In Langass Woods, North Uist

Beistean’s Grave and Leac Alasdair are two enigmatic stone settings hidden away in Langass Wood, a community woodland on the Isle of North Uist. There are footpaths through the wood and the Hebridean Way long distance footpath skirts round the edge of it but it is easy to overlook the path up to the stones.  From the middle of the wood a path leads steeply uphill through a tunnel of trees – beware, trees frequently get blown down across the path after gales!

At the top of the path, just before you come out onto the open hilltop, is the unexpected sight of the massive stone slab that is Leac Alasdair and beside it, the large flat stones known as Beistean’s Grave.

Beistean’s Grave in the foreground with Leac Alasdair behind

Leac is Gaelic for a slab of stone and this one is enormous! It is a glacial erratic, over 3½ m high by 3½m wide and propped up at a 45° angle – quite possibly its natural position. Wedged underneath are two large stones which rest on top of a squat upright stone. It is difficult to tell if this is how the stones were originally deposited or if man had a hand in their arrangement.

Underneath the large slab is a row of upright stones, partly submerged below the present day ground level and this certainly isn’t natural. They form a wall along one side creating a chamber underneath the overhanging slabs, like the edge of a stone cist. I’d like to think this is the remains of a prehistoric burial site, particularly in view of the cupmarked Beistean’s Grave which sits next to it, but it’s impossible to say for sure and it could simply be a shelter that someone had built under the stones at some unknown time in history.

Lying on the ground in front of the stones is this beautifully patterned piece of Lewisian gneiss.

It tapers towards a point at one end and looks as if it has been fashioned into this shape, making me wonder if it once stood upright in front of the other stones. Vegetation is beginning to obscure some of the surface but the swirling bands of pink and grey foliation can still be appreciated.

Next to Leac Alasdair is Beistean’s Grave. Beistean is a local name, a derivation of Archibald, but as far as I know there’s no local legend about who Beistean or Alasdair were.

Beistune’s Grave consists of two large slabs of rock, one on top of the other, with another smaller slab wedged between them at one end, raising the top stone up a little.  The top stone has broken in half at some time, with one piece of it lying lower down and partly submerged by earth and vegetation. This slab would have been about 5m long before it was broken in half. Beneath the 2 large slabs there appears to be a hollow, with evidence of small stones along the edge of the hollow supporting the large slabs on top.

The most interesting feature of Beistune’s Grave is the cup marks on the corners of the slabs. There are cup marks on all 3 of the slabs and they are all on the corners (no cup marks are visible on the broken off piece of stone lying on the ground next to it). Some of the cup marks have grooves running off them and this one on the top slab is the most pronounced. There are some less pronounced grooves running off the cupmarks on the lower stone.

The rock art on Uist isn’t very impressive and it’s usually hard to say with certainty whether the few recorded cup marks are prehistoric or just natural features. This is one instance where they are most likely to be prehistoric, particularly in view of the other prehistoric sites nearby.

I’d like to think that these two stone settings could have been prehistoric burial sites. Possibly from the early Bronze Age – a time when building the great chambered cairns had come to an end, their chambers had been sealed and they were moving into a period where important people would be buried in single stone cists. These are unusual in that they appear to have utilised existing stones and modified them to be used as burial sites and it is difficult to classify them as they don’t fall into the usual categories of prehistoric burial monuments. They have never been excavated and we’ll probably never know for sure, but they are still an interesting feature in the prehistoric landscape of this part of North Uist.
Close by is the impressive Barpa Langais chambered cairn and on the southern slope of the hill is Pobull Fhinn stone circle, both being the most intact examples of their kind in Uist. There is also an abundance of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains scattered across the neighbouring hills.

To appreciate their setting in the landscape and the view there would have been from Leac Alasdair and Beistean’s Grave before they were surrounded by trees, you need to go through the gate in the deer fence and walk onto the open hillside towards the summit of Beinn Langais. It’s possible to just make out some other prehistoric sites on distant hills (binoculars are useful here!), such as the standing stones at Unival chambered cairn and Tigh Cloiche cairn on Marrogh. Not only are there extensive views across Uist  but you can also see across the Minch to Skye.

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Another surprise in Langass Wood is the life-sized sculpture of Hercules the bear. Hercules was a grizzly bear who became famous and made Uist the focus of media attention in 1980 when he went on the run during filming for a Kleenex advert. He was missing for over 3 weeks, despite searches by his owner, many volunteers and the army and navy but was eventually spotted swimming in the sea by a local crofter, 20 miles away from where he’d gone missing.

A very hungry and tired Hercules was rescued and brought back to health by his wrestler owner and he went on to have numerous appearances in TV and film, his most famous role being in the James Bond film Octopussy. After he died he was taken back to Uist and laid to rest in Langass Wood.

On the Hebridean Way footpath at the foot of Langass Woods

 

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The Iolaire, Stornoway

Most entries for the Western Isles are about chambered cairns and other prehistoric remains but this one is about a very moving memorial to the Iolaire disaster, one of the saddest but least known tragedies from WW1.  As the memorial is in the form of a temporary artwork which will only last as long as tides and weather allow, I thought it deserved to be recorded here in a post.

The shape of the Iolaire, with the blue and green lights of the posts shining up from under the water.

100 years ago, on 1st January 1919 the Naval Yacht HMY Iolaire was bringing sailors back home to the islands after the war when it hit rocks and sank as it approached  Stornoway harbour. The young men, most of them naval reserves on leave after the war, would have seen the lights of Stornoway ahead of them and there would have been great excitement at seeing their families again and celebrating the New Year. Families were waiting at the pier to welcome them but in the darkness and gale force winds the ship hit rocks and sank, about a mile from its destination and only about 20 yards from the shore. Of the 280 crew and passengers on board, 201 were lost.

There wasn’t a district or family left untouched by the terrible loss of so many on the Iolaire. The islands had already lost a higher proportion of its young men to the war than other places and the loss was so great that it could barely be spoken about for generations.

A hundred years on, islanders have been commemorating the disaster.  Apart from events to mark the anniversary,  a special exhibition has been running at Stornoway Museum throughout the winter and this sculpture was commissioned by Stornoway Port Authority and erected on the shore by the ferry port. It was only intended to be a temporary installation for a few months but it has survived better than expected and hopefully will be in situ for a little while longer as it has been so popular with local and visitors.

The sculpture at night, and behind it, the Calmac ferry arriving from Ullapool

The life-size outline of the 189ft long ship is depicted by tall posts, one for every man on the ship. 201 have been left plain to represent the number lost and 79 are painted white to represent the survivors. At low tide the posts are revealed, rising starkly from the mud like the ribs of an old ship. As the tide comes in the posts disappear under the water, the white tips just visible under the surface. If it isn’t too sunny, you start to see spots of blue light appearing under the surface, like phosphorescence.  It is at night time that it looks most dramatic, when the tide is in and ethereal green and blue lights from the posts reveal the outline of the ship under the water.

Sheòl an Iolaire – The Iolaire Sailed  (Iolaire is Gaelic for eagle)

Along the top of the wall by the pavement is a long plaque with the names of the many districts in Lewis and Harris who lost men. After each place there is a number in black for the number lost from that area and a number in white for the survivors.

Across the harbour is Lews Castle which houses Stornoway Museum and around it are the Castle Grounds whose trees provided the posts for the sculpture.

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North Uist : Baleshare

After a quiet few months it was the new year and time to get out and about again. The first event of the year was a Scottish Islands archaeology symposium on the Isle of North Uist and  among the fieldtrips were one to the beach at Baleshare  and another to look at Barpa Langass chambered cairn.

BARPA LANGASS

Barpa Langass is the best preserved chambered cairn in the Western Isles and I’ve written about it in a previous post.

It isn’t safe to go inside it nowadays but luckily I had been inside it many years ago. The only thing I would add to the previous post is that after listening to a talk by a local structural engineer about fractures in the capstones and shifting and movement of some of the large orthostats, including the capstones, I will definitely not be going inside again! Not unless money can be found some time in the future to consolidate the structure and make it safe.

A collapse in the passage wall that occurred a few years ago

BALESHARE (Baile Sear)

Baleshare is a long,  low-lying  island joined to the rest of North Uist by a causeway.

Taken from the cafe at Claddach Kirkibost, looking across to the northern tip of Baleshare (on the left) and to the southern tip of Kirkibost Island (on the right)

Running down the west side of Baleshare is one continuous 4 mile long sandy beach and at various places along this beach,  remains from the Iron-Age have been  revealed in the sandy cliffs. Severe erosion from tides and storms is constantly revealing more shell middens and sometimes the walls of wheelhouses, a form of Iron-Age roundhouse characterized by inner radial walls resembling the spokes of a wheel.

Above L – wheelhouse walls sticking out of the sand dunes and R – an excavated wheelhouse about 6 miles away on Grimsay

Iron-Age Wheelhouse, exposed by a surge tide

At the same time as new archaeology is being revealed, existing remains are often  being lost to the sea.

The shell middens are depicted by an obvious strata of shells in the cliff face and contain the discarded shells of shellfish as well as animal and fish bones,  pottery sherds and other material that had been discarded and put on the midden.

Pieces of pottery and tools made from bone, flint and stone can often be found in the sandy cliff.

Although this is a coastal environment nowadays, these are settlements that would originally have been some distance from the sea. Erosion has been so dramatic, over not only centuries, but millennia, that the coast here once stretched 14km out to sea and a land bridge connected North Uist to the Monach Isles, a chain of low lying sandy islands visible 9 miles to the west.

The flat machair land on Baleshare

The whole of the island is now called Baile Sear, which means eastern township and Baile Siar, the western township has long since disappeared under sand and tides.

The photos above are of the shell middens and stone remains at Ceardach Ruadh (translates as the red smiddy)  which is to the north of the parking area at the beach.  Another site to the south, Sloc Sabhaid, was revealed after a severe hurricane in 2005 and  rescue excavations found the remains of Iron-Age roundhouses there to0.

On the east side of Baleshare, a walk from the end of the road takes you to a Neolithic cairn and nearby are some abandoned croft houses.

Beach between Baleshare and Benbecula

Above & below – Baleshare is surrounded by shallow tidal waters