Sunday 20 June 2021

The Sands of Uig

Debate rages over which beach is the finest in Scotland. Common consensus says it is somewhere in the Western Isles, and those who know these beaches only from photographs often vote for the photogenic white sands of Traigh Sheileboist in Harris.

Those who intimately know these places in person however, usually have another favourite.

Approaching Crowlista, Uig:

Uig is special. An inlet of the sea like Cata Sand in Orkney, Uig bay is really several beaches in one, joined at the centre by the airfield-sized expanse of Traigh Uige. From the saltings and shallow reflections of Traigh nan Sruban at Crowlista, to the eruptions of gneiss from the dunes at Cappadale Sands, creating tucked-away picnic spots out the wind, each beach has its own atmosphere. The reason this place is not terribly well-known is simple: even for the Hebrides, it's miles from anywhere. 

Overview of Uig from Forsnaval:

Thirteen years ago, we cycle-camped the Hebrides: Oban - Vatersay - Butt of Lewis - Tarbet - Armadale - Kilchoan - Craignure - Oban. Barra and Vatersay were small enough to explore completely on bicycles, but Lewis wasn't. We wanted to see Uig and Mangersta, but decided it was too big a detour, 28 miles down a single-track road, and 28 miles back. We'd come back one day with a car.
That trip was thirteen years ago. 

  Uig at last:

What a place this is! Our first few days had mixed weather, the pale sands brightening and softening the grey surroundings. But the sun briefly burst out from behind the cloud one evening, and we were entranced. 

One of the joys of exploring the Sands of Uig are the rivers that cross the sands. Near the island broch of Dun Borranais, a bridge crosses the river issuing from Loch Suaineabhal: the rest of the time you must seek out the shallows and wade across barefoot. 

About to wade across: 

On the sands you look at the seaweed and corrugations, and wonder what fun you could get up to before the tide comes in again. A touch rugby or beach volleyball tournament. A mass barbecue. A land yacht race. Or land a plane...

You can't travel far in the Hebrides to realise the locals have a taste for picturesque burial grounds, and the manse at Timsgarry is no exception. I took my hat off out of respect and we looked around.

Timsgarry graveyard:

This seems a peaceful place today, but the name Uig is the Gaelicification of the Norse Vik, meaning bay. This sheltered bay was an important settlement for those restless sea-rovers, the Vikings. According to tradition, several whale tooth and walrus ivory chess pieces were brought ashore by a shipwrecked trader. His rescuer saw the chess pieces, and turned to murder to acquire them for himself, confessing the crime years later when on the gallows in Stornoway for another misdemeanour. The pieces remained lost for centuries until they were discovered in a sand dune 1831 by Calum an Sprot, and eventually bought by the British Museum in London.

Replica chess piece:

If that story is not strange enough then, if you are lucky, at high tide you might see an actual mermaid out in the bay... or in reality, local swimmer Kate Macleod (source: BBC).

The Sands of Uig. Contender for the finest beach in Scotland?

Monday 14 June 2021

The Day We Got to St Kilda!

Two years ago, I didn't go to St Kilda.

Nil desperandum, we rebooked for May 2020! But we all know what happened next...

The booking was re-arranged to May 2021, but the weather was bad, and our trip cancelled.

Would we ever get to St Kilda? Never mind, our holiday base on Lewis was nice enough.

Compensation: Above Reef, Lewis:

Then came a call out of the blue. Someone had cancelled - could we make the trip on Friday? Could we ever! 07:45 on Friday saw us at Leverburgh pier full of anticipation on a day of promise.

The journey to St Kilda needs preparation. Wet-weather gear for the boat deck, sunscreen in case the sun comes out, food and drink for the day: there's no shops or water stoups on St Kilda, and just one toilet for the public. Our boat was a giant RIB with a cabin, but with views and seasickness in mind, we spent the entire journey on deck. The boat bashes through the waves at 20kt, so it's 'hang on till you see the stacks!'

The unfamiliar western shore of the Long Isle disappeared out of view to the east, and still we hadn't seen St Kilda ahead. Where was it? And then, approaching a fog bank, a dark line of cliffs appeared.

The Enchanted Isles approaches foggy St Kilda:

Sea-mists covered all but the lower 50m of St Kilda, hiding the magnificent sea cliffs from view. I was disappointed, but we approached the cliffs of Boreray and the sensual assault of thousands of gannets screaming and circling overhead, the overpowering smell of their guano, brought back the sense of awe, as did seeing the cliffs rise unnaturally out of the sea into the fog.

Stac an Armin:

As a Marilyn-bagger, I'm interested in the sea-stacks of Stac Lee and Stac an Armin: they are both well over 150m, and so count as Marilyns in their own right. The most challenging Marilyn I've climbed to date is the Inacessible Pinnacle on Skye: but in the mist, these sea stacks made the In Pinn look as accessible as a stroll in Princes St Gardens. 

"There's the landing spot the St Kildans used on their expeditions to gather guga," pointed out our guide Iain Angus.

"Where?" I couldn't see any landing spot, just cliff face.

"There," pointed Iain at a marginally less sheer ledge that would require co-ordination jumping out the boat at the right moment then clinging on.

Feck me!

Leaving Boreray:

Then we motored to Village Bay and took the surreal action of landing on Hirta! I have always wanted to climb Conachir, St Kilda's highest summit. The National Trust for Scotland warden warned us not to leave the bay due to the mist. I had a map and compass and am familiar enough with the inside of clouds on the edge of windy cliff faces. However on such a foggy day there didn't seem much point, especially when there was so much else my wife wanted to see: I would have to return on a clear day. Four hours ashore is nowhere near enough.

Village Bay:

In some ways the most unusual aspect of St Kilda is not the dramatic cliffs and stacs, but the fact that people used to live here. Eating dried gannet every day and only ever seeing your nearest neighbours must have been a particularly tough life. When Victorian tourists in steamboats started to appear to gawp at the St Kildans' Iron Age lifestyle, it was the beginning of the end, hastened by their introduction of money. The last islanders were evacuated at their own request in 1930. Hirta is now home to an MoD base, its road, vehicles, earthworks, and cabins an incongruous note on an island the National Trust literature exhorts us is special and needs to be protected. The Soay sheep, looking half sheep, half deer, are cute though! 

Soay sheep:

Eleven hours after we set off, we were back at Leverburgh. It had been glorious all day back here on the 'mainland'. 

Approaching Harris: 

Friday 11 June 2021

County Tops: Roxburghshire

 A while back I wondered how many historic county tops I still had to visit. There are 33 of them, and it turned out I had done most of them: only Morven (Caithness) and Rona's Hill (Shetland) required anything more than a daytrip, so they seemed a great project as we slowly moved out the levels of lockdown.

Craig Airlie Fell:

Blackhope Scar (Midlothian) was beautiful in unseasonably hot March weather: Innerdouny Hill (Kinross) and Craig Airlie Fell (Wigtownshire) in April and May were more perfunctory, bagged in pishing wet weather. South of the Tay only West Cairn Hill (Roxburghshire) remained, so I set off, confident it would not take long. How wrong I was!

I arrived in glowering weather, the promised rain never quite materialising, but something about the day felt heavy and sluggish. I parked at Sourhope, where a notice described two border terriers that had been stolen. We were about to get a dog ourselves, and I was outraged on their behalf. The spirit of the Border reivers lives on in this quiet backwater, the last human habitation before England.

On the England/Scotland border:

The way from Sourhope up to Auchope Cairn on the Anglo-Scottish border was hard going, boggy terrain and a lack of sleep the previous night slowing me down. I couldn't help thinking of Pennine Way ultra-runners reaching this point and wanting to throw in the towel! I poked my head around the door of the Auchope mountain refuge and recoiled. Was the smell of human waste anything to do with the odd-looking man I had seen earlier in the day wandering around Town Yetholm? The Pennine Way is a tough route, and doesn't attract the dilettante.

Annoyingly I had already almost done West Cairn Hill years ago: it lies high on the shoulder of The Cheviot, which I'd previous walked over from Wooler, visited Cairn Hill half a mile from today's target, and headed back to the car, leaving West Cairn Hill unbagged. But as The Cheviot was so close I decided to revisit, a line of paving stones making the route across the bog easy. This would be very tough terrain without them!

On The Cheviot:

I decided to follow the Pennine Way for a bit along the ridge of the Cheviots, England on one side, Scotland the other, high, boggy country that did not feel welcoming this gloomy day. It was here I saw the only other people of the walk, a couple of Englishmen who asked if The Cheviot was the highest hill in the massif. They were three weeks into a long distance walk across some of the most infamous bogs in Britain and looked fairly discontented. It was not surprising they didn't seem particularly full of bonhomie. 

I headed back down towards Cocklawfoot, surprised at how long the walk had taken me and how much effort it had been. The Cheviots are not terrain to mess with.

Sunday 6 June 2021

Merryn Glover's 'Cairngorms Lyric' Concept

Browsing Merryn Glover's website, I came across the concept of the 'Cairngorms Lyric'.

The Cairngorms from the North:

Merryn's an author and educator who lives near the 'gorms, and her Cairngorms lyric is a poetry form of fifteen words, at least one of which must not be English. Oh, and it must feature Cairngorms nature in some way. Examples on her website include:

Spring rises from her kip to find her bed filled with snow.
Winter willnae go.
      Merryn Glover

Redpolls and siskins upside down in the birkin branches; 
In the forest many lifetimes deep. Carolyn Robertson

I'm a sucker for novel poetry forms (see 'Thingabouts'), so decided to have a go of one myself!

Thick soup of clouds
tastes of moss and mineral
sustenance for ghosts
on Beinn Macdhuibh.

Why not have a go of a Cairngorms lyric yourself, and post the results to Merryn?

On Braeriach: