Thursday, March 31, 2016

St Kilda International

Access to St Kilda will improve next year with the opening of St Kilda International Airport. It will have three runways, allowing planes to land regardless of the wind direction. Several major hotel chains are now bidding for a license to build a 300 room hotel atop Connachair, the highest hill on the island. The views should be outstanding, and each room will come with a bag of Bonxie chow, so you can feed the Skuas from your deck. Fantastic!

St Kilda International
Soon to be a common sight over Village Bay
I look forward to flying to St Kilda next year. But I do hope they improve the passenger lounge.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Monach Mansion

On Ceann Iar of the Monach Islands there is a large, two-storey ruin made of the same red-bricks as the lighthouse on nearby Shillay. I've been unable to find much about it, other than it's usually described as a storehouse.

On my first visit to Ceann Iar, nearly 20 years ago, I did not have time to take a close look at the building. But during a visit in 2013 I had a lot of time on the island, and so I went over to see it. 

The building looked to be more than just a storehouse. Although the interior had collapsed, you could see that large fireplaces once warmed rooms on both the ground and first floor.

So in addition to being a storehouse, perhaps this once-grand building was an alternate accommodation for the keepers if they were stranded on Ceann Iar due to the weather. Or maybe it was a holiday-home of sorts if the keepers got tired of their quarters on tiny Shillay. If anyone knows please let me know.

The Monachs are one of my favourite island groups, mostly due to the vast number of seals that call them home. Here is the view I had while waiting to be picked up during that visit in 2013; over a hundred curious eyes wondering what I was up to (and wishing I'd leave so they could take back their beach). If you'd like to experience the Monachs consider joining us on the May 21st cruise.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Amhuinnsuidhe Castle

Amhuinnsuidhe (River Seat) Castle dates to 1867, and is one of the easiest castles in the islands to get a close up look at for free. That's because the public highway runs past just inches from its front door. That's not good for the castle-dwellers, but good for those who want to get a close look as they drive by. In the 1960s the owners tried to have the road re-routed behind the castle, but they failed. For the first photo below I parked in a lay-by east of the castle, and walked back to take the picture.

Near the lay-by was a beautiful stone waterfall where the Abhainn Mor tumbles to West Loch Tarbert.

I'm sure the castle-dwellers get tired of looky-loo's slowing down as they drive past to take a picture or two, which is what I did to take the next photo.

Photo through the car window
Over the years I have driven by Amhuinnsuidhe several times on my way to Huisinis. It is a slow, but beautiful drive, along the narrow road as it winds its way across 12 miles of coastal terrain, to where it ends at the amazing beach of Huisinis. And along the way you'll pass what's known as the most remote tennis court in the islands. For more on Amhuinnsuidhe Castle see CANMORE and Virtual Hebrides.

Huisinis beach

Stranded on Jura

On my first visit to Jura, in 1999, my wife and I spent a week at the Isle of Jura Hotel. Every weekday we got used to the sight of a bus taking school children to Feolin, where the ferry to Islay departs. On our last morning on Jura the wind was howling, and the rain was coming down in buckets. And after breakfast we watched as the bus, full of excited children, passed the hotel in Craighouse, once again on its way to the ferry.

Shortly afterwards, we loaded our bags in the car, and set out for the ferry. Halfway there we saw the bus, still full of even more excited children, coming back to Craighouse. The driver waved us down and told us the ferry was not running: it was too stormy. Wanting to see what the Sound of Jura looked like we carried on to Feolin, and as we reached the jetty gale force winds rocked the car back and forth. Just beyond the jetty was an impressive sight; white-caps flowing and blowing through the Sound, of Jura. A ferry workers confirmed that we were indeed Stranded on Jura (has a nice sound to it, doesn't it).

So we turned around and returned to the hotel. Since no one could leave the island, no one could get there, and so our room was still available. So we unpacked and settled in for another night on Jura. It was far too stormy to do anything outside, so we spent the day reading. Normally I'd have been frustrated by not being able to get out for a walk, but I was still sore from a marathon walk to Breackan's Cave the previous day (see book 1, chapter 5). The storm subsided that evening, and the next day we returned to the mainland without incident.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Stranded on Staffa

Most day trips to Staffa allow you anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes ashore. That gives everyone time to wander into Fingal's Cave, and then spend a little time atop the island. But during a day-trip visit in 2005, the Turas Mara boat I was on developed engine trouble after dropping us off on the island. And so I was stranded on Staffa for about three hours - but where better to be stranded!

With all that time ashore I tried to see two things that I'd read about, but never had the time to look for on previous visits. The first was Cormorant Cave, which is a back entrance to the larger Mackinnon's Cave; the second thing I wanted to see was Thunder Cave, also known as the Gunna Mor (The Cannon), a natural bore-hole in the cliffs, which once contained a captive stone that was blasted up and down by the sea.

But, of course, I first visited Fingal's Cave, where I saw an inflatable with seven adventurous souls motoring to the far back of the cave, something only possible if there is no swell.

After that obligatory visit to the cave I made the climb to the top of the island to scope out the approach to Cormorant Cave, which lies on the eastern shore of Port an Fhasgaidh, a small inlet on the southwest corner of Staffa. Cormorant cave is only accessible at low tide, and as the tide was fairly low I could just make out the way to the cave. Cormorant Cave is not much in itself, but inside it there's a secret passageway into Mackinnon's Cave; a cave nearly as large as Fingal's. Few ever see Mackinnon's Cave because there is no way to walk to its main entrance, which is about 500 feet west of Fingal's Cave. 

Top of Mackinnon's Cave
Looking to Cormorant Cave
The sea, in places, was only about a foot deep, and so I was able to cross the slippery rocks to a spot near the entrance of Cormorant Cave. However, a deeper stretch of water blocked any further progress, and I had to give up. It would have been incredible to make my way into Mackinnon's Cave, and it is something I'll have to try to do again someday when the tide is a bit lower. 

Looking back from near the entrance to Cormorant Cave
Getting into Cormorant Cave was a bust, so I then set my sights on seeing the Gunna Mor. Sarah Murray, in The Beauties of Scotland (1888), describes the Gunna Mor (Thunder Cave):

The reason of it being called Thunder Cave is as follows: ... a very large round stone incorporated in the mass of rock, became loose in its socket, and afterwards by continual friction, made itself a large aperture, in which it was in storms violently agitated. When driven by great force by the billows to the back of its socket, it rebounded with a noise like loud thunder, which was heard at a great distance.

The Gunna Mor is also mentioned in Donald MacCulloch's The Wondrous Isle of Staffa:

The cavity is about four feet in diameter and runs up into the cliff at an angle of 45 degrees for about 15 feet. It has several names" Thunder Cave", "Gun Cave', "The Cannon", and "Gunna Mor", or "Big Gun".

MacCulloch wanted to see the Gunna Mor up close, so he made his way to a spot below it, and: 

I tried to clamber up into the bore in order to ascertain its length, but the angle is so steep and the interior so slippery, there was considerable risk of slipping and being shot out over a rock face into deep water over fifteen feet below. Therefore I did not undertake the venture.

The headland of Thunder Cave
Thunder Cave lies in the cliff-face on the headland to the west side of Port an Fhasgaidh. I carefully made my way along the base of the cliffs there, and tried to climb up. But, once again, I was thwarted by the terrain. The rocks were just too steep and slippy and, like MacCulloch I was not in a mood to be 'shot over the rock face into deep water.'

Two failures in one day was a little disappointing - but it had been fun trying. After giving up on Thunder Cave I returned to the landing, only to find that the boat was still not running, and a rescue ship was on the way.

Still stranded - the boat at Staffa landing
After being told we still had an hour or so, I returned to the top of the island to take some photos of the caves from above.

Kayakers rowing past Am Buachaille - The Herdsman
I also went over to take a look at the ruin of Staffa Cottage, last occupied full time in 1807. Since then it's hosted occasional visitors, like MEM Donaldson, who described a stay there in her Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands. Since MEM's visit the cottage has totally collapsed. 

MEM Donaldson photo of Staffa Cottage
What was left of Staffa Cottage in 1989
Staffa Cottage, even more dilapidated in 2005
After spending another hour atop the island I saw our rescue boat approaching, and a few hours later I was back on Mull. It had been a day of wonderful surprises, and I look forward to my next island stranding.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Monach Islands

There are still a few spots available for the May 21 cruise. If the weather and sea cooperate, one of our stops will be the Monach Islands. They lie five miles off the coast of North Uist, which they were once linked to by a sandbar. The sandbar was destroyed by a tsunami in 1607, but the three main islands of Ceann Iar, Shivinish, and Ceann Ear are still linked together at low tide.

The Monachs (The Monk's Isles) are also known as Heiskeir, and were once called Heisgeir nan Cailleach (Nun's rock), as there was said to be a nunnery on the east island in the 13th or 14th century. Small Shillay, the westernmost island, was said to have had a monastery. But if there was one, it would have been small, for the island is tiny (200 metres across).

After Kilda was evacuated in the 30s, the Monachs were the most westerly occupied part of Scotland for a while. They had a population of over 100 at one point, but were abandoned in 1947. The usual anchorage here is Croic Harbour, between Shivinish and Ceann Iar. Croic, per Dwelly's Gaelic dictionary, can mean 'abounding in cast seaweed', which it certainly is. Another definition I came across says that Croic simply means 'harbour'. I remember my first time anchoring there, watching the seals surf the tide as it rolled over the sandbar between Shivinish and Ceann Iar.

Looking across the sandbar to Shivinish from Ceann Iar
I'd been to the Monachs several times before I managed to set foot on Shillay. The landing there is more difficult, as the old lighthouse jetty is very exposed to the swell. Shillay lighthouse, said to be built on the site of the monk's beacon, started operating in 1864. It was decommissioned in 1942, and re-commissioned in 2008.

Ceann Ear (East End) has a freshwater loch, Loch nam Buadh (loch of the virtues). Named, perhaps, in honor of the nuns who once lived here. Next to the loch is the site of the village, with some 30 buildings, including a school, post office and church. A kilometre to the NE is Cladh na Bleide, an old burial ground, and the possible site of the nunnery.

The School
Mission Hall?
On my last visit to the  Monachs I managed to cross over to Shivinish from Ceann Iar just before the tide covered the sandbar. Someday, maybe this coming May if the tide is right, I hope to see if I can cross between all three islands. The Monachs are a special place, the abode of hundreds of seals and birds, only occasionally disrupted by the occasional boatload of appreciative island hoppers. There is not a lot of literature on the Monachs, but Alasdair Alpin Macgregor did dedicate a chapter to them in his book The Farthest Hebrides, which you can read here. If islands like these interest you, consider joining our cruise this May.

Looking to Shivinish from Ceann Iar as the tide rises