Thursday, June 29, 2017

Destination Flannan

Episode 6 in the Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Hebridean cruise - May 20 to 29, 2017

May 26: The morning forecast showed little improvement. The wind had calmed from the day before, but it can take days for ocean swell to subside. After some discussion we decided it would be worth motoring out west to see how the sea was acting. Even if we could not land, we might get a close look at the Flannans.

The Flannan lies 40 miles due west of Carloway, and after five hours of steaming we nosed into the fairly sheltered bay between Eilean Mor (the island with the lighthouse) and Eilean Tighe. 

Approaching the Flannans

The East Landing

East Landing - arrows point to the damaged rungs and steps
A look at the landing showed a moderate swell of one to two feet.  Mark lowered the inflatable and went to take a a closer look.  He came back a bit discouraged. The iron rungs that once allowed you to climb 15 feet from the sea to the landing platform were too corroded to use safely.

Mark had also inspected the cement steps that descend to the sea next to the landing. These, too, looked unusable, as the sea has worn them flat and covered them with a slippy carpet of kelp. There appeared to be no safe way ashore. 

Mark and Anna head to check out the landing
But there was still hope. Once he was back aboard I heard Mark say he had a cunning plan. Next thing I knew Mark and Anna were zipping back to the landing, armed with a ladder and sturdy length of rope.

Through binoculars we saw Anna leap ashore with the rope, and Mark soon followed.

Anna goes ashore with the rope
We watched as they carefully attached the rope to several iron stanchions embedded in the rock, the only remnants of handrails that have long since rusted away. It looked like we'd be going ashore.

Securing the rope

All ashore that's going ashore
Even with the rope, it would be a steep scramble to land. Five of us volunteered (happily) for shore leave and, one by one, we used the rope to steady ourselves as we inched up to where the cement steps were still intact. From there, 70 steep steps led up to the base of the old tram trackway

The tram, which was in use for 60 years, was a cart winched up to the lighthouse via a cable, and had been used to haul supplies from the two landings. There was a speaking-tube (air pipe) that allowed someone at the landing to tell a keeper up at the lighthouse when to start the winch. I've often wondered if the speaking-tube was how the men in the lighthouse were alerted there was a problem at the west landing back on that fateful day in December of 1900.

Old gearwheels that once drove the tram
They removed the rails in the 1960s, when the tram was replaced by a motorized buggy known as a Gnat. You can see a photo of the Gnat in action here.

Afoot on the Flannans
Once up onto level ground several of us a crawled inside the chapel. It’s a beehive cell of indeterminate age that, at some point, was altered into a chapel. It was here that Peter May had the protagonist of his novel Coffin Road find a body. Fortunately there were no signs of foul play inside the chapel, but outside the fowl were playing, as the island is home to a large puffin colony. 

Before visiting the puffins some of us wandered up to the lighthouse. It's an eerie, windswept place, where three keepers disappeared in 1900. You can find the story of their disappearance here.

Liz at the Light
Even more remarkable than the exhilarating landing and climb was seeing the puffins. Their burrows surround a set of old beehive cells, known as Bothan Clan 'ic Phail (the bothies of the Clan of the sons of Paul). These beautiful little structures have survived for centuries, and you can read more about them here. Unlike the puffins on Lunga, the Flannan puffins are not accustomed to tourists, and we had to keep our distance or they'd fly away.

West end puffin city

The farthest Flannans seen from the west end - we'd be there shortly

Our hour ashore seemed to fly by, and all too soon it was time to start back to the landing. But I had yet to climb to the cairn at the summit, something that had to be done. So I hurried to the top to find that Liz was already there, admiring the incredible view.

I think the puffins were glad to see us go as we returned to the landing. Going down the steep steps, with no handrail, and the sea directly below, was more exciting than the climb up. Especially the final stretch where, with the rope in hand, we made our way down the slippy slope to the waiting RIB.

Down to the rope
Back aboard I discovered Alan had launched a drone to fly a few circuits around the islands. Looking at the stunning footage made me wish I had a drone. I think the same thought occurred to Skipper Mark (we may be seeing more drone video in future trip reports).

Drone footage screen capture - Alan Brook

Drone footage screen capture - Alan Brook
Leaving the anchorage we encountered a rolling swell as we motored out to circle around the farthest Flannans to take a look at the gannetry on the amazing stacks and arches of Roareim.

The farthest Flannans

It was with a true sense of accomplishment that we left the Flannans in our wake. They gradually disappeared astern as we motored 40 miles south to find an anchorage near Scarista Beach.

Scarista Beach
It had been a memorable day in the Hebrides; especially as the odds of landing on the Flannans are extremely low. The reason for our success was the hard work, timing, and quick thinking of Anna and Mark. Without their extra effort we would not have gotten ashore.

You can see Alan Brook's video of the Flannans at the link below.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Mealasta, Pabay Mor, Little Bernera

Episode 5 in the Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Hebridean Cruise - May 20 to 29, 2017

After our longer than expected walk to the Ardveg we motored out of the shelter of Hamanavay Bay to head north. As we passed the lonely island of Mealista, which faces the full brunt of the open Atlantic, Mark throttled back the engines to take a look at the beach landing. I have tried several times over the years to get ashore on Mealasta, but it is so exposed that a heavy swell always seems to be bashing the landing spot. 

Mealasta Island seen from Scarp
With the engines idled back we took a good look at the inviting golden sands. But it was not to be, that rolling swell, so often seen in the past, was still bashing.

Mealasta Island Beach
So we carried on north to sweep around Gallan Head, once the site of an RAF communications center. The base was abandoned in 2010, and the property acquired by the Gallan Head Community in 2014. Once around Gallan Head we entered the waters of West Loch Rog, where the anchor was dropped into the turquoise waters off Traigh an Teampull (Chapel Beach) on the west side of Pabay Mor: an island name that means something like the big island of the priest. Although it was a bit cloudy, there were still several hours of daylight left, and in short order we were ashore on the white sands of Chapel Beach. 

Pabay Mor Landing - Photo: Liz Hamilton
Appropriately, sitting in the little glen above the beach, are the remnants of a small chapel dedicated to St Peter. There's little left, as it was used for target practice by the British navy around the year 1506.

St Peter's
A gentle walk up the glen from the chapel took us past a large loch dotted with lily-pads and encircled by a moat of mud. Can you guess the loch's name?  Yep...  you guessed it, Loch an Teampull (Chapel Loch). Here we did our good deed of the day by rescuing a sheep half sunk into the mud, unable to rescue itself. Grasping its horns, one of us on each side, we huffed and we puffed and we pulled it out of the muck. But did we get a thanks? Nope. It just scrambled away as fast as it could, wagging its muddy behind at us. I wanted to start singing Born Free.

Born free - one very lucky sheep
In the south side of the glen we came to Briominish Village, the only settlement on the island, and until 1800 home to the Pabay branch of the Macleods. (See the November 30, 2016 post for more on Pabay and the Macleods.) The people of Valtos, on the adjacent shore of Lewis, still graze their sheep here, and the owner of the island has fixed up some of the old houses.

Inspecting the ruins of Pabay Village

Old Pabay houses updated (a bit)
No visit to Pabay is complete without climbing to the airy summit of Beinn Mhor, all 226 feet of it. Now that may not sound like much, but it's high enough for a grand view over all the islands of West Loch Rog, and across to the mile-long white sands of Riof Beach on Lewis.

Atop Pabay

Hjalmar Bjorge afloat off Pabay Mor
With our exploration of Pabay complete, the hook was lifted and Mark motored a mile south to drop the still-wet hook off the sparkling white sands of Riof Beach. A delicious three course meal prepared by Chef Mark was followed by calm night at anchor.

In the morning Mark gave us the forecast. It was not looking good for the Flannans; winds were still a problem, and the sea outside the shelter of the loch was still jumpy and lumpy. With any significant swell the Flannans are a no-go. So the plan was to head around the top of Great Bernera to nestle into Kyles Little Bernera, a sheltered anchorage between Great and Little Bernera. Then we'd spend a few hours ashore on Little Bernera before heading to Carloway for the night. It would be on the following day we'd decide whether to try for the Flannans.

I love Little Bernera; aside from the beauty of the island, it's historic in both Celtic Christianity and Hebridean literature. Its chapel of St Donnan was once an active outpost of early Celtic monks, and since those days the cemetery on the site has became a cherished place to be buried. The island's fame in Hebridean literature comes from William Black's use of it in his 1873 novel Princess of Thule. See the September 2, 2013 post for more on St Donnan's and The Princess of Thule.

St Donnan's
After paying our respects to St Donnan's we followed the shoreline north across the sandy machair. I took everyone this way to see the fantastic white sands of Traigh Mhor (the great beach). Just offshore from the beach we could just make out a solitary beehive cell on a tiny island called Eilean Fir Chrothair, and next to it another small island, Cealasay (church island). Both Cealasay and Little Bernera had monastic establishments, and it may be that the cell on Eilean Fir Chrothair was used as a place of retreat when a monk wanted to get far from the madding crowds of Little Bernera. See the June 30, 2015 post for more about the cell on Eilean Fir Chrothair.

Traigh Mhor
Beehive Cell - Eilean Fir Chrothair
After our jaunt on Little Bernera we boarded the inflatable, then Mark and Anna took us up to storm the beach at Bosta on Great Bernera; yet another white sand beach. Compared to the deserted islands we'd been on, Bosta beach was a bit crowded. But that did not deter us from joining all the holiday-makers as we landed next to the tide bell. Neither did it deter several of our party from taking a refreshing swim. The tide bell is an interesting structure, which you can read more about here.

Tide Bell and swimmers
Those of us not brave enough to swim headed up the beach to take a look at the restored Iron Age Round House. An unexpected bonus here was that a local guide gave us a great tour and explanation of what it was like to live in the house fifteen hundred years ago.

Bosta Round House
A pleasant, 10 minute walk, took us back to a jetty opposite Little Bernera, where we boarded Hjalmar Bjorge to make the short crossing to anchor in Carloway Bay for the night. At that point there was a bit of tension, in my mind, anyway. The following day would be make it, or break it. Would the Flannans be possible, or not?  If not we'd be starting the long journey back to Oban in the morning.

Hjalmar Bjorge in Kyles Little Bernera - Photo by Liz Hamilton

Friday, June 23, 2017

Remote Hamanavay and Ardveg

After leaving Scarp we found a sheltered anchorage at the head of Loch Hamanavay (Haven Bay). This remote corner of Lewis is one of my favorite places in the isles. It was once a thriving backwater, several small settlements living off the sea. But, aside from an estate lodge, it has been abandoned since the 1950s.  Hamanavay, and the adjacent Ardveg Penninsula, see few visitors, as the only way to get here is by a hard 12 mile hike, or by boat.  (For a description of the hike from Uig see the February 17, 2015 post - for the hike in from Morsgail see the Ardveg Walk post.)

Adding to the sense of remoteness, we awoke to find the surrounding hills enshrouded in a dense, grey fog. It looked very prehistoric. It took two trips in the inflatable to get us ashore, where I was looking forward to taking the guests on a hike to the blackhouse village of Ardveg.

Hamanavay landing
Route to Ardveg
The hike to Ardveg starts easy enough, we just followed the estate track around to the head of the loch. The track ends at the estate house, where a soggy path leads a short distance farther to a footbridge over the Hamanavay River.

From the bridge a vague path traverses up the hillside, but it soon disappears into heather, rocks, and bracken. The view east to the vast, deserted interior of Lewis was expansive, and inviting. Just two miles to the northeast lies an amazing collection of sheiling ruins, including many intact beehive cells. But they would have to wait for another time. 

Looking northeast into the Lewis interior
The hill tops were still foggy as we climbed on, and after 15 minutes I didn't know it, but I missed the turn to the west that leads over the top to Ardveg. It was the sight of one of the old war-time telegraph poles that once stretched between Ardveg and Kinresort, and then a couple of collapsed beehive cells, that told me we'd gone too far east. It was time to make an about face to the west. Then a stiff climb up the grassy hillside, followed by a half-mile descent to near sea-level, finally brought us to the blackhouse village of Ardveg.

An Ardveg Panorama (photo Liz Hamilton)
The story of Ardveg was briefly told in Alasdair Alpin Macgregor's book The Haunted Isles; a wonderful book that ignited much of my interest, some 30 years ago, in the Hebrides. It inspired me to hike in to camp here for the first time 2001. Another visit was just as special, as it was part of the book launch for An Trusadh (The Gathering). Published by the Islands Book Trust in 2013, the book is the story of John Macdonald, whose family lived in Ardveg in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s (see the July 8, 2013 post.) Sadly, John passed away on Christmas Day 2016. John's sister Ina, who was born at Ardveg, also accompanied us in 2013, and if the weather cooperates, she will be returning to Ardveg as part of an Islands Book Trust event on July 15. 

We spent the better part of an hour exploring the old houses and the walled garden enclosure. Alan also took the opportunity to fly the drone over the village and down the track to the jetty once used by the MacDonalds.

Is it a drone - or a giant midge
Adjacent to the old blackhouses in the 'modern' house built by the MacDonalds in 1934. It is occasionally occupied by the artist Julie Brook and her family; the new owners of the Ardveg estate, which was sold just last year. Julie is well know for her stays in a Jura cave and Mingulay. I was hoping she'd be in residence, but no one was home.

Ardveg House (1934)

The mist was still thick on the hills as we left Ardveg to make the climb back up and over the hill. On the far side we paid a visit to the Hamanavay Mill before dropping down to sea-level and making our way back across the river to the shore track.

Hjalmar Bjorge afloat on the loch was a welcome sight to tired hikers, and we were soon back aboard. Sea and wind conditions were still unsettled to head out west to the Flannans, our ultimate hoped for destination. So the anchor was lifted and we set a course north. There was plenty of daylight left, and two islands were calling: mysterious Mealista, and Pabay Mor. 

Which would it be?

Hjalmar Bjorge at Hamanvay