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.

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