Monday, April 30, 2018

Something Amazing

I saw something truly amazing during my visit to Lewis last year. My wife and I were staying in a cottage on Great Bernera, and one day we decided to drive to Stornoway to visit Museum nan Eilean at Lews Castle. The museum was fantastic, and as I was looking at the various items on display I noticed an unusual dark green stone mounted high on a wall. It was egg shaped, with veins of lighter green running through it: a talisman of some kind. In an instant a memory of something I read 30 years ago popped into my head, and I knew what it was before reading the adjacent information plaque. Before me was something fantastic; something I thought I'd never see.

What was it?  It was something Frasier Darling found over 80 years ago buried below the altar of St Ronan's Cell in far off North Rona.

St Ronan's Cell (beehive cell oratory at left)

Inside the oratory - altar (and fulmar) at bottom
Here is Darling's description (from A Naturalist on Rona; pp. 43-44) of what he found while excavating the altar in St Ronan's cell:

As I was digging at floor level beside the altar my spade was deflected from a rounded stone which, even in the dim light of the cell, showed green. My first thought was - Iona Marble - a stone of which I am familiar, for I always carry some small pieces in my pocket. I picked up the stone, washed it, and found a piece of smooth, dark-green marble about the size and shape of a sheep's heart. There was an intricate veining of lighter green. No rock of this kind occurs naturally on Rona, and, found in this place of all others, I wondered if St Ronan had been to the collage of Iona and had brought this piece of stone to his church on Rona to be a symbol of the mother foundation.... this stone has left Rona with me, so that it may be seen by antiquaries and men of science, and that it may not be lost. But it must go back to its place as part of Ronan's altar and not be kept by me or placed in a museum. I have left a token of good faith of my present custodianship by burying three of my own pebbles of Iona marble in the masonry of the altar. Fanciful, perhaps, but it has pleased me so to do.

Oh how I wish I'd taken a photo of the Rona stone when I saw it in the museum. But I did not have a camera with me, and even if I did I doubt that the docents in the museum would have approved of taking a photo. 

So next time you are in Stornoway be sure to pay a visit to Museum nan Eilean at Lews Castle. And while there take the time to find a beautiful green stone mounted high on the wall - it is easy to miss. Darling did not want to see it end up in a museum, but I think it's the best place for it; although I wonder how many tourist who see it truly appreciate this ancient relic of island history.

If you are interested in visiting North Rona consider joining our ten-day cruise in July of 2019.

Postscript (May 6, 2018): I was just reading DDC Pochin Mould's book Irish Pilgrimages. On page 81 there is a description of a stone strikingly similar to the one found on Rona:

Martin Martin (1695) tells of St Moluag's Ball... this is Moluag of Lismore, who was originally a monk of Bangor in Ireland before crossing to Scotland. The stone was round and green, 'about the bigness of a goose egg'; it was used for swearing oaths, for curing stitches, and for throwing at enemies armies, the opposing force being flung into confusion and at once running away. Macdonald of the Isles was said to have carried the stone and always to have been victorious when he had it with him. The stone had a hereditary keeper of the Clan Chattan.

This makes me wonder if at some point St Moluag's stone found its way to Rona.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Back to Lunga

One of the possible destinations on our upcoming cruise is Lunga of the Treshnish Isles. Lunga is famous for its large puffin colony, and the birds are so used to visitors that they let you sit just feet from their burrows as they go about their business. They are so entrancing that many visitors spend their whole time on the island sitting, and smiling, as they watch the puffins go about their business - and they are very busy birds, indeed.

There are other things to see on Lunga: the village ruins, Fraser Darling's Cave, and the view from atop the island. But the puffins, and the myriad other seabirds that roost near Harp Rock, are sights that you'll never forget. 

Here are a few puffin photos from Lunga.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Author's Memorials

Whenever possible I like to find the graves of authors whose books about the islands have influenced me over the years.  Here are six I've been able to locate so far.

Two of the graves are in the same cemetery, Cille Barra, at the north end of Barra. The first is Compton Mackenzie, best known for Whiskey Galore.

Grave of Compton MacKenzie
The second grave in Cille Barra is that of John MacPhearson (AKA The Coddy).  His Tales from Barra is a classic.

Grave of John MacPhearson
A very prolific author of island books was Alasdair Alpin Macgregor. Two of my favourites are Behold the Hebrides and The Goat Wife.

Alasdair's memorial stone is in Balquidder Cemetery; but he is not buried there. His ashes were sprinkled in the Hebrides.

MEM Donaldson is buried in Pennyfuir Cemetery just north of Oban. For the story of finding her grave see the August 21, 2015 post. Her books Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands, and Further Wanderings - Mainly in Argyll, are invaluable resources for anyone interested in the islands.

MEM's grave in Pennyfuir Cemetery
Another author's grave I've visited has one of the most elaborately decorated tombstones I've come across; and that is the grave of Alexander Carmichael, who died in 1912. (See the June 8, 2017 post for the story of finding Carmichael's grave on Lismore.) Carmichael produced the amazing Carmina Gadelica; described by one of the book's publishers as follows: 

Carmina Gadelica is the most complete anthology of Celtic oral tradition ever assembled. During his travels, Alexander Carmichael spent hours with peasants in their huts in front of peat fires listening as they "intoned in a low, recitative manner" these poems and prayers. This unique collection of living spirituality drawn from the depths of Celtic Christianity, and represents a hidden oral tradition of great power and beauty, handed down through countless generations.  

Alexander Carmichael's grave - Lismore
I found the grave of John Lorne Campbell on Canna totally by accident (see the March 22, 2014 post).  Campbell's book Canna - The Story of a Hebridean Island is the definitive book about the island. Campbell was the premiere Gaelic scholar, and I hope his vast collection of material will someday be available to the public. St Edwards Church on Sanday (connected to Canna by bridge) was supposed to be a study centre for his material, but I don't think that's going to happen (see the October 12, 2015 post). You can read Campbell's obituary here:

Grave of John Lorne Campbell in Canna woods
There are three other graves that I hope to find someday. The first is Neil Munro's: his book Children of Tempest  - A Tale of the Outer Isles is an island classic.  I searched for his grave in the Inverary Cemetery. But I could not find it; and no one in the tourist office knew anything about him (sadly I was not surprised about that).

The second grave I hope to find is that of Seton Gordon; author of The Immortal Isles, Afoot in the Hebrides, Afoot in Wild Places, The Charm of Skye, Islands of the West and many more. He lived for a long time on Skye, but I am not sure where he's buried.

The third grave I hope to find is that of Daphne D C Pochin Mould, who passed away in 2014: Author of The Roads from the Isles, Scotland of the Saints, West Over Sea and several on the Irish islands. I assume she is buried in Ireland, but I have no idea where.

If anyone knows the location of these three graves I would love to hear from you.

In parting I'd like to say 'Rest in Peace' to all these authors; authors who've left written legacies that inspire people to this very day to explore the highlands and islands of Scotland.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

2019 Guided Cruise

Since 2016 it has been my privilege to guide an annual 10 day cruise on the ship Hjalmar Bjorge, operated by Northern Light Cruising Company. The itinerary for the 2019 cruise has now been set. Departing Oban on July 10, the primary destination will be Rona, which lies 40 nautical miles north of the Butt of Lewis.

Approaching Rona
Guests will need to arrive at Oban around 1230 on July 10, and then Hjalmar Bjorge will depart at 1330 for a crossing to Canna on day one.

The route north from there will depend on prevailing weather conditions. Hopefully, after a night at Canna, we'll cruise up the west of Skye to the Shiant Islands. From there we will head up the east coast of Lewis before making our passage to Rona where, if at all possible, we will spend one or two nights on anchor. The village ruins on Rona are fascinating, and at its heart stand the chapel and cell of Saint Ronan, some of the oldest extant Christian ruins in Britain.

St Ronan's cell and chapel

Rona - looking north from the top
From Rona we will sail west to Sula Sgeir and again, if possible, land there. From here we’ll head south, down the west coast of Lewis and towards the Flannan Islands with an overnight stop in West or East Loch Roag.

Approaching Sula Sgeir

Sula Sgeir

Approaching the Flannans

Landing at the Flannans
There may also be time to visit Little Bernera in Loch Roag, or the island of Scarp, before commencing our return home via the Sound of Harris and back to Oban on the last morning.

Little Bernera

If the weather is kind, possible highlights include the seabird colonies on the Shiant Islands and the gannetry on Sula Sgeir, puffins and more seabirds on the Flannans, plus golden and sea eagles on Scarp. There should be dolphin and other cetacean sightings throughout; in recent years some of better sightings have been in the north of the Hebrides, such as those involving orca and humpback whales (fingers crossed). There are sites of archaeological and historic interest on Canna, the Shiants, North Rona, the Flannan Isles, West Loch Roag and Scarp.

For more information, and to book, refer to the Northern Lights website.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Eilean Mòr of St Charmaig

On our upcoming cruise in June, one of the islands I hope we can land on is tiny Eilean Mòr, which lies a quarter-mile off the coast of Knapdale.

For such a small island (a half-mile long, a quarter-mile wide), it has a large history. There are three sites of interest: the chapel and grave of St Charmaig, the high-cross on the summit of the island, and St Charmaig's hermitage and cave (8th century).

The cave lies at the head of a gully - a dark slot marks its narrow entrance. More pit than cave, it extends ten feet into the rock of the cliff. Its floor lies at the bottom of a vertical drop, six-feet below the entrance. Tradition has it that there was once a passageway from the pit to St Charmaig's cell, some 25 feet to the south.

My only visit to the island was back in 2002. I wanted to see for myself if there was a passageway out of the pit. But I was alone at the time, and after slowly lowering myself about three feet down into the pit I changed my mind and climbed back out, as I did not think I'd be able to pull myself out if I dropped all the way in. I did set a camera up to record my descent - just in case I never got back out (see photo below).

As far as I got before climbing back out of the cave
If we manage to land on Eilean Mòr this coming June there will be 10 of us, so perhaps we'll attempt to drop into the cave.

Below the cave stands the remnants of a dry-stone structure that may have been a beehive cell (with a passage into the pit) that was later altered into pilgrimage chapel for those visiting St Charmaig’s Cave.

Remnants of Cell and Chapel
Eilean Mor is a fascinating island; one far off the beaten path; and I am looking forward to showing our guests on Hjalmar Bjorge St Charmaig's island hermitage in the sea.