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.

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