Monday, October 30, 2017

The Cnoc Dubh Beehive

On Lewis, two miles southeast of the famous Callanish Stone circle, lies one of the most beautiful beehive cells of all. It is also the easiest to visit, lying as it does on Cnoc Dubh (NB 232 302), just above the B8011 highway to Uig (Lewis).

I must have driven by the Cnoc Dubh beehive a dozen times over the years and never noticed it. (It is visible from the highway). I first learned about it earlier this year when I read Alastair McIntosh's excellent book Poacher's Pilgrimage. The author pays a visit to the cell as part of an epic walk from Rodel to the Butt of Lewis. 

The cell had been vandalized many years ago by someone who thought it was a Druid's house, and as such, linked to the devil. About 15 years ago, armed with photos of how the cell once looked (see this link for an example), Seamus Crawford (of Lewis) restored this beautiful structure. 

Having read about the cell in Poacher's Pilgrimage last February, a visit to Cnoc Dubh was very first thing I did on a visit to Lewis in July. Mr. Crawford did some amazing work here, and inside the cell you can see the markers placed on the stones to aide the restoration. 

Aside from the monastic cells on the Garvellachs, the Cnoc Dubh cell is constructed of stones much larger than any other intact cell I've visited. No one knows how old the cell is, but it was know to be inhabited in the 1860s. With its turf covering in place it should last for at least another century.

Next time you are in Lewis be sure to pay a visit to Cnoc Dubh. You can park off the road just where a dirt track climbs the hillside east of the highway. A two-minute hike up the track will take you to the cell. It is a thing of beauty.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Calanais VIII

Usually, when I tell someone I've spent time on Lewis, they'll ask if I've seen the Calanais Stones. When that happens I'm always tempted to ask, Which Calanias stones?  There are about twenty sites: Calanais I, II, III, IV, V, and on up to XIX (see this map). There are even more sub-categories; for example there is a Calanais VIIIa.  For all I know there may even be a Calanais XIXf. All these site have more descriptive Gaelic names, which you can find here.

When I visited the unusual stone setting above the Great Bernera Bridge last July, I did not know at the time that it, too, had a designation: Calainis VIII. (It also has two Gaelic names: 'Tursachan' and 'Cleitir'). This site is unique in being an arc of standing stones; stones that stand like a megalithic shield facing the mainland across the narrow gap between Lewis and Great Bernera.

There is some thought that one of the purposes of this site was as a Beltane sunrise marker, halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. See this CANMORE page for a description of how this worked in conjunction with stones a mile to the northeast.  It is a complicated site, one that also includes outlying stones that mark extreme moon rise locations.

I learned something astounding while reading about Calanais VIII. About three miles due south, on the side of Beinn Fuathabhal, is a rarely visited stone circle; rarely visited because it's two miles from the nearest road. From inside this circle, which is at an elevation of 500 feet, all of the Calanais sites are visible (see this page). It sounds like a hike worth making, and one I plan to do next summer. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Wellies - Reborn

In the last post I had a photo of a unique set of planters I came across on Great Bernera.

This whimsical re-use of old wellies reminded me of another amusing, and very imaginative, recycling of boots I came across during a visit to Eigg in 2016. It was the 'Welly Bridge' that leads to the Singing Sands, and I was looking forward to showing it to the guests on my guide-trip last May (2017).

Singing Sands Welly Bridge in 2016
But when we reached the Singing Sands I was disappointed to find that the wellies had been removed. However, once over the bridge that disappointment was soon forgotten as we scuffed our boots across the sands to make them sing. Here is how Hugh Miller described his visit to the sands in 1844:

I walked over it, striking it obliquely at each step, and with every blow the shrill note was repeated. My companions joined me; and we performed a concert, in which, if we could boast of but little variety in the tones produced, we might at least challenge all Europe for an instrument of the kind which produced them.

I hope the wellies return someday to adorn the entrance to the sands. They made what was a utilitarian stile a memorable gateway to this iconic Hebridean beach.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Great Bernera Loop

Next time you are on Lewis, a great day-out is to pay a visit to Great Bernera. And while there, be sure you walk the magnificent Bernera Loop, a six-mile trek that usually starts at the museum in Breacleit. But I had the luxury of starting from home; Atlantic View Cottage, where my wife and I stayed for a week this summer. Better accommodation on Great Bernera would be hard to find.

Atlantic View Cottage
The route passes right by the cottage, and so on a fine July day I set out to make the walk. It starts by going up the west side of the island to Tobson, and then on up to the north end at the Bosta roundhouse.

The adventure really began when, after just five minutes of walking, I reached the end of the tarmac road and a footbridge over the Atlantic (a little bit of it, anyway). An old map from the 1800s shows stepping stones here - the bridge is a big improvement.

From the bridge the route leads out to open countryside, with amazing views over West Loch Rog.

After a mile of truly exhilarating walking the trail drops down to the road at Tobson near Thule House. Thule was one of the first 'white' houses built on the island (see this link). The author William Black, who wrote The Princess of Thule, stayed here often (see chapter 27 of book 2).

Tobson and Thule House
Once you cross the road a signpost points the way up and over a ridge to the north.

After a bit of huffing and puffing you reach a remarkable viewpoint atop the highest ground on the northwest corner of the island where all the isles of Loch Rog come into view.

Looking north - Little Bernera in the middle distance
I took a break here to savour the view (and a beer) before heading down to Bosta Beach and the Iron Age roundhouse. If you ever pass this way be sure to pay a visit to the roundhouse. The local guides give an excellent talk. I had been here two months previously (see the July 26, 2017 post), and so I walked by it to make my way to the road.

From here on the walk is on tarmac. As I followed the road over the high ground to the east there were some amazing views of Little Bernera.

The landing on Little Bernera
The road then turned south to cross a mile of open countryside, passing a couple lochs along the way. This is the least interesting bit of the walk, and the road can be busy with traffic going back and forth to the beach. I tried to hitch a ride here, but no one stopped for me.

When you reach the turnoff to Tobson there is a large memorial cairn to the 1874 Bernera Riot. See this Virtual Hebrides webpage for the story of the riot.

A mile past the cairn you reach Breacleit, the main settlement on the island. Here you'll find an excellent museum and cafe. Many who visit Great Bernera for the day park their cars here to make the walk. 

Near the centre you will find this hilarious set of pants-planters.

From the Community Centre I turned onto the Bhalasaigh road to make the half-mile hike back to our cottage. It had been an amazing hike, and the next time I'm on Bernera I hope to make the walk in the opposite direction.

If you are ever on Lewis, and looking for something to do, I can't think of a better day out than walking the Bernera Loop, and then having a meal in the cafe.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Oops! - A Cara Redo

Sometimes you have to climb a bit to get a good photo. And then, sometimes, you have to climb twice. That was the case on Cara, when I scrambled up the hillside to get a photo of the Brownie's Chair. I had found a good high spot for the photo, looked through the viewfinder, and then uttered an expletive (or three). The reason is evident in the photo below.

I had left my pack on the stone, ruining the shot. So I climbed back down to the chair, hid the pack, and then climbed back up. Ever since then I've always set my pack well away from something I want to photograph. Although that has led to a few panic attacks when I was unable (briefly) to find where I'd stashed my pack in tall grass. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

To the Flannans!

I was browsing through photos from my last trip to Lewis and came across this one that brought a smile to my face; a 'toast' to the Flannan Isles, made from the slopes of Mealaisbhal. (The Flannans can be seen on the horizon.) Two months earlier we had been fortunate to land there during my guide trip on Hjalmar Bjorge. There is one spot left for next year's cruise, which will visit the islands to the south and west of Mull. See the Northern Lights website for more information.

Slainte - To the Flannans!
Here is a very abridged version of the Flannan poem by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson. You can find the full text at this link.

Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer'd under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night!

We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climb'd the track in single file,
Each wishing he was safe afloat,
On any sea, however far,
So it be far from Flannan Isle:

And still we seem'd to climb, and climb,
As though we'd lost all count of time,
And so must climb for evermore.
Yet, all too soon, we reached the door--
The black, sun-blister'd lighthouse door,
That gaped for us ajar.

Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But all untouch'd; and no one there:
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come; and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat:

Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men's fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouch'd meal,
And an overtoppled chair.

We seem'd to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought on three men dead.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Lugworm at Ensay

It is always exciting to come across an old book that describes someone's experience on a small Scottish island. Especially if it's an island I've been to, and one rarely written about.

Such a book is Lugworm Island Hopping, by Ken Duxbury (Pelham Books, 1976). I just discovered this book, and was delighted to find an extensive section on the island of Ensay. (My one, and only, visit to Ensay is described in Chapter 13 of Book 2). That visit in 1998 was all too short, just a few hours, but I did manage to see the inside of Ensay house and its restored chapel. Reading Duxbury's book made me very jealous: he lived for a month or two in the house, and attended a wedding in the chapel. 

One (of many) interesting events in the book involves the old burial ground at the north end of the island. (I have written about the burial ground and chapel at Manish before - see the May 30, 2013 post). The chapel and cemetery were excavated and extensively studied by Dr A.E.W. Miles, and the findings written up in the British Archaeology Review, Series 212, 1989 (ISBN 086054673X).

Manish Chapel and burial ground
Dr Miles stored many of the bones and skulls he found in the burial ground in a room of Ensay House. Duxbury did not know that until one night when he felt something odd. He went exploring, entering a room he'd never been in before. Here is an excerpt from the book:

...ranged row above row on shelving from floor to ceiling were scores of grinning human skulls. On more racks in the centre of the room were piles of skeleton bones - tibias, fibulas, clavicles, humeri, ribs, pelvic saucers...clutch yourself - it was there, even down to the phalangea of the fingers and the ghastly eloquent mandibles, thier teeth leering in silent laughter.
    But what gave the whole nightmare a touch of the macabre was the fact that every skull, every pile of sifted bones, was enclosed in a transparent polyethylene bag neatly stapled at the top. It was hideous...Alfred Hitchcock hadn't got a look in, and Psycho seemed a health resort by comparison. 

Must have been quite eerie to be living alone in an old mansion on a deserted island and stumble upon a room of skulls.

Ensay House
My interest in Ensay was rekindled a few months ago when I someone recommended I look into the photography of John Mayer. On Mayer's website the first photo is an incredible shot of Ensay Chapel seen from one of the bedrooms of Ensay House. (You can see the photo here.) And it was one of the on-line comments on that photo that led me to Ken Duxbury's book.

Now I really need to get back to Ensay. I've been on two cruises in the past ten years that tried to anchor nearby, but conditions were not right. What I'll have to do is spend a week on Harris, wait for a calm day, and try to get a day trip to the island. An adventure to look forward to. For more on Ensay see The Friends of Ensay website.

Ensay Chapel