Monday, September 28, 2009

Shiants again

A quick post to draw attention to some stunning aerial photos of the Shiants posted on the Flickr photostream of Chris Murray - Chris used to work on the Stornoway coastguard helicopter and took his camera to work with him.

This is a taster showing Eilean Mhuire in the foreground with Eilean Taighe (left) and Garbh Eilean (right) behind.

You can see the rest of Chris's excellent pictures here.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Image Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Pictured above, Barnhill is a farmhouse at the north east end of the island of Jura. It’s main claim to fame is that it is where George Orwell (1903-50) wrote the iconic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (which gave the English language such concepts as “Big Brother”, “Room 101” and “Doublespeak”) between 1947 and 1948. The connection was that Orwell was a journalist on the Observer whose editor at the time, David Astor, had a family estate on Jura (although Barnhill is on the neighbouring estate of Ardlussa).

Barnhill is incredibly remote, being five miles from the nearest tarmacked road and twenty miles from the nearest village (Craighouse). Only accessible by 4WD, It still belongs to the Fletcher family who owned it when Orwell stayed and can be rented for holidays (sleeps seven) at £550/week (price includes coal, gas and generator fuel, there being no mains electricity). See the Jura website for details.

The incongruously English name “Barnhill” in such a quintessentially Gaelic setting, incidentally, is simply a direct translation of the feature marked on the map, Cnoc an t-Sabhail (pronounced “Crochcan Towel”) which is Gaelic for “Barn Hill”. The village in the Eastern Highlands, Tomintoul, is also Gaelic for “Barn Hill”, being a corruption of Tom an t-Sabhail. So is Cairn Toul the mountain in the Cairgorms which is a corruption of Carn an t-Sabhail. You know how the Inuit (Eskimo) language has 200 words for snow? Well Gaelic has – er – quite a lot for hill, mountain etc., Cnoc, Tom and Carn being just three of them. (Beinn – as in Nevis – is another.)

Image Copyright Alan Gerrard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dunvegan Castle

In contrast to Eilean Donan and Duart Castles, Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye looks like a fake but actually it's not.

Picture Copyright Gernot Keller. and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

There's just no getting away from the fact that the seat of the Clan MacLeod has to be one of the ugliest buildings in Scotland -

But what we're looking at are skin deep Victorian additions to an extremely old building which is, in fact, the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland dating back to the 13th century. Below is a plan of the castle in the 1949 Official Guide by W. Douglas Simpson showing its various phases of development from medieval stronghold (black) to Victorian mock-gothic stately home (red and yellow).

Here's an artist's impression from the guide book showing Dunvegan in its original 13th century incarnation as a simple enclosure comprised of a curtain wall entered from the seaward (west) side by a sea gate and containing unpretentious thatched domestic buildings within.

The next picture is the earliest known contemporary picture of the castle drawn by the antiquarian (and acquaintance of Robert Burns), Captain Francis Grose in 1790. Viewed from the landward (east) side this time, the buildings within the curtain wall are more substantial but still show little sign of "gentrification". The tower on the right appears derelict but there is an unpretentious landward entrance which by now has probably superseded the seagate:-

The next picture is by the watercolourist William Daniell in 1819. By now, Dunvegan is well on its way to transformation from castle to stately home with the major change being the addition of the turretted landward entrance porch and bridge. The main tower (right) seems to be back in use with an ogee roof on its northern extension. Note also that the chimney in the middle of the east front which is also conspicuous in the Grose drawing:-

I've always felt that, if the castle had been left looking like that, it would have been a most pleasing mix of old and new architectural styles. But unfortunately it was ruined in the 1840s by raising the central part of the east range (behind and to the left of the turretted entrance porch), doing away with the pitched roof (and the ogee roof) and adding preposterous fake pepperpot turrets everywhere.

Not only did these alterations ruin the castle aesthetically, they also ruined the then chief of the Macleods financially. Hit by the double whammy of the potato famine (meaning his tenants could n't afford to pay their rents), he was forced to take a job as a clerk in a London office in order to survive!

Dunvegan Castle may be an acquired taste architecturally but it remains to this day the home of the chief of Clan MacLeod after more than 700 years. And at least the sea-gate was preserved as seen in this picture of the castle from the west ...

Image Copyright Pam Brophy and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

... although as this picture from the 1949 guide book shows, it was narrowed from a wider arch to a lintelled gate in the 16th century. We can live with that, though.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Featuring as a location in various films including Highlander (Sean Connery, 1985) and Loch Ness (Ted Danson, 1996), Eilean Donan Castle must be one of the most recognisable landmarks in Scotland.

Not as famous as Eilean Donan but a landmark to anyone sailing out from Oban up the Sound of Mull is Duart Castle on Mull. It has also been a film location including Entrapment (Connery, Catherine Zeta Jones, 1999) and When Eight Bells Toll (Anthony Hopkins, 1971).

Image Copyright Robert Guthrie and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

What is much less well known about both these iconic Scottish castles is that they're both fakes.

Well not fakes exactly, but they're both 20th century rebuilds of what had previously been ruins.

The original Eilean Donan Castle's end was quite colourful. In 1719, a force of 300 Spanish soldiers landed as part of an ill-conceived Jacobite plot to revive the Stuart dynasty. 46 Spaniards were left to garrison the castle while the remainder marched inland. Two Royal Navy ships bombarded the castle which soon surrendered. It was then blown up. (The remaining Spaniards who had marched inland were, along with some rebel Scots including Eilean Donan's owner, the Earl of Seaforth, and Rob Roy MacGregor (Liam Neeson - 1995), defeated soon after at a battle in nearby Glen Shiel below a peak now called Sgurr nan Spainteach - Gaelic for "Spaniards' Peak".)

That's what Eilean Donan Castle looked like for almost 200 years until a 20 year programme of rebuilding began in 1912. The following picture shows the castle in the 1920s when restoration of the tower had been completed but the outbuildings and bridge to the mainland had yet to be tackled.

The original Duart Castle's end, by contrast, was less dramatic - it simply crumbled away through disuse from the late 17th century when castles had become redundant as defensive structures and undesirable as residences. This is what Duart looked like before restoration began in 1910 (about the same time as Eilean Donan)

Both castles have nice websites - Duart here and Eilean Donan here.

My personal recollections of these castles are, at Eilean Donan in the early 70s, when the Concorde flew overhead on a test flight and it caused all the doors to slam shut: the medieval castle experience was momentarily rudely interrupted by the 20th century supersonic jet experience.

Duart - last day of the opening season, September 1991. Lady Elizabeth MacLean, the dowager chatelaine, showing us round (well coached by her accountants to emphasise that all of the treasures belonged to her son and daughter-in-law for tax reasons) and shoo-ing us into the castle tearoom where there were lots of gateaux needing to be eaten up on the last day of being open to the public. Who cares if the castle's a rebuild!

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Princess Victoria Disaster

The Princess Victoria was a British Railways car ferry which sank during a storm on passage between Stranraer and Larne on 31 January 1953. 132 people died - only 44 survived.

(Above picture Copyright Roy Muir.)

Built in 1946, the Princess Victoria was the second ever British ro-ro car ferry. She replaced an identical ship with the same name which had been built in 1939 but sank during the War while requisitioned by the Admiralty.

Because the captain and all the officers died, it's difficult to know the exact sequence of events of the second Princess Victoria's final voyage but what seems to have happened is this:-

She sailed from Stranraer at 7.45am in wind from the north west gusting to 75-80mph and reached the mouth of Loch Ryan and the open sea at about 8.30am. Some time after this - around 9.00am - the master, Captain James Ferguson, decided the weather was too severe to continue and to return to Stranraer. While the ship was headed south again, with her stern facing the NW gale, a heavy wave stove in the gates closing the car deck at the stern. These were a much flimsier arrangement than on modern car ferries as seen below.

Water flooding onto the car deck caused the ship to list to starboard. A party was sent to close the stern gates but they had been damaged by the impact and the danger to the crewmembers of being washed overboard was such that the attempt had to be called off.

Captain Ferguson next decided to attempt to reverse back into Loch Ryan so as to protect the vulnerable stern from the sea. This required the bow rudder to be deployed. A party was sent to the bow to remove its securing pin but it proved difficult to move and the heavy seas breaking over the bow posed such a danger to the party that that attempt also had to be called off.

Unable to return to Loch Ryan, Captain Ferguson then seems to have decided that his only option was to continue towards Ireland.

At 09.46, the Princess Victoria sent her first distress signal by morse code. Prefaced by "XXX" meaning vessel in trouble but not in imminent danger of sinking the message was:

Hove to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of tug required.

(Above drawing Copyright Martin Cahill.)

No tugs were available. 45 minutes later at 10.32 another message was broadcast, this time an SOS:

Princess Victoria four miles north west of Corsewall. Car deck flooded. Heavy list to starboard. Require immediate assistance. Ship not under command.

In response to this, the Portpatrick lifeboat was launched and a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Contest, was despatched from Rothesay, some 3 hours steaming to the north. But the problem was that the Coast Guard interpreted the Princess Victoria's distress signals including the words "not under command" to mean that her engines were stopped and she was drifting south east before the north westerly gale down onto the Scottish coast between Corsewall Point and Portpatrick. But "not under command" means "unable to manoeuvre normally" as opposed to drifting without power and, in fact, the Princess Victoria was still heading south west towards Ireland, albeit slowly, listing heavily and in a very distressed condition. In short the rescuers were looking in the wrong place along the Scottish coast.

At 12.52 - nearly 4 hours into her ordeal - the Princess Victoria signalled that her starboard engine room was flooded and that her position was critical.

13.08 - Vessel stopped and on her beam ends. That meant she was listing so heavily that the main deck was in the water on the lower (starboard) side, an almost 45 degree list. Doubtless the port propellor was now out of the water and unable to drive the ship further.

13.15 - We are preparing to abandon ship

It was about this time that the Coast Guard gave up searching the Scottish coast. The Donaghadee lifeboat was launched from Ireland and the Portpatrick lifeboat and HMS Contest were redirected towards the Irish Coast. At the same time ships sheltering in Belfast Lough headed out to join the search.

At 13.35 the Princess Victoria signalled that the Irish coast was in sight and then at 13.47 that the lighthouse on the Copeland Islands was visible.

The Princess Victoria is believed to have capsized about 5 miles north east of the Copeland Islands at about 14.00, minutes after her final signal at 13.58, - more than 6 hours after leaving Stranraer and almost 5 hours since her ordeal began with the stern gates being stove in.

With the ship listing so heavily, conditions aboard must have been horrifying and it was impossible to launch the lifeboats. All that could be done was to get some passengers into the boats on the port (higher) side and cut the ropes in the hope they would float free as the ship sank. Three lifeboats got away but tragically one was smashed against the ship as it went down and all its occupants thrown into the sea. Other passengers and crew got away in liferafts.

The survivors were still almost two hours from salvation. The first ship on the scene, some 50 minutes after the sinking, was the cargo steamer Orchy but due to the weather she could not launch her own lifeboats and she was too high-sided to be able to haul any of the survivors on board. An oil tanker, Pass of Drumochter, fared little better. A trawler, Eastcoates, hauled seven people out the water but only one was alive. At last, an hour later at 15.51, about an hour and 50 minutes after the Princess Victoria had sunk, HMS Contest and the Donaghadee lifeboat arrived. No long after, so too did the Portpatrick lifeboat which by now had been at sea for more than 5 hours in atrocious conditions. Between these three, they rescued 43 survivors, 34 by the Donaghadee lifeboat. A sailor on the Contest jumped overboard with a rope around his waist and was in the water for 30 minutes assisting survivors. All survivors were men. The search was called off at 6pm.

A Court of Enquiry subsequently found that the design of the Princess Victoria was deficient in that her stern gates were inadequate and also - more seriously - that her scuppers (drains) were insufficient to drain water off the car deck. Tragically, requests had been made to fit larger scuppers following previous incidents in 1949 and 1951 when heavy seas had breached the stern gates but nothing was done: if it had, she may not have capsized on 31 January 1953.

The science of car ferries was in its infancy in the 1950s when it was not understood that a relatively small amount of water sloshing around a large car deck can seriously destabilise a ship. Nowadays, ferries are designed with car decks which are either sealed watertight or, if wholly or partially open (as is required for the transport of hazardous cargoes like petrol, gas etc.), have adequate scuppers.

The Princess Victoria was described as unseaworthy. But compared to the Herald of Free Enterprise and the Estonia which both sank due to water ingress on the car deck (both watertight car deck ships but the former sailed with its bow door open and the latter had its bow door torn off in a storm), the Victoria remained afloat for almost 5 hours whereas the HOFE and Estonia went over in minutes.

A number of awards were given in the aftermath of the sinking of the Princess Victoria including British Empire Medals to the coxswains of the Portpatrick and Donaghadee lifeboats. But the highest civillian honour for bravery - the George Cross - was reserved for the Victoria's radio officer, David Broadfoot, who went down with the ship. In the words of the Court of Enquiry:-

If the Princess Victoria had been as staunch as those who manned her, then all would have been well and the disaster averted.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Shiants

What connects the BBC series Monarch of the Glen with the National Trust's Sissinghurst Castle Gardens in Kent?

The answer is the Shiants (pronounced "Shants"), a group of three small rocky islands in the Minch between the north west coast of Scotland and the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. They're 20 miles from Rudha Reidh Lighthouse - the nearest point on the mainland - and 4 miles from the Uisenis Lighthouse, the nearest point on Lewis.

The picture below (courtesy of Traigh Mhor) shows the islands viewed from near Gairloch on the mainland. The photo is taken with a zoom lens making them look much closer than they actually are - they're about 30 miles from where the photographer is standing. Lewis and Harris are beyond.

The two main islands - Eilean an Taighe ("House Island") and Garbh Eilean ("Rugged Island") - are joined by a boulder strand called Mol Mor (Gaelic for "big shingle beach") which occasionally covers at its north end at exceptionally high spring tides but for most of the time it's possible to walk dry-shod between the two islands. The third island - Eilean Mhuire ("Mary's Island") - lies about half a mile to the east. In addition to these three, there is a string of jagged skerries to the west called the Galteachan.

The Shiants have not been permanently inhabited for about 200 years and today there is only one house, just a bothy really, at the north west end of Eilean an Taighe. It's only occupied for a few weeks in summer when the grazing tenant comes over from Lewis to tend to the flock of sheep on the islands. The picture below is of the shepherd (left) and my late father (right) at the door of the bothy in the mid 1980s on one of my several visits to the Shiants in the 70s and 80s.

And this is the bothy from up on the slopes of Eilean an Taighe:-

In the picture above you can see the remains of earlier dwellings in front of the cottage and the Ordnance Survey 6 inch map surveyed in 1852 shows a number of ruined buildings in this area - including a grave yard - although no sign of a permanent population.

The watercolourist, William Daniell, who made a tour of the west coast of Scotland around about 1820, called at the Shiants and made two paintings. He exaggerates the vertical extent of the islands but nevertheless captures their essence very well:-

The picture above is looking east along the north coast of Garbh Eilean.

That picture is looking west along the north coast of Garbh Eilean and an interesting detail in both of these pictures is the smoke from burning kelp - seaweed - which used to be gathered and burnt all along the west coast of Scotland to produce chemicals. It was a boom industry around the turn of the 19th century and Daniell's pictures are a valuable historical record of how the industry was prosecuted even in such a remote location.

One thing Daniell's watercolours do not exaggerate is the number of birds. The Shiants are an important breeding ground for a number of species including guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars and kittiwakes. The numbers are overwhelming and I well recall the deafening (verging on sinister) sounds of the birds at night the first time I went to the Shiants in the mid 1970s on my father's Westerly Centaur 26 foot yacht and moored overnight in calm summer weather. The name Shiant is thought to derive from the Gaelic word sianta which has a range of meanings around "spooky", "haunted", "eerie" etc.

Above is a painting looking south from Garbh Eilean across the strand to the bothy on Eilean an Taighe which appeared on the cover of Scottish Field magazine in 1954 (image uploaded to Flickr by mando maniac). It employs some artistic licence (like William Daniell) but was clearly painted by someone who knew the islands.

The Shiants now belong to Adam Nicolson, a writer. His father, Nigel (son of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, the founders of Sissinghurst Castle Gardens in Kent) bought them from Compton MacKenzie, author of Whisky Galore and Monarch of the Glen (on which the BBC series is loosely based), in 1937. Adam wrote a very good book about the islands in 2001 called Sea Room (which I read in Madeira - another fine archipelago!). There's also a very good website called

I leave you with a few more pictures from my visits to the islands in the 1980s. First, looking north along the west coast of Eilean an Taighe with the bothy towards Garbh Eilean:-

Looking over to Eilean Mhuire from the top of Eilean an Taighe:-

Next, looking over to Eilean Mhuire - the boat drawn up on the strand belonged to the shepherds who were there at the time:-

Looking from Eilean an Taighe along the east coast of Garbh Eilean to the natural arch at Toll a' Roimh at the island's north east corner:-

And finally, looking from Eilean an Taighe north west to the strand and Garbh Eilean. The Galteachan skerries and Lewis and Harris are visible beyond and, of course, our yacht (a Moody 29 by now) at anchor.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Peter's Port - Part 4

Part 1 here.

To recap, Benbecula found itself at the turn of the 20th century endowed with a pier on an off-lying island with no connecting road or causeway and at which MacBrayne's thrice weekly mail steamers did not call or even make a ferry call.

In 1898, the MP for Ross & Cromarty asked the Postmaster-General in the House of Commons what was preventing the Benbecula mails being landed at Peter's Port Pier? The answer was:

The mails are very small, and it would not be desirable to add to the length of the passages of the boats from Oban by including a call at Petersport in their time tables. Besides, there is difficulty, it is believed, in approaching Petersport.

So it wasn't just the lack of a road to the pier which was the problem but difficulty of access from the sea by the steamers as well.

Further exchanges in the House reveal that complaints about access to the pier from the sea began almost as soon as it was built. It appears the Government obtained a report from the Admiralty who made recommendations to allow a steamer of 180 feet in length and 12 feet draught to approach the pier in daylight and lie alongside it at suitable states of the tide. A grant of £300 was made to Inverness County Council to carry out the work but it seems nothing was done.

In 1905, the Postmaster-General refused to order the mail-steamer to call at Peter's Port on the basis that:-

such a call would delay the boat, and would prejudicially affect the mail service to and from the most important places in the districts concerned

But this did not prevent construction of the road to the pier which was completed with further public funding in 1906-07.

But still the mail steamers did not call and now it seems the problem was the absence of navigation lights. Apparently, MacBrayne's were at last induced to call in 1910 but this didn't last and, in 1911, the MP was reduced to pleading for at least a ferry call off Peter's Port. The official answer was that:-

the mails would frequently fail to be landed owing to adverse weather conditions; and the postal service would, therefore, be subject to frequent interruptions, especially during the winter months. The direct postal communication between Benbecula and North and South Uist would also be severed, and this would, I am assured, cause considerable inconvenience. Moreover, considerable additional cost would be entailed on a service already maintained at a serious loss.

The same questions were still being asked in the House into the 1920s with the powers that be now answering that even the provision of navigation lights would not induce shipping companies to call at Peter's Port. The last parliamentary question on the subject was in 1924 and thereafter there was a lull until 1938 when the questions became to be about construction of a bridge from Benbecula over the South Ford to South Uist. Work on this began in December 1938 whereupon everyone forgot about Peter's Port Pier. The wooden structure visible in the photo above is long gone and all that remains at the end of the B891 today is a simple concrete slipway used by some local fishermen.

Picture credit Stephen Darlington