We’d passed this castle many a time on the road between Betwys-y-Coed and Beddgelert and always intended to stop there someday and explore it. I always prefer exploring these small castles, built by Welsh princes, to the massive edifices built by Edward 1. Built in strategic positions, they now often sit alone in quiet countryside and if you’re lucky there will be no other visitors and you can have the castle to yourself.
There are no written records of the early history of Dolwyddelan Castle but it is thought to have been built in the early 13th Century by Llywelyn the Great, at time when Wales was made up of separate kingdoms ruled by Welsh Princes.
Unlike the great castles of Edward 1, the castles built by the Welsh princes were small, of simple design and usually built on rocky outcrops commanding views over the surrounding countryside. The castle owes its good state of preservation today to major restoration in the 19th century.
Dolwyddelan controlled a strategic pass through the mountains of Snowdonia and was built in a lofty position on the hillside, keeping watch over pastures below and the route through the valley.
It’s a short but pleasant walk from the small carpark up to the castle. The path takes you up to some farm buildings where you have to knock at the farmhouse door to pay the admission charge. From there you follow a path up the hillside to the castle.
I liked these two oak trees growing out of a rocky outcrop
Above – The ruined West Tower, a later addition when the castle was in the hands of Edward 1st. The keep and the ruined west tower are joined by a curtain wall that was built along the top of the ridge
… and up a long flight of steep stairs to the battlements.
Tomen Castell The tree covered mound in the valley below is the site of a tower that pre-dates Dolwyddelan Castle and was probably the birthplace of Llywelyn the Great. It had been a sizeable fortress but fell into ruin after the new castle was built.
I’ve come to the end of my ‘Sea Interlude’ posts that I wrote during lockdown, but maybe I’ll return to that theme at a later date! For now, it’s back to archaeology and one of the burial chambers I looked at in North Wales last year.
This is an unusual Neolithic tomb in the grounds of Plas Newydd, a National Trust property on the shore of the Menai Straights.
At first glance this site looks like 2 cromlechs, a large one and a little one sitting beside it, each with its own capstone. They could have been 2 separate tombs within one covering mound or possibly the small one was an ante-chamber or passage into the larger one. It’s very hard to tell from the configuration of the existing stones and it’s more than likely that some significant disturbance and removal of stone took place during the landscaping of the grounds in the 18th century.
The larger tomb has a large capstone sloping from SW to NE which is supported by 4 orthostats at the higher end and 2 at the lower end. The side stones are missing.
I have a small mixed media painting of this cromlech hanging on my wall at home and was looking forward to seeing it for real. I knew more or less what to expect but there was an added surprise when I got up close to it and ran my hands over the smooth blue-tinted stone and realised that the tomb builders had used blueschist, a very rare Precambrian rock with a lovely blue sheen.
Some of the best examples of blueschist in the world are found on Anglesey, particularly in a small area around Menai Bridge and Plas Newydd. The outcrops here are of such importance that they have Geological SSSI status. The nearby famous passage grave of Bryn Celli Ddu is also built from blueschist and that made me wonder if any of the other burial chambers and standing stones in this part of Anglesey are also made from it. I guess that means I’ll have to go and have a closer look at some of them!
How to see Plas Newydd burial chamber – Unfortunately, you can’t get access to it by paying to go round the Plas Newydd grounds as it isn’t in an area where the public are allowed. You can see it in the distance from the picnic area in the National Trust carpark but it isn’t a very good view. Permission has to be sought from NT staff in advance but this was no problem and when I arrived I was directed where to go by helpful staff at the visitor centre.
The burial chamber can just be seen in the field in front of the stable block. I passed a lovely wildflower garden on the way.
I’d liked to have had a good look round Plas Newydd and explored the extensive grounds but as the weather wasn’t very good we decided to save it for a sunny day, when we could go back and take a picnic. We never did manage to go back as it turned out to be the wettest time we’d ever had in Wales and after 3 wet weeks we had accumulated quite a list of places to go back to when the weather was better!
When St Kilda is visible from the Western Isles it’s usually Boreray that you notice first, with its distinctive shape and sea stacks. It rises vertically from the sea, reaching 1,260ft (384m) at its highest point. The island is home to thousands of gannets, puffins and fulmars but there are also steep grassy slopes where feral sheep graze.
Boreray is seldom visited because it is so difficult to get on to. There’s no landing place and conditions have to be absolutely right to make the jump from a small boat onto the slippery rocks. Then there is the ascent up steep cliffs to reach the grassy slopes. Despite the difficulties of landing there, evidence of a settlement and field system dating back to the Iron Age have been found and St Kildans used to keep a reserve flock of sheep there and go to the island to hunt seabirds. There are cleits here too and some of them were tiny bothies that the men from Hiorta used for shelter when they were on the island.
St Kildans visited Boreray and the stacs to hunt seabirds, which were a major part of their diet. Back in 1727 there was an incredible story of survival when 3 men and 8 boys were marooned on Stac an Armin, the largest of Boreray’s sea stacks, for a whole winter. After being left there to hunt seabirds, there was an outbreak of smallpox on Hiorta which killed almost all the population and they didn’t get rescued until the following May. Being stranded on Boreray would have been bad enough but to spend an entire winter marooned on a sea stack, exposed to the north Atlantic gales must have been some feat of endurance and something that only St Kildans would have been equipped to survive. They had limited shelter in a small bothy and lived off birds, eggs and fish. When they were finally rescued they returned to Hirta but their ordeal wasn’t over, as they found that nearly everyone had died of smallpox and the houses were empty.
An exciting boat trip round Boreray!
I can’t put into words just how atmospheric St Kilda can be in bad weather. When Boreray is shrouded in mist and the cliffs disappear up into the clouds. Being in a small boat beside these enormous cliffs, this is a place that belongs to the birds and the elements and humans feel so insignificant here.
As remote as it gets! An island archipelago 100 miles from the Scottish mainland and 40-50 miles further out into the Atlantic than the Outer Hebrides. On a clear day St. Kilda can be seen from the Outer Hebrides and the closest place to it is North Uist, where there’s a Kilda viewing point. The photo below was taken beside a Neolithic cairn near the viewing point. Two islands can be seen faintly on the horizon and the one on the left is Hirta and the the one on the right with the very distinctive shape is Boreray.
The archipelago is volcanic in origin and is made up of four main islands –Hirta is the main one, and the others are Soay, Boreray and Dun. The islands are the most dramatic you’ll find anywhere in the British Isles, with towering cliffs rising vertically from the sea and land so steep that it’s more suited to the hardy indigenous sheep than to humans. The sea cliffs, at 1,410ft (430m) are the highest in Britain. There are three spectacular sea stacks, also the highest in Britain – Stac an Armin, the highest, is 626ft high (191m) and there’s also Stac Lee and Levenish.
When you arrive at St. Kilda you are ferried ashore to the pier at Village Bay on Hirta. This is where the St. Kildans lived and their abandoned cottages stretch out in a long line round the bay.
People had lived here for at least 2000 years and there is some evidence of human activity going back much further than that. It was an exceptionally hard life and St Kildans faced many dangers from disease, starvation and accidents on the treacherous seas and on the vertical cliffs which they descended in order to capture seabirds. By 1930 the population had dwindled to an unsustainable 36 and the last residents were evacuated at their own request. There are no permanent residents today but there are people working there – civilians who run the radar tracking station for the missile range on South Uist, scientists studying the wildlife, particularly the native Soay sheep, and during the summer season there’s a resident National Trust warden and volunteer work parties.
Some views of Village Street
The island is owned and managed by the Nation Trust for Scotland and volunteer work parties have renovated some of the cottages to make accommodation for the seasonal volunteers and researchers who work there. One of the cottages houses a small museum.
Military In 1957 the island was resettled by the army when it became an outpost of the army rocket range in South Uist. In 1997 the army pulled out and the operation of the radar tracking station was taken over by civilians. They work there on rotation for a few a weeks at a time and a helicopter makes twice weekly visits to ferry personnel between Benbecula Airport and Kilda.
Work has been going on over the last few years to replace the old MOD buildings with buildings that will blend into the environment and be more suited to the harsh weather conditions.
Despite the juxtaposition of old and new, there is still a feeling of being far removed from everyday life and a sense of true remoteness. Once you leave the MOD base and walk along Village Street or wander up the hillsides you are surrounded by history and the visible reminders of how people lived on St Kilda in days gone by.
Cleits All around Village Bay and scattered all over the island, the land is dotted with these stone storage huts called cleits. There are well over 1,000 of them and they were used to store anything from feathers to peats, climbing ropes to meat, fish and produce.
A steep climb up the hill behind Village Street takes you to The Gap, where the land suddenly stops and you find yourself at the edge of 200m high vertical cliffs.
The Gap, where the land suddenly gives way to an almighty drop down to the ocean!
There is nothing so breathtaking as the view of Boreray from The Gap. Hirta, Dun and Soay sit close together but Boreray is over 5 miles away to the NE.
Archaeology On the very edge of the cliff sits an intriguing archaeological feature, a boat-shaped stone setting which probably dates from the Bronze Age. Part of it has been lost to the sea due to cliff erosion and when it was excavated archaeologists had to use mountaineering equipment to keep themselves safe. The only finds from the site were some fragments of quartz and two water-worn pebbles. If this was a burial or ritual site, what a setting for someone’s last resting place!
St Kilda must provide endless inspiration for artists. I’m not much of an artist myself but I was inspired to recreate this spectacular view in some way. This was my first attempt at linocut printing and I must admit, I was quite pleased with the result.
Back down in the village, Hirta even has a pretty good souterrain! Testament to Iron Age settlement on the island.
The souterrain is sometimes called Tigh an t-Slithiche, The House of the Fairies, and it was discovered about 1840. It is 25ft long with a small 6ft long side passage on the right hand side. The walls converge towards the roof, which is covered by stone slabs.
Around the coast of Hirta and Soay
Calm seas meant we were able to go through the narrow channel between Hirta and Soay
St. Kilda is a National Nature Reserve and is Europe’s most important seabird breeding area. It is home to about a million seabirds, including the world’s largest northern gannet colony and large colonies of puffins and fulmars. It is also well known for its bonxies (Great Skuas) who get very territorial during the breeding season and will swoop low over the heads of walkers and even dive bomb them, sometimes making painful contact. It’s recommended to carry a walking stick or pole to wave above your head!
St Kilda is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site but it is a dual World Heritage Site, because it is recognised for the international importance of both its natural environment and its cultural qualities. To put this in context, there are only 35 such sites in the world and they include places like Machu Picchu in Peru. I haven’t written anything about the St. Kildans and their unique way of life because that would make this a much longer post, but more can be found on the National Trust website https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/st-kilda?lang=en_gb and there are many books about St Kilda.
Look out for the next post which will be on Boreray!
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
There are views over to the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg and Rum
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.