Saturday, June 25, 2016

Back to Belnahua

My cruise on Elizabeth G last month included a bit of island time-travelling, as we visited several islands I'd not set foot on for a very long time. One was Belnahua of the Slate Isles, which I'd last been on in 2004 (see book 1, chapter 10). The island has not changed much in the intervening 12 years, the only difference was a white-washed cottage that I thought at the time was to be intended as a visitors centre. No one was around, and the cottage was locked. (I would learn later that it is a bothy used by the owners when they stay on the island.)

Passengers from Elizabeth G at the 'Visitors Centre'
Belnahua was a slate quarry in the 19th century. The population peaked at about 100 people, but it was abandoned in 1915. The remains of several  houses, a school, and a powerhouse lie scattered about the island.

Quarry worker's housing
Belnahua is an amazing place, a 100 year-old frozen snapshot in time of a long dead industry. Unless you have your own boat, the only way to get here is either a day-charter out of Easdale, or as part of a longer cruise around the Inner Hebrides. If you are interested in Belnahua and the Slate Isles be sure to read The Islands that Roofed the World by Mary Withall. 

Elizabeth G at Belnahua (flooded quarry in the foreground)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Garbh Eileach of the Isles of the Sea

During my cruise last month on Elizabeth G we visited the three main Garvellach Isles: Eileach a' Naoimh, Dun Chonnuill, and Garbh Eileach. It was only my second time to set foot on Garbh Eileach, the rough rocky island that gives the island group its name. From the landing jetty it is a short walk to Garbh Eileach House, the only habitable house on the island. No one was home, and it was locked up tight.

Garbh Eileach House
My first visit to Garbh Eileach was in 2002, when I chartered the catamaran Gemini for a day to take me to Dun Chonnuill and Garbh Eileach (see book 1, chapter 9). That trip was in late July, and the bracken was head-high, obscuring much of the ground. One thing I'd wanted to find on Garbh Eileach back then was an old cemetery called Cladh Dhubhan, but with all the thick vegetation I could not find it.

Cladh Dhubhan may have been the place of interment for some of the early ruling families of Dalriada. Around 660 AD, one of the kings was the son of Dunchad mac Duban (Duncan, son of Duban). So perhaps Cladh Dhubhan was named after the father of the king. Another possibility is that one of the Gaelic words for 'brave' is dhubhlan, so perhaps Cladh Dhubhan means burial ground of the brave. On my visit last May the bracken was only starting to sprout, and so it was easy to find the old burial ground; a rectangular enclosure behind the house.

Cladh Dhubhan
There is sparse information on Cladh Dhubhan. The most informative is this short mention in Patrick Gillies' Netherlorn, Argyllshire, and its Neighbourhood:

'On the island of Garbheileach there is a very old graveyard known as Claodh Dhubhan (the burying-place of Duban). More than one prince and certainly one king of Alban was called Dubh; and Dubhan seems to have been a common name; while in 927, Dubthach, son of Duban, fourteenth in descent from Conal Gulban the great-grand-father of Columba, became Superior or Co-arb in Iona.'

That is about all I can find on the mysterious burial ground of Dhubhan, although there is a CANMORE page on it, it is short and uninformative. Finding Cladh Dhubhan was one of many "I'll have to return to an island someday" promises I've made to myself over the years. It took 14 years to keep this particular promise, and it was good to return to this rarely visited Isle of the Sea.

Cladh Dhubhan

Friday, June 17, 2016

RIP on Luing - Now and Then

I visited Luing last month. It was only my second time there, my first visit some 19 years ago. When I was on the island way back then I visited the grave of Alexander Campbell. Campbell's grave is one of the iconic spots in the Hebrides; and his self-written epitaph, which cover three large stones, have been described by countless authors (including myself - see book 1, chapter 8).

Alexander Campbell's Grave - 1997
I won't include all of the text of Campbell's tombstones, as they make for dreary reading. Here is one example:

I protest that none be buried after me in this grave which I have dug for myself…having adhered till death to the whole work of the second reformation in Scotland…and died in full assurance of the heavenly inheritance.

In Patrick Gillies Netherlorn, Argyllshire, and its Neighborhood (1909), there is a detailed history of Campbell’s exploits as a seceder from the established church, and as a leader of the Covenanters of Lorn. To quote Gillies:
Their ruling principle was that they alone professed the true religion, and that all not of their communion were doomed to perdition…. Persecution, notwithstanding the fact that they themselves were fighting for freedom, made them the most intolerant of sects. They became more and more exclusive; whatever position was taken up there were always some who went a step further, and denounced, excommunicated, and doomed the people they left behind. Papacy and prelacy they abhorred, but their keenest resentment was against those of their own body who preached religious toleration.

Campbell produced a lengthy dissertation: The Dying Testimony of Alexander Campbell, in which he tells his life’s story. It includes the following denunciations (in which I don’t believe he’s left anyone out):
I, as a dying man, leave my testimony against Quakers, Tabernacle folk, Haldians, Independents, Anabaptists, Antiburghers, Burghers, Chappels of Ease, Relief, Roman Catholics, Socenians, Prelacy, Armenians, Deists, Atheists, Universalists, New Jerusalemites, Unitarians, Methodists, Bareans, Glassites, and all sectarians.

Campbell's grave is a sad sight these days. As you can see in the next photo, in the 19 years since I last saw it the main tablet-stone has cracked in two and fallen away from the headstone. In addition, a large plant has grown that obscures most of the grave. I have mixed feelings about this. One would think that a resident of nearby Toberonochy would take the time to do some pruning every now and then to preserve this well known bit of Luing history. But, then again, maybe this monument to intolerance deserves to fall to pieces and be forgotten.

Alexander Campbell's Grave - 2016

Monday, June 13, 2016

Eilean Righ - Royal Island

Little Eilean Righ, in Loch Craignish, is one of the most unusual islands I've visited. It was once part of an amazing ritual landscape; just five miles away stands the hill of Dunadd, where the early kings of Dalriada were inaugurated; and two miles to the east is Kilmartin Glen, with its vast number of neolithic and bronze age sites; and then there's Ormaig, a half mile from Eilean Righ. Ormaig has some of the best examples of rock-art in the country. Cups, rings, and rosettes carved in stone for still unknown reasons.

Rock art at Ormaig - Loch Craignish in the distance
There were two duns (forts) on Eilean Righ, so it was well defended. Add to that its easy access to the sea and sheltered anchorage, it is possible Eilean Righ was used by the early kings as an island residence. There was also a royal connection in the 1930s, when the island was owned by Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston, who was tutor to the young Dragon Emperor Puyi from 1919 to 1924.

On landing we were greeted by the above 'not welcome' sign. There is no such thing as a private island in Scotland, although I've come across a few over the years where the owners don't want any uninvited visitors. But as long as you are respectful to the owners privacy, property, and activities, you can explore an island.

Luckily the tall, spiky steel gates with the 'Private Island' sign were open. And so we were able to gain access to a track that led up to the two houses. Trying to be respectful, we initially stayed away from the houses, and followed a road that led south past the helicopter hanger and what I thought was a helipad (five months after my visit I was informed  it's the base of an observatory).

As we approached the hanger we followed a sidewalk that had lights embedded in it. At the time I thought the lights were there for late night strolls. But I later learned they mark a nighttime flight path approach to the hanger.

Approach lights in the walkway (marked with arrows)
Manicured would be a good term to describe Eilean Righ. The interior consisted of swaths of mowed grass and bracken that made for easy walking as we made our way to the site of the south dun. We also searched for a cup-marked stone, which marked the site of ritual activity on the island. (We were not able to find it.)

The south end of Eilean Righ - Eilean Macaskin in the distance
After exploring the south half of the island we set out to find the north dun. But the only way to access that part of the island meant walking through the grounds of the two houses. As quietly as possible I made my way down a pebble-covered walkway between the houses to reach the north side of the island. I was expecting alarms to go off at any minute, but, as it turned out, no one was home.  

On the north side of the island lay more lawns, including a rifle range with distance markers.

Rifle range
Eilean Righ is now off the market, but if you are interested in seeing how it was marketed you can still find the sales brochure here.

Note: Post updated on Oct 23, 2016, after a reader commented that the island has been sold.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Chapel Factory - Nave Island

It is astounding to think that someone would desecrate a 13th century chapel ruin by turning it into a factory, but that's what happen on tiny Nave Island off the northwest corner of Islay. The chapel dates to the 13th century, and there was a monastery on the island before that - remnants of which can be seen scattered about the hillside above the chapel.

The vandalization occurred in the 1780s, at the height the kelp boom. The kelp had to be dried before being sold (for soap and glass making), and so a drying furnace was built inside Nave Chapel. It looks quite bizarre, a centuries old chapel with a 25-foot-high chimney. The kelp industry collapsed in the 1820s, but Nave Chapel and its chimney remain a landmark for all ships passing to the north of Islay. 

TS Muir visited Nave in 1853, but there is only a brief mention of it in his Ecclesiological Notes on Some of the Islands of Scotland:

Neimh or Neave - In it there is a chapel, which till quite lately, when it was extensively mutilated by kelp burners, was nearly entire.

I don't think Nave sees many visitors, and the 11 of us on Elizabeth G had the island all to ourselves for a few hours. After taking far too many photos of the strange chapel/factory, I spent the rest of the time watching, and being watched, by the hundreds of seals that call the island home.

It is likely that the monastery on Nave was associated with the one at Cill Naoimh on Islay, less than three miles to the south. Cill Naoimh itself may have been associated with a hermitage hidden on the Islay coast, just four miles to the west. And so this corner of Islay, on a direct route from Ireland to Oransay and Iona, was very busy in the early days of Hebridean Christianity.

See the April 4, 2014 post for photos of Cill Naoimh, and the three posts starting on April 7, 2013 for a description of a visit to its hermitage. For more on Nave Chapel see this CANMORE page .

Inside Nave Chapel

Friday, June 3, 2016

Scarba Revisited

I am just back from a few weeks of motoring around the Hebrides aboard the ships Elizabeth G and Hjalmar Bjorge. We visited some 20 islands, and one of the many highlights was returning to Scarba. I'd only visited Scarba once before; way back in 2002 (see book 1, chapter 6), when I visited Kilmory Chapel and then climbed to the top of the island. Prior to that visit I had read of some reported sightings of beehive cells on Scarba, a possible monastic settlement near the chapel. Now beehive cells have always fascinated me, and so I searched for them around the Kilmory area in 2002, but I did not find any signs of them.

It was only after that visit that I came across Patrick Gillies' Netherlorn, Argyllshire and its Neighbourhood (1909). In the chapter on Scarba (which you can find at this link) I came across this mention of the Scarba beehives, including the author's conjecture that they may have been Columba's Muirbulcmar, also known as Hinba:

Six beehive cells, of a nature similar to those found in Eilach a' Naoimh, but in a more ruinous condition, are clustered together on a sheltered depression leading down from the terrace to the bay called Iurach, the only landing place on this side (west side) of the island. It may be that these cells formed the hermitage of Muirbulcmar; no such name has been preserved to us in the place-names of the district; but the probable derivation of the words (Muir, the sea; bolg, surging or soft; mor, great: the great surging sea) would indicate proximity to such a wild ocean as may be seen so frequently from this spot, caused by the rush of the tidal waters of Coirebhreacain.

One of the mysteries of the Hebrides is the location of Hinba. The usual contenders are Colonsay, Oronsay, Jura, Canna, Seil, and Eileach a' Naoimh of the Garvellachs. Reading Gillies' book was the first time I'd heard that Scarba might also be a possible site of Hinba. And so a visit to Lurach Bay to search for its beehive cells became a must do. But I hadn't the slightest idea of when I'd ever get the chance to land on that remote part of Scarba.

But good things come to those who wait, and so it was on May 17, that three passengers of the good ship Elizabeth G, Christina, Chris, and myself, were dropped off on the shore of Lurach Bay. The ship then motored away to go around the north of Scarba. The plan was that after searching for the beehive cells, the three of us would hike across the island to meet up with the boat at Kilmory.

Under a bright, but unsettled sky, the three of us started looking around the foreshore. Based on other mentions in Patrick Gilles' book, I knew that the beehives lay on a terrace about 25 feet above the sea. And sure enough, snuggled between a natural rock wall, some six feet high, and a cliff face with a large cave, we found a cluster of small beehive cells. They had collapsed, but were still recognizable under clumps of dead bracken. There were about six of them, and they were very small, shelter for one person at most.

It was amazing to find theses cells. Seeing them hiding in this secluded bay, just 30 miles from Iona, made me wonder if Lurach Bay may have been the legendary Hinba. As we climbed up from the terrace of the cells the weather made a turn for the worse - fog and rain were moving in. And as we climbed we came to another, and larger terrace. This one was covered with the mysterious ruins of several large structures, all buried under turf and dead bracken, structures that could have been another part of the monastery. We continued climbing and, after taking one last foggy look down onto Lurach Bay, headed up into the mist.

From there it was a hard march upwards in the fog and rain, losing our way a couple of times. But Chris' excellent navigational skills kept us on track to find the start of the stalker's path at Carn a Chibir.

Christina at Carn a Chibir
From the cairn we followed the path all the way across the island to Kilmory Lodge. Where a descent through the trees, and then a march across a nasty bit of swamp took us to Kilmory Chapel, and then on to the pier at Kilmory.

Kilmory Chapel
It had been a long, wet, and memorable hike. I never thought I'd have the chance to visit Lurach Bay and search for its beehive cells. And I have to thank the skipper, Rob Barlow, for the opportunity to be dropped there. Also many thanks to Christina and Chris for enthusiastically accompanying me on my beehive quest. One of the sites on Scarba we decided to skip was the mysterious 3-holes of Scarba (see the January 16, 2016 post). We came close to them, but it was raining, and the holes were down a steep, soggy hillside from where we were. So I'll need to return to Scarba someday to take a look at them.

Over the next few weeks I'll be describing visits to the other islands visited while aboard the ships Elizabeth G and Hjalmar Bjorge: Oransay, Eileach a Naoimh, Garbh Eileach, Dun Connel, Jura, Belnahua, Eilean Righ, Nave Island, Pabbay (Barra), Vatersay, Ceann Iar & Shivinish (Monachs), Scarp, Pabbay (Harris), Boreray, Shaints, Canna, Rum, Eigg, and Muck.