Friday, May 29, 2020

I Miss the Puffins, too

In a normal year several thousand tourists make day-trips from Oban and Mull to see the puffin colony on Lunga. When those trips are operating there can be close to a hundred people on the island, all wanting to get close to the colorful birds. It is exhilarating to sit next to the burrows and watch as the Puffins go about their business; and busy birds they are, continually flying in with beakfuls of eels to feed their young. Those not busy feeding spend their time bickering, kissing, and growling at each other. (The birds, not the tourists. Although I have seen a few growling tourists over the years). The puffins are used to visitors, but I am sure they are happy to be left alone this year.

The best way to avoid the crowds is on a small boat cruise, where they'll set you ashore before the day-boats arrive. The following video was taken in 2008, when I was on the sailing yacht Zuza. Including myself, there was a grand total of four passengers on the cruise. (It doesn't get much better than that.) This allowed us all to spend some quality time with the puffins. The video gives some sense of what that's like. (You can see Zuza in the background of the first scene).

Monday, May 25, 2020

I Miss This

I miss sitting atop the wheelhouse of Hjalmar Bjorge as it plows through the sea. Here's a sampler of what that's like. The final section show us in calmer seas off Sulasgier of the gannets.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Talisker House - A look Back

The last post on a virtual visit to the Viking Canal made me wish I was really on Skye. So I dug through my journals looking for entries about the island. As I did I came a cross a Skye walk I'd never written about - one made twenty years ago. 

It was June of 2000. After a long stay on Rum (book 1, chapter 28), my wife were on Skye, driving the single track to Talisker House. I'd booked a room there for one night to break up our journey to North Uist. Oh how I regret my thinking back then, in just booking for one night - one night in a historic place that deserved a week at least.

It was a beautiful, cloudless day, as we made the 50-mile drive across Skye from Armadale. We found Talisker House at the end of a long single-track road, where we were graciously greeted by Jon and Ros Wathen (I believe the Talisker Estate was owned by their family). We were fortunate in our timing. Talisker would not operate as a B&B for very long, as in a few years the Walthens would leave to run a guest house in Australia.

Talisker House was built in 1717 for the Macleods of Talisker, and hosted Boswell and Johnson for two nights in 1773. Dr Johnson did not think much of the place, reporting that it is The place beyond all that I have seen from which the gay and the jovial seem utterly excluded.

Talisker is an interesting name. So much so that the Carbost distillery, which lies four miles away on the shore of Loch Harport, took it as a name. I have come across two translations of Talisker. The first is 'house at the rock', the second is 'echo-rock' (the Gaelic for 'echo' is MacTalla, the son of the hall). The aforementioned rock is Preshal Mor, which you can see in the previous photo looming 1000 feet above the house.

We had booked for dinner at the house. That's something I don't usually like to do as it limits your options for a long walk. But there were no other places for a meal in the area. With only two hours to explore I decided to walk some of the Talisker Horseshoe and see if there was an echo at Echo Rock. 

The Talisker Horsehoe is a five mile circuit from the house up to Preshal More (1050 ft.), then around the upper reaches of Glen Sleadale to Preshal Beg (1130 ft), and then back down to Talisker. With only two hours I'd just have time to reach the head of the glen.

From Talisker House Preshal More looks like the Devil's Tower, a massive stack of rock. But as I climbed to the southeast it became a giant wall of stone that reminded me of the Sgurr of Eigg. As I approached I could hear the echos of baa'ing sheep.

It had been a long day of travel, and it was very hot. I was so tired after climbing 500 feet in the heat that I decided not to climb to the top. After finding a place to sit and catch my breath I started to yell, listening as the echos washed down into the glen.

I carried on south along the route of the horseshoe. An hour into the walk I came to the turnaround point at the head of Glen Sleadale. It was a beautiful spot, and in the late afternoon haze one of Macleod's Maidens could be seen rising from the sea off Idrigill Point.

If I hadn't had to be back by 7:30 I'd have kept on going. But the wife would not be very happy if I missed dinner, so I started back. The walk down the glen, along the banks of the Sleadale Burn, was stunning. And as I rounded a knoll the policies of Talisker House came into view, an oasis of pines surrounded by fields of abandoned lazybeds.

I was back just in time for dinner. I don't remember what was on the menu, but I do remember that my wife and I felt a little under-dressed in our jeans, as everyone else was smartly attired. But we travel light, and jeans are all we bring on vacation. After the 'Full Scottish' the next morning we set off to Uig to catch the ferry to Lochmaddy.  

I regret that all-too-short stay, and so a return to Talisker is high on the to-do list. But the closest I'll get this year is by enjoying a smoky dram with a splash of highland spring water. 


Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Viking Canal - A Virtual Visit

I'm still stuck in lockdown here in Seattle. Day 70 and counting. Virtual visits to the Hebrides are all that's possible. So I thought I'd go on one, and return to a place on Skye I've only visited once: Loch na-Airde and the Viking canal. Twenty years have passed since I was there. During those decades much has been discovered about the loch and its canal. The site is now thought to have been a medieval boatyard.

In 1995, six years before my visit, an underwater survey found several boat timbers lying in the silty bottom of the loch, but they were left in place. Further survey work in 2000, when the water level was unusually low, led to the discovery of an oak boat timber. Radiocarbon dated to 1100 AD, it is believed to come from a four-oared clinker built ship, twenty-feet long. A ship that size was too large for just using in the loch, it had been a sea-going vessel. 

In 2008, seven years after my visit, a larger piece of timber was found, most likely from a ship thirty-feet in length. Initially thought to be 12th century, it was radiocarbon dated to the 19th or early 20th century. Proof that the canal was in use for over 800 years.

Additional underwater surveys found remnants of a quay where the canal enters the loch. It spanned the entrance, with a gap in the middle. The gap allowed ships to pass, and may also have been part of the water management scheme for the loch. Loch na Airde is shallow, much of it only six-feet deep. Its primary source of water are the small streams flowing off the slopes of Carn Mòr, and from a small loch above the township of Dùnan, where the MacAskill of Rudha Dùnain lived. 

The mean elevation of the loch is only a few feet above sea level, so seawater can only get in at extremely high tides—tides in excess of +5 feet—so they had to control the water level to keep boats afloat at all levels of tide. Aside from the quay at the end of the canal, another mechanism to control the level appears to have been an adjustable dam built at its halfway point. A dam that could be temporarily removed to allow ships to pass at high tide. Note that this is speculation on my part; but the structure, whatever it was, can still be seen today. Blocking the central part of the canal, it is so tumbled that it looks like a pile of ruble.

It would of taken a lot of work to manage the water level of the loch, so it may have been done only a few times a year when bringing boats in for repair, launching newly built ones, and when over-wintering ships in the loch.

The time-line for this complex site would start with the establishment of the promontory fort 2500 years ago, a place of refuge for the settlements north of the headland. The fort had a navy of sorts, based in the two stone-lined boat noosts below the fort, where ships could be pulled out of the water.

Fifteen-hundred years later the Norse took over. They constructed the 200-foot long canal to the loch, creating a boatyard and safe-haven on Loch na Airde for over-wintering ships. Another 600 years pass, and the MacAskills establish the township of Dunan; building two dozen homes and cultivating crops in the surrounding terrain. The township was cleared in 1873, and the area has been deserted ever since.

Taken as a whole, Rudha an Dùnain is one of the premiere historic sites in the Hebrides. Fortunately it is difficult to visit, and so is protected from damage caused by thoughtless visitors. In a well deserved, and long overdue recognition, it was scheduled as a historic monument in 2017.

Oh how I wish I new all the above when I walked there in 2001, and so a return to Rudha an Dùnain is demanded; not just a virtual one, not just a day-hike, but to camp for the night.

I’ll come on a sunny, midge free day (I’m dreaming here, might as well be optimistic).
I’ll come on a day of high spring tides.
I’ll pitch the tent next to the fort overlooking the canal. 
I’ll watch as the flood tide surges through the canal.
I’ll imagine I was there 800 years ago, watching as galleys venture in and out of the loch.

Maybe, someday . . .   Now I just want a vaccine.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Make me Smile

We all need something to smile at right now. Here are some puffin pics from the Flannan Isles.