Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Scarp Hostel

One of my favourite Hebridean islands is Scarp. I well remember several visits to Harris in the 1990s, standing at the slipway at Hushinish looking over to Scarp. I had no idea then how to get there, and neither did anyone I asked. Over a decade later, in the spring of 2004, I finally set foot on the island during a cruise on Hjalmar Bjorge. Since then I have been fortunate to have visited Scarp a half dozen times. To date I've not had the chance to spend a night on the island, something I'd dearly like to do. 

But between 1965 and 1971 several hundred travellers managed to do just that. During those six years there was a Gatliff Trust hostel on Scarp, truly the most remote hostel in Britain, even more remote (in terms of accessibility) than the Trust's hostel at Renigidale. To date I have not been able to identify where the Scarp hostel was. I am guessing in the village near the shop and phone box, but that is pure speculation. Brian Harper, a spring/summer resident of Scarp for many years, has no idea where it was. And neither does John Humphries, who has been involved in the Gatliff Trust for a long time.

The only information I can find on the Scarp hostel are the reports on its status published in the Gatliff Trust's yearly reports (which you can find here.) Put together, these reports provide a bare-bones sketch of the hostel's six-year life. What follows are excerpts from those reports relating to Scarp between the years 1965 and 1972. Placed between each year's report are photos from a cross-island walk made over the top of Scarp in 2013: sights those visitors to the hostel would have seen, and remembered.

The 1965 Gatliffe Trust yearly report has this first mention of Scarp: There is good prospect of our having next summer the use of old thatched houses in the islands of Scarp and Berneray.

The 1966 report statesThe Scarp hostel opens. 75 bednights recorded. Scarp is harder to get to than Renigidale as the mailboat only makes the crossing every other day, and the twice-weekly bus to Husinish does not run on those days. Those who went found it very well worthwhile; for Scarp is not only beautiful in a rugged way but probably the most 'apart' of all islands still inhabited in the Hebrides and gives a very special welcome to visitors.

The 1967 report states95 bednights recorded. Scarp is more difficult to reach, because the bus service is scanty, hitching not to be relied on and the sea crossing infrequent and sometimes difficult. But those who are prepared to sleep out for a night on the way, or in sufficient numbers to meet the expense of special transport or a boat, and have several days to spare, can find it an even more rewarding adventure. A boy of 17 wrote "No one is likely to forget the strange feeling of having suddenly been washed up on the shores of a Tristan da Cunha."  The hostel had last summer rather more use than we had ventured to hope. An American hosteller commented: "Most enjoyable stay anywhere made more so by the hospitality of the MacLennans and the people of Scarp."

The last entry in the 'house book' for 1976 is a suggestion to advertise the Scarp hostel more widely, and include it in the S.Y.R.A. handbook. Just following this comment, but in different handwriting, is: "No please don't. Let it be the wonderful surprise to others as it was to us."

The 1968 report states: 107 bednights recorded. The Maclennans have left Scarp and live at West Tarbert, but Norman Macinnes has taken charge of the hostel. He and others however are probably leaving before long, and it may be that the island must become a sheiling lived in only during the summer. 

The 1968 report states: 60 bednights recorded. Angus and Joan MacLennan have retired to the mainland, and, sad as it is to see old people leave their island homes, no doubt it's best they should go where life is easier. Norman McInnes, who took over, is still there and we are glad to hear he'll be for another summer at least. Fewer hostellers reach Scarp than Howmore or Rhenigidale, but those that do find it very rewarding. A visitor wrote "To stay in Scarp hostel is a great privilege; the house is a living page from the folk history of Scotland." It's strangely moving to find this written of the most primitive hostel in Britain. 

Scarp from all we hear will be lived-all-the-year-round-in for a little while yet, but as those who live there get older it may not be possible or indeed right that they should remain much longer. If not it may still be possible for some of them, and some of you who love the island, and such bodies as the Schools Hebridean Society to keep it lived in in summer, a live sheiling, including the hostel.

The 1970 report states: 146 bednights recorded. The news from Scarp was not so good. We heard in October that part of the roof had fallen in, and the house was no longer habitable. We were not clear which part, or whether it was due to Act of God (wind) or act of cow (grazing) - the hostel is believed to be the only inhabited house in Britain (except perhaps flats in the Barbican in the City of London) that has grazing grass on the roof. 

At Easter however Michael Gerrish and two friends went over with a lot of polythene, found it was only the barn end that had fallen in, probably by act of sheep, not cow, and made the hostel part weatherproof for at any rate another summer, though perhaps after that the walls will fall in or out. Whilst more people are leaving the island, one or two are likely to remain all the year round, at any rate for some years. We are considering whether we should try to get the use of some other building.

The 1971 report states: 139 bednights recorded. In the Autumn of 1969 we heard that one end of the building had fallen in and was really no longer suitable for use. However, Myke Gerrish and friends going over in the Spring found it was the byre end, and did considerable first-aid. This survived for a while and the hostel was just usable. But the wind damaged the first-aid and, more important, the roof over the other end, the dormitory, began to collapse. We reluctantly had to recognize that the building could not be kept habitable and must be abandoned. However for 6 years it had provided something unique in Britain.

The 1972 report states: Scarp, as we said in our last letter, had to be abandoned, and we were unable to find any replacement there; indeed, the island is no longer inhabited all the year round. 

* * *
The last year-round residents of Scarp left in 1971. Today it is only occupied for several months in the spring and summer. If you ever get a chance to visit Scarp, do it. It is a large island with some challenging terrain; an island that takes several visits to completely see, and those are the best kind.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Merry Christmas

Every winter I think back on an extraordinary day in 1998 when I climbed the snowy slopes of Heaval on the island of Barra. At an elevation of 900 feet, 350 feet below the summit, I came to the statue of Our Lady Star of the Sea.

The name Star of the Sea comes from this prayer attributed to St Bernard: If the winds of temptation arise, look to the star. If you are tossed upon the waves, look to the star; call on Mary. Intercession for help while being tossed upon the waves was very important for island communities, whose livelihood depended on the sea, and where drowning deaths were common. The statue, carved by Hew Lorimer, depicts the child Jesus sitting on Mary’s shoulder, his left hand holding aloft the Star of the Sea. This will be the 65th Christmas the two of them have held a beacon of hope over the Barra Isles.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

2020 Guided Cruise - Last Call

There is only one spot remaining on my 2020 cruise on Hjalmar Bjorge (for a female sharing a cabin). We plan to make a loop around the Western Isles, departing Oban April 25, returning May 4. Details can be found on the above 2020 Guided Cruise tab, and this Northern Lights page.

Note: The voyage around Ireland in September reminded of how much I love to explore on my own when going ashore, something I'm unable to do when guiding. As much as I've enjoyed leading walks on some of my favourite Hebridean islands over the past five years, the April 2020 cruise will be my last trip as a guide - for a while, anyway.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Islay to Cork - Days 19 and 20 - An Island to End

The Loganair flight out of Cork was late getting to Glasgow on September 24. So it was nearly 5pm by the time I drove out of the airport, crossed the Erskine Bridge, and then followed the A82 to Loch Lomond. Twenty minutes later I left the highway to take the Luss Bypass - a narrow stretch of the old highway that runs up the shoreline of the loch. A minute later I parked at Bandry, a small cluster of houses that overlook my favourite island. The name 'Bandry' comes from the Gaelic Ban-Traigh, the white (or holy) beach. In times past, when the water level of the loch was lower, you could walk from Bandry to the island via a causeway. The island is Inchtavanaich, Innis Taigh a' Mhanaich, the island of the monastery. 

I made a phone call to say I'd arrived, and ten minutes later the sound of an outboard motor announced that a boat, piloted by a dear friend, was departing the island.

At the helm was Roy Rogers, who has lived on the island for decades. I made Roy, the island, and the horses he keeps there the subject of an article in the Scots Magazine in 2008 (which is included in chapter 19 of Book 1). A few minutes later I was walking up to Inchtavannach House, which dates to the 17th century, and incorporates some of the stones from St Kessog's 5th century monastery.

Roy, his partner Susan, and his son Nicol live here. I first met them nearly 20 years ago, when I was looking for ways to get to the islands of Loch Lomond. Since then I've visited Inchtavannach over a dozen times, including two occasions when I camped on the island. It had been four years since my last visit, so it was good to see them, and the horses, again. One of the horses, Kess, had been born when I last visited, so it was good to see him nearly fully grown. Kess was named in honor of St Kessog, who established the monastery here some 1600 years ago.

Kess as a foal
Kess in 2019
Another horse I was glad to see was Rosa. In the book I used the following photo of her swimming to the island in 2008. Rosa, now retired, was the primary horse they used to pull the carriage when Roy and Susan were working weddings.

After dinner and drinks, and catching up with the island news, I slept like a log. Early the next morning I set out to walk the length of the island, my final destination Tom nan Clag, the hill of the bell. The horses followed me until I left the grassy meadow near the house to head into the forest.

Just at the edge of the meadow is an outcropping of stone. It was once much bigger, and contained St Kessog's Cave. In the 19th century the cave was blasted apart for building material.

Site of St Kessog's Cave
A big change since my last visit has been the introduction of Highland cattle. With their long, sharp horns, they can be a little intimidating when you come across them on a hike. But if there are no calves around they are as gentle as can be.

From the meadow, I followed a path that winds its way north through a forest of beech and oak. There was a bit of controversy recently when SNH poisoned many of the island's beech trees (they were deemed non-native).

The path left the woodlands at a lochside meadow that lies at the base of the Hill of the Bell. From there it was time to climb the hill via what is sometimes called 'The Monk's Road'. The stone-lined path has mostly crumbled away, but here and there remnants of it survive. The monks most certainly climbed the hill via a path, but the stonework was probably put in place by quarry workers. Up until the 1950s the mainland opposite the island was a large slate quarry.

The 'road' ends at the top of the Hill of the Bell, 300 feet above the loch. There are two possible reasons for the hill's name. One is that the shape of the hill resembles a bell, and it certainly does. The other possibility is the tradition that St Kessog rang his bell here on special occasions. The bell is said to have survived for 1500 years; eventually hanging from a post in the loch, from where it went missing in the 19th century. 

Inchtavannach, and especially its Hill of the Bell, are an oasis of peace in the busy terrain surrounding Loch Lomond. I fondly remember camping atop the hill ten years ago; watching the stars gradually appear until it got too cold to stay out, and then slipping into the warm sleeping bag. 

Unfortunately I had a plane to catch, so after spending a half hour atop the hill I started back. I said goodbye to Roy and Susan, and then Roy ferried my back to the mainland. My stay on Inchtavannach capped an amazing three-week adventure. I'd made a loop of 1,000 miles from Glasgow, to Islay, to Oban, to Tory, to Dingle, to Cork, and then Inchtavannach.  It was time to go home

Friday, November 29, 2019

Islay to Cork - Day 18 - Cork Island

Monday the 23rd of September dawned cloudy and dry - but it would turn out to get wet, very very wet. I'd decided to spend my last full day in Ireland visiting an island. But it would not be a deserted island like lonely Inishglora. It would be the busiest island in all of Ireland. Cork city occupies an island in the River Lee. It is some two miles long, and connected to the mainland by over two-dozen bridges. 

The bus from Crosshaven took the better part of an hour. Josette and Roger joined me for the ride, and when we reached Cork they headed off to find the bus to Kinsale. I had just started my walk around town when the heavens opened up; a continuous, drenching downpour. In the deluge I walked along the River Lee, crossing several of the bridges as I made my way to the east end of town.

On any other day I'd have walked more. But after another hour my enthusiasm to explore started to wane. I am not one who enjoys shopping, but I had to seek shelter from the rain in an indoor market. The one I picked was impressive to say the least. Called The English Market, it had an amazing assortment of food vendors. One butcher had the best looking pork ribs I've ever seen. If we were staying for a few more days I'd have bought some for a barbecue.

Partially dried out, and partially warmed up, I walked a bit more. Much of the architecture I passed was superb, but it was so wet that I did not take many photos. At one point the rain let up for a whole five minutes as I passed the Church of the Holy Trinity.

I was starting to get cold again, and my pants were thoroughly soaked, so after three hours of walking I decided to catch the bus back to Crosshaven. Once aboard Hjalmar Bjorge I took a long hot shower (don't tell Mark) and changed into dry clothes. I did not know it at the time, but in three days I'd come down with a case of bronchitis that would last for three weeks.

That evening, over dinner, I learned Chris had taken Bob, Patti, Pam, and Margaret on a birding expedition around the Lee estuary. Chris reckoned that over the past ten days they'd spotted nearly 70 species. It had been a successful trip for the birders. As for me, I'd visited four islands I'd wanted to see for years: Tory, Inishglora, Inishkea, and Inishbofin, and had made a spectacular coastal walk on the Dingle peninsula. We'd had a great complement of guests for the ten day trip: Bob & Patti, Roger & Josette, Pam, Margaret, Susan, and Hazel. The crew was, as usual, fantastic: Mark & Anna, Tim Wear, Chef Steve Milne, and wildlife guide Chris Gomersall. 

On Tuesday morning, September 24, after the traditional massive last breakfast, two cabs were called. One took some of the guests into Cork. I joined Hazel and Margaret in the other cab, which was heading to the airport. I was sad the cruise was over as we left Crosshaven. But on the plus side, I had one more stop to make before going home. As the plane lifted off from Cork Airport, to fly the 300 miles to Glasgow, I was looking forward to spending a night on my favourite island of all.

Cork Airport - flight to Glasgow

Leaving Ireland - Next stop - a favourite island

Monday, November 25, 2019

Islay to Cork - Days 16 to 17 - Voyage to Crosshaven

September 21 was an overcast, gray, Dingle day. After breakfast all but one of the ropes were released, and then Mark used it to expertly warp us away from the dock. 

Dingle - a parting view
Unlike our sunny arrival two days before, low clouds hung over the iron lighthouse at the mouth of Dingle Harbour. As we were leaving a dozen dolphins rode our bow wave for a while.

Two hours later a sea change hit as we rounded the tip of Valentia Island. We were 'turning the corner' of Ireland, our course now tending to the southeast. The mainland was under heavy cloud, and the Skelligs, eight miles to the south, barely visible on the horizon. Gannets foraging out from Little Skellig were everywhere, plunging deep into the roiling sea. 

I have no photos of what we went through for the next five hours. Due to the wild condition we could not safely go out on deck. The best seat to be had in conditions like this is the wheelhouse, and so I spent a lot of time there, hanging on to the bench seat as we plowed through wave after wave. Bits of blue paint, scraped from the bow by the continual anchor scrapes, occasionally landing on the wheelhouse windows before being washed away by the rain. 

Three hours later we threaded the narrow channel between Dursey Island and the mainland. As we did we motored beneath the cable car that connects Dursey to the mainland - the only cable car in Europe that crosses open seawater. Taking advantage of the relative shelter, Mark slowed the ship for a while to give us a chance to have a quick lunch.

The cable car has been in operation since 1969. Although there are only two full-time residents on the island, due to the tens of thousands of tourist who visit in the summer, the wait to ride across can be more than two hours. Plans are afoot to put in a new cable-car that can transport 200 to 300 people per hour in each direction. Sounds a bit busy for me.

Here are four views of our rainy passage under the Dursey Island cable car. 

Leaving Dursey behind we headed back into open sea. Conditions were again so lumpy we could not go out on deck - so bouncy that I decided to lay in my bunk for a while. But it was not very restful; the porthole alternately rising high above a swell, and then plunging underwater. Each time this happened the anchor made a racket as the sea banged it into the bow, scraping off more paint with every bang. After two hours of this I went back topside in time to see us round Mizen Head.

After another two hours of wave-bashing we nosed into shallow Baltimore Harbour; famous as a port-of-call for Barbary pirates in the 1600s. The most famous incident was the Sack of Baltimore in 1631, and in memory of that history one of the town's pubs is called the Algiers Inn.

The harbour is a mile across, but only some 25 feet at its deepest. We traversed the harbour three times trying to find a good anchorage. The swell was rolling directly into the harbour, so wherever we ended up would not be ideal. Not only was the swell and shallowness a problem, but the harbour was filled with hundreds of creels.

Baltimore in the twilight
One place we searched unsuccessfully for an anchorage was off the ruin of the Sherkin Island Franciscan Priory. Founded in the 15th century, it operated until 1796. I would have loved to visit it, but we did not have time for any shore leave. We finally settled for a rolling anchorage just inside the harbour mouth.

Sherkin Island seen from Baltimore Bay
In the morning the dual diesels fired up, the anchor lifted, and we motored out of Baltimore. The weather was a bit brighter, but a southeasterly gale was due the next day, so we needed to make it to our final destination, Crosshaven Marina. It would take us six hours to get there, and as we cleared the harbour we passed below the Baltimore Beacon. Painted white, it looked like a missile about to launch. It is better known to mariners as Lot's Wife.

Lot's Wife
As we headed out to sea we were delighted to find better conditions than the previous day. A three hour steam took us past the Galley Head lighthouse, where it was calm enough to go out on deck.

Another two hours saw us passing the Old Head of Kinsale. We were now only twenty miles from Cork. But before we left the sea to head into sheltered inland waters, Chris tried a bit of chumming, hoping to lure in some seabirds. But it was to no avail (aside from a few hungry gulls and one skua). I'm not sure what special formula Chris used for his chum, but it smelled like a fish market late on a very hot summer day.

Old Head of Kinsale
Two hours east of Kinsale we set a course north into the narrow entrance of Cork Harbour.

A  more heavily defended harbour entrance would be hard to find. Flanking the eastern side of the entrance, the Fort Davis cannons looked ready to blow us out of the water. Built in 1800, it was originally called Carlisle Fort, but was renamed when it was turned over to the Irish government in 1938. It had some massive firepower in its day: twenty guns, including eight land batteries.

Fort Davis
Once past the fort a turn to port led us up the busy Owenbue River to Crosshaven Boatyard.

We were soon ensconced in our berth at the marina: the engines shutting down signalled the end of our 650 mile expedition.

Hjalmar Bjorge at Crosshaven Marina
The sky filled with noisy rooks as we dined that Sunday evening. Since we'd made it to Crosshaven a day early to beat the gales, we had all of Monday to explore the area. Everyone was making their plans for what to do. I knew exactly what I was going to do - I'd visit an island, of course.