Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Sandaig - Ring of Bright Water - Camusfearna

In the November 29, 2015 post I mentioned that my first exposure to Gaelic, and the Hebrides, was in 1969, when my mother took me to see the movie Ring of Bright Water. Many years would pass before I actually read the books of Gavin Maxwell and, many years after that, the three fascinating books about him: The White Island by John-Lister Kaye, Maxwell's Ghost by Richard Frere, and the recently published Island of Dreams by Dan Boothby.   

After re-reading the Bright Water books a few years ago I became obsessed with the idea of visiting the lighthouse island of Eilean Ban, and Sandaig (Maxwell's Camusferna), his house that tragically burned in 1968, killing the otter Edal. Eilean Ban was easy to get to, sitting (somewhat sadly) under the Skye Bridge, and I paid it a visit a few years ago (see the July 18, 2013 post). But Sandaig takes some planning to see. It is fairly remote, a few miles south of the Glenelg ferry to Skye. And so after many years of thinking about it I decided to visit Sandaig on my way to the Western Isles a few weeks ago. Before taking the ferry from Uig out to Harris, my wife and I stayed for a couple of nights at the Tingle Creek Hotel in Erbusaig, a mile or so from the Skye Bridge.

From Erbusaig I set out for the 30 mile drive to Glenelg via Shiel Bridge and the Mam Ratagan Pass. From Glenelg I continued south along the single track for another four miles, parking at the start of a forestry road that led down to the sea.

Start of the track to Sandaig
Any doubt you are in the right spot is helpfully resolved thanks to a sign that says "Ceum Sanndaig - Sandaig Path."

Sandaig - this way
I had directions on how to walk down to Sandaig that I found on the Eilean Ban website. But, as I quickly learned, they were obsolete due to all the timber harvesting on the hillside. And so I just carried on along dusty forest roads that led down to the sea. Maxwell would be saddened with how the area above his beloved bay looks, the trees have been clear-cut and it's an ugly mess.

Clear-cut fields above Sandaig

Once through the devastated hillside you drop down to the still beautiful bay of Sandaig.

The spot where Maxwell's house stood is marked by a large stone. On it is a plaque that reads:

Beneath this stone,
the site of Camusfearna,
are buried the ashes of
b. 15th July 1914, d. 7th September 1969

Memorial Stone -1
Memorial Stone -2
Memorial Stone -3
Under a large tree near the Sandaig burn is another memorial stone that marks where the otter Edal is buried. It reads:

Whatever joy she gave to you, give
back to nature.    GAVIN MAXWELL

Edal's Stone - 1
Edal's Stone - 2
Next to Edal's stone the bright water of the Sandaig burn ran to the sea; an interesting rope bridge spanning the stream. (One walk description I've read says that if you're brave enough to cross the bridge (or ford the river), you can find an alternate way back up the hillside.) After spending a while in this peaceful place, touched by a man whose legacy of books will be immortal, I started back up the hill.

The rope bridge across the bright water of the Sandaig burn
Back at the car I decided to visit the original Sandaig lighthouse. It once stood on Eilean Mor, an island just offshore from Maxwell's house. In 2004 it was replaced by a solar-powered light, and the original moved to the Glenelg ferry. After looking in the mini-lighthouse (which is now a tourist shop) I drove onto the Glenelg turn-table ferry to go over the sea to Skye.

Old Sandaig light at Glenelg ferry
The turn-table ferry to Skye
If you are interested in visiting Sandaig, good directions can be found on the Walk Highlands website.

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