Photo: Tealasbhaigh, Isle of Lewis
Before I climbed the steep little path towards Loch Gruineabhat, leaving Tamnabhaigh behind, I stowed my OS Explorer 458, and replaced it with 456, spreading the battered old map gingerly before folding it carefully into my map bag. I had walked across one map, and now I was starting my second. This one is worn and coming apart at the seams from constant use, but I have never explored this far north on it before. If you are following my progress, you need to start at NB 043 200 on OS Explorer 456. You will see a tiny dotted line entering the map from the north and joining a thin blue line representing a busy wee burn draining Loch Gruineabhat, into the river I just crossed at Tamnabhaigh.
So yes, I am on a path. A sign that I am close to human habitation and that this stream and loch are useful to those presently living an isolated existence in the lodge at Tamnabhaigh. In fact, small horseshoe prints in the mud told me that a pony had been up here recently. Ponies were traditionally widely used throughout the highlands and islands to help with stalking until quads became the preferred mode of transport, but this is not a quad friendly path. The sure footed small native pony has picked his or her way up the steep zig zag single track with ease. I follow. When we reach a stream crossing, we both look at it and decide to go on a bit further to see if there was an easier place to cross. There is, and when we reach the edge of the loch, the pony goes one way, while I decide to go the other.
The point where the burn exits this pretty loch has been managed. Walls have been built from small boulders and rocks on each side, creating a pinch point which is easy to dam. This is common ancient technology in the Hebrides. Whenever you reach a loch with any elevation, it is worth examining the spot where the water leaves it on its quest for the sea. You are likely to see the remains of a simple dam system which would have allowed the force of the descending water to have been amplified at will, providing 'on tap' hydro power to drive heavy flat circular millstones further downstream, milling corn into flour.
This tells us that people were growing arable crops in this seemingly inhospitable environment, in sufficient abundance to provide their own daily bread. These mill streams date back to the iron age. Simple, effective technology that works in remote locations powered by nothing other than rainfall have not been redundant for long in The Hebrides. I wondered when this dam had last been used.
By now it was mid morning and the sun was warm. The glossy surface of the loch reflected the bright blue of the sky, and the puffy clouds moving across it. It looked inviting. I followed the shoreline round to the west until I found a nice little gravel beach. I didn't have a towel, but I planned to use my fleece. I was aware that the game keeper could make an appearance at any moment, so I didn't strip right off, I just enjoyed a very quick refreshing dip and changed into clean underwear afterwards, which felt amazing.*
Dried and dressed, I took up my pack and poles and set off into a fantasy landscape of vertical craggy dragons' backs, interspersed with lush green meadows. I knew the lushness meant extremely wet and potentially boggy, so I scanned for deer tracks to show me safe ways to proceed. The deer tracks were just faint straight lines through the knee high grasses. I couldn't see them unless I was in line with them, and even then, squinting helped. If I was walking the right way, their tracks were all around me, and fanning out in front of me like fingers dragged over velvet. I imagined the herd moving swiftly and gracefully through this elevated valley, and I could see by fresh droppings that they were not far away.
My thoughts turned, as I walked, to the pros and cons of paths. I found that I was much more alert and aware of my exact location when I was not relying on a path. I would have never noticed the deer tracks if I had a path to follow. I wouldn't have learned the names of the dragon backs if I hadn't needed to confirm which features matched up with them on the map; thereby checking my exact location. I was feeling more secure and confident than I have on many occasions when I have inadvertently 'switched off' on a path, and subsequently come to, not quite sure how far I have walked since the last secure point of reference.
The elevated lush meadow that I had been tramping through, narrowed at the far end, bringing me close to another stream. This one takes all the water collected in this boggy area down into Tealasbhaigh- the mysterious cove that I had longed to visit for so long. I was nearly there!
High ground on my right had been obscuring any glimpses of the sea, but I could smell it; the salt in the air, and the tang of rotting seaweed, becoming more distinct with every step.
Following the stream I soon came across the most enormous boulder. It really was immense, as in the size of a small house. It was leaning against the sheer side of the valley with one or two only slightly smaller friends propping it into place. Behind, under and between, were rooms, carpeted in moss and dried grass. Deer had been in there, but so had humans. The tell-tale brightly coloured broken plastic bucket, half submerged in peaty mud, matched those used by my neighbouring crofters for feeding their sheep. There were also a couple of plastic water bottles and an empty quarter bottle of whisky. I was sure that this incredible erratic pile has provided shelter for people making this same journey between two sheltered coastal areas for millennia. It would also make a great hiding place or even ambush point. I wondered whether Tealasbhaigh ever had reason to guard itself, either from land or sea. The settlement at Tealasbhaigh was cleared by wealthy landowners to make way for sheep farming back in the 18th Century. Did the villagers put up a fight?
My imagination was already firing as I rounded the corner and filled my gaze with the splendour of this fully secluded sea loch with its own bay and bewitching ruined settlement.
The whole place has a wonderful feeling of enclosure. High inland cliffs provide a back drop for the village lazy beds*, which scar the grassy area behind the stony bay. The bay is therefore flanked by higher ground on both sides and cliffs behind. In front there is a beautiful large lagoon-like sea loch, protected from the force of the Atlantic by a narrow opening; the wiggly horizons provided by the knobbly hills on both sides of the opening draw their lines gently down to sea level, giving up only a narrow window onto the wider world. And the only thing the inhabitants of Tealasbhaigh could see through that window was the Atlantic Ocean, and a very small island. But which island?? Much too small to be Mhealasta or Scarp...
My mental map had no answers, so I made my way down onto the fine deer-cropped lawns surrounding the cosy ruins of a small black house to find a lunch spot, open out the map, and investigate.
*Never use soap or shampoo if you are washing in wild waters, not even environmentally friendly stuff. Unless you can vouch for the positive effects of all the ingredients on microscopic life, its better to remain a bit smelly.
*Lazy beds are the inaptly named long parallel ridges that can be seen all over the Hebrides. They are evidence of (often recent) cultivation. The ditches between the mounded beds were cleared regularly to maintain drainage. Seaweed, sand and manure were added to the beds, mounding them up over the years. They are known in Gaelic as feannagan and to others in Scotland as runrigs. This method of cultivation was widespread and successful. Oats, barley and potatoes were the most common crops during recent centuries, but many of the oldest lazy beds will pre-date potatoes. It is hard to know when their use began; some of them could be as old as farming itself. They have only fallen out of common use in Harris and Lewis during the latest generation.