Sunday, December 31, 2017

Our sea kayaking pilgrimage comes to a peaceful end in Oronsay Priory

As we made our way up from the beach  David had a spring in his step which was quite unlike thast of his first visit some years ago. I had told him that we were going to visit the Priory. He visibly paled before he said "Is that wise? They'll never let us out, we'll need to go into rehab and walk the twelve steps!"

As we made our way over the machair towards...

...Oronsay House we were intercepted by the RSPB warden. Straight away I asked how his nettle patches were growing? He then knew that we were aware that Oronsay was an important reserve for corncrakes. He told us that there were presently three calling males on the island but unfortunately we did not hear them on our visit. Another reason the wardens rush up to meet visiting sea kayakers is that they do not want you to camp on the island. My friend Tony stood his ground when approached by a previous warden several years ago. He was camped on the east of the island well away from areas used by corncrakes and choughs, which are the species the RSPB is most interested in.

Under the terms of the Land Reform Act (Scotland) you can visit and camp on Oronsay provided you avoid disturbing the birds (or other wildlife). The RSPB website still encourages visitors to visit their other reserve Loch Gruinart on Islay instead: "This site is one of several that due to its size, location and/or conservation sensitivity is not capable of accommodating large numbers of visitors (unless stated). Where possible, we have indicated the nearest equivalent RSPB nature reserve (Loch Gruinart) suitable for visiting."

Fortunately, they now have a rider at the bottom of the page which recognises your legal right to access the island: "This does not affect any statutory rights of access under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act or Land Reform (Scotland) Act legislation".

I joined the RSPB in 1973 when I started work as a ranger/naturalist with the National Trust for Scotland. Although I was a member for several decades, I left when it became clear their aim was to restrict public access to their reserve land.

Anyway the RSPB do not own Oronsay. The island belongs to a delightful American lady, Mrs Colburn, who we have found to be most welcoming of visitors. Indeed on our last visit we met her on the beach and helped her clear up plastic flotsam and jetsam.

As we passed her lovely house on the way to the Priory she waved to us from the window.

Oronsay Priory is situated where the machair abuts the foot of a rocky crag (where you maybe lucky and see choughs). A deep sense of peace pervades this place and it is no wonder that a religious settlement was set up here, far from the turmoil, violence, warfare and lawlessness that plagued most of Scotland throughout the Dark Ages and Mediaeval Times.  These buildings date from the mid 1300's but there may have been a chapel here since St Columba's time. The Priory was founded by the Lords of the Isles and became a centre for religious sculpture until about 1500.

The sandy machair soil of Oronsay lent itself to easy grave digging and there were no wolves on Oronsay to dig up recently buried corpses. So Oronsay became both a place of religious pilgrimage and a final resting place.  Many of those interred here were former pilgrims or residents of Argyll on the mainland or like this recent grave, drowned sailors whose bodies were washed ashore. You can read more about some interesting graves on Oronsay in this post from our previous visit.

Some say St Oran gave his name to Oronsay but I rather doubt this as Oronsay is quite a common name for tidal islands on the west coast. It comes from the Old Norse and means "island of the ebb tide" which is exactly what Oronsay is. You can walk to it from neighbouring Colonsay at low tide.

Undoubtedly the most impressive features of the graveyard are its two standing crosses. This is the Great Cross of Oronsay, which stands inconspicuously against the farm buildings at the back of the Priory graveyard. It is finely carved on both sides and is thought to have come from Iona.

Although it has withstood over 5 centuries of weathering, you can still see how finely the east face of the cross was carved.

The west face of the cross is also finely carved and at...

...its base is a Latin inscription. It was carved for Malcolm MacDuffie, the Lord of Colonsay, some time after 1472 and erected before 1500.

'This is the cross of Colinus (Malcolm), son of Christinus MacDuffie

Another interesting, but older, cross stands on a little knoll to the east of the Priory. In 1881 just the shaft was standing and the present head of the cross lay on the ground beside it.

There is some doubt as to whether this is the original head of the cross but it has now been replaced atop the shaft.

It is decorated by a rather portly and smiling figure. Perhaps life was good here when the cross was carved.

The Priory is one of the best preserved medieval religious buildings in Scotland. It was too remote to be destroyed in the Reformation, as were many of its more accessible, contemporary religious buildings. We entered the interior of the Priory to find ourselves in a...

...cloistered courtyard. Someone was lying in peaceful contemplation... turned out to be Sam who, without a sail, must have been quite exhausted keeping up with the paddle sailors who had enjoyed a fair wind on the long crossing from Jura.

Like pilgrims of old, I think all of us particularly appreciated our visit to this special place because of the effort it had taken to get here. We left Sam to his well deserved rest and made our way to the back door of the Priory which... David's great relief was not locked.

As we made our way back into the graveyard we passed below...

..the great east window of the chapel which must have been magnificent when it was filled with stained glass.

As we took our final steps at the end of our personal pilgrimage to the Priory on Oronsay we reflected on those who had led their lives here and kept human decency, hope and faith alive through the darkest centuries of Scotland's bloody past. Whether or not you are Christian, or even of any religious persuasion, I suspect that if you ever visit this place, you would set off on your road home inspired to help in your own way to make the World a better and more peaceful place for all its inhabitants.

Far from the Peace of Oronsay and away to the east, beyond the Paps of Jura, lie the lands that inspired Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It is a sad paradox that many lives in those lands that were at one time the cradle of civilisation are currently blighted by senseless violence and destruction.

You can read Ian's account here.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Why sea kayakers should consider carrying a PLB, unless they are full sibling to an ostrich.

Our journey from Carsaig Bay to Oronsay and Colonsay back in May 2017 continued after a long luncheon break on the sands of Oronsay. The break in blogging has been somewhat longer than that as I have been feeling a bit under par recently. At this, point I should say a very big thank you to Duncan for so generously lending me Sith for this trip. It is just a pity that neither Duncan nor Joan could make this paddling adventure as they had recently returned to Vancouver Island.

We set off anticlockwise round Oronsay with...

...the distant Paps of Jura and the northern entrance of the Sound of Islay on our port side.

We entered a maze of rocky channels at the SW tip of Oronsay We were making slow progress against the incoming tide when a "whoppa whoppa whoppa" from behind announced the arrival of...

...G-MCGG, the coastguard search and rescue (SAR) helicopter from Prestwick, some 120km away to the SE. We heard from Belfast Coastguard VHF transmissions that she was on her way to assist a party of sea kayakers in trouble off the Ross of Mull, some 30km to the north. She tipped over slightly as she passed and we could see the crew looking down at us but presumably we did not look like we were in distress and were too far from their search zone.

This was a Sikorsky S92 helicopter but two months later it was replaced at Prestwick by a Leonardo (formerly AgustaWestland) AW189.  Bristows have operated these SAR helicopters from Prestwick on behalf of the Marine and Coastguard Agency since the previous Royal Navy Sea King SAR  helicopters were retired on 1/1/2016.

Just a few days previous to our sighting, a MCA helicopter from Prestwick had rescued a surfer from the middle of the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland. The surfer had been adrift after setting off surfing from Westport beach on Kintyre. The tide and an offshore wind carried him off without any means of attracting attention.  The search lasted for 32 hours and involved several MCA helicopters from Prestwick, 3 RNLI Lifeboats and 5 shore based coastguard teams. It is quite remarkable that he was discovered. He was found 26km from Kintyre and 21km from Ireland in a search area of nearly 500 square kilometers. 

After the rescue, one of the crew, Andy Pilliner, said: “Looking out at endless water, you just see something that’s slightly different in the water, from where we looked, it looked perhaps like a buoy, but it warranted further investigation so we dropped in height a bit and came in and it was that moment, oh it is actually a surfboard and there’s someone on it waving. It's just a great feeling, it’s just what you’re hoping for."

The rescued surfer said "I cannot thank those enough who rescued and cared for me, they are all heroes."

This remarkable rescue is a very good reason for water users, such as sea kayakers, to carry personal locator beacons (PLBs). By setting one off, if you are ever in a life threatening situation, you can help the rescuers find you quickly. This not only saves the rescue services considerable effort but it also reduces the time their personnel are exposed to danger. I have been carrying a PLB while windsurfing and sea kayaking for the last 12 years. My first PLB cost nearly £600 but the Ocean Signal rescueMe PLB1, which I now carry, is currently only £200. Given the overall cost of sea kayaking gear and transport this is a minor expense. (I burned £40 of fuel getting to our launch point for this trip and I live closest!) So I can't think of any good reason why a responsible sea kayaker would not nowadays consider carrying a PLB unless, perhaps, they are full sibling to an ostrich.

Fortunately we were in no difficulty and C-MCGG flew on and successfully assisted the kayakers in trouble while we landed on Oronsay. As we made our way up the beach at the head of the long inlet of Port na Luinge (long port!), we were following in the footsteps of our ancestors and our own pilgrimage to the Isles had nearly come to an end.

You can read Ian's account here.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Landfall in an Oronsay midden.

We set off from Ruantallain on Jura for the distant isles of Oronsay and Colonsay which were just a thin blue line on the western horizon.

 The breeze was from the NE and proved very helpful as the total crossing from our camp on Jura to landfall on the western tip of Oronsay was 19km.]

 Soon the hills of Jura, and away to the north, Scarba slipped astern.

 Even the mighty Paps of Jura diminished as we reached a third of the way across and...

 ...could look straight down the Sound of Islay.

 In mid crossing the wind increased to the top of a F3 gusting F4 and...

 ...we revelled in the wonderful conditions.

Sam does not yet have a sail but he has the benefit of youth and as huge set of Double Dutch paddles.

Even so, at this point the paddle sailors had to back off a bits o that we stuck together.

 Slowly the low isle of Colonsay began to take shape. Forty seven km away to the north it was Ben More on Mull that dominated the horizon at 967m.

The eastern beaches looked inviting but were exposed to a cold NE wind so we paddled in behind the reef of Leac Bhuidhe into...

 ...a sheltered lagoon used by our ancestors. Indeed we landed below one of their rubbish dumps. The giant shell mounds date from the mesolithic age when humans first visited theses islands some 7,500 years ago as the spread north and west as the Ice Age retreated. The mounds are mostly composed of limpet shells but there are also bones of deer, dolphins and great auks.

We made landfall on this pristine beach much as our ancestors had done. Like them we were...

...ready for luncheon!

Monday, June 05, 2017

You may rue the day you meet the giant bothy rat and adders of Ruantallain.

On the second day of our trip to Orondsay and Colonsay we woke before dawn and were breakfasting by the time the sun rose above the hills of Jura.

 It is always exciting setting off to a new island and neither Sam, Maurice nor...

 ...Ian had been before but David and I had circumnavigated Oransay and Colonsay from Islay and returned via Jura in September 2009.

We set off across the mouth of West Loch Tarbert leaving Glenbatrick and Lord Astor's summer house...

 ...far behind.

 A fair wind soon carried us...

 ...across to Ruantallain.

Ruantallain was an ancient stopping off place on the voyage across to Oronsay. Our ancestors often had to leave the corpses of  their dead here, if it was too rough to cross. The corpses were left in the Corpachs or "dead caves"  at the foot of the raised sea cliffs behind the beach. Along the cliff faces, the dark entrances to the caves were like the empty eye sockets of the skulls within.

Not far from the shore lies the ruined farm stead of Ruantallain, which was finally abandoned in 1947. One half of the cottage with the tin roof is a  locked estate refuge the other is an unlocked simple estate bothy. Tony and I had intended staying here here in  June 2007 and David, Jennifer, Phil and I again considered it in September 2009. Our present little party had wondered why I did not consider staying here the previous evening. They were about to find out!

Tony and I were well tired when we arrived late in the day in 2007. The door creaked open and we let a little light into the gloom within. Two red eyes glared at us from the chair. It was a huge bothy rat. With great presence of mind Tony grabbed a log from a wood pile at the door and thew it at the rat. Any normal bothy rat would have bolted for its hole but this one charged at us. We fled to the shore. Where we pitched...

 ..our tents on the rather stony grass above the high tide mark.

It did not take long to discover that Ruantallain was a vipers's nest, literally hoaching with adders. Of course in the evening and morning these cold blooded creatures are less likely to slither away form your approach and are more likely to strike if you have not noticed them in time.

Now David knew all about the bothy rat and adders of Ruantallain, so like me he hung about the shore. The others thought I was prone to exaggeration and set off to the bothy discover for themselves... Well only Sam made it as far as the bothy. As soon as Ian and Maurice had left the beach they came across a coiled viper in the strike position. That was it, they went no further and reappeared on the beach with some undue haste. David and I nodded sagely at one another.

It was now time to set off from Jura across the sea to Oronsay and Colonsay. Fortunately our party had survived both rats and adders and so remained complete. We did not need to leave any dead in the Corpach of Ruantallain.

You can also follow this trip on Ian's blog here...