Sunday, July 31, 2016

All Four of the Smalls

On May 27th, after a few hours ashore on the Shiants, we headed south down the west coast of Skye. This is always a scenic run; the cliffs of the Skye headlands to the left, and the low coast of the Uists to the right. The Neist Point lighthouse marks the westernmost point of Skye. And just north of the light is an unusual pyramid shaped headland; one of the landmarks of the Skye coast. I have passed by many times in the past, and have never seen anyone climbing it. But this time we saw what appeared to be a rescue in progress.

Neist Point
Neist Point peak
Another three hours of steaming took us to our next overnight anchorage in Canna Harbour. The following morning we went ashore to see the Rocket church, the grounds of Canna House, and to see the Celtic cross that is all that's left of the monastery of Keils. Although there was a sign in front of Canna House saying there were tours of the house, the resident warden told us there were no tours. Very frustrating. (Dear NTS, why do you put up signs describing tours that are non-existent?) We'd find an even more flagrant example of such disregard for visitors when we'd arrive on Rum the next day (see below).

Canna House
Canna Harbour
My primary goal on Canna was to lead some of the guests to Sgorr nam Ban-naomha, a 7th century monastic enclosure (sometimes called a nunnery), that lies at the base of 300-foot-high cliffs on the west side of the island. It is a seven-mile round-trip hike, and so I only had two takers, Nigel and Clare. The three of us set out to follow the track to Tarbert Farm, from where a mile of cross country hiking took us to the cliffs high above Sgorr nam Ban-naomha.

Cliffs above the Sgorr
I have only been down to the Sgorr once, that was way back in 2002, and was looking forward to seeing it again. But it was not to be. The steep sheep track that give access down the cliffs had been severely eroded by rabbits, and look unsafe, so we had to settle for the view from above.

The eroded path down to the Sgorr
The Sgorr
On the way back to the harbour we made a detour to crawl into the souterrians that lie in the lonely interior of the island. (See this CANMORE page for more on the souterrains of Canna.)

The souterrains
Clare explores the souterrian
Once back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge we decided to head over to Rum for the night, and under brilliant sunshine we motored around the north side of Rum to find an anchorage in Loch Scresort. At the head of the loch we could see the red sandstone Kinloch Castle, built by the Bulloughs in 1902.

The ferry Loch Nevis arriving at Rum
Kinloch Castle
We went ashore on Rum the next morning. At the pier there was an info-board listing castle tours. I wanted the guests to see inside the castle, and even though it was a Sunday, there was a tour listed for 9:30. And so we all headed over to the castle. 9:30 came, and went, as did 10:00. We asked the few folks we could find about the tour, but no one knew anything. (We got the definite feeling they just didn't care.) I wandered over to the shop/pub to find it open, but vacant, its outdoor tables littered with empty beer and wine bottles. It looked like we'd missed quite a party. 

Kinloch Castle
We missed the party
I won't dwell (much longer) on the complete disregard whoever runs Rum has for visitors. But if you are not going to offer tours, why in the world do you put up signs saying you do. And I know for a fact that our experience that day was not just a one time mixup - it happens all the time. If you ever go to Rum, don't plan on seeing the castle, get as far away from it as you can and spend your time in the hills.

The sun was shining bright as we left Rum and made the journey over to Eigg. Rounding the north end we motored down its east coast below the high cliffs of Striudh. It was at Striudh that Hugh Miller met a lass "who was more than merely good looking" (see book 1, chapter 26).

Striudh - Eigg cliffs
We were soon ashore on Eigg, where we arranged for a taxi to take us the five miles across the island to the Singing Sands. It was the only taxi on the Small Isles, an old London cab, that had somehow made its way to Eigg via Dundee.

Eigg taxi
We had a bumpy, but fun, ride up Eigg's M-1 to road's end at Howlin, where a short walk took us to Camus Sgiotaig, the Squeaking Bay (usually known as the Singing Sands).

To the Singing Sands
The Singing Sands - the mountains of Mordor in the distance
East of the Singing Sands, and just under the high cliffs of Cleadale, we could see the house at Howlin. It's said the JR Tolkien stayed here, and that the view he had of Rum from the house was the inspiration for the Mountains of Mordor.

Howlin House (at left)
Could this be Mordor?
After an hour or so making the sands sing and wading in the sea we headed back to the road-end to find our chauffeur patiently waiting to take us to Glamisdale. (Listen to the April 19, 2013 post for a recording of the singing sands.)

Our taxi awaits
Back in Glamisdale we still had an hour, and so Nigel and I set out to see Massacre Cave. There was a sign in the shop that said due to a rock-fall you could not get into the cave, but we decided to take a look for ourselves. It is an easy half-mile walk to the cave, and when we reached it there was no sign of a rockfall, and with flashlights in hand we crawled in. In the late 1500s several hundred people perished here - see chapter 24 of book 2 for the story.

Nigel at Massacre Cave
In the cave
Thirsty, and ready for a beer, Nigel and I returned to Glamisdale only to find that the pub had just closed. The rest of our group had been more fortunate, making their way to the pub in time to get a drink. And so we spent a leisurely (and beer-less) half hour sitting in the sun until it was time to depart. Our next destination, and the last island of the trip, would be nearby Muck.

Glamisdale Harbour - Eigg
We dropped anchor at Muck around 7pm. And after another excellent dinner prepared by Lynda we settled down for the night. The next day dawned without a cloud in the sky, and we went ashore for a few hours. As we stepped ashore we set a record for a Hjalmar Bjorge cruise, as we'd visited all four of the Small Isles. I led the guests across the island to beautiful Gallanach Bay, and then several of us continued on to the MacEwen graves on Aird nan Uan, the headland of the lambs, on the far west tip of the island. (The MacEwens own Muck.)

Gallanach - Mordor in the distance
MacEwen Graves
Then in the mood for a climb, Nigel and I decided to make our way up Beinn Airein, at 450 feet, the highpoint of Muck. At the base of the hill, just before we started to climb, we came across an amazing stone cottage. Its turf roof was intact and the house still appeared to be used. It is a listed building that was restored in the 1960s (you can read more about it on this CANMORE page).

Someone's home sweet home
Nigel atop Beinn Airein
Looking to Eigg from the top of Muck
Unlike our experience on Eigg the day before, when we returned to the harbour the tearoom/pub was open, and so we were able to quench our thirst before returning to the boat.

Muck Tea Room/Pub/Shop
While talking to the folks who run the tearoom I was sad to learn that Amy had passed away. Amy was a little dog that had followed me all around the island on my two previous visits (see the October 13, 2013 post for more on Amy). But I was happy to learn that Amy's daughter, Mattie, still greeted visitors, as I found out when I stepped out of the tearoom.

Mattie of Muck
Amy of Muck - RIP
We said goodbye to our last island and set a course east to the Sound of Mull, where we motored into Lochaline harbour for a short visit ashore. Lochaline is where many of the St Kildans were sent, some to do forestry work, when they left their far off (and treeless) island in 1930. Most of the guests went for a long walk up the lochside road. But I decided to get a beer at the Lochaline Hotel, and then take a look at the houses where the Kildans had lived.

Lochaline Marina
Lochaline Houses - near where the Kildans lived
We spent the last night of the cruise at anchor in nearby Ardtornish Bay. The house at the head of the bay is the sometimes residence of Adam Nicolson, the author of the best book about the Shiants (Sea Room).

Ardtornish House
In the morning we had a short sail to Oban where we had a gigantic breakfast that would keep everyone going for a day or two and, in short order, everyone went their own way. It had been an interesting trip, one that visited quite a few islands not normally seen on these cruises. I would like to thank Nigel and Clare, Janet and John, Joey, Patricia, Francis, and Elaine for being such good company. I hope you all had a good time. And many thanks to Mark, Anna, and Lynda, for making my first trip as a guide go smoothly. We will be doing another trip next year, from May 20th to 29th. Check the Northern Lights website (and this blog) in the next few weeks for details.

Hjalmar Bjorge at Oban

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Islands in the Sound

Early on May 25 Hjalmar Bjorge weighed anchor and we left our calm anchorage off the island of Scarp. A course was set to the southeast, to visit two islands in the Sound of Harris. (One of my favourite books about these islands is Islands in the Sound, by Alison Johnson). The islands we hoped to visit were Pabbay and Boreray, I was not 100% certain we'd find any anchorages near those islands, as the sound is notoriously shallow. But our expert skipper, Mark Henrys, was able to find a place to drop the hook near Pabbay, and we were soon ashore. 

We made a tour of Baile na Cille, which had been the main settlement on Pabbay, centered around the ruin of Teampull Mhoire. The church dates to the 1500s, and replaced an earlier church dedicated to St Moluag.

Teampull Mhoire
The cross inside Teampull Mhore, with its worn arms and tilted head, is eerie, but beautiful. It is mentioned in a book about Pabbay written by Bill Lawson - The Teampull on the Isle of Pabbay (1994). In it he mentions the cross is referred to in A Song of Fear by the Pabbay bard Neil Morrison, as chrois Phapanaich (the Catholic cross). The song calls the ‘Priest’s Temple’ a fearful thing, and that its cross would frighten the very giants.

The cross that would frighten giants
In Baile Lingay, a village above the church, we found the ruin of a large grain drying kiln. Pabbay was known as the granary of Harris, but it also had a good number of its own people to support. In the nineteenth century the population exceeded 300. Most of them were evicted when the island was cleared for sheep in the 1840s. 

Kiln in Baile Lingay
It was a beautiful, sunny day, and it was hard to leave Pabbay, but another island called; Boreray, which lay three miles away. Again, Mark was able to find a perfect anchorage in the shallow water off the south tip of Boreray, where we went ashore for a few hours of exploration.

Boreray Arrival
Boreray had a population of almost 200 in the 1840s, but by 1923 only one family remained. (Its current population is one.) Once ashore we made a circular walk around Loch Mor, which nearly divides the island in half.

Loch Mor
It was hard and slow going over the boulders that make up the large storm beach that divides Loch Mor from the sea.

Across the stone beach between Loch Mor and the sea
Loch Mor (right)
We then made our way to the main settlement site on the east side of the island, where I was saddened to see that the Boreray church, which dates to the 1880s, is in even sadder shape than when I visited in 2010. With the roof gone, it won't be long until the gables collapse.

Boreray Church - 2016
Boreray Church - 2010
South of the settlement, and above the beach where we landed, stood a large cluster of earthen mounds. They are known as Cladh na Mhanaich (The Monk's burial Ground). Per Martin Martin, writing in 1695, it is where all the monk's who worked north of Eigg were buried; a fascinating possibility, and it seems odd to me that there has never been any archaeological excavations here to determine exactly what lies inside these mysterious mounds.

Cladh na Mhanaich
Next to the Monk's Field lie the ruins of a large village, photographed by Erskine Beveridge in 1904 (second photo below).

Boreray Village - 2016
Boreray Village - 1904 (Photo: Erskine Beveridge)
Our time on Boreray was up, and we returned to Hjalmar Bjorge to spend the night. In the morning we set off east through the sound of Harris, passing Rodel and Scalpay as we made our way the 30 miles to the Shiants.

Rodel - church tower at centre
The sea and wind at the Shiants was from the north, which ruled out anchoring in the large bay between the islands. That was a disappointment, at it is the best place to see the hundreds of thousands of puffins that continually fly out to the Minch from their burrows on Garbh Eilean and Eilean Mhuire. And so we had to settle for an anchorage on the west side of the isthmus between Eilean Tighe and Garbh Eilean. As we anchored we watched a two-masted schooner try, and fail, to anchor on the east side.

The schooner attempting to anchor
After anchoring we loaded into the inflatable and went to see if we could get ashore. But the swell and tide were such that we could not find a safe place to land that would also be safe for an uplift later on. As we were looking for a landing I did get onto some rocks off Eilean Tighe, and managed to slowly get ashore near the house on Eilean Tighe. But it was far too slippy and unsafe, and so I was soon back aboard the inflatable. That attempt did allow me to set a record for what may be the shortest visit to the Shiants (three minutes). So we settled in for the night, hoping that conditions would calm overnight.

The next morning was calm and sunny, and so we motored around the giant basalt cliffs of garbh Eilean to drop anchor in the bay between the islands. 

Cliffs of Garbh Eilean
We were only a quarter mile from our last anchorage, on the other side of the isthmus, but what a difference it made. We were now in Puffin country, thousands soaring overhead and paddling on the sea. (See the September 21, 2013 post for a video of the puffin colony on Garbh Eilean.)

We all went ashore on Eilean Tighe to make a tour around the house (built for Compton Mackenzie) and the Iron Age farmstead above it.

Hiking up to the Iron Age farm
Iron Age farm (left)
While up on the summit of the island we saw the Hebridean Princess come into the bay. How dare they invade our private anchorage! But they stayed for only 20 minutes, time to give their passengers a brief taste of the puffins, before moving on.

The Hebridean Princess - now you see her...
Now you don't
While hiking around the island we saw quite a few rat traps, and occasionally we spotted some of the 'rat-hunters' staying on the island, as they walked around to check the traps. They had posted signs saying the Shiants are now thought to be rat-free, and we did not see any.

Looking down to the isthmus between Garbh Eilean and Eilean Tighe
Under sunny skies we then raised anchor and set off for our final destination of the cruise: the Small Isles. I knew we'd have time to see Canna and Eigg, but what I did not know was that we'd set foot on all four of the Small Isles.