Thursday, December 27, 2018

Isles to Be - Texa

Another island that I've yet to see is Texa. It is a small island that sits a half mile off the south coast of Islay, just opposite the Laphroig distillery. It had a population of 8 in the 18th century, and has been uninhabited since the middle of the 19th.

Texa is an intriguing name. Especially in that I believe it's the only Scottish island with an X in its name.  The explanation is that it is only 20 miles from Ireland. The Irish for house is 'Teach', and the 'a' is Norse for an island; so the spelling is a corruption of 'Teach-a', House Island. The 'house' may refer to the 14th century church that stands above the landing place on the north side of the island.

There may have been a seminary or monastery here prior to the 14th century, as the island was a stopover on sea journeys to and from Ireland. I have no photos of my own of Texa, so I am using a couple from the Geograph website.  For more Geograph photos of Texa see this link.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Isles to Be - Bearasaigh

Another Isle to Be is The Pirate's Isle. How's that for an enticing name. Was it once the base of Blue Beard, or maybe Jean Laffite? No. Or how about Captain Hook?  No; although Hook's creator spent time writing in a spot 20 miles from the island.

The island's other name is Bearasaigh, and it lies off the mouth of Loch Rog (Lewis). Between 1610 and 1613 Neil MacLeod and forty of his followers had a stronghold on the island, from where they launched raids against the “Gentlemen Adventurers” sent to Lewis by James VI.

Bearasaigh (middle distance) seen from the Bostadh Roundhouse
Bearasaigh was a good choice for a stronghold. It is cliff-girt, with just one, easily defended, sloping rock slab that allows access to the top of the island. They eventually caught Neil by stranding family members in a boat tied to a tidal rock near the island. Neil and his band surrendered in order to save them. Neil managed to escape after that, but was recaptured and ended up swinging from an Edinburgh scaffold in 1613. In chapter 16 of his book Behold the Hebrides, Alasdair Alpin Macgregor recounts the story of Neil Macleod (which you can read at this link).

I've always wanted to get ashore on Bearasaigh to see the remains of Neil's encampment on the island (see this link). But to do so would require an expensive day-charter of a RIB on a calm day, and so I've put it off for many years. I have, however, managed to come within 10 feet of the island on a day-cruise around Loch Rog. On the south side of the island we took a close look at the rock slab that gives access to Bearasaigh. It was a miserable, cold and wet day, as you can tell from the rain-smears on the photo of the landing spot. A scramble to the top of the island on those rocks would be exciting - something I hope to do someday.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Isles to Be - Little Colonsay - and Mars?

I have been posting on islands that I have not yet been able to visit. While deciding which island to write about next, I noticed, on my blog statistics page, that a post I did on Little Colonsay last year, an island I've never been to, had a large number of hits in the past week. I had to scratch my head; why the sudden interest in Little Colonsay?

Little Colonsay
An internet search on "Little Colonsay" answered the question. It was a surprising answer: Mars. It seems the Mars Rover has come across a strange, shiny rock of some sort, possibly a meteorite.

"Little Colonsay" - photo NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL
Why the mysterious rock was named "Little Colonsay" is not mentioned in any of the news stories on the find. The rock is certainly not shaped like the island. I can only guess the name came from a scientist who likes obscure Hebridean islands. (My kind of scientist!)

Little Colonsay is one of my Isles to Be. I have seen it from afar on multiple occasions, but have never set foot on it. Here is what Hamish Haswell-Smith's has to say about the island in his book The Scottish Islands:

This is a nice little island in a stunning setting...on a calm sunny day it is easy to be enthralled until you remember that the southwest is entirely exposed to the Atlantic with no sheltering landmass between Little Colonsay and the shores of America.

Little Colonsay seen from Ulva
Prior to the clearances the population peaked at 16 in 1841. An old map show a small cluster of ruined houses, but these days there is only one intact home on the island; a Victorian mansion that has been extensively remodeled. As I said in my post last year, someday I hope to set foot on Little Colonsay. I would climb to the summit of Torr Mor to enjoy the view over the amazing constellation of historic islands that dot the sea between Ulva and Iona.

Mansion on Little Colonsay

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Isles to Be - Sulaisgeir

Another Isle to Be for me is Sulaisgeir, a small islet 10 miles west of North Rona. It is so exposed to the open sea that conditions need to be just right to get ashore. 

Adding to the difficulty of getting ashore is that there is no place to anchor. Someone has to man the ship, keeping it safely off the rocks, while someone else gets the passengers ashore on an inflatable. These photos show how close I came in 2011. 

The attractions of Sula are many; the remoteness, the large gannetry; and the ancient beehive cells, now used annually by the men of Ness when they come to harvest their allotted 2000 guga, the young gannets. Another attraction is literary, as Peter May made use of Sulaisgeir, and the guga hunt, in his book The Balckhouse.

One of the beehive cells was originally an oratory/chapel; similar to the 8th century oratory on nearby Rona - so it could be possible that Sula was a hermitage for the monastery on Rona. Sadly, the chapel's roof collapsed in 1984, and there is now no sign of the altar, reported to be there in the 1880s. Someday I hope to see Sula firsthand.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Isles to Be - Mealasta

This is the first in a series of posts on the Elusive Ones; islands that have resisted all my advances; islands I hope to set foot on someday. The first is Mealasta, off the coast of Uig (Lewis).

Over the years I've sailed past Mealasta a dozen times. Three of those times we wanted to get ashore, but on all those occasions the swell was too large to safely land.

Mealasta seen from Scarp
Traigh Mhor an Eilean - Mealasta
Mealasta has a fantastic beach of golden sand on its east side  - Traigh Mhor an Eilean (previous photo). To the north of it lie the remains of a few structures: Airighean a Chraois; a name that implies it was a summer shieling.

I am not sure if, other than the shielings, the island was ever inhabited. (Haswell-Smith, in his Scottish Islands book says it was, but that there are no records.) There are indeed references to people from Mealasta, but those mentions may be referring to the township of Mealasta, opposite the island on Lewis. That Mealasta had a population of 11 in 1766.

The most well known story about the people of Mealasta is the incident of the Pairc Murders, when the crew of a boat from Mealasta were killed for their cargo of lumber. (See the August 1, 2017 post for more on this).  In his book Waypoints: Seascapes and Stories of Scotland's West Coast, Ian Fisher includes a version of the story that says that the doomed crew was from the island, not the mainland.

You can get to within a mile of Mealasta island by driving to the end of the Uig road, where there is a small jetty. Last time I was there the azure sea was calm and the wind light; ideal for a voyage to the island. At the foot of the jetty a boat sat invitingly on a trailer.  If only it was mine...

Scarp seen from near the old Mealasta township - Mealasta island to the right
I hope to set foot on Mealasta someday (without stealing a boat). But, for now, it remains one of the Isles to Be.

Scarp (left) and Mealasta seen from Lewis

Monday, November 19, 2018

History of Rona

I am looking forward to setting foot on Rona again this coming July (see this link). So I was delighted to be told of a new website dedicated to the history of Rona. Here is what its author, Jonathan Machin, told me about his vision for the website:

Rona represents one of the few true wildernesses left in the UK, granted protection by its isolation – more than 40 miles from the nearest inhabited land – and made wild by the harsh Atlantic Ocean. The very existence of such a place seems to defy the every-day mundanity of my own city life. Yet despite its remoteness, the island of Rona is layered thick with history, its unique location and circumstances providing the perfect backdrop to the human stories that fill it. History of Rona seeks to give a glimpse of what it was like to live on Rona, and illustrate just some of epic stories that come out of this most remote island.

If Rona is of interest, whether you are an armchair traveler, or planning to visit the island, be sure to take a look at Jonathan's website History of Rona.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Kerrera - The North End

My last visit to Kerrera was in June of 2018. I discovered then that the ferry I'd taken many times in the past, Gylen Lady, had been replaced by MV Carvoria (an old Norse name for Kerrera). The ferry, now managed by Calmac, is still run by Duncan McEachan  (see this link).

Gylen Lady in 2017

MV Carvoria

MV Carvoria
Most people who take this ferry walk the Gylen loop: a six-mile hike that visits Barnambuc and Gylen Castle. Another great walk is to head north up the west coast to visit the Hutcheson Monument, and the monastic cashel at Cladh a' Bhearnaig. See chapter 22 of Book 1 for a description of Cladh a' Bhearnaig, and the history of the monument.

North tip of Kerrera - The cashel of Cladh a' Bhearnaig at centre
The north tip of Kerrera is very close to Oban, and from the vantage point of the Hutcheson Monument you can watch the ferries rumble by on their way to and from Mull and the Western Isles.

The high ground near the monument is also a great place to enjoy a packed lunch. Chances are you will have the place to yourself.

A north-end Kerrera monument that disappeared several years ago was a statue of Sampson that stood guard over the waters at Ardentrive. If anyone knows his whereabouts please let me know.

Sampson of Ardentrive - where did he go?
Next time you are in Oban, and looking for something to do (and escape the summer crowds), there's no better day-out than a long wander around Kerrera.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Leif Erikson in Uig

When I arrived in Uig (Lewis) last August, the first thing my wife and I did was visit the museum run by Commun Eachdraigh Uig, the Uig Historical Society. As we were walking in we passed a bust of a viking on a plinth. At first I thought it was a large version of one of the Lewis Chessmen, as statues of them appear in Uig every now and then.

As it happened, the night before we arrived on Lewis the bust was presented to the people of Uig by the Leif Ericson International Foundation. The statue commemorates Lief's probable visit to the Western Isles a thousand years ago. It is the final, in a series of statues they've commissioned over the past 20 years. As it turns out, the foundation is based only a few miles away from where I live in Seattle. I'd never heard of them, but I was very familiar with the large statue of Lief Erikson in Seattle that dates to 1962, and overlooks a large marina at the north end of town. There is a large population with Norse heritage in Seattle. Tens of thousands came here in the late 18th and early 20th century, because the environment reminded them of home, and there were lots of opportunities for work in fishing and logging. 

The Lewis chessmen are dated to the 1100s, but they could be off by 100 years. If so, maybe one of Leif's crewman lost the chess set found in the sands of Uig in 1831. Could Leif had been the model for the Berserker, or the Warder?

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A Night in Crolà - 8 Years On

Eight years had passed since I last spent a night in Crolà - one of my favourite places in the Hebrides - and so this August I decided to stay there again. Crolà lies at the head of Loch Reasort, a difficult five mile hike from the nearest road. When I camped there in 2010 (see chapter 22 of Skye & Tiree to the Outer Isles), it was a sunny summer day. I was not so lucky with the weather this time.

Crolà - 2010
I reached Crolà last August after visiting the Clàr Mòr beehive cells described in the last post. From Clàr Mòr I carried on for another mile south to pay a visit to the Clàr Beag beehives, an amazing place I'd only visited once before, way back in 1998.

From Clàr Beag a descent along the banks of Abhainn a’ Chlàir Bhig led to the ruin of Tota Choinnich. (See chapter 17, Skye & Tiree to the Outer Isles, for the story of Tota Choinnich.)

Tota Choinnich
At Tota Choinnich the Clàr Beag stream joins the Abhainn Mhòr Ceann Reasoirt; a substantial river that is not easy to cross after any significant rainfall, which there had been all week. Fortunately, I didn’t have to cross it, and so I continued along its north bank for a half mile to the old lodge at Kinresort.

Approaching Kinresort from the east
The lodge at Kinresort is not a place you can count on for shelter out in the back of beyond, as they’ve gone to a lot of trouble to prevent anyone from getting in. A place more heavily defended from bog-weary intruders would be hard to find; most of the doors and windows are securely covered with padlocked wrinkly-tin shutters; and those not so covered are tightly blockaded with stone.

Kinresort Lodge - 2018
The old lodge looks a lot different than when I first passed through here in 1998.

Kinresort Lodge - 1998
It started to rain again as I made my way along the north shore of Loch Reasort. Only one more obstacle lay between me and Crolà: the Abhainn Leatha. The stream was in heavy spate, which forced me to climb to find a fording place. A hundred metres up the hillside the stream split to flow around a small island. On each side of the island flowed a narrow stretch of cascading water that I could cross. It was there that, tired, and in a hurry to set up camp, I made a mistake, My boot slipped off a boulder and plunged into the stream; cold water flooding into it. Cursing myself for the mistake, I continued across the stream, and then descended to the shore and the ruin of the postman’s house at Crolà.

Crola - 2018
I was not too happy when I saw a large, rusting barrel lying next to the house. I had rolled that damn thing far away when I'd cleaned up the flotsam littering the site in 2010. But the sea had rolled it back, along with even more flotsam.

Before the clean-up in 2010

After the clean-up in 2010
The junk is back in 2018
The rain had decreased to a light drizzle as I pitched the tent. Unlike the previous night in Glen Shanndaig there were no midges; a light breeze off Loch Reasort kept them away. Before sliding into the sleeping bag I stuffed my boots with newspaper. They were a bit soggy after two days of hiking over wet terrain and my earlier misstep crossing the stream.

I woke at midnight to the sound of a deer barking as it was taking a drink at the nearby stream - I barked back and it ran away. I am used to nights not being very dark this time of year in the Hebrides (early August); but with the heavy cloud cover it was pitch black when I stepped out at 2am to take care of business. I was asleep again in an instant. Lapping surf, and the pitter-patter of rain on a tent, are the best sleep-aids in the world.

It was still raining at 7am. When I crawled out of the tent I was happy to discover the midges were still missing in action. It was a gray, breezy morning, with on and off rain sweeping in from the Atlantic.

I shook off as much water as I could from the tent before rolling it up and strapping it to the pack. The time had come to face the streams and bogs once again; to plow through thick heather and tall, wet bracken. It was time to head north to Morsgail. Halfway there I came across the first of forty old friends. Those old friends are the Postman's Stones, which guide the walker across the bogs between Morsgail and Kinresort. I was done navigating, it was time to follow the stones. I would reach the Morsgail road an hour later.

One of the postman's stones