Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Craigmaddie blues

A long winter and finally my favourite local venue is dry...

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Isle of Gigha

The maritime sliver of schist and quartzite that is the Isle of Gigha is an island of two coasts: a sheltered riviera of sandy bays on the east and a weathered and hardened west coast facing the Atlantic between Kintyre and the Oa of Islay. The central ridge of the island is wooded on the lee side and shelters most of the community around the hub of Ardminish and the old wooded Achamore.

For climbers, the best trail is the west coast from the south pier to the summit of Creag Bhan, which is a day-long walk between ferries with some good climbing and bouldering, largely underdeveloped. The northern island of Eilean Garbh has some steep crags for sport-heads and a remarkable tombolo beach, polluted to hell with plastic on the drift side but postcard-perfect on the lee side.

Walk up from the pier to the village shop at Ardminish, turn left and south past the hotel to the south of the island, past Achamore gardens and Gigha windfarm - the ‘dancing ladies’, four windmills as of 2014, 3 originally, a fourth was added in 2013. March 2014 output made £11,200 and this excess allows the Gigha Community Trust to profit from wind generation power, selling it back to the grid.

The South Pier – splitting natural harbours of Port Meadhonach and Port na Carraigh - is where the ferry sleeps at night and is a deep berth opposite Gigalum Island. Walk south-west along the shore of Caolas Gigalum on a sandy bay, cross over a fence where it meets the rocks, then head up right onto the heathery hill by a wall, follow this south-west to where a small promontory juts out, on the south side of this is Uamh Mhor, the ‘big cave’, a well-hidden quartzite cave.

Remains of a dun (or just a raised beach?) can be found on the boulder shore on the way to the cairn-marked craggy hill-top above Port Mor, opposite the three little islands of Eilean Leim, where the sea is usually rougher facing the westerly winds. Descend to the headland west of a rocky outcrop hill (Carn Leim), where a roaring cave can be heard, marked by a choked boulder in a chasm, this is Slocan Leim, the ‘leaping cave’, where in a strong westerly storm, geysers spout violently up around a choked boulder in the black gorge. In calmer weathers, pebbles turn and rumble with a deep bass in the hidden cave.

North along the craggy headland by the high tide mark is another hidden cave, or blowhole, usually covered with seaweed blown up by the geyser of Sloc an t-Srannain, the ‘snoring hole’, though this might be more apt for the cave further south. The names might best be swapped around.

A few hundred metres north leads to a stile onto the beach of Grob Bagh under Leim farm. This has a raised beach and an old spring at the north end, sometimes bleeding out an alluvial fan of sand. The beach bends west to a grassy shore and a gap through wind-exfoliated outcrops to a rocky coast west of Leim Farm, under the grassy hill of Am Pluc, full of unusual boulders worn into strange ships by the wind – this soft schist sits on top of a quartzite stone in parts. The skerry out to sea is Dudh Sgeir – the black reef.

Continuing north past the reefs and islands of Port a’ Gharaidh to the slabby walls under the wind farm, where round hollows on the slabs show the site of a Quern Quarry. This garneted schist seems to have been ideal for making quern stones – they can be seen on slabs just before the bay and tidal island of Eun Eilean. Out in the bay lies the rocky Craro Island. Skirting the shallow sandy bay of Poll Mor (the big pool), where common seals roll and play in the turquoise waters, sometimes with attendant otters, is Port nan Each, a sheltered headland just under Cuddyport cottage (Tigh nan Cudainnean) with its sheltered ‘rock garden’. The west side of the headland directly under the cottage has a good series of slabbed amphibolite quern pits.

The next headland is accessed along a beach to a path up to a Cairn or Cist, before the bay of Portan Craro, opposite Craro island. The wild headland walk leads eventually past some caves to Port an Duin, with its attendant farm and old mill.

Above the bay a track leads up to the 100m summit of Creag Bhan, with some fine slabby crags on its west flank facing Jura and a steep cracked crag on its east flank. The summit trig point also has a marker plinth listing distances to Ireland, Kintyre, Arran, Knapdale, Jura and Islay, a fine vista on a clear day. The track leads down to a farm track east to Druimyeoin More farm and the road back south to Ardminish.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Lost Township of Grulin on Eigg

‘The Stony Place’ as it translates, the archaeological notes on the RCAHMS database for Eigg, state baldly the lost humanity of Grulin as early as an 1880 OS survey map: ‘…eighteen unroofed buildings, six enclosures and a field-system’. Now a scheduled monument and memorialised as a ‘depopulated settlement’, though it is not obvious if the verb is passive or aggressive, Grulin Uachdrach (Grulin Upper) is, like Hallaig on Raasay, a place of violent silence and resonance.

Who lived here and why was the site abandoned? If it were not in Scotland, suspicions might fall to the climate, remoteness and apparent unsustainability of the stony place, a rabble of large rocks under the steep slopes of An Sgurr, but the carefully constructed walls tell us it was once a thriving township – the kilns, folds and blackhouse walls integrated with the giant boulders such as Clach Hosdail. In 1853 the whole of the village of Grulin, both upper and lower, housed fourteen families who were forced to leave, 57 people in all cleared aside from one family held as shepherds. One family was crofted at Cleadale but the rest found emigration to Nova Scotia the only option. In 1841 there had been 103 people but by 1853 Laig farm to the north of the Sgurr had been let by the landowner to a borders sheep farmer called Stephen Stewart, who took on the contract only on condition it included the fine grazing and pasture around the Grulins under the south face of the Sgurr. The subsequent events tell a similar tale to the hundreds of other cleared villages throughout Scotland.

Around the village lie hidden, sheltered runrigs with ingenious irrigation walls and channels. The place is still populated by cheviot sheep who wander oblivious in through the out-doors of the old shielings to graze on lush grass between the sheltered walls. Flag iris grows around the streams and springs harbour water cress, and on a summer day it is not hard to imagine this would have been a place of serenity and pride after the long day’s tilling. But then came the monetisation of the Highlands, the aristocratisation of the old clan system, the demise of a communal agrarian system and the volatile business of kelping and sheep-farming. The rest is a sorry tale of shame, though the modern drive for locality and breaking of the land regimes of the past has led Eigg to be considered a showpiece example of community ownership, having been bought in 1997 from single ownership. The island is now self-sufficient in energy with wind, solar and hydro in several locations and the 100-odd population thrives by itself with a little help from tourism.

Further reading:
Susanna Wade Martins, Eigg - an Island Landscape,PWM Heritage Management, 2004
James Hunter, The Making of the Crofting Community, John Donald, 1976