Showing posts with label islands. Show all posts
Showing posts with label islands. Show all posts

Friday 6 March 2020

Year of Scottish Coasts and Islands

waves off the coast of north Uist

This is the year we celebrate Scotland's magnificent coastlines. I’ve been fortunate to visit Scotland’s islands and its North coast. If the weather is kind (as it is in May or the autumn) there is nothing to surpass the wildness, the subtle, shifting light, blinding wind, thunderous waves or Scotland's perfect white sands.

Harris Luskintyre beach

Orkney near Skarra Brae


Varasay beach, Hebrides

Thursday 31 May 2018

Exploring Hebridean Isles: on the Edge

chapel Saint Barr on Barra
boat Oban to Barra
beach on south Uist

We took the Oban ferry to Castlebay on the isle of Barra. On the edge of exploring the whipped dark blue seas held time aloft and the tides carries us across. The bright westward skies shone brightly as we sailed oe’r swells and past looming mountains….
To the edge of Scotia’s Western Isles, to their stunning and varied landscapes, beaches, rocky outcrops, purple mountains, and a haven for wildlife, the roar of the Atlantic surrounds all here.  
This is a place of strong contradictions – from rugged coastlines, to the largest stretches of clear white sands and turquoise waters; and in the late light the bluest softest hues. 

I read of the great Bards and Myth makers. I read of the crofters forced to leave their homelands for unknown fates in far away lands – to Canada, to Indian reservations and not to the farms that had been promised and of how they missed the Atlantic seas.  At the  Castlebay museum I read of Father John MacMillan.  North Uist and south Uist are Protestant and Catholic – and they get along! 
Caisteal Chiosmull castle Barra
And the great war devastated these islands. Before the war Barra was the centre for the herring industry. The war meant all the young men left to fight in the navy. Then in 1921, 22, 23 there was UK government sponsorship to leave the islands. (to populate the colonies with white people)  The population went from 3,700 to 1,800.  Some managed to return, and some died on the journey. I read of the clan chief Macdonald in Edinburgh and his deciding on the fate of those living on the island. I read of Colonel Gordon of Cluny who bought the islands and ordered the clearances to make way for sheep over people.
Vatersay beach
Barra airport
Barra has a 17th century castle Caisteal Chiosmull castleat the entrance to its bay at Castelbay, owned by the McNeills. Similar to other islands, the drive on the west coast has picture perfect sandy beaches, and the drive on the east coast is rocky and more mountainous. To the north lies the only beach with scheduled flights and we had lunch at the café here.

Out on the peninsula we found the small chapel of Saint Barr.  South of Barra, lies the quiet island of Vatersay connected by a small bridge. We took photos at what could have been a tropical island, although there was cool there. Another photographer told us of the shrine to Eilidh MacLeod, who lost her life a year ago at the Manchester bombing. So sad she left this beautiful place to die at the Arianna Grande concert.


We then took the small ferry over the often difficult crossing to Eriskay and  Uist. Uist has large mountains on it east. We found the bonny location for the Polochar Inn and the drive over the causeways., funded by the EU We visited the interesting Uist museum which told the stories of the forced evictions to Canada. There was the nature reserve  to protect endangered birds such as corncrakes. This is part of an important European Conservation Machair environment, conservation, project to save endangered spices. I wondered, will the UK fund and set up a UK Conservation Machair project, after Brexit?

Uist beach

waves at nature reserve Uist

Early on the Friday we headed across on the carefully manoeuvred crossing to the more prosperous isle of Harris. Harris is the most developed Western isles. I had expected it to be more isolated and remote than Lewis. The Harris beaches on the west coast look out over the welcoming Atlantic and are well worth photographing. Tarbert is nestled in its northern mountains – a ferry port with Harris Gin and Harris Tweed shopsThen we took the treacherous Gold Road over the rocky eastern side and stayed at the beautifully renovated old school house.

On Lewis its worth visiting its historic sites – the Callanais stones, the blackhouse village, the Carloway Broche.  Then we headed for the port of Stornaway - it was a Sunday and all was closed except for the church and one hotel - and took the modern Caledonian McBrae ferry, which was like a floating cafeteria, back to the picturesque highland town of Ullapool.

the Callanais stones on Lewis

Carloway Broche

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Orkney Sagas

Life on the extremes – Orkney Stories and magical tones, light and colours.
Orkney is supposed to feed the soul and the subtle magical lights and tones here certainly lift hearts and minds. From the softest blues and gentlest greens, there is a pure quality to the light. There are sea bird sanctuaries, many ancient remains, and the islands sing with their Nordic sagas.

Orkney turns upon poles of light and has 70 islands, 20 of them inhabited.
Westray, Eday, Ronaldsay, Sandy, Stronsay, Hoy,...
“A summer midnight, the north is red with the twin lamps of dawn and sunset.” George Mackay Brown (the Holy Places- 1976)

The boat trip over on the Northlink ferry was EPIC!, with 60 mile an hour gusts and the boat lurching. Quite a ride!
We arrived at Stromness, a characterful stone built town, where we visited the museum and read of their history and stories - of the artic explorer John Rae and his statue here; the Earls of Orkney, the Norwegian settlements; Indian moccasins, a necklace made of human teeth collected by traveller John Rankin, Orkney was built on travellers of course.
 “From its central location between England and the Baltic, it became the great port of call for all the ships bound for the western ocean.“ Dairy Isaac Bennes 1789

- The first day we travelled over the north coast, where the strong gusts made powerful waves that crashed on the headlines. We visited the former 15th century home of Robert Stewart, half brother of Mary Queen of Scots, near the Brough of Birsay. We were surprised, Orkney is richly cultivated and cattle are its biggest export. 

On Wednesday we travelled south across the wild Churchill barriers and stopped to photo the high waves. Strangely too the Scapa flow was the base of the British navy during the great wars.
At the very moving Italian chapel we read of the Italians held as prisoners of war at Camp 60 in 1942, who built the barriers. They built the tiny chapel to offer hope while they suffered great hardships, and so ‘there was still a part of them that was free.’ A place of wonder and of spiritual peace built amid great hardships. Thank you.'

The Italian chapel
- At Robertson’s café at St Margaret’s Hope, we spoke to a very blonde young lady – Scandinavians were the ‘gift never given back’ she told us. Margaret was the granddaughter of the Scottish King Alexander III, who was on her way home to be crowned when she fell ill. Sadly this all led to many years of Wars of Succession. (not Wars of independence or Secession. Scotland is an older nation than England and 'Britain' is a recent invention.)

(Scotland as a nation is older than England - 9th century - by several decades. This matters because after the Maid of Norway died in 1290 leaving no successor to the Scottish throne, it was not "The Wars of Independence" that followed, but aggression by Edward I of England to take over by conquest. At that time Scotland's population was 30% of Britain's and is now 8%, which shows the suppression of Scotland culturally and economically by London) .)

- At Kirkwall the Old library has been refurnished and upstairs in the gallery is displayed the art of Sheila Scott and we notice that many had been sold. She also has impressive tapestries displayed at the Kirkwall airport. The shops here sell beautiful delicate jewellery based on Orkney’s natural landscapes. .(Sheila Fleet, Ortak, Aurora, Hume Sweet Hume.)  


Thursday at Scarra Brae the winds were howling hard and the seas were full of bright froths. This ancient Neolithic villages is 7,000 years old and is a miracle to behold. As the winds continued to blow, we took a guided tour of the impressive standing stones of the Brodgar of Ness – incredible to visit and quite mind blowing. The Orkney standing stones came from the different tribes of the islands – who brought them here perhaps by water. Did they bring them as symbols of working together? The stones sit on open land beside water with extensive panoramas. 
Ring of Brodgar
This ancient place is beside the Ness of Brodgar where they are busy excavating in the summer months, was discovered in 2003. It is believed that this settlement was an ancient temple that peoples travelled from far and wide to visit, and is older than Stonehenge.

"What a beautiful, spiritual place, where many ancient paths travel and stories meet."

Orkney is a rich source of artistry.
The composer Peter Maxwell Davies – ‘The sights and sounds of the islands, the brightness of mackerel shails, the calling of birds, the strumming and pounding of the wind and sea came to resonate in his music. It urges that we dance in step together to create peace and harmony among ourselves and with the natural world of which we are a part .‘

Scarra Brae
Stenness Standing stones
II   The Orkney islands are fiercely independent and proud of their Nordic stories and British mythologies and if you are looking for Scottish tartans, Gaelic or clans here, you'll not find them!

Scottish Mythology :  

The “Received opinion” – in studies by ancient history experts on our islands ignore Scotland with an emphasis on Irish and British mythology. This discovery at Brodgar has shown that civilization did not start southern Mediterranean, as has been the 'Received Opinion', and in fact travelled northwards. Ancient Greek mythology spoke of a ‘a circular temple at Hyperbores” – the Brodgar is well before Stonehenge. Did the megalith culture spread out from Orkney, or the Hebrides, and travel by skin boats 5,000 years ago, to Greece and even to Africa? - claims historian Stuart McHardy.

There are more Cuilleachs in Scotland than Ireland, ancient Scottish goddess of restoring life a system of belief based this dual goddess who has mountains named after her - her name meant ‘veiled one’; Ben Nevis, Lochnagar, Ben Wigins and Ben Cruachan. There is the Maes Howes cairn tomb at south of the standing stones, 
A Celtic speaking and belief system warrior tribal society lived in Scotland until the 18th century which was "rooted in the landscape and is truly indigenous.'

Woodie Guthrie “Some will rob you with six guns/ Some will rob you with a fountain pen.”

“Every nation has one central theme at it  score. In Canada it ‘survival’.” Margaret Atwood. In Scotland it is extremes and travel.

“Scotland’s future history”, Stuart McHardy
“If This is your Land, Where are your Stories” J Edward Chamberlin
“Arts and the Nation”, Alan Riach, Alexander Moffat, John Purser

Small personal café
Photos of stormy seas
Ruins of a castle
Magical stones
Indians moccasins
Necklace of teeth
Ancient remains and tombs

Empires collapse the distance separating the west from other places…In the 18th century we may have needed empires (or the Romans) – but today we have fast travel and fast internet communications –
Do we need huge centralized empires anymore? What we do need is independent nation states in larger trading blocks that co-operate on trade and security. We need a new treaty of union between Scotland and England - the old 1701 treaty is not fit for purpose anymore (if it ever was)