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.  


  1. I sailed with Rob Barlow to St Kilda in 2003. Glad to hear that he is still in the business. Please pass on my regards if you are in contact with him. Have looked across to Scrba from Jura a couple of times, but never visited. I always enjoy your blog, thanks

  2. Thanks David. I will pass on my regards next time I see Rob. (But that probably wont be for a year or so.)