Thursday, April 20, 2017

Breacan's Cave

The best island hikes are ones with historic destinations. One of my favorites was around the north of Jura, past a viewpoint of the Corryvreckan whirlpool, and on a wee bit farther to Uamh Bhreacain, Breacan's Cave.

Breacan's Cave


There are several other 'Breacan' place names at the north of Jura. A hill that rises above the cave is Aird Bhreacain (the heights of Breacan), and just offshore swirls the whirlpool of Coire Bhreacain. One of the Gaelic meanings of 'breac' is speckled. So it's possible the place names come from the speckled waters of the whirlpool. A traditional derivation is from Prince Brekan, who is said to have drowned when his fleet was caught in the whirlpool, and was buried in the cave. In its day it was a well defended cave, and remnants of a protective wall still stand.


The cave is 100 feet deep, and it was written in 1700 that there was a tomb and altar in the cave. It was also reported, in the 1800s, that a stone coffin was dug out of the cave, but all it contained was dust. On my first visit to the cave I was hoping to see what was left of the tomb. Once walking 50 feet past the outer wall I came to a giant slab lying on the ground.


The slab looked like it could have covered a grave, or been part of an altar. But a search of the cave floor showed no sign of a dug-out tomb. What was evident is that the cave is a regular shelter for the feral goats that roam the island, as the cave's floor was covered with a thick carpet of goat-pooh.


It was dark and dreary, so I didn't linger long in the pooh-covered cave. Once back outside I made a bad decision to take a shortcut across the island to make a more direct return to the car, which was parked at road's end on the other side of the island. That shortcut crosses the notch in the ridge you can see in the next photo taken from near the mouth of the cave.


It was a bad decision because it was stalking season, and I'd not inquired about any hunting activity. But I was lucky, and made it across without interfering with anyone. If you ever hike in deer country in season, always ask around to see if a hunt is on. If you ask, you may be surprised what you're told. The last time I asked about access, when I wanted to cross the Morsgail estate on Lewis, the keeper was happy to hear from me. He told me no worries, all his clients were fishing, not deer stalking. He also gave some tips on the area, and let me know there were people staying at a remote bothy that would welcome a visitor (see the Ardveg Walk post). So good things can come to those who ask.

Looking back to the headland of Breacan's Cave (on left) from the shortcut across the island
Although my walk in 1999 was inspired by wanting to see the cave, it led to an even better thing: discovering the beautiful, remote bay nearby. And so, six years later, I returned to camp there for a few days. Island hikes often lead to discovering something new, something that makes you want to return again and again. So take a hike on Jura, Islay, or any island. I'm sure you'll come across something surprising, something wonderful. Something that will bring you back, again and again.

Campsite near Breacan's Cave

Friday, April 14, 2017

Old Scalpay Light

Scalpay lighthouse is an impressive sight, one most people only see from the Uig to Tarbert ferry. But you can get a closer look by making the mile-long hike from the end of the road on Scalpay. The tower seen today was built in the 1820s. But hiding below it is the original lighthouse, the first built in the Western Isles. It dates to the 1780s, and used whale oil burned in front of a reflector. 

The artist William Daniell spent a night on Scalpay in 1818, and produced an aquatint drawing of the old lighthouse.

Old Scalpay light - 1818
Same scene - nearly 200 years later
In the previous photo you can just see the top of the old light to the right of new tower. The shell of the old tower is intact, but its interior has almost completely rotted away. And it will only get worse, as just a few timbers remain of its roof; allowing rain, wind, and birds in to do more damage.  

The old light - some 230 years old
With such a historic destination, the walk to Scalpay lighthouse is a great starter to introduce someone to Hebridean hiking. The terrain is boggy in a few places, and it is easy to lose sight of the marker posts, but the walk is so short that you can't really get lost (though there may be times when you may think you're lost). You can read a description of the hike here.

Inside the old Scalpay tower

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Witches' Home - Canna

I have posted before on Canna's Prison Rock (see the November 14, 2014 post). I was just reading John Lorne Campbell's Canna: The Story of A Hebridean Island, and in it I came across an amazing drawing of The Prison that I'd not seen before: The Witches' Home, by Richard Doyle.

'The Witches' Home' by Richard Doyle
Richard Doyle was an illustrator in the mid 19th century. He visited Canna on two occasions, once in 1859, and again in 1875. It was during the 1875 visit that he made two drawings of An Coroghan, also known as The Prison, an 80-foot stack at the east end of Canna. An Coroghan is a corruption of An Corra-dhun, which means something like the extraordinary (or peculiar) fort. 


It is indeed an extraordinary fort, but one that is slowly crumbling away. There is a little sign next to it saying that the National Trust intends to stabilise the structure. But it's been 20 years since I first encountered that sign (it is still there) and nothing has been done. It's been over 10 years since I last climbed to the top of An Coroghon, which is something I would not do again, as the structure appears ready to tumble down at any moment. 

These days the stack is best left to the witches, who can fly to it on their brooms without causing any damage. If you'd like to see Doyle's drawing it is in the V&A Museum.

Best left to the witches

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Berneray Giants - Two

Islands called Berneray seem to grow some tall folks. There are two Hebridean 'giants' that I've heard of, and both came from Bernerays. The best known is Angus Macaskill, from the Berneray in the Sound of Harris. Born in 1825, he grew up in Nova Scotia where his family moved when he was six years old. Macaskill grew to a height of 7 ft, 9 inches, and performed a demonstration of strength for Queen Victoria. Macaskill lived to the age of 38, and there is a large memorial to him near the burial ground at the southwest end of Berneray. At Dunvegan (Skye) you can find a museum dedicated to Macaskill (see this link).

Angus Macaskill's memorial


There is another, and lessor known Berneray Giant, Peter Sinclair. He was from another Berneray, the one next to Mingulay (also known as Barra Head). Sinclair was postman for the isles south of Barra, and joined a travelling show at one time to capitalize on his seven-foot height. Unlike Angus McAskill, no cairn or museum commemorates Peter Sinclair. But the ruin of his house on Berneray still stands. It has been drastically altered for use as a sheep fank, but you can still see where he raised one end of it so he could stand inside.

Peter Sinclair's home on Berneray (Mingulay to the left)

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Iona Golf Course Expansion

Iona is celebrating the acquisition of its golf course by a major corporation. The old abbey has been turned into a 5-Star club-house with a rotating restaurant atop the tower.


The new owner intends to build a wall around the course to keep undesirable foreigners, like the vagrant in the next photo, off the links.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Stacks of Soay - St Kilda

One of the many highlights of a visit to Kilda is traversing the narrow channel between Soay and Hirta. It is especially exciting if the sea and wind are opposing each other. Lying at the narrowest part of the passage are Stac Biorach (the pointy stack, 236 feet high), and Sòthaigh Stac (Soay Stac, 200 feet high).


The channel narrows in to 200 feet as the ship threads its way between the 500 foot high cliffs of Hirta on the one side, and Soay Stac on the other. 

Approaching the passage

Approaching the passage - from left to right are Soay, Stach Biorach, Soay Stac and Hirta
As you approach the stacks it is easy to see how they were once part of a land-bridge between Soay and Hirta.

The Soay stacks seen from Hirta


As its name implies, Stac Biorach is a pointy rock rising out of the sea, and is said to be the hardest of all the Kilda stacks to climb. This description of the climb, which I found in Haswell-Smith's The Scottish Islands, dates to 1698:

...after they landed, a man having room for but one of his feet, he must climb up 12 or 16 fathoms high. Then he comes to a place where having but room for his left foot and left hand, he must leap from thence to another place before him, which if hit right the rest of the ascent is easy. But if he misseth that footstep he falls into the sea.


Stac Biorach
Based on that description, I don't think a climb up Stac Biorach is in my future. I've not come across descriptions of a climb up Soay Stac, but it looks just as daunting. A tunnel pierces it completely through the middle, which when approaching from the south makes the stack look like a crouching otter. 

Soay Stac - crouching otter?
Over the years I have been fortunate to have made this passage about four times. Three of those were in calm seas, but the last one was the best, as the wind and sea were roiling, and if conditions had been any worse I doubt if we'd have tried to motor through.

Looking back to the stacks after traversing the passage in calm seas
The exciting passage between Soay and Hirta is not usually done by the day-boat trips to Kilda, so if you want to do it your best bet is on one of the six or nine night cruises offered by Northern Light Cruising Company.

From left to right - Hirta, Soay Stac, Stac Biorach, Soay

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Cross of Cave Bay - Rum

One of the most interesting short walks on Rum is to see the cross of Bàgh na h-Uamha (Cave Bay). To get there follow the Dibidil path for a mile until it reaches Allt Mor na Uamha, the Big Stream of the Caves. Leave the trail here and go cross-country to the west, following the stream as it tumbles down to the sea via a series of rocky waterfalls.

Looking west from Cave Bay to Hallival and the Dibidil track
Cave Bay is the site of an old settlement, and here you'll find the low outlines of several cottages pushing up through the turf. Just below the ruins, and above the rocky beach, stands a four-foot tall stone pillar. Incised into the top of the pillar is a Greek cross, four equal arms with flared ends. Carved in the seventh or eighth century, this cross style fell out of fashion at some point, as it had been later modified into a Latin style cross by doubling the length of the vertical arm to create a shaft.



The stone had been found lying prone on the beach in the 1970s, and re-erected a safe distance above the surf in 1982. Is this a Christianized standing stone, like St Taran’s Cross on Taransay?  Or did an early monk, perhaps St Beccan of Rum, originally put the stone up as a cross?  I don’t know the answer. But if you ever visit Bàgh na h-Uamha you’ll have plenty of silence to think about it. This tranquil spot sees few visitors. Most who come to Rum go up high to traverse the Rum Cuillins. Others come to see the wild-life: the deer, or the shearwaters nesting on Hallival. I saw nary a soul on my journey to Cave Bay, and I doubt if you will either.

Eigg seen from Cave Bay

See this CANMORE page for more on the cross of Cave Bay.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Eilean Mhuire of the Shiants

One of the many Islands I hope to return to in the next year or two is Eilean Mhuire of the Shiants.

Eilean Mhuire seen from Garbh Eilean
Of the three Shiant islands, Eilean Mhuire is probably the least visited. Most people are set ashore on the stone isthmus between Eilean Tighe and Garbh Eilean, and then make their way up onto Eilean Tighe. But to get onto Eilean Mhuire is a little more challenging. It requires being set ashore at the base of a small, rocky inlet. And if there is any swell, or wind, it can be a difficult landing.

If you do manage to get ashore, you then have to climb 160 feet up a steep hillside. When I made the climb in 2003, there was a handy rope dangling down the hill to grab hold of. (I do not know if the rope is still there.) It was worth the climb, for the top of the island is a beautiful, and relatively flat plateau, covered in verdant grass and dotted with a several ponds. 


For me, Eilean Mhuire has two attractive features: its massive colony of puffins, and the ruin of an old chapel. The name of the chapel, and the island, are usually said to refer to Mary. But I've always wondered if they actually refer to St Maelrubha. An old name for the Shiants is Na Eileanan Mòra: which usually translates to the Big Isles, and these islands are certainly not big. So it's possible the Eilean Mhuire name may be a corruption of 'Island Mor', and many 'Mòr' place names in the Hebrides are dedications to St Maelrubha.

Chapel Ruin - embedded in what may have been an old burial mound
Another clue that the dedication may be to Maelrubha is that he would have certainly visited the Shiants, as they lie on a direct route from his monastery at Applecross to Maruig, a small settlement 15 miles to the west on Lewis, and Teampull Mor, a chapel near the Butt of Lewis. Both of those places are said to be dedicated to Maelrubha. 

The next two photos show some of the acres of old cultivation ridges that cover the island. Eilean Mhuire was fertile in its time. Of the 500 acres of land that make up the three Shiant isles, only 30 were arable, and half of that was on Eilean Mhuire.

Crisscross cultivation ridges on Eilean Mhuire

Eastern tip of Eilean Mhuire
The few dwellings on Eilean Mhuire were basic, turf covered structures, visible today only as grass-grown mounds.

Old turf-covered structures
In May and June the puffins on the Shiants are a sight to behold - truly amazing. At times the sky is filled with tens of thousands flying back and forth between the sea and their burrows in the scree of Garbh Eilean, and the steep slopes of Eilean Mhuire. 

Puffin burrows on Eilean Mhuire - Garbh Eilean in the distance
Getting off the island is as exciting as getting on to it, as you have to descend the near vertical hillside. To do that I held the rope in one hand, and slowly slid down on my side, every now and then digging my boots into the little grassy ledges created by grazing sheep.

Descending the rope - Eilean Mhuire
I hope to return to Eilean Mhuire. Its tricky landing, especially if there is any swell, followed by the rope climb, make for an exhilarating island visit.

Eilean Mhuire departure

Monday, February 27, 2017

Through the Sea-Gate - Ensay

One of my favourite island books is Alasdair Alpin MacGregor's Searching the Hebrides with a Camera (1933). I acquired the book in 1992, and while reading it I first learned about the island of Ensay. 

Searching the Hebrides with a Camera was one of MacGregor's earliest books. In 1993 I came across his very last book: An Island Here and There (published in 1972, two years after his death). In it is a chapter entitled Enchanted Isles, where MacGregor reminisces about his visits to Ensay some 40 years after they occurred. Ensay made such an impression on MacGregor that I had to visit the island. But five years would pass before the opportunity arose in 1998 (see chapter 13 of book 2).

Ensay House, Chapel, and standing-stone (upper right)

The way MacGregor described arriving on Ensay via the sea-gate, struck a chord in my mind: words I found memorable.

I enter the precincts of Ensay House by the sea-gate, which is reached by a stone staircase leading up from the sands, and the fringe of straws and shrivelled seawrack left by high tides.... For a moment I am back in the Middle Ages when I gaze at the old wall flanking the garden, and the chapel standing nearby.

Ensay House and the sea-gate (1998)
And so when I landed on Ensay in '98 I made a point of entering the grounds of the house via the sea-gate. I was fortunate that there were people staying in the house at the time. They invited me in and handed me an ancient set of rusting keys, pointing out the one for Christchurch chapel. The chapel is mostly 16th century, but bits date to the 11th. As I entered it, it felt like I, too, was back in the Middle Ages.

Christchurch Chapel (1998)

In the chapel

The keys to Ensay
Although I've not been back to Ensay since 1998, I've sailed by a dozen times in the intervening years. The most recent was in May of 2016 aboard the ship Hjalmar Bjorge. After a visit to Boreray in the Sound of Harris, we motored past Ensay on our way to the Shiants. The sun was shining, and Ensay looked beautiful. Oh how I wished we'd had time to go ashore so that I could ascend the sea-gate once again after an 18 year absence, and nearly ninety years since Alasdair Alpin MacGregor.

Ensay House and Chapel (2016)


A young visitor at the sea-gate in '98