Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Cara's Chapel of St Fionnlugh

My favorite island souvenirs are the little history books about an island that I find on the island. One of these was The Antiquities of Gigha, by the Rev. RSG Anderson. The book has been very popular. Originally published in 1936, a second edition came out three years later. The copy I bought on Gigha in 1992 is a reprint published in 1978.


I had come to Gigha back then to see if I could find someone to take me to the tiny isle of Cara, which lies a half-mile off the south tip of Gigha. I mainly wanted to sit in Cara's famous Brownie's Chair, but Anderson's little history book also led me to spend some time taking a close look at another of Cara's attractions: the chapel of St Fionnlugh; also refereed to in a 17th century document as Cella Sanctissimae Trinitas - the Cell of the Holy Trinity.

The Chapel
The 6th century St Fionnlugh (the fair-haired hero), that the Cara chapel is dedicated to, was associated with a monastery on Eilean Mor, an island in Loch Finnlagan, 20 miles to the northwest on Islay. Saint Fionnlugh was a contemporary of St Columba, and is said to have saved Columba from a spear-wielding assassin on the island of Hinba. Fionnlugh is also known as the Hermit Saint of Islay, and so perhaps when he needed a break from the hustle and bustle of Islay he escaped for a little contemplative R&R on Cara.

Cara House and the Chapel seen from the south
In the 18th century the chapel was used as a kitchen for Cara House, which is only 20 feet away. The house itself dates to the 1730s, and many of the missing stones from the chapel probably form some of the substance of the house.

Cara House and the Chapel seen from the north
Cara is a beautiful name for an island. But it may not have a beautiful derivation. Alasdair Alpin Macgregor, in his Skye and the Inner Hebrides, says the name means corpse, and its profile seen from the mainland does resemble a prone body. Along those lines, TS Muir, writing in 1885, says the locals called it Dead Man Island. But I prefer a different derivation, one I found in a book on place names that says Cara means 'Dear One'. Another similar definition comes from Dwelly's Gaelic Dictonary, which lists C├ára as a Gaelic word for friend. 

If you ever get the chance to go to Cara take it. I found it to be, like its name, a friendly island that likes to be visited.

Cara (looking slightly corpse-ish) seen from Gigha

The boatman awaits - Gigha seen from Cara

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Walk to the Ardveg

The last issue of Scottish Islands Explorer (Nov/Dec 2016) included an abridged article on a walk in August of 2016 from Morsgail to the Ardveg in search of beehive cells and old shielings. For space considerations the article was cut down to 800 words. The full length article, along with several photos not used in the magazine, can now be found on the Ardveg Walk tab.

Joe of the Ardveg

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Soay of Our Forefathers

I love memoirs written by people that grew up on remote Hebridean islands. One good example is Angus Duncan's Memories of Scarp. Another one I recently re-read is Laurance Reed's The Soay of our Forefathers. I first read it in 2006, and during a cruise on the sailboat Zuza in 2008 I had the unexpected pleasure of spending a few hours on Soay. 


Soay was Macleod territory for centuries. But the Macleods left the island in the 1700s. It was resettled in the 1800s, and by 1851 over 150 people called it home. The population gradually declined after that. Gavin Maxwell bought Soay in 1944 where he established his basking shark-oil factory. Maxwell wrote about his shark hunting business in Harpoon at a Venture (1952)Also working the sharks with Maxwell was Tex Geddes, who wrote his own book, Hebridean Sharker, in 1960.


In 1953 most of the population, some 27 people, left the island to live and work in the Craignure area on Mull. Only one family remained: the Geddes, who eventually acquired the island in 1963, and lived in the old Mission Hall (built 1890). They had to sell the island shortly after that, but managed to re-acquire their property on Soay in 1993.

Mission Hall (1890), later the home of Tex Geddes & family
The only full-time residents of Soay these days (that I am aware of) are the Davies, who live in a beautiful house called Ceann a Stigh at the head of Camus nan Gall (Stranger's Bay on the east side of Soay). You can visit Soay on a day trip with Skye Boat Trips, and if you are lucky the skipper will be Oliver Davies of Soay. I was fortunate to meet Oliver on Muck last May (they also do trips to the Small Isles). What follows are a few photos of a beautiful sunny day spent on Soay in 2008. I hope to return someday.

Zuza (and a RIB from Skye) in Soay's Bagh Clann Neill

Ruins of the Shark Factory

Debris filled ruin of the shark-oil factory

Shark factory overlooking Soay harbour

Shark factory building - Fish curing station on ground floor and accommodation for fishermen on upper floor.

Site of the radio-telephone exchange

Phone box (Post Office behind it).
Below is a photo of the school built in 1878 (it was in use until 1950). Some point after that it re-opened, for when Hamish Haswell Smith wrote about Soay in his epic The Scottish Islands it was in use. But when I visited Soay in 2008 it was boarded up.

Boarded up schoolhouse (built 1878, photo 2008)


Ruin on Soay - Skye Cullins in the distance

Camas nan Gall

Thursday, December 8, 2016

2017 Cruise - Only 2 Spots Left

There are only two spaces left on the May 20 Hjalmar Bjorge cruise that I will be guiding through the Outer Isles. We plan on starting with Mingulay, and then work our way north to the Flannans. For more information see the 2017 Cruise tab above, or the Northern Light Cruising Website.

Hjalmar Bjorge at the Shiants
Hjalmar Bjorge at Vatersay

Hjalmar Bjorge in the Sound of Mull

Eilean Mor of the Flannan Isles