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Hiking Scotland’s haunted islands



From JaneAnne’s bothy on the isle of Gometra, looking toward the isle of Ulva. Click here for high-resolution version.


Mull, Ulva, and Gometra, September 2018

To the regular readers of this blog: Blog posts often have a long life, as people Google for the terms and tags included in the post. Lots of people hike the Scottish isles, so partly this post is structured to be helpful to people who may be doing research for hiking in the Scottish isles.

The hikers


Ken Ilgunas (left) and David Dalton in Edinburgh, September 2018. David is the author of this blog post.

For more than eight years, we have been literary confederates. But this was our first real hike together. Ken is the author of:

Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road From Debt to Freedom (2013)

Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland (2016)

This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back (2018).

Ken’s small-press titles include:

The McCandless Mecca: A Pilgrimage to the Magic Bus of the Stampede Trail.

If there is such a thing as a professional hiker and adventurer, then Ken is one. David, two months away from his 70th birthday, trained all summer for the hike. David is the author of two science fiction novels:

Fugue in Ursa Major (2014)

Oratorio in Ursa Major (2016)

About the photos


Looking down toward Lochbuie from the eastern shoulder of Ben Buie. Click here for high-resolution version.

To prevent the page from loading too slowly, all the photos’ resolution has been reduced. For most of the photos, a link is provided to pull up the high-resolution version. The photos are by David unless they are tagged with Ken’s name.

Layers and layers of hauntedness


A ghost village left by the Clearances. The village is near Calgary on the isle of Mull. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.

Europeans are well aware of their long history on the land, though much of that history has been lost except to archeology. We Americans, on the other hand, are deeply impressed by the oldness. In places such as the Scottish isles, humans have occupied the land for so long that even the ruined castles are relatively new. In Oban, the day before we took the ferry to the isle of Mull, I found just the right reading material in a book store. That was Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton. It’s an academic book published by Yale University Press. The author is a professor of history at the University of Bristol. The book is a detailed, no-nonsense, unromanticized study of what we know about the earliest inhabitants of the British Isles. Anatomically modern humans, Hutton says, were in northwestern Europe from about 42,000 B.C. From about 10,000 B.C. forward, the findings of archeologists are very rich. But the problem is interpreting those findings.

The prehistoric standing stones and barrows, of which there are a great many in Britain, present mysteries about our ancestors that we probably will never really understand. But in the case of a 15th Century castle, we know much, much more. More recently, in the Scottish isles, the 19th Century Highland Clearances are still a living memory. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, thousands of Highland families were cruelly forced off the land. The land was turned over to aristocrats, largely for sheep farming to feed the wool industry. The cultural loss was devastating. The Highlands have never really recovered from the depopulation, though efforts are now under way to repopulate some of the islands, including Ulva.

If you go for a long hike in Scotland, you probably will feel the ghostly presence of the people who, for thousands of years, have lived on this land. We felt this most strongly on the isle of Gometra, a smallish island with only two permanent residents. We spent three days in a bothy with no electricity, eating food that we carried in (an eight-mile walk across the isle of Ulva is required to get there) and cooked over a camping cooker. In the evening, we sat by a coal fire, with a candle and our headlamps for lighting.

Here are some of our photos.


Standing stones near Lochbuie on the isle of Mull. Click here for high-resolution version.


Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Moy castle (15th Century), near Lochuie on the isle of Mull. Click here for high-resolution version.


JaneAnne’s bothy on the isle of Gometra. Click here for high-resolution version.


JaneAnne’s bothy. Click here for high-resolution version.


Cooking on Gometra. The home-baked bread was a gift from a B&B-keeper near Calgary. Click here for high-resolution version.


Cooking on Gometra. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


The bridge between Ulva and Gometra, at low tide. Click here for high-resolution version.


Island-hoppers, who often put in here in fine weather, call this “the harbor” between Ulva and Gometra. Click here for high-resolution version.


The big house on Gometra. Click here for high-resolution version.


Gometra, looking across the channel from Ulva. JaneAnne’s bothy is a the lower center-right, and the big house is near the top. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


The long hike across Ulva to Gometra. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


From Ulva, looking toward Mull. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


A wary herd of deer on Ulva. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


A fleeing stag on Ulva. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


A haunted evening begins on the isle of Gometra. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Hiking through bracken on Ulva. It was September, and the bracken was turning brown. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Ulva has no roads — only narrow tracks that are often muddy or covered with water. Click here for high-resolution version.


Photo by Ken Ilgunas


Crossing Ulva to get to Gometra. Click here for high-resolution version.


Ulva. Click here for high-resolution version.


The ferry between Mull and Ulva. Click here for high-resolution version.


Ulva. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Ulva, looking toward Mull. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Haunted Ulva. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Haunted Ulva. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Sheep on Ulva. Try not to get dizzy. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


The memorial, which he himself built, to the man who brought the Clearances to Ulva. Photo by Ken Ilgunas.


Ken, on Mull.


David, at Oban. Photo by Ken Ilgunas.


Ken, near Calgary on Mull. Click here for high-resolution version.


Near Calgary on Mull. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Heather, near Calgary on Mull. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


It his said that the last resident of his village, now a ghost village near Calgary, hanged himself on this tree after the Clearances of the 19th Century. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Ken, near Calgary.


Oban. Photo by Ken Ilgunas.


Oban. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Oban.


From the ferry, near Oban. Click here for high-resolution version.


From the ferry, near Oban.


Tobermory. Click here for high-resolution version.


Tobermory. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Lockbuie, from the side of Ben Buie. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Lockbuie, from the side of Ben Buie. Click here for high-resolution version.


Ben Buie (altitude 717 meters, 2,352 feet) from near Lochbuie. We climbed it, ascending along the long ridge of the shoulder to the right, and descending by the steep rock face and bog land facing the camera. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Ken at the crest of Ben Buie. We started at sea level and gained this altitude on foot. At times there were sheep tracks on the way up Ben Buie, but rarely was there anything that looked like a trail. Click here for high-resolution version.


Lochbuie from the crest of Ben Buie. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


David on the ascent of Ben Buie. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


David on the ascent of Ben Buie. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


Working my way up the long ridge toward the crest of Ben Buie. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


David on the descent from Ben Buie. I’ve cleared the worst of the rocks, but at least 2,000 feet of scree and bog are still below me. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.


If you hike the Scottish isles, you will be walking in bogs. The bogs are everywhere, whether you are high or low. Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.

Those who live here

If you stay in bed and breakfasts, and if you get out and about, you will meet many of the people who live here (and the creatures they keep). I often wondered how they maintain such a good attitude toward visitors, because the pressure of tourism must be stressful at times.

Still, living in such an old land, and with such long memories, I suspect that those who live in these haunted islands are very much aware that we are all just passing through. And, especially with Americans, I think that the locals often assume (and correctly so) that many visitors come to Scotland to seek their family roots. The diaspora caused by the Highland Clearances has a way of coming home. Those whose ancestors were forced to leave have an enduring claim on this land. The local respects that.

Most of the readers of this blog, like me, are not particularly young. The day will come when the young will leave us behind, and soon enough even the young will have their turn at being old. Until then, keep up with the young for as long as you can. Make sure that they know your stories. Prepare them for being haunted. Hauntedness is a good thing.

Roc Sandford, who owns the haunted isle of Gometra, wrote a little book that you can buy in the honesty store there. He closes his book with these lines:

“And I have not spoken of Gometra’s subconscious, which can be felt distinctly by the unearthly and unearthed, an alluvial mix of misery and enchantment, laid down by all those who lived here once and are now gone, and to whom we too shall soon be joined.”


Photo by Ken Ilgunas


Photo by Ken Ilgunas


Photo by Ken Ilgunas


Photo by Ken Ilgunas


Photo by Ken Ilgunas

A few notes

I was in a bit of a rush to get these photos on line. During the next week or two, there probably will be updates, additions, and corrections.

A note on our accommodations: We used Airbnb. We spent three days at Mornish Schoolhouse near Calgary, three days at JaneAnne’s bothy on Gometra, and three days at the Laggan Farm annex near Lochbuie. All three of these places were fantastic. If you’re off the beaten track on Mull, be sure to have a plan for where you’ll eat or buy groceries.


Photo by Ken Ilgunas. Click here for high-resolution version.

A photo a day, #8



Click here for high-resolution version.

Tourism is the cornerstone of the Scottish economy and accounts for something like 10 percent of Scotland’s jobs. Without tourism, rural areas of Scotland would surely be poor. The tourism industry in Scotland seems well aware of the importance of food in making tourists happy. Odds are that, as long as you aren’t too far off the beaten path and can find a restaurant, it will be a good one. The irony, though, is that traditional Scottish fare is hard to find. Instead, most restaurants serve what I call international Mediterranean tourist cuisine. The breads are superb and are usually baked by the restaurant that serves it. The seafood is extraordinary and locally sourced. Menus will often tell you the names of the local fishermen who supply the different types of seafood. The ales, not to mention the whisky, may be local, too.

Above is Lobster Thermidor at the Boat House restaurant on the isle of Ulva. The isle of Ulva is off the beaten path (the ferry that gets you to the island is a small motorboat). And yet the Boat House served some of the best — and the most reasonably priced — food that we had. Most visitors to Ulva come over on the ferry, go for a short walk, have lunch, and return to Mull.

The downside of food in Scotland is that the grocery stores — even in Edinburgh — are not very good. You’ll find plenty of good bacon, but the produce leaves much to be desired, both in quality and variety. So that’s an economic niche just begging to be filled in Scotland — small farms growing good produce. In a restaurant garden on the isle of Iona, I saw some of the most beautiful celery I’ve seen. Such celery would make a fine export.

A photo a day, #7



Click here for high-resolution version.

I now have Ken’s photos — almost 4 gigabytes’ worth. So I can now start to put together a proper photo essay on exploring the Scottish isles. Above: On the slopes of Ben Buie on the isle of Mull.

A photo a day, #6



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The Scottish isles are a land of water, rock, and sky. Though, if you look down at your feet, you’ll probably find that you’re standing in moor, or bog. To explore the Scottish isles, plan on getting your feet wet. This photo was taken from the ferry landing on Ulva, looking back toward Mull.

A photo a day, #5



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Rural areas in the United Kingdom seem to have kept most of their old phone booths. Many of them appear to still work, and some have signs offering Internet connections. This one is near Lochbuie on the isle of Mull.

A photo a day, #4



Click here for high-resolution version.

I’m saving my better photos for a long mega-post. But here’s another daily photo until I can pull the mega-post together. Much of this trip was spent hiking, hiking, and more hiking, across moor, moor, and more moor.

A photo a day, #3



Click here for high-resolution version.

The abbey on Iona is a heavily visited tourist destination. It was, easily, the least interesting place on the four Scottish islands that Ken and I visited — Mull, Ulva, Gometra, and Iona. The isle of Iona itself, though small, is fertile and beautiful. But, to me, the abbey is just another outpost of the ugly Roman religion, which as it metastasized over the centuries destroyed superior cultures on earth as effectively and mercilessly as a mile-wide asteroid.

The abbey on Iona was founded by Saint Columba, who was from Ireland, in 563. Some archeological remnants of the early settlement remain, but the current building dates from the 13th Century. The building has been heavily restored and is now packed with tourists, many of whom seem to consider visiting Iona a kind of New Age pilgrimage. I always get a bad vibe from evangelicals. I felt that bad vibe very strongly on Iona, particularly inside the church, which has a loft fitted out with all the electronics that is used these days for “praise” music in evangelical churches. It’s an odd mixture — such an old church with such hip (and probably made in America) music. But they’re definitely raking in the dough, just as Saint Columba did by catering to rich clan chieftains.

According to Wikipedia, Saint Columba was the great-great grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the 5th Century Irish king who is said to have brought Patrick to Ireland. Though King Niall, technically, is prehistoric, there is all sorts of evidence, including genetic evidence, that he was a real person and that he left a great many descendants. In fact, DNA testing shows that I have the genetic marker of Niall’s descendants (the marker is common in Ireland, especially in the north). However, if I am descended from Niall, the greater-by-far odds are that I’m of bastard descent, whereas Columba was legitimate. Though the interpretation of the Y-chromosome marker for Niall’s descendants has been questioned, nevertheless I interpret the DNA evidence as a pretty reliable indicator that my own pagan ancestors were in Ireland during the 5th Century. Thus my own ancestors were caught up in the Christianization of Ireland and Scotland. For that reason, I take rather personally what I see as genocide — the Christian destruction of pagan cultures. To me, the saints Patrick and Columba represent an enduring shame, as those of us who live in Christianized cultures continue the work of throwing the Roman religion off our backs — its crummy texts, its infantile (and borrowed) stories, and its ossified and primitive notions about ethics, morality, and epistemology, which in spite of the Enlightenment still exert their 13th-Century influence, poisoning our politics and ruining the minds it touches.

I apologize for the rant. But I hated the abbey on Iona, and I grieve for what the place stands for.

A photo a day, #2



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Of the cities I have seen in the world, I’d nominate Edinburgh as the most beautiful. Paris would be second, I think. And San Francisco would be third. To properly see Edinburgh, one must do a lot of walking — and some hill-climbing.

For now, a photo a day



Click here for high-resolution version.

In a few days, I’ll have lots of Scotland photos and a long post. Sorting and prepping the photos is going to take some time. Plus, Ken took lots of photos as well, and I will include some of Ken’s photos in a future post. For now, I’ll try to put up a photo each day. Above, Ken, my indefatigable hiking companion, crosses a stile near Calgary on the isle of Mull. We saw lots of stiles — from very simple ones to complex works of functional art — and photographed them all.

New from Acorn Abbey Books


Ken’s three very popular books are published by New York publishers. However, Acorn Abbey Books, as a small-press “indie” imprint, is honored to release one of Ken’s short books in paperback format. That’s The McCandless Mecca: A Pilgrimage to the Magic Bus of the Stampede Trail. It’s priced at only $6.99, and you can buy it at Amazon.

This book has been available in Kindle format since 2013. The paperback edition, and the Kindle edition, have been revised to include a new afterword. The book also now includes 18 photos.

For the record, Ken’s other books are Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom, Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland, and This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back.