Sunday, November 26, 2017

Lonely Levinish - St Kilda

I doubt if it's in my future to climb any of the stacks of St Kilda, but it would be interesting to have done so. I have, however, had the privilege of motoring up close to the major stacks; Stac Dona, Stac Biorach, Soay Stac, Stac Armin, Stac Lee, and lonely Levenish.

Levenish is indeed lonely. Connected to Dun by a submerged ridge, it stands all by itself two miles out from Village Bay. Rising to just over 200 feet above the sea, it pales in comparison to the other stacks. But being visible from Village Bay, it shows up in the background of many photos.

Stac Levenish on a grey Kilda day

A Kilda landing - Stac Levenish in the distance
I've only come across one description of someone landing on Levenish, and that was Dr. A M Cockburn who visited it in 1927. He reported finding wild marguerites, sea-pinks, and scurvy-grass on the summit. When I sailed by a few dozen fulmars were nesting in cracks on the side of the rock, but nothing like the massive bird life found on the other stacks.

Levenish would be a star if was all by itself. It is four times as high as Rockall, and difficult to land on. But the superstar stacks, Stac Armin and Stac Lee, draw all the attention. If you ever sail to St Kilda, be sure to appreciate this rugged sentinel in the sea, one the Kildans of old could see most every day. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Taransay Walk

My favorite walk on Taransay begins with the climb to the top of Beinn Ra. From the summit, if the sky is clear, you'll be greeted with a view of St Kilda, 55 miles to the west.

Top of Taransay (1998) - Kilda on the horizon
Of course, the weather does not always cooperate. The above photo was taken the first time I visited Taransay in 1998. The next photo is from a gray and windy day in 2011. Kilda was not visible.

Once at the top the best part of the walk begins; the descent to the southwest toward Loch an Dùin. I love this part because the hard work is behind you, and as you drop down the hillside you are surrounded by stunning views of sea and islands. Navigation is easy, for as you descend you set a course directly towards something amazing; something you can see floating in the loch in the next photo: the fort of Loch an Duin.

Next stop - Loch an Duin
As you near the loch you can tell that the speck of land in it is more than just an island; a small causeway can be seen, one that you hope will allow you to get across to the island.

The causeway stones are a bit slippy, but if you are careful it is easy to cross to the fort.

There is a bit of a gap in the causeway, right after the Clach Ghlagain, the rattle stone. If you step on it, and you have to, it will crash against another stone with a loud clank, alerting the dun-dwellers that someone is calling.

The Rattle Stone (centre)
The fort itself is fairly small, but an impressive structure none the less. For a drawing of what it looked like in 1890 see page 397 of this link.

From the loch it is only a half mile down to the shore, where there awaits another island treasure: St Taran's Cross.

Near the cross is the Uidhe Bothy, a cozy place to hang around for a night or two.

Depending on where you were set ashore you'll either rejoin your boat on the shore below the bothy, or make your way back to the yellow sands of Corran Ra. Taransay is an ideal island for a long loop walk to see historic sites and beautiful beaches; all centered around a 900 foot climb to the top of the island, where you'll be rewarded with views of a beautiful island-studded seascape. Sea Harris offers day trips to Taransay, and many Northern Light trips include a visit to the island.

Corran Ra

Corran Ra beach landing

Monday, November 13, 2017

Islands from the Air

During my last flight to the UK I had a window seat. As we approached the Western Isles there was not a cloud in the sky, and I had am amazing bird's-eye view of the islands; starting with Scarp, then the islands in the Sound of Harris, all the way over Skye, the Small Isles, and Mull. But, sadly, I did not have a camera with me.

And so on the flight home a few weeks later I made sure I had a camera. But, of course, the weather was bad. Even so, between the clouds the occasional island made a brief appearance. I was blessed with tantalizing views of Colonsay, Insh, Mull, Iona, Inchkenneth, Hyskier, Eriskay, and South Uist. Shortly after passing Eriskay the clouds decided I'd seen enough, and closed in completely. I pulled down the blind, and went to sleep with visions of islands dancing in my head.

Here are a few island views from 10,000 feet.

Colonsay and Oronsay

Insh - once home to a Brownie and a naked hermit
Loch Buie - Mull

The Ross of Mull - Iona at the far end

Inchkenneth and Little Colonsay


Last view of the isles - Eriskay and Rubha na h-Ordaig (South Uist)

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Isle of Donovan and Rory the Venomous

I have only been to Isay once; on a dark, wet, and gloomy day in May 2009 (see chapter 4 of book 2). The Gaelic spelling is 'Ìosaigh'. I am not sure of the correct pronunciation; but I've heard all the following: "Icy", "Ice-ay", "E-oh-sigh", "E-shay", and "E-oh-say". Isay lies in Loch Dunvegan, six miles north of Dunvegan Castle. The first thing that strikes you when approaching the island is the gaunt outline of Isay House; last inhabited in 1860, and where a mass killing occurred.

Isay first caught my attention 30 years ago when I read the story of Dr. Johnson's visit to the Hebrides (1773). The following is from Boswell’s journal of the trip:

There is a beautiful little island in the Loch of Dunvegan, called Isay. MacLeod said he would give it to Mr. Johnson, on condition of his residing on it three months in the year, nay, one month. Mr. Johnson was highly pleased with the fancy… He talked a great deal of this island—how he would build a house, how he would fortify it, how he would have cannon, how he would plant, how he would sally out and take the isle of Muck.

Upwards of ninety people called Isay home in the nineteenth century, when it had been a fishing station with a general store. That era of occupation came in 1830, made up of people evicted from Bracadale, fifteen miles away on Skye. But life on the island came to an end in 1860 when it was cleared for sheep.

At the south end of the village lies the ruin of Isay House. The house is an eerie looking structure. Its roof is missing, and the jagged and split gable ends look like pincers pointing to the sky. Access to the first floor is via a once balustered staircase. The door is gone, and if you step through the opening you'll fall ten feet onto the rocky ground floor, as the house is now just a shell.

If he had taken MacLeod up on his offer, this could have been Samuel Johnson’s holiday home, from where he could have sallied forth to take the Isle of Muck. But there was someone who stood here forty years ago that did make Isay a holiday home of sorts, and that was the singer Donovan. Donovan bought Isay, the two neighboring isles of Mingay and Clett, and some nearby land on Skye in the late 1960s.

An earlier owner, 400 years before Donovan, was Ruairaidh MacAilein MacLeod, known as Nimheach (the venomous). MacLeod wanted his son to inherit Raasay and the lands of Gairloch, but his family was third in line for the inheritance. So Ruairaidh decided to host a banquet, and the families that stood in the way were invited to Isay. During dinner he invited each attendee, one by one, to have a private word with him and, one by one, they were quickly dispatched.

Isay is an island that's had a few moments of fame in its time, but is now mostly left alone. I visited it during one of the Northern Light cruises. My 2008 edition of Hamish Haswell-Smith's The Scottish Islands says day trips may be available from Dunvegan in the summer. I'm not sure if that's still true, and a search on the internet does not show any such trips on offer from Dunvegan. But you can get there for a few hours on the 'Go Ashore and Explore' day-trip offered by Diver's Eye Boat Trips, which operates out of Stein, two miles east of Isay. A more fascinating destination for a day out would be hard to find.