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

Friendless Churches and Enchanting Ruins

Anglesey has an abundance of ancient churches with histories going back to the early Welsh Saints. Some have interesting features or history and some are just in the most beautiful settings in the landscape. I’ve chosen two lesser known ones here, both redundant except for the occasional service.

St Mary’s, Tall-y-Llyn & the Friends of Friendless Churches

St. Mary’s Church, Tall-y-Llyn sits all on its own in a field along one of the many narrow country lanes in the middle of Anglesey. When we decided to go looking for this small medieval church we realised we’d probably driven past it quite a few times in the past and totally overlooked it.

There are only fields and a few scattered houses nearby. The township of Tall-y-Llyn doesn’t exist anymore as the whole population was wiped out during the Plague and only the church remains. Not much is known of the church’s early history except that there were 22 houses recorded in the township before the Black Death – quite a sizeable village for those times.

There have been some minor changes and additions to the church over the years but it remains relatively unaltered since medieval times and that’s what makes it so special. In the words of its Grade 1 status listing, it is  “a very rare example of a virtually unrestored Medieval church of simple, rustic character.”[
Grade 1 status is only given to buildings of exceptional interest and only a very small proportion of Welsh churches have this status.

The internal fittings such as the pulpit, alter rails and pews were added in the 18th century.

The church was declared redundant in the early 1990’s and in 1999 it was taken over by The Friends of Friendless Churches, a charity who save beautiful old churches of historical or architectural value. They carried out some renovations, which included getting a local craftsman to replace the 18th century pews which had been stolen during the time it was unused.

The pews, which are copies of the original ones, are backless planks, laid into a low stone wall at one end and supported by paddle ends at the other. Utilitarian in the extreme and no differentiation between rich and poor in this congregation!

The Friends of Friendless Churches have left a book for visitors to look at, lavishly illustrated with photos and information about the churches they look after. To date, they have about 50 churches in England and Wales, with at least half of them being in Wales.

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Old Church of St Nidan, Llanidan

My ‘enchanted ruins’ are the picturesque arches of the Old  Church of St Nidan at Llanidan. The church is in the south of Anglesey and quite hidden away at the end of a leafy lane near the Menai Straits.

Arriving at the end of the road you are faced with the churchyard wall and behind it you can see a little of the church and the arches in amongst a profusion of greenery and old yews entwined with ivy.

A church was first established on this site in the 7th century, by St Nidan who was confessor to Penmon monastery, further along the coast. The present church dates back to the 14th century and a second nave was added to it in about 1500, which would have doubled its size. The two naves were separated by arches and these are the arches, or arcade, that you see in the churchyard today.

photo by Bencherlite from Wikipedia, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Much of the church was demolished in the 19th century when a new St Nidan’s church was built nearby but the arches were left standing when the that part of the church around them was demolished. The photo above shows the interior of the present, much shorter church with the arches separating the two naves.

The church and churchyard are locked and only open to the public on occasional open days. Not much of the church can be seen from the roadside but you can look through the iron gate to get a tantalizing view.

The church gate

 The Anglesey Coastal Path goes past the church and the footpath can be followed from the church down to the shore of the Menai Straits.

Penmon Priory, Anglesey

Penmon Priory is one of the most impressive ecclesiastical buildings on Angelsey, with roots going back to the 6th Century and St. Seiriol.  It’s in a tranquil setting at the end of a quiet road in the eastern corner of the island and has views across the Menai Strait to the mountains of Snowdonia.

The original monastery was founded by St Seiriol in the 6th century, a time when there was a trend for monasteries to be built in remote places. Two were founded on Anglesey at this time, this one in the east of the island and another one founded by St. Cybi at Holy Head on the far west side.
It was rebuilt in the 12th century and became part of the Augustinian order in the 13th century. The priory church remained as a church after the dissolution of the monasteries and is still a parish church today.

The cluster of buildings you see today are the priory church, and attached to it, a private dwelling which was once the prior’s house.  Standing beside these is a 3-storey roofless building which housed the refectory on the first floor and dormitories on the top floor.

Beside the priory is a secluded walled garden and some remains from the time of the original Celtic church, including a well, the stone outline of part of a small building and the monastery fishpond.

St. Seiriol’s Well

This lovely old holy well beside the priory is dedicated to St. Seiriol and would have provided water for the monastery. Although the well is ancient the brickwork forming a little shelter around it is 18th century.

Across the lane is a very fine dovecot, built about 1600 to house pigeons which were used  for their eggs and meat.

There are enough nesting boxes for 1000 pigeons!

Puffin Island

St. Seiriol also founded a small monastic community on nearby Puffin Island, or Ynys Seiriol (Seiriol’s Island) as it is called in Welsh. He is thought to have spent the last years of his life here.
From the priory you can take the toll road (about 1 mile) to the beach and look across to Puffin Island and Penmon Lighthouse. Some ecclesiastical remains are still visible on the island, including the remains of a 12th century church.

In the 1890’s the island became plagued with rats, probably due to a shipwreck on the shore of the island. The rats decimated the puffin population and by the end of the 20th century the puffins had been virtually wiped out. However, thanks to an RSPB programme to eradicate the rats the puffins have now returned.
1000 years ago the puffins would have been a food source for the hermit monks living on the island and the monks were also reported to have been doing a good trade in pickled puffins!

St Tanwg’s – the church in the sand

A tiny medieval church nestled in the sand dunes at Llandanwg, near Harlech in west Wales. The present building dates back to the 13th Century but it has an ancient history, with the site itself dating  back to about 435AD, making it one of the very earliest Christian sites in Britain.  

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There are possible connections with St Patrick’s missionaries to Wales, as Llandanwg, along with Fishguard, was one of the main points of entry for visitors arriving from across the Irish Sea.

Inside the church, a 5th century inscribed stone refers to Ingenvus who is said to be a contemporary of St Patrick and the interesting thing about this stone is that it is not local stone but probably comes from the Wicklow mountains in Ireland.

The INGENVUS STONE, an 8ft high pillar grave stone

The church is dedicated to St Tanwg who was born on Anglesey and probably arrived here not long after a Christian foundation had been established at the site.

The church started to fall into disrepair after a new St Tanwg’s Church was built 2 miles away in Harlech in 1839, although it continued to be used for burials.
At one stage the roof had fallen in and the church became full of sand and briars and there are even reports of fishermen drying their nets on the nave.
Over the years the church has frequently had to be dug out of the sand and work to protect it from the sea and sand is ongoing.
Most of the graveyard lies underneath the sand dunes

However, no one wanted to lose such a special church and renovations were carried out at various times in the 20th Century, with major work in 1987.

Nowadays the church retains it’s simple medieval character and many of it’s original features. Services are held here again, particularly during the summer months and in 2000 it regained it’s licence to hold weddings again – and what a lovely, special place to get married in!

 The renovations in the 20th century  unearthed some fascinating ancient stones which provide proof that there has been a Christian foundation here since the earliest days of the Christian church in Britain. Below are parts of two inscribed gravestones from the 5th and 6th centuries and a cross from around the 9th century. These are of great historical importance.

The early 6th Century GERONTIUS STONE

The original bell had been removed to the new St Tanwg’s in Harlech but it was replaced in 1922 by this one (below left) which came from Doobeg in Co. Sligo, where it was used to summon farm workers to work.


Small Pilgrim Places

St Tanwg’s is on the Small Pilgrim Places Network .
These are special places in England and Wales that are small and peaceful and away from the madding crowds. Places for pondering, meditating, praying or just being, and they can be churches, wells, gardens , ruins or open spaces.
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Bach Wen Dolmen & St Beuno’s Church

A cupmarked dolmen and a pilgrimage church

Bach Wen Dolmen is on the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula in north Wales and the reason I sought out this particular dolmen was because its capstone is literally covered in cupmarks, not something I’ve seen very often on dolmens.

Someone must have counted them because there are reported to be 110 cupmarks and 2 shallow grooves on the top of the capstone, plus 8 more on the eastern edge.

Despite the iron railings around the dolmen, it’s still a lovely location, with the sea on one side and the hills of the Llyn Peninsula on the other. With such views, it’s easy to sea why the dolmen was built here.

We parked in Clynnog Fawr and set off on a well-signposted walk which took us from the village street, down little lanes towards the sea and the dolmen.

Looking back to Clynnog Fawr from near the dolmen

Arriving back in the village, I went to have a look at the church.

St Beuno’s Church, Clynnog Fawr

 I’m so glad I didn’t pass by without stopping to look inside. What struck me on entering was how incredibly light it was. I opened the heavy oak door and walked from the shade of the church yard into a  church bathed in light. The windows are large but I think it was the whitewashed walls that made such a difference.

There was plenty of interest to read about on the information panels and leaflets and I learned that St Beuno’s was one of the stops on a pilgrimage route and long distance footpath.

St Beuno’s was where medieval pilgrims converged to start their pilgrimage down the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula to the holy island of Bardsey. Today it is on the North Wales Pilgrims Way , a 130 mile long distance footpath from Holywell in Flintshire to Bardsey , which takes in little stone churches connected with St Beuno and Saint Winefride and many other holy and ancient places along the way.

The church is said to be on the site of a Celtic monastery founded by St Beuno around 630AD but the present building dates mainly from the late 15th, early 16th century. It used to be an important ecclesiastical centre for this part of Wales, which is why it is such a large church for a little village.

 

A rare example in Wales, of an Irish-style canonical sundial from the 10th-12th century.It was used to mark the time of the canonical hours which centered around the liturgy and don’t bear any relation to civil clock times. 

 

.A set of dog tongs!
These were used to grab hold of unruly dogs at a time when it was common for people to take their dogs into church.

One  thing I was sorry I didn’t see was St Beuno’s Well, which I read about on this information panel at the church.

We set off down the road to look for it but obviously didn’t walk far enough. Afterwards I thought of looking it up on the Well Hopper website, which is the place to find information about holy wells in North Wales and sure enough, there was all the information I needed and some good pictures of it, showing how it has been spruced up in recent years.

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Lligwy, Anglesey

A Neolithic burial chamber carved out of limestone, a spectacular Iron-Age farmstead and an ancient ruined church overlooking the sea

In a little corner of N.E. Anglesey are three ancient sites that are very close to each other but a walk here feels like walking through time, all the way from the Neolithic to the medieval.

On the day we set off to explore Lligwy, North Wales was having a spell of unseasonably cold and windy weather. The morning started off so cold and damp that when we arrived at Moelfre, the nearest village, our first stop was at the wonderful Ann’s Pantry. After warming ourselves up by the wood burning stove and having some delicious coffee and scones the weather had improved and we drove out of Moelfre and turned down the narrow road that took us to the first prehistoric site of the day.

Lligwy Burial Chamber

Lligwy Burial Chamber (1)

The geology of this part of Anglesey is limestone and the dolmen-like burial chamber has a massive 25 ton capstone and a chamber that was hollowed out from a natural fissure in the rock. The uprights are half below ground and half above, giving it a very squat appearance.

The capstone was hewn out of the limestone pavement and cut marks can still be seen on the side of the stone.

The capstone rests on some of the uprights and in other places smaller stones have been wedged in to support it, or possibly just to fill in the wall of the chamber.

The tomb was excavated in the early 20th century and the bones of up to 30 men, women and children were found.

The human remains, plus animal bones and two kinds of pottery were found in 2 separate layers and would suggest that the tomb was built in the late Neolithic but also in use 1000 years later in the early Bronze Age.

Lligwy Burial Chamber (3)

Like other such tombs, it would have been covered with a mound of stones and had a short entrance passage into the chamber.

Lligwy Burial Chamber (5)
The capstone with the partly submerged chamber underneath.

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Din Lligwy – an Iron-Age Farmstead

Path to Lligwy Iron-Age Farmstead.

Further along the road from the dolmen you come to a lay-by and a footpath to the other two historical sites at Lligwy. After a walk through fields there’s a little gate and a path up through the trees to the remains of a very significant Iron-Age farmstead.

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These remains are an awesome sight! Covering half an acre, Din Lligwy was built sometime during the Iron-Age and contains the remains of 2 roundhouses and numerous other rectangular structures.

Lligwy Iron-Age Farmstead (8)

They are all enclosed by a thick defensive wall which was probably built around the 4th century AD when the Roman occupation was coming to an end and raids on villages became common (Din is Welsh for fort). Excavations in the early 20th century found many pot sherds and coins dating from this period but there was also evidence of earlier structures.

Lligwy Iron-Age Farmstead (6)
Remains of one of the roundhouses

The roundhouses would have been dwellings but the rectangular buildings would have had different purposes from iron working to housing animals.

Lligwy Iron-Age Farmstead

A hearth and evidence of iron working was found in the rectangular building above, which was probably a workshop.

Below- photos from around the farmstead

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Hen Capel Lligwy  (Old Lligwy Chapel)

Lligwy Chapel

Walking back from Din Lligwy, you pass by Lligwy Chapel. It stands on its own in a lonely spot overlooking the sea.

Little is known of its origins or the saint it was dedicated to. It was built in the 12th century, with some reconstruction of the walls in the 14th and had a small chapel with a crypt added on in the 16th century.

By the 18th century it was falling into ruin.Perhaps the chapel is all that remains of a community who lived around here in medieval times.

Lligwy Chapel (1)

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Our day out started in a cosy tea room, followed by a real walk through history and finished with a bracing walk on nearby Lligwy beach where we found some interesting geology.

Ann’s Pantry in Moelfre where we could have sat in the garden or summer house, had it been warmer. Fleecy blankets were supplied!

Traeth Lligwy, less than a mile north of the 3 historical sites we visited.

Below- interesting geology at the north end of the beach.  1.Old red sandstone cliffs


2. Mudcracks formed when ancient mudflats dried in the sun, often forming hexagonal shapes as they shrank