Hebridean Hop 21: Kisimul Castle and Northbay

Friday 17th August 2018

Kisimul Castle from the jetty

Our last day dawned dull and wet, but we hadn’t been to Kisimul Castle yet so this had to be the time. There is a little jetty to wait on, above, and a boat comes from the castle to pick up passengers on the hour and half hour. Here it is!

Kisimul Castle probably dates from the 1400s, though the rocky islet it is built on might have been fortified for several centuries before that. The stronghold of Clan MacNeil, it was significantly restored in the 20th century and since 2000 has been on 1,000 year lease to Historic Scotland.

Compare and contrast – the pictures below are from our visit in 1992 with our friends Pat and John. The basket, presumably for a beacon, above Pat’s head suggests these were taken at the top of the tower (the same basket can be seen in the gallery above if you look hard enough). It’s not possible to climb the tower now, which I found disappointing.

The weather showed no signs of improving, so once back on dry land we collected the car from the hotel and set off for Northbay. If nothing else, we knew there was a good place for lunch there! We were lucky to get a short, dry stroll on the Woodland Walk (woodland, however small, is something of a rarity on the islands).

Once we arrived in Northbay itself though, the heavens opened. We could have done with those yellow and orange waterproofs below. Fortunately, we could shelter in St Barr’s Church for the worst of it.

For lunch we visited the Heathbank Hotel which we remembered as a seedy dive on our last visit, but which has come up in the world since then. Our waiter confirmed our memories, that it had been very much a fishermans’ pub. His granny probably told him – he turned out to be the young man who played the fiddle as we ate our curry in Castlebay the previous evening. He’s also a student at Glasgow University, though we haven’t spotted him around. These coincidences don’t happen so much in Glasgow!

After lunch, we stopped once more to walk ( across rather wet ground) to the abandoned village of Bolnabodach on the shores of Loch Ob. These collapsed blackhouses date from 1810-1840.

From here it was back to the hotel to pack and load up the car, keeping just an overnight bag behind. Our ferry in the morning was at 0755 and we had to be in the queue by 0710 at the latest. A good night’s sleep was required!

Hebridean Hop 20: Craigston, Cleit and Eoligarry

Thursday 16th August 2018

St Brendan’s Church, Craigston

Having rejected the previous two days as too dreich to get the boat out to the castle, we then decided this day was too nice. We wanted to explore the island in the sun. Driving up the west coast, our first stop was at St Brendan’s Church where Father John MacMillan (1880-1951), about whom we had seen an exhibition in the heritage centre, was once priest. He spent most of his life ministering to the people of the islands, including two years in Canada when, after the First World War, many Hebridean families settled in Red Deer in Alberta. MacMillan volunteered to emigrate along with them in 1923, but left after a fight with the Canadian authorities which he felt were inflicting unnecessary hardship upon the immigrants. Father MacMillan wrote Gaelic songs, and was also immortalised in both a piping march and in his friend Compton Mackenzie’s book, Whisky Galore, in which the character of the priest, Father James Macalister, is based on himClick on the link above to read more about this remarkable man, including the Canadian story.

The church dates from 1857 and is almost as simple inside as out.
From the church it was a short walk back along the coast to find Father Macmillan’s grave in the cemetery. The scenery was stunning, and the neighbours friendly.

And here is the grave we were looking for. Twelve hundred mourners from all over the Hebrides attended the funeral, processing from Craigston to the cemetery behind six pipers. It must have been quite a day.

After a short drive further up the main road, we turned off at Cleit to explore another fine beach. On our way down, we passed this desirable holiday home.

We chatted to a trio of elderly tourists and watched a group of body-boarders for a while. It looked cold!

On the other side of the car park was a small geo (chasm) where the water rushing in and out fascinated me.

However, beautiful as these stops were, our main plan for the day was an 8.75 km walk round the Eoligarry peninsula, Barra’s most northerly point, so it was time to move on – stopping at the excellent airport café again for lunch.

The walk started at Eoligarry jetty, from which the passenger ferry to Eriskay used to run when we last visited. Now, there was nothing much there, but it was a convenient place to leave the car.

We soon came to the old church of Cille Bharra with a replica of the Kilbar Stone, a Viking grave which once stood here. I detect some unhappiness about its absence.

I was delighted to pick up a history of the church and to realise that it was written by Alan Macquarrie, a former colleague of mine.

Onwards again – that was the flat part of the walk. There were a couple of short climbs coming up, first to the remains of Dun Sgurabhal, an Iron Age fort, with views to beaches on all sides. The cows liked it up here too.

Coming down from the fort, we stumbled over lumpy grazing land before climbing again to Beinn Eolaigearraidh Mhor. Despite mhor meaning large, at 105m it wasn’t – but still had panoramic views to admire.

We descended to the west of the peninsula to Traigh Eais, crossing the dunes to the other side after 1.25km of beach walking. This took us back to the beach runway at Traigh Mhor. The day’s planes were long gone, so the airport was now closed with no chance of a further visit to the café.

This also meant we could disregard the warning signs and walk back to Eoligarry along the beach rather than the road. Traigh Mhor is also known as Cockle Strand – the cockle pickers were back on the beach too.

This was one of our loveliest days in terms of weather. It was also a culinary highlight. Who’d have thought that a tiny place like Castlebay would have an excellent Indian Restaurant? Café Kisimul holds a folk night on Thursdays and we had booked almost as soon as we arrived on the island.

We do look rather happy, don’t we? The food was excellent (as was the beer).

As I’ve mentioned before, on these small islands you tend to run into the same people several times. Also eating in the restaurant were the elderly tourists and the body-boarders we saw in Cleit in the morning, and the young man tuning up his fiddle above would serve us lunch in a different place the next day. That would be our final day on the island so, rain or shine, we had to get out to that castle at last!

Linked to Jo’s Monday Walk – it’s almond blossom time this week.

Hebridean Hop 19: Tangasdale

Wednesday 15th August 2018

Should we go out to the castle today? Hmm, no – the weather was too dreich again. Instead, we headed out of Castlebay for a short walk. Starting at Loch Tangasdale, we first passed MacLeod’s Tower, built in 1430 by the son of Marion of the Heads. She was the widow of the chief of Clan MacNeil and had her two stepsons beheaded so that her own son would inherit.

Further on, in a small glen, are the ruins of an old settlement inhabited by another MacNeil, Roderick the Dove, in the 18th century. His name suggests he was much nicer than Marion!

As the path climbed, we could see down to Halaman Bay at the side of which perches the Isle of Barra Hotel – this is where we stayed during our 1990s trips to Barra.

The climb to Dun Ban, the 2000 year old remains of a fortified broch, was rugged but worth it.  I liked the way the stones had been taken over by nature.

On our return, we dropped down onto the beach at Halaman – probably a mistake! As the rain and the wind built up we got soaked through and the sand whipped into our faces. As we struggled to stay upright on two feet, hopping on one leg to don the waterproof trousers wasn’t an option. It was still beautiful though, and I don’t think you can tell from the pictures how bad the weather was. (As a bonus, I’ve included a picture of me on the same beach on a better day in 1992).

We have rarely been so pleased to reach the car. When we got back to the hotel, we just had time for a quick change of clothes before we caught last orders for lunch.

A relaxing afternoon with a book followed. Amazingly, the sun came out later and it was a lovely bright evening. We watched the ferry dock from our room and managed to bag a window seat at dinner. Not a bad day overall, despite the weather doing its worst – slàinte!

Linked to Jo’s Monday Walk.

Hebridean Hop 17: Lochboisdale to Castlebay

Monday 13th August 2018

Our Lady of Sorrows, South Uist

It was time to move on to the last port of call in our Hebridean Hop. After checking out of the Lochboisdale Hotel we had a couple of hours to kill before the ferry, so decided to explore the most incongruous building we had seen on the island, Our Lady of Sorrows RC Church. It was built in 1965 (architect Richard McCarron – nope, me neither) so was obviously there on our previous visit, but I have no memory of it and was quite shocked the first time we drove past it this year. I’m not a fan of brutalist architecture anyway, but here it seemed particularly out-of-place – though it was much more attractive inside.

Next, a short walk – a plethora of signs, some (almost) free-range pigs and some seaweed. I love how it looks monochromatic orange from a distance, but close up is completely different.

Just time for a quick coffee in the Kilbride Café, then it was over the causeway to Eriskay for the Barra ferry. In 1989, we left the Outer Hebrides after South Uist and took a ferry to Skye. However, we have been to Barra twice before for long weekends in 1992 and 1993 with our friends Pat and John. On one of them we took the small foot ferry to Eriskay for the day.

The harbour and ferry have changed a bit!

On our previous visits to Barra we arrived by air. Tràigh Mhòr (Big Beach) is an airport like no other, the only one in the world where scheduled flights land on the beach. The timetable therefore varies according to the tides.

In the early 90s, the facilities were little more than a hut, but now it has a café, which our guidebook recommended, so we headed straight from the ferry port to the airport. As we approached we could see quite a crowd lined up along the fence, many with huge camera lenses pointing at the sky. We guessed the plane was due – here it comes!

For any aviation buffs out there, the plane is a 19-seater Twin Otter, the same model that we flew in, though not the same aircraft. For anyone more interested in the food – yes, the café was excellent!

From the airport, we headed south to Castlebay, Barra’s largest settlement and our home for the next five nights. We stopped in the car park at the base of Heaval, Barra’s highest hill, from where we looked down on the village – see why it is called Castlebay?

We also looked up to Heaval and the white marble statue Our Lady of the Sea.

I know this is a terrible picture – visibility was very poor – but I wanted to include it for comparison, because on our previous visits we climbed Heaval both times. Not this time – the weather and dodgy knees were against us.

We checked into the Castlebay Hotel – a room with a view! Every night we watched the ferry dock.

The weather had improved before dinner so we had a quick stroll round. The church and the main street:

The bank wasn’t looking it’s best, but it has had its glory days in the past, “playing” the Post Office in the film Whisky Galore:

The Herring Trail commemorates what was once a major industry on Barra:

A mosaic of Barra landmarks and a lime-kiln:

Kilns like this one were used throughout the Hebrides to produce lime for mortar and limewash, in some cases as late as the 1930s. This one was built more recently by Historic Scotland to replicate the mortar which holds the medieval walls of Kisimul Castle together. That was one place we would definitely be visiting in the next few days. We couldn’t wait – but we had to! And so will you, dear reader. Having kept a couple of posts ahead for the last few weeks, this is the last I have prepared and I have a busy week coming up. More on Barra as soon as I have time …

O is for Outer Hebrides

The Hebrides Image credit: Kelisi via Wikimedia
The Hebrides
Image credit: Kelisi via Wikimedia

If you read my post I is for Inner Hebrides, you might have guessed what O was going to be! In my opinion, the outer islands are even more beautiful than the inner ones – they’re the orange ones on the map. My favourite is Barra, to which I have travelled twice in a tiny plane and landed at the airport on the beach – a magical experience, but not if you’re frightened of flying. However, they are all lovely with ancient monuments and pristine beaches. Don’t be fooled by the sunshine though – the sea is freezing!

The pictures below show Lewis, Benbecula, South Uist,  and Barra. The figure in pink is me – 20 years ago! We must go back.