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. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Marc. Very enjoyable - as usual