The entrance to a mysterious beehive hut. This (unlike the beehive huts I write about below) can be reached on foot in a half day round trip from our base at Miabhag Nam Beann. To see it, book a 'medium' walk and make a note on your booking that you would like to see the beehive huts.
Feeling rather like a cat that has only used up 2 of its 9 lives, I headed away from the bothy, following Abhainn Chlair Bhig upstream. The wonderful hat fitted onto my head securely; its brim shading my face from the summer sun which was already climbing high despite the early hour. To say I felt invincible would be an over statement, but I was definitely buoyed up by this gift from the universe and took it as a sign that today would be another great day after all.
This little river meanders about as much as it possibly can, occupying a marshy flood plain surrounded on all sides by tall cone shaped mounds of glacial moraine. Following the course of the river would have been daft, so I cut as straight a line as possible through the lumpy, wet terrain. As I left the river to cut across one of the many S bends, I suddenly came across a small group of hinds asleep in the sun with their calves. They were nestled between hummocks of long grass and I was only a very few metres downwind of them. They had not sensed me and were each fast asleep in the morning sun with their heads tucked neatly across their backs, noses resting under a hindleg. I stopped in my tracks and peered at them through dew jewelled stems. One of the calves was spread eagled on its side, ears twitching to ward off flies, impossibly long legs sprawled, delicate ankles crossed, soft hairy belly rising and falling in silent slumber. Another calf was curled up tightly in a nest of long grass. I didn’t spot it at first thanks to the classic Bambi markings on its back providing perfect camouflage in the dappled sunlight.
I must have stood there for five minutes or more just taking this in.
This is a real advantage of walking without the company of a dog. You really can watch wildlife much more intimately. I felt bad that I was about to wake them. Not just wake them but startle them too. There was no way round whereby I could remain undetected by those sharp ears and sensitive noses. I kept my distance and called to them gently. A head popped up on a long slender neck, ears revolved back in my direction, listening. A second later she was on her feet. The babies needed no telling, they were by their mothers’ sides instantly, and flowing away into the moraine beside them on those long slender legs, already absolutely foot sure.
There is something very special in this secluded glen, which I wanted to find. There is a collection of beehive huts, one of which is all but complete; only missing its cap stone. They are marked on the map, but they are easily missed as they are exactly the same shape and size as the many lumpy moraine deposits that are a bewildering feature of this landscape. I fixed my position on the map using the crazy bends in the river and took a bearing to the ‘beehive huts’ at NB117 147. They were only 500m away, but I certainly couldn’t spot them.
On this terrain I am carefully bumbling along at about 3km per hour, so 500m will take me roughly 10 minutes. I set off on my bearing and crossed the meandering river twice before 10 minutes was up. I looked around me. Where were they? I was surrounded by small mounds of moraine, but none were huts….or were they? I looked behind me, and yes, there was a small dark opening, about waist high, into the mound. With a double take I realised I was staring at a turf and moss covered, partially collapsed, circular stone shelter.
Wow, they really were hiding in plain sight.*
The double moraine lumps in front of me actually were two more huts; one built as a sort of extension on the other, and the main one was the almost complete beehive hut with the missing capstone. I balanced my pack carefully on a large boulder and dropped to crawl through the low dark entrance. A huge lichen speckled hunk of gneiss formed the lintel to this tiny doorway. Inside, the floor was of verdant moss, adorned with a striped Merlin tail feather, stuck into the soft spongy cushion just as if it had been placed. I stood up. The circular room is just the right height for a human to stand in the centre, and it would be a cosy squeeze for four or five people in to sit in a circle. There are three alcoves in the wall at ground level, one of which connects with the next-door hut. A very tall person could pop their head out of the top of this hut, due to the missing cap, but even a small person such as me could see that a small raptor had been using the top of the hut as a plucking perch, where he or she had been feasting on meadow pippets. There were tiny downy under-feathers strewn around the heather and moss growing on the building, along with two coughed up pellets containing tiny claws and beaks. It really is a bird eat bird world out here!
Theories about the age and origins for these beehive huts are up for grabs. They are certainly stone age in construction style. Unfeasibly large unworked rocks have been used to create an igloo shape; skill and gravity work together to exclude the need for mortar. This mini dome was then thatched with a thick layer of turf, which quickly resumed life as usual and provided insulation, cohesion and perfect camouflage. Most of the turf coverings have gradually weathered away over the centuries, exposing the stonework, and leaving it prone to collapse. Often we happen across a cluster of rock circlets in especially green and sheltered nooks throughout the hills. These were all beehive dwellings once upon a time. Like all hunter gatherer shelters, they were built using materials to hand, and had no negative environmental impact on their surroundings.
Thanks to Callanais and many other ancient standing stones up and down the Hebrides, we know that there have been people living here for at least 7,000 years. as far as you or I know, these shelters could have been built at any time along that timeline. As such, theories as to their origin and use are varied and difficult to disprove. I believe that they have provided shelter for foragers over centuries at least. Current islanders have a folk memory of sheilings being the happy hideouts of teenagers who were sent up into the hills in May and June to graze the family cow on the fresh new grass as the hills finally succumb to spring and turn green. Families would have been cooped up in the black houses for the long dark months of winter, along with the cow, who had been providing warmth, milk, cheese, and even blood to the family. Little wonder they kept her so close; usually in adjoining accommodation to the family. But also little wonder that the cow needed the best grass, and some space to roam and build up her muscle again, as soon as the onslaughts of the Hebridean winter subsided. The adults would equally desperate to be rid of the older children for a few weeks, and for the kids it was the rite of passage into adulthood. The youngsters would have learned valuable survival skills such as hunting rabbits, and, presumably the beloved cow would continue to provide them with valuable nourishment on their unsupervised adventure.
This little cluster of beehive cells feels ancient.* They are situated at the meeting of two small rivers and three minor tributaries. The grazing in this glen would undoubtedly have been good, but as I made my way further upstream, I became convinced of a difinative reason for building these shelters here in the first place. I found that above the huts, the riverbed of the Abhainn a Chlair Bhig transforms into a very pretty smooth stone stairway of waterfalls interspersed with shallow pools. I really enjoyed the climb, finding plenty of dry grippy gneiss on which to step, smoothed to a perfect finish by the river when in spate. This is a natural salmon ladder. Right from the beginning of human settlement on this island, this would have been a perfect place for a forager to snatch a magnificent fish as they leapt up nature's steps from pool to pool. I could imagine myself, standing in the clear golden water, bare toes gripping gneiss though a thin film of ooze, waiting for one to leap straight into my arms! Surely this must have been the scene here annually over many centuries; the beehive shelters below, providing a perfect salmon fishing base camp for each bountiful summer.
*Robert Macfarlane describes finding these beehive huts in his book 'The Old Ways'. Like me, he had to double check his map work before realising he was right on top of them. His phrase 'architecture as camouflage' hits the nail right on the head.
The huts are described in the chapter named 'Peat' which is an account of Robert's attempts to find and follow 'Manus' Path'. I was not trying to follow Manus' Path, but I certainly took notice of some of Manus' markers when finding my first sheiling camp in the Lewis Hills. My route to Harris was different to Robert's, so maybe I stumbled upon even older ways, whose names and creators are now forgotten.
*If you would like to see these amazing artefacts for yourself, we can take you. Just book a full day 'wild challenge' hike. Make a note on your booking that you would like to see the Reasort Beehive Huts. Both full and half day wild walks (to visit beehive sheilings at your request) can be booked now. Online Scheduler for Wild Harris (schedulista.com)