.




In the distance in the next photo you can see the township of Valtos on mainland Lewis. The Valtos crofters have the right to graze their sheep on Pabay.


Pabay was a MacLeod island until 1800, and prior to that the Pabay MacLeods held a lot of territory in the Uig area. The following abridged excerpt from chapter 17 of book 2 tells how the Pabay Macleods lost control of their land on mainland Lewis.

In the fifteenth century the sons of MacLeod of Pabay Mor murdered the family of John Roy Macaulay, following a dispute over the ownership of a cow. Thirteen-year-old John Roy was away at the time, living with his foster-father in Mealista, on the west coast of Lewis. MacLeod of Lewis, not happy with the behavior of the Pabay MacLeods, ordered that in recompense they take young John Roy into their custody with a promise to keep him safe.

But John Roy's period of safekeeping did not last long. On a snowy November day the MacLeods took him on a hunting trip, and at Kenneth’s hut (NB 112 164), an old shelter near Kinresort, he was tied to rocks in the snow and left to the elements.

The ruin of Kenneth's Hut
John Roy’s foster-father had a premonition something was amiss. He hiked to Kenneth’s hut and found the near-dead boy. After resuscitating him with some warm milk, he carried him over seven miles of hills and bog to Mealista. Several years later John Roy would have his revenge when he pursued the eldest son of MacLeod to the shores of Uig Bay, killing him just before he could reach the sanctuary of St Christopher’s chapel. MacLeod of Lewis, in compensation for all John Roy had suffered, granted him some of the lands of Uig that belonged to the Pabay MacLeods. 

The most historical structure on Pabay is Teampall Pheadair, St Peter's Chapel. It dates to at least the 1500s, and lies above a beautiful white-sand beach a half-mile north of the village. 

St Peter's Church and beach
As you can see in the next photo there's not much left of St Peter's. A note on the CANMORE page for the church suggests it may have been bombarded by canon fire during the Scottish Crown's campaign against the MacLeods of Lewis in 1506.

What's left of St Peter's
At the north end of Pabay you will find a giant lobster pond. Lobsters caught at sea in creels were held here until market prices in England merited shipping them south. 

Lobster Pond and Freddie of Bailenacille
I have been fortunate to have spent many hours on Pabay in 2000, and again during a visit in 2011. I look forward to possibly returning again during our Hjalmar Bjorge cruise this May.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Double-Beehive - Tighe Dhubhastail

If you are looking for an amazing walk to a remote shieling, one of the best is a three-mile trek from Morsgail Lodge to Airighean Tighe Dhubhastail (the shieling house of Dubastal). The shieling lies in a pastoral site straddling a peaty stream at NB 0997 2128. Here you'll find the ruins of four rectangular structures, their stones covered with yellow lichen, along with what's left of an older double beehive cell. 

Tighe Dhubhastail - double beehive ruin hidden in the grass at centre
I wanted to see this site because of an evocative drawing of the double-beehive made when it was occupied. (See page 10 at this link of the Proceedings of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries Vol 7, 1866.) The drawing was part of a report on a visit to the shieling by Captain FWL Thomas. Here is a paraphrased version of the Captain’s report, where he refers to the beehives by their Gaelic name, bothan.

   Being Sunday-stayed at Kinlochresort, we thought to improve the occasion by visiting the shielings in the neighborhood. Along with the gamekeeper we were soon at Tighe Dhubhastail (Dubastal having been a freebooter who lived on the world at large). Here was a bothan, in which the family was at home. This was the summer pasturage of the tenants of Crolista on Loch Roag. The bothan was double of the usual beehive shape, with the dwelling and dairy attached, and green with growing turf. A doorway, easily closed with a straw mat, led to the boudoir within. Close to the door was the fire, the smoke escaping through a hole in the dome. In the circular wall were three niches containing drying cheeses. A low interior door led from the dwelling to the dairy, which was six feet square. 
   The occupants were three young women, dressed in printed cotton gowns, and, being Sunday, they had finished their toilette at the burn to good purpose. Some eight of us packed into the hut while frothed milk was handed about.

The cells have partially collapsed in the years since the captain visited, and some of their stones were taken to build nearby shelters. But their entrances, and the low passage between them, are intact. Thick grass clogged the entrance, but I was able to tunnel through it to crawl into the boudoir, the main dwelling chamber (unfortunately there were no young women in printed gowns to greet me). The chamber was about 10 feet in diameter, and must have been quite crowded when Captain Thomas and seven others sat inside to enjoy some frothed milk. Another bit of grass-tunneling took me through the low interior passage to the dairy chamber, from where more crawling led back outside via a small backdoor. 

The 'boudoir' chamber
After crawling through the beehives I found the spot where the drawing of them had been made 150 years ago. The following composite image gives you a then-and-now view of the beehives. It was an amazing place to visit and think back on all the summers once spent by the folks of Crolista in this beautiful oasis on the moorland.

Then and Now - upper drawing from Proceedings of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries (Vol. 7, 1866)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Dun Chonnuill of the Garvellachs

There is not much left of The Great Castle of Dun Dunquhonle. It sat atop Dun Chonnuill, the smallest of the Garvelachs, and it's easy to see why this tiny island was chosen for a fort. Its cliffs rise 200 feet above the sea, and the few access points to the top were easily blocked by small defensive stone walls. 

Dun Chonnuill
The landing place is a natural galley slip in the rocky shoreline. From there a short hike around the head of an inlet leads to the base of a steep, and once heavily defended, path to the top.

Landing place seen from the sea
Landing place seen from above
The path zig-zags up the narrow grassy slope. There are five segments to it; the final one passing through a narrow defile to reach the summit. 

Zig-zag path to the summit
Atop the island you'll find a large grassy plateau, about four acres in size where, to quote John of Fordun writing in the fourteenth century, the "great castle of Dunquhonle" once lay. The only signs of this once great castle are several earthen mounds and low stone walls covered with green turf and nettles. 

Summit of Dun Chonnuill
This small piece of ground has seen a lot of history. A Lord of the Isles had been imprisoned here seven centuries ago, and thirteen-hundred years before that it had been the stomping-ground for the warriors of Fingalian legend, led by Conall Cearnach, cousin to Cuchulainn. It was Conall who avenged Cuchulainn’s death by killing ten and seven scores of hundreds of the men of Ireland. If my math is right, that's about 34,000 men.

Grass-grown foundation of a building
Dun Chonnuill is an amazing little island, one with more history per square foot than most others. And the view from this rock in the sea is expansive. To the south lie Scarba and the Slate Islands; to the southwest is Garbh Eileach, the largest of the Gravellachs; Mull spans the view to the north; Colonsay floats off to the west; and to the northeast the sea narrows in to the Firth of Lorne between Mull and the mainland. 

A tale of Dun Chonnuill, one that tells how the Macleans came to rule the isle of Mull, is recounted in Fitzroy Maclean’s West Highland Tales. Maclean describes how, in the fourteenth century, two Maclean brothers, Lachlan (the brains) and Hector (the brawn), abducted John MacDonald, the Lord of the Isles. They brought him to Dun Chonnuill to coerce him into making Lachlan the admiral of his forces. Another concession he was forced him to make was granting Mull, Scarba, the Cairnaburgs, and the Garvellachs to the Macleans. They released him only after he swore to all this while seated on the Black Stone of Iona, a vow that could not be broken.

See this CANMORE page for more on the once Great Castle of Dun Chonnuill.

Dun Chonnuill seen from Garbh Eileach

Garbh Eileach seen from Dun Chonnuill

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Broken Heads of Eilean Mor

It was the OS map that sparked my initial interest in Eilean Mor. Some 15 years ago I was perusing Landranger 61 (Jura & Colonsay), thinking about possible hikes on Jura. Off to the right of Jura I noticed a tiny island on the map. What caught my attention were two words printed on the island in the font they use for ancient monuments; the words were Chapel and Cross.

Eilean Mor is so off the beaten path that there are no regular boat trips to the island. And so to get there to see this Chapel and Cross I had to arrange a day-charter. That was way back in 2002, when Mike Murray ran the catamaran Gemini out of Crinan Harbour. In addition to Eilean Mor, over the following four years I would charter Mike to take me to Scarba, Northern Jura, Belnahua, Dun Chonnuill, Cuil-i-Breannan, Garbh Eileach, and Eileach an Naoimh.

Gemini at Eilean Mor
The first interesting thing I came across while wandering on Eilean Mor was a headless cross.


This cross is said to have marked the spot where St Charmaig is buried. Seton Gordon, in his Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands (1935), describes that the cross was broken during a failed attempt to steal it from the island.

Standing next to the headless cross is St Charmaig's Chapel. It is about forty feet by twenty, and at one time had a second story where the priest lived. The western half of the building contains the nave and the eastern half the chancel where, at some point in time, a fireplace had been installed. The chapel dates to the 12th century, and was operated as an inn in the 1600s; perhaps housing pilgrims to St Charmaig's Cave, which lies on the coast of the island, 300 yards south of the chapel.

St Charmaig's Chapel - summit cross at upper right
In the fireplace of the radically altered chapel there rests a thin, grey-stone coffin lid, with the effigy of a man in a cassock. The stone dates to the twelfth century and may have once covered St Charmaig’s coffin. Pilgrims were said to have dropped coins into his coffin through gaps around the lid. The stone certainly looks like the image of a saint, for in one corner is carved a chalice, and a nimbus surrounds the head.

Coffin-lid effigy
When MEM Donaldson visited Eilean Mor 100 years (or so) ago, she commented on how the effigy in the church was headless. As you can see in the next photo, the 'head' was subsequently found, and cemented back in place. (Note the seams in the stone at the shoulders.)

The repaired (once-headless) effigy
When MEM visited the island she also photographed a cross that stood on the highest point of the island. It, too, was headless for many years. TS Muir, in his Ecclesiological Notes on the Islands of Scotland (1885), describes how the cross-head was found in 1864 when he was on the island, and how he considered taking it away, but in the end set it in the chapel next to St Charmaig's effigy. The cross-head would lay there until it was stolen in 1924.

MEM Photo of the headless Eilean Mor Cross - c. 1900
I do not know how the cross-head was eventually recovered, but it was, and you can see the complete restored cross standing in the National Museum of Scotland. In its place a cement replica was installed on the island. The following composite photo shows the two sides of the replica, and a front view of the restored original.

Eilean Mor Cross - the original at right, and two views of the replica
It was good to see that two of the headless stones of Eilean Mor have been restored, but sad that St Charmaig's cross, the one that once stood over his tomb, will remain forever headless. See this CANMORE page for more on St Charmaig's chapel and cross.