Sunday, June 13, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Islands 7 thru 11 - The Garvelachs, Belnahua & Fladda

My apologies for the long delay getting away from Jura. The guide went missing two weeks ago. He'd told us he was going off to climb the Paps, but after no sign of him for ten days we had to search the island. We finally found him passed out in the Isle of Jura Distillery. As he boarded the ship a loud clanking came from his bulging backpack, so we had to do a strip-search. The good news is that the ship's bar is now fully stocked with some of Jura's finest.

And so we weigh anchor to once again traverse Corryvreakan, Safely across, we motor up the west coast of Scarba, passing along the way a small bay, Port Uarrachan. On its shores are the ruins of a small settlement of beehive cells, possible once a hermitage associated with the monastery of Iona: a remote place Columba could go to escape the tourists. As we continue to the north a low-lying string of four islands become visible: the Garvelachs, also know as The Isles of the Sea.

We make our first landing of the day on Eileach an Naoimh, the rock of the saints. The main landing is in the sheltered Am Port, at the head a creek fed by St Columba's Well. Set twenty feet above the shore, the well is always fresh.

A short trek inland leads to a display that depicts what the monastic enclosure here looked like in the 5th century. But before entering the enclosure we follow a side track up to the massive double beehive cell. the largest of these fascinating structures in Scotland. (An arrow indicates the beehive's location.)

Once inside the main enclosure we find the chapel that dates to the eleventh or twelfth century, though some references say it had been part of the original monastery, which would make it much older. The interior is twenty by ten feet, with a small window opening in the east wall above where the altar would have been. The following photo shows the chapel set within the original oval enclosure. The large structure in the foreground is a farmhouse built of stones robbed from the monastic ruins.

In the grassy earth near the chapel lies an underground chamber, which is actually a buried beehive cell. Patrick Gillies, in his book Netherlorn, Argyllshire and its Neighbourhood, describes it as follows:

Close to the chapel is an underground cell called Am Priosan (the prison), and tradition tells very circumstantially the mode of confining prisoners. There was a large stone in the bottom of the cell with a V-shaped depression; the prisoner placed his clasped hands in the hollow, and a wedge-shaped stone was securely fastened down over the palms of the hands, and so tightly that it was impossible to extricate them: the whole arrangement was called, A' ghlas laimh (the hand-lock). Probably, however, the underground cavity was a well, or maybe a cellar for storing the "elements.

A monastery with a pit prison for misbehaving monks. I like it. As a skipper, I wish I had such a dungeon for misbehaving guests (and crew). I can certainly banish them to the engine room, but then they start fiddling with the machinery. One of my previous guides, who'd been sent down as punishment, tripped on a fuel valve, partially starving one of the engines. We were spinning in circles for an hour until I figured out what had happened. 

After exploring the island we climb to its highest point, St Brendan's Hill. From there we can see Garbh Eileach, our next destination of the day. 

The skipper is still trying to set a record of five islands, and so we're soon back on the water to land at the small slip below Garbh Eileach House. It is the only occupied house on the Garvellachs, but no one has ever been home on the occasions when your skipper has landed. The next photo shows the house, and to the right the burial ground known as Cladh Dubhan (marked with an X). Patrick Gillies wrote the following about the graveyard:

On the island of Garbheileach there is a very old graveyard known as Claodh Dhubhan (the burying-place of Duban). More than one prince and certainly one king of Alban was called Dubh; and Dubhan seems to have been a common name; while in 927, Dubthach, son of Duban, fourteenth in descent from Conal Gulban the great-grand-father of Columba, became Superior or Co-arb in Iona.

At the north end of Garbh Eileach we get a good view to our next destination, the tiny, but once mighty Dun Connel.

An hour later finds us atop Dun Connel, on a large grassy plateau where, to quote John of Fordun writing in the fourteenth century, ‘the great castle of Dunquhonle’ once lay. Several earthen mounds, covered with green turf, lay separated by boggy sections of ground rampant with nettles and tall grass. A few stones lying here and there were the only remnants of Dùn Chonnuill’s once great fortress. This small piece of ground has seen a lot of history. A Lord of the Isles had been imprisoned here seven centuries ago, and thirteen hundred years before that it had been the stomping ground for the warriors of Fingalian legend, led by Conall Cearnach, cousin to Cuchulainn. It was Conall who avenged Cuchulainn’s death by killing ‘ten and seven scores of hundreds of the men of Ireland.’

With everyone back aboard we are about to set off for Belnahua, island number four for the day, when we encounter a minor technical difficulty. The winch refuses to turn, and so there is no way to automatically raise the anchor. But it is a problem the cunning skipper easily solves. During our hurried hikes across the last three islands Hazel and Liz had complained about the pace. For punishment I attached push-bars to the capstan, and had them manually crank the 2000-pound anchor aboard. It only took an hour.

Belnahua, island number four, lay only two miles to the east. So in short order we're setting foot on the slate-shard beach of Belnahua.

In the nineteenth century millions of roofing slates were exported from the Slate Islands to destinations in Europe, North America, Australia, and the West Indies. Initially, wooden wedges were pounded into cracks in the rock at low tide. When the tide rose the wood swelled and the rock split. The pieces were then carried above high water for further splitting. And as they dug deeper into the earth walls had to be built between the quarries and the sea to keep them from flooding.

The ruins of a dozen structures lay scattered about the island, and one by one we enter them all. Belnahua had a school and a store, and at one point 150 people lved here. Above the largest quarry sat the ruin of the powerhouse. It once pumped water out of the pits, and powered a winch to drag out stone. The powerhouse had two storeys, and most of the machinery sat on the upper floor; a complicated matrix of hand levers, winding gears, and drive shafts, all rusted solidly in place. The equipment had been steam powered, and a large boiler tank sat at the back of the building.

After having traipsed across four islands the guests are dragging a little, and mutinous murmurings of miscontent are heard. The skipper wants to set a small-ship cruise record of five islands in a day (he'll get a trophy), so to quiet them down he threatens to make them eat the guide's cooking. The guide is as lazy a cook as they get. When forced to prepare a meal it's always cold sardine sandwiches and beer. 

We then land on island number five, Fladda, an island completely dominated by its 1860 lighthouse. Although it was automated in 1956, the two keeper's houses are still intact, and used as holiday homes. The large walled garden, once tended by the keepers, is now an overgrown mess. But it's a beautiful mess; the garden entrance framed by massive fuchsias, blooming bright red. It's said that the carrots the keepers once grew here were also bright red. 

The wind is from the east, so for the night we tuck up next to the coast of Luing. The skipper, to celebrate his five island record, sets out a few of the bottles of malt the guide had purloined during his unaccounted for time on Jura. In the morning I intend to take Hjalmar Bjorge through the Crinan Canal. The lock master says the ship might be a bit big for the canal. We'll see about that . . .

Monday, May 31, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #6 - Jura

After leaving Scarba we head south into the open maw of Corryvreakan. Sounds pretty dramatic, terrifying, and death defying, doesn't it! Actually, the whirlpool is usually asleep. And that's how we find it as we stop off at the little island of Eilean Beag, on the south side of the whirlpool, at the entrance to Jura's Bagh Gleann nam Muc.

I'd marooned Wolfgang on Eilean Beag the day before, after he complained about my driving  skills (something not allowed on my ship). He should have felt honored, as it is a historic island. (Or is it an historic, I can never remember.) It is historic because George Orwell and his adopted son Richard, along with Orwell's niece and nephew, were stranded on this islet in 1947. Their boat had lost its motor while they were braving the waters of the whirlpool, and it is fortunate that they all survived, as no one was wearing a life jacket.

We rescue Wolfgang, then motor into the bay, where we can see our destination: a dark hole in the cliff-face: Breackan's Cave, where Prince Breacan, the whirlpool’s namesake, was supposedly buried.

We land on the beach east of the cave, then make the lumpy quarter-mile hike out to it. When we reach it we find the remnants of lichen-dotted stone walls that once guarded the approach to the cave, and as a last line of defense a fortification wall that spans the cave's dark opening. The cave extends 200 feet into the rock, and its mouth, pointed at one end, blunt at the other, is twelve feet high, and forty across. The final protective wall retains three feet of its height, and at its centre a narrow gap allows entrance to the interior of the cave.

As the story goes, Corryvreckan (Coire Bhreacain) is named after Breacan, a fifth century prince said to have drowned when his fleet of galleys came to grief in the whirlpool. Martin Martin wrote this of Corryvreckan and the cave: This gulf hath its name from Brekan, said to be son to the King of Denmark, who was drowned here, cast ashore in the north of Jura, and buried in a cave, as appears from the stone, tomb, and altar there.

The floor of the cave is carpeted with deer and goat droppings. There is no sign of an altar, although a thick stone slab lies at the far back of the cave. About four feet long, it may be all that’s left of the tomb mentioned by Martin.

After exploring the cave our hardy group returns to the ship, where I surprise them with one more stop on Jura. We had just seen a historic cave. (Or is it an historic, I can never remember.) Now we would be seeing another: Maclean's Skull Cave at Glengarrisdale.

Glengarrisdale is only three miles to the southwest, and so in short order we land on its broad shingle beach. Just above the shore we come to a red-roofed bothy, which the guide quickly enters on a mysterious mission, leaving us to explore the glen on our own.

On a small hillock above the bothy we find the site of Aros Castle, the Jura base of the Macleans of Lochbuie. They once held this end of the island, which was the location of the battle where the Maclean was slain whose skull lay here until 1976. No one knows for certain exactly which battle the skull was a relic of, as several skirmishes occurred here over the years. The most well known was a fight between the Campbells of Craignish and the Macleans in 1647. In Donald Budge’s Jura; an Island of Argyll, there is a transcript of an act of Parliament description of the battle:

Johne Mcallaster Roy alias Campbell, Neill Mcallaster alias Campbell, and others did … with guns, swords, bows, pistols and other weapons, came under silence and cloud of night to the lands of Glengarisdale, and there most cruelly and barbarously murdered John Mcgilliechallum, John Mccharles, Donald Mcangus, and servants to Murdoch McLean, all living quietly and peaceably at their own homes.

After looking around the glen we enter the bothy, where we find the guide fast asleep, and all the whisky bottles empty.

After sobering up the guide we follow him out of the bothy and up to a small cave in the ridge to the north. In it we discover a skull some mad-man left there in 2005, as a memorial to the slain Maclean whose skull lay here for so many years. 

Everyone is in fine spirits (especially the guide) as we return to Hjalmar Bjorge after our two Jura cave explorations. Then disaster strikes, once again. Earlier in the day I'd pardoned Nigel from his banishment to the engine room (for good behavior and some cash). I still did not trust his cooking, so I'd commissioned Nigel's wife, Clare, to the position of Chief Chef. The main course this evening is beef Wellington, and my mouth starts to water in anticipation. But when the starter arrives I blow my top. Kale salad!  Good grief!  On the Skipper's preference sheet I'd specifically stated the only kale allowed aboard is the kind with a silent 'k'. And so Clare is banished to the engine room. Nigel is happy with that, as it means he'll have a whole cabin to himself.

The following morning we head out to set a record: five islands in one day. Three of the Garvelllachs, and then Belnahua and Fladda of the Slate Isles.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #5 - Scarba

Sunday morning, after leaving Eilean Righ, we motor down to the Dorus Mor to set course to the northwest. Our destination: The Gulf of Corryvreakan. After rounding Carrig Mhor, the north tip of Jura, we enter the Gulf itself where, a mile in we enter a vast area of turbulent sea. There is not just one large whirlpool, but dozens of small ones; each thirty to forty feet in diameter, with seabirds feasting on all the fish pushed to the surface by the strong currents. 

After a few orbits around the whirlpool I attempt to steer us out of the maelstrom. It seems we're stuck, being drawn inexorably to the fatal center, like a starship to a black hole. Even after maxing out the throttles we barely move. I make an urgent call down to the engine room.

"Scotty, I need more power"
"Captain, I cannae, me poor lovelies are doing their best"
"More power, Scotty!"
"Captain, engine temperature is 8000 degrees over limit!"
"Scotty, is that Fahrenheit or Centigrade?"

Just then we break loose, and the ship spurts out of the whirlpool. As we do Wolfgang, one of our frequent flyers, complains about nearly dying. He tells me he'll be writing a zero-star Yelp review. That just won't do, so I maroon him on Eilean Beag, a small island on the southern fringe of the whirlpool. George Orwell and his son were stranded on this island for a while in 1946, when they braved Corry in a small boat that came to grief.

Leaving the whirlpool behind we motor up the east coast of Scarba. Our view from sea level shows that Scarba's higher terrain is rocky, dotted with swaths of heather and grass, but its northeast corner at Kilmory is covered with lush forest. As we approach Kilmory the white painted Kilmory Lodge comes into view.

At the top of the track from the pier we find Kilmory Lodge, a sprawling house with a fantastic view over the Slate Islands. From there we follow a meagre path down to a historic ruin. The path soon disappears, and after bushwhacking for a few minutes the sight of several gaunt tombstones poking through the grass tells us we've found Cille Mhòire an Caibeal; St Mary’s (or possibly St Maelrubha’s) chapel and burial ground. The chapel was a place of pilgrimage centuries ago, first noted in writing by John of Fordon in the 14th century, when he wrote that on Scarba is the chapel of the Blessed Virgin, where many miracles occur.

A single doorway opening in one wall is the only discernible feature left of this chapel of miracles, and we step through it to reach the centre of the church to enjoy the peace of the holy ground. From where we stand we can see over the tumbled walls to the black tombstones in the burial ground. There are a half-dozen leaning stones, most with the name McLean carved into them: a cadet branch of the Maclaine family of Lochbuie (Mull).

The mercury is on the rise as we climb back to the lodge, and then start up the rough pony track that climbs the shoulder of Cruach Scarba. Our next destination is a viewpoint over to Jura and Corryvreakan.

Although the distance to the viewpoint is only two miles, it seems much longer; both on account of the elevation gain (1000 feet), and the temperature. After two hours we reach Carn a' Chibir, the keeper's cair, a pyramid of stones that marks the high point of the path. Here we take a seat to enjoy some fantastic views across the Gulf of Corryvreakan. We can also see Eilean Beag, where we stranded Wolfgang earlier in the day.

From the viewpoint we start the final stretch of our climb to reach the 1472-foot summit of Cruach Scarba, the island's highest point. 

At the 1200-foot level the clouds start to move in as we reach a beautiful, but un-named, mountain loch.

Then, and not too soon, we're huffing and puffing up to the summit cairn on its rocky knoll. 

At the summit your fearless guide violates Commandment #1 of the GGGGG (Good Guide's Guide to Good Guiding) by drinking on the job. 

Once the guide sobers up he leads us back down the way we came. The clouds have blown away and the views are completely different when going in the opposite direction, including this one north to the island of Lunga.

Around 6 pm we are back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge. After a very full day we sit down to the skipper's favourite meal, a traditional Sunday roast. Being skipper, he has the right to as many Yorkshire puddings as he wants, which leaves some having to go without. But their complaints stop when the skipper brings out the ship's cat (o-nine-tails, that is).

The next morning the generator wake-up call happens, as always, at 7am. After the previous day's walkabout, sore legs made it harder than usual to get out of the bunk. But the coffee calls, and after a few cups, and a full breakfast, the anchor is raised and we set a course back into Corryvreakan. We'll rescue Wolfgang from Eilean Beag, then go ashore on Jura to seek out Breackan's Cave.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #4 - Eilean Righ

After our Luing leaving we motor south to enter the Dorus Mor, the sea passage between Crinan and the Inner Hebrides. A turn to port then takes us up into Loch Craignish. After passing Island Macaskin we find a sheltered anchorage off the west side of Eilean Righ, the King's Island. 

Eilean Righ was once part of an amazing ritual landscape; just five miles away stands the hill of Dunadd, where the early kings of Dalriada were inaugurated; and two miles to the east is Kilmartin Glen, with its vast number of neolithic and bronze age sites. And then there's Ormaig, a very special place on the mainland opposite Eilean Righ. Before landing on the island we make a quick sortie to Ormaig, where we hike a quarter-mile to see the best examples of rock-art in the country: cups, rings, and rosettes carved in stone for still unknown reasons. 

The site consists of a couple hundred carvings spread out over several slabs. The most interesting are rosette carvings often referred to as 'telephone dials', as they resemble the dials of old rotary phones. Something totally alien to the current generation.

Back in the RIB we speed across the loch to make landfall on Eilean Righ. The island does not make a good first impression, as we're greeted with a Not Welcome sign. There is no such thing as a private island in Scotland, although I've come across a few over the years where the owners don't want any uninvited visitors. But as long as you are respectful to the owners privacy, property, and activities, you can explore an island.

Luckily for us the tall, spiky steel gate with the 'Private Island' sign is open, as all other access to the island requires scrambling over rocks or heavy bushwacking. From the gate we gain access to a track that leads up to two houses. Trying to be respectful, we stay as far from them as possible, and follow a road that leads past a helicopter hanger and an observatory. The island is someone's luxury island getaway, and we are probably fortunate no one is home at the moment.

As we approach the helo-hanger we follow a sidewalk that has embedded lights (marked with arrows in the next photo). The owner wants to be able to fly in anytime, day or night, so the lights mark a night-time flight path approach to the hanger. 


Regarding Eilean Righ's name, it had two duns (forts), one at the south end, another at the north end, so it was well defended; add to that its nearness to Dunadd; its easy access to the sea and sheltered anchorage; it is possible Eilean Righ was used by the early kings as an island residence. There was also a royal connection in the 1930s, when the island was owned by Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston, who was tutor to the young Dragon Emperor Puyi from 1919 to 1924. When I first posted on Eilean Righ five years ago it became one of my most-read posts, with hundreds of readers from China, many asking how to get to the island.

As we explore the south end of the island we find that 'manicured' would be a good term to describe it. The interior consists of swaths of mowed grass that makes for easy going as we make our way to the site of the south dun. 

After exploring the south end we set out to the north. The only way to access that part of the island (without a machete) means walking through the grounds of the two houses. Going as discretely as possible we make our way down a pebble-covered walkway between the houses to reach the north side of the island - we're expecting alarms to go off at any minute, but none do. More fine amenities greet us at the north end, including vast mowed lawns and a rifle range with distance markers.

Eilean Righ was on the market a few years ago for $3M. If you want to learn more about the island the sales brochure is still available at this link: Eilean Righ.

Back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge we gather in the saloon for a sumptuous supper of salmon and roast potatoes, followed by sticky toffee pudding. While eating we discuss the agenda. One guest wants to head to Crinan for some 'retail therapy'. I make a note in the ship's log about this, one more outrageous suggestion like that and the Baize Bag' will come out, which holds the cat-o-nine-tails. (I've always wanted to let the 'cat out of the bag', a dream of every skipper who has had unruly passengers). 

After more discussion the skipper makes a command decision: we'll take a whirl around Corryvreakan, then land on Scarba, whose tortured shore rings to Corryvreakan's roar.