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

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