Sunday, April 26, 2020

Mingulay on Hold

I was supposed to be on Mingulay today, 4500 miles from Seattle. It's been 16 years since I was last there, a long absence from an island that likes to be visited so much. There will be no one on Mingulay this year to hear the selkies sing, no lasses (or lads) for the each-uisge to woo, and no tourists for the midgies to bite.

But, if all goes well, a year from now I'll be there to hear those selkies sing, to be wooed by that lonely water-horse, and to be dined on by thirsty midges. My A+ blood is a midge favorite. Like a fine wine it will have aged another year by then, so they'll be happy to see me.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

A Volcanic Anniversary

Let's jump back exactly ten years in time . . .

It was the morning of April 18, 2010. I woke to find a dusting of ash coating the deck of Hjalmar Bjorge. The skies, too, were a dusty gray. Eyjafjallajökull had blown her top four days before. Air traffic was at a standstill. And as I strolled around the deck that morning—a cup of steaming-hot coffee in hand—I wondered how I’d get home when the cruise was over.

I was familiar with erupting volcanoes, as I live 80 miles from Mt St Helens. The ash can cause havoc with engines, and I told skipper Mark how we'd wrapped panty-hose around vehicle air intakes as an added layer of protection. I was hoping to get a photo of Hjalmar Bjorge adorned in such a manner, but Mark wasn't too keen on the idea.

We had spent the night anchored in Loch na Làthich, near Bunnesen on the Ross of Mull. After breakfast we set off towards the Treshnish Isles. I'd lobbied for an attempt at landing on Cairnaburg Mor, and we were going to take a look. I dearly wanted to storm the island via the south portal passage—a guarded entrance to Carnaburg Castle that I did not know existed when I visited the island in 2005 (chapter 18 of book 1).

As we approached the island a heavy wind set in. That, in combination with some extremely strong tidal currents, made it a challenge to get close to the Cairnaburgs. Adding to the challenge is that there were innumerable reefs lurking off the south and west side of the island. We came within a quarter mile, then Mark throttled back the engines so we could get a good look at the island. But it was was obvious we’d not be able to land.

The elegant, triangular gable ends of the chapel could be seen poking above the tall grass on the island plateau. As was the brutal square outline of the barracks. We were too far away, and the boat was rolling too much, to get any descent photos of the fortifications. So I put the camera away and enjoyed the view. And as I did I wondered when there would be another chance to get ashore on that little, but historic island.

The ship turned about and we set a course to the shelter of the Sound of Iona. After dropping anchor near the busy ferry slip, we were set ashore to explore on our own. I took off hot-foot to climb Dun-I, where I took a seat next to the well of youth. 'What better place to slake your thirst', I thought to myself. So I cracked open a can of Murphy's. It worked. After a long, slow pull, I felt years younger.

Dappling the sea to the north were the Treshnish Isles, the remnants of another volcanic eruption eons ago. I have found them to be needy islands, with their incessant demands to visit again and again. Even though Lunga and its puffins gets thousands of day-trippers, it always calls for another visit. As does nearby Staffa. Although not technically a Treshnish, once you've stepped into Fingal's Cave it becomes something you want to do again and again. I had just tried to answer the return call of Cairnaburg Mor. She'd given me the brush off, but I'd try again.

Looking out over the Treshnish Isles, I noticed one that was especially needy, one I'm sure would like to be visited. I’d not given her the attention she demanded—I'd never set foot on her shores—and I could hear her complaining about that from afar. It was Bac Mòr, the big reef, better known as Dutchman’s Cap. And as I sat atop the queen of the Hebrides; as its one-letter name royally proclaims (I, the Island),  I started making plan to get to Dutchman’s Cap.

* * *

I did not know it on that April day in 2010, but Eyjafjallajökull was continuing to belch gritty ash into the sky. I would end up being stranded in Scotland for another ten days. But you couldn't ask for a better place to be stranded. Something else I did not know was that eight years would pass before I'd again stand on the summit of Iona. It would be a beautiful spring day in 2018, when I returned to sprinkle my mother's ashes on one of the grassy knolls high atop Dun-I.

Dutchman's Cap seen from Lunga

Friday, April 10, 2020

Stuck at Home - Armchair Travelling

Like so many around the globe my wife and I are stuck at home. The hardest part for me is that I am not allowed to visit my 97-year-old father. I had not seen him for a month when, yesterday, he had a dental emergency. I was allowed to take him to the dentist to get a tooth pulled. It was good to see him, even under the circumstances.

We do manage to get out of the house every now and then for a walk, and fortunately we are having a lovely spring. When you're out for a walk, and someone is coming in your direction, they usually cross the street to the other side. But it's something I'm used to, as I am a shady-looking character.

2020 will be the first year since 1989 that I won't be visiting the Hebrides. I was going to fly to Glasgow next week, and then take the train to Oban to guide a cruise on Hjalmar Bjorge. That trip has been postponed for a year, and I've spent the past few days cancelling hotels, trains, and flights. To fight the disappointment I've been reliving some of my past island journeys. Something I would not be able to fully do without a trove of journals dating back thirty years. Looking through them is a great way to armchair-travel while trying to forget what's happening in the world today.

While doing some of this armchair-travelling I came across a journal entry that described a brilliant day spent with a friend skimming over island seas and trekking island hills. I decided to write it up as a full length article, and it will be in the next issue of Scottish Islands Explorer. It will be my 30th story for the magazine since 2004, and the first since the magazine was acquired by Intermedia Services of Stornoway. It is gratifying to have now placed stories in all four vintages of the magazine: Linda Grieve and Peter Welch (2000-2006), Jeremy Smith (2007-2010), my good friend John Humphries (2010-2019), and now Fred Silver of Intermedia. In the face of all the challenges facing print media these days it is good to see the magazine keeping on.

Information on how to subscribe, to either print or electronic versions, can be found here: Scottish Islands Explorer

Hopefully things will clear up, and we'll all be back visiting the islands in 2021.

The head of Loch Shealg - Pairc, Isle of Lewis

Friday, April 3, 2020

Barra - Over the Tops

No visit to Barra is complete without a hike over the tops. Many visitors are happy just climbing Heabhal, at nearly 1300 feet the summit of Barra. Aside from the view, the highlight of the climb is spending some time with Our Lady, Star of the Sea.

Standing there, high atop Barra, you can congratulate yourself with having the hardest part behind you. Don't throw that hard work away and just descend back to Castlebay. From the summit of Heabhal three grand walks are available. I have written before of the hike over to Hartabhal and back to Castlebay. I've also written of the long walk from Heabhal down through the Dark Glen (see Book 2, chapter 6). But I've not written about another walk, one I made several years ago: the walk from Heabhal to Beul a' Bhealaich, and then down to the sea at Craigston.

* * *

The rolling hilltops were especially appealing on the dry, spring afternoon, when I made the easy traverse from Heabhal to Hartbhal. Then, a magnificent ridge walk, a gradual descent of 600 feet, took me down to Beul a' Bhealaich; the main hill pass between east and west Barra.

Along the way I was granted a view to tiny Loch Uisge, with Beinn Tangabhal in the distance.

From the pass I carried to the northwest for a half-mile, where a giant pile of stones came into view. That pile was Dun Bharpa, a massive Neolithic chambered cairn, 20 feet high and 100 feet in diameter.

The cairn is surrounded by a series of 15 standing stones, their bases buried in the outer margins of the cairn. On the top of the cairn lies the large capstone that covered the inner chamber. The stone is massive, 10 feet by 6 feet, and a foot thick.

From the cairn I had planned to carry on for another half-mile north to explore the Iron Age farmstead and souterrian known as Tigh-Talamhanta. But the ground was so swampy that I decided to head down to the coast instead. So I headed southwest to find the Balnacraig (Craigston) track, which took me past the Church of St Brendan to the Barra ring road. 

From there I had a three-mile road walk back to Castlebay. Passing, along the way, the white sands of Halaman Bay.

As I passed through Tangusdale this old house caught my attention.  I knew I'd seen it before, as there is a photo of how it looked 60 years ago in one of Alasdair Alpin Macgregor's books.

Next up was Loch Tangasdail, home to Dun McLeod (15th century). The little tower is also known as Castle St Clair. I have been tempted, on several occasions, to swim out and explore the ruin.

I was on the homestretch, and a half hour later wearily stumbled into the Craigaird Hotel to seek refreshment. A look at the map showed I walked eight miles, so I decided I'd earned a double refreshment.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Midge Master

My encounters with midges over the years has finally paid off. I am launching The Midge-Master, soon to be on the top-ten list of essentials for all island baggers. It is a midge hat with five hi-speed fans that keep the bugs at bay. It's great fun to wear, especially if you are camping with others. You can watch as its hi-efficiency fans blow hordes of bloodthirsty midges over to your friends. Watch as they squirm and swat, while you sit comfortably enjoying a dram. What better way to spend a night under the stars!

As an added bonus, on windy days when the bugs are not a problem, the Midge-Master can be used as a generator to charge the fans and your smart phone. No longer will you have to fret about being off-grid. You'll be able to watch your favourite cat videos anywhere, from Mingulay to Rona. I well remember long nights camped on the far shores of Loch Reasort; the only sounds the gentle lapping of surf, the pitter-patter of rain on the tent, barking red deer, and drumming snipe. It was driving me crazy—oh how I longed for a fully-charged phone to catch up on the latest celebrity news. With the Midge-Master I'll never have to suffer such agonizing deprivation again—and neither will you. Details on how to purchase coming soon. 

Field testing The Midge-Master in Glen Corodale
Note the Tesco Brandy - when only the best will do!
Even though I've defeated the mighty midge, I will not be resting on my laurels. Under development is the next evolution in insect defense. After the midge, the fiercest foe of the besieged island bagger is the cleg: those big, fat, blood lapping devils, whose bite lingers long after that of the lowly midge. What's in development is the Cleg-Cap. Only one obstacle remains before it will be available to the public. I am having a bit of a problem keeping the Venus Fly-Traps attached to the cap from biting the wearer. On the plus-side they do keep down the dandruff. But no problem is insurmountable. A breakthrough is imminent, and some much needed relief will soon be on the way for bug-bothered island-baggers everywhere.