Friday, July 28, 2017

Equipment Failure and a Shieling Salvation

I made several hikes on Lewis over the past three weeks. One of them did not go as planned. I had bought a new pack in June, and before heading to Scotland I took it out for a test drive on an overnight visit to Blake Island in Puget Sound. It was a sunny and hot trip, and the pack worked well.

So fast forward a couple weeks to July 16 when, with my new pack, I set out on a two day hike on Lewis from Stacaiseal to Shawbost. A route that would take me by several beehive cells and shielings.

The hike started at the middle of the Pentland Road, eight miles southeast of Carloway. Just after my wife dropped me off, and I began hiking north, it started raining. It was not too bad at first, and I was able to get some good photos of the cells near the summit of Stacaiseal, a hill that rises to 700 feet, a mile and a half north of the Pentland Road.

From Stacaiseal I turned to the northwest to head to Uiseal. It was then that it started raining hard, with a fierce wind that blew the rain sideways. I did not know it at the time, but the rain was being driven into my new pack through its strap-down lid. Around 7 pm, just as I reached the shielings of Uiseal, I noticed my pants were getting wet; the way the pack was riding on my back had opened up a gap in my overtrousers, allowing the rain running down the pack to pour in. I was going to have to set up my tent, and try to dry out as soon as possible, or I'd have a miserable night. 

But the terrain was mushy, soggy, and boggy; terrible for setting up a tent. I have seen many shieling sites in the past that are surrounded by close cropped grass on solid ground, perfect for pitching a tent, and I kept hoping I'd find such a spot. But eight o'clock came and went and no decent campsite came along. I was about to give up looking when I noticed a stone structure on the hillside above me. Maybe it was a ruined shieling, whose walls would give my tent some shelter from the wind. 

As I neared the little building it looked like its turf roof was intact, and the one doorway had been barricaded with an iron crowbar to keep the sheep (and the fairies?) out. Had my prayers been answered? Would I have a dry place to sleep?

Inside the structure I could see that half its turf roof was intact, and under the intact bit was a narrow plywood bench I could lay my sleeping bag on. It was only then, as I opened the pack to get the sleeping bag, that I discovered the rain had got inside. My sleeping bag was wet, as were my spare clothes. There was nothing to do but make the best of it, and so I spread the damp sleeping bag out on the bench.

Inside, next to a fireplace, was a pile of dried peat, along with an assortment of rusted peat cutting tools. I tried to build a fire, but I had no kindling or newspaper. I did have an emergency candle, one I've carried on every backpacking trip over the past 20 years. I'd never used it in all that time, and I tried pouring melted wax from it on the peat, and then lighting it. But it did not work. 

Around 10 pm, in my damp clothes, and with my candle burning on the ledge next to me, I slid into the damp sleeping bag. It would be a long night, and between bouts of shivering I managed to get some sleep. Fortunately I was shielded from the wind and rain. In the morning I packed up as soon as it was light, and then went out to take photos of the many shielings that dot the terrain east of Loch Rahacleit. Around noon I reached the public road at Shawbost where my wife picked me up. Lesson learned: Always test out your gear in miserable conditions near to home, before using it in miserable conditions miles from home.  

Although all did not go as planned, the memory of finding a surprise shieling shelter, on a stormy island night, is one I will treasure.

Wet lens view of my accomodation

Saturday, July 8, 2017

NEW - 2018 Guided Cruise

The itinerary has now been set for the June 2018 guided cruise on Hjalmar Bjorge. Our voyage will focus on islands to the south and west of Oban, including the Isles of the Sea. And if conditions permit, we'll head as far south as Càra. For more information see the 2018 Guided Cruise tab. To book see the Northern Lights website.

PS: I will be offline for a few weeks. It's back to the isles for some extended hiking on Lewis to Kinlochresort, Ardmore, Ardveg, and Fidigidh. I also hope to visit some of the lost villages on the south coast of Pairc; such as Bhalamus, Thinngartsaidh, and the infamous Bàgh Ciarach.

Monastic ruins on Eileach an Naoimh of the Garvellachs (The Isles of the Sea)

Monday, July 3, 2017

Small Isles - Ardtornish - Oban

Final Episode (for 2017, anyway) in the Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Hebridean Cruise - May 20 to 29, 2017

May 27: It was the day after our Flannan landing, and in the morning we started off on the six-hour cruise from Scarista down to Canna. It is a fascinating passage, one that starts with transitioning past the myriad isles in the Sound of Harris. Once past Rodal, a straight as an arrow course of 160 degrees took us across the Little Minch to the high cliffs near Neist Point on Skye, and then on down through The Sea of the Hebrides to Canna.

As you can tell from the photos, the sky was a bit overcast as we passed Canna's prison rock. Five minutes later the engines throttled down to a stop in Canna Harbour.

Once ashore we started with a look at the exhibition on Canna history in the Rocket Church; its bell-tower a small scale version of an Irish round tower. It is Church of Scotland, and was built in 1911 for use by visiting fishermen. But it's rarely used as such these days.

Inside the bell tower
Then a walk in the woods near Canna House took us past the grave of John Lorne Campbell, who died in Italy in 1996. He was originally buried there, but they reinterred him on Canna in 2006. For the story of Campbell's life see The Man Who Gave Away His Island, by Ray Perman.

Just beyond Campbell's grave is a hidden meadow called A' Chill, the site of St Columba's monastery. Aside from a large, intricately carved cross (8th century), there's nothing left of the monastery. The cross is missing one arm and its head. The story is that soldiers used it for target practice a few hundred years ago.

Canna Cross - bottom panel shows Mary holding Jesus, to the right is one of the Magi 
Leaving the site of the monastery we had to tip-toe past a massive black bull – fortunately no one was wearing red. (You can see him sitting contentedly near the gate in the next photo.)

We still had time for a longer walk, and so it was off to another island - via a handy bridge - the island of Sanday. Our destination was St Edward’s Church.

St Edward's, built in 1860, is quite impressive from the outside. A lot of money was spent to renovate it for use as a Gaelic study centre using the Canna House Archives. But I doubt if it will ever be used as one because the interior is heavily damaged by water ingress. The story of the chapel's renovation, which is both inspiring and depressing, is told in Restoring Canna's Chapel by Alasdair Ross McKerlich (2007); a fascinating book that details the work done on the church from 1998 to 2001. (See the October 12, 2015 post for more.)

After looking in the church we made our way back to Canna and went in search of the Prison. (I have posted several times on The Prison - see the Nov 14, 2014 and April 3, 2017 posts). Some 200 years ago it caught the eye of Sir Walter Scott, and he included it in his epic poem The Lord of the Isles:

From Canna’s tower that, steep and grey,
Like falcon-nest o’erhangs the bay.
Seek not the giddy crag to climb
To view the turret scathed by time:
It is a task of doubt and fear
To aught but goat or mountain deer

Built into the top of the 80-foot stack is a fortified building, ‘the turret scathed by time’. This turret is a mini-castle called The Prison; a name stemming from a tale that the wife of a chief had once been imprisoned there. When we reached the base of the stack it looked like the castle at its top could tumble down at any moment. I also noticed that the tiny sign put up by the National Trust 20 years ago to discourage climbers has been replaced by a larger one, along with a length of rope blocking (sort of) the access point. (We did not climb the stack.) 

The Prison depicted as 'The Witches' Home' by Richard Doyle
Once back at Canna Harbour we had time to enjoy a few drinks at the Canna Café, which I was glad to see is back in business.

Cafe Canna
When time came to rejoin Hjalmar Bjorge the cafe had filled up, doing a good business feeding (and slaking the thirst) of visitors from the dozen or so sailboats at anchor in the harbour. But they would have to do without our custom. We had our own excellent chef, and soon settled into another sumptuous three course meal. Canna Harbour is almost always a calm anchorage, and during the night the dead calm of the sea was only interrupted a few times when we'd roll in the wake of an arriving boat.

May 28: The twenty-eighth would be the last full day of the cruise, and after breakfast we made a smooth crossing 20 miles to the southeast to anchor off Port Mor in Muck Harbour. Along the way we traversed the south coast of Rum. The island looked eerie, as the high tops of the Rum Cullins were shrouded in thick clouds.

The mouth of Harris Glen and cloud-capped Ruinsival (Rum)
Adding to the eeriness was the sight of the Bullough's Grecian temple mausoleum, which you can see in the next photo. It is truly the oddest grave-site in the Hebrides.

The mausoleum (from a walk in 1997)
Once we anchored at Muck it took two trips in the RIB to get us all ashore.

Muck Landing
Once ashore, I led most of the guests on an easy stroll across the island to the white sands of Gallanach. And from there out to Aird nan Uain, the headland of the Lamb, to see the unusual MacEwan burial ground. (The MacEwens have owned Muck since 1896). Aird nan Uain is one of the most beautiful places in the Small Isles; a gentle, flat, grassy headland surrounded by blue sea and uninterrupted views to Horse Island, the cliffs of Eigg, and the mountains of Rum.

Gallanach Bay - Rum in the Distance (2016)

MacEwen Graves  (2016)
The trek to Aird nan Uain is one of my favourite island walks; one I love to take others on. I will never forget the first time I went there, back in 2006, when I was shown the way by a local guide. Her name was Amy, and she was in the habit of adopting day-trippers on their walks around Muck. Sadly, Amy is no longer with us.

Amy leads the way - Horse Island in the distance

Amy of Muck
Back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge, and under sunny skies, we crossed to the Sound of Mull, where a peaceful anchorage was found in the lee of Ardtornish Point. It is a beautiful anchorage: high cliffs to the east, with waterfalls that stream 600 feet down to the sea; to the north solitary Inninbeg House stands at the head of the bay; atop the headland to the west rises the dramatic ruin of Ardtornish Castle, once a stronghold of the Lords of the Isles; and to the south the Sound of Mull.

Ardtornish Castle
Inninbeg House
At Ardtornish the drone was launched for its final flight, and sent off to soar around the castle to capture some brilliant footage of Hjalmar Bjorge floating on the sparkling blue water of the bay.

Drone launch
Drone comes in for a landing

May 29: In the morning we motored across to Oban to tie up to the North Pier. A gigantic breakfast filled everyone to the brim as we said our goodbyes, and then Anna and Mark began prepping Hjalmar Bjorge for her next set of lucky guests.

Many thanks to Mark, Anna, and Chef Mark for a wonderful trip to eleven amazing islands: Mull, Eigg, Harris, Scarp, Lewis, Pabay Mor, Little Bernera, Great Bernera, Flannans, Canna, and Muck. To William, Alan & Jacky, Alan & Kathrin, Janet & Tom, Adam & Margaret, Hazel, Liz, Michael, and William; thanks for being such good company. I hope to see you all again.

Pictured (left to right): William, Adam, Jacky, Alan, Hazel, Liz, Tom, and Janet.
Not pictured: Kathrin, Alan, Michael, and Margaret.

Note: Next year's Hjalmar Bjorge guide-trip will run from June 2-11. The itinerary will shortly appear on the Northern Lights website, and will be posted here July 8.