Monday, February 26, 2018

Gil Bhigurra - An Oasis in the Pairc

Take a look at the OS map that covers the centre of Pairc, in the southeast of Lewis. And as you do, see if something unusual stands out; for there is something odd there. Don't see it yet?  Here's a hint: look two miles southwest of the head of Loch Sealg. There, in amongst all the swirling brown countour lines, you will see a small bit of green, possibly the only green on the map of Pairc. That bit of green is Gil Bhigurra.

Hiking into Gil Bhigurra

Gil Bhigurra
Gil Bhigurra is a geologic wonder, and a beautiful one at that: a short, narrow gorge, running east-west for about a quarter-mile, that is host to a rare native woodland. The trees growing on its steep sides are a mix of rowan, birch, holly, aspen, and several varieties of willow.

There is no easy way to visit Gil Bhigurra. It is about as remote as you can get in Lewis; lying as it does some five hard miles from the nearest road at Eisgean. I visited it as part of a eight-mile one-way walk with John Randall from Tob Smuaisibhig to Eisgean. The route we took is shown in the following map, and the walk is described in the August 11, 2017 post.

Lying somewhere near, if not in, Gil Bhigurra, is Airigh Nighean an Airgiodach: the shieling of the wealthy daughter. Walking up the south side of the ravine we kept on the lookout for any ruins, but all that could be seen was a cluster of stones down in the ravine that may have been a structure a long time ago.

It would be interesting to know the story of the shieling of the wealthy daughter. A clue to it is that five miles to the northwest lies Sidhean an Airgid; the hill of wealth. Perhaps the daughter found her own Uamh an Oir, one of the fabled caves of gold, high atop Sidhean an Airgid.

When I hiked into Gil Bhigurra in the summer of 2017 it was on an exceptional Hebridean day. The temperature was in the 80s (F); and the gully, gorge, ravine, or whatever you might call Gil Bhigurra, was an amazing sight; a green oasis of tall trees buried in the vast moorland of central Pairc. It would be interesting to know what the Gaelic name means. 'Gil' is a small mountain stream; but I have been unable to decipher 'Bhigurra'. If anyone out there has an idea please let me know.

East end of Gil Bhigurra 

Looking east from Gil Bhigurra to the head of Loch Sealg 
The interior of Pairc is a vast and fascinating area; one usually only visited by folks who stay on the Eisgean estate. But you can see some of it without doing that. Just be courteous, visit outside stalking season, and let the estate know you might be leaving a car near road's end, and that you'll be walking through the grounds of the lodge, which is pretty much the only way to access the track along the northeast shore of Loch Sealg. It is worth the effort to be a good visitor, for many treasures of the Pairc, like Gil Bhigurra, await the hardy hiker who sets out on foot into this remote area.

You can read a little more about Gil Bhigurra in this Woodlands Restoration Survey Report.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

North Rona - A Return

The dates have been set for my 2019 guide trip. It will run from July 10 - 19, and the primary destination will be North Rona. I have been fortunate to have visited Rona on two occasions. The first was in 2002; an exhilarating, but short, visit on the ship Poplar Diver skippered by Rob Barlow (see Chapter 28 of Book 2). 

Approaching Rona - MV Poplar Diver

Poplar Diver at Rona
My second Rona visit was in 2011 aboard MV Hjalmar Bjorge, skippered by Mark Henrys (see chapter 29 of book 2).

Approaching Rona - MV Hjalmar Bjorge

Hjalmar Bjorge at Rona
I am looking forward to returning to Rona in July of 2019; a suspenseful 17 months away. I say suspenseful because any visit to Rona is dependent on conditions. But the odds, in my case, anyway, have been fairly good. Only one of three attempts to get there over the years has failed. The unsuccessful attempt was in 2009. Although conditions precluded getting to Rona that time, we had some excellent Plan B options: Setting foot on Tanera Mor, Isay, South Rona, Shiants, Scalpay, Skye, Canna and Muck. (The Isay visit is described in chapter 4 of book 2).

Below are some photos of Rona from 2011. If visiting this far-off isle appeals, consider joining us in 2019. Getting there is, as always, dependent on sea conditions. But if anyone can get you there it's Mark Henrys at the helm of Hjalmar Bjorge.

Sula seen from Rona (zoom)

Departing Rona

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (1898-1970)

He is much maligned. And over the past 40 years it has seemed incorrect to say anything positive about him. But I will.

Alasdair Alpin Macgregor was an author I discovered in 1989, when I was obsessed with finding books about the Hebrides. There was an old book shop in downtown Seattle called Shoreys, and while perusing their section on Britain I noticed a tiny book with a purple dust jacket. Its title was written in an intriguing font, and incorporated an exclamation point: It was Behold the Hebrides!

After 1989 I slowly collected all of Macgregor's books long before I learned of the controversy stirred up by The Western Isles, and how his writing style had been satirized after that. So I’m saddened by how some people see his works today. Summer Days Among the Western Isles, The Haunted Isles, Searching the Hebrides with a Camera, and A Last Voyage to St Kilda are works I will always treasure.

Macgregor's books are profusely illustrated with his beautiful photos. Martin Padget, in his book Photographers of the Western Isles (2010), has a chapter on Macgregor in which you'll find more biographical information on him than anywhere else. Macgregor's photos are brilliant, and they first captivated me in his book Searching the Hebrides with a Camera (1933). It is a book whose title built upon two earlier works on the islands that focused on exploration with a camera: Richard and Cherry Keaton's With Nature and a Camera (1898), and Erskine Beveridge's Wanderings with a Camera (1922).

Macgregor wrote many more books, all with titles guaranteed to make an island addict drool: Islands by the Score, The Enchanted Isles, An Island Here and There, and The Farthest Hebrides. Macgregor's best book - in my opinion - is The Goat-Wife (1939), which tells the story of his Aunt Dorothy, and her house Cnocnamoine (Hill of the Peats) near Ardgay. It is a beautiful book that describes his childhood stays there with his aunt.

In the epilogue of the book Macgregor describes how he returned to Cnocnamoine in 1937, fourteen years after his aunt died. He finds the property derelict, but the house is still standing, barely. Inside he finds his aunt's rusting iron beadstead, in which she died in 1923. Most of the rest of the furnishings had been taken.

His aunt's house in 1937: Photo AA Macgregor
The Goat-Wife is so good that, over the years I've read it several times, and in June of 1995 I paid a visit to Cnocnamoine. I do not know about today, but in '95 you could drive within a quarter-mile of the site of his Aunt Dorothy's house (NH 5921 8988). It was an easy hike in, and what I found was sadder than what Macgregor saw in 1937. One gable end of the house stood, but most of the rest was rubble. In amongst the ruin were rusting bits of a broken-up iron bedstead, perhaps the one in which his aunt had died.

As maligned as much of Macgregor's writing is, I found it intriguing, and addictive. Especially to someone who'd just 'discovered' the Hebrides on a typically hurried American tourist's first visit. A visit that whetted my thirst for more. But due to the expense of travelling I had to slake this thirst by reading books during the 50 weeks between visits. During those 50 weeks I was delighted to read Macgregors books over and over, even if they colorfully viewed the isles through rose-tinted glasses, or via 'purple-prose'. A parodied prose that in some instances seems to me to be direct English translations of Gaelic terminology.

Alasdair Alpin MacGregor passed away in 1970. His (and his father's) memorial stone can be found in Balquhidder burial ground in Perthshire. But Alasdair is not buried there. He became part of the isles when his ashes were scattered in the Hebrides. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Scenes from Oronsay

I am looking forward to returning to Oronsay in June. It is a tidal island off the south side of Colonsay, and the first time I was there was in 1993. On that occasion my wife and I walked across the strand from Colonsay at low tide. It was quite an adventure, especially not knowing how long we could remain on the island before our return route was submerged. Adding to the fun, on the way over, was a foot-deep tidal steam that had to be crossed. 

Sanding atop Hangman's Rock - Oronsay in the distance

Barefoot on the strand
My last visit to Oronsay was in 2016, during a cruise on Elizabeth G. I did not have to get my feet wet that time, as we were set ashore on a sandy beach on the east coast of Oronsay.

Oronsay Landfall
Aside from its historic ruins, Oronsay is a beautiful destination on its own; a place to just wander. And it was nice not to have to worry about the tides that time. From the beach we made an easy stroll across the machair to the priory ruins.

As you can see in the previous photo, the priory is surrounded by farm buildings. (Oronsay is still a productive farm.) The presence of the farm buildings did not sit well with MEM Donaldson when she visited Oronsay a hundred or so years ago. This is what she had to say about it:

Pursuing the road when you get in sight of the Priory, sheltered under Oronsay’s highest hill from the north and east, you are sharply pulled up by the shock of the farm buildings…which, crowded up against the old remains, greatly detracts from their appearance. But, as I have already sufficiently inveighed against such modern disregard for the proximity of monuments of antiquity, I will spare the reader further fulminations on the subject.

That said, I think you can still appreciate the beauty of the priory ruins. And the activity at the farm has probably prevented a lot of vandalism.

One of the many highlights of a visit to Oronsay is seeing the collection of medieval tombstones housed in what is called the Prior's House, which I believe was once a barn. 

Other highlights are Prior Colin's Cross and the Cross of St John.

Prior Colin's Cross
The Cross of St John is interesting, as it had once been smashed to bits, and has been reassembled (although most of its shaft is missing). On the head is an image of a grinning St John, raising a hand in a blessing.

Cross of St John

Cross of St John
Embedded in the ruins are several ossuaries, some, but not all, protected by plexiglas screens that let you see the human bones within.

No visit to Oronsay is complete without a climb to Carn Cul ri Eirinn at the top of the island. This is the cairn with its back to Ireland, from where, as the story goes, St Columba is said to have been able to see Ireland. But there is a problem with the story. Malin Head on Ireland is 60 miles to the southwest. The cairn is 300 feet above the sea, and Malin Head rises to 500 feet, so under ideal conditions Malin Head would have to be within 50 miles to be visible. But it could be that Columba mistook Islay for Ireland, as Islay is in the same direction, and much nearer. 

Looking towards Ireland from the cairn
Whether the story about Columba is true or not, it is well worth the climb to the cairn to enjoy the panoramic view over sea, sky, and islands: Mull and Iona to the north, Islay to the south, Scarba and Jura to the east, and the wide open Atlantic to the west. It is truly an amazing spot. Even if the tale about Columba seeing Ireland is false, I am sure he climbed up here to enjoy the view. 

Looking northeast from Carn Cul ri Eirinn: In the middle distance is Beinn Eibhne (Colonsay), directly behind it, in the far distance, is Scarba