Ardveg Walk

This story describes a hike on the isle of Lewis from Morsgail to the Ardveg, made in August of 2016. An abridged version appeared in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue of Scottish Islands Explorer.

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   A question I’m asked often is, “What are your favourite places in the islands?” I don’t hesitate to answer. Two of my favourites are in the southwest corner of Lewis: the Morsgail Deer Forest, and the Ardveg. An area I think of as the heart of the Hebrides; a vast, open mix of moorland and hills. It’s full of wildlife, historic sites, and perfect for solitary wanderings.
   Over the years I’ve made several multi-day walks through this remote area. For me, hiking there means carrying a tent and sleeping bag, as the best parts are more than a day’s walk. Besides, sleeping under Hebridean stars on moorland, hilltops, or coastal cliffs, serenaded by barking deer and whirling snipe, is a highlight of backcountry exploration.
   Another highlight is seeing the old shielings; where people migrated with their livestock in the summer, to take advantage of common grazing land. These sites are especially interesting if they have the older beehive cells. Often described as stone igloos, some of the beehive cells predate their use as shielings by centuries.
   I set out for my most recent walk in this area in August of 2016. It was deer season, and so I contacted the gamekeepers for the Morsgail and Uig estates, who told me there’d be no hunting on the days I’d be hiking (it’s always good to check).
   The hike was going to start on Sunday, August 7. But that day a horrendous windstorm blew through the Highlands and Islands, causing an oil rig to break its tow cables and wash ashore at Dalmore, 20 miles from where I’d be hiking. On Monday the weather had calmed down, as I set out on foot from the gate to Morsgail Lodge.

Looking back to Morsgail Lodge
   From Morsgail lodge, a three-mile walk to the southwest leads to the shieling known as Airighean Tighe Dhubhastail (the shieling house of Dubastal). The shieling lies in a pastoral site straddling a peaty stream. Here I find the ruins of four houses, their stone covered with yellow lichen, along with a double beehive cell.
   I wanted to see this site because of an evocative drawing of the cell made when it was occupied. A drawing that appeared in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS - Vol. 7, 1866), as part of a report on a visit to the shieling by Captain FWL Thomas.

Tighe Dhubhastail from PSAS Vol 7, plate 31
(see page 10 of this link)

Airighean Tighe Dhubhastail - what remains of the double beehive at centre (left of the stream)
   The following is a paraphrased version of the Captain’s report, where he refers to the beehive cells by their Gaelic name, Bothan:

   Being Sunday-stayed at Kinlochresort, we thought to improve the occasion by visiting the shielings in the neighborhood. Along with the gamekeeper we were soon at Tighe Dhubhastail (Dubastal having been a freebooter who lived on the world at large). Here was a bothan, in which the family was at home. This was the summer pasturage of the tenants of Crolista on Loch Roag. 
   The bothan was double of the usual beehive shape, with the dwelling and dairy attached, and green with growing turf. A doorway, easily closed with a straw mat, led to the boudoir within. Close to the door was the fire, the smoke escaping through a hole in the dome. In the circular wall were three niches containing drying cheeses. A low interior door led from the dwelling to the dairy, which was six feet square. 
   The occupants were three young women, dressed in printed cotton gowns, and, being Sunday, they had finished their toilette at the burn to good purpose. Some eight of us packed into the hut while frothed milk was handed about.

A cell seen from above

Close up of the main ‘boudoir’ chamber of Tighe Dhubhastail
   In the years since the captain visited, the cells have partially collapsed. But their entrances, and the low passage between them, are intact. This allows me to crawl into the boudoir, the main dwelling chamber (unfortunately there are no young women in printed gowns to greet me). Then I’m able to crawl through the low interior passage to the dairy. I also find the spot where I believe the drawing of the beehives was made so long ago (see Then-and-Now photo #1). 

Then and Now #1
   I’d like to camp in this beautiful spot, but there’s another amazing place still to see; the beehive cell clusters at Fidigidh. I head west across the moorland, zig-zagging to avoid evil-looking swamps, until I see several bumps on the terrain. I have reached Fidigidh, where several shielings lie along the Fidigidh burn. There are two main clusters of ruins: Fidigidh Uachdrach and Fidigidh Iochdrach (Upper and Lower Fidigidh).
   At Upper Fidigidh there are a half dozen cells, many still intact. To the south, at Lower Fidigidh, I find ten cells, most of them fairly ruinous. And standing between the two sites is something amazing; the most impressive beehive of them all, the massive Bothan Ruadh.

Interior of beehive at Lower Fidigidh
Beehives at Upper Fidigidh

Bothan Ruadh
   Captain Thomas visited the Fidigidh shielings when they were occupied. Accompanying him was Henry Sharbau, who made a drawing of a group of cells at Lower Fidigidh. (Sharbau would later become the chief draughtsman of the Royal Geographical Society.) What follows is a paraphrased version of Thomas’ report from the 1850s:

   We strolled up the burn of Fidigidh till we came to 20 dwellings scattered along the banks of the burn; groups of cows, with their attendants, spread about. We select-ed a good position for sketching, and very soon a boy, probably the only one in the settlement who could speak English, was sent to us with the offer of milk. His stock of English was not good, and he could only speak of the group of huts as the city. Shortly a damsel brought us a bowl of milk.

   Most of the cells of the ‘city’ Sharbau sketched are in ruins, but I am able to find the spot where I think he made his drawing (see Then-and-Now photo #2). Oh how I wish I could have seen this place when it was alive. Thanks to Henry Sharbau, and Captain Thomas, we have some idea of how it used to look.

Then and Now #2 - Lower Fidigidh
PSAS,Vol. 3, 1857 - see page 21 of this link
   My quest for beehive cells in the Morsgail Deer Forest is done for the day. I’ve covered eight miles, and it’s getting late. Time to find a campsite. I have no doubt where that will be. The night will be spent in another favourite place, one full of shielings and beehive cells, and only three miles away - the Ardveg.
   From Fidigidh, an hour of bog-hopping and loch-dodging takes me to Hamanavay, where I cross the river to make the mile climb to the Ardveg. The Ardveg estate, some 2700 acres, includes both the Ardveg and Ardmore peninsulas, and has just been sold. I’ve been told the new owners are in residence, so I decide to pay them a visit before setting up camp.

Ardveg - original blackhouses in front of the 'modern' (1934) house
   With his tales of the MacDonalds and MacLennans, who once lived in the Ardveg, Alasdair Alpin MacGregor made this remote hamlet immortal in The Haunted Isles (1933). That wonderful book inspired me to camp in the Ardveg for the first time in 2001. And I was fortunate to return in 2013 for the book launch of John MacDonald’s An Trusadh, Memories of Crofting in the Ardveg. It is a delightful book that tells of John’s life growing up here.

   Under the bright sun of a late summer afternoon, the wind keeping the midges away, I arrive to find three of the new owners in residence: Julie ––, and two of her children. Grazing contentedly in front of the house is Joe, their horse. After pitching my tent near the old blackhouses, in the same spot I camped in 2001, I’m treated to supper in the ‘new’ Ardveg house (built by John MacDonald’s father in 1934); a roaring coal fire warming cold toes.

Joe at the original #1 Ardveg

The new #1 Ardveg House, built by John MacDonald’s father in 1934
   In the twilight of a summer evening, after enjoying true island hospitality, I return to the tent. The deer are barking as I settle in, and there are no midges — paradise, indeed. I need to get some rest, as tomorrow will be a long day. There are several shielings in the Ardveg with beehive cells I plan to visit, before making the long walk up the track to Uig, where I hope to find another campsite under Hebridean stars.

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Postscript: After my first night under the stars I had a midge encounter, see the September 4, 2016 post. If old shielings interest you, a site visited on the walk, not covered in the story, can be found in the September 10, 2016 post. For the story of the next night of the walk-about see the February 15, 2017 post.

Ardveg campsite in 2001
Ardveg campsite in 2016 - the tent's a bit more wrinkled after 15 years, as is the camper

Loch Tealsavay seen from the south end of the Ardveg - Scarp in the distance

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