Sunday, October 27, 2019

Islay to Cork - Days 8 to 11 - Oban to the Tory Way

On Day 8 (Sept 13) I awoke in Oban to sunny skies - the last I'd see for a few days. On that Friday the 13th I had the whole day to prepare for the cruise to Ireland, and I spent it stocking up on clothes and books. The Hebridean Air flight I'd taken the day before had only allowed for 10kg total luggage, so I'd been travelling light. A beautiful sight greeted me when I walked down to the marina that day. Berthed together on the pontoons were Hjalmar Bjorge, Elizabeth G, and Zuza. I've spent many memorable days and nights on those three ships.  

The next day was cold, wet, and gray. On boarding Hjalmar Bjorge I met my fellow passengers: Bob and Patty, Roger and Josette, Margaret, Hazel, Pam, and Susan. The crew consisted of Skipper Mark & Anna, Tim Wear, guide Chris Gomersal, and chef Steve. Tim had been skipper for my two Zuza cruises, and this would be my 12th trip with Mark on Hjalmar Bjorge. During the safety brief we were told that due to the conditions we'd spend the first night tied up to the pontoons.

It was another gray and dull morning as we set off early Sunday. The plan was to see how far we could get based on the conditions once we were in the sea south of Colonsay. 

Conditions were fairly smooth as we approached the Slate Isles of Belnahua and Fladda. But once past the Garvellachs things steadily got worse - so bad that I would not venture out on deck for the next eight hours. A couple times, during the worst of the pounding, I went down to my cabin to lay flat. But it was not very restful. Aside from the repeated up and down thrashing, I'd see my porthole dive up and down: one moment showing the sky, the next under the sea.

Amplifying that visual mayhem was the clank of the anchors banging into the hull every time the ship crashed down from the top of a 12-foot swell. The paint on the bow had taken an anchor-beating during the gale we'd endured last July, and this was even worse. When I went into the wheelhouse a little later flecks of blue paint could be seen. Flakes that had been scraped off the bow and come to rest on the forward windows before being washed away by the heavy rain. The hard crossing was brightened up by the occasional sight of storm petrels soaring low over breaking waves.

Fladda & Belnahua
The Garvellachs

EiIeach a Naoimh - its 'Ikea' lighthouse left of centre
After an eight hour beating we eventually crossed the North Channel to find an anchorage for the night off Port Salon (Lough Swilly). We were finally in Ireland. We woke Monday morning to promising, sunny skies. The anchor was lifted, and we set a course west past Fanad Head. Destination: Tory Island.

Port Salon
Fanad Head
After two hours Tory Island came into view. The dramatic narrow headland of Tormore, tipped by a rock formation known as 'The Anvil', looked like an enticing place to visit. I decided it would be my first destination once ashore.

Approaching Tory Island

Tory - 'The Anvil ' at far right
Approaching West Town - Tory Island
We dropped the anchor a few hundred yards south of the pier at West Town, and in short order we were all ashore. A local gave is a warm greeting, and said he'd open the bar if we were thirsty - my kind of island!
Failte gu Oilean Thorai - Welcome to Tory Island

The Queen of Aran - Tory Island passenger ferry
Tory has a long monastic tradition, starting with a monastery founded by St Columba in the 6th century, The only remnant of Columba's monastery is the stump of a round tower. The unique Tau Cross that stands above the pier is a later addition (probably 12th century). 

After taking a look at the round tower I started along the 'The Tory Way'. Other than a tractor there was no traffic. After taking a look at Hjalmar Bjorge at anchor on the calm sea, I headed east.

As I walked east I came to an odd sight, a red pillar marked on the map as 'An Torpedo'. During WWII this torpedo washed ashore, and some local lads thought it would be fun to erect it beside the road.

Tory has two settlements: West Town and - take a guess - East Town. At a road junction to East Town I stayed to the left to make my way to the far end of the island.

As I walked the road a man in a tractor came to a stop by this shrine, crossed himself, and then carried on, but not before giving me a friendly wave.

The cliff scenery here is fantastic, and there were signs saying the islanders keep an eye out for drug runners. But other than myself there were no suspicious looking characters about.

I eventually reached Port Doon, a small bay with a substantial pier. A signboard alerted me to the fact that choughs were in the area, a type of crow with a distinctive beak. The 'Doon' name refers to the headland fort of Dun Bhaloir, which occupies the headland to the north. The fort was said to be the base of Balor of the Evil Eye. Said 'Eye', when opened, was said to spread destruction on his enemies. But the name Balor could just be a corruption of the local place name 'Baile Thoir' (East Town).

It was a dramatic walk up to the summit of the fort, crossing, along the way, several large earthen berms built to defend the fort. From the summit I could see across the island to the lighthouse on its western tip. What I did not see were any choughs, but several from our group who'd walk this way a bit later reported seeing choughs and wheatears.

The narrow ridge jutting into the sea, tipped by 'The Anvil', was a stunning sight. To get to its base you have to cross an airy, narrow ridge.

Rock climbers have made the traverse to the Anvil. The biggest obstacle (other than fear) are several rock pillars known as Balor's Soldiers.

I was not at all tempted to climb out to the anvil. Instead, I took a seat looking over this amazing thing, popped open a beer, and ate my packed lunch. Even though I did not have a lot of time left, I got a notion to complete the Tory Way. I would see if I could walk its complete length to the lighthouse at the other end of the island - a one-way distance of three miles.

Once back in West town I walked past 'An Club' - after delving into my Irish-English dictionary I figured out this translates as 'The Club'. The sight of a hundred beer kegs stacked next to the pub made me want to wet my whistle, but sadly I didn't have time for another beer, so I carried on west.

It was a long, level walk to the lighthouse, which dates to 1832. It was disappointing in that I could not get anywhere near the tower itself - as was the dearth of seabirds. A sign indicated there were war graves nearby, but I was unable to find them.

Time was short. I had to be back at the pier in a half-hour, and the pier was over a mile away. So I power-walked for 20 minutes (for me that means running for a minute, then stopping for two to catch my breath). Just as I reached the pier Mark was busy loading everyone onto the tender. There was still some daylight left. And as I stepped aboard I wondered where our next stop would be. Little did I know it would be an island I'd wanted to visit for over 30 years.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Islay to Cork - Day 7 - Dunyvaig, Singing Sands, and Island Soaring

On my last Islay day I woke to drenching rains and strong winds. I had to catch a flight to Oban at 3pm, so that gave me six hours to fill. After checking out of the Port Charlotte Hotel, I got in my tiny hire car and set out to pay a visit to Dunyvaig Castle near the Lagavulin Distillery. As I drove through Port Ellen, and on to Lagavulin, I passed by streams of people afoot: some under umbrellas, some under ponchos, all walking the footpath on their way to take a tour of the distillery.  Every tourist I'd met that week only had one thing on thier mind: the distilleries. After passing Lagavulin I turned right down a rough single track to find a parking spot overlooking Dunyvaig Castle. As I hit the brakes the car shuddered as its metal-on-metal brakes slowly ground me to a halt. I was hoping the brakes would last long enough to get me safely to the airport in a few hours. 

From the parking area it was a short, aromatic, walk to the castle. The winds were shifting: when they were from the south you could smell the sea, when they were from the north you could smell the malty aroma of the distillery.

Even though a sign warned that the castle ruins were dangerous, I tried to find a way into the tower. But a section of the walkway that led to it had collapsed, and trying to step over it would not end well.

The castle dates to between the 13th and 15th centuries. Its Gaelic name is Dun Naomhaig. A 'naomhaig' is a sea galley, and until about 1500 AD the fort was a naval base for the Lord of the Isles.

Off in the distance (to the left) in the next photo you can see the island of Texa. I had been hoping to get there this trip, and had exchanged e-mails with Islay Sea Safari a month earlier. They'd indicated then that they could take me to the island. But they had failed to reply to any of the emails, or voice mails, I'd left over the past few days, so Texa would have to wait for another time.

Once back in the car I drove through Port Ellen, then followed a coastal track to the west. At the big cemetery above Kilnaughton Bay I turned left, then slowly drove down a rough track to a small parking area north of the Carraig Fhada Lighthouse. Under a heavy downpour I set out on foot towards the lighthouse.

I soon came upon a sign that pointed right that read 'Singing Sands'. I turned right to follow a path that led up and over a low ridge, then dropped down to a small beach of reddish-brown sand. Its name on the map is Traigh Bhan (the fair, or white beach), and it is also known as the Singing Sands of Islay. I had been to the singing sands of Eigg, and was looking forward to hearing the sands of Islay sing.

Once on the beach I started to scuff my boots across the sands. Not a squeak or a squawk was to be heard. I kept trying, dragging my feet over most of the beach - an onlooker would wonder just what that crazy guy was doing on the beach. But with all the recent rain the sand was too wet to sing. So I headed back to take a look at the Carraig Fhada Lighthouse, passing along the way a herd of feral goats. (You can hear a sample of the Eigg Sands singing here.)

The Carraig Fhada lighthouse was built in 1832 by the Campbell laird of Islay in memory of his wife who'd died that year. An interesting series of narrow walkways and bridges take you out to the lighthouse. 

It was a very wet hiker who returned to the car. I then drove to the airport, where I parked at 'Terminal 2'. That's what they call it, anyway. It is a small hut, 1000 feet north of the main terminal, and is where you board flights operated by Hebridean Air Services. My flight to Oban would go via Colonsay, and I was looking forward to seeing over a dozen islands along the way. I had an hour to wait for the arrival of the airplane. During that time the rain stopped, and it gradually turned into a sunny day.

The yellow Islander airplane touched down right on time and taxied to a stop. The last time I was on an Islander was the Kirkwall/Westray/Papa Westray flight in 2014 (see this post). In short order we were rolling down the runway on our way to Colonsay.

A minute after takeoff we soared past Nave Island and the Ardnave peninusula where I'd walked the day before.

Next up was the north coast of Islay, followed by five miles of open sea to Oronsay and Colonsay.

As we soared over Oronsay I could see Seal cottage just above the beach, and in the distance Oronsay Priory.

We also got a good look at Ben Oronsay, topped by Carn cul ri Eirinn.

We then started banking left over the shallow strand between Oronsay and Colonsay to make the approach to Colonsay airfield. Two minutes later we were on the ground.

One passenger boarded, and five minutes later we were rolling down the runway.

As we climbed we were rewarded with a grand view of Kiloran Bay and the cliffs of Uragaig.

As we headed to the northwest the long coast of Jura sped by. Then the massive hump of Scarba came into view.

After Scarba came the first of the Isles of the Sea, Eileach an Naoimh - the "Ikea" lighthouse at its south end brightly reflecting the sun.

Then came the other Isles of the Sea: A' Chuli, Garbh Eileach, and Dun Chonnuill.

Next up were the slate isle of Easdale and Ellanbeich.

We were then over an island I've not been to yet, Insh Island. There were stories a while back about a naked hermit living there, but I do not know if there is any truth to that.

Off to the left I could see the vast sea loch of Spelvie, and Portfield House, from where we'd unsuccessfully tried to hike to Old Croggan Village six weeks before.

I was sitting behind the pilot, and as we began the approach to Oban he asked if I wanted him to take some photos out the front of the plane. I handed him the camera and he took this shot of Oban.

As we descended over Kerrera the Mull ferry was motoring past the tip of the island. The marina at Ardintrive, once a military seaplane base could be seen, as was the small peninsula of Cladh a Bhernaig with the bracken-grown ruins of its Celtic Christan Cashel.

As the plane continued its descent we flew over Dunolie Castle and its successor Dunolie House.

Then came the Oban Cemetery; a place I'd spent a lot of time on two occasions trying to find the grave of MEM Donaldson. Her grave is marked with an arrow on the photo, and you can read about it here.

Just before touchdown we passed Connel Bridge and the dramatic Falls of Lora.

It had been an amazing flight. Too bad flying can't always be so enjoyable. I would recommend Hebridean Air Services to anyone wanting the fly to, and from, the isles. After a short taxi ride I was ensconced in my hotel in Oban. I had one full day in town to get ready for an Irish adventure. A cruise on Hjalmar Bjorge around the west side of Ireland ending up in Cork. That was the good news. The bad news was the weather forecast. It was not looking good at all.