Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Great Bernera Mill

For me, seeing the restored Great Bernera Norse Mill was a two-year challenge. I first saw it from the sea in 2015 (see the June 30, 2015 post). It looked so intriguing I promised myself that someday I'd take the time to walk to it.

And so, a year later, with Explorer Map 458 in hand, I walked to the end of the road east of the Bernera Museum. The map showed a dotted line path that went directly to the mill, a quarter-mile farther east. All I saw at the road's end was a gate leading into a marshy field. There was nary a trace of a path of any kind, and it looked so swampy I knew I'd sink to my knees if I tried to cross it. You can see the gate to nowhere at the left in the following photo.

I scratched my head, looked at the map again, and gave up. It was late in the day, and the museum was closed. With no one around to ask directions I drove to the Bernera Mini-Mart. I showed the man on duty the map. He had no idea where the path was.

I then drove the east Bernera circuit road looking for a way to the shore. I saw nothing that looked doable, and gave up. My wife and I were returning to the mainland the next day, so I had to put seeing the mill on the list for next time.

So, fast forward to last month. My wife and I were staying on Great Bernera for a week. On a clear, sunny day I set out to visit the mill. I asked for directions at the museum, telling them about my previous failed attempt. They told me to simply follow the red marker posts, and so I returned to that same road's end I'd visited the year before. There were no red posts anywhere, just that same swampy field beyond a gate; a gate that looked like it had not been opened in years.

I returned to the museum and told them so. The woman on duty said there'd been some 'vandalism'. What! Vandals attacking marker posts on Great Bernera?  This was certainly odd. Then she gave me the key to the mill; not a real key, just a suggestion. I needed to walk right up to the house at the end of the road, which you can see to the upper right in the previous photo.

And so I walked up to the house. And there it was. Just to the left of the driveway stood another gate not visible from the road below. This must be the place. But there was no red marker post, or a sign of any kind. Very odd.

I could be wrong, but I surmised the 'vandalism' was that the marker post had been removed to discourage walkers from passing so close to the houses. After following the path past the house I finally came across a red post, one not visible from the road.

From there a series of posts led east over a hill. From there ten minutes of walking brought me to the mill on the shore of Loch Riosaigh.

It was fantastic, like stepping back in time. The mill was used until the 1920s, and had been rebuilt in 1995. Its restored thatch roof was mostly intact, and along the side of the building the mill race flowed to the sea. 

Water in the mill race could be redirected to flow through the lower level of the mill to turn the paddle-wheel. But the water was not going that way so, torch in hand, I entered the dark opening to see the wheel.

On the upper level of the mill were the two millstones, and a wood funnel used to pour grain into the stones.

I then thought about visiting the giant lobster pond and dam on the far side Loch Riosaigh. I'd seen it from the sea back in 2015, and it looked like quite an impressive structure. It is one of the largest lobster ponds in the isles, and was in use until the 1960s. (You can read more here.) 

The pond was only 500 meters away. But getting there involves following the rough coastline around the head of the loch, a distance of 1000 meters. It was getting late, and so I decided to save it for next time. Before heading back I walked out to the tip of a small headland east of the mill, as I'd seen some sort of structure there. On reaching it I discovered it was just a large cairn, probably built by hikers taking a break in this beautiful spot. I left my own mark by building a portal dolmen from three large stones.

Looking at my handiwork I started chucking to myself. I'd suddenly recalled a hilarious event that happened many years ago in the west of Ireland. I was at the Polnabrone Portal Dolmen, one of the most impressive dolmens in the world. I was with Gloria and Regina, two of my nieces. After seeing the dolmen we walked out onto the rocky terrain of the Burren, where we sat down and set about building our own mini-dolmens from the many flat stones that covered the area; none of them more than six inches high. No sooner had we finished when we heard stomping behind us. Up walked the site warden, who proceeded to knock down our creations. He seemed to think future researchers would confuse our little dolmens with the real thing.  

There was no warden at the mill to knock down my creation, only the coming winter storms. I left the headland and made the short walk back to the road. At the hidden gate I was tempted to transplant one of the red posts to it, so it would be visible from the road. But it would probably disappear, too.

Now that you know the way, if you are ever on Great Bernera be sure to visit the mill. It is well worth the short walk. You can read more about the mill here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Walk to the Aird Mhor

In July I made a three-day hike from Morsgail to the Aird Mhor on the far southwestern tip of Lewis. The journey was made to photograph some of the more intact beehive cells and shielings found in one of the most remote places in the Hebrides. The story of the walk, which followed the route shown below, can be found on the Aird Mhor Walk tab.

Beehive cell above Loch Reasort

2018 Guided Cruise - One Spot Left

Get it before it's gone! There is only one remaining spot on the 2018 Guide Cruise (for a male sharing a twin cabin). Our voyage will focus on islands to the south and west of Oban; including Oronsay and the Garvellachs. If conditions permit, we'll head as far south as C├ára. For more information see the 2018 Cruise tab. To book see the Northern Lights website.

Prior Colin's Cross - Oronsay

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Walk in the Pairc

The alarm sounded at 3am. It took a few seconds to realize why, on vacation, I'd set it for so early. Then it came to me: an adventure was afoot.

I showered, guzzled down some coffee, kissed my wife goodbye (she was going back to bed), and went out in the predawn darkness. The car was fired up, and I set out for the eighty-minute drive to Eisgean. It would take that long to get there from the cottage we'd taken for a week in Valasay, on the west side of Great Bernera.

Cottage at Valasay
The drive in the dark was something of an obstacle course. Hundreds of bunnies darting back and forth across the single track, many freezing in their tracks when illuminated by the headlights. I crossed the Bernera Bridge and, once on mainland Lewis, the bunnies were still an obstacle (I think I hit one). The deer were also on the road, but they were easier to spot and avoid.

Reaching the north/south Lewis road (the A859), I turned right and carried on through Balallan. A short distance beyond the turnoff to Pairc I made a left onto the Eisgean road. The ten-mile windy single track cut across the Laird's Dyke before reaching the head of Loch Seaforth. The mile and a half Laird's Dyke is an old boundary marker that spans an isthmus of sorts that connects Pairc to Lewis. If a canal was dug this short distance Pairc would be an island all to itself.

At 5am I reached road's end at Eisgean Lodge, and parked my car on a spot out of the way. Five minutes later a car pulled in. It was John Randall. I put my pack in his car and we set out on the long, and sort of strange drive to Leamreway pier. I say strange because the distance from Eisgean to Leamreway is only three miles; but by road it's a fifty minute drive of twenty-five miles.

When we reached Leamreway Pier at 6am Lewis Mackenzie was already there with his boat (Hebrides Fish 'N' Trips). In short order were were motoring around Eilean Liubhaird and out into the Minch. As we headed south a low sea-fog obscured a view of the Shiants. But the fog would shortly burn off, and a sunny day of exploration lay ahead.

Over the next three hours we visited three of the long-abandoned settlements on the south coast of Pairc: Bagh Ciarach, Bhalamus, and Thinngartsaig (see the previous three posts). After leaving Thinngartsaigh Lewis set us ashore at Tob Smuaisibhig, an inlet on the east side of Loch Claidh. Ahead of us was a six mile cross-county walk to Eisgean.

Lewis leaves us at Smuaisibhig - we're on our own

Once ashore we took a break to eat lunch amongst the ruins of Smuaisibhig.

After lunch we set off to the north along the Abhainn Smuaisibhig. On reaching Loch Lacasdail (salmon dale loch) we stopped to visit a cluster of shielings at its north end. They were quite extensive, and appeared to have been converted at one point to be part of a large sheep farm.

South end of Loch Lacsadail
North end of the loch
Our next stop, a mile to the north, was Gil Bhigurra. It is a geologic wonder, and a beautiful one at that: a short, narrow gorge, running east west, that is host to a native woodland. The trees growing on its steep sides a mix of rowan, birch, holly, aspen, and several varieties of willow.

Gil Bhigurra

Gil Bhigurra
We decided to circle around the head of the gorge, and maybe try to visit Airigh Nighean an Airgiodach, which I think means the shieling of the rich man's daughter. (Five miles to the northwest is a hill called Sidhean an Airgid - the hill of silver. Perhaps the father found his fortune there.)

The temperature had been rising all morning. It must have been nearing 25 degrees; the heat making it that much harder to climb through the tall grass and heather. I'd have loved to take my shirt off in the heat, or even just roll up my sleeves, but if I did the clegs would have a feast, for they had been pestering us ever since coming ashore. Halfway up the south rim of the gorge we decided to turn back. It was too hot and tiring to keep climbing.

Back down at the east end of the gorge we set a course to the northeast to climb a pass that took us out onto a broad, trackless glen. We were now on the lookout for the estate pony track that leads to the head of Loch Shealg.

Up the glen - Loch Shealg is just around the corner
Rounding the north shoulder of Druim Sgianadail we found the pony path just where it crosses a sturdy steel footbridge over the Abhainn Chragoil.

Pony-track bridge
We were done navigating for the day. From here on we'd be following established paths. The soft, gravel-covered pony path goes all the way to the head of Loch Shealg.

At a point a quarter-mile before the loch we came to a small cairn. A dirt path led north from the cairn, which we followed to a footbridge spanning the Abhainn Gleann Airigh an Domhnuill, which flows east to Loch Shealg. Set just above the bridge was a magnificent series of rocky waterfalls.

From the bridge an old path follows the north shore of the loch to Eisgean. It appeared that most estate guests these days take a boat to the head of the loch, and then follow the pony track, for the old path was heavily overgrown. We still had a few miles to go as we followed the path to the east. Just before the loch opened up we passed a large outcropping that would be an island at high tide. It is known as Dun Mhic Phi, said to have been the refuge of a local freebooter.

Dun Mhic Phi
As we continued east the path improved, and soon turned into a single track (unpaved) road; the view of Loch Shealg improving with every step.

As we neared Eisgean Lodge we came across several ponies grazing contentedly in the heat of the late afternoon.

Around 4:30 we turned a corner and the lodge, in its lush grounds surrounded by trees, came into view. We walked through the grounds and out the gate to where I'd left my car twelve hours earlier. (Note: we informed the estate manager we'd be leaving a car, and would be walking through the area).

Eisgean Lodge
Once in the car we made the twenty-five mile drive to Leamreway (for the second time that day). After dropping John at his house, and cooling off with a lager, I made the forty-mile drive back to Valasay, where I arrived at 8pm; sixteen hours after having set out. In those sixteen hours we'd visited Bagh Ciarach, Bhalamus, Eilean Thinngartsaig, and walked through some of the most remote territory on Lewis. It was a walk in the Pairc we'd not soon forget. 

It is amazing what you can accomplish in one day. John and I had set a record in that aspect, one that will be hard for us to beat.

PS: Many thanks to Lewis Mackenzie, who runs Hebrides Fish 'N' Trips, for making the expedition possible. He went the extra mile to set us safely ashore on some tricky landing places. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Eilean Thinngartsaigh

The next to last stop, on the July 18 day-charter with Lewis Mackenzie (Hebrides Fish N Trips), was Eilean Thinngartsaigh (Hingerstay) in Loch Claidh.

The name of the island is intriguing. It may come from the Norse word 'ting', designating a meeting place of political importance. Examples are Dingwall in Ross-shire, and Tingwall in Shetland. The very terse CANMORE page on the area says nothing about the island itself, but it does refer to the deserted settlement on the nearby mainland of Lewis as a Moot, or meeting place. I have only come across two other Hebridean 'ting' names: Cnoc an Tiongalaridh in Lewis (Tolsta Chaolais), and Glen Hinnisdal in Skye (Trotternish).

Aside from its name, I have been unable to find out anything about the island itself. The OS Book of place names (1850s) has an entry for the island, but it includes no historical information. All it says is:

A small, rocky, heathy pasture island on the east side of Loch Claidh. Its shape is ----, its shore is low, and upon its summit is a ---- -----.

The dashes indicate three words I can not make out for certain. Possibly 'round' and 'trigl station'. But the island is not round, and there was no sign of a trig-pillar, although one is shown on the 1855 six-inch map. You can find the complete OS Name book entry here.

Eilean Thinngartsaigh
Once ashore John and I made the hard climb through thick heather and bracken to the top of the island. It was obvious it's been a while since it was used for pasture land. We were hoping to find a structure that appears on a photo recently taken by Chris Murray.

Ruin on Eilean Thinngartsaigh - courtesy of Chris Murray
Unfortunately we did not have the photo with us, and assumed the structure was at the top of the island. But on reaching the top there were no ruins evident. There could have been something there, as the vegetation seemed to have grown over something rectangular. But that may have been wishful thinking. (We'd later discover that the ruin lies on a small mound on the southeast end of the island, a couple hundred meters from where we searched.)

Summit of the island

Looking south from the summit of  the island - Skye in the distance
After our fruitless search for ruins, Lewis Mackenzie landed us on the nearby mainland, where we took a look at the handful of stone ruins buried in the soft grassland above the shore. The bay looked to be a perfect shelter from the sometimes angry waters of the Minch, and someday I hope to anchor there.

A ruin on mainland Lewis opposite the island
In short order John and I were back aboard, and Lewis set a course up Loch Claidh. After giving us a look at the settlement of Bun Chorcabhig, on its west side, Lewis nosed the boat into the rocks at Tob Smuaisibhig, an inlet halfway up the east side of Loch Claidh. In short order John and I were ashore.

Heading to Tob Smuaisibhig, and the start of the walk to Eishken.
We waved goodbye to Lewis as he motored away. He'd have a long run back to Keose on his own, some 30 miles around A' Chabag (Keboch Head). Under sunny skies, on an unusually hot day, John and I were now on our own. We'd just completed one adventure, seeing three of the old coastal settlements of Pairc. We still had one more adventure ahead; a walk in the Pairc, so to speak; a six mile trek to Eishken.

Lewis heads back to Keose

Saturday, August 5, 2017


Another stop John Randal and I made on the trip with Lewis Mackenzie on July 18 was Bhalamus. This remote settlement had been the headquarters of the large Pairc sheep-farm. But its history dates well before those times, as every available bit of ground is covered with the remnants of lazybeds, and there is an old burial mound near the farmhouse.

As recounted in Adam Nicolson's Sea Room, in the 1840s Bhalamus was the home of the Stewart brothers. The managers of the estate that also included the Shiants. The Stewarts were in charge of clearing people from the estate, and they started with the Balamaus area. They must have enjoyed their work, for in 1842 they moved to the west of Harris where they cleared people out of Scarista.

The tide was low, so Lewis dropped us off on a small peninsula that stuck out into the loch west of Bhalamus House. It was a slow walk around to the house, which, ignoring some of its past, looked beautiful in the morning light. A light wind came and went, and so the midges and clegs came and went.

The slate roof of the house was completely gone. Shards of it littered the ground around the house, and its inside was cluttered with fallen timbers. Some future winter storm will bring down a gable, and then the whole thing will collapse.

Remnants of whisky bottles were here and there, suggesting that the occasional ceilidh still occurs in this remote spot.

The house had also been the home at times of the estate gamekeeper. A Robert Dempster was gamekeeper here from 1911 to 1927 (see this link). And it was interesting to find that a memorial had been placed here the month before to a gamekeeper named John Mackenzie and his wife Jean Dempster.

Before leaving we crossed back to the burial ground. A large mound with a few stones here and there, none with any inscriptions. A lot of history here. Sadly, most of it forgotten and buried.

Burial mound