Saturday, January 18, 2014

Walking Bernisdale and Skeabost

One of my local (and regular) walks, along the western shore of Loch Snizort Beag, is filled with hellos to my critter acquaintances, updates on what the wind has taken down, and the varied small, but consequential enchantments a stroll necessarily has to offer--like the signs on homemade boxes and containers that entice coins out of your pocket for fresh eggs. Yes, I have many chickie friends on this walk.

The charming bookstore of Gaelic, Highland and rare books, Buth Leabhraichean (lea-brai-chean sounding so close to 'library', yes?), is a surprise along the little lane toward River Snizort.
No matter that we get hail and powders of snow and ice-bear winds--it still tends to look tropical in certain sheltered spots, like this pond at Skeabost Country House Hotel. I'm wrapped up to my nose but it remains green and I'm noticing the bright yellow flowers of gorse already blooming forth. 

The impressive white 'hotel' was built in the mid-1800s as the hunting lodge of Lachlan MacDonald, proprietor of the townships of Skeabost and Bernisdale.

During the crofter Clearances, the emigration point for the area was on this jetty by the hotel. Such a dreary state of affairs, which deserves a blog post of its own.

 This quaint stone structure was built on the Snizort River, by the MacDonald family. It sits near the mouth of the river and is known as the Old Turbine House, where electricity was produced for the big house until 1954.

A company named Three Esses has taken over here, with the intent of recreating the hydro scheme, which will provide funds to keep their hatchery going. Wild salmon eggs are incubated in tanks here at the ghillie's cottage. I must admit that I have always thought the dry, circular, recessed 'tanks' were old sewage processing tanks! The 
lades, which run above the river, originally provided water for the turbine, but now also supply river water to the eggs.
Lades draw the water to the hatchery and turbine.

The Tube, a black scary- looking piece of plumbing which required a 100-ton crane for installation, can be heard emitting almost subterranean grunting and churning slurps--I am minded of Kumbhakharna, the sleeping monster of the Ramayana, and I pray to the gods to let him snooze, while I take this photo. 

The 'Beast' has a 35kW Archimedes screw, which the guys make much about, as it's supposed to turn at around 30 revs per minute. The 40:1 gearbox steps the gennie (generator for  non-geeks) up to 
over 1200 rpm. The screw is filled with a rubber trim, so that none of the fish--even the smallest fry--gets hurt, in case they "want to take a white-knuckle ride up or down the tube". (More info on this turbine at end of post.)

The River Snizort is the most celebrated spate river on Skye. The Three Esses Ltd. operates the fishing for nearly its entire eight miles. They say the river has Wild Brown Trout, Sea Trout and Salmon and they help anglers practice catch and release techniques. I would be interested in what local readers think of this project--comments welcome.

The pool in front of the turbine is named  'Coire nan Ceann', the Cauldron of the Heads. After the 1539 battle over ownership of Trotternish peninsula, which begins on the other side of the river, the victorious MacDonalds tossed the corpses of the MacLeods into the river by the bridge, and they collected in this pool.

Looking across the river, I see the ruins of the old 'Nicolson' chapel on the pretty green grass of St. Columba's Isle.

St. Columba's Isle: "The little ruined island of silence and the dead..." (A. Smith)

Skeabost Gatehouse is available for fishermen.
I head out past the Skeabost House Hotel's gatehouse and stone posts... 

...and pause for a shot of the Old Poste House, known to you as the scary Halloweeny House in the Glen (its much earlier name). It doesn't look too frightening in the daylight, but it is in a nasty state of condition and its owners, Penny and Iain, are slowly renovating the historical building. The path I am following from my cottage is the old drovers' road and this 1702 house was the inn on the bridge that served travelers passing by on horses, in wagons and on foot.

Now I cross historical Skeabost Bridge, trip lightly along the water to cross a little footbridge, and voila! I am on St. Columba's Isle (Eilean Coluim Chille). In the Dark Ages of 536 CE, it is said Columba left his home in Ireland to settle with the Gaels of Dal Riata on the Isle of Iona, which was granted to him for a monastery. St. Columba (Collum Cille) was presumed to have been a prince of high status and he appeared to have influence with kings, as he served as a diplomat. His reputation grew after his death and legend tells us he used one of the large stones here as a pulpit. 

Effigy in the small chapel ruins now called Nicolson's Aisle.

We are told that this small isle in the River Snizort held the first Christian church on Skye. It is associated with the Bishops of the Isles from 1079. By 1134, Skeabost had the status of a cathedral. There are ruins of at least two buildings: one small chapel dedicated to the saint, used as the Nicolson clan chief burial aisle and a larger, 79' x 26' cathedral with transept...though it is hard to decipher much of the cathedral now, as the stones are covered in moss and trees and bushes grow everywhere. Over a hundred years ago, it was thought that there were five or six chapels here. The little isle is lumpy with rocks, walls, partial gravestones, the land all rolling and tumbling. One time I encountered a herd of cattle here and they didn't seem to mind my presence, what with the lovely green grass munchies. I finally found a three-foot section of fence that had been lowered by bovine paws--their deep churning effect is still visible and adds to the difficulty of walking around the graveyard.

Some monuments have managed to remain upright in a tipsy fashion. Twenty-eight chiefs of Clan Nicolson are said to have been buried in the wee chapel, but it is hard to imagine, without referring to Alexander Smith's description: 
'I never saw a churchyard so mounded and so evidently overcrowded. Here laird, tacksman and cotter elbow each other in death.' In his bewitching book, Summer in Skye, the nineteenth-century Scottish poet says, "One could  not help thinking what a picturesque sight a Highland funeral would be, creeping across the moors with wailing pipe-music, fording the river, and his bearers making room for the dead man amongst the older dead as best they eerie place by moonlight. The broken chapel, the carved slabs lying sideways, as if the dead man beneath had grown restless and turned himself, and the headstones jutting out of the mounded soil at every variety of angle, would appal [sic] in the ink of shadow and the silver of moonbeam..."

There are a lot of different types of Blackface sheep on Skye, with varied horn shapes and body color. I won't insult any shepherds by pretending to know more than that, though I was told that the marks they put on the sheep are precise, as they have various meaning. I just saw a program where they put a marking halter on the male, and when he mounted, a particular color rubbed onto the ewe. The Scottish Blackface is known to be grumpy and shy, but though her peers ran away, she? posed amenably before retreating. Most of the sheep I encounter are quite friendly. 

Lachlan MacDonald was the landlord for the Free Church of Scotland in Skeabost and the Free Church Manse in the trees. This is the spot to watch bird antics at ebb tide. Here the River Tora runs into Loch Snizort Beag, and ducks continue to float around the boggy turf, while the free flyers play tag, knock the boater off the head, and skim-surf.

Above is a (out-of-focus!) guy who insists on being outside of the fence--I fear for his life on the fast road on the other side of the drovers' path, but he loves to play dodge and continues to surprise me two cottages down, just when I pick up speed in my car.

Back near home, joyful cluckings abound in the rare sunshine. 

My cluckings are just as happy, 'cause it's teatime for me! 


*The Archimedes screw (again for non-geeks)is credited to the third-century BC Greek polymath, Archimedes of Syracuse, but the concept of a turning screw pulling water gradually up a tube was known at least by Syrians three-hundred-and-fifty years earlier. 
The screw used for 'The Beast' is using falling water rather than pulling it up.

Hydro power is water power, where falling water has potential energy due to gravity (witness flash-floods). In some hydro schemes, fish can become disoriented due to turbine turbulence, thus causing concentration in fish passes--thus creating an increase in predation by other animals and people. The Archimedes hydro screw turbine is designed to not impact the effectiveness of the adjacent fish pass. New England Hydropower's Roger Hutton says the Archimedes power generator 'tends to wash the fish rather than impact them'. Search Fishtek Consulting for the risk assessment of impact on fish. For info on the turbine at Skeabost, search