Tuesday 16 August 2011

Shoreline artwork on the Moray Firth

Further along toward Hopeman, there is an unusual sight on the shore - a pineapple made of wood and stone.

A long-dead, bleached pine stump has been upended and stones carefully arranged in a cairn around it to support the stump and create a striking pineapple shape.  I've no idea how long this has been here or whether it was done as an art installation or just spontaneously.  Perhaps more intriguingly, how long will this transient naturalistic artwork resist the winter storms?

An equally bleached and battered tree trunk nearby provides a leading line to the main piece.

Nearby are several "chorten" style slender piles of small pebbles, but this simple arrangement caught my eye.  the contrast between the smooth sea-washed rock and the featured sandstone boulder plus the colours of the stones separated by vibrant yellow lichen had a striking simplicity.

These pieces were most unexpected and added a lot to the day's paddling.

There is a long tradition of art along the Moray Firth coast.  Nearby is the Sculptor's Cave, a dry cave famed for Pictish carvings.  Burghead was a Pictish power base, fort remains and numerous symbol stones can be seen in the area. 

Monday 15 August 2011

Pebbles on a beach

It's a simple, everyday sort of thing; a pebble beach below a cliff.  The beach is near Hopeman on the Moray Firth, and I've taken pictures here before.

Landing here can be tricky in any swell but on a recent paddle there was the rare experience of a flat calm Moray Firth.  Once on the beach, I spent a good hour just looking at the pebbles as they emerged from the ebbing tide.

The cliff above is a soft sandstone which doesn't form pebbles although there are strata of pebbles within it in places, evidence that there was an ancient river here.

Mst of these pebbles seem to be granites, perhaps washed from the high Cairngorms by the powerful rivers of the Spey and Findhorn which both empty to the sea along this coast.  The rich colours of the wet stones simply shone in the diffuse light

The variety of colour and form kept me fascinated in this pebble collectors paradise

Sunday 14 August 2011

Note from the edge

As a postscript to the our trip, the first banknote I got in change when I got home was this Clydesdale Bank £5 note featuring St Kilda on the reverse!

Monday 8 August 2011

The team

Cuma passed us as we paddled back to meet her in her home port of Miabhaig.  There's no doubt that without Murdani, Gary and Louise, our adventure couldn't have happened.  

We'd seen some fantastic sights and paddled in the most amazing locations, but really it was the people who made this truly "the trip of a lifetime".

Team St Kilda!

Front left to right:  Janice, Sue, Morag, Liz and Gordon

Back left to right: Douglas, Callum, Anne, Donald, Simon, Ken and Ian

A blue lagoon and a deserted island

The lagoon between Pabaigh Mor and Pabaigh Beag was astonishingly beautiful in the sunshine.  The colours of the water and the sand were a riot of blue, turqoise and shimmering white.

There is an upper, tidal lagoon which was emptying into the main lagoon.  with a bit of effort we managed to paddle up into it - here Liz shows the way uphill!

Whilst we played around doing balance exercises (including a rather impressive cockpit headstand by Callum) and rescue practice in the upper lagoon, Simon set up a camera on the shore. 

We took our turn at having our thoughts on the trip recorded, Simon asking each of us about diffferent aspects.

As a location for filming, this was pretty special!

Pabaigh Mor has a ruined kirk, the origin of the name "big island of the priests".  In 1827 the crofters were cleared from the island to make way for sheep - a familiar story.  In 1861 two Banffshire fishing crews totalling fifteen fishermen and two female cooks were living in one of the caves during the fishing season.  A fish holding trap made of an arc of stones is visible in the upper lagoon.  At the 1871 census there were nine men from Uig living in a tent on the island, but it has been uninhabited since.

After the First World War it was claimed that boxes of provisions were found on the island and that  a German U-Boat had made secretive visits to resupply.

By the time the interviews were completed and we left the upper lagoon the tide had turned and the flood was entering from the main lagoon.  It wasn't as hard to paddle against as on the way in, but Pabaigh's beautiful blue lagoon is a hard place to leave in more than one respect!  If you go there, save it for a sunny day and enjoy the unique atmosphere of this special place.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Kayaking the west coast of Pabaigh Mor

Our last day onboard Cuma started with sunny spells.  After breakfast, Gary weighed anchor and Murdani took us out of Loch Reasort and turned north up the west coast of Lewis.  There was a heavy swell running all the way up, especially rounding Gallan Head.  We anchored again in sheltered water off the village of Bhaltos, our plan was to kayak around the north end of Pabaigh Mor (big island of the priests) and make our way back to meet Cuma at her berth in Miabhaig.

We were soon on the water, launching from Cuma for the last time on our trip.  Heading across The Caolas Pabaigh we were drawn to some of the caves on the west side of Pabaigh Mor.  The swell finding its way in from the open ocean meant that there were cave monsters lurking at the back of these!

Heading north we soon met the full force of the Atlantic swell roaring onto the rocky north coast of Pabaigh Mor.  It was exciting paddling for a short distance, then we turned and made a slightly awkward, surfing approach to a narrow channel.  The channel contained rocks over which the swell was surging so good timing was needed to pass safely.

The change was immediate and dramatic.  Between Pabaigh Mor and Pabaigh Beag is a lagoon of calm, sheltered water fringed with sandy beaches.  As we entered, the sun came out and we were treated to a wonderul sight

Wednesday 3 August 2011

A Hebridean summer day

                                                                                                                               Image by Sue King

Sue took this gorgeous image of the beach at the north end of Scarp.  It comes much closer than any of mine to capturing the glory of a Hebridean summer afternoon.

It takes really special colours to surpass a west coast sunset, but on that day there was no contest.

Murdani took Cuma back inside Loch Reasort for the night.  The following day would be our last paddling day, but what a day it would turn out to be!

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Births and Deaths, Rockets and Phones - the strange story of Scarp's demise

Many of the buildings on Scarp are now ruins.  The community, like many in Eilean Siar (The Western Isles) gone.  Scarp's story is stranger than most though, and boils down to the difficulty of accessing the island from the "mainland" of Harris.  At the start of the 20th century the population was well over 100 but was already declining.  Opportunity in the wider world, whether that meant Scotland, America, Canada or Australia beckoned and many of the young folk chose to turn away from the hard life of an island crofter.

One of the most interesting sites on the island is the burial ground.  The older graves are simply marked by boulders with no inscription, but there are some newer, inscribed headstones including two erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The first of the headstones we encountered marks the grave of Pioneer Donald MacLennan of the Royal Engineers. The date is interesting - 15th November 1918 is 4 days after the Armistice.  A very informative post on the "Arnish Lighthouse" blog adds detail to this headstone

Nearby, another CWGC headstone marks the grave of Donald John MacLennan, a Deckhand in the Royal Naval Reserve.  He died when his ship, the paddle minesweeper HMS Duchess of Montrose was sunk by a mine off Gravelines, northern France.

The Western Isles suffered greatly, as did all areas of Europe and beyond, from the Great War.  The terrible toll of young men undoubtedly contributed to the decline of these marginal communities.

The graves of these two Scarpachs face out over the Caolas an Scarp, the storm beach below giving an indication of the severity of the weather here.

Scarp made headline news twice in 1934.  On 14 January a Mrs Christina MacLennan, attended by an 85 year old midwife, gave birth to a child.  On the following day she was in considerable distress and as there were no telephones, an islander crossed to Huisinish on Harris to call the doctor.  The phone there was out of order so the postman's son was sent to Tarbert to get assistance.

It was decided that Christina should go to hospital.  This involved her being strapped to a stretcher and taken across the stormy Caolas an Scarp, then on the floor of the local bus from Huisinish to Tarbert (17 miles away).  From here she was taken by car to the hospital at Stornoway, where the trouble was swiftly diagnosed.

Mrs MacLennan gave birth to a second healthy baby, much to her relief.  The twins were therefore born on different islands, in different counties and in different weeks!

The papers made much of the story and it was read with interest by a young German by the name of Gerhard Zucker.  He was interested in the applications of rockets, and saw an opportunity in Scarp.  He had invented a rocket capable of carrying mail; the island looked perfect for a trial.  Special stamps were printed, preparations made and on 28 July 1934 the fuse on a rocket weighing 14 kg and capable of carrying thousands of letters at 1500km/h was lit. 

Unfortunately, the rocket exploded prior to launch and scattered the letters over Scarp.  Although a later launch from Huisinish to Scarp was successful, the damage had been done and Gerhard Zucker came in for some gentle island humour.  It got worse for him; on his return to Germany he was arrested, accused of selling rocket technology to the British, jailed and then consigned to an asylum.  On his release, Gerhard was banned from conducting rocket research.  He served in the Luftwaffe during the Second World War and died in 1985.  The story is engagingly told in the film "Rocket Post"

Scarp continued to live in isolation.  in the 1930's the islanders got help to build a small jetty, but no equivalent facility was provided on Harris.  The Hydro Electric Board consistently refused to provide an electricity supply and in 1966 the Church of Scotland declined to replace the lay preacher.  Worse, in 1967 the small school closed, followed by the Post Office in 1969.  It was clear that Scarp was a community in it's death throes, and in 1971 the final blow fell.  The telephone line severed in a storm and the GPO refused to repair it. 

In a very literal sense this was the end of the line.  The last two families left the island in the same year.  It was the end of a community which had made a living in this stark but beautiful island for hundreds of years.

As beautiful as it is, as gorgeous as the colours of the sea and sky are, there is a sense of something lost in the village at Scarp - I don't think any of us felt truly comfortable there.

Monday 1 August 2011

Scarp isolation

When filming of the towing sequences in Caolas Cearstaigh was complete, most of us decided on a paddle down the east coast of Scarp whilst Simon, Morag and ken went to film some rough water landing sequences. The view across the Caolas an Scarp (narrows of Scarp) to the white sand beach of Traigh Mheilein and beyond to Glen Crabhadale was very fine.

Scarp is a pretty remote place and has significant obstacles to permanent habitation.  The narrows between the island and the "mainland" of Harris are shallow and very often too rough to cross, and there is no good anchorage.  This winch, manufactured by Thomas Greave Engineers would have been used to haul boats clear of the water.

                             Try as we might, we couldn't get this old wreck moving; it had clearly seen better days

Apparently it's a 1949 vintage 80 inch petrol example........ - goodness, you did realise I was referring to the Landrover and not Douglas didn't you??!

Above the shore a row of houses once stood.  There were originally eight crofts on Scarp, alter subdivided into 16 following an influx of folk cleared from other parts of Lewis and Harris.

The old stone houses contrast sharply with the more modern dwellings.  Scarp now has no permanent residents- life here got just too remote.  The writer Francis Thompson records that a London visitor amazed at the sheer isolation of the place  asked a Scarpach how he ever got the news from London.  The puzzled reply was "Well, how do you get the news from Scarp?!"

A couple of the houses are rented as holiday accommodation; a truly "away from it all" location.