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.