Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A full year has passed since my last trip to the islands. I hope it won't be that long before I get back. It is photos like the one below that keep me planning return trips; trips that will be better than ever. That's because looking at photos like this make me realize how complacent I'd become, taking for granted that every year I'd be able to throw a pack on my back and find an island campsite with views like this. 

The photo shows the view to the sea from the summit of Cleit nam Bothan Aird, which lies a mile west of the head of Loch Tealasbhaigh. The large loch in the foreground is Loch na Caillich. In the far distance is the island of Scarp, and off to its right end lies the little island of Cearstaigh. No one can look at a photo like that and not want to sit on that panoramic spot and watch as the sun sets over the sea between St Kilda and the Flannans. I will no longer take something like that for granted, and will treat the next time as if it was the last.

The view the other way was just as memorable: in the foreground is a splendid example of the beehive builder's art, with the high hills of Harris in the far distance.

Monday, September 7, 2020

A Building at Risk

Isn't this absolutely stunning?

I stumbled across this gorgeous beehive cell a year ago on a walk through the Hamnavay area of southwest Lewis. I had decided to visit this particular site because the 1854 OS map indicated it had a two roofed structures of some sort, drawn as squares, which later maps marked as "Old Shielings". Then, while perusing aerial photos of the site, I noticed that there were two small circular structures standing side by side, placed exactly where the old map showed the two square structures. I am always on the hunt for beehive cells, and "ruins" marked as "Old Shielings" occasionally indicate circular corbelled beehive structures, some much older than the shielings. 

Why the surveyors decided not to differentiate between circular cells and rectangular shielings on their maps is a mystery. It shows the sad lack of appreciation they had for the history of what they were surveying.

The above photo is deceptive. What it does not show is that the very top of the dome has collapsed. Over the next 20 years the rest of it will probably fall. Then this magnificent cell will then look like its neighbor, just ten feet away, whose dome has completely collapsed.

I crawled inside the beehive and tried to imaging what life would be like living in this beautiful cell, which lies a mile east of the head of Loch Hamnavay. These cells are ingeniously constructed, and in the following photo you can see where the vertical walls transition to the overlaying stones of the corbelled dome. At the lower right you can also see a tiny window opening - an unusual thing to find in a beehive.

The cell had a two doorways, one facing west with a view to Loch Reasort, the other facing up the glen to the northeast. Depending on the wind direction, one of the doors would be blocked to allow for comfortable ventilation, keeping enough smoke out to be breathable, and enough smoke in to repel the midges.

This cell was a real find, and nothing (that I can find, anyway) has ever been written about it. Over the past 170 years about 20 beehives in this general vicinity have been studied, drawn, and surveyed, but for some reason this one, and several others nearby, have been completely ignored. I describe my journeys to nearly a hundred cells in my third book, Journeys to the Beehive Cell Dwellings of the Hebrides, which will be published by Acair early next year.