Saturday, September 22, 2018

Return to Eilean Chaluim Chille

While researching the locations of beehive cells on Lewis I came across a reference to a linear layout of three cells on the north side of Eilean Chaluim Chille. I had been to the island, which lies near the mouth of Loch Eireasort (eastern Lewis), a couple of times. Those visits had been made to see the ruins of Eaglais Chaluim Chille, St Columba's Church. (For a description of Eaglais Chaluim Chille see the April 8, 2014 and April 13, 2014 posts, and Book 2, chapter 28).

Eaglais Chaluim Chille
But on those previous visits I'd never been across to the island's northern side, where the beehive cells were said to be. So this August I visited Eilean Chaluim Chille with John Randall to see if we could find the cells. I'd made several walks with John in the past, most recently in July of 2017, when we made a long hike from Loch Claidh to Eisgean (see the August 11, 2017 post).

Our hike around Eilean Chaluim Chille began on a wet August morning by crossing to the island from mainland Lewis, via the tidal causeway near the village of Cromore.

The causeway before low tide
From the causeway we hiked southwest past Eaglais Chaluim Chille, where a monastery was established around the 9th century. (The ruins on the site date to the 12th century). Along the way we passed a modern burial enclosure. In it lies the grave of Charles Menedez Macleod, the first Charlie Barley of Charles Macleod Stornoway Black Pudding fame

From the ruins of St Columba's Church we turned north to cut across the centre of the island. The grass, bracken, and heather were thick and wet, which made the going difficult. After a half hour we came to a low cliff that overlooked a small bay.

A hard trudge through the wet heather below the cliff led us to the ruins of the beehives. The searcher for beehive cells encounters many highs, and lows; this was not a high, as the ruins were almost completely collapsed; their circular foundations barely visible in the thick, wet vegetation. But the site itself was spectacular, overlooking the islet-studded mouth of Loch Eireasort.

The three beehive ruins barely visible in the bracken
From the ruins we hiked northeast past Port nam Marbh (the port of the dead), where funeral processions landed to take the bodies to the burial ground near the church. (The graveyard was used into the 19th century.) From there we passed Loch na Muilne (mill-loch) and carried on to Dubh Thob (the dark bay), at the northeast tip of the island. Across the bay rose the rocky summit of Crois Eilean (Cross Island). At low tide this small islet is connected to Eilean Chaluim Chille. Since the tide was still out we made our way to the narrow crossing.  

Cross Island
An easy climb of 75 feet took us to the top of Cross Island. At its summit stood a large cairn; one that, based on the name of the island, may have once been the base of a cross that long ago signified to the sea-traveller that they were nearing the monastery of Eilean Chaluim Chille. 

Cross-base cairn Crois Eilean
Any visit to Eilean Chaluim Chille requires you keep an eye on the tide. But from the top of Crois Eilean we could see the tide was still low; and as it was only a half-mile back to the causeway there was no need to rush. As most of our walk had been, the return to the causeway was across rough, wet terrain. Nearing the causeway we could see that all the island's sheep had decided it was also time to return to the mainland. And so, before the rising sea made Eilean Chaluim Chille an island once again, we followed them back across the causeway. 

John and I had spent a day trekking over a part of Eilean Chaluim Chille that neither of us has been to before; we'd not found any intact beehive cells but, just as fascinating, we'd set foot on new ground, a part of an historic Hebridean island we'd not seen before. Something you don't often get the chance to do.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Rona - Ten Months and Counting

Ten months and counting. That's when I hope to return to Rona on Hjalmar Bjorge. I was fortunate, back in 2011, to have visited the island on Hjalmar Bjorge for two consecutive days of perfect weather (see Chapter 29 of Book 2).

There is only one spot left on our 2019 cruise to Rona (for a male sharing a cabin) - see this Northern Lights page for more information; and for more posts on Rona see this link.

Here is a short video that shows what it's like high atop the wheelhouse of Hjalmar Bjorge on the approach to Rona. Come join us for an experience like this; one, among many, you'll never forget.

Friday, September 7, 2018

A Hebridean Campsite

Last month I made a three-day hike into the interior of Lewis. I was searching for beehive cell dwellings, and found plenty: the most amazing at Loch a' Sguair, Gearraidh Ascleit, and another place further south called Airidh a' Chlair Mhoir. Along with the delight of finding intact cells, another satisfying thing during hikes like this is to find a campsite in a beautiful spot, a place to rest and savour the silence.

It was a wet August afternoon when, after exploring the cells at Gearraidh Ascleit, a village of eight beehives, three of them intact, I set out in search of a place to spend the night. I hoped to make it as far as Gleann Shanndaig, where there are many shieling ruins.

Beehive cell at Ascleit - the hill Roineabhal to the right
Glen Shanndaig lies seven kilometres south of Kinlochroag, five east of Kinlochreasort. To get there from Ascleit requires following a zig-zaggy route of five kilometres. First you have to cut across the south shoulder of Ascleit, then cross a stream that flows from a small, unnamed loch into Loch Lomhainn. From there fifteen minutes of hiking leads up to the interesting settlement of Gearraidh Druim Lomhainn: a linear set of four ruined cells spread out on the Druim Lomhainn ridge. 

Gearraidh Druim Lomhainn
My legs were getting weary at that point, but I was still an hour out from Glean Shanndaig. It’s not a straightforward route, as 230 metre high Sgalabhal Shanndaig stands in the way. The hill’s flanks are guarded by the cliffs of Creag Maralltan and Speireag, which forced me to head south to the saddle between Sgalabhal Shanndaig and Sgalabhal Beag. From the pass it was an easy hike down into Gleann Shanndaig.

The lumpy terrain in the glen was confusing: a maze of streams winding to and fro between grass-grown mounds of sand and gravel. The first ruin I came to was a large, tumbled double beehive at NB 150175. It sat just above a small grassy peninsula, nearly an island, surrounded on three sides by a loop of the Abhainn Gleann Shanndaig. The peninsula looked like the perfect campsite, or so my still weary legs were telling me, and so I dropped the pack on the ground.

The tent was pitched, I filtered some icy-cold water from the stream, and then wandered through the glen, on the lookout for intact beehive cells. But there were none to be found. What I did find were a half-dozen collapsed cells, and several rectangular shielings. I ventured farther south to a much larger stream, the Abhainn Gleann a’ GhĂ raidh. There were ruins there, too, but none of them beehives.

It was a quiet evening – just the trickle of the stream breaking the silence. The Perseid meteor shower peaked that night (Aug 12); but if there were any shooting-stars to see they were hidden behind heavy clouds. In the morning I set out, under a light rain, to search for more beehives. I would be successful in that. I would also be successful in finding yet another outstanding campsite on the far shores of Loch Reasort.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

A Monastic Retreat in the Hills of Uig

I was about to give up the search. I'd hiked southwest for nearly an hour from the road at Cairisiadar; first along an old peat track, which had petered out after a half-mile, and then up the slopes of Cleite na Crich, one of the outlying foot-hills of Suaineabhal. I had a grid location for what I was seeking, NB 088320. On reaching it I found myself on a level bit of hillside. A stream ran through it, it had an expansive view to Loch Rog, but there were no ruins in sight. 

I searched high and low, crisscrossing the ground within 100 meters of the grid location. Nothing was to be found, but, before heading back, I dug out the 1:25000 map to take one last look. I knew from experience that on this map series most beehive cells are indicated (though not named) by a small square. The location I had was from a list of the beehive cells of Uig I'd come across a few days earlier at the Uig Historical Society, but there was no structure marked on the map at that location.

In scanning the map, on that windswept hillside, I did see what looked like a tiny square drawn 150 meters farther west. So I headed in that direction, and on rounding a small knoll a smile instantly came to my face.

Can you spot it?

Now you can
The list of cells in the Uig museum indicated that this one may have been monastic. Based, I assume, on the fact that it was isolated, far from any other cells, and not near a shieling site.

The cell was in remarkable state, just the final few courses of its dome having collapsed.

Crawling into the cell I came across the stones that had fallen from the dome. And built into the lower course of the wall were several cupboards for storing food.

After crawling back out of the cell I took one last photo showing the remarkable view the cell-dweller had. I hefted the pack back on and walked down into that view.