Life finds a way

If you’re a fan of the Jurassic Park films, you’ll remember the scene where the park’s owner John Hammond (aka Richard Attenborough) trys to reassure Dr Ian Malcolm (aka Jeff Goldblum) that there’s no need to worry about the park’s dinosaur creation programme. Totally unconvinced, Dr Malcolm replies with those prophetic words, “Life finds a way.”  And it certainly did in that film! Whilst in some places humankind is busy destroying vast numbers of species, in others, nature makes a come-back as soon as our backs are turned.

For very often life does find a way, with or without human help, and in some of the unlikliest of places. Rock becomes home to lichen and even trees. Trees become home to fungi of every shape, size and description. The tiniest foothold is all it takes and growth begins, however precarious. Given half a chance plants will make a go of it. And we need them to do just that! We need them for food and for our health. Go for a walk in the countryside and you’ll see trees draped with Old Man’s Beard and other lichen, telling you the air is clean and free from pollutants.

And bogs. You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of bogs in Scotland, but before you curse them for your wet feet, it pays to remember that sphagnum moss takes in, and holds onto, the nitrates that are so harmful to humans. And as long as the bog remains wet enough, these won’t be released back into the atmosphere. We need our bogs!

Old Man’s Beard lichen

Sphagnum moss has also been used for centuries as an antiseptic dressing for wounds. Never more so than during World War I. Absorbant and extremely acidic (think preserved bog bodies), it inhibits the growth of bacteria. The horrific prevalence of sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused by the body’s response to infection, was killing more men than their actual wounds did.  And even by December 1915, field hospitals were running out of bandages. The situation was critical as the numbers of wounded continued to rise unabated.

The work of two Scots, eminent botanist Isaac Bayley Balfour and military surgeon Charles Walker Cathcart, saved the day. They identified the mosses that served best to staunch bleeding and to heal wounds. Unsurprisingly, both were mosses of which there was no shortage in Scotland! Their research saved the lives of many young men. Which makes it all the more heart-breaking that Cathcart’s only son died of his wounds during that barbaric war.

Mr Grumpy Fungi

We know that the human race is wiping out other species faster than ever before. But what if, ironically, our civilisation, our way of life, was the one to go first, and nature (think nettles, brambles, bracken and dandelions) ended up taking over the world? At school we read John Wyndham’s terrifying Day of the Triffids and I don’t think I ever quite looked at some plants in the same way again! Yet we need plants for our survival far more than they need us. So rather than have a Day of the Triffids senario, we really need to be kinder to the natural world, and hopefully it’ll continue to be kind to us!

As old as the hills: the North West Highlands Geopark

Time and tide may wait for no man, but the hills do. And in Scotland we have some of the most magnificent hills and mountains in the world. Mountains that were forced into being over 400 million years ago when three continents collided, creating a mountain chain of umimaginable proportions. Mountains that, over millenia, have been worn away by ice, wind and water to reach the forms we see today.

Sadly there’s no Tardis to take us back to witness those times, but the story of the Earth’s formation can be read in the physical landscape itself. One man in particular came to understand the language of the rocks and that was James Hutton (1726-1797). Hutton was one of those remarkable Scots who fuelled that great intellectual and scientific movement, the Scottish Enlightenment.

Prof Lorna Dawson, ‘soil sleuth’.(Photo: Ross Johnston)

It was an exciting time when many people started to look at the world with new eyes and came to a new understanding of how the world had been shaped, and how it worked. They not only discovered the patterns at work within the natural world, but also those which applied to the social structures that shaped human life and society.

Hutton’s work was so groundbreaking that he would become known as the Father of Geology. And it still impacts on us today, even if not always in the most expected of ways! Take, for example, the work of forensic geologist, Prof Lorna Dawson, of the James Hutton Institute, whose work in soil forensics has brought some very vicious criminals to book, both here and around the world.

The view from Knockan Crag, NWH Geopark

Reading the landscape isn’t always straightforward, but a visit to the North West Highlands Geopark can help you understand some of the processes involved in the creation of modern Scotland. And offer one of the best holidays you can imagine!

The North West Highlands are a part of Scotland that I’ve visited often and love deeply. In this month’s iScot Magazine article I look at some noteable places in the geopark and at why they are important to us all. If you don’t know this part of the world, it’s an article that will give you plenty of ideas and much food for thought. And, I hope, the desire to head to the hills for a visit. They’ve been around for a very long time and are just waiting for you!

Glorious Clachtoll Bay

Glen Fyne

The path to the tree house

The clocks have gone back and the nights are definitely drawing in. Autumn is firmly in place and the trees are looking glorious in their shades of red, russet and gold.

With the days noticeably shorter, those long days out-of-doors are over until next spring. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still places that can be visited and enjoyed in the shorter daylight hours available. From where I live, Glen Fyne and the surrounding area is just such a destination. Starting at the walkers’ car park by the old Telford Bridge at the head of Loch Fyne, or from the Oyster Bar car park, there are walks aplenty to choose from.

The shortest of these walks takes you firstly to Kilmorich graveyard, a medieval burial ground, then on to the ‘Tree Hoose’, half a mile or so further up the hill. As the tree house is full-size, there won’t be many adults or children who won’t enjoy a visit. From the upper platform, set in the canopy of a large ash tree, you can savour the long views up and down the glen, or let your imagination run free and be a pirate in the crow’s nest of a many-masted galleon!

The burial ground at Kilmorich is very ancient and first appears in written records in the mid-13th century. Although once home to a parish church dedicated to an Irish saint, St Muireadhach, nothing remains today of the medieval chapel. Interestingly though, the path up to the tree house is on the route of an old ‘coffin road’. These coffin roads were used in the days when only certain churches had burial rights (as Kilmorich had) and the coffins of the dead often had to be carried long distances to their final resting places.

The path follows the line of an old coffin road

The D-shaped enclosure around the burial ground dates from the 19th century, while the present day church of Kilmorich, situated in Cairndow, was built in 1816. But the old graveyard wasn’t totally forgotten and some of the trees around it are thought to have been planted by parishioners in 1819. According to Kirk Session records, a group took young trees to the old kirkyard to mark its special place in their lives, planting them ‘for to ornament the place where their Relations who have gone before them & their Forefathers have been Deposited’.

Also in the 19th century, a late 15th century font, complete with an incised galley, was removed from the old graveyard. It was then forgotten about until it found again very many years later at Inveraray Castle. It was finally returned home in 1990 and can now be seen in the vestibule of Kilmorich church in Cairndow.

The incised galley on the ancient baptismal font now in Kilmorich church in Cairndow

There are a host of other walks and bike rides up and down this lovely glen and some take you well up into the surrounding hills and mountains. And you certainly won’t go hungry, as there are eating places here too. There’s a great café at the Tree Shop, which sits beside the Here We Are centre in Clachan. Then there’s the smoked seafood of your choice at the Oyster Bar, or the beer of your choice at Fyne Ales, or over in Cairndow the Stagecoach Inn.

When winter approaches and the weather can be daunting, even a few hours out-of-doors can be just the boost we all need. So get a map and see what’s near you that’s worth exploring, and go for it!

‘Neolithic chic’ – Coillabus on Islay

Holiday accommodation comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes the reality turns out to be not quite as it seemed in the brochure, while on other occasions you arrive to find it’s even better than expected. Coillabus on Islay was one of those, especially when we arrived at the lodge and saw the breathtaking 180° views over the north-west of the Oa. In fact, we could even see all the way along Glen Astle to the Rinns of Islay lighthouse on the small island of Orsay!

Set into the hillside, the lodge is almost invisible from the road, with curving stone walls and a turf roof that blend into the surrounding landscape: “Traditional black house meets neolithic with a healthy dose of contemporary chic”, as one description imaginatively puts it! And that’s not far wrong. Even the instructions on how to get there were magical: “The road becomes narrow with twisty corners in places. Continue past…the house with hens and other livestock.  Go up round past Connachan’s Grave, a chambered cairn on your left…then up a really steep bend past a house with…more hens who might be responsible for your breakfast eggs”!  How often do you get directions like this!

An example of a traditional black house of the kind that inspired modern-day Coillabus

The Oa is home to a large RSPB reserve as well as a wealth of archaeological and historical sites. The American Monument, visible from miles around, marks the tragic loss of life when two US troop ships sank off the peninsula in 1918. And, as on so many Scottish islands, there are signs of old abandoned settlements, many from the time of the Clearances, when landlords forced tenants to leave their homes. This area once supported many more families than it does today.

However, there is continuity with the island’s past as the Coillabus lodges lie within a family-owned working hill farm and were built with local stone by local craftsmen. The modern, environmentally-friendly underfloor heating makes for a warm and comfortable stay. We were fortunate to have good weather during our visit, but the lodge is so well insulated the weather almost didn’t matter! In fact, you could say it’s a ‘weatherproof’ house where the drama of a storm raging outside would be thrilling to watch through the magnificent panoramic windows.

In the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at some of the ways architects are taking the best from the past and combining it with modern technology.  Coillabus, and properties like it, give the lie to the notion that eco-friendly living means a primitive existence! In Scotland we’re well on the way to meeting our electricity needs through renewables. Using air and ground source heat pumps, it’s great to see a growing number of buildings where the old meets the new to create something both sustainable and comfortable – and in this case very much in keeping with a glorious island setting. Coillabus is undoubtedly an example of the way to go!

Coillabus Ecoluxury Lodges

Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean & Clyde Ferries

Isle of Islay

Outlander, The Eagle and the Devil’s Pulpit

Finnich Glen, The Whangie and the Auld Wives’ Lifts all feature in October’s iScot

Question: What’s the connection between Outlander and the lost Roman legion in the film The Eagle?

Answer: The dark, dank and decidedly creepy gorge in Finnich Glen, that comes complete with a  curious sandstone rock known as the Devil’s Pulpit!

Imagine you’re a film producer and you need a location that’s shadowy, murky and menacing. Somewhere timeless and atmospheric. Secret, subterranean and definitely spooky. The gorge at Finnich Glen, also known locally as the Devil’s Pulpit, fits the bill exactly.  And so it was that it came to feature in both the Outlander television series and the film The Eagle.

South of Drymen, the gorge is 100ft deep, at times very narrow, with sheer, dripping moss-covered walls. An old Victorian stone stairway is one way down to the bottom of the gorge. Over the decades the steps have slipped and become precipitous. Winter gales have brought down trees, some of which have crashed onto the steps, dislodging sections. But despite that it’s still possible to get down as ropes have been strung across the most difficult sections.

Several scenes in the feature film The Eagle, starring Jamie Bell, Channing Tatum and Donald Sutherland, were filmed in the gorge. The plot is closely based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, which was written in 1954, and has remained popular ever since. It was the first in a very successful series of stories set in Roman Britain and recounts the tale of the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion. A mystery, and a matter of heated debate among historians, to this day.

Diana Gabaldon’s phenomenally popular Outlander series, has caught the public imagination and interest in its filming locations in immense.  Finnich Glen is the setting for St. Ninian’s Spring, where a drink from the sulfurous water acts as a type of lie-detector.  Should Claire lie to Dougal after drinking it, she will suffer dire consequences. However, she tells him again that she is not a spy and remains unharmed, at which point Dougal finally accepts this as the truth. This ‘truth forcing spring’ has brought more and more visitors to Finnich Glen.

But what does the devil have to do with it? And why his pulpit? The answer may lie close-by in another strange and outlandish geological feature known as the Whangie, a very popular local walk and climb. Legend has it that Auld Nick, the devil, finding himself very late for a meeting at the local witches’ coven, rounded the mountain so swiftly that his tail sliced through the hillside, creating the bizarre cleft called the Whangie. Perhaps the Devil’s Pulpit was where he had been lurking with dubious companions beforehand. Who can tell!

Gorge walking in Finnich Glen

The gorge is a natural sandstone canyon created over millennia by the fast-moving waters of the Carnock Burn. Over-topped by a canopy of trees, the gorge can feel very enclosed and shut-off from the outside world. It can also be strangely silent, with no other sound than that of the ever-present rushing water.

And it should be mentioned that, in-between being a spectacular film location, Finnich Glen is an equally spectacular gorge-walking and outdoor adventure site.

It’s not necessarily a place for the fainthearted, but if Claire, Esca and Marcus could all get there and live to tell the tale, then so could you!

Perspective

In 1986 the Guardian newspaper showed a powerful advert in which a skinhead looks as though he’s about to rob a pedestrian. Then the whole scene is revealed and rather than being a thief, the skinhead is in fact saving the man’s life, dragging him to safety as a pile of bricks crashes down from the scaffolding overhead.

It was an excellent example of how seeing only half the picture, or hearing only half the story, can cause us to jump to some very wrong conclusions indeed. Called Points of View, it demonstrated how imporant it is to get the whole picture in order to really understand what’s going on. It obviously made a lasting impact on me, for thirty years later I still remember it vividly, and its message.

Sometimes all it takes is a slight shift in perspective and a whole new scenario opens up in front of us. Take the time to look at things from a different standpoint, and you’ll find a lot can change.  In a way it’s a bit like the fake news that’s so prevalent today. We need to step back and look at the other side of the coin before believing what we’re being told to believe. What we’re being presented with as ‘truth’.  But we’re intelligent beings. We can think. We can ask questions. Ask for proof before simply accepting the newspaper headlines

A change in perspective can also clarify the reasons things are the way they are. Think, for example, of the view from a plane as you come in to land. From above, you can see the neat patterns of fields and houses, appreciate the orderliness that we can so easily miss at ground-level. Sometimes things aren’t as random as we thought they were.

One of my favourite views is from the Skye Bridge. Not quite the same as being in a plane, admittedly, but even that elevation opens up so much, and gives views for miles around. In the midst of all that grandeur sits tiny Eilean Bàn. With a reputation for being haunted, it’s home to a Stevenson lighthouse and the former lighthouse keepers’ cottages that became the final residence of the author Gavin Maxwell. Maxwell became known world-wide for his Ring of Bright Water trilogy, books that opened the eyes of millions to the wonder of otters and the natural world.

It could be easy to overlook Eilean Bàn as the mighty Skye Bridge soars overhead. But it’s an island with a long and interesting history, and a visit to the Gavin Maxwell Museum or the island’s impressive wildlife hide is a worthwhile day out.

I’m glad that Maxwell’s life and work is celebrated here. I grew up with his books and laughed – and cried – through the eponymous film starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.  And I’ve paid many a visit to Sandaig, the beautiful bay south of Glenelg, that was Maxwell’s home for so many years and immortalised as the ‘Camusfeàrna’ of his books. Maxwell was a gifted, but troubled and complicated man. And yet, despite being a mass of contradictions, he did so much to bring understanding and love of the natural world to many people.

In this month’s iScot magazine I look at all this, as well as the history of the surrounding settlements and islands. Everything from vicious Vikings, to a startling 19th century plan to turn Kyleakin into a city called New Liverpool! Now that really did surprise me. That the plan ultimately came to naught, however, didn’t. From Kyleakin to New Liverpool? I’d have to admit that that’s one shift in perspective I just can’t quite manage to make!

 

Eileach an Naoimh

The striking remains of the beehive monastic cells on Eileach an Naoimh

There’s something about islands. That unique sense of wholeness, containedness, apartness. A sense that you can really get to know a place where the borders are so clearly defined by the surrounding water. It’s not a new idea. And it’s one that has been used often in literature.

But islands have also long been seen as places of retreat from the demands of life. As places of sanctuary, where peace and tranquillity allow time for reflection and decision.

Early Christian monks favoured islands. Partly because the sea was the way people travelled, especially between Ireland and the western seaboard of Scotland. It’s not surprising therefore, that so many Scottish islands have been – and some still are – home to monasteries, chapels and religious settlements of many different shapes and sizes.

Though these early travellers still had to live – grow food, build shelter, survive wind, weather and ill-health – so not easy in any physical sense, as few lives were in the past, but lives with a purpose, which in all probability, made a difference.

Today many people choose to visit these remote islands to see where these early Christians lived. What is it draws us? There’s the excitement and sense of adventure of the journey at sea in a small boat. Then there’s an interest in history and archaeology, for it’s fascinating to see how others lived in the past without the many resources we see as essential to life today. Life pared down to the minimum.

But there’s also something about setting foot on an island knowing that others have done exactly that all those centuries ago and felt this to be a special place. A holy place. A place where they could live and talk to their God. Be apart for a while and re-connect to what is essential in life. I suspect that’s a longing many of us feel at times throughout our lives.

Eileach an Naoimh is a good example of one of these islands. Favoured by Brendan, Columba and also his mother, Eithne, it was seen as especially holy – hence it’s lasting name, which means Rocky Island of the Saint(s). A visit there is one that offers a real adventure if you chose to reach it by crossing the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, as we did.

And it’s a place to explore and spend time on. To stop for a while and ponder on the lives of those men and women who chose to live here in the past. And perhaps even to wonder what they would make of our lives today? Of our priorities and beliefs? Of our feelings and actions towards our fellows? What would they think of us, I wonder? Now that would be interesting!

You can read more about this fascinating island in my article in the current issue of  Scottish Islands Explorer

Old Ways through the Glens: Stoneymollen Coffin Road

We may not always realise it, but it’s surprising how often we’re following in the footsteps of General Wade or Thomas Telford when we travel around Scotland; particularly the further north we go. And though their roads were fairly basic, they were undoubtedly better that what went before, when the majority of people had no alternative but to walk and roads were virtually non-existent.

War, and then commerce, led to gradual infrastructure improvements in the 18th and early 19th centuries: initially under the military and General Wade, later Telford and the Highland Roads Commission. The stories of these two men and their achievements make for fascinating reading. Especially Thomas Telford, a Border Scot, who was the finest civil engineer of his day.  This is at the heart of my article in June’s edition of iScot magazine.

Stoneymollen Coffin Road

However, humans have always been on the move and, from necessity, have found ways to get about. And so the article also looks at drove roads, drowned roads, and one type of old road that served a very particuler function: coffin roads. Though I have to say right away that they weren’t ‘roads’ in the sense we understand them, rather narrow tracks or paths.

The Stoneymollan Road is a former coffin road that runs from Balloch, at the foot of Loch Lomond, to the burial ground at St Mahew’s Chapel in the clachan of Kirkton, not far from Cardross. In Medieval times only certain churches had burial rights and these churches were often few and far between. Many rural settlements were remote from a church and so people were often faced with a long trek to the nearest cemetery. And the coffin had to be shouldered and carried the whole way!

Stoneymollen Coffin Road

Over time, numerous eerie superstitions became attached to these old tracks: the coffin must not touch the ground or the deceased’s spirit would return to haunt the living; the corpse’s feet must face away from their house or they could return to haunt their former home; the coffin bearers must not step off the path onto neighbouring farmland or the crops would be blighted; spirits liked to travel in straight lines, so the paths often meandered; spirits could not cross running water, so the paths crossed burns; you could lose a following spirit at a crossroad, so the route would have a crossroad!

The crumbling shell of Woodhall House

Today the old Stoneymollan Coffin Road is part of both the Three Lochs Way and the John Muir Way and links Loch Lomondside with the Firth of Clyde (and vice-versa). And the people you’re most likely to meet today will be walkers, joggers and even cyclists!

Setting off from Balloch we noticed the crumbling remains of Woodhall House, with an array of rusty iron gates, nearly invisible under shrubs and trees: almost like the hedge of thorns that grew up around Sleeping Beauty. This area used to be full of such grand houses even though the settlement at Balloch itself was small. But Balloch had its pier, and boats regularly plied the waters of Loch Lomond. Later came the railway, which for many years ran right up to the pier, until that spur was closed in 1986.

The hidden gates to Sleeping Beauty’s palace?

The track goes upwards and the higher the track, especially atop Stoneymollan Muir, the better the views back over Loch Lomond. When you reach the highest point a spectacular panorama opens up westwards, over towards Cowal and, if you’re lucky with the weather, sometimes even as far as Arran. There is a tremendous sense of space and openness on this track: a real sense of freedom.

Then it’s downhill all the way to St Mahew’s Chapel in Kirkton. This lovely old building was restored in the 1950s, but it’s history goes back to at least 1467, and it’s possible that there may have been a Christian missionary building on this site from the early sixth century onwards.  For almost two centuries the building served as a school prior to its restoration, but the site was one that had long been held sacred, and is so again today.

When you come to Cardross at the end of the walk, you can take the bus or train back into Glasgow. While if you walk the route from Cardross to Balloch (ie west to east and sometimes easier in the prevailing westerly wind), you can likewise take the bus or train from Balloch back into town: but don’t forget to check the timetables. Alternatively get a friend to pick you up from whichever end you arrive at!

Boo!

But watch out for any spirits that might just still be lingering along this old coffin road!

 

 

Behind the scenes at the museum with Dr Elspeth King

What is it that makes us who we are? What are the experiences that shape and define us? The circumstances that create our beliefs and values? What are the factors that have made Scotland the country it is today; the country we call home? Intriguing questions that lead in turn to the question of how we preserve our identity, both as individuals and as nations. How do we protect the integrity of our past, our history, our heritage? And crucially, who is it that decides what is important, or significant enough to be preserved? Why are some people and events remembered and celebrated, while others are brushed to one side, forced into obscurity? These were some of the questions I put to Dr Elspeth King, director of the Stirling Smith Museum, and her answers were enlightening.

T.S.Smith’s remarkable painting The Pipe of Freedom, 1836, celebrated the abolition of slavery in America

A woman of great erudition and insight, Elspeth firmly believes that museums are at the very heart of our national memory: the key to knowing and understanding our identity. They hold the objects that mark the great moments in our history. The moments that had a lasting impact on our parents and grandparents and beyond. Museums preserve, display and interpret artifacts that are at the very core of our lives, our values, our passions. Our tangible, but also our intangible, inheritance. And reflect our place in the world. From local to global.

We need museums. But we need to ensure the history they portray really is our history. Museums, like newspapers and television, can be only too easily manipulated to distort history, just as they were by the totalitarian regimes of which there were no shortage during the 20th century! Yet it’s a sad truth that most countries today still have their own ruling elites, those people who use their power and wealth to influence the selection and interpretation of artifacts, to create a view of history that reinforces their own position of dominance and control.

The oldest football in the world, at home and in pride of place in the Stirling Smith Museum

Stop for a moment and just think how many national museums are littered with antiquities looted from more ancient, but poorer, nations. Antiquities stolen on an international scale by European empire-builders, with the British more often than not setting the worst example. There’s nothing noble about theft under the guise of imperial aggrandisement. It would be interesting to know whether any of these national institutions are hurrying to give back what they stole: the on-going saga of the Elgin Marbles being a very sorry case in point!

But local museums are a very different kettle of fish and more likely to genuinely reflect the history and heritage of the communities they serve. Yet they are all to often neglected and underfunded. Why? Is it because the holders of the purse-strings are exactly those people who control the decisions about who or what is important, and who ensure that it is their elitist view that prevails – whether in the world of art, music or museums?

The Smith’s very own Wine Bottle Lunette by GlasWorks

It’s a challenging situation for the dedicated staff and volunteers of local museums, and there are a lot of issues involved. But, as I hope I demonstrate in this month’s iScot article, there are countries like Estonia and Australia where museum staff are showing clearly that different attitudes are possible. There’s a whole lot going on out there! And here in Scotland, Elspeth King has been at the forefront of saving the past that really is ours from oblivion.

One country which faced just such oblivion is the small Baltic state of Estonia. They finally regained their independence in 1991 and with great joy, and amidst much celebration, opened their wonderful new National Museum in 2016 (with not a stolen artifact in sight!)  At long last, after centuries of some of the most horrific foreign subjugation, they been able to present their own history, culture and identity. And it’s not without a wonderful touch of irony that the new museum is built on the site of a former Soviet airbase!

The start of a new journey: Estonia celebrates the opening of its new national museum

In the foyer are these heartfelt words: ‘Not only the Estonian National Museum but the entire Estonian people find themselves in a new era… But Estonians have not forgotten that one becomes a citizen of the world through one’s own culture, which is why it’s important to know one’s roots. And it is not only necessary, but also interesting and lots of fun.’ Then they add these lovely, hopeful, words, saying that the creation of their own national museum is ‘the end of a long journey and the start of a hopefully even longer one.’

So, if you’ve ever wondered how you became the person you are, or why you live the way you do, or why some objects fill you with joy, sorrow or pride, or why you feel so strongly attached to the values of the country that you call home, then, to misquote the immortal bard, ‘Read on, Macduff!’, for you’ll find this article a pertinent read indeed!

‘Behind the Scenes in the Museum’ in iScot, May 2018

Dun an Sticir – Uist’s Finlaggan?

There’s no doubt about it – North Uist can be windy! But that didn’t really bother us when we spent our summer holidays there a year or so ago. We’re used to Scottish weather, whatever the season. And we know how to dress for everything Scottish weather can throw at us – be it spring, summer, autumn or winter (and sometimes they can be hard to differentiate!)

That summer we walked, drove, climbed and explored this strange, at times almost lunar landscape, but one place in particular caught our attention: Dun an Sticir – Fort of the Skulker. I’m not sure if that’s the original Gaelic name, or one that came about much later due to dark and dire deeds that took place on the island. Whatever the truth may be, though, there’s a strange air to this island within an island.

Not just one island though, but three, all linked together in a small tidal loch. Leaping from ancient causeway to ancient causeway with the water rising around us, was excitement in itself. But definitely not as exciting as some of the events that took place here! From an Iron Age Dun to a medieval hall, (along with a Viking interlude!) life was seldom static, nor without risk. And we probably don’t know half the story even yet.

The last resident of the island came to a sticky end – thrown into a dungeon in a castle on Skye and left, not to starve to death, but given salted beef with nothing to drink and left to die slowly and agonisingly of thirst. Not a pleasant way to go!

If you want to find out more, there’s plenty to get your teeth into in the May-June issue of Scottish Islands Explorer!