Write Around Scotland

Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer

Articles - Sailing and Walking


The Isle of Skye

2017-02-20 10:33:08

The Isle of Skye off the north west of Scotland is sometimes referred to as the Island of Mist, or Eilean a’ Cheo in Gaelic.

Until the Skye Bridge was opened in 1995, vehicles and passengers would cross the fast moving stretch of water between the villages of Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland and Kyleakin on Skye aboard a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry.

It was a short crossing, an adventure, especially in winter when driving down the ferry ramp and up the slipway was not without a few anxious moments. Yet I’m willing to bet though it had absolutely no relevance to the situation, that thousands of people, as they sat in their cars, would have lustily sang a few lines of the song they learned in school,

‘Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing over the sea to Skye.’

Now if the mist is low enough travellers may not even realise they have made the same crossing, high above the waves, on the smooth shallow curve of concrete that is the Skye Bridge.

Most of this traffic by-passes Kyleakin. Yet, for good views of the bridge it is worth turning into the village and driving along the shore road. At the far end, close to the once busy slipway, a building that was unremarkable is now the lively Bright Water Visitor Centre.

The name is taken from the book, Ring of Bright Water written by the late Gavin Maxwell. In it, he tells the story of his life with various otters. The book was hugely popular. It was translated into many different languages and made into a film of the same name starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.

When Maxwell’s house in Glenelg on the Scottish mainland was destroyed in a fire he came to live on Eilean Ban, the White Island, which can be seen easily from Kyleakin. Two of the pillars supporting the Skye Bridge stand on this small island.

From the Bright Water Visitor Centre, a community asset run by volunteers, visitors can buy a ticket for a guided tour of Eilean Ban. The tour starts from the gate on the bridge above.

A path leads through trees, passed a garden maintained by the Women’s Royal Institute, to a rock carved with a date and the name ‘Teko.’ This headstone commemorates Maxwell’s last otter who outlived its owner by some months.

There’s a sentimental tale told that Teko died of a broken heart but in truth the creature grew cranky and bad tempered and died of old age. Stand with your back to the stone and look out to sea and you may be lucky enough to spot an otter swimming in the bay. For our group there was not a whisker not a sight, but a flight of five grey herons taking off nearby, their large wings flapping slowly, was most impressive.

The path leads to the cottage where Maxwell lived for two years until his death. To create his last home, two lighthouse keeper’s cottages were converted into one long low building. Virginia McKenna OBE, an award winning British stage and screen film actress offered advice when it was decided a room should be kept as a kind of museum in Maxwell’s memory.

Visitors can see some of his furniture, including his desk where he worked and would sit with binoculars looking out to sea. The walls are decorated with some of his possessions, a large ornate mirror, two harpoons from an earlier business venture, paintings, photographs and a small collection of his books.

The tour moves on to Eilean Ban lighthouse which is no longer lit, but as a daytime marker, must still be kept in good condition. Reached by an iron walkway, the white, seventy foot tall tower was designed by David Stevenson and his brother Robert, father of author Robert Louis Stevenson.

Many islands have been suggested as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s well- known novel Treasure Island. Was Eilean Ban a part of that creative process, I wonder?

The lighthouse was first lit by sperm whale oil which was smoky and smelly then as time went on, with paraffin and later from cylinders of acetylene gas. The lamp is long gone but the windows with green and red sections are still intact. Keeping them clean was one of the lighthouse keeper’s duties and whatever the weather, the lamp had to be kept lit between sunset and sunrise.

Climb a flight of stone stairs and two vertical ladders and you’ll arrive in the room where the lamp would have been tended. A side door opens to the platform encircling the lighthouse tower which is dwarfed by the nearby massive pillars bearing the Skye Bridge overhead.

From the lighthouse it’s no distance along a path edged with orange monbretia and purple heather to the wildlife viewing hides. The wooden buildings, thatched with heather, have proved popular with primary school groups and older students who come here on environmental studies outings.

I like to think Gavin Maxwell would have approved!

On a day of heavy rain when even the wildlife was taking shelter I opted for an easy drive from the bridge to the village of Broadford which is a convenient base for exploring the Strathaird peninsula.

From the main A850, the road down this particular peninsula becomes narrow with passing places. As well as sheep nibbling the roadside verges or sleeping on the sun-warmed tarmac, there are dips, bends, inclines and on-coming traffic to negotiate. Meanwhile the views of mountains and sea become ever more arresting.

Over the years, tourists arriving at the village of Elgol at the end of the peninsula then usually leave from the jetty aboard the Bella Jane. Wildlife sightings are guaranteed.

The on-board guide points out the island of Soay, off to the west. It appears as a low lying lump in the water. Basking whales have been seen around there.

After his horrifying experiences during World War 11, Gavin Maxwell bought Soay and set up a business to harpoon basking sharks. At the time, shark oil was a much sought after commodity.

Maxwell was not to know that one day, people would be happy to pay handsomely for the privilege of observing these incredible creatures and other wildlife in their natural habitats.

On my trip aboard the Bella Jane we got close-ups of cormorants, gannets diving into the sea from a great height and seals that appeared to be keeping a wary eye on us, the intruders.

Passengers leave the boat at a landing stage at the head of Loch Scavaig, a sea loch which cuts deep into the Cuillin Mountains.

Walkers then make their way along a path by the riverside to the inland Loch Coruisk. It’s a soggy walk in places but this dramatic landscape of water and rock that gleams in sunlight, of mountains reaching ever upwards to end in jagged peaks that pierce the clouds, makes up for any discomfort.

Back on the Bella Jane, a complimentary tot of Talisker, the locally distilled malt whisky adds an extra cheer to this trip.

When you have to leave Skye and have no second thoughts about negotiating narrow twisting mountain roads, you might consider the drive to Kylerhea and the crossing to the mainland aboard the M.V.Glenachulish, a vessel with a turntable that is possibly the last of its kind.

Finally, as you drive through Glenelg where Gavin Maxwell lived with his otters until his house burned down, remind yourself to dig out and read his books written about the places you’ve just visited.

First published in The People’s Friend 08.02.2014

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The Shetland Isle of Mousa

2017-01-26 13:10:12

'There were a few porpoises here just days ago but a pod of seven or eight killer whales chased them away,” said Tom Jamieson, the ferryman. “However, you never know what might appear.”

Hearing this, a number of passengers aboard the Solan 1V readied their cameras and binoculars as the boat eased away from the pier and headed into the Sound of Mousa.

The ferry crossing to the Island of Mousa, an RSPB Nature Reserve off the east coast of the south mainland of Shetland, takes about 15 minutes from the township of Leebitton.

From Mousa pier, a roughly circular trail around an area in the middle of the island has been marked out with short posts. Using these as a guide and a brochure map we began an easy walk on springy turf.

It’s no distance across the narrow neck of land to the opposite rocky shore of an inlet that reaches far in from Mousa’s east coast. Here our first sighting of the abundant bird life was a chorus-line of shiny black shags (scarfs in Shetland dialect). Seemingly unperturbed, they stood on sun warmed rocks, wings spread akimbo, catching a drying breeze.

The path follows the shoreline of the inlet then turns southwards to wind through long grass covering the hillside. The

downward slope ends in a craggy coastline battered constantly by the North Sea.

Further along, the path reaches a flatter area of shore that is protected by a dry stane dyke. Peer over this wall to the inlet known as the East Pool and there’s a very good chance of spotting Grey seals and Harbour seals. Grey seals are more horse-like in profile with a flatter head and longer snout. Harbour seals have a shorter muzzle.

The nearby West pool is a much larger lagoon with a more open aspect. On the day our party were exploring Mousa, the West Pool had an impressive number of seals (selkies) visible in the water while more were hauled up on the surrounding sand. When a few of the beached seals did shuffle awkwardly back into the sea, they only retreated to the comparative safety of the pool yet were still within good viewing distance.

With so much wildlife present, this is obviously a sensitive area and the ground-nesting artic terns (tirricks) and great skuas (bonxies) soon let you know that you are getting too near their territory. In at least one instance, blood was drawn as a member of our party strayed too close and was pecked on the head for his trouble.

It’s strange to see people walking with their arms in the air, shaking their hands and fingers all the while, but this is the advised method of protection against these aerial attacks. It’s best, of course, if you can leave the wildlife in peace, undisturbed.

From the beach, the trail now leads back up the hill. Big, brown, great skuas still make their presence felt here, swooping low, squeaking then soaring skywards.

Dainty, white flags of bog cotton grow in the wettest areas while broken walls and the stones of an old water mill are smothered in tufts of silver grey algae known in Shetland as Old Man’s Beard. This growth is said to signal the absence of pollution and the purity of the air.

When the way ahead flattens out, Mousa Broch dominates the view. This is the best preserved broch in the world (there are none outside Scotland). Built around 2000 years ago of local sandstone, it still stands over 13 metres high. Possibly, there was at least 1 metre more of stone, now long gone, on the top of the building which was probably roofed with timber and turf, or thatch.

Brochs are thought to have been symbols of power as well as fortified farmhouses for the leading families of the area. Safe inside, the inhabitants could hold out against attacks by enemies who might be using the best weapon technology of the day.

There may have been three wooden floors inside giving living spaces that could be reached from a stone stairway winding clock wise between the inner and outer walls. It’s thought that symbolically and perhaps spiritually, there was some significance in this clockwise design of stair construction.

When you follow in the footsteps of the Iron Age broch dwellers and climb up the stairs, the views from the top are vast. From up here, the siting of Mousa Broch and another broch that once stood on a headland across Mousa Sound at Burraland would suggest these structures were also used as watchtowers.

The Broch has given refuge to at least two famous runaway couples. In 900 AD, a couple from Norway were on their way to Iceland when they were shipwrecked on Mousa. They married and spent a winter in the broch.

In the 12th century, Harald, Earl of Orkney laid siege to the broch where his mother and her lover were taking refuge, but eventually matters were settled amicably and they left the island.

In 1774, eleven families lived on the isle, but by 1861 all were gone.

From the Broch, the marked trail leads back to the ferry pier. It’s worth walking on a little way to see a part of the coastal geology where the rock appears to have been formed like a sandwich cake, from layers of a near-similar thickness. Slices of this sandstone were used to make flagstones for the streets of Lerwick, the capital of Shetland.

Having taken our seats aboard the Solan 1V for the return journey and now moving at a good rate of knots across the Sound of Mousa, we were surprised when the ferryman cut the engine. In the ensuing silence, 3 or 4 porpoises could be seen, dorsal fins arcing out of the water only a few metres from the boat - an added bonus to a splendid day.

Back on the pier at Sandsayre it’s worth taking time to explore the old boathouse which has been converted into a small waiting room/ heritage centre with wall panels giving information on the history and natural history of the area.

Further Information: The smallest British seabird, the storm petrel (aalamootie) breeds on Mousa and there are special evening trips to the island to watch these tiny birds returning to their breeding sites. Bat-like, they flutter in from the sea, disappearing into crevices in the walls of the Broch with cropfuls of food for their single chicks.

Daily trips between early April and September

Tel: 01950 431367

First published in Scottish Islands Explorer Magazine

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Peace Perfect Peace on Holy Isle

2017-01-24 12:42:31

To reach Holy Isle off the Isle of Arran, I had travelled by train from Central Station Glasgow to Ardrossan on Scotland’s west coast. The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, Caledonia Isles, was already berthed, allowing time for passengers walking the short distance from the station platform to come aboard.

The crossing to Arran takes around fifty minutes. It’s generally so comfortable that some passengers take the opportunity to sit back, close their eyes and nap. But should you go up on deck, keep those binoculars at the ready. There’s a chance of spotting porpoise and even a passing whale.

As the ferry is docking at Brodick, Arran’s main village, local buses draw into the parking bays behind the ferry terminal. From there, it takes only a few minutes to reach Lamlash, where you can then board the small ferry, weather permitting, for the ten minute trip to Holy Isle. With each stage of the journey it will seem as if your usual cares are being left further behind.

Saint Molaise, a Celtic Christian who made his way to Holy Isle from Ireland in the 6th century possibly also noticed this effect. Molaise was the son of Cairell, an Irish king of what is now called Ulster. It’s believed he was much loved by his own people and was offered the throne of Ulster when he came of age. Instead, he chose to live for a time, in a cave on the west coast of Holy Isle. Perhaps he was aware of the island’s reputation, that it had long been considered a ‘holy place’.

The island is only about two miles long and half a mile wide. From Lamlash, it looks vaguely like two weathered extinct volcanoes floating on the sea. The unseen east side is rocky with steep cliffs. The west side is flatter in places with some productive land.

When visitors step from the small ferry onto Holy Isle’s pier, they may be surprised to be welcomed by a Buddhist nun or monk wearing traditional dress (and sometimes, incongruously, a matching warm fleece jacket, waterproof anorak and woollen hat). This will be one of the volunteers from the island’s Centre for World Peace and Health. Visitors are then given a little guidance on where they can wander to enjoy the best of Holy Isle.

The next unusual sight is a line of brightly coloured Tibetan prayer flags, each a few yards apart, fluttering in the breeze. Sited between each pair of flags is a stupa, a white ornamental structure that for some people holds great symbolic meaning. Past the flags and behind a dry stone wall stands the Centre for World Peace and Health which until a few years ago was a very run- down farmhouse.

On the day I visited, I was invited in to meet Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche the driving force behind Holy Isle’s Centre for World Peace and Health. As we sat in the Centre’s cosy library I asked how he had found Holy Isle. He explained that he had not been looking but that the last owners of Holy Isle found him and had offered him the island at a much discounted price as they ‘felt its future would be best taken care of by the Buddhists from Samye Ling monastery in Dumfriesshire’.

Though people travel there from all over the world, Lama Rinpoche the Abbot of Samye Ling monastery told me his vision for Holy Isle was quite different. He explained that the Holy Isle Centre is not a Buddhist monastery but is open to everyone whether they are believers, non-believers, or are completely non-religious.

‘When I was offered Holy Isle,’ he said ‘it was fresh and unpolluted.’ In the past, local shepherds from Arran had ferried their sheep over for the grazing and previous owners had kept a small herd of highland cattle which have since been taken away. But for many years, no one lived there, so the island has remained ‘unspoiled’.

Lama Rinpoche envisaged an ecologically sustainable environment where individuals could develop and experience inner peace, regardless of their background or spiritual tradition.

The emphasis now is very much on people’s wellbeing and health. The once run down farmhouse is now very comfortable and a new building has been added where people live while participating in various courses including yoga and meditation.

The Centre is run completely by volunteers. Some stay for a short time, others for longer periods while they work at various jobs for which they receive board and lodgings.

In one of the polythene tunnels, I met a professional gardener from Germany who was planning the layout of new, sheltered vegetable plots. Eventually it is hoped enough vegetables can be grown under polythene and in outside plots to meet most of the Centre’s needs. With seaweed constantly being washed up on the stony beach there’s a readily available free source of fertilizer.

Sid, one of the other gardeners, is happiest when he is working in the flower beds. He left his wheelbarrow long enough to suggest I make time for a sensual meditative walk through the garden. His instructions involved me stopping, taking time to touch leaves, stalks and petals and smell the flowers. He said I should look carefully at the different textures and colours around me and notice the way leaves on the trees moved in the wind. While sitting on a bench with my eyes closed, trying to concentrate only on the birdsong, I really was in another world.

The peace garden is delightful with painted rocks placed amongst the plants. Notice boards carrying poems add to the interest. In one separate area named the Children’s Garden, a number of little fairy dolls and toy animals have been hidden, awaiting discovery amongst the flowers and branches of bushes.

When you leave the Peace Garden, you may opt to hike up the rough rocky path leading to the top of Mullach Beag (beag meaning small in Gaelic) then carry on to the top of Mullach Mor (mor meaning big ) the highest point of Holy Isle at 1026 feet above sea level.

Most visitors choose the coastal path which starts fairly close to the sea. The small flock of dark brown Soay sheep wandering around are used to visitors. Unperturbed, they hardly bother to look. A few white Saanen goats can be spotted further up the hillside seeking out whatever is edible. Hardy Eriskay ponies hidden by shoulder high ferns occasionally make an appearance as if to watch the passing strangers who are watching them.

Every few hundred yards there are representations of Buddhist deities painted on large rocks on the hillside.

The cave where Molaise lived is easily spotted just off the path. Step inside. Mind your head. Look for the Viking graffiti and a cross scratched into the rock. Unless Holy Isle’s weather was very different in his day he must have experienced great physical hardship here.

Near the cave a spring of water known as the Healing Well flows into a pool. Pilgrims once journeyed here to drink the water believing it had curative properties. Now a small information board lets us know that the water, for drinking at least, doesn’t meet European Union standards.

Further along, higher up the hillside, there are a few glass fronted buildings, known as pods, fronted by another piece of ground being developed as a vegetable garden. This part of the island is closed to the public and is kept for those on long retreats.

Volunteers may be working further along, scything overgrown vegetation, or planting a few more of the 30,000 native trees that will soon attract wildlife.

The path ends at an unusual square lighthouse known as Pillar Rock- a lovely spot to enjoy a picnic.

From parts of the path there are expansive views across the water to Lamlash and from some points, to Goatfell, the highest peak on Arran.

On the short sail back to Lamlash the rain was pouring down from the blackness above. When the clouds passed, blown further east, a brilliantly coloured rainbow arced across the sky. One end seemed to be touching Holy Isle.

First published in The People’s Friend

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Loch Lomondside Walk

2017-01-23 12:33:36

It had been hard, sweaty work. From the open sea breaking on Scotland’s west coast they had turned inland to sail the length of Loch Long. Eventually, they waded ashore to terrify the inhabitants of a smattering of rough dwellings at the head of the loch.

Their heavy wooden boats had then been carried, or pushed along on top of tree trunks that had been felled, then cut and trimmed to serve as rollers placed on the ground to form a sort of moving bridge.

Their efforts would be rewarded when they got back on the water. The religious settlements on islands in Loch Lomond would yield good pickings, so would the hamlets down both sides of the Loch.

From the 9th until the 13th century, Vikings had made savage attacks on the west of Scotland. This particular lot had manhandled their boats across a mile and more of rugged countryside to reach Tarbet (from Gaelic, meaning a place of portage where boats were hauled overland) on Loch Lomond side.

Unlike these Vikings, I had travelled to Tarbet in comfort, by bus, taking just over an hour from Glasgow. Thankfully, Tarbet has been peaceful for a very long time. The village, at a junction of two roads is a stopping off place for travellers heading to or from the west, to the North West Highlands or Perthshire and points further north. It is also one of the places on Loch Lomond side from where ferries set sail allowing passengers to marvel at the surrounding scenic beauty from the water.

On a morning of bright sunshine, most of my fellow passengers aboard one of the cruise boats, sat (complimentary cup of tea to hand) on the top deck of the little ship to marvel at the vast views of water and mountain and listen to the commentary from a crew member.

We learnt that the first small island we were passing has long been known as Honeymoon Island. The name has stuck from the times when young couples, according to legend, were left on this tree covered lump of rock for a number of days. If they survived harmoniously, it was believed they would have a long and prosperous marriage.

Perhaps they lived on fish. Salmon or trout taken from the loch would have made a fine meal. However, I wonder if a catch of eels or powan, now found only in Loch Lomond, would have tested their culinary skills. Powan is a fish species that adapted to life in fresh water after the loch was cut off from the sea when the land rose at the end of the last ice age.

Loch Lomond is over 18 miles long and covers an area of 27 square miles. There are 23 named islands though only one, Inchmurrin, the island of St. Mirren, is still inhabited. It is farmed, has a hotel, a few houses and some huts belonging to a naturist club.

In around 30 minutes, the ferry had crossed the loch and was tied up at the jetty below the Inversnaid Hotel. Some of the passengers stayed aboard for the return journey but I stepped ashore and headed up a flight of steps fixed into the hillside. A few feet away, an impressive waterfall plunges down to the loch below.

When the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins stood here in the late1800’s, this waterfall inspired him to write ‘Inversnaid’. Sometimes he used words of his own making and the poem begins,

‘This darksome burn, horseback brown,

this rollrock highroad roaring down…

I was soon over a bridge above the falls and on a dry, narrow path that winds through a forest of mature oak trees. This trail is known as the West Highland Way.

Most walkers start from Milngavie (pronounced Mulguy) to the west of Glasgow and head north following the trail along the east side of Loch Lomond. Some six or more days and 96 miles later, they end their trek at Fort William. While some of them carry all their gear, including camping equipment, in a rucksack on their backs, others travel with a much smaller pack containing the necessities for a day out in the Scottish hills.

There is a variety of accommodation along the way and some walkers choose to have their luggage transported each day to where they will be staying that night.

As I trudged south, I met a number of walkers who were now on the second day of their journey and enjoying the experience.

Meandering through the oak woods, no distance above the loch, you may be fortunate to spot a red squirrel as it breaks cover to move at amazing speed up, down or round a tree trunk. Roe deer could be watching you from the dense cover of the bright green ferns. Further up the hillside, you may see a raggedy herd of feral goats. These animals are thought to be descendants of domestic goats abandoned centuries ago when people had to leave their farmsteads. Unseen birds, calling in the canopy overhead are probably whistling warnings of your approach.

The path eventually widens out and leads through forests of dark, close growing conifers. Where sunlight hits the path through gaps in the trees, look out for wild orchids, yellow flag irises and stands of pink purple foxgloves.

We’ve passed only one lone house, a gamekeeper’s cottage, along these seven and a half miles of the trail. He would need to be well organised to live on this empty hillside far from the nearest shop.

Near Rowardennan, the National Trust for Scotland has a base known as Ardess Lodge. Their work force has created an archaeological trail behind the lodge for visitors to follow using a simple map. A lot of interesting evidence has been uncovered of a way of life now long gone.

Some 200-400 years ago the local inhabitants would have grown crops, grazed cattle, cut wood, smelted iron for the blacksmith who would turn the raw metal into tools or weapons. Perhaps at the end of a day they would have some time to try a wee whisky a neighbour had distilled earlier.

Rob Roy MacGregor lived here with these folk between 1711 and 1713. He had been a well-respected cattle breeder until his property was confiscated and he was declared bankrupt. He then turned to cattle rustling and was branded an outlaw.

In the summer months, families would have led their animals to higher pastures and lived in shielings, small buildings made with stones and turf.

Today using the same path as the herders of old, many walkers head for the top of Ben Lomond (3192 feet). The wear and tear caused by their boots results in a much widened path needing constant repairing. Fortunately there are many volunteers who are happy to help with this work.

This walk ends on the Loch side at Rowardennan Youth Hostel. The fine building was once a shooting lodge for Victorian gentlemen but now offers accommodation for visitors from all over the world.

If damp, clammy weather has brought out clouds of tiny, biting insects, you may be scratching and slapping at any exposed skin and may want to take shelter inside. Here you can relax and look out the lounge windows for a sight of the ferry back to Tarbet and think of the song written by the late, great Scottish tenor, Kenneth McKellar who sang opera, as well as the ditty ‘Midgies’ with elan.

‘You can smack them and whack them; in vain you’ll attack them

They know every move that you make

If you manage to kill yin, another half million,

Are ready to come to the wake!

Despite possible attacks by midges, the crossings of Loch Lomond and the walk along this part of the West Highland Way make a grand day out. Once on aboard again for the return sail to Tarbet you may enjoy looking back while enjoying a complimentary bottle of locally made beer.

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