Friday, October 11, 2019

Islay to Cork - Day 6 - Kilchoman, Ardnave, Finlaggan

I am working on a dram of Lagavulin right now - the perfect drink when writing of Islay...

The wind was blowing, but the sun was shining, on Wednesday morning (Sept 11), my second full day on Islay. The forecast for the next day was heavy rain, so I decided to take advantage of the good weather and make a long hike around the Ardnave Peninsula, which would take me to a viewpoint over to Nave Island. I'd been to Nave Island a couple times, and was looking forward to seeing how it looked from mainland Islay. On my first visit to Nave the number of seals had been absolutely stunning, so I was also hoping to see them again.

Seals off Nave Island - 2016
After breakfast I powered up my little hire car and trundled north along the A847 - the brakes grinding and moaning everytime I had to slow down. After passing the Bruicladdaich distillery (oh how good the air smells there) I turned up the B8018 single track. I had a stop to make before reaching Ardnave, as I wanted to visit a site I'd not been to in 20 years. After passing the Kilchoman distillery I turned left and carried on to road's end. I was looking forward to seeing something amazing. But I was to be sorely disappointed. 

The disappointment was due to a chain-link fence that completely walled off old Kilchoman Church. Not only was the church inaccessible, so was what I'd come to see - its 15th century high cross. The closest I could get was a spot some 40 feet away on the road. 

After failing to find a way to get into the old burial ground, I walked over to the Military Cemetery, which lay on the machair 1000 feet to the west. Buried there are victims of the sinking of HMS Otranto in 1918. She was struck by another troopship during a storm, causing the loss of 470 lives, most of them American. Set at one end of the cemetery is the grave of Otranto's Captain, Ernest Davidson.

A short distance from the military cemetery, and just barely standing, is the Kilchoman Santuary Cross. It is beautiful, but not as shiny as when I saw it 20 years ago. Back then the field was full of sheep, who'd buffed the cross to a bright sheen by using it as a scratching post. The cross was also much more tilted than it was back then. Unless something is done to stabilize it, in another 20 years it will probably fall over.

Sanctuary Cross - 2019

Sanctuary Cross - 20 years ago
After getting back in my car, and hoping the brakes still worked, I motored east until I found the teeny-tiny single-track that leads north to the Ardnave Peninsula. The public road ended at a parking area on the northeast corner of Ardnave Loch. And as I stepped out of the car I was blasted with a strong wind laced with sand. After putting on a thick sweater I set out on foot to make the four-mile walk around the tip of the peninsula.

A colorful information board had this to say about the wildlife: At Ardnave we are working with SNH to care for the special wildlife found here. Corncrakes are very shy birds, so to encourage them, we leave patches of long grass for them to hide in. Choughs prefer short grass with plenty of cow pats (full of tasty beetles and grubs). By keeping cattle outside during the winter we are supplying ready meals for the young chough. 

It was a beautiful, wind-blown hike up the east side of the peninsula, following a sandy farm track across the rolling grassland.

I heard no corncrakes, and did not see any choughs as I walked out to the end of the peninsula. I did, however, see a lot of cattle, and loads of cow pats filled with tasty beetles and grubs. I assumed they were tasty, anyway - I decided to munch on a chocolate bar instead. As I approached the viewpoint over Nave Island I saw what looked like a small prison cell on the machair. On closer inspection it turned out to be a very heavily protected grave. Buried here in this special spot are Archibald McDonald (1803-1873), and Duncan Campbell (1753-1825). The tombstone reported that Campbell was 'interred in this spot by his own particular desire'. Duncan Campbell is said to have built Ardnave House (which we'll see at the end of the walk).

From the grave I carried on north across the gentle dunes to Cnoc na Faire - lookout hill. Lying a third of a mile across the rippling waters of the sea lay Nave Island. It was a stunning sight, but there were no seals singing in the sea as when I visited the island in 2016.

Just visible over on the island was its most unique feature - the factory chapel with its chimney. The 13th century chapel sits on the site of an even older, probably 5th century, Celtic Christian monastery. The chapel was drastically altered in the 1850s by kelp burners, who built a furnace in it with a 30-foot-tall chimney.

After enjoying a beer while seated in the dunes overlooking the island I headed south, back over the dunes, to start down the western shore of the peninsula. In the dunes here there are said to be the ruin of a roundhouse, but I was unable to find it. As I carried on to the south I could see the headland at Sanaigmore, where I'd walked the day before.

Eventually the walk reached a track that lead through the back side of Ardnave farm. Several of the local residents stuck their heads out of the feed troughs to see what I was up to. As I walked past them, the smells of crusted cow pats aside, I truly appreciated walking in Scotland. You are very blessed here; the right to roam, and the farmers who willingly invite walkers to pass across their lands, is wonderful - and in stark contrast to what I would experience in Ireland in the coming week.

The walk came to an end on the shore of Ardnave Loch, just below the front of Ardnave House (early 19th century). It had been an exhilarating walk, especially as I'd had to fight the wind with every step. You can find the Walk Highlands description of the Ardnave walk here.

There was still a lot of daylight left, so as I drove out past Ardnave Loch I decided to pay a visit to Kilnave Chapel. It lies quite a ways off the road, but it was a pleasant stroll down to the chapel through a field full of fat, content-looking sheep.

The lichen-grown cross (5th century) and chapel are iconic symbols of Islay, and on that blustery September day I had the place all to myself. The tide was out and shallow Loch Gruinart showed more sand than water.

As I left Kilnave it started to cloud up, and I felt a few drops of rain. But as there was still an hour or two of daylight, I decided to make one last stop. I would visit the most historic site on Islay: Finlaggan of the Lords of the Isles. 

I had visited Finlaggan a long time ago. It was the one-time seat of the Lord of the Isles, and my wife and I had got to the island in the loch, Eilean Mor, by stepping onto a small barge, and then pulling on a rope to haul the barge the short distance to the island. Now, some 20 years later, as I went into the visitor centre I was told the barge had been replaced with a footbridge. But there was a bit of a problem. With all the recent rains the approach to the footbridge was submerged. But fortunately they had wellies to loan out, and so after swapping my hiking boots for wellies, I started down the path to the bridge. 

The path was indeed underwater. But confidant in my wellies I strode forward - but a bit to rashly. Halfway through the flooded path my right foot plunged into a hidden hole, some two-feet deep. In an instant the welly filled with brown, cold, peaty water.

I was able to extract myself from the hole, and quickly made my way to the part of the footbridge that was above water. There I pulled off the water-filled welly to dump its contents back into the stream. After wringing out the soaked sock, I put the welly back on and proceeded across the bridge to the island.

The ruins on Eilean Mor are extensive, dating from the 13th through the 16th century. The chapel here is dedicated to the 6th century St Findlugan - a possible source for the name of the site.

If I was up for a swim, I'd have made my way across the 150 feet of water between Eilean Mor and Eilean na Comhairle (Council Island). There was once a large fortification on that small island, and it was the meeting place of the council of the isles.  All of this came to an end around the year 1494, when most of the buildings on Council Island and Eilean Mor were knocked down.

As I crossed back to the mainland I was able to avoid the big hole, and at the visitor center I exchanged wet wellies for warm and dry boots. The centre had an interesting virtual reality exhibit where, while sitting in a chair, I put on the VR headset, and was able to 'walk' through a reconstruction of the site. It was fascinating, but as it did not allow for wearing glasses, it was a bit out of focus and gave me a headache.

As I returned to Port Charlotte and its busy hotel (where you had to book for a bar meal) I thought back on the busy day. I had been privileged to have been near Nave Island and Kilnave, one-time monastic sites where monks long ago possibly ventured out to the hermitage cell I'd visited at Allt nam Ba the day before. I only had one more day on Islay before heading up to Oban. I had no idea how I'd fill it. But as it turned out, it would be one of my best days of island going.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Islay to Cork - Day 5 - Allt nam Bà

It was a beautifully clear Tuesday morning (Sept 10), when I stepped out the door of the Port Charlotte Hotel. It had been a five day grind to get there from Seattle, and I was ready to do something I'd been wanting to do for several years. I needed to correct a mistake I'd made nine years earlier. 

I fired up my rinky-dink hire car, and set out for Sanigmore, a remote spot on the northwest corner of Islay. The narrow single-track wound north through the country side, and everytime I put on the brakes a desperate grinding sound shook the whole car. At Sanigmore I parked next to the Exmouth memorial, put on my boots, and then started out to the west to my destination: the monastic ruins at Allt nam Bà (NR 221 710). 

Exmouth Memorial
I had walked to Allt nam Bà before back in 2010. You can read about that walk, and the Exmouth Memorial, in the three posts beginning April 17, 2013. That walk entailed climbing down a steep ravine between the cliffs that dropped quickly down to a guardhouse-wall. From there a further descent of some 50 metres led to a small peninsula where I'd found the ruins of a triple beehive cell, and several kidney-shaped structures that form a wall two metres thick. After seeing the ruins I'd climbed back to the top of the cliff, and then returned to the car. I’d had a good day afoot. But seven years later later I learned I’d missed seeing another beehive cell, and a completely intact one at that, by just 100 metres.

Sanigmore Beach
I learned of that other cell several years after my visit, when the RCAHMS Inventory of Islay became available online. Along with some informative text on Allt nam Bà (site 131, p.77) there was a truly informative photo. It showed an intact cell on the headland east of where I’d been. There was only one thing to do. And so, nine years after my visit to Allt nam Bà, I found myself once again descending that steep ravine.

Ruinous triple beehive cell (lower centre) and wall chambers

The ravine between the cliffs 
But this time, when I came to the guard cell, I turned right to climb over its walls, and then carried on down a steep, grassy slope.
Guard Cell

At the bottom of the slope, twenty-five metres above the sea, lay a broad ledge littered with scree fallen from the cliffs over the centuries. At first sight no cell was evident. I did see a mound of stone, but it appeared to just be a pile of scree, as there was no visible doorway.

I had brought with me the photo of the cell from the RCAHMS Inventory, and was able to line up the mound with an odd, block-shaped outcrop of rock shown in the the old photo. The photo showed a doorway, and on closer examination of the mound I found that a large triangular slab had been inserted to keep sheep and goats out of the cell. The slab was easily lifted to reveal the doorway. Unfortunately, another large stone still blocked much of the entrance, a stone that was supporting the lintel. To enter the cell would have meant trying to squeeze past that pillar. Not wanting to disturb the structure, and possibly have it come falling down, I decided not to go inside. But it was easy enough to see the interior from the outside. The cell was quite spacious; oval in shape, 2.5 metres long and just over a metre wide, with an interior height of 1.3 metres. 

After replacing the slab that sealed the cell’s doorway I started back. The climb to the top of the cliff was much harder than it had been nine years before—somehow it had managed to get steeper. Even so, it had been well worth returning to rectify a mistake to see the most intact beehive cell in the Southern Hebrides.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Islay to Cork - Days 1 to 4 - Twice to Islay

After the long trans-Atlantic flight I checked into the Glasgow Airport Holiday Inn. Even after sleeping 12 hours I was still knackered the next day as I stumbled back to the airport. I checked in for the Loganair flight to Islay, and two hours later we were airborne. I had a window seat, my camera at the ready, hoping to get some aerial photos of the islands.  But the cloud cover was thick, and no islands were visible as we flew west.

As we approached Islay I heard the noise of the flaps cranking down to approach position as the airplane started its descent. The cloud cover was still thick, but at one point it broke and I had a brief glimpse of Laggan Bay. Then I heard another noise - a terrible one. It was the flaps being retracted and the engines throttling up. The airplane climbed and circled around. 

Ten minutes later I could see the flaps once more lowering to approach position as we came in for a second attempt to land. The clouds were still thick, and as we descended I kept my eyes on the flaps, hoping to see them extend to full landing position. But when they started to move it was in the wrong direction. As the flaps retracted, the engines spun up to full throttle. The airplane climbed and made a gradual turn to the right. An announcement came over the PA that they could not see the airport, so we were returning to Glasgow.

Back in Glasgow were were told they'd put on an extra flight for us the next morning. We were then marched as a group over to the Holiday Inn, the one I'd left six hours earlier, and given rooms for the night. The next morning I once again found myself back at the departure gate, waiting, and waiting. This time there was a mechanical problem with the plane. After three hours of waiting we were finally airborne. Thinking optimistically, I had my camera out. And as we headed west a few islands came in to view.

Holy Island
As we approached Islay there were still clouds, but not the thick layer of the day before. When the approach to the airport started I had a birds-eye view of Carraig Fhada lighthouse and the Singing Sands: two places I was hoping to visit over the coming days.

Singing Sands (left) and Carraig Fhada light
I watched as the flaps extended to approach position, and then to full landing flaps. A few minutes later were on the ground. After collecting my hire car I made the 15 mile drive to Port Charlotte and checked into the hotel. I slept again for 12 hours, trying to get the jet lag out of my system. I needed to do that in order to make the most out of my three days on Islay. I had something important to do. I needed to rectify a mistake I'd made nine years before.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Islay to Cork in 20 days

Just back from an amazing three weeks in Scotland and Ireland. It started with two journeys to Islay (more on that, later), and ended with a sail down the west coast of Ireland that visited the islands of Tory, Inishbofin, Inishglora, and Iniskea. We also spent some time on the Irish mainland visiting Dingle and Cork. Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting photos from the trip.

Photo locations over 20 days

Flying over Colonsay - Kiloran Bay at upper left

Sunday, September 1, 2019

2020 Guided Cruise - And Then There was One

First there were ten, then there were six. Now there's only one...

There is one spot left on my 2020 cruise on Hjalmar Bjorge (for a female sharing a cabin). We plan to make a grand 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.

Landing on Barra Head - Mingulay in the distance
PS: I will be offline for a few weeks on Hjalmar Bjorge's last expedition of the year. We're departing from Oban and, if the wind and sea cooperate, heading down the west and south coast of Ireland to Cork. I'll have stories and photos to share in a few weeks.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

A Man of Stone

Last May I hiked to Beinn a' Bhoth (hill of the beehive cell) in the Morsgail Deer Forest on Lewis. I started by following a boggy quad-bike track to the Beinn na Gile beehives, a must-see for any walks in the area.

It's a level, easy walk to the cells. From there an old path, little used from the look of it, headed off to the south east. Although I've made many hikes in this area, I'd never followed that old path and, since it was the most direct route to Beinn a' Bhoth, I decided to take it. 

It was very hot, and I was out of shape after a winter of easy city walking. So I huffed and I puffed my way up what was left of the old path as it led to the summit of Shelibradh (190 meters). As I was climbing I noticed a fellow sitting on a high point ahead of me; an odd sort of fellow, sitting perfectly still, wearing a wide brimmed hat. I shouted out a hello, as I didn't want to startle him. There was no reply.

I was surprised to see anyone out here in the back of beyond. And as I neared the fellow he continued to sit still. I had thoughts then of another strange island encounter I'd had six years before, when I was drying off in Uisinish Bothy (South Uist). I was in the process of examining a jar of instant coffee on a shelf that smelled faintly of moth balls. And, while pondering on whether or not to brew up a cuppa mothy bothy coffee, a man suddenly entered, the door loudly banging shut behind him. He then proceeded to walk around for a minute or so, all the while muttering something incomprehensible. He did not seem right in the head, and I started to to wonder if I was about to meet an untimely end. I pictured the headline in the Oban Times: Corpse Found in Remote Island Bothy - Grisly Details page 2....  It had all the makings of a Peter May novel.

But I survived the encounter; for as abruptly as he'd entered, he stormed out. It had been a strange experience, and as I hiked away from the bothy there was no sign of my peculiar visitor on the wide-open moorland. It was as if he had vanished.

And so, six years later, as I approached the silent man on the hill, I wondered if I'd stumbled upon yet another eccentric hill-walker. The hat the fellow was wearing looked eerily familiar, and then it hit me: For a fleeting moment I felt 50 years younger, as I had a flashback to a character in one of my favourite childhood cartoons on TV - Dudley Do-Right of the RCMP. 

Then, as I neared the top, I realized it was not a Mountie far from home, or a weary hiker, but a cairn that, when viewed from below, looked like a man wearing a hat.

From the man-cairn there was a wide-open view across the head of Glen Shanndiag to the rounded summit of Beinn a' Bhoth. I was glad the cairn had not been a man, as I like having places like this all to myself. And I did, for aside from a few dozen deer, I would be the sole occupant of Glen Shanndaig for the next two days.