Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Blackmill Bay - Luing

Blackmill Bay, on the southwest corner of Luing, is a shadow of its former self. It was once a busy port, but all you will find there today are the crumbling remains of its old pier and ticket office, and a quiet B&B. (The ticket office is on the buildings at risk website.) It would be interesting to have seen Blackmill in its heyday, when livestock, slate, passengers, and goods passed through here on the way to (or from) Oban or Glasgow. 

Ticket office - Blackmill Bay
Decades ago Blackmill, and nearby Cullipool, were the place to go to seek out a fisherman to take you to Scarba, Lunga, and the Garvellachs. As you can see in the photos, my visit to Blackmill last May was on a wet, grey, and windy day. The place felt, and looked, desolate.

Just to the north of the old rotting pier they've constructed a modern stone breakwater. And behind it a solitary boat bobbed on the swells. Maybe the owner would take you to Scarba or Lunga if you ask.
Jetty at Blackmill Bay
You can see a photo of the pier in its better days on this CANMORE page, and an old photo of the ticket office on this CANMORE page. There is a B&B at Blackmill called The Gorsten that looked like a great place to stay if you wanted a quiet place to get away from it all on a Scottish island.

Blackmill Bay

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Atop South Lee

At 922 feet, South Lee is the second highest mountain on North Uist. The highest, at 1138 feet, is Eaval, which lies three miles to the south. Both Eaval and South Lee are hard nuts to crack, as getting to them requires many long miles of bog-hopping. But they are worth the long march in. 

Here are some photos I took from the top of South Lee a year ago. When seen from above, the countless lochs that dot the interior are an amazing sight. And every time I see them they remind me of that fantastic scene in 2001: A Space Oddessy. The scene where Dave Bowman enters the star gate and is flung though the universe; traversing strange planetary terrains, multi-colored terrains; psychedelically altered images of the lochs of Uist.

Lochmaddy seen from South Lee
Lochmaddy (left) and North Lee (right)
Causewayed island forts in Loch Hunder
Looking west across Loch Hunder
Looking to Eaval from South Lee
The mouth of Loch Eport seen from the eastern slopes of South Lee
Looking south to Loch Eport and Eaval

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Monks' Field - Boreray

Cladh Mhanaich, the Monks Burial Ground, is an enigmatic place. It is found on the island of Boreray, in the Sound of Harris, and is usually referred to as 'The Monks' Field'. It is a large tract of ground, dotted with a dozen or more large mounds. Aside from the mounds, any obvious signs it had been a cemetery were destroyed when the area was cultivated, long after its use as a burial ground.

Mounds on the Monks' Field 
Erskine Beveridge reported seeing a crossed marked stone here, along with two cup-marked stones. You can see a drawing of the cross-stone on the CANMORE page referenced below, but on my two visits to Boreray I was unable to find it. But I was able to find one of the cup-marked stones, which also had a deep font chiseled in it.

Cup-marked stone & font
It is odd that no excavations of the mysterious mounds has been done, as it would be interesting to know if there are any remains to be found. It was Martin Martin, writing in 1695, who reported that:

The burial place is called the Monks-Field, for all the monks that dyed in the islands north of Egg. Each grave has a stone at both ends, some of which are 3 and others 4 foot high. There are big stones without the burial place, several have little vacuities in them as if made by art; the tradition is, that these vacuities were dug for receiving the monks knees, when they prayed upon them.

Martin’s report has an interesting interpretation of the cup-marked stones - the vacuities being made to receive the knees of kneeling monks. The two 'vacuities' can be seen in the above photo (my knees fit perfectly - maybe I was a monk in a previous life).

The Monks' Field
The people of Boreray did not make use of the Monks' Field for burials. They chose a patch of holy ground on Aird a' Mhorain, a mile away on the shore of North Uist.

Cemetery at Aird a' Mhorain
Boreray is a beautiful, peaceful island; covered in short grass that makes for easy walking. It also has spectacular views over the Sound of Harris. Speaking of those views, on my first visit, several years ago, I saw an amazing sight. Far off on the western horizon was Boreray of St Kilda - I was seeing Boreray from Boreray. During my second visit, last May, the sky was hazy, and Kilda was not visible.

Boreray seen from Boreray (Hirta on left - Boreray on right)
See this CANMORE page for more on Cladh Mhanaich.

Looking to Boreray village from the Monk's Field

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich

Some places shout out to be visited when you see their name on a map. One such place, in the Lewis interior, is Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich, which means something like the shieling of the cow of Murchie's daughter. I was already planning a long-distance hike from Morsgail to the Ardveg, and so I decided that along the way I'd pay a visit to this place with the long, and charming name, once occupied by Murchie's daughter (and her cow).

Route - Morsgail to the Ardveg
Before setting out I contacted the gamekeepers for the Morsgail and Uig estates (it was August, and there might be deer-stalking activity). They told me no hunts were on during the days I'd be hiking, and so early on a Monday morning I set out along the track to Morsgail Lodge.

Fifteen minutes after setting out, while still on the tarmac track to Morsgail, Malcolm, the Morsgail keeper, drove up. He told me I could take a shortcut past his house near Morsgail lodge. This saved a hard mile of bog-hopping, as I had planned to circle around the south side of Loch Morsgail in order to bypass the grounds of the lodge.

Looking back to Morsgail Lodge on the way to Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich
Once out on the moorland west of the lodge, an hour of hiking took me to Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich, where I found five ruined dwellings and a very large animal enclosure.

Shieling structure at Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich
Sadly, there is nothing written about Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich (that I can find, anyway). But it is recorded that the shieling of Tighe Dhubastail, less than a mile to the southwest, was occupied by the people of Crowlista. So perhaps the daughter of Mhurich (and her cow) came from that area.

House ruin at Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich
Another dwelling at Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich
It was a pleasant, pastoral setting. And in any other circumstances it would be a wonderful place to camp. But I'd only just got started, and was hoping to make it as far as the Ardveg, another six miles to the southwest. But before heading on I took some time to look at the massive livestock enclosure. It was quite complex, with two stone barns attached, each with its own passage to the enclosure. This makes me believe that Murchie's daughter (or daughters) must have had more than one cow.

Enclosure at Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich - Harris hills in the distance
Airighean Bo Nighean Mhuirich was a busy place in its day, but aside from the occasional deer-stalker, few people pass by now. From this oasis in the Lewis bogs, I turned south to search out a few more shieling sites shown on the map: Maghannan, Tighe Dhubhastail, and Fidigidh. And if I was lucky, perhaps a few not on the map. 

Inside the enclosure

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Midges Galore

It has been a few years since I've had a really bad experience with midges, so just how bad they can be had faded from memory. And I did not give them a second thought during the first few days of my time on Lewis last month because strong winds were keeping them away. But they were there, hunkered down in the grass, hungrily waiting for things to calm down.

During that time I made a three-day trek from Morsgail to the Ardveg, and then up to Uig. The first evening of the walk I camped in the Ardveg, pitching my tent in the same spot near the old blackhouses where I'd camped in 2001 (see the May 23, 2013 post). As I set up camp, Joe came over to check me out, sticking his big nose into my tent and knocking over my pack. That did not bother me, for Joe is a friendly horse that belongs to the new owners of the Ardveg estate, some 2700 acres that covers the Ardveg and Ardmore peninsulas. 

Joe of the Ardveg
I crawled into the tent around 11pm, after being treated to dinner and drinks by the new owners of Ardveg (an unexpected treat in the back of beyond, and very welcome after eight hours of bog-hopping). A gentle breeze was blowing, and the last thing on my mind were midges. The tent is too small to keep my pack inside, and so I left it out for the night.

In the morning I looked out the tent's mesh screen to see what the weather was like. All I saw was a blur. 'Oh,' I thought to myself, 'things sure look fuzzy, I should put my glasses on.' On went the glasses, and I took another look. 'Uh-oh, things are still blurry.' 

What I was seeing was a thick mass of hovering midges, greedily drawn to my tent by the carbon dioxide venting through the mesh. A vast horde, just waiting for me to come out and play. It's then I realize that I'd made a tactical mistake. My bug net was in my pack, and the pack was... outside .... uh oh...

What to do....  Then I realized there is something useful in the tent. Inside my kit-bag was a bottle of the island-hiker's best friend - no, not Scotch - it's a bottle of full-strength DEET. Now there are certainly better ways to start a day than by smearing yourself with a gallon of insecticide, but that's what I had to do.

Prepared for action, the next step was to retrieve the bug net. I unzipped the tent, stepped out, and started to quickly dig through my pack to find the net. During this time I'm engulfed in a cloud of nasty, thirsty, teeny-tiny bugs. As I find the net a look at my DEET-drenched hands showed them to be covered with a black mass of dying, squirming midges. I also started to notice a tingling, itchy feeling in my scalp, the only exposed area not drenched with DEET. Spurred on by desperation I grabbed the bug-net and dashed uphill to find a spot with a breeze.

With the net on I was prepared to break camp and move on to seek out the beehive cells of the Ardveg. Lesson learned: keep all your defensive midge weapons with you inside the tent. A lesson I learned the hard way.

Note: The story of the walk through Morsgail to the Ardveg is scheduled for the November/December 2016 issue of Scottish Islands Explorer.