Sea Interludes 4: Ardtoe

The first few Sea Interludes posts were from West Wales and the west of Ireland. Now for the west of Scotland.

Well off the beaten track and tucked away on the northern edge of the Ardnamurchan peninsula, Ardtoe has a beautiful sandy beach set in a rugged rocky coastline. The colours are vivid and the deep blues of sea and sky contrast with golden sand and weathered rocks.

On the horizon are the hazy purple shapes of some of the islands of the Inner Hebrides

Island of Eigg in the background

There are views over to the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg and Rum

Zooming in on the Sgurr on Eigg.

Just up the coast is Castle Tioram, one of those romantic castles perched on islands, that you sometimes come across on the west coast of Scotland. It’s only 2 miles away as the crow flies, but over 6 miles by road. To get there we had to drive back to Acharacle, cross the bridge over the River Sheil and then take the narrow road which follows the river back to the sea.

Heading back to the sea, alongside the River Sheil

Castle Tioram (pronounced cheerum) means the dry castle and you walk across a sandy causeway to get to it. The tide came in while we were on the island and had covered part of the sandbar, so it was off with shoes and socks and a little bit of a paddle back to shore.

Sea Interludes 1: Pembrokeshire

Pembrokeshire Coast Path

A change from the usual subject as I’m stranded away from home during lockdown. Writing posts isn’t so easy because I don’t have my laptop with me. So, in the meantime, I’m just going to post a few photos from around the coast of Britain and Ireland (the coast is my natural habitat, after all). Starting with the stunning Pembrokeshire Coast Path opposite Skomer Island.

The road to the sea, with Skomer Island in the distance. From Marloes the road heads down to a promintory called the Deer Park, where you can access the coast path or take the boat over to Skomer.

The boat to Skomer and tankers in St Bride’s Bay waiting to go into Milford Haven
An incised cross set into a wall near the pier
Skomer from the Deer Park. A few centuries ago there was an unsuccessful attempt to introduce deer here. There are no deer but the name has stuck.
The neighbouring island of Skokholm. Like Skomer, it is a SSSI and important for it’s breeding seabirds

Sea Interludes 2: Pembrokeshire

Pembrokeshire Coast Path : Stackpole – Broad Haven – Castlemartin

Broad Haven beach

What is there along this section of the route, apart from amazing scenery and stunning cliffs and beaches? Well, there are blowholes, tanks and a magical chapel built into the cliff face.

There’s a great variety of geology on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and many eye catching sites of geological interest. At the northern end of the coast path there are craggy volcanic outcrops but here in this southern section the geology is limestone. The land is mainly flat limestone plateau but go to the edge and you have some dramatic coastal scenery.

Church Rock, Broad Haven

From the wide sandy beach at Broad Haven, the coast path leads up onto the clifftops. The flat, grassy terrain on top of the cliffs makes easy walking but you have to watch out for blowholes! Heading in the Stackpole direction you pass this enormous one.


I should have got my husband to stand next to it for scale, but he’s afraid of heights!

Going in the other direction, the path heads south, up onto Castlemartin artillery range. If the range is active there’s an alternative path which takes a detour inland but it would be a real shame to miss this section.

Limestone cliffs at Castlemartin

The MOD tank range on the limestone plateau
We suddenly saw this small, but very deep blowhole in front of us!

St Govan’s Chapel

The highlight of this section of the path is the magical St. Govan’s Chapel, dramatically built into the cliff face. Its origins are steeped in legend but it is thought to be from the 13th century and to be built on the site of a much earlier hermit’s cell – possibly a St Govan from the 6th century. A steep path leads down from the cliff top and it was well worth the climb down. Hopefully this will be the subject of a future post!

Looking over the cliff edge near St Govan’s Chapel

Some stats: The coast path is 186 miles long. A lot of it is along clifftops and there is a total of 35,000 feet of ascent and descent.

Millin Bay Cairn and a trip to the Ards Peninsula

Looking through my archives, I noticed that it was about this time of year, a few years ago, that we visited the site of Millin Bay Cairn. I hadn’t written a post on it because, quite frankly, there isn’t much to see. However, it was still a grand day out and the cairn itself is very interesting because of its unusual design and the discoveries made when it was excavated in 1953.

Driving up to the Ards Peninsula from South Down we had to take the ferry across Strangford Lough, but before we did that we took a little detour over to Audleystown Court Tomb. I’ve written about it in a previous post as it’s one of my favourites and a lovely example of a dual court tomb (a long double-ended tomb).

Audleystown Court Tomb with Strangford Lough just visible on the right

The ferry goes from the pretty village of Strangford across to Portaferry on the Ards Peninsula. Although it was a bright sunny day the water was quite choppy with a brisk wind blowing down the lough.

Strangford

We drove across to Millin Bay on the east side of the Ards Peninsula and soon saw the sign for the cairn.

Unfortunately, all that can be seen are a few upright stones which look as if they could be part of a stone circle. These are all that remain visible above the ground after the tomb was back filled following the 1953 excavation. What was found under the ground was much more interesting!

The tomb was constructed in the late Neolithic and is quite unique in that it doesn’t fall into any of the usual categories of tomb found in Ireland.

A long stone cist was built alongside an earlier stone boundary wall and the wall and cist surrounded by an oval of upright stones. These were then incorporated into a larger mound surrounded by large upright stones and these are the stones still visible today.

The layout is best seen on the information board at the site.

The information board also has this fascinating photo from the excavation, where the boundary wall and oval of upright stones can clearly be seen.

The cist contained the skeletal remains of at least 15 people and the cremated remains of another. Rather being individual skeletons, the bones had been sorted and carefully arranged in groups of skulls, long bones, etc. The bones could also have been used in ancestor worship and rituals before they were placed in the tomb as it is thought that they had been kept somewhere else for a considerable time before they were placed in the tomb.

The bones as they were found in the cist.

8 small cists, thought to be later burials, were also found within the cairn material.

The cairn is close to the shore, with views out to sea, and the Isle of Man visible on a clear day – not this day though. Despite the sunshine, it was very cold on the coast and my thoughts were more about keeping warm than lingering in the field.

What better to place to warm up on a cold day, than a tropical butterfly house. On the way back we stopped at Seaforde Demesne gardens and butterfly house and got nice and warm in the butterfly house and had a bite to eat in the Garden House cafe.

Summer Days on Eriskay

With short days and relentless stormy weather, summer seems a long time away. We’ve had very few outings this winter so I wrote this post to remind me of summer days on my favourite Hebridean island and paddling in the sea and picnics on The Prince’s Beach.

Eriskay is a small rocky island, only about 3 miles long and 1.5 miles wide and lies off the southern tip of South Uist in the long chain of islands that make up the Outer Hebrides.

The Prince’s Beach where Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish soil in 1745

It’s a beautiful island and a great place to walk, whether it’s along a white sandy beach or on the rocky hillsides where Eriskay ponies graze.  Wherever you go there are magnificent views across the sea to other islands and interesting things to see along the way.

I have to admit that Eriskay is my favourite Hebridean island, despite not having the profusion of prehistoric remains that are found in the rest of the Western Isles.  There is virtually nothing to be seen from this period and the only site worth noting is a group of 3 ring cairns from the Neolithic or Bronze-Age. They are situated up above the village on a level piece of ground on the NW slopes of Beinn Sciathan.

The remains are very scant and it’s difficult to make out much detail. There isn’t much to see and not much is known about them. Canmore has a single entry from 1965 which states that the cairns were found below 5 feet of peat (I wonder how they were found – peat cutting perhaps?)  and that there are 3 circles of small boulders with small central mounds and a fourth small ring without a cairn.

While we were searching for the cairns we wondered if we would see some of the native Eriskay ponies as we hadn’t seen any so far that day. Sure enough, as we reached a grassy plateau, dotted with bog cotton, we found a large group of them happily grazing.
Eriskay ponies are a hardy Hebridean breed and roam freely about the island.

Eriskay is linked to South Uist by a causeway and as you approach the island from the causeway one of the first things you see is St Michael’s Church, in a prominent position on the hill, overlooking the Sound of Eriskay.  It was built in 1903 by the islanders themselves, under the guidance of their much loved priest, Father Allan Macdonald.  Fr Allan, or Maighstir Ailein as he was known, worked tirelessly for his flock and campaigned for better rights for impoverished tenants, most of whom were living in terrible poverty at that time.
He was only 46 when he died but he had already become famous as a poet and as a collector of local folklore, traditions and Gaelic language.

St Michael’s of the Sea
A photo I found on the Canmore website which shows Father Allan and his congregation after mass. Father Allan is on the path in front of the church.

The church is beautiful inside and it has a very unique and unexpected feature –   an altar created from the bow of a boat! This was a lifeboat that was washed overboard from the aircraft carrier Hermes and ended up on a nearby shore in South Uist.
The church and the altar feature in Peter May’s ‘Lewis Trilogy’, a series of captivating crime novels set on the Isle of Lewis. In his book ‘The Lewis Man’ some of the book is set in Eriskay.
On the Isle of Lewis, an old man with dementia talks about a church with a boat in it and the trail eventually leads the detective all the way down through the islands to Eriskay, where he finds that there is indeed a church with a boat in it!

 On the wall outside the church is a special stone which has been hollowed out in the centre. It was specially made and placed here so that a fire could be lit in it and the smoke seen across the water in South Uist. In the days before telephones and long before the causeway, this was the way of signalling that the priest was needed on the island. When the smoke was seen, the priest would be fetched and a fisherman would take him over to Eriskay.

To make enough smoke to be seen, a fire was first lit with dry twigs or straw and once it was alight wet seaweed would be placed on it to create an abundance of smoke.

We left the church and walked through Am Baile, the main village. Following the road south you pass the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, erected on the site of the original church.

Looking down across Am Baile, with South Uist in the background

WHISKY GALORE!

Eriskay will always be famous for the SS Politician which ran aground here in 1941 with its cargo of 22,000 cases of malt whisky. Bound for Jamaica and New Orleans, it’s cargo  never made the Americas but ended up in the houses  of Eriskay, South Uist and beyond.  The story of the islanders salvaging as much as they could before the boat sank and then hiding it from the Customs and Excise men was immortalised in Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore and the subsequent Ealing comedy of the same name.

One of the buildings in the right of the photo above is the pub, Am Politician, which was built in 1988 and named after the ship. A couple of the original bottles of whisky rescued from the SS Politcian can be seen inside­­.

Over on the east side of the island is An Acarsaid Mhor, the Big Harbour. Walking round the sheltered bay you come to a clump of trees, some of the very few trees on Eriskay, and above them you can follow The Way of the Cross. The path follows a cliff face where the Stations of the Cross are depicted on slates along the cliff. They were created by a priest in the 1970’s but unfortunately most are looking very weathered now. At the top of the path stands a wooden cross.

Ruined houses on the hill above An Acarsaid Mhor

A short road runs across Eriskay, from the causeway to South Uist in the north down to the pier for the Barra ferry in the south. The road finishes at the southern end of The Prince’s Beach and from here, an hour long ferry journey takes you across to Barra.

The Prince’s Beach, Eriskay from the Barra ferry
Travelling between islands

Dun Carloway

The best preserved broch in the outer hebrides

This is the most well known broch in the Outer Hebrides and the only one to rise to such a height. It’s certainly a striking feature in the landscape, sitting up above  the crofting township of Carloway, on the west side of Lewis.

The broch was probably built about 200BC but could have been in use up to about 1000AD. It was quite common for brochs to be used again as strongholds during medieval times and the Morrison Clan are said to have used Dun Carloway as a stronghold in the 1500’s.

The entrance is on the north side and most of the walls on this side have collapsed, leaving a view of the interior structure.

The door is only a metre high and would have had been well defended. As you go in the door there is a small guard chamber set into the wall.

The interior, showing a low entrance into one of two chambers on the ground floor.

A common broch feature is the scarcement which is when the lower part of the wall is made thicker so that it forms a ledge to support the wooden floor above it. Here the line of the scarcement  can be seen about halfway between the lower and upper doorways. The lower wall would also have been made thicker to support the huge weight of the tower above it.

An artist’s impression of the broch shows how the space inside would have been used, with animals kept on the ground floor and living quarters on the floors above. Stairs and galleries were built between the concentric walls.
The highest part of the broch is 9m high and it probably wouldn’t have been much higher than this originally.

There are extensive views across the surrounding landscape as well as out to sea.

Ruins of blackhouses in the field below the broch. No guessing where the stone would have come from! Blackhouses were the traditional form of cottage with thatched roofs and rounded corners.

A few miles down the road are the famous Calanais Stones and its surrounding ritual landscape of stone circles and other Neolithic monuments. There is nowhere like this small area in the remote west of Lewis to evoke such a connection with the distant past.