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

Thursday, February 23, 2017

John MacDonald of the Ardveg (1933 - 2016)

I just learned of the death of John MacDonald on Christmas Day 2016. I only met John once. It was at the Uig Community Centre on June 29, 2013 for the launch of his book An Trusadh - Memories of Crofting in the Ardveg.

Regular readers will know that the Ardveg is one of my favourite places in the isles. It is so remote, that staying there is akin to a retreat on an island in the sea. I've been privileged to have visited Ardveg on three occasions. On two of those I camped next to the old blackhouses, one of which John lived in before his father built a new house nearby in 1934.

A.A.MacGregor's photo of Ardveg in the early 1930s
Ardveg in 2001
An Ardveg campsite
I can't think of a better island experience that reading John's book An Trusadh (which means the gathering), and then making the long hike in to see Ardveg first-hand. We are fortunate John left a fascinating record of what life was like growing up in Ardveg before he passed.

My condolences to John's family. He was a remarkable man who will be missed. See this Northern Times page for an excellent article about his life, and this link which will take you to posts on Ardveg written over the past four years.

Photo of John MacDonald at Ardveg from the back cover of An Trusadh

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Long and Winding Road Walk - Lewis

Last August I made a three day hike on Lewis, a walk that started at Morsgail (see the Ardveg Walk tab). I left the area by hiking out from Ardveg up the Hamanavay track to the public road at Uig. The plan was I'd call my wife to come pick me up when I reached the road, and she would drive over to get me from the self catering house we were staying at in Valtos, six miles from where the Hamanavay track meets the road. (See Valtos Cottage Self Catering).

The cottage has an amazing view to the north over Loch Roag and the island of Pabay Mor.

But I made a serious mistake. I had not checked if there was mobile phone coverage in Uig. And when I reached the road above the white sands of Uig Beach, around 8pm, I powered up the phone only to find there was no signal. I'd told my wife if she did not hear from me I'd decided to spend another night under the stars. But I was out of food, and sore from 20 miles of bog-hopping and the long climb up the Hamanavay track. And so a soak in a tub and a beer sounded better than another night in the tent. There was nothing to do but start walking the road to Valtos, thinking that at some point either the phone would get a signal, or I could hitch a ride. 

After 10 minutes of walking I passed the Abhainn Dearg distillery. Unfortunately it was closed, so I'd find no refreshment there. I continued on, checking my phone every now and then only to find there was still no signal. A mile later I passed the turn-off to Ardroil Beach. It would have been a great place to camp, and in hindsight I should have done that, but the thought of a bath and beer kept me going. Only two cars had passed by so far; the drivers must have been tourists - they didn't stop when I stuck my thumb out.

After another half hour it was getting dark. Having covered some 20 miles so far that day my legs were giving out. So when I reached the road that comes up from Loch Stacavat I turned right and followed it a ways until I saw a field that looked like a good spot to camp. The field was gated. I could not open the gate, so I climbed it and found a spot to pitch the tent out on the moorland.

I was dead-tired, asleep in no time. Up at 6am I started walking again. An hour's walk took me to the Uig shop. I was hoping to use their land-line phone, but they were closed. More walking led past the Uig Community Centre and into the entrance of Glen Valtos; the largest glacial meltwater channel in the Outer Hebrides.

I still had three miles to go to reach the cottage in Valtos village where my wife was comfortably sleeping. There was still no phone signal, and as it was early, there had been no cars on the road yet. What I didn't know at the time was that a possible environmental disaster was happening that very moment; an oil rig had broke its tow-rope and had just grounded on Dalmore Beach. And so someone was out on the road early, driving up to Dalmore to help out. I saw them approach from behind, stuck out my thumb, and they gave me a ride to the Valtos turnoff. (Thanks Ian!)

Afoot again, at the Valtos turnoff, a look at the phone showed still no service. There was nothing to do but keep walking. Forty-five minutes later, a hundred yards from home, the phone finally got a signal. I called my wife to tell her I was almost there, and she met me on the road with a cold carton of Ribena. A drink never tasted so good. Lesson learned: don't ever count on getting a phone signal while hiking in the islands, even in areas that are populated.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Bearasaigh - The Pirate's Isle

There is a little island in the outer reaches of Loch Roag I've always wanted to visit. The island is Bearasaigh, which had a brief moment of fame in the 1600s.

For a few years in the early seventeenth century, Neil MacLeod and forty of his followers had a stronghold on Bearasaigh. From this small isle they launched raids against the “Gentlemen Adventurers” sent to Lewis by James VI to “civilize” the Outer Hebrides. Bearasaigh was a good choice for a stronghold. It is cliff-girt, with just one, easily defend-able, sloping rock slab that allows access to the top of the island. They eventually caught Neil by stranding family members in a boat tied to a tidal rock near the island. Neil and his band surrendered in order to save them. Neil managed to escape after that, but was recaptured and ended up swinging from an Edinburgh scaffold in 1613.

In chapter 16 of his book Behold the Hebrides, Alasdair Alpin Macgregor recounts the story of Neil Macleod, which you can read at this link.

I've always wanted to get ashore on Bearasaigh to see if there are any remains of Neil's encampment on the island. But to do so would require an expensive day-charter of a RIB on a very calm day, and so I've put it off for many years. But I was able to get a close up view of the rock slab that gives access to Bearasaigh during a tour around the islands of Loch Roag last August. It was a miserable, cold, and wet day, as you can tell from the rain-smears on the following photo of the landing spot. It was evident that a scramble to the top of the island on those rocks would be exciting.

A wet-lens view of the way up Bearasaigh
On the same boat trip we took a look at the oil rig grounded at Dalmore, six miles away. If the wind and tide had been different Bearasaigh might of been in the headlines after a 400 year absence.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Lord of the Isles Ancient Internet

I've been reading Kevin Byrne's wonderful book on Colonsay - Lonely Colonsay (House of Lochar, 2010). In it I've learned that, 1000 years ago, the Lords of the Isles had their own Instant Messaging service, their own Twitter, their own wireless communication. At the speed of light they could send a warning from near their great Hall of Dun Eibhinn on Colonsay, to an outpost 15 miles away on Islay, near their capital at Finlaggan.

If you look at the 1:25000 OS map of Colonsay, you'll find a hill called Cnoc an-t-Samhlaidh at NR 3832 9264, a mile south of Dun Eibhinn. And on the map of Islay, at NR 3335 6961, you'll find another Cnoc an-t-Samhlaidh, three miles northwest of Finlaggan.

Cnoc an-t-Samhlaidh means the hill of reflection. Using some type of mirror, signals could be sent at night between the summits. Next time I'm on Colonsay or Islay I hope to climb one of these hills of reflection. I'd camp on the summit at night, kindle a fire, send a signal, and see if anyone replies.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Guided Cruise - Only One Spot Left

There is only one spot remaining for my 10-day guided cruise on Hjalmar Bjorge from May 20 to the 29th. (For a male sharing a double cabin). Departing from Oban, we'll be traversing the Outer Hebrides from Mingulay to the Flannans. For more information see the 2017 Cruise tab, or the Northern Light Cruising Company website.

Hjalmar Bjorge at Kerrera