Bothy of Poems

This story appeared in the November 2017 issue of the Uig News. My thanks to Sarah Wilson for the opportunity to write for them. 

Bothy of Poems - Fidigidh 2017

I found a book of poems in a bothy. Not a bothy in the usual sense, but a ‘bothan’: one of over two hundred corbelled-stone beehive cells sprinkled across the Hebrides. To me, this ‘Bothy of Poems’ is a special place. It sits in splendid isolation along the cascading waters of Abhainn Fhidigidh, one of the traditional shieling sites for Islibhig, Brenish, and Mangersta.

Beehive cells are fascinating structures, ranging in age from 300, to upwards of 1400 years old. I was surprised when I found a book of poems in one of them, its name Both Ruadh. This particular cell spurred my interest in beehives twenty years ago, when I read of an epic walk to it in Daphne Pochin Mould’s book ‘West Over Sea’. Of the two-hundred plus cells remaining, only a handful are intact. Over the years I’ve made it a hobby to visit, and photograph, the more intact cells before they collapse.

Collapsed shieling - Lower Fidigidh
It has been a challenge to reach some of the best preserved cells; such as St Ronan’s Cell on distant North Rona, and Teampull Beannachadh, a beehive converted to a chapel on the Flannan Isles. Getting to these islands usually requires multiple attempts, as the sea-state often precludes a landing. But the effort is worthwhile; for as with Both Ruadh, the intricate beauty of Teampull Beannachadh and St Ronan’s Cell will take your breath away. As will the simple elegance of the tiny cell, with its garden of sea-pinks, on the island of Eilean Fir Chrothair.

St Ronan's Cell
Teampull Beannachadh - Flannan Isles
Both Eilean Fir Chrothair
You don’t need a boat to see Both Ruadh; just sturdy boots, midge repellent, and the ability to trek across difficult terrain. My first attempt, via the Tamnabhaigh track, failed. The track is a stony, seven-mile route that winds its way up Bealach Raonasgail. That day it had been raining heavily, and bits of the track were washed out. That should have been my clue to turn around, but I kept going. Once over the pass, I turned east to cross the southern shoulder of Mula. Then my walk came to a grinding halt at the raging waters of Abhainn Ghasacleit. I was less than a mile from the beehive, but there was no safe way to cross the river.

I returned in 2015, successfully reaching Both Ruadh by making the five mile hike from Morsgail. The cell, still retaining much of its turf covering, was stunning. But more treasures awaited. A ten-minute walk north leads to one of the best collections of intact bothans and shielings anywhere: Fidigidh Uachdrach (Upper Fidigidh).

Upper Fidigidh

Upper Fidigidh
I’ve returned to Fidigidh twice since then. During my visit this year, I found the book of poems. It is a travelling book, meant to be taken to another place. I will have to think of somewhere as fascinating as Fidigidh to leave it. It was left in the beehive a year ago, which shows just how few visitors ever make their way to far-off Fidigidh.

One of the poems in the book is Yeat’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. The first verse makes me think what it must have been like in Uig on an early summer’s day; crossing Bealach na h-Imrich, the pass of the flitting, to head off to the shielings. Off to a place like Fidigidh; as remote as Yeat’s isle of Innisfree:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

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