There – and back again?

All the return journey from Mull to the Black Isle, the wind has grown stronger. Breeze becomes bluster, becomes something aspiring to gale. But at least I can breathe out.

I’ve reached the ultimate island on the list, in a window of calm weather before what could be a storm. Luck has held. But then, the whole experience of visiting so many islands and so many treasures of built heritage has been a lucky one.

I was aware, as I raised a wooden cup of island malt with members of my family on a beach to celebrate reaching the final monument, just what a privilege it’s been to be part of this project. Since my earliest teens, I’ve seldom needed much excuse to explore islands near and far. But to be challenged to visit so many, to learn about aspects of Scottish history and tradition previously almost unknown to me, and to share thoughts and images of those places and their monuments – that adds up to a dream assignment.

From the outset, it’s been a pleasure to work with Historic Scotland staff. And the monuments, the several score of monuments: it’s impossible to summarise, although some names stand out for different reasons. Cairnban, first monument on the first day of the journeys, reminds me of hours of walking and a crazy slog through mud and over felled trees to reach it. Few other places were as difficult after that, although gales and rough seas conspired to thwart initial plans for some others.

Orkney, of course, stands out for its wealth of structures in care. I’ve enjoyed all of them, with images particularly etched in mind from the mainland World Heritage Site, around Rousay and its satellite isles and to the north on Papay and its Holm.

The circles of Machrie Moor on Arran; the quiet of Inchmahome; the bell to summon the river boat at Threave; the corncrakes calling at night near Iona’s many monuments; the kayak trip to Inchkenneth: all these and more are bright in memory.

But I’ve also learned that for monuments on islands, as for life as a whole, enjoyable and thought-provoking early encounters could lead to life-long links. I’d like to see many of them again, and again: as the snow picks out details of masonry and carvings on chapels and castles, when storm clouds mass over circles of stone, when the swans of winter and the swallows of summer fly near and call.

This may be a conclusion. But I know it’s not the end.

To keep in touch with Kenny you can visit his website where you can also find contact details

Images throughout Kenny’s many journeys:  1. At small cairn, Papay, 2. Beside the ultimate island monument, Inchkenneth, 3. Circle on Machrie, 4. Ferry in sound of Rousay, 5. Garvellachs from the Islay ferry, 6. High sea in the Hebrides, 7. In St Cormac’s cave, 8. Iona scene, 9. The final ferry – Corran, 10. Threave bell, 11. Wet day at Kidalton

at small cairn, papay (large cairn in background) hs ktbeside the ultimate island monument, inchkenneth  ktcircle on machrie moor ktferry in sound of rousay ktgarvellachs from the islay ferry 2 hs kthigh sea in the hebrides ktin st cormac's cave hs ktiona scene hs ktthe final ferry - corran -  ktthreave bell hs ktwet day at kildalton hs kt
at small cairn, papay (large cairn in background) hs kt
beside the ultimate island monument, inchkenneth  kt
circle on machrie moor kt
ferry in sound of rousay kt
garvellachs from the islay ferry 2 hs kt
high sea in the hebrides kt
in st cormac's cave hs kt
iona scene hs kt
the final ferry - corran -  kt
threave bell hs kt
wet day at kildalton hs kt

A particular radiance: Inchkenneth Part 2

Scrunch of sand against the hull, tingle of cool water on toes as I wade the last few yards. Haul the boat clear of the tide’s reach, and I’m ashore. Immediately above the little beach of Port an Ròin sits the 13th-century church, the grey of its stones and the modesty of its size blending well with the ambience of this little isle.

After the exertion to get here, it seems almost strange to reach the building in less than a minute of extra effort. Outside, I’m diverted by the carvings of a Highland warrior on what may be a 17th-century tomb slab. But I’m keen to see inside the much older church.

The building is simple, but has beautiful details, including shapely columns at its main door. From within, the most striking features are two narrow windows above where the altar once stood. The pattern of masonry around them holds radiance in stone, like sunbursts, or the auras of angels. I’m astonished by the artistry.

Turning to the end wall of the nave, I’m drawn to eight upright graveslabs propped there. Each has a different design and although some have weathered less well than others, their interlacing and images are testament to the skill of medieval West Highland memorial sculptors, and to the Iona School in particular.

Outside, more recent graves benefit from the island setting. One is that of Lady Boulton, widow of Sir Harold, the man who composed both the Skye and Loch Tay Boat Songs.

The breeze is freshening as I return to the kayak, push out to sea and head for the Mull shore, leaving the last of the monumental isles behind me.

For now.

Speed, bonny boat.

Images: 1. With the back up team, West Mull beach, 2. Celebration! Inchkenneth in background, 3. Inchkenneth Cross and Chapel, looking towards Mull, 4. Inchkenneth Chapel, 5. Medieval grave slab carving, 5. Chapel windows over altar, 6. Chapel main door, 7. Ivy-leaved toadflax, 8. Medieval grave slabs outside Inchkenneth Chapel

with the back-up team, west mull beach ktcelebration, inchkenneth in background ktinchkenneth cross and chapel, looking to mull ktinchkenneth chapel, looking to mull ktinchkenneth medieval graveslab carving ktinchkenneth chapel windows over altar ktinchkenneth chapel main door ktivy-leaved toadflax on inchkenneth chapel wall ktmedieval graveslabs outside inchkenneth chapel kt
with the back-up team, west mull beach kt
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medieval graveslabs outside inchkenneth chapel kt

Top Tips: If you’re fortunate enough to make landfall on Inchkenneth, take time to read more about the island’s history before going. Boswell and Johnson devote several pages to their own stay here in 1773, as guests of Sir Allan Maclean and his daughters.

The shapely mansion on the island (not open to the public) owes its modern form to building works funded by Sir Harold Boulton. It was owned and used by the Mitford family (including the notorious and tragic Unity, who spent her last years here) in the mid-20th century and is now owned by a descendant of Charles Darwin.

Monumental thought: Inchkenneth may be small, but few places of its size could boast a saint, literary giants, a famous composer, a doomed aristocrat and the scion of a scientific superstar among its residents and visitors, past and present.

Paddling to church: Inchkenneth, Part 1

So this is it. The ultimate goal in the Historic Scotland island monuments challenge is in sight. It’s just over a mile away from the strand beside Clachandhu, on the west coast of Mull.

Inchkenneth. I’ve been intrigued by our part-shared name since I first saw this place, returning from some glorious summer days on nearby Iona. Then, as now, it tantalised with its proximity and the beauty of its setting. It’s a low-lying, green isle, cradled by curves of cliffs, headlands and steep woods to landward; a sparkle of ocean, studded with other islands, to the west.

So near, and yet … with no scheduled ferry crossing, Inchkenneth is a place to reach either through local contacts or under your own paddle steam. This morning, equipped with a sea kayak hired from a helpful Inverness outdoor shop, I’ve come here with a family team to give on-shore support. My daughter, Alice, has joined me on several visits to other island monuments, while her mother, Caroline, has a long-standing affection for Mull and Iona.

Luckily, the weather gods (or is it my old namesake saint?) are in benign mood. Over seaweeds the colour of Highland toffee, the blue-green shallows are almost mirror calm. Waved off by the shore team, I push out to sea, scattering a few gulls and shags. From then on, paddling a course to north-west, the journey is a joy, save for the brief embarrassment of almost grounding on a weedy shelf.

Some crofters transporting sheep wave from another boat. Maybe I could have hitched a lift. But as the kayak nudges into the sandy strand beneath the old church on Inchkenneth, I’m glad that it took physical effort to get here.

Images: 1. Hawkweed and moss on Mull, 2. Inchkenneth and the west coast of Mull, 3. Inchkenneth chapel (L), mansion (R) & Mull, 4. Kayak on the beach, 5. On the beach near Inchkenneth Chapel, 6. Small island near Inchkenneth, 7. West coast of Mull near Inchkenneth.

hawkweed and moss on mull shore  ktinchkenneth and west coast of mull  ktinchkenneth chapel (L) mansion (R) and mull  ktkayak on beach, inchkenneth  kton beach near inchkenneth chapel  ktsmall island near inchkenneth ktwest coast of mull near inchkenneth kt
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Top Tips: One benefit of Inchkenneth’s proximity to the Mull mainland is that you can see both the church and the striking mansion on the island from the shore. So binoculars or telescope can help you to appreciate both. Viewing the island from different vantages, including the shore road to Ulva Ferry, gives an impression of its truly classic Hebridean setting.

Monumental thought: Kenneth of Aghaboe, aka Cainnech, Canice or Kenny, was a contemporary of St Columba and one of the ‘Twelve Apostles of Ireland’, most famously linked to the county and city of Kilkenny in Eire. He visited Columba on Iona in 565 AD. But although the church dedicated to him wasn’t built on this smaller isle until the 1200s, I can’t help but wonder if the saintly Cainnech came here. Perhaps he landed on the same beach, many centuries before the church construction – and more than 1,400 years before my own sea crossing.


Gliders of the storm: Fulmars, Eynhallow

It’s closest thing we’ve got to an albatross in the North Atlantic, and it loves to nest on old buildings. With distinctive, nostril-like openings on its upper beak, a nifty way of riding updraughts along clifftops and an unforgettable odour – slightly musky, slightly rancid – the fulmar is one of Orkney’s most widespread seabirds.

The ridgeline of a roofless cottage serves it just fine as a nest base. So too does the ground inside old walls.

Even by Orkney standards, Eynhallow is a superb fulmar colony. I can tell that blindfold, from the reek of fulmar guff that assails me in some places beside half-tumbled dykes or along low sandstone cliffs. The church and old settlement here also suit it, as does the relative lack of disturbance. Save for the occasional groups of visiting scientists and, in the mid-1800s, builders who worked to buttress the church walls, Eynhallow has been uninhabited for more than 160 years.

During that time, fulmars have re-colonised the North Isles and far beyond. Biologists from the University of Aberdeen began to study fulmars here in 1950. Since 1958, standard methods of ringing and recording have been used to monitor the population.

That makes the Eynhallow fulmar work, begun by the late George Dunnet and now continued by Paul Thompson (who invited me to join his group here for a few days) one of the longest-running studies of any bird, anywhere in the world. Some of the findings are amazing, such as fulmar longevity (living to more than 40 is not unusual) and the thousands of kilometres one individual can range on a single trip.

It’s genuinely not an exaggeration to say that Eynhallow is a real treasure isle for its heritage. Monumental and natural – it’s a northern gem.

Images: 1. Eynhallow departure, 2. Ewan Edwards releasing ringed fulmar, 3. Fulmar nest search, 4. Fulmar parent & chick, 5. Fulmar portrait, 6. Part of fulmar colony, 7. Paul Thompson weighing fulmar chick.

eynhallow departure  KT cropeynhallow ewan edwards releasing ringed fulmar  kt cropeynhallow fulmar nest search kt cropeynhallow fulmar parent and chick kt cropeynhallow fulmar portrait  kt cropeynhallow part of fulmar colony kt cropeynhallow prof- paul thompson weighing fulmar chick kt
eynhallow departure  KT crop
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Top Tips: At first glance, a fulmar can look a bit like a gull. But look closely – at the chubbier body and the way it holds the curve of its wings for long periods to sustain glides – and you’ll spot the difference. And while it’s fun to see fulmars on a quiet island, there are plenty of opportunities to ogle them elsewhere. Some even nest on buildings near the sea in St Andrews, for example.

Monumental thought: Until the 1800s, St Kilda was the only breeding place for fulmars in Britain and Ireland. Then they spread around the coasts, from the North Isles to the English Channel, possibly thanks to range expansion by Icelandic birds. But archaeology shows they’d been on Orkney long ago. So the sight, sound, smell and even the taste of them would have been familiar to the people who raised standing stones and built the many burial cairns on Orkney.

Stairway to nowhere: Church and settlement, Eynhallow

There’s a warm and salty breeze blowing in from the ocean. A few hundred yards away, in the channel between the island and the Orkney mainland, a line of white water roars where currents clash. Everywhere else on sea and land is quiet as I look around, from the top of a stairway to nowhere.

There are eight steps in all, then nothing. Just a void between the curve of stair, the wall of a grey building and some lower, outlying structures – all roofless. It’s just one of the features that make the church and settlement on Eynhallow tricky to interpret.

Descending, I push through lush buttercups and nettles to enter the church’s porch and nave. The oldest, Romanesque stonework here could date from the 1100s, when there may have been some kind of religious establishment on the island. No one is sure.

What is certain is that the church was converted much later for use as a two-storey dwelling. This make-over was so successful that the building’s earlier function was not re-discovered until 1851, after Eynhallow’s few families abandoned the island following an outbreak of ‘fever’.

There are more walls upslope, of other dwellings part-demolished after the evacuation. But this summer, the church is occupied. There’s a solitary fulmar nest with one adult bird and chick, on the ground close to the east wall of the chancel.

Mindful of how fulmars both young and old can spew reeking stomach oil at potential aggressors, I keep my distance from the fluffy nestling. Retreating, I can only wonder how it will navigate from church interior to the sea, there to range the wide Atlantic for many decades.

Images: 1. Eynhallow Church and burgar roost from settlement, 2. Eynhallow Church exterior, 3. Eynhallow Church interior, 4. Stairway to heaven, 5. Zoe Jordan filming fulmar, 6. Sea pinks, 7. Seals, 8. Tysties, 9. Walls beside church.

eynhallow church and burgar roost from settlement kt cropeynhallow church exterior 1 kt cropeynhallow church interior 1 kt cropeynhallow church stairway to heaven 2 kt cropeynhallow church with zoe jordan filming fulmar kt cropeynhallow sea pinks kt cropeynhallow seals kt cropeynhallow tysties kt cropeynhallow walls beside church kt crop
eynhallow church and burgar roost from settlement kt crop
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eynhallow church interior 1 kt crop
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Top Tips: Eynhallow has a reputation for being tricky of access, not least because of the tide rips – or ‘roosts’ in Orcadian parlance – ever-active to both north and south of the island. The Orkney Heritage Society organises a ranger-guided trip once each summer. Otherwise, you’ll need to make your own arrangements for boat hire from the mainland or Rousay. There’s a good view to Eynhallow and its ruins across the roaring Burgar Roost from the Orkney mainland shore.

Monumental thought: From the church, the soft, howling calls of seals often drift in over the white noise from the churning roost. It’s a primal mix of sounds, hinting at how Eynhallow is also a place linked in Orkney lore to the other-worldly and weird, as well as the natural and spiritual.