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