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.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Scottish Islands Explorer - Another End of an Era

The latest issue of Scottish Islands Explorer marks the end of an era, and the beginning of another. After 10 years as editor and owner, John Humphries has announced his retirement. John was the third proprietor of the magazine, and has been at its helm since May of 2010.  John acquired it after Jeremy Smith passed unexpectedly in early 2010. 

Fifty-seven issues were published during John's tenure. The following image shows three significant covers from that period: the first issue John published in May 2010, the 29th (his mid-point issue) of January 2015, and this September's issue, his 57th, and last. I have a lot to thank John for, and was privileged to have placed 18 articles in the magazine during his leadership.

John, I wish you a happy retirement, and hope to see you yet again, somewhere in the islands.

John at #1 Ardveg

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Puff Inn - End of an Era

Occasionally I learn something from my blog stats. It's a page that shows how many views each post receives over time. During the past week it indicated that there had been a lot of views of a post I did on the Puff Inn (the St Kilda bar) in 2016 (see this link). Why the sudden interest in the Puff Inn? A quick search answered the question. It turns out they are demolishing the building that housed the Puff Inn as part of the St Kilda Base rebuild. And a newspaper story on August 16th had an excerpt from my 2016 post that described the first time I'd been to the Puff Inn in 1999. 

I am not too saddened by the news, as the Puff Inn had been closed to the public for the past 12 years. They will be opening another bar (for residents only) at some point, and I hope they reuse all the wonderful decorations, banners, and flags that adorned the old pub. Oh how I wish they'd scan and make available the old membership book. I remember signing it as I paid my one-pound fee to join, and then ordering a beer and a double Scotch. 

Since there is no pub for visitors these days, when I go ashore on Kilda I always throw a can of beer in my pack. Then, after the stiff climb to the top of Conachair, I take a seat by the old sundial to set up my own pop-up pub. You are welcome to join me - no membership fee - just BYOB.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge - Season 4, Episode 5 of 5

The Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Season 4 - Episode 5 of 5 - Gale Riding to Canna and Return to Oban
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise    July 10-19, 2019

After our visit to the Flannans we made an uneventful sail through the Sound of Harris. After passing the low lying isles of Ensay and Killigray, we motored around Berneray, Hermetray, and Rubha an Fhigheadair (Weaver's Point), before dropping anchor in Bagh Aird nam Madadh, a small bight in the coast east of Lochmaddy.

Even though the forecast was dreadful, we woke to seemingly calm conditions Wednesday morning (July 17th). But it was oh-so deceptive. As usual, Mark had chosen the perfect anchorage for the conditions. The vast bulk of North Uist was sheltering us from a big southerly blow that was starting to brew.

After breakfast we headed into the Minch: our destination Canna, 40 nautical-miles to the southeast. The fun began 15 minutes later when we rounded Rubha nam Pleac to enter the Minch. The winds hit, the waves hit, the swells hit. It was dangerous to move about, so we sat glued to our seats in the saloon. Suddenly Dave got up, and dashed down the passageway. We would not see him for hours. We assumed he'd been sick, and had gone down to his cabin. As it turned out, he'd headed up to the wheelhouse, where he would end up being trapped for the duration of the storm.

Trapped is apt. We were all trapped in place - for as the ship rocked and rolled there was no way to safely move about. The sea was washing across the deck, to slowly drain out the scuppers. But several times a large wave would drench the stern, and splash back through the rear doorway into the saloon. So one brave soul (I don't recall who) got up to latch the door shut. We'd left it open for the fresh air, which helps stave off seasickness. But even with the hatch closed, and the inside temperature on the rise, no one got sick. It was quite impressive. Usually someone gets sea-sick during these wild conditions.

At one point the ship rose fast on a high swell, followed by a sudden free-fall that had us all momentarily floating in air - weeeee!  Wolfgang, who'd been anchored to a deck chair, also enjoyed a moment of weightlessness. Then, as the ship suddenly bottomed out on a low trough, he crashed back down, causing the chair to collapse. Luckily he was only bruised; unlike the chair, which was broken beyond repair.

I wish I had photos to share of that dramatic crossing. But I don't. I'd not been prepared. The camera was down in my cabin, which lay below deck aft of the engine room. There was no way I could retrieve it without getting injured and/or incurring the skipper's wrath. (I think keel-hauling, forty lashes, walking the plank - or all the above - are the recommended punishments for entering the engine room in a full-blown gale.)

But Michelle had been prepared. She took this video of Don singing a sea shanty during the worst of the crossing.

The following stitched-image of frame captures from the video shows us glued in place around the saloon table. It's not a smooth composite due to the changing camera angle, but I think the zigs and zags give a feel for all the zigs and zags we experienced for several hours.

After a six-hour beating the conditions gradually improved, and as Canna came into view it was possible to move about. Once in Canna Harbour the anchor was dropped, and we were set ashore for a few hours. I led most the guests on a circular tour that included the pencil-tower church, John Lorne Campbell's Grave, Canna High Cross, and the Punishment Stone.


After the tour, everyone set off on their own to explore. I wandered over the footbridge to Sanday, to follow a track constructed to serve the newly built windmills.

Shrine at Sanday Bridge - note Canna cat at lower left

After exploring the new track, which avoids the high-tide blockage of the old track, I crossed the bridge back to Canna, where a mystery was solved. We had seen several cat statues as we'd hiked across the island: including one at John Lorne Campbell's grave, and another at the Sanday bridge. The mystery was solved at An Taighe-bainne (the dairy house), where I came across a poster explaining the cats.

The poster read: This trail on Canna uses John and Margaret Campbell's cats of Canna House to tell stories of the house, garden and the island. Each stone puss is named after one of those cats and you are encouraged to track all the cats down and tick them off the 'clue-sheet"... You can then post selfies of yourselves with your favourite puss on the dedicated facebook page where you will find more stories of each character.

What a great idea someone had to encourage children to learn about the island. The cat's facebook page is:

With the mystery of the cats solved, I returned to Canna Cafe in time to find several of the guests enjoying tea (or something harder). I ordered something harder, and joined them at the tables in front of the cafe, the setting sun casting long shadows across the harbour with ominous skies off to the east.

We had a peaceful night at anchor in the harbour - a welcome respite from the day's wild ride. In the morning we set sail to the southwest, to eventually pass the cliffs of Rum before rounding Ardnamurchan Point to enter the calm waters of the Sound of Mull.

Cliffs of Rum
Duart Castle under repair -Sound of Mull
Once through the sound we set a course south past the elegant William Black Memorial Lighthouse. For the story of the light see Book 2, chapter 27.

Next up was Grass Point on Mull, once the main connection to Oban, and from where cattle were sent to the mainland via the island of Kerrera. The old ferry house is still there, and can be rented as self catering accommodation.

Grass Point and the ferry house
After spotting an eagle eyrie on the short cliffs north of Rubha na Faoilinn (seagull point), we entered Loch Spelve, where the anchor was dropped near the old steamer pier at Croggan.

We had a couple hours ashore. Half the group decided to look for otters near where several streams enter the loch. I led the rest in a quest to find Balgamrie, also known as Old Croggan Village. Having heard Mark describe it on many previous trips, I've always wanted to see Old Croggan, a township ruin of two-dozen homes abandoned in the late 19th century.

It was a two-mile walk to a cottage at the end of the shore track, from where Mark told us we could climb the hillside to reach the village. But it was not to be. We made it to the cottage, and then started up the hill. It was not just a hill, it was a slanted swamp. The storm had left the ground sodden, and with each step your boots would plunge into the quagmire. In addition, the bracken was head high.

We had to acknowledge defeat and turn around. The only way to get to the village would be with hip waders, machetes, and an extra hour of time. You can read more about Old Croggan at

Balgamrie - Old Croggan Village
At the crack of dawn Friday morning (July 19th) the engines fired up, and we set off for the one-hour motor back to Oban. Why the early start? It was because the Oban Marina, contrary to promises made during its development, does not allow you to book a berth on the pontoons. That meant an early start is needed to insure getting a spot large enough for a ship the size of Hjalmar Bjorge. Just as we set out I called our spy in Oban (my wife, Shawna) to ask if there were any spots at the marina. She was ensconced in an apartment high atop the Old Oban Times building, which looks directly down on the pontoons. She told us there was still a berth, which made Mark give a cheer.

Once moored up in Oban we enjoyed a full breakfast before saying our goodbyes. It had been a fantastic trip, and we'd set foot on some of the most remote isles of the Hebrides. I hope to see you all again, somewhere in the Hebridies.

PS: There is one berth available for next year's cruise (for a female sharing). See this Northern Lights Page for more information.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge - Season 4, Episode 4

The Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Season 4 - Episode 4 - The Flannans
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise    July 10-19, 2019

Tuesday morning (July 16) the forecast looked good for the Flannans. So we left Carloway and set a course to the west. After three hours of steaming under a clear blue sky we entered the sheltered anchorage between Eilean Mor and Eilean Tighe - the tip of the infamous lighthouse just visible above the clifftops.

With the ship firmly anchored, Mark and Anna went in the inflatable to see how the landing looked. The answer was: not good. We already knew the lower stretch of steps had been scoured away a long time ago. But that, combined with the low tide, made the landing even more precarious.

Once back aboard Mark pondered the situation for a long time. People have been injured here attempting to land, and Mark had to consider the capabilities of all the guests to handle a rope landing. The swell was not the issue, it was the low tide, which made the distance to where you could get a good foothold some six-feet above sea level. After a while Mark decided it was probably a no-go. But twenty minutes later saw Mark, along with Anna and Michelle, back in the inflatable taking another look.

Our hopes of landing returned, as we saw them jump ashore and string a rope to the old rusted stanchions. Once upon a time these stanchions supported railings you could hold on to while ascending the steps. As it turned out, the reason we'd be able to land was that the tide had dropped enough to expose a lower step that would provide a solid foothold for getting ashore.

Landing involved carefully placing one foot on that first step, grabbing the rope, putting your right leg over to the far side of the rope, then slowly ascending. After a climb of 20 feet you reach the beginning of the intact steps, which steeply lead to the old tram track. The good news was that we'd landed. The bad news was that we'd need to leave before the tide rose over that low step. We'd have only 40 minutes ashore.

Only 40 minutes. Good thing it's a small island. I had learned over the past week that this group of guests liked to explore at their own pace, so I decided trying to guide them all around as a group, in such a short period, would not work. Those who wanted to enjoy the puffins could easily find them, as they were everywhere. And those who wanted to see the lighthouse could easily find it. So I left the guests to explore on their own and made a mad dash to the far side of the island. Time was oh so short, and I had one thing, and one thing only, on my mind. To get some photos of the 8th century beehive-cell oratory showing it covered in more puffins than I'd ever seen in one place anywhere in the Hebrides.

The Oratory cell

The oratory has three chambers: a lobby on the east side, the oratory in the center, and a western chamber that may have been the monk's quarters.

The eastern chamber - the lobby

The central oratory chamber

Looking over the third chamber (the monk's cell) with a single-room beehive in the distance

The 3-chambered cell seen from above
East entrance to the oratory
I only had a few minutes to photograph the cell. To get into the central chamber involved getting down on my belly, and then squirming under the low lintel stone across a gooey layer of puffin pooh. Once I crawled out of the far end of the third chamber, a look at the watch showed there was only 10 minutes left. As I hurried back to the landing I met up with Nigel, and with five minutes to spare we ventured a ways down the steep steps to the West Landing. It was there they think the lightkeepers were washed away in December of 1900.

As I said before, I'd never seen more puffins in one place. And as we retraced our steps down to the landing they presented photo ops at every step.

Going down the narrow, steep steps was a bit daunting. Near the bottom I found Michelle waiting for our return. Once Mark came over on the inflatable we took turns descending the rope and carefully stepping into the boat.

It had been an exhilarating 40 minutes. Once we were all back aboard the anchor was lifted, and we set out to for a tour around Roareim, Brona Cleit, and Eilean a' Ghobha: the farthest Flannans. Similair to Sulasgeir, these sea-stacks are home to a large gannetry.

After circling the islands Mark set a course to the southwest. We needed to get through the Sound of Harris, maybe as far as Lochmaddy, a distance of 50 miles. There was a bit of urgency to do so, for a gale was blowing up. The forecast for the following day, Wednesday, was, to put it mildly, dire.  We'd just had a day of adventure. We did not know it at the time, but Wednesday would bring an adventure of another sort.