Joyful Journey: Part 17 – The Orkney Islands: Mainland, the largest island.

Note:  The Orkney Islands make up an archipelago consisting of over 70 islands that lies 9.9 miles north of the Scottish mainland where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. From Scotland, they are accessed by ferry.  

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The NorthLink ferry in Stromness harbour, Mainland Island, Orkneys.

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The NorthLink ferry leaving Stromness for the Scottish mainland.  

(The Island of Hoy in the background)

To spend time on the Orkney Islands is to step into the mists of time. 

Stones of Stenness

Stones of Stenness  (5,000+ years old)

These islands teem with the shades of ancestors who settled here over the course of thousands of years.  Of necessity, they were tough, resilient people who lived and loved; laughed and cried; worked and played while battling the ferocious winds and wild waves of the  North Sea and the North Atlantic ocean. Yet these residents of ancient times are not gone but very much alive in their present day Orcadian descendants and the wealth of physical evidence they left behind.

Thorfin ruins 2Remains of a Norse village on Brough of Birsay, Mainland Island (A.D.900 – 1,000)

Today’s inhabitants live contentedly surrounded by stone age monuments, burial mounds, chambered cairns, neolithic village ruins, middens, burial chambers and all manner of artifacts and physical evidence left by their  forerunners. To these they have added their own monuments and grave yards as each generation joins the long, long line of ancestors, pagan and Christian, Scots, Norwegian, Viking, Norse, Pictish, Neolithic, Paleolithic. The line stretches back thousands of years, and back, and back, into the mists of time.

 The west side of Mainland Island

Stromness

Stromness 1

Stromness, Mainland Island, Orkneys

Mainland is the largest of the seventy Orkney islands, only twenty of which are inhabited.  It is home to the Orkney capital, Kirkwall, as well as, much smaller, Stromness, the port serving the west of the island.  75% of Orkney’s 21,850 residents live on Mainland.  I did not have a chance to spend time in Kirkwall, on the east coast of the island while I was visiting, but was able to see a good bit of  west coast Stromness. This first account is only a tiny taste of the treasure trove that is Orkney.  The weather was wet or overcast while I was there which made for more somber photos.  In fact, the local people are the most welcoming and forthcoming that I have ever encountered and there is a wonderfully positive vibe about the place. The population of Stromness is around 2,200. 

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The NorthLink ferry dwarfs fishing boats in Stromness harbour

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Typical harbourside street in Stromness

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Typical alley in Stromness (Hostel entrance on right)

There is a great bus service from Stromness to Kirkwall and other parts of the island.  Ferries from Kirkwall run to many of the outlying islands.  The ferry to the neighbouring island of Hoy, the only mountainous island of the Orkneys, leaves regularly and makes a fine day trip possible.  During my few days there, I was only able to visit a few of the overwhelming number of places of interest.  Using public transport as I do, it will take many trips to cover everything on my list.

The Brough of Birsay

The Brough (from old Norse word meaning ‘fort’) of Birsay is a tiny, tidal island in the Sound of Birsay, cut off from the mainland at high tide.  A natural causeway was, until recently the route of access. However, a concrete walkway has now been constructed.

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The causeway leading to the Brough (Fort) of Birsay

The beauty of the pools, kelp and rocks on either side of the path made the walk a joyous experience.  Many of the rocks looked like an artists handiwork.

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An abandoned clutch of seabird eggs on Birsay beach

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Coloured rocks at Skaill Bay

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Coloured rocks on Birsay beach

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Remains of Norse village 900 -1000 A.D built over earlier Pictish houses

This tiny, tidal island was the religious and political seat of power for all of the Orkney Islands until the 12th century when control moved to Kirkwall, present day capital.  As far back as the 7000B.C. it was a place of importance and, centuries later, was the home of Thorfinn The Mighty and his affluent subjects.  Evidence suggests they had the luxury of a sauna.  The plaque at the site gives a wealth of information.

Thorfinn plaque

Plaque at site of Norse village remains

Thorfinn plaque 2

Close up of plaque section

In 1935, archaeologists uncovered a Neolithic Pictish symbol stone dating back to that time, 9,000 years ago. Sadly, it was broken into three pieces, but fortunately, the art work was still beautifully preserved.  It appeared to have been deliberately smashed.  The original was around 6ft tall and is now housed in the Scottish Museum in Edinburgh but a smaller replica marks the site where it was found.  Three Pictish warriors grace the bottom portion but the poor light and rain when I took the photo gave a less than perfect result. Rather than borrow someone else’s image, I am posting my own.  Archaeological finds have shown this little fortress was also the home of bronze brooch making.  It appears some of the designs were taken from ancient Pictish artwork, some of which can be clearly seen on the stone. Beneath the beautiful brooch-like designs is the sea eagle, important  to the ancient Picts as well as many later settlers.

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Pictish symbol stone (replica), 7,000B.C.

A small well from this early Pictish period has survived intact with later settlers making use of it.  

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Pictish well, 7,000 A.D.

church and monastery

Norse church from 7th century and remains of monastery that was built over a Pictish graveyard.  The Pictish symbol stone was found beside three graves inside the perimeter walls.

Picts lived here from Neolithic times until the 7th century A.D. when the Norse took over.  It is thought possible that Picts and Norse lived peaceably together for some time. That the early Norse Christians left the Pictish symbol stone within the walls of their monastery would give credence to that.

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Norse church and monastery with replica Pictish symbol stone.

The ancients are long gone but they live on in the wealth of relics they left behind. One gets the feeling that this, like the rest of the Orkney Islands, was a place of tolerance for the ‘other’.  There does not seem to have been wanton destruction of abandoned property.  Rather, the later residents either made use of what they inherited or worked around it – as the present day Orcadians still do.  While much was buried, it appears to have been treated with respect by the newcomers of the time. I think there can be nowhere else on earth where such a countless abundance of relics and ruins remain to tell us the stories of who we are. 

The Brodgar Peninsula

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Where two lochs meet

The Brodgar Peninsula is a narrow isthmus of land about 6 miles north of Stromness on Mainland Island.  It lies between two lochs, Loch Harray, fresh water and Loch Stenness, a brackish sea loch with water varying in salt content. It is the only one of its kind in Britain.  A narrow road bridge marks the place where the two meet.  The U.K.’s oldest standing stones, the Stones of Stenness, are situated close by and the single Watch Stone stands guard at the bridge entrance.  The photo above was taken when I was heading off the peninsula.

The Watch Stone

The Watch Stone marks the place where Loch Stenness meets Loch Harray

For thousands of years, this peninsula appears to have  been a place of great spiritual significance.  Concentrated in the 2 sq. ml. area are myriads of ancient, well-preserved sites that once were of great ritualistic importance.  Like most of the Orkneys’ ancient past, most of their history is shrouded in mystery.  For every  fact we know or can surmise, many more are lost forever in the mists of time.  Today, as the photo of the bridge above illustrates, life goes gently on amidst the echoes of those long gone voices.  It is surprising that the Orcadian people, most of whom are descended from Vikings, best known for raiding and pillaging, are averse to conflict and discord.    

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Celandines brighten up the, still bare, hedgerows. 

I took the bus from Stromness to the junction of the road leading to Brodgar.  Sea mist softened the landscape and gave my search for ancient places added atmosphere. Mainland Island is mostly farmland.  Most cattle were still inside in their winter quarters, but sheep were a common sight.  Wildflowers bloomed in profusion, especially wild primroses – more vibrant life among the long departed.

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Wild Primroses

sheep

Farmland on the way to Brodgar.

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Swan nesting beside Loch Stenness

About a quarter mile from the bus stop on the main road, the Stones of Stenness mark the place where the two lochs join and, in times gone by, the sacred land began. Less than a mile further on brought me to what are considered the most sacred site of its time, the Circle of Brodgar, the largest group of sanding stones in the area.  Many of the original stones are gone, lost to the elements.  Some have recently broken and fallen but enough of them remain to show us the perfect circle.  

Ring of Brodgar 2

Part of the Ring of Brodgar

The center is, today, covered with heather, winter brown when I was there but green in summer and purple in Autumn.  It is thought there are buildings under the topsoil, but, for fear of damaging the stones, no one attempts to unearth them.

more stones

Stones of the Ring of Brodgar stand guard over the communities below

This place, echoing with the silence of the long departed, is an awesome reminder of our own insignificance in the big scheme of things. It brings a feeling of unreality, especially when experienced alone and on a misty day.  This ‘out of this world’ feeling was abruptly interrupted as I reached the bottom of the hill on my way back.  There, across the narrow road,  small boats and trailers were lined up on the shore of Loch Harray, witness to recent angling activity.  Somehow, they seemed incongruous here, as though the present was abruptly thrust into the long ago.

boats Boats beside Loch Harray

On my outward walk I had seen an angler wading far out into the loch.  I have since learned that this body of water teems with fish, particularly pink fleshed trout and salmon.

angler

An angler heading in to shore

The examples of standing stones shown in the photos above are only a few of those in this small area and but a tiny fraction of those island-wide.  One reason the Orkneys have so many megaliths, is possibly because of the abundance of giant stone slabs littering local beaches. Tidal action has eroded sand dunes and exposed countless piles of large flat rocks of various kinds that show the bedrock formation of these islands.  This also explains why all but one of the group is flat. 

rocks, skaill bay

Skaill Bay

flat rocks on birsay beach

Rocks on Birscay beach (with some modern day ‘sculptures’ on display)

(Note the bank above where erosion continues)

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Warbeth beach with Hoy in the background.

How the ancients moved these giant slabs of stone has often been pondered.  A local Orcadian told me it is no mystery.  The stones were pulled along a path of seaweed.  That is an interesting theory.

How to get there:  From Glasgow, by public transport, take either train or bus to Thurso, taxi to Scrabster then ferry to Stromness.  Alternatively go to John o’ Groats and take ferry to Kirkwall.  A third option is to take ferry to Kirkwall from Aberdeen.  Or lastly, one can fly from Aberdeen to Kirkwall.

Where to stay:  For people on a budget, there are a few backpackers’ hostels.  I stayed at Brown’s Hostel in Stromness in early May and was very snug in my comfortable single room.  There is free wi-fi in the kitchen/dining room and one can get a phone signal there but not in the bedrooms.  I think the walls are too thick.  Outside, the signal is fine.  This hostel is small and cosy with a lovely relaxed air, no doubt due to the owner, Mrs Brown, a local Orcadian, who is a charming hostess.

For those looking for something more luxurious, there are several hotels on the island. Angling enthusiasts favour the Loch Harray Hotel situated on the shores of the loch so famed for its abundance of fish

However you get there and wherever you stay, the Orkney Islands will intrigue you.  One visit is never enough.

Links:    History, Archaeology and Geology

Wikipedia has comprehensive, scholarly articles on all three categories. The links below are to sites more suited to general readers.

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/neolithic-orkney/smith-text 

http://www.orkneyjar.com/history

http://www.landforms.eu/orkney/geology.htm

Joyful Journey: Part 16 – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom: The Ardnamurchan Peninsula.

Headland Of The Great Seas, The Ardnamurchan Peninsula

volcanic-rock-in-sanda-bayVolcanic rocks at Sanna Bay, North West Ardnamurchan. 

Born of fire and ice, first volcanic action then shifting glaciers during the last ice age, Ardnamurchan Peninsula, is a long, narrow strip of land stretching out into the Atlantic. measuring  50 sq. mls, ( 130 sq kms).  Part of Scotland’s Sea Kingdom, it is surrounded by several Southern Hebridean islands, many of which are visible on clear days including Coll, and Mull, most of the Small Isles – Rum, Muck and Eigg, as well as The Isle of Skye.

the-isle-of-eigg-with-rum-isle-in-the-background-from-sanda-bay

The Isles of Eigg and Rum with Skye in the far background from Sanna Bay

Historically, Ardnamurchan ( Gaelic translation: ‘headland of the great seas’) referred to the northern tip of the peninsula, known in past modern times as part of Argyll.  Today, it is taken to mean the entire peninsula and beyond, as far as Moidart and is now part of Lochaber, administered by the Highland council.  The area is mostly wilderness and is reknowned for its wild, unspoiled beauty. Lack of accessibility preserves the pristine nature of the place.  Roads are few and extremely narrow with large areas having not even a footpath.

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 North West Ardnamurchan’s only road as it winds through the volcano’s crater

The photo above shows the road running through the crater of an extinct volcano in North West Ardnamurchan, one of six on the peninsula, and the volcano last active in the U.K., 60 million years ago.

view-across-crater

View from inside  the crater of the volcano

This volcano, like the others in the region, erupted 60 million years ago.  Around 10 million years ago, during the last, or to be more precise, the present, ice age, glaciers moved through the highlands carving out glens, (Glencoe is a good example) and sheering off the tops of mountains as happened here.  This crater, or cauldron, was once far underground until the edges of the volcano were sheered off by moving ice. Only sharp rims remain. These internal structures of this and other volcanoes can be seen all over the peninsula.

crater-rim Crater rim

volcanic-rock-in-sanda-bay

Some of the black, volcanic rock ended up littered around the coast, as evidenced on the beach at Sanna Bay.

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Waves breaking on Sanna Bay

The coastline around the north-western tip of this peninsula is spectacularly wild and delightfully pristine. A 118 ft. (36 metre) lighthouse marks the most westerly point of mainland Britain and serves to warn seafarers of the rocky shore.  Built in 1849 and designed by Alan Stevenson, Robert Stevenson’s eldest son  and Robert Louis Stevenson’s uncle, the light was tended by keepers who lived in cottages adjoining the lighthouse. It was automated in 1988 and is now operated remotely from Edinburgh. Former keepers’ cottages now house a visitors center and a museum called ‘ Kingdom of Light‘ which details the history of the lighthouse. ardnamurchan-lighthouse

Ardnamurchan lighthouse

It is reputed to be the only Egyptian style lighthouse in the U.K.  but I have been unable to find a definition for this designation other than a description of lighthouses in Egypt and one that draws attention to the Egyptian-style design carved at the top of the Ardnamurchan stone tower.

 Computer game enthusiasts may be interested to know that part of ‘Sherlock Holmes:  The Awakened’ takes place in this lighthouse.

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Egyptian style motif carved at top of lighthouse

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Coastline near Ardnamurchan Point

North  Ardnamurchan has only about 250 permanent residents, although there are many homes owned by summer visitors. During the summer season, the population of Ardnamurchan increases temporarily to 2,000.  The locals mostly live a crofting lifestyle and live in self governing communities such as Kilchoan in the vicinity of Ardnamurchan Point. The Isle of Mull is less than a mile away and, from there, a small car ferry plies back and forth between Tobermory and Kilchoan.

ardnamurchan-ferry-dock

Ferry dock at Kilchoan, Ardnamurchan

Ardnamurchan is the wettest place in the U.K., closely followed by the Isle of Mull.  Surprisingly, the Isle of Coll which, on rare clear days, is visible from the peninsula, is the sunniest place in the country.  The remnants of a 500-year-old rain forest survive today.

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 Rain forest on Ardnamurchan

rainforest-2 rowan-tree

Rowan tree berries  at edge of rain forest

at-the-edge-of-the-rain-forrest-ardnamurchan

Low Tide At The Edge Of The Rain Forest

The whole of what is now known as Ardnamurchan is rich in rare fauna. Wild cats, pine marten and red deer are not uncommon, while the coast near the rain forest and beyond is home to sea otters and seals.  Other larger sea mammals such as dolphins, whales and basking sharks are often visible from shore. The forest itself is home to both golden and white-tailed or sea eagles.  These two species nest peaceably in the same area only because they keep out of each other’s hunting grounds.  Man could learn from this natural cooperation.

golden-eagle-over-ardnamurchan

A golden eagle high above the rain forest

Ardnamurchan has a rich history.  Evidence of visitors to the peninsula suggest people were coming here 10 thousand years ago. Ancient shell middens as well as pieces of flint from tools have been found.  Much later, in the 6th century, St. Columba brought monks from Ireland  to teach the local Picts about Christianity.  Other Irish settlers followed, bringing their Gaelic language with them. Today,  Ardnamurchan has the most concentrated number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland.  These newcomers from Ireland created a kingdom named ‘Dalriada‘.

After two hundred years, the Vikings came calling.

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Martyr’s Bay, Isle of Iona  where, in 806, Viking Raiders murdered 68 monks from St. Columba’s abbey.

While they are known to have attacked the monastery on the Isle of Iona in the early 9th century where they murdered every monk they could find, I found no record of such attacks in this area, though I suspect there were plenty.  What is reported is that, by the 12th century, many of the Viking raiders had settled, intermarried and become part of the fabric of life in what had evolved into ‘The Kingdom of the Isles’, peacefully united under King Somerled, believed to be of Norse/Gaelic origin.

In 2011, a Viking boat burial site, believed to be 1,000 years old, was discovered at Swordle Bay located at the North East side of Ardnamurchan.

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Site of Viking ship burial, Ardnamurchan, 2011(Photo by Pintarest.com)

Artifacts, including a sword with decorated hilt, buried with the boat and body, signify these are the remains of a Viking warrior. The fact that the boat is buried instead of being burned at sea is evidence of the influence of the Gaelic members of the community.  Many other ancient objects have been unearthed on the peninsula, with excavations and searches ever ongoing.

Today there are fewer residents here than of yore, but the crofting lifestyle and self-managing communities still echo ancient times. Architecture of the homes is mostly simple, functional, no frills, like the crofting lifestyle that persists.

Three photos of homes near Sanna Bayhome on ard.jpg

ard-home homes-at-ardnamurchan

How to get there:  From Tobermory on the Isle of Mull take the ferry to Kilchoan

Where to stay:  For holiday accommodation on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula visit:

 www.ardnamurchan.com

Day trips from Tobermory or Oban are run by MacBrayne’s Ferries.  An all-day  guided tour by minibus is a boon for those with limited time or transport.  Contact MacBrayne’s to reserve seat on bus.  Only eight places so book ahead.

The Lochaber area, which includes Ardnamurchan, is an archeological and geological wonderland and has been given European Geopark status, the 31st to be so designated. It is a fascinating treasure trove of fossils, ancient remains, incredible rock formations and various varieties of uncovered, yet to be discovered geological and anthropological delights. The subject is too big to allow me to even begin do it justice here, but I urge readers to visit the following site.

http://www.ardnamurchan.com/about-ardnamurchan/history

Most of the information contained in this post was either learned from a local guide or obtained from Wikipedia which provides a comprehensive bibliography of its sources.  I only used part of the data provided. For the complete Wikipedia offering, visit:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ardnamurchan

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Joyful Journey: Part 15 – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom: The Isle of Lunga, Treshnish Islands.

Somewhere over the rainbow lies

The Isle of Lunga, Treshnish Islands 

puffins 9

Puffins on Lunga

‘A green jewel in a peacock sea’ is Hamish Haswell-Smith’s apt description of the Isle of Lunga, largest of the Treshnish Islands, a rocky archipelago stretching for 7 kilometres (4.3 miles), and situated 12 k (7.5 miles) south east of Coll and 5k (3.1 miles) north west of Staffa.  It is made up of six islands and many small skerries. Lunga is the largest, 59.9 hectares.  (It should not be confused with the isle also named ‘Lunga’ which is one of the Slate Islands, another less picturesque group in the Southern Hebrides.) 

lunga 2     Lunga, Treshnish Islands

All of the Treshnish Islands are now uninhabited, but evidence of former settlers abound. Iron Age duns, remains of castles from Viking times (the 9th to the 13th centuries) and more recent ‘black houses’ prove the existence of communities surviving on these mostly barren, inhospitable islands despite there being no safe landing places. The name ‘Lunga’ comes from the Norse word for ‘longship’.

Black Houses ruins

Ruins of black houses  part of village abandoned in 1857

After visiting Lunga recently, I think of it ‘Puffin Paradise’. From mid-May to mid-August it is home to hundreds of nesting puffins who make their underground dwellings in burrows along the cliff edge, with a few settling in an ‘annex’ a short distance inland.  Even without the company of these delightful, personality packed, feathered visitors, this totally unspoiled island is well worth a visit.  

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puffins 5

The bright, showy colours on the beaks of these charming birds are only apparent during breeding season.  For the rest if the year they are a dull orange.

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Puffins live out at sea for most of the year but come ashore in breeding season which lasts from May to August.  They live and lay their eggs in burrows on top of cliffs.  The collection of burrows, which can run into the hundreds, is called a colony. They eat small eels, abundant in the surrounding sea.

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Puffin Colony with barnacle-rich Harp Rock in background

Harp Rock,  separated from Lunga by a narrow ‘gut’ or tidal strait, is, in winter, home to many barnacle geese.

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Puffin and burrows in the puffin ‘ annex’

Puffin on Lunga

Time Out

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Taking It Easy

One of the most endearing things about these hardy, little sea birds is their tolerance of humans.  While this is probably not true in other areas, on Lunga and surrounding islands, they have, over time, learned that, with humans around, predators will stay away.  While they are not so tame as to allow one to touch them or get into their ‘personal space’, they do allow people to get within a couple of feet. It is usual to see tourists sitting enjoying picnic lunches within arms length of these delightful summer visitors who carry on with their activities as normal.

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Sweet Talking

Puffins mate for life and return to the same burrow every year. They can be found on other islands in the Sea Kingdom, including Staffa, but the idylic setting and vast variety of other migrant birds that call Lunga home, for at least part of the year,  make this little isle THE best place in the region to meet and greet them. 

Many other avian varieties nest on Lunga during Spring and Summer including storm petrels; kittiwakes; Manx shearwaters and razorbills.  A guillimot colony is to be found a short distance from that of the puffins.  This magical place truly is as enchanting as that place ‘over the rainbow’ which so universally captivates people.

 

Lunga wildflowers

Wildflowers on Lunga

Lunga has been designated ‘a place of special scientific interest’, partly because of the many rare or endangered varieties of plant life native to the island.  These include primroses; birdsfoot; trefoil; orchids; sea pinks; sea thrift; yellow flags; tormentil and oyster plant.

Lunga

Cliffs adorned with rare plant life

cliff face on Lunga

boat and pontoon at Lunga

Tour boat with pontoon arriving at rock field.

There is no safe landing place on any of the Tresnish Islands.  On Lunga, a large rock field is the only possible place of access.  Even this is frought with difficulty.  Boats must be tied to a pontoon and floated in to land.  When the tide is high, as in the picture above, only dry rocks are exposed and passengers, if they have good balance, can make it across the rock field without too much trouble, but as soon as the tide turns, black volcanic basalt which, when wet, is slippery as ice and treacherous to even the surest footed, along with abundant seaweed, makes alighting a hazardous experience.

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Staffa Tours excursion boat  off  Lunga.

Regardless of the challenges in getting there, visiting this truly enchanting little isle is an unforgettable experience and a rare chance to spend time in a place way over the rainbow. 

Joyful Journey: Part 14 – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom: The Isles of Jura and Islay via Oban

The Isles of Jura and Islay

Stag in sillhouette on JuraStag on an eastern Jura hillside 

Jura is a nature-lover’s dream location.  Of all the inhabited islands in the Southern Hebrides, Jura is the least developed and the richest in wildlife.  There are under 200 human residents but over 5,000 deer. The latter roam at will but stay clear of humans as much as possible.  

Heron on Jura

Heron wading on Jura’s east coast

Sharing this wild habitat with the deer are stoats; hares; rabbits; wild, goats,otters and, in season,  around 100 species of birds.  Some, including bald eagles and herons and pheasants remain year round.

Pheasant on Jura

One of the many pheasants on Jura

Stag on Jura

Stag on Jura’s east side

Jura is not for the faint of heart.  Its one road, on the east side, stops far short of the north end of the island, after which, a track fit only for pedestrian travel is the only option.  Much of the island is covered in blanket bog with mountains and rocky terrain comprising almost all the rest.  The village where the majority of residents live is called Craighouse. This tiny hamlet is the ‘big city’ by Jura standards.

craighouse

Craighouse Main Street

I would be remiss if I did not share a picture of my quaint hotel room and this rather splendid bed.  I found the Jura Hotel extremely comfortable with good food and friendly staff.

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Hotel room, Jura Hotel

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The Jura Hotel, Craighouse, Jura

Wild daffodils on Jura

Small Isles Bay, near Craighouse

Salmon river on Jura

A Jura salmon river on east side of the island

Stone bench and daffodils

Churchyard, Craighouse, Jura

Stag on Jura

Watchful stag on Jura’s east side.

Jura Landscape

Looking westwards from the road on Jura

Road through wild Jura

Jura’s only road

Raised beaches were formed during the last ice age when the sea level suddenly dropped during a cataclysmic event. Over the centuries, the sand has become partly covered in sparse vegetation but the sand beneath remains barren. Today, even the highest tide does not reach the raised ‘platforms’.

paps of juraThe Paps of Jura and an example of the many raised beaches located on the island

Corryvreckan Whirlpool by Jura

The edge of the Corryvrekkan Whirlpool at the North West end of Jura

Corryvreckan Whirlpool

The Corryvrekkan Whirlpool off Jura  (see Joyful Journey:  Part 12 ) 

George Orwell, who lived in a remote cottage on Jura for many years where he wrote his famous novel ‘1984’, described his chosen island as ‘an extremely ungetatable place’.  This was true in 1940 and is still true today.  Limited access by sea due to the Corryvrekkan Whilpool at Jura’s north end, (see Joyful Journey:  Part 12), along with the rocky coastline around the rest of the island, means there is no direct sea link with the mainland. Travellers must got to the neighbouring island of Islay then cross the narrow strait on Jura’s west coast at an area known as Feoline, where a strange looking, ancient car ferry, – a motorised platform of sorts –  plies back and forth across the narrow strait dividing the islands.

 

jura, islay ferry

The red, white and blue ferry arriving at Islay from Jura (in background)

 

Islay

Queen of the Southern Hebrides’

Ferry dock at Port Askaig, Islay

Port Askaig, Islay

Though separated from Jura by a very narrow stretch of water, Islay, most southerly of the Southern Hebrides, could not be more different.  As with all the island in the Southern Hebrides, these neighbouring isles are nothing alike and both, while differing from each other, also bear no resemblance to any of the other islands in the region.  Scotland’s Sea Kingdom is amazing in its diversity.  Where Jura is wild and barren, Islay is a fertile gentle, orderly, very civilised place that still manages to retain a feeling of physical remoteness. The population presently numbers 3,000. coast gurd house and visitor centre

Coast Guard House and Visitor Centre, Port Askaig

port askaig post office and tourist centre

Port Askaig Post Office 

Port Charlotte, Islay

Lighthouse near Port Charlotte, Islay

Morning in Port Charlotte

Port Charlotte

(The larger, building in center of picture is home to the Port Charlotte Youth Hostel)

port charlotte main street

Port Charlotte Hotel

Buildings on Islay are all immaculately maintained, even the famous distilleries washed a gleaming white.  The simple, no frills architecture creating a relaxing, orderly air.  Perfect gardens and well kept farmlands along with beautifully maintained stone walls along many roads are in sharp contrast to the wildness of Jura and not replicated on any of the other Hebridean islands.  Strangely, all this perfection, which would normally give a rigid feel, exudes nothing but charm.

islay road

An Islay road 

hotel garden, bowmore

Bowmore, Islay

Islay view from bus window

View from bus window on Islay

Islay

Islay from bus window

Port Charlotte rocks

Rocky coast at Port Charlotte

Where to stay:  There is only one small hotel on Jura but they do allow tents in their grounds.  Islay has a handful of small hotels as well as a Youth Hostel where all ages are welcome.

How to get there:  There are several ways to get to the isles of Jura and Islay using public transportation.  From Glasgow, buses go to Kennacraig where some of them meet the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Port Ellen or Port Askaig on Islay.  Alighting from the bus at Askaig on the east coast of Islay, one can catch the local ferry across the narrow Strait of Islay to Feoline, situated at the south west corner of Jura, where a bus waits to take foot passengers to Craighouse, the nearest thing to a village on the island and where the Jura Hotel is situated. If a long bus journey on winding roads is a problem, a train goes from Glasgow to Oban, then a shorter bus journey takes travellers to Tayvallich where a high speed, privately owned ferry runs to Craighouse on Jura.  Alternatively, a bus goes from Oban to Kennacraig via Ardrishaig to catch the CalMac ferry to Port Askaig This route will probably require staying for a night in Oban.  

View from McCaig's Folly

Oban Harbour from McCaig’s Folly

North Pier, Oban

North Pier, Oban

(with McCaig’s Folly atop the hill)

These islands can also be reached by plane from London or Glasgow.  If going via Oban, it is well worth stopping over there for a day or two to take advantage of the myriad of things this ‘Gateway To the Sea Kingdom’ has to offer.  

Joyful Journey: Part 12b – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom – Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, Iona, Corryvreckan Whirlpool

The Isle of Staffa   –  (Home of Fingal’s Cave)

Staffa

The Isle of Staffa – a geological wonder

The name, ‘Staffa’, comes from an old Norse word meaning, ‘stave’ or ‘pillar’ island, named so by the Vikings since it reminded them of their houses which were  built of ‘vertically placed tree logs’.  (Wikipedia) In 1772, Staffa was home to a single family living on oats, barley, flax and meat from their few livestock. The island was abandoned as a dwelling place in the late 19th century.  Deer, goats, cattle and, most recently, sheep, have alternately  grazed there, but the island’s stewards, The National Trust For Scotland, removed the last of them in 1997 to allow the unique plant life to regenerate and the natural occupants, mostly birds,  to come and go and thrive in peace and plenty.

Cave EntranceSituated 6 miles (10 kilometres) West of the Isle of Mull, Staffa has an area of 82 acres (32 hectares), with the highest point 138 feet (42 metres) above sea level. This tiny island hosts a wealth of treasures to delight the hearts of scientists; amateur geologists; wildlife enthusiasts; historians; photographers; lovers of the music of Mendelssohn; as well as anyone who appreciates the awesome beauty and miraculous diversity of the Inner Hebridean Islands.   

Fingal’s Cave

Fingal's CaveDuring May and June, atop the island, puffins come in great numbers to breed and nest.  Staffa also becomes home to a variety of  other migratory birds and large sea mammals.  So, too, come the season’s tourists to experience this thriving wildlife sanctuary, ancient geological wonder and one of the gems in the Sea Kingdom’s crown.  I hope to join them this Spring. 

Outside the scientific community, perhaps the biggest attraction on Staffa is the world reknowned ‘Fingal’s Cave’, largely made famous by being the inspiration for Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, popularly known by the name of this cave that inspired him  The spectacular cavern, known to the ancients as, ‘The Cave of Melodies’, was seen by the composer who visited there when paddle steamer tours began. So haunted was he by the wild beauty of the area and the sounds he heard inside the cave, he was compelled to write an overture in an attempt to capture both the cavern’s beauty, grandeur and acoustics as well as the wonders beyond, in this mysterious, unique, varied and unbelievably beautiful sea kingdom.

Cave Entrance

Legend has it that The Giant’s Causeway, situated on Ireland’s NW coast and similarly constructed of basalt staves, was built by a giant called, ‘Fin’, and that Staffa is the other end of what was, 58 million years ago, a tidal highway between Ireland and Scotland.  A nineteenth century poet translated the Erse ‘Giant Fin’ as ‘Fingal’.

                                                                                          Mouth of Fingal’s CaveMouth of Fingal's Cave

The island is totally volcanic, with the basalt pillars resting on a basement of ‘tuff’, compressed volcanic ash and topped by a layer of volcanic debris and fragments of basalt.  Rich, fertile soil now covers the top layer.  The pillars are free standing and, over time, salt from the sea water seeps down behind those most exposed, eventually forcing them to break off.  Iona, a neighbouring island has beaches littered with black basalt fragments with pieces being found on shores for miles around. Formed around 58 million years ago, the sheer antiquity of the place is beyond words in the awesome department.  For those wishing more complete geological information, there are many suitable sites on the internet.  Wikipedia has an informative, interesting collection of facts that is not dry and within the capabilities of non-scientists.  Wikipedia was my main source of historical and geological facts.

Sounds are reproduced inside the cave and magnified by the acoustics provided by the vast, cathedral ceiling. During my visit, the sea was relatively calm and the water flowing and ebbing inside the cave was untroubled.  In spite of this, the glorious music of crashing waves was all around, relayed from an area of turbulence some distance away.  It was too late in the year for the hundreds of migratory birds and large sea mammals to be present in the natural orchestra that plays in Fingal’s Cave, but I hope to return when they do.

water music

Water Music

 Handrail

Weathered basalt columns,  (broken down by eons of crashing waves)

A handrail on the narrowest part of the path to the cave affords reassurance to nervous travellers.

On the way to the cave

Day Trippers on Staffa – The Way to Fingal’s Cave

The walk from the boat to the cave is surprisingly easy.  The broken pillars,worn down by tides make for pretty level going, the occasional slippery patch  being daubed with a non-slip substance. The staves have 3 to 8 sides, 6 being the most common.

The following video gives viewers a sense of the timelessness, wild beauty, and awesome grandeur of this tiny, 60 million year old island.

Staffa Tours

'Staffa' tour boat

 Leaving on the ‘Staffa’

One way to experience the Isle of Staffa is to take a trip on the Caladonian MacBrayne ferry  from Oban to the Isle of Mull, then join the Staffa Tours boat after a scenic drive the length of that island, as I did.  After an hour on Staffa, the small tour boat takes passengers to the Isle of Iona, there to spend three hours exploring before a return journey on the CalMac ferry to Mull and from there another ferry back to Oban.

From Staffa we sailed 7.4 miles South to the Isle of Iona.  Although such a short distance apart, like all the islands in this group, the difference between  these two islands is unbelievable.  More than feeling like a change of country, after Staffa, Iona felt like a different planet.  Water lapped gently on silver beaches, creating softer, gentler music than the cocophany on the basalt rocky island we had just left.  Small boats bobbed in the harbour and, away from the waterfront, sheep grazed and flowers bloomed.  After approaching Staffa surrounded by dark water and under glowering skies, we sailed into Iona’s harbour in a world of gentle blue and turquoise.  Across a narrow channel lies the Isle of Mull, largest and most populated of the Southern Hebridean islands.  While having a mystical, ancient, otherwordly vibe, perhaps because it is inhabited and in close proximity to the large, relatively busy neighbour, Iona lacks the wild, pre-historic feel of Staffa.

 

The Isle of Iona

”It seemed this small island was a shining beacon of learning, the arts and spirituality.” *

Iona 3

Iona Harbour looking across to the Isle of Mull

Iona is famous the world over – hailed as the cradle of Scottish Christianity.  Computer searches almost always start the island’s story in 563 AD when the Irish missionary, Columba, arrived there with twelve followers and founded Scotland’s first Christian church and monastery.  This over-simplifies history and does not do justice to this tiny dot in the Atlantic ocean that has drawn pilgrims from far-flung places seeking healing of their souls; a place to lay down the burden of life for a short time; a chance to celebrate their Christian faith; a spiritual experience or for more secular reasons like historical or geological; architectural interest or just curiosity.  It is thought likely that Iona was a sacred place long before Columba arrived.  A Bronze Age burial ground is still in evidence and an Iron Age Vallum (earthwork enclosure) surrounds Iona Abbey rebuilt on the site of Columba’s original 6th century community. The Vallum is evidence of an Iron Age hill fort.

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey

It is probably a safe assumption that the majority of visitors to Iona are there to visit the abbey which stands atop the foundations of the original, built in the 12th century on the site of that first 6th century monastery; some to marvel at the medieval parts of the building still remaining; others to walk in the footsteps of a Saint.  For those who wish a comprehensive history of the abbey, its times of peace and those of violence and bloodshed, there are several internet sites devoted to the subject.  Suffice to say here that Kings from near and far, noteables and even some Viking chiefs are buried there, their gravestones kept safe in the tiny museum housed in an 8th century chapel.  One Norse king became a monk at the abbey.

The island certainly has an other-worldy atmosphere.  Even though dozens of monks were slaughtered by the Vikings on Martyr’s Beach in 806 AD, I felt only a deep peace there.

Iona 1

Basalt fragments on the beach at Martyr’s Bay

The black, basalt fragments littering the beach were a reminder that this was only 8 miles from wild, rocky Staffa. The smooth rounded surfaces attested to the eons they had spent being polished by the waves.

In the mid 12th century, Somerled, King of the Isles, rebuilt the abbey, burnt by the Vikings during their last raid of Iona in 825 when the remaining monks were slain.  Many had fled to Europe or back to Ireland.  In 1200 AD, his son, Ranald, brought in Benedictine monks and also established an Augustine nunnery.  This was run as a retirement home for noble ladies of Argyll until its destruction during the Reformation. While the abbey and nunnery were dissolved and left in ruins, the magnetic draw of Iona as a place of importance persisted and in 1609 King James VI chose the island as the setting for the signing of the Statutes of Iona, designed to curb the power of the clans and their chiefs and to erase the cultural division between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland. For reasons unknown, the nunnery was never restored as was the abbey.  It remains the best example of medieval architecture anywhere in Scotland.

nunnery5

Nunnery Ruins and Ancient Graves

nunnery 1

Nunnery Ruins

nunnery 8

Nunnery doorway and ancient garden

Some of the gardens planted by the nuns of the island are still very much in evidence, some wild among the ruins, others lovingly tended by St Columba Hotel employees.

garden 2

St Columba Hotel’s Organic Garden

Abbey garden

Hotel Picnic Area

The road leading from the nunnery to the abbey and burial ground there is known as The Street of The Dead.  Of particular interest on this short route is a stone cross erected around 1500 AD.  Carved from one lump of granite, it is 3 metres high and known as MacLean’s cross.  Anna MacLean was prioress at the nunnery at that time so no doubt there is a connection to her or her prominent family.  Facing the Atlantic ocean, unsheltered and having been exposed to the elements for over 500 years it is in amazingly good condition.  

ancient cross

MacLean’s Cross  circa 1500 AD

The building behind the cross is a restored 8th century chapel now a museum that houses gravestones and other ancient, well preserved relics. 

St Columba brought more than Christianity to Iona.  He built a library and scriptorium where much if the Book Of Kells was written. Wikipedia describes the work as ‘a masterwork of Western calligraphy and the pinnacle of insular illumination.’ For safekeeping from Vikings and other spoilers, it was taken from Iona perhaps to Lindisfarne, also targeted by Vikingsand eventually to the safety of Ireland where it was completed, perhaps by some of those same monks who had fled from the Vikings on Iona back to Ireland. It now has pride of place at Trinity College, Dublin and is considered Ireland’s finest national treasure.

Today, the hub of Iona is still around the abbey as it was in 6th century.  Life is more bucolic than academic, but religious faith, while not as obvious, is still represented by the Iona Community.

Iona 6

Village and Iona Abbey 

Iona 2CalMac ferry leaving Iona with the Isle of Mull in the background.

* ‘It seems this small island was a shining beacon of  learning, the arts and spirituality’

Quotation from:  

http://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=975

The Corryvreckan Whirlpool

pool seascape

A report in the Scotsman newspaper described the Corryvreckan whirlpool as ‘one of Scotland’s most dangerous tourist attractions’. Third largest whirlpool in the world, it is situated in the Strait of Corryvreckan in the Southern Hebrides, Scotland’s Sea Kingdom.  Strong currents from the Atlantic flow into the Strait of Corryvreckan, a narrow channel separating the islands of Jura and Scarba,  while negotiating a 500ft deep chasm in the sea bed, made more treacherous by a 200 metre pinnacle of volcanic basalt  rock that rises from the sea bed off Jura.   At flood tide when water is in-feeding from the Firth of Lorne, the current reaches a speed of 8.5 knots (10 mph, 16km/h). All this creates massive disturbance in the water. Whirlpools, standing waves and all manner of strange and dangerous conditions are created in the fast moving water.  

Corryvreckan WhirlpoolThe chasm forms a cauldron above which the sea whirls, writhes and churns like a boiling pot being vigourously stirred.  Wind and the moon and the seasons affect things also, causing more even further violent disturbance.  When the whirlpool is at it’s wildest, standing waves, like the small one pictured opposite, can reach a height of 30 feet (9 metres) and the roar of the whirlpool can be heard 20 miles (16 km) away.  The author, H.G. Wells, lived in a remote cottage on the Isle of Jura close to the Corryvreckan where he wrote ‘War Of The Worlds’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ among other things.  It is little wonder that his mind was filled with dark forebodings.  Imagine a wild winter night with the roar of the maelstrom and the howl of the wind as his only company. The cottage is now available as a holiday rental.

Corryvreckan Whirlpool by Jura

The edge of the Corryvreckan Whirlpool by the Isle of Jura.  

Two stags can be seen on the shore.  Jura is home to 200 people and more than 5,000 deer.  Much of the island is blanket bog, suitable only for wildlife.

During an ebb tide, with the right weather conditions, scuba divers can explore the unusual topography of the sea bed under the whirlpool, but only highly experienced individuals should attempt this.  Even for the most seasoned, the Corryvreckan is considered one of the most dangerous dives in Britain.

The Corryvreckan

In September I visited the Corryvreckan, sailing through it in a boat designed specially for that task.  The Dolphin II, owned and operated by Sealife Adventures’s David Ainsley, marine biologist, deep sea diver, underwater photographer and skipper.  It was a thrilling experience.  Once into the maelstrom, it is impossible to take still photos.  The two small ones above, I captured from the videos I took.  Unable to stand or sit steadily due to the pitching and rolling of the boat, I sat with my right arm around a metal post and left arm aloft, hand tightly holding camera.  There was no way to check the viewfinder so the whole thing was random.  The resulting video is, I think,  spectacular and really gives viewers the sensation of being there.  Often the surface of the ocean does not look like water and it certainly behaves in ways I would not have thought possible.  Below is a short movie I made from various clips of video and the odd still picture.  This is definitely worth viewing.

Leaving the whirlpool, we passed the Fadda Light, a lighthouse near the edge of the Corryvreckan, there to warn sailors of the potential death trap ahead.  Many have drowned trying to navigate the whirlpool that has been deemed ‘unnavigable’ by the Royal Navy.

Fadda Light, Near Corryvreckan Whirlpool

Fadda Light

Sealife Adventures offers a wonderful combination of wildlife spotting before visiting the whirlpool.  Sailing through it was a not-to-be-missed experience.  However, there are times when the tide is ebbing and other conditions render the surface of the Corryvreckan relatively calm, disappointing some tourists.  Conversely, the whirlpool can be so active as to make it impossible to do anything but sit and marvel at it from a safe distance.

There is much legend and lore surrounding The Caillioch’s Cauldron, aka Corryvreckan Whirlpool.  Depending who you ask, ‘Caillioch’ translates from Gaelic as ‘witch’, ‘hag’ or ‘old woman’.  As well as all the above treats Sealife Adventure offers, tea and biscuits are served en route while skipper/owner of the Dolphin II, David Ainsley, recounts some of the ancient local stories of Vikings and maidens and and the good witch of the cauldron.

Porpoise IIThe Dolphin II at her home pontoon in Clachan Seil,  Firth of Lorne, Argyle 

Clachan Seil is a short drive from Oban.  For those using public transport, a bus leaves from the Ferry Terminal. I would advise calling Sealife Adventures beforehand as booking is required  The boat only holds twelve passengers, so turning up without a reservation may result in disappointment. A computer search for ‘Sealife Adventures, Clachan Seil’ will give you the home page jam packed with information, video, photos and all you need to know about the company, including contact details.  There are a variety of places to stay in Oban, from fine hotels to the excellent S.Y.H.A. .Oban Youth Hostel.

Note: Below is a link to sources with more detailedinformation about the causes and effects of the phenomenon know as the Corryvreckan Whirlpool.

http://www.whirlpool_scotland.co.uk/facts_html

http://www.scotsman.com/heritage/people-places/scottish-fact-of-the-week-corryvreckan-whirlpool-1-3015981

Joyful Journey: Part 12a – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom: The Corryvreckan Whirlpool

The Corryvreckan Whirlpool

pool seascape

A report in the Scotsman newspaper described the Corryvreckan whirlpool as ‘one of Scotland’s most dangerous tourist attractions’. Third largest whirlpool in the world, it is alternately known as Strait or Gulf of Corryvreckan located in the area of the Southern Hebrides, a.k.a. Scotland’s Sea Kingdom.  Strong currents from the Atlantic flow into the Strait of Corryvreckan, a narrow channel separating the islands of Jura and Scarba.  This sudden narrowing of the ocean’s path makes the water pick up speed and the current to strengthen.  Beneath this relatively narrow passage lies spectacular topography.  A  500ft deep chasm in the sea bed creates uncontrolled upheaval as the rushing water, having squeezed into the smaller are, then drops into the cauldron.  Conditions are made more treacherous by a 200 metre pinnacle of volcanic basalt  rock rising from the sea bed off Jura.   At flood tide when water is in-feeding from the Firth of Lorne, the current reaches a speed of 8.5 knots (10 mph, 16km/h). All this creates massive disturbance in the water. Whirlpools, standing waves and all manner of strange and dangerous conditions are created in the fast moving water.  

Corryvreckan WhirlpoolThe chasm forms a cauldron above which the sea whirls, writhes and churns like a boiling pot being vigourously stirred.  Wind, the moon and the seasons affect things also, sometimes causing even more extremely violent disturbance.  When the whirlpool is at it’s wildest, standing waves, like the small one pictured opposite, can reach a height of 30 feet (9 metres) and the roar of the whirlpool can be heard 20 miles (16 km) away.  The author, H.G. Wells, lived in a remote cottage on the Isle of Jura close to the Corryvreckan where he wrote ‘War Of The Worlds’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, among other things.  It is little wonder that his mind was filled with dark forebodings.  Imagine a wild winter night with the roar of the maelstrom and the howl of the wind as his only company. The cottage is now available as a holiday rental.

Corryvreckan Whirlpool by Jura

The edge of the Corryvreckan Whirlpool by the Isle of Jura.  

Two stags can be seen on the shore.  Jura is home to 200 people and more than 5,000 deer.  Much of the island is blanket bog, suitable only for wildlife.

During an ebb tide, with the right weather conditions, scuba divers can explore the unusual topography of the sea bed under the whirlpool, but only highly experienced individuals should attempt this.  Even for the most seasoned, the Corryvreckan is considered one of the most dangerous dives in Britain.

The Corryvreckan

In September I visited the Corryvreckan, sailing through it in a boat designed specially for that task, the Dolphin II, owned and operated by Sealife Adventures’s David Ainsley, marine biologist, deep sea diver, underwater photographer and skipper.  It was a thrilling experience.  Once into the maelstrom, it is impossible to take still photos.  The two small ones above, I captured from the videos I took.  Unable to stand or sit steadily due to the pitching and rolling of the boat, I sat with my right arm around a metal post and left arm aloft, hand tightly holding camera.  There was no way to check the viewfinder so the whole thing was random.  The resulting video is, I think,  spectacular and really gives viewers the sensation of being there.  Often the surface of the ocean does not look like water and it certainly behaves in ways I would not have thought possible.  Below is a short movie I made from various clips of video and the odd still picture.  This is definitely worth viewing.

Leaving the whirlpool, we passed the Fadda Light, a lighthouse near the edge of the Corryvreckan, there to warn sailors of the potential death trap ahead.  Many have drowned trying to navigate the whirlpool that has been deemed ‘unnavigable’ by the Royal Navy.

Fadda Light, Near Corryvreckan Whirlpool

Fadda Light

Sealife Adventures offers a wonderful package of wildlife spotting as well as visiting the whirlpool.  Sailing through the Corryvreckan is a not-to-be-missed experience.  However, there are times when an ebb tide and other conditions render the surface surprisingly calm, disappointing some tourists.  Conversely, the whirlpool can be so active as to make it impossible to do anything but sit and marvel from a safe distance.

There is much legend and lore surrounding The Caillioch’s Cauldron, aka Corryvreckan Whirlpool.  Depending on who you ask, ‘Caillioch’ translates from Gaelic as ‘witch’, ‘hag’ or ‘old woman’.  

As well as all the above treats, Sealife Adventure offers, tea and biscuits, served en route while skipper/owner of the Dolphin II, David Ainsley, recounts some of the ancient local legends of Vikings and maidens and the good witch of the cauldron.  I’ll let him tell the stories


Porpoise IIThe Dolphin II at her home pontoon in Clachan Seil,  Firth of Lorne, Argyle 

Clachan Seil, where the home pontoon of Dolphin II and the headquarters of Sealife Adventures is located can be reached from Oban.  It is a short drive, or for those using public transport, a bus leaves from the Ferry Terminal. I would advise calling Sealife Adventures beforehand as booking is required  The boat only holds twelve passengers, so turning up without a reservation may result in disappointment. A computer search for ‘Sealife Adventures, Clachan Seil’ will give you the home page jam packed with information, video, photos and all you need to know about the company, including contact details.  

There are a variety of places to stay in Oban, from fine hotels to the excellent S.Y.H.A. Oban Youth Hostel.

Note: Below is a link to a source with more detailed information about the causes and effects of the phenomenon know as the Corryvreckan Whirlpool.  Wikipedia is also useful

http://www.scotsman.com/heritage/people-places/scottish-fact-of-the-week-corryvreckan-whirlpool-1-3015981

Joyful Journey: Part 12 – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom: The Isle of Iona

The Isle of Iona

”It seemed this small island was a shining beacon of learning, the arts and spirituality.” *

Iona 3

Iona Harbour looking across to the Isle of Mull

Iona is famous the world over – hailed as the cradle of Scottish Christianity.  Computer searches almost always start the island’s story in 563 AD when the Irish missionary, Columba, arrived there with twelve followers and founded Scotland’s first Christian church and monastery.  This over-simplifies history and does not do justice to this tiny dot in the Atlantic ocean that, since ancient times, has drawn pilgrims and scholars from far-flung places seeking healing of their souls; a place to lay down the burden of life for a short time; a chance to celebrate their Christian faith; a spiritual experience or for more secular reasons like historical or geological; architectural interest or just curiosity.  It is thought likely that Iona was a sacred place long before Columba arrived.  A Bronze Age burial ground is still in evidence and an Iron Age Vallum (earthwork enclosure) surrounds Iona Abbey rebuilt on the site of Columba’s original 6th century monastic community. The Vallum is evidence of an Iron Age hill fort.

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey

It is probably a safe assumption that the majority of visitors to Iona are there to visit the abbey which stands atop the foundations of the original, built in the 12th century on the site of that first 6th century monastery; some to marvel at the medieval parts of the building still remaining; others to walk in the footsteps of a Saint.  For those who wish a comprehensive history of the abbey, its times of peace and those of violence and bloodshed, there are several internet sites devoted to the subject.  Suffice to say here that Kings, Lords, Clan Chiefs, assorted Norsemen including a Viking are buried there, some of their gravestones kept safe in a tiny museum housed in an 8th century chapel.  One Norse king became a monk at the abbey.

The island certainly has an other-worldy atmosphere.  Even though dozens of monks were slaughtered by the Vikings on Martyr’s Beach in 806 AD, I felt only a deep peace there.

Iona 1

Basalt fragments on the beach at Martyr’s Bay

The black, basalt fragments littering the beach were a reminder that this was only 8 miles from wild, rocky Staffa. The smooth rounded surfaces attested to the eons they had spent being polished by the waves.

In the mid 12th century, Somerled, King of the Isles, rebuilt the abbey, burnt by the Vikings during their last raid of Iona in 825AD, when the remaining monks were slain.  Many had fled to Europe or back to Ireland.  In 1200 AD, his son, Ranald, brought in Benedictine monks and also established an Augustine nunnery.  This was run as a retirement home for noble ladies of Argyll until its destruction during the Reformation. While the abbey and nunnery were dissolved and left in ruins, the magnetic draw of Iona as a place of importance persisted and in 1609 King James VI chose the island as the setting for the signing of the Statutes of Iona, designed to curb the power of the clans and their chiefs and to erase the cultural division between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland. For reasons unknown, the nunnery was never restored as was the abbey.  It remains the best example of medieval architecture anywhere in Scotland.

nunnery5

Nunnery Ruins and Ancient Graves

nunnery 1

Nunnery Ruins

nunnery 8

Nunnery doorway and ancient garden

Some of the gardens planted by the nuns of the island are still very much in evidence, some wild among the ruins, others lovingly tended by St Columba Hotel employees.

garden 2

St Columba Hotel’s Organic Garden

Abbey garden

Hotel Picnic Area

The road leading from the nunnery to the abbey and burial ground there is known as The Street of The Dead.  Of particular interest on this short route is a stone cross erected around 1500 AD.  Carved from one lump of granite, it is 3 metres high and known as MacLean’s Cross.  Anna MacLean was prioress at the nunnery at that time so no doubt there is a connection to her or her prominent family.  Facing the Atlantic ocean, unsheltered and having been exposed to the elements for over 500 years it is in amazingly good condition.  

ancient cross

MacLean’s Cross  circa 1500 AD

The building behind the cross is a restored 8th century chapel now a museum that houses gravestones and other ancient, well preserved relics. 

St Columba brought more than Christianity to Iona.  He built a library and scriptorium where much if the Book Of Kells was written. Wikipedia describes the work as ‘a masterwork of Western calligraphy and the pinnacle of insular illumination.’ For safekeeping from Vikings and other spoilers, it was taken from Iona perhaps, briefly, to Lindisfarne, a tidal island off the northeast coast of England. This less prominent monastic community was also targeted by Vikings, but the Book of Kells was taken to the safety of Ireland where it was completed, perhaps by some of those same monks who first created it before fleeing from the Vikings on Iona back to Ireland. It now has pride of place at Trinity College, Dublin and is considered Ireland’s finest national treasure.

Today, the hub of Iona is still around the abbey as it was in 6th century.  Life is more bucolic than academic, but religious faith, while not as obvious, is still represented by the Iona Community.

It is described as ‘a thin place’, meaning a place where there is only a flimsy veil between this world and that of those now passed to the realm of spirits.   Certainly something extraordinary has drawn and continues to draw legions of people to this tiny, pleasant but relatively unremarkable looking island.

Iona 6

Village and Iona Abbey 

Iona 2CalMac ferry leaving Iona with the Isle of Mull in the background.

* ‘It seems this small island was a shining beacon of  learning, the arts and spirituality’

Quotation from:  

http://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=975