Wednesday, October 6, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #18 - Gigha

More delays. Sorry about that. The guide had to go home for a couple of weeks to prepare a video presentation on his book about the Beehive Cells of the Hebrides. It will be shown at the Faclan Book Festival in Stornoway at the end of October. He had so much fun making the video he now wants to make one about the seamier side of crew life on Hjalmar Bjorge. He thinks he'll make a bundle off of it as a reality series. He's going to call it 'Below Deck - Hjalmar Bjorge'. 

He wants to shine a spotlight on the below deck intrigue and romantic encounters that guests never see, but always wonder about when they hear chains clanking in the dark of night. So far I've gotten away with telling them it's the anchor chain banging on the hull - if only they knew the truth.

To keep the guide happy, I am going to have to humor him - let him think I'm onboard with the idea. But I can't let the public see what really goes on, so at the end of the cruise I'm going to maroon him on North Rona. He likes those beehive cells so much he can spend out his days living in one, with a nice warm fulmar to cuddle up to at night.

But to get back to the cruise. We finally make it to Gigha - God's Isle, as the name is said to mean. I land the guests at its north end where steamers used to call. Our first stop is the island of Eilean Garbh, which is connected to Gigha by a tombolo. The tombolo can be covered by sea during storms, making Eilean Garbh an island in its own right. 

The view to the north from atop Eilean Garbh gives us a glimpse of the stunning islands of Jura and Islay, which we'll see in the coming days. We then descend to the road, where we pass the Hanging Stone with its convenient notch to tie a noose onto. It has two other English names: the giant’s tooth and the druid’s stone. Its true name is Carraig na Tairbeirt, stone of the portage. The island's width narrows down to 1000 feet here, and the terrain is only 30 feet high. With rising sea levels in the future, the north end of Gigha will eventually be an island unto itself.

Once past the isthmus we leave the road to make the 300-foot climb to Gigha's highpoint, Creag Bhàn. The hill has twin summits, spaced 500 feet apart. It is easy to walk from one to the other, as the intervening saddle is only thirty feet lower. To the north we can see Eilean Garbh and its tombolo.

The north summit of Creag Bhàn (to the right in the above photo) is known as Bidean an Fhithich, the Raven’s pinnacle. A local story is that the name commemorates where a crow from the Ark found land and rested. My vague memories from Sunday School lessons was that Noah sent out a dove to find land, not a crow. If I could send a message back in time, I'd tell Noah not to let any crows on the ark - no midges, either.

Looking south we can see the hillfort Dun Chiofaich. In his book The Antiquities of Gigha, the Reverend RSG Anderson says this about the fort: Tradition says that Keefi, the king of Lochlin's son, who occupied this stronghold, was killed there by Diarmid, one of Fingal's heroes, with whose wife he had run away. Keefi is evidently a variant of Ciuthach, concerning whom legends have been found from the Clyde to the Butt of Lewis. He was a great warrior, a hero of the Picts, contemporary with Fionn mac Cumhail and opposed to Fionn.

Our next stop is the parish church on Cnocan a’ Chiuil, the hill of music. It was built in 1923, the year the Reverend Kenneth Macleod came to Gigha. Macleod was born on Eigg in 1871, where his father was the schoolmaster. After ordination in 1917, he became the Church of Scotland parish minister for Colonsay and Oronsay, where he remained for six years before coming to Gigha, a post he held until 1947. According to his friend, the author Alasdair Alpin Macgregor, MacLeod’s motto was: A boat to sail in, a sea to sail on, an island to sail to, and never a day for leaving.

Inside the church we find the stained-glass window dedicated to MacLeod. It is stunning: a full palette of colours spanning six frames that includes: St Patrick with a shamrock and coiled snake; St Bridget kneeling to comfort a lamb; a kittiwake on the wing forming a St Andrew’s cross; and St Columba, crozier in hand, standing in his coracle as a dove soars overhead.

One large figure spans all the frames on the widow, a saintly king, or kingly saint, robed in brilliant red vestments playing a harp. His left left leg is raised to frame a manger scene at the bottom, where Mary and two shepherds adore the baby Jesus. Christ’s cradle floats atop a birlinn, which in turn floats on the sea, proudly displaying a cross-marked sail. The memorial text reads:

To the Glory of God and in the memory of Kenneth MacLeod, DD, Preacher, Pastor, Poet: ‘Thig crioch air an t-saoghal ach mairidh gaol is ceol’, the end of the world will come, but love and music will endure.

Our next stop is Ardminish village, where we peek into the excellent craft shop run by Henri Macacauley. On display in the courtyard is one of the 'Bodach' stones of Gigha. We'll be ending our walk at the supreme example of these stones near the Dancing Ladies of Cnoc a' Bhodaich, the hill of the old man.

We then carry on to the south past the 13th century ruin of Kilchattan church, once the parish church of Gigha and Cara. Dedicated to the 6th-century St Cathan, it was used until the end of the 17th century. 

From the church we make an easy climb to one of the gems of Gigha: the Ogham Stone. It is a four-sided monolith, each side a foot wide. The granite pillar was originally ten feet high, but had been broken when it was knocked over in the 1840s. The ogham markings are worn and covered by thick lichen, but if you look closely you can still see them. Some experts date the markings to the seventh century. One translation reads: FIACAL SON OF COEMGEN. Thus we have here on little Gigha, one of the most substantial tombstones in the Hebrides.

Next to the stone is Achamore Gardens, which surround Achamore House. Gigha had been the property of the Clan McNeill for some 400 years until it was sold to James Scarlett in 1856 for £49,000. Over the next 90 years it changed hands four times, ending up in the hands of James Horlik in 1944. Horlick had a large plant collection, which he expanded to fill fifty acres of gardens surrounding Achamore House. The property was sold when Horlick passed away in 1973, but the plant collection was donated to the National Trust. 

More property juggling followed, the ownership changing hands three more times until the community buyout in 2002. The house itself was sold to a private owner in 2020, but the gardens are still held by the Trust. We spend some time admiring the gardens and its peacocks. 

Since we'd entered the gardens by a back gate, we'd missed the kiosk where they collect the entry fee. So the guide went around and collected money from everyone. Then, or so he said, he went off to pay the fee - his pockets jangling from dozens of pound coins.

On leaving the gardens we head across a large field where we encounter Faith, Hope and Charity: three windmills known collectively as The Dancing Ladies (a fourth was added in 2021). The mills generate much needed income for the island. 

Near the northernmost mill is the hillock of the old man, Cnoc a’ Bhodaich, where the guardians of Gigha stand watch. 

The Bodach and Cailleach, the old man and woman of Gigha, are two oddly shaped stones. The Old Woman is roughly triangular, and may have been taken from a nearby ruined chambered tomb. The Old Man is a water-worn, 200-pound stone set in a rounded hollow. He is two-feet tall, and eerily resembles an armless human figure; or, depending on the perspective, a large bowling pin. Sheep, using the old man as a scratching stone, had knocked him over, so we set him upright, ready to satisfy the next itchy lamb.

We leave the old man and woman and cross the field to the main road, from where we start the walk back to Ardminish, where Hjalmar Bjorge is anchored in the bay. As we walk along the gentle road a distinctive clanking of coins can be heard, as the guide, pockets bulging, hurries ahead to see if the pub is open.

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