Sunday, September 24, 2017

Shieling of the No Night

In the July 28th post I described spending a night in a (mostly) intact shieling; one that had provided good shelter for a wet hiker on a stormy Hebridean night. The next day, as I was hiking out to Pairc Shiabost, I came across another, and very similar shieling, at Gearraidh Rahacleit.




From the outside the structure looked to be in good shape, its turf covered roof seemingly intact. But a peek inside the door revealed that the ground inside was a swamp. The shieling's timber and turf roof had half collapsed. And I realized then just how lucky I'd been to find decent shelter the previous evening.



In one corner there was a small section of ground just barely above the muck. On it lay a moldering sleeping bag; one that looked like it had been rotting away for several years. There was also a scattering of old utensils; an overturned teapot, and a colorful child's thermos bottle: signs of better times.






From the ruined shieling, above the shores of Loch Rahacleit, it was only a mile's walk north to the water works and the track to Pairc Shiaboist.




With some love, the shieling at Gearradh Rahacleit could be made livable. But it would take a lot of love. So for now, it is an Airidh na Neoni Oidche, a shieling of the no night. (I apologize to my Gaelic friends if I got that wrong).

Shieling of the No Night

Monday, September 18, 2017

Shieling of the One Night

In the Nov 11, 2014 post I wrote that I'd yet to visit an Airidh na h-aon Oidche; a shieling of the one night. So when I was on Lewis in July I decided that the time had come to visit one. The 'one night' typically refers to some scary incident, or how someone died, on the first night a shieling was occupied, and that no one ever stayed there again. See this link for one such story. Another, and more prosaic possibility, is that they got the name because they were halfway houses of a sort. When the community had to travel more than one day to reach their shielings they'd spend a night at one of these in-between shelters. 

The one night shieling on Lewis I decided to visit lies at NB 01971 28500, two miles northeast of Ishlibhig. I first learned of it from an article in the Uig News by Dave Roberts, that you can find on this Comman Eachdraidh Uig web-page.

Mealaisbhal seen from the walk
Visiting the Ishlibhig one-night shieling would be an interesting side trip to a climb of Mealaisbhal, at almost 1900 feet the highest hill on Lewis. But I was about to set out on a three-day hike, so I decided to save my legs and just make the short walk out and back to the shieling.

It is easy to find. All you have to do is park your car near the bridge over the Allt na Gile, a mile north of Ishlibhig. From there, 45 minutes walking due east through soft, grassy terrain, leads to the site.

Looking to the northwest from the one night shieling
There are two ruined shielings here, separated by about 50 metres. I believe the easternmost is the one night shieling. As you can see from the photos, it is a beautiful location. And so I have to disagree with the description in the article referenced above that it's 'not very inviting'. The sea is visible, as are the Flannan Isles, 20 miles off to the west.

Flannans on the horizon


There are quite a few one night shielings in the islands: Benbecula's is a mile southeast of the Market Stance, North Uist has one near the air ambulance memorial at Clachan an Luib, and Raasay's is a half-mile east of Torran. There is also another on Lewis, four miles east of Carloway (see this CANMORE page).

The Ishlibhig site has a great view north over Loch na Faoirbh, and beyond it you can see the Hamanavay track winding its way across the moorland. See the February 17, 2015 post for a description of walking the Hamanavay track.

Looking north - Hamanavay track in the middle distance



Loch Druim Grunavat, the St Kilda visitors centre site, and the Flannans seen from the walk to the one night shieling
For more (but not much) on the Ishlibhig one night shieling see this CANMORE page. Next time I am on Lewis I think I'll camp (for one night, anyway) at Airidh na h-aon Oidche. And if I hear any strange noises in the night, it'll be a short scamper back to the safety of the car. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

St Kilda Visitors Centre

In July I paid a visit to the site in Uig (Lewis) where they are going to build the St Kilda Visitors Centre. It lies on the clifftop a mile north of Islibhig. In WWII the site was home to an aircraft detection radar base, one of a whole system of stations built across the country with the code name Chain Home. You can read about the Islibhig station on this CANMORE page.


These old abandoned radar sites dot the Long Isle. Another station was just down the road at Mealasta, and there were ones on the Eye Penninsula, at Cross and Eorodale near Ness, and above Rodel on the south tip of Harris.


I do not know if they are going to incorporate any of the old radar buildings into the new centre, but they are substantial structures, and demolition would not be trivial. The site has a magnificent view over the sea, and north to the dramatic Mangursta cliffs.


On a clear day, St Kilda, 60 miles to the southwest, is just visible from the site. (If it was another five miles away it would be below the horizon.) When I was there low lying clouds blocked any view of Kilda, but what was visible, only 20 miles to the northwest, were the Seven Hunters, the Flannan Isles. I hope the centre will include something on the Flannans, as they are visible from the site, and the infamous lighthouse would be clearly seen through a telescope. In the following photo (not zoomed), you can just see the Flannans on the horizon (above the boulder to the left of the building). The photo after that is a zoomed in shot.



For more on the future St Kilda Centre see their website at ionadhiort.org. I look forward to visiting the centre when it opens. I'm not sure what admission will cost, but my visit to the site cost a lot. After seeing it I drove south through Ishlibhig and Brenish to road's end at Mealasta. Along the way there is a wide gap running completely across the road. I hit it doing about 30 mph and ruptured a front tire, causing £200 worth of damage. (Fortunately insurance covered it.) If you visit the area, be sure to drive very, very slow.

That said, the drive down this road is pure magic. At its end there is a magnificent view over to Mealasta Island. Mealasta is in a very exposed position, so you need calm seas (and calm wind) to land. It's one of those islands that has eluded me over the years. Five failed attempts so far, but I hope to try again, someday. 

Mealasta Island

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Dunscaith Revisited

I had only visited Dunscaith Castle once, way back in 1997 (see chapter 1 of book 2). So when I was on Skye in July I decided that the time had come to see it again. From our hotel in Isleornsay I drove the A851 south. After paying a visit to haunted Loch nan Dùbhrachan (see the Sept 2, 2017 post), I took the minor road west to Ord.

Just before reaching the sea I parked the car and walked over to take some photos of Ord House. My wife and I stayed there in 1992 when it was operated as a hotel (see this link). The house, which dates to 1750, gained some fame when Alexander Smith wrote about staying there in his book A Summer in Skye (1865).

I count myself lucky to have stayed there, because it was not a hotel for much longer. It must have been hard to make a go of it in this out of the way place. I remember sitting in the lounge, reading, when the owner came in and shut off all but one light. 


Another two miles down the road I parked near a sign marking the start of the path to Dunscaith Castle.


It is an easy quarter-mile walk out the headland. After clambering around a few boulders you come to the remnant of an old track that ends at a small gully. The gully separates the castle rock from the mainland, and was once spanned by the infamous bridge of the cliff.


Dunscaith was the Dun Sgathaich of the Red Branch sagas, where Cuchulainn came to learn the art of arms. It was not easy for him to get here, as the castle was surrounded by seven ramparts and a palisade topped with spiked heads. Even if he made it through all that, there was one last obstacle, a bridge that crossed a pit of snakes and beaked toads. This was the Bridge of the Cliff; said to grow narrower, shorter, steeper, and slipperier with every step. After three failed attempts to cross, Cuchulainn performed the salmon-leap, jumping high in the air and sliding down the far side of the bridge.

Crossing what's left of the current bridge is not as death defying. But there is still a gap to cross, as the drawbridge is missing. The two arched walls that supported it remain, and there are narrow ledges on the inside of each wall where the drawbridge rested.




To get across I carefully placed my toes on a ledge and side-stepped across. When I crossed the bridge in 1997 there were several hungry sheep on the rocks below. One fatal miss-step and I’d have fallen into their waiting jaws. But there were no sheep, hungry snakes, or beaked toads around when I was there in July, and it was an easy crossing. Once over the bridge a short stairway leads to the top of the rock. 


It was here that Cuchulainn learned the various feats of combat from Queen Scathach: the spear-feat, the rope-feat, the apple-feat, the thunder-feat, and the cat-feat. Some of these feats involved the throwing of special spears grasped between the toes. It must have been quite a sight seeing warriors jumping in the air and flinging heavy spears with their feet; something that would put the fear of God in any opponent.

Aside from its walls there is not much left of the castle itself, just a space of about 5000 square feet of low foundations overgrown with grass and nettles. 


It may be possible that a fort on a small island called Eilean Ruairidh, 700 feet offshore from Dunscaith, was the actual stronghold of Queen Scathach. If so, the bridge of the cliff was a very long one. You can see the island in the following photos taken from underneath the bridge. (For more on Eilean Ruairidh see this CANMORE Page.)



The castle you see today probably dates to the 13th century, when the Macleods appointed the Mackaskill's of Rubha Dunain as keepers. Two hundred years later Dunscaith was the main seat of the MacDonalds of Skye. They moved north to more spacious quarters at Duntulm Castle in the 17th century, but would return to Sleat (Armadale) in 1800.

A visit to Dunscaith is an easy day out to see an historic site. What with all the health and safety stuff these days it is unusual that there are no 'Keep Out' signs, like those you'll find at the ruins of Duntulm. But do be careful when crossing the bridge, one miss-step and you may end up like Ragnar; a snack for some hungry snakes.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Water-Horse of Dùbhrachan

When I was on Skye in July (sounds like the start of a bad poem) I paid a visit to Loch nan Dùbhrachan. I went there because of a book I found on Iona 25 years ago: Alasdair Alpin MacGregor's Somewhere in Scotland, first published in 1935.


Chapter 7 of the book is entitled The Ancient Highway to Skye. In it, MacGregor relates an interview with a man named John MacRae who, at the time, lived in Glenelg. The subject of the interview was the each-uisge, the water-horse, of Loch nan Dùbhrachan.

MacRae lived as a child on Isle Ornsay in 1870, and was present during an attempt to capture the water-horse. In the words of John MacRae (quoting directly from Somewhere in Scotland):

"A cattleman and his wife came to (Loch nan Dubhrachan) to cut rushes to thatch. They sat down to take a rest, and the man observed a small, black object on the shore of the loch. So he went down. As he neared, the beast swam out with his head below water, putting little waves ashore."

"You may be sure the people was terrified. They were certain it was the each-uisge. Lord MacDonald said he would dredge the loch - trawl it like, for the monster. Well, he got all his gillies and gamekeepers out one day with a big net. And they started walking along opposite sides of the loch like, dragging the net after them."

"I saw the thing myself. I was a boy going to school. We got a holiday that day. Well, we were all watching carefully when the net got stuck, and all the gillies got the fear of death on them. So they just dropped the net, and ran back from the loch. A whilie after they commenced again; and after a whilie the net came away on a sudden. Well, then, they pulled it in like, afraid all the time what would be in the net. There was nothing in the net at the finish but some mud and two small pikes."

Haunted lochs almost always seem to be in remote, hard to get to spots. But that's not the case for Loch nan Dùbhrachan (the name means black-braes loch). It lies right next to the A851, three miles north of the Gaelic college Sabhal Mor Ostaig. The loch is impossible to miss. It has its own sign, which is unusual, and its own parking area.


A short, grassy walk of 30 seconds leads down to the lochside. It is a large loch, about 500 feet wide. (Lord MacDonald must have had a very large net.) It was quiet, the only sounds that of the wind fanning the grass and driving low ripples across the loch. I was about to leave when I was startled by a loud plop. Was the monster on the attack?  No. Just a fish jumping to catch a bug. Yea! one less midge to worry about. A few minutes later I returned to the car to head to my next destination: the castle of Dunscaith, where Cuchulain learned to throw spears with his toes. 


Next time you're on Skye take a few minutes to visit the the Loch of the Black Braes. Take a packed lunch with you, walk down to the shore, have a seat, and while you're eating think what fun it must have been for all those school children 147 years ago. Off for the day, watching all the gillies dredge the loch, and then see them run scared when the net snags. But while you're eating, be sure keep an eye on the loch. You don't want to be lunch, yourself. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Walk to Isle Ornsay

One by one, over the years, I've made a point to visit sites associated with Gavin Maxwell. My interest dates back nearly 50 years to the movie Ring of Bright Water. The movie made quite an impression on me when I saw it at age 12 in the Orpheum Theatre in Seattle.


The first Maxwell site I visited was in 2008, when I set foot on the island of Soay (near Skye), where he had his shark-oil factory (see the December 17, 2016 post). The story of the shark fishery is told in his first book Harpoon at a Venture (1952).



Soay
My next Maxwell pilgrimage was to Eilean Bhan, the lighthouse island now under the Skye Bridge, that Maxwell owned for a while (see the July 18, 2013 post). Of all the Maxwell sites, Eilean Bhan is the easiest to visit, as there are regular tours. On the tour you will be able to see inside the cottage, climb the lighthouse, visit a beautiful wildlife hide, and see Teko's memorial stone.

View from the top of Eilean Bhan lighthouse

Teko's memorial stone
Of course the premiere Maxwell pilgrimage site is Sandaig, a small bay south of Eilean Bhan, and the site of his Camusfearna. I made the hike there last year (see the August 30, 2016 post).  A memorial to Maxwell lies on the site of his house, which burned in 1968. Under some nearby trees is Edal's memorial, the Ring of Bright Water otter that died in the fire.



There was still one remaining Maxwell site I wanted to see; so before heading to the Western Isles last July my wife and I spent a few days at the Eilean Iarmain Hotel on Skye. On the first full day, which was overcast with occasional rain showers, I checked the tide tables. Low water was at 4pm, and so at 2pm I left the hotel to walk a short way to the shore. Off to the east lay my destination: the lighthouse of Isle Ornsay. Along with the cottages on Eilean Bhan, five miles to the northeast, Maxwell bought the Ornsay cottages in 1961 (some sources say 1966).


The tide flats were a bit muddy, but very walkable if I kept close to the shore. The total distance to the lighthouse is a mile, and the halfway point is the island of Ornsay. The lighthouse is actually on yet another tidal island, Eilean Sionnaich, which means either fox or seagull island. I would guess the latter definition is correct, as there were no foxes around, but there were plenty of gulls wheeling high overhead.

Tide flats to Isle Ornsay (at left)
Low tide crossing to Eilean Sionnaich
A curious set of seahorse-balustrades topped the seawall that guards the tidal track up to the island. (Or maybe they're water-horses?)


Just above the seawall lay the forlorn walled garden. A garden of grass and weeds; it's been a long time since any crops have been cultivated here.


Between the garden and the lighthouse stood the two side by side cottages. Maxwell's intent for the cottages, as well as those on Eilean Bhan, is summarized in this excerpt from Richard Frere's excellent book Maxwell's Ghost:  'His idea was to renovate his purchases and, using their splendid wild situations and his well-known name as joint inducements, let them to the public at enormous rents.'


As described in Frere's book, the Isle Ornsay cottages were refurbished and let out to holiday makers during Maxwell's ownership. These days the cottages are private residences for the Sedgwicks. They are fortunate to have a place like this. In an area busy with tourists a more isolated place would be hard to find. (Except for the occasional nosy hiker passing by.)



There was no one in residence when I visited. Which was for the best, as I would not have gone near the cottages if anyone was there. For that matter, I'd have felt awkward even passing near them to see the lighthouse. Set next to the cottages is a beautiful memorial stone to the actress Paulita Sedgwick.




Just beyond the cottages a walkway leads to the lighthouse. On 10 November 1857, both this light, and the one on Eilean Bhan, became operational. Keepers lived here until automation came in the early 1960s.



I enjoyed a snack before crossing back across the still dry shingle beach to Isle Ornsay. Before continuing I took a look at the map, and noticed there was a burial ground and chapel site on the nearby slopes of Isle Ornsay. I love finding these old chapels, and since the tide was still out I had time to look for it.

Once on Ornsay I made my way across a soggy field carpeted with tall grass. Since you can not see the ground, it can be treacherous to cross this kind of terrain. So I slowly made my way to a gate in a fence; a wire fence that seemed to encircle the whole island. Greeting me at the gate was a sign, its red letters not specifically saying 'KEEP OUT', but words to that effect: 'Please respect the privacy of the owner, and keep to the shore side of the fence.'


I would indeed respect their privacy by avoiding any houses. But I had every right to look for the old burial ground and chapel. So I climbed the fence and hiked up the grassy hillside. There was no trace of a chapel ruin that was seen here in 1928, but I knew I was in the right place because of a large, worn tombstone, on a level site that looked over to the lighthouse. (See this CANMORE page for more on the chapel that once stood here.)


It was a beautiful spot, and the owners have done a wonderful job of landscaping.


After enjoying this lovely place for a while I headed back to the shore to follow a meager path to the tidal crossing. The return to Skye was as messy as the walk out, as the route is half on gravel, half on mud flats. Even so, I meandered a little, taking time to explore two small islets before the tide isolated them. Along the way there were good views over to the hotel - the pub looked especially inviting.


After changing out of my muddy pants my wife and I enjoyed an excellent meal at the pub. After that we walked to the shore below the hotel. The tide was high, and Eilean Sionnaich was, once again, an island; its tower lit to a brilliant white by the setting sun.