Friday, October 28, 2016

'Island' Cemetery - Loch Katrine

Writing the last post about the Magregors buried on Inchcailloch reminded me of another MacGregor burial ground 12 miles away in Loch Katrine. And yes, I did say 'in' Loch Katrine. 

Portnellen burial ground in Loch Katrine
In the 1800s Loch Katrine was dammed to provide water for Glasgow. In 1922 the water level was raised again, which meant the old burial ground at Portnellen would be submerged. Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, in his Book Wild Drumalbain (1927), has this to say about how the burial ground was protected from the rising waters:

The commissioners were bound to erect, previous to raising the level of Loch Katrine, a substantial stone wall around the burying-ground, on the identical site of the then existing wall... and prior to the raising of the level of the loch, they were required to raise the level of the ground within the said wall, and for a distance of 12 feet outside the same, to a height not less than six feet above the existing level, placing any gravestones in the same positions relatively to the raised surface, as they had occupied with reference to the original surface.

In 1993 my wife and I made the five-mile hike from Stronachlachar to Portnellen to see this 'island' cemetery in Loch Katrine. After walking across the narrow causeway we found about a dozen tombstones. None of the inscriptions were readable, but they are said to date to between 1699 and 1800.

Tombstones in the 'waterproof' enclosure
These tombstones lie some six feet above the actual graves - six feet of solid concrete. Alasdair Alpin wrote humorously write about this in Somewhere in Scotland (1935):

...the MacGregors buried there will require to be hefty fellows when Gabriel sounds the reveille, if they expect to break through the tons of cement which the Glasgow bailies have placed over and around their tombs by the shores of Loch Katrine.

See this CANMORE page for more on the 'island' burial ground at Portnellan.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Grey Stone of Inchcailloch

In the ancient burial ground on Inchcailloch (Loch Lomond) you'll find many old tombstones. One of them stands out historically. Known as the Grey Stane of Inchcailloch, it marks the grave of Gregor MacGregor, cousin to Rob Roy, and 15th Chief of Clan Gregor, who died in 1693.

The Grey Stane of Inchcailleach
This stone is sacred to the Macgregors. Sir Walter Scott used it in his novel Rob Roy, where Rob gives a guarantee of good faith with the oath: "I swear to ye upon the halidome of him that sleeps beneath the grey stane of Inchcailloch."

In his book Vanished Waters, Alasdair Alpin MacGregor describes how his father (the Colonel) taught him the importance of the stone:

    "Swear by the Grey Stane on Inch Cailleach!" the Colonel would command, when disciplining us in matters of truthfulness and honour. This ancient emblem of the Macgregors meant much more to him than did the historic Black Stone of Iona, upon which the most sacred and binding oaths were taken in olden times.
    One day he took me, as on a pilgrimage, to see the Grey Stane. We travelled Loch Lomond by steamer from Balloch to Balmaha. There we disembarked, and, hiring a rowing boat, ferried ourselves across to Inch Cailleach, the Isle of Old Women - the Nuns. Through long grass we went, following a path among dense and hoary woodlands. And there, sure enough, in a clearing just by the gate of an old Macgregor burial-place, in the heart of the Isle, was the Grey Stane itself. The occasion was one of great interest to us both; but I could see from my father's demeanour that, for him, it was a solemn moment.

MacGregor goes on to say, in his book Islands by the Score, that "In the Highland home of childhood and boyhood, one was called upon to swear by this ancient MacGregor emblem, rather than upon the Bible."

Burial ground of Inchcailloch
The stone
Like Alasdair Alpin Macgregor and his father, most visitors these days make their way to Inchcailloch via Balmaha, where you can hire a boat at Macfarlane's Boatyard, or take one of their regular foot-ferry crossings. You can find a guide to Inchcailloch here.

Inchcailloch ferrry
Inchcailloch seen from Balmaha

The view on an overcast day from the summit of Inchcailloch

Friday, October 21, 2016

Gleann Mor of St Kilda

It takes a lot of time and effort to visit the most remote and, to me, the most interesting, part of St Kilda: Gleann Mor.  A visit to the glen can take four to five hours, which allows for spending a couple of hours in the glen to visit all its amazing ruins and make the descent to Tunnel Cave. Day trips to Kilda just barely allow time to make this long trek, so the best way to see Gleann Mor without having to hurry is to visit the island on a cruise that allows at least a full day ashore.

The typical route to the glen first involves climbing 800 feet to the saddle below Mullach Sgar. From there you can descend directly into the glen. But since you've gone to the effort of climbing so high, before descending into Gleann Mor I'd suggest strolling to the northwest along the ridge to Mullach Bi and pay a visit to the Lover's Stone.

Gleann Mor seen from near Mullach Bi
Descending into Gleann Mor
Like many areas on Kilda, Gleann Mor is bonxie country. So as you walk down the glen be prepared for a surprise attack from behind.

Bonxie on the attack
Along the way down you will also come across pieces of the Sunderland flying-boat that crashed here the day after D-Day in 1944.

Flying-boat remains in Gleann Mor
The ancient ruins in Gleann Mor are astounding. Over a dozen sets of beehive cells, some linked together with odd, horn-shaped forecourts. No one knows for certain how old these things are, but some may date back as far as the 4th century. The most complex cluster is what's known as the Amazon's House (see this CANMORE page for more). 

Clusters of ruins in Gleann Mor
Horned structure
Soay sheep mowing the lawn of Glenn Mor
No visit to Gleann Mor is complete without making the descent to Tunnel Cave. At the tip of the cliff on the east shore of the bay you will find a natural ledge that leads down to the sea, and the entrance to the cave. (You can see the sloping ledge in the next photo.) The last bit of the descent can be slippy, so be careful. Once in the cave you can walk to its far end where there is a great view over to Boreray.

The sloping ledge down to Tunnel Cave
Boreray seen from the tunnel
From the tunnel you have your work cut out for you to return to Village Bay. The saddle below Mullach Sgar is a mile to the south (and 800 feet up). Alternately you can climb directly SE up the ridge to Mullach Mor, and then on to the top of Conachair. That route is only three-quarters of a mile as the gannet flies, but has 1234 feet of elevation gain. Either way can be tough going through thick grass and attacking bonxies. The climb up Conachair is one you'll remember for a long time; especially the view from the top down to Village Bay on one side, and Boreray on the other.

If you do make the effort to walk to Gleann Mor, chances are you'll have it mostly to yourself. My last visit there was in 2015. Five day-boats and three cruise ships were in village bay. A hundred visitors were ashore, but when I was in Gleann Mor I only saw one other person.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Cave of St Molaise

Over the years several islands first captured my attention by something written on the OS map. Something so unusual that it led me to do some research and, in the end, pay a visit to the place marked on the map. Two examples of this are the 'Incised Cross and Well' marked at Aird a Mhorain on North Uist, and 'St Bey's Tomb & Chapel' marked in the interior of Little Cumbrae. 

Another example is what first intrigued me about Holy Island; a note on the map that marked a spot on its west coast that said St Molaise's Cave & Table. Now there are many saint's caves sprinkled about the islands, but the mention of a saint's table was unusual. And so I had to see for myself this cave with furniture. Two weeks ago I posted photos of St Molaise's Table (AKA The Judgement Stone - see the Oct 1 post). The table was strange enough, but the cave was more interesting.

St Molaise's Cave
St Molaise occupied the cave in the early 7th century (he was also known as St Laisren - the flame). In the years since then the stone wall that protected his hermitage from the elements (and the midges) collapsed, and the cave was mostly buried. It was excavated in 1908, and what they found, in this cave carved out of the sandstone cliffs by the sea, is more a grotto than a cave. Measuring 40 by 13 feet, it was paved with stones set above a drain chiseled into the bedrock. At one end there was a fireplace, and several crosses are carved in the wall, so this cave was half dwelling, half oratory.

St Molaise also had fresh water, as just below the cave the clear waters of a spring fill a small pool. 

The well of St Molaise
St Molaise was the grandson of Aedan mac Gabrain, who was ordained king of Dalriada by St Columba in 574 AD. St Molaise also had connections to two other island saints: his uncle was St Blane of Arran (see the October 13, 2014 post), and he was educated in his youth by St Munnu of Eilean Munde (see book 1, chapter 23). After his hermitage time on Holy Island Molaise made two visits to Rome, and eventually became Abbot of the monastery of Old Leighin (50 miles SW of Dublin).

Steps into the cave
As I mentioned earlier, it was just a wee note on the map of Holy Island that read 'St Molaise's Cave & Table' that sparked my interest in the island. A small note that paid big dividends, leading me to learn the story of St Molaise and pay a visit to his hermitage island.

If you are interested in learning more about St Molaise, an excellent book is Molaise: Abbot of Leighlin and Hermit of Holy Island (Colum Kenny, 1998).  For information on visiting Holy Island see the Holy Island website.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Scenes from atop Holy Island

Here are a few of the sights that you can see if you ever climb Mullach Mor, the tip-top of Holy Island. I chose to climb it from the north end of the island, which means first getting to the top of Mullach Beg (807 ft). On the way up the view gradually opens up to encompass the Buddhist settlement on the shore below, and the village of Lamlash over on Arran.

Lamlash seen on the ascent of Mullach Beg
Buddhist settlement and pier in 2002 - it's grown a bit since then
Summit cairn of Mullach Beg - Lamlash in the distance
From the top of Mullach Beg a short descent of about 100 feet takes you to the saddle between it and Mullach Mor. From there an easy ascent of some 300 feet leads to the top of Mullach Mor, at 1030 feet, the highest point on the island.

Looking back to Mullach Beg from Mullach Mor
Trig pillar atop Mullach Mor
The whole of the Firth of Clyde opens up from the top. This next view shows the Inner Light, which is now a retreat centre. If you are lucky (as I was) you will encounter the herd of Eriskay ponies that run wild on the island

Inner Light - and Eriskay Ponies
More ponies
Also to be seen are the wild Saanen goats that roam the island.

Wild goats
A Saanen goat
On arrival at the island the colorfully dressed warden told me to be careful descending the south side of Mullach Mor, as the heather hides deep crevasses in the stone. They had helpfully strung up some ropes to mark a safe route down the hill.

The safe way down
On the way down I had to stop to take a photo of the beautiful house where the Lama Yeshe Losal stays when he visits the island. I would love to see inside, but I gave it, and the lighthouse retreat centre, a wide berth as I made my way down the hill.

The Inner Light and the house of Lama Yeshe Losal
Next time we'll pay a visit to the heart of Holy Island, the cave of St Molaise.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Judgement Stone

On Holy Island, in the Firth of Clyde, there lies a large, and very strange, carved stone. It is flat-topped, seven feet high, seven across, and lies just below the cave of St. Molaise on the western shore of the island. A ring-topped cross is carved on the side, along with steps that allow you to easily climb to the top. But what's really odd are what look like seats, carved around its top.

The Holy Island stone - two of the 'seats' visible
This strange stone has four names: Pulpit Rock, St Molaise's Table, the Saint's Chair, and the Judgement Stone. Each name implying a different purpose. Another interesting thing is that lying at its base is a stone font. About 100 years ago vandals threw the font onto the beach, but it has since been put back in place.

The font of the Judgement Stone
So what was this stone?  Was it St Molaise's pulpit rock?  Did he use it as a table to dine?  Did he sit there to enjoy the view?  Or did he stand on it as a judge, determining the fate of accused sinners sitting in the seats, or the suitability of those seeking the priesthood?  Or could it have been the base for a shrine or cross, and the 'seats' places to set offerings?  Unfortunately no one will ever know the purpose of this mysterious thing. If what's carved on the stone are seats, they're not comfortable ones. I could not stay seated without using my feet to prop me in place.

Whatever it was used for, the stone is part of a ritual landscape; nearby are St Molaise's cave and holy well. See this PSAS page for more on the relics of Holy Island.