Isles of Harris and Lewis: The Abandoned Village

It’s not a long walk but if you lose the path, it becomes a cross-country bash across the heath and bog. Rising up and around the first hill, the modern day village soon disappears behind and won’t reappear for another couple of hours. Up and down through the wet grass tufts and squelching mass of moss and peat, the going is tough and the strong chilling wind is taking edge off the day; what sunshine appears is soon choked by grey cloud once more. 

A second hill follows and then, once rounded, a boggy plateau. At the end of this small, flat plain the sea begins to come into sight and as the edge appears so do the sheep-clipped smooth grasslands on the slope down to the water. At first there are just two of them, rectangular stands of stone walls with doorways and window openings but as further down the slope I go, others appear along the coast up to the shallowing bay and rocky beach. I pass from one to another, walking into former homes and walled fields, only the stone left, no signs of roofs, doors or window frames. This was a place of people, of farmers and fishermen, of community and family life. Now it is an empty, desolate place, the last signs of people slowly disappearing back to the ground from which they came.

Each time I go to one of these places, I’m visited by an eagle. A white-tail appears from behind the headland to a chorus of alarmed gulls mobbing from above and below. The usually majestic soar is replaced by a buffeted glide low down between the cliffs of the indented coastline. It dives suddenly but pulls up short of the water and then disappears from view around the next rounded promontory. The eagles seem to watch over the abandoned villages, the guardians of their souls and signifying the wild reclaiming these places. The grass is growing over the tumbled down walls of the houses, physically drawing them back into nature but it is the eagles who have taken back the wild spirit of the once populated valleys. 

Ever since my trip to the Isle of Skye two and a half years ago, I have been drawn to the old abandoned villages of the Scottish Islands – largely the result of the Highland Clearances. The Clearances occurred across vast swathes of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and Harris was not immune from the terrible actions of the landowners and their henchmen towards the local inhabitants. In Harris, people were ‘cleared’ from the fertile Machair grasslands of the west coast and given the choice of being shipped to the New World or struggling to survive on Harris’ rocky and almost barren east coast. Many chose the latter and survive they did, living off the sea and what they could grow on the small amounts of good land they had. However, some of the villages, townships, were also cleared on the east coast including the one I visited. Steimreway was cleared of its 80 inhabitants in 1857 but was repopulated in the early 1920s by five families. The last of these families left only 20 years later and the houses have remained empty since. It’s hard to tell which of the houses were from which period of occupation although some are in slightly better condition than others; some walls are almost completely overgrown by grass while the gable ends of some houses remain. 

Throughout Harris and Lewis, there are abandoned buildings, some much older, as a result of the clearances but others must only recently have been left to their own. Walking through one present-day village, there was one house right in its heart that appeared unoccupied, the chimney breast had collapsed but the rest of the house, from the outside, looked reasonably well maintained but empty and unwanted. There are great contrasts across the islands from the neolithic stone circles and roundhouses, the crumbling homes vacated during the Clearances, the lighthouses and their ancillary buildings decaying on the very edges of the land to the currently occupied houses and farmsteads in the villages or standing alone and the modern Nordic-style holiday homes of the west coast, all wood and big picture windows. The populations of the islands may be small but there can’t be many places in the UK where the full breath of human existence in the British Isles is so easy to see.

The blog posts for two walks to such ‘Highland Clearance’ villages on the Isle of Skye can be found by these links:

Isle of Skye – Lorgill: Left only to the Eagles

Isle of Skye – More Highland Clearance Villages

Despite my interest, I still now very little about the Clearances but I have book waiting for me at home that I hope will fill in gaps in my knowledge.

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Isles of Harris and Lewis: The Coffin Road

The land is bare, like in one great sweep a giant hand has wiped away the trees. Bare, cracked rock dominates; the meagre soil that clings on in between the great slabs of stone supports only tough grasses and spindly heather. Spring has yet to reach these parts, out in the extreme far north-west, the islands on the edge, the lands with nothing between them and the new world. In the early summer, the machair is resplendent with flowers and in the autumn the heather blooms across the hillsides, but now, it is a scene of dull browns, made darker by the low, dense cloud hanging heavy over the hills and glens.

On the east of Harris, a small collection of houses intermittently lines the narrow bay. Out on the edge of the water, one of the boulders, tumbled down from the slopes above, has a common seal dozing atop, almost unnaturally straight when a sprawl would seem more comfortable. The wind is light and there are only the merest of ripples on the loch’s surface, a few paddling birds dot around, too far away to distinguish. 

There seems to be a little living to be had here, fishing but not much else; they were sent here from the more fertile west, banished in favour of sheep. The ground is so thin and poor that little grows here but at least there is shelter, protection from the worst of the winter storms surging in from the Atlantic west. But survive here they did, for decades, they lived off the plenty of the sea and what they could meagrely derive from the land.

However, when survival came to an end, as for each one, in turn, it did, they had to return west to be sunk into the deeper ground, so shallow was the soil in the east. Their last journey was across the narrow pass, a rise between the two sides of the island, from the barren to the rich, a reversal from life to death.

The final journey was by hand and by shoulder, starting in the village and ascending up the slopes and through the high valley. There was no well worn path, just rock, stream and mire. The struggle in life became a struggle through death for the bearers, but bear it they did. The solemn procession stumbled, sank, tripped and drenched their way up through the sodden pass. With death coming more in winter than in summer, the task of taking the Coffin Road in the darker, colder, windier months, must have been harder still and some of the dead, so it is said, didn’t make it to the other side, planted on the way, where the depth of the soil allowed.

On cresting the last rise, the view opens up and down below, further still, lie the vast, effervescent sands of Losgaintir. Now, the westerly wind would hit them with full force, pushing their heads lower as they struggled to keep their feet on the uneven ground. Downward they would trudge, still no path and still only treaterous footing beneath. The miles were few but long and energy sapped as the hill began to flatten out and the ground became firmer. Alongside the bay, the procession continued around numerous small headlands until, at last, the cemetery came into sight. Only now for the empty shouldered trudge to return over the hills, with the gulls incessant calls at their backs to hound their departure from their former lands.

The first walk I did in Harris was one I had planned to do when I stayed in North Uist a couple of years ago; there’s a ferry linking the two islands but I didn’t get round to going across for the day. I used the excellent Cicerone book ‘Walking on Harris and Lewis’ as my guide – this is one of a vast series of great books covering many locations with detailed directions and an Ordnance Survey extract for each walk. As I was staying at Luskentyre, a good two and a bit miles from the route, I decided to start from my cottage and extend the walk from almost nine miles to nearly 14. The day started off bright but as I walked along the undulating and twisting road, the cloud closed in with a slight hint of moisture in the air. Joining the route at the far end from the suggested starting point actually made sense to me as it saves the best bit to last and it also gets what is a bit of a unpromising traipse along the route of the former main road between Tarbert and Leverbrough.

Once off the road, you drop down a side road into the old township of Aird Mhighe, the starting point for the Coffin Road. From here there is now a good path all the way across, laid with gravel in places and stone channels for the frequent streams; there are also marker posts at useful intervals. It’s not a particularly hard walk now, relative low-lying compared to many of the mountain walks further north but it’s easy to see how those coffin-bearers would have struggled all the way across without the modern path. There is certainly a sense of desolation as you get to the top of the pass, nothing in sight apart from rocky and marshy hillsides. However, without a solemn duty myself, cresting the last rise through the pass was a delight as the Luskentyre sands were laid out below. The sun had come out as I walked up the track and it dazzled as the tide had gone out to reveal the sands of differing shades of gold, cream, steel. The water, as it laps across the beach is of the most incredible colours, ranging from dark blues and greens to an almost electric turquoise. Heading down the hill as the Coffin Road comes to an end is on a better made track and eventually meets the main north-south road again. I crossed it and walked back along the lane to Luskentyre – views of the beach and its bays all the way home. 

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The Thin Green Line

Sitting in the Protection caravan with drops falling heavy on the roof and streams running down the windows, it’s easy to feel cocooned and shut in away from the unwelcoming outdoors. It’s not warm inside though, spring has yet to make itself felt too much here and the thin walls let the cold creep in barely hindered. An occasional passing steam train rumbles through, shaking the little home on its wheels and disturbing the peace, both inside and out. There’s little to do but sit and wait for time to creep on and the rain and its bearing clouds to pass.

There are now a few more signs in the valley that the season is starting to gather pace, with the chorus of birds stronger than it was. Now there’s a constant calling, yet to be exuberant, but more intense than it was across the meadows and through the woods. The tumbling chaffinch, tunefully repeating song thrush, pipiting pipit, forceful wren, melancholic blackbird, whisping dunnock, drumming woodpecker; they are all joining in now to the expanding orchestra. There are visible signs too, much of the land still looks to be in its winter malaise but here and there, a few pointers to returning life are starting to appear. The bramble and hawthorn are breaking their leaf buds bringing vibrant, bright green flashes to surrounding dark greens, browns and coppers. The primrose leaves are growing out from the undergrowth, the riverbed plants are coming to life but brightest of all, though, is the gorse, with the stunning yellow standing out above the rest.

When the rain finally ceases, I leave behind the shelter and wander down to the bridge over the river. No otter footprints this time and it is running low despite the recent heaving rains. Leaning back on the railings I observe the nearby copse around the craggy outcrop in the middle the wet meadows. There are now two figures perched on branch reaching out from the giant nest. A relief has swept through a group of watchers as first one, then the other, returned to their summer home.

Last week there was some concern that the female osprey wouldn’t be returning this year but just 24 hours after my shift she landed on nest, completing her biannual epic journey between Africa and Wales. She was late back according to her usual timekeeping but given the recent weather, Beasts for the East and all that, it’s not too surprising. It wasn’t until later in the week that her mate for the last three years safely returned to the nest. No one was quite sure it was him as their behaviour was a little different to their first meetings in the last two years. However, they seem to be getting on more than fine and collecting nesting material; in fact they were getting on very well at least five times during my shift.  

It was an interesting shift, watching the newly arrived pair settling into their nest again and making improvements. They made several visits to the neighbouring fields to collect twigs and grass to bolster the nest. On one such trip, the female came within 100 metres of me, slowly drifted down and plucked some grass from the ground. I managed to get a photo but unfortunately it’s a bit blurred.

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I had a visit from the local Police during my stay, just popping in to say hello and see how things were progressing. Despite the great pressures the Police are under across a whole range of their duties, it’s great to see them continuing to take an active interest in this project, and wildlife crime in general. It’s sometimes forgotten amongst the dramas unfolding on our computer screens that the first priority of the Glaslyn Wildlife team is the protection of the nest and birds, and, hopefully, the eggs and chicks they will nurture. There are people, either in the area and further afield, who may wish the nest harm and there are others who could cause harm unintentionally; we’re here with the support of the Police and others to ensure that harm doesn’t happen.

Here in the Glaslyn Valley, across the UK, and beyond, there is a ‘Thin Green Line’ of professionals and volunteers trying to protect the environment and wildlife, without whom our world would be in an even poorer state than it already is. This may be one nest, but it’s a precious one in helping to re-establish a thriving osprey population across Wales.

Easter day survey

A breeding bird survey seemed like the great way to start off Easter Day. I went to my Cheshire Wildlife Trust survey site for the second time this spring and walked from one end to the other recording the birds in each separate area. The Bagmere reserve has a mixture of (very) wet pasture, woodland and fen, providing quite a variety of habitats for different birds.

The weather was just about perfect, with clear, sunny skies, no rain and a very light wind. However, the temperature was in single figures and I can’t quite believe that I still had to go out wearing thermals to do a survey in April! The birdlife also showed signs of the cold weather with the calls and songs still subdued. The only possible spring migrants were chiffchaffs but these could be wintering birds. In the distance, off the reserve, several curlews made their haunting, wild calls; they should be moving up to the  moors but at present will be kept at lower levels by the recent snows.

Again, the willow tits were absent, which is a shame but I’ll just have to see if they appear, along with all the migrants, when I do the last two spring surveys in May and June.

At the end of the survey, I stopped and stood overlooking the fen in the sunshine, listening to a sky lark sing high up in the air above the reserve – just about a perfect 10 minutes of spring.

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A battle between winter and spring

Turning onto the wooded track, through the narrow gateway, there are no signs that spring is here; it’s as if this corner of the land has been kept dormant when others areas are starting to come back to life. I left behind sights of bursting flowers, of greening grass and of sprouting leaves; here, there is only silence, except for the crunching of windblown twigs under my wheels. The birds still seem to be in survival mode against the harsh winter, no sound coming from them as I pass alongside the moss covered stone walls and rusting bracken beneath the entanglements of the oak tree woodland. Beyond the trees, there is still more silence, across the wet meadows and the low flowing river. The dampness is hanging in the air, drops covering the windscreen and then my clothes as I leave my car behind. The breeze still has an icy edge, adding to the feeling that winter is still dominant over the land in this valley bottom.

The distant mountain tops have a covering of snow but the slopes beneath are left bare of ice but also bare of green; the greys and browns of the colder months remain unbroken by any bright, fresh growth of the new season. There are only the occasional signs that changes are finally coming; a pair of buzzards circle distantly on stronger winds, plummeting and rising again in their rollercoaster display. The woodpeckers are also making themselves heard, yaffling and drumming amongst the trees. Besides these few, there seems to be nothing to point to the burst of energy that spring will bring – it’s late and it’s not the only thing that is.

As the day moves on, the clouds begin to break, the dark grey punctuated by white and occasional blue. The sun bursts through, striking the land with light and warmth but these are soon whisked away by the strengthening wind, not yet at its peak. With some brightness come stirrings from the woods and more sound spills down the hillsides and across the fields. A blackbird calls tentatively and dunnocks sing thinly along the top of the wall. A chaffinch chirps in amongst the gorse and a meadow pipit calls as it flits between the stands of long grass. The snow starts to fade from the nearer mountains, all but disappearing as the sun raises the land above freezing. It is only Snowdon, mostly hidden in cloud, than remains beneath its white blanket.

All too soon the day starts to ebb and as the light begins to fall, a song thrush serenades from a high branch and the cloud closes in once more.

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Still in silence, there, across the meadows and river, sits an empty nest, ready for the returning pair of ospreys. The long term tenant would usually be back by now, she’s been back before this date for the past 13 years and is now at least a week or ten days late. She’s not the youngest of birds, she’s at least 16, if not 17, so getting past her prime, perhaps. Her younger partner for the last three years, isn’t late, he’s been arriving in mid to late April since he’s been the male at this nest. However, hopes are perhaps fading that we will see the female again, although it must be said that only one ‘known’ osprey has so far been seen in Wales this year, so there is still hope.

Even if she doesn’t return, hope should not be dimmed, however, as this would be just one certainty of life showing true. The nest remains, and there are other ospreys who will be interested in claiming this spot as their own. Over the years there has been an increasing level of intrusions on the nest and surrounding area by ospreys prospecting for an opportunity. It only takes one of the females to land and claim it. What matters is not that one osprey has not or may not return but that more and more ospreys altogether successfully head south at the end of our summer, have somewhere safe and food-rich to over-winter and then make the hazardous return journey to breed in our lands again.

Setting off from home this morning, the dawn came with a damp, grey murk hanging over the flat Cheshire fields and the early morning light had all but been extinguished as I crossed into Wales. Climbing slowly into the hills, the damp turned into light rain and further on into sleet. Breaking out past Bala and up through the higher hills (it’s always Bala where the weather gets worse), the sleet turned into heavy snow and the temperature dipped below zero. Up past the lake the road started to be covered and as the forest opened into fields again there were just two tyre tracks in each direction. Upwards still and the cars were down to a crawl and the tracks all but disappeared. It was only as I dropped down into the Dolgellau road that the snow stopped and the tarmac came back. As I got to Portmadog, it was as if the snow had never been.

I posted this piece seven hours into my eight hour shift and there had been no sign of an osprey – no sign at all – this will have been my first ever osprey shift without seeing an osprey. I’ve got another shift next week – here’s hoping for an osprey, familiar or not.

I spent the chilly day in the protection caravan or wandering to the bridge and back. It was very quiet altogether with very little going on. However, I did find otter prints down on the banks of the river. They are seen quite regularly at the Visitor Centre and occasionally at Protection but finding the prints is the closest to a sighting I’ve had here so far – maybe I’ll have better luck in the Isle of Harris in a couple of weeks’ time.

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It’s been long winter and it still doesn’t seem to have given up in its fight with spring – I just long for some proper and prolonged spring weather – it’s April tomorrow after all!

A proper spring day – at last!!!

I’ve spent today on a task with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV) at a forest school near Barthomley. We spent a few hours coppicing, dead-hedging, making stakes and clearing nettles. The stand out for the day really was the weather, however, a really lovely spring day. The sun came out, giving real warmth, clouds were lighter and fluffier than they have been for a long time, and the birds were in full song. The plants were also really starting to show spring growth with some trees breaking into leaf and the wild garlic and bluebells growing on the woodland floor.

The afternoon was so nice, I actually sat in my deckchair in the back garden when I got home – if only my cold had gone away, it would have been a perfect day!

A new bird survey site

Having given up one of my two bird surveys sites I’ve been doing for Cheshire Wildlife Trust (due to the difficulty of accessing the site), I felt the need to find another location to survey. So, I offered my limited skills to one of my local volunteering colleagues who has a smallholding not far from where I live.

This morning I set out just after 7:00am and spent half an hour or so monitoring the birds along a 500m transect from the house to the far end of the plot. The smallholding is largely open pastureland with hedges and a few large trees but with a plantation in one corner.

The birds were all typical of the Cheshire landscape in spring except for the large mixed flock of winter thrushes, perhaps delayed in their migration north by the recent cold weather. There was also a passing of around 200 gulls as I started off.

The nicest record was a buzzard sat in one of the trees along a hedgerow – it’s nest can be seen from the window of the farmhouse kitchen window – lovely.

I’ll be going back again in May/June to do a follow up survey and hopefully there’ll be a few new species on the list.

Sun rising on a new osprey season

As the sun rises at the end of a long winter, a last flourish of the colder months takes away the tentative heat from the first light. Showers of crystal blown on a sharp, cutting breeze coat every surface with ice. The landscape lies dormant under a frost, snow reaching down the hill sides into the sheltered valley. At its base the river runs dark and deep with meltwater swelling its reach and the cloud cover shadowing the bed from sight. Only the hardy ones venture out from shelter into the unwelcoming day, or those without a place to hide from the harshest of dawns.

This should be a time of birth and rebirth but all is on hold as the weather sends a reminder of who is really in charge in the valley. No spring is the same as the last and this year, it’s late arriving, hopes given by a bright day or two have been dashed by a beast and its smaller sibling. They have kept the life along the Glaslyn in place when many should be moving on. The whooper swans are still in the meadows, the fieldfares and redwings are gathered to travel north but kept from journey’s start by the easterlies and northerlies. The starlings, too, are still in their winter groups, gathering in great swirling masses, evading fate as the last flight comes at the end of the frozen day.

There is a single early arrival from the south, on time but possibly out of time. It flies low over the river surface searching for what insects remain from previous milder days. As its energy wanes the search becomes slower and less focussed. The cold and wind eventually force it onto a low branch to wait out a final snow shower of the day as the light fades to darkness matching the water below.

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It’s easy to take things for granted, to see the familiar as ordinary, to miss the detail and only focus on the obvious. I’ve been struggling to find a new ‘angle’ for my Glaslyn posts – trying to find a new way to tell the story I’ve told in my blogs for three years now. However, each spring is different, this spring especially so, thus far. I’ve decided to stop trying to find an angle at all and just write about what I see.

Last Saturday was the opening of ‘Osprey Season’ with the annual get together of volunteers prior to the visitor centre opening and the first protection shifts starting. I couldn’t quite believe that this will year be my seventh volunteering in the Glaslyn Valley, most of the time spent at the protection site, both day and night. This spring I’ve got my name down for a couple of night shifts, which I can’t wait to do. They’re very special; spending the night in the valley surrounded by nature, bats flying around and badgers and foxes foraging in the fields. On a calm bright morning, standing on the bridge listening to the dawn chorus takes some beating.

The paragraph about the early arrival is actually a reference to a sand martin seen on the Wirral last Sunday. When it arrived from the south, it had been whirring around the ponds and lakes but as the cold got a grip and the insects became more scarce, its flight became slower and its wing beats fainter. I haven’t heard what has happened to it but the fading of the Mini Beast may not have come soon enough.

Just less than a couple of weeks until my first shift!