Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Coffin Track

Now it is the time of night,
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide.
                        (A Midsummer Night's Dream)

Yes, it’s as morbid as it sounds. The “Coffin Track” runs in a north westerly direction from Ardvey in the Bays area of the Isle of Harris to Losgantitir sands. While we were running along this so-called coffin track I had no idea about its history but later found out that the difficulty of burying a coffin in the thin soils of the east of the island meant that coffin bearers in times gone by had to carry the dead across the moorland from the Bays district over to the west side of the island for burial in the deeper sands of the machair. The geological aspect was not the only reason for the existence of these routes, the other reason was that the dead could only be buried on consecrated ground of churches and cemeteries. Other parts of the country use names such as “burial road”, “procession way” or “lynch way” but what they have in common is that these coffin tracks, also known as "corpse roads", are generally found in remote areas of the country and reflected the intention of the church to keep their flock close, even in death. Many of these routes feature “coffin stones” which are large, flat stones on which the tired pall bearers could take the opportunity to rest the coffin during their sombre march but as I had no idea I was running on a coffin track I sadly didn’t think to look for such a landmark. 
Climbing up...
over the Bealach Eorabhat
The reason we were running along this coffin track was that I had spotted an interesting looking track leading from the front door of our Seilebost cottage which on further investigation appeared to be marked with wooden posts indicating the way. In this case the simple coffin track has been way marked and renamed the "coffin road circuit" to attract hill walkers on the Isle of Harris.

From Seilebost we climbed a couple of miles up the peaty track of the Bealach Eorabhat before descending to Bayhead and Ardvey on the shore of Loch Stockinish. Then we followed the way markings in an easterly direction and were again climbing until we eventually reached the little single track road which weaves its ways around the inlets and hamlets situated on this side of Harris. We trotted along this road for a short time until we joined the main road which runs between Tarbert and Leverburgh and followed it for a mile or so where the only incident of the day was had – this was me falling off the side of the tarmac road as I was too busy gawping at the view to look at where I was going. Next we turned off the road on to another track leading us past the quarry. The signs warning of explosions from the quarry looked to be quite old and many were in a state of disrepair or were lying on the ground which I took to mean that explosives were not being used in the vicinity and hadn’t been in a wee while. We jogged past the single JCB that was working away and as no men in high vis jackets came to chase us away we assumed we were ok and not about to be blown up. 
The route is now signposted
Approaching Ardvey
The Harris landscape
You can take the man out of Wales...
Path (or river?)
This path took us past the little fishing lodge at Loch Laxdale before reaching the road but instead of re-joining the track back to the cottage I decided that we should run a little further on the road until we reached the causeway and could clamber down on to the magnificent stretch of sands that is Luskentyre beach for the final section of the run back to the cottage.
The wide expanse of Luskentyre sands
A wee river crossing
Towards the cottage at Seilebost
Needless to say there are legends abound about coffin tracks which are a countrywide phenomena. Crossroads or path intersections were believed to be bad luck as were obstacles such as fences on the corpse route as these got in the way of the corpse’s direct route to the cemetery and could cause them to return to haunt the living.

Some such legends also involve the sighting of lights or flames on the route, taken to be an omen of an approaching death and were reputed to be often sighted the night before a death (well it’s never likely to be a cheery omen is it?) or the sighting of a “Will o the Wisp”* an evil spirit trying to lead people astray although the methane gas produced from the ground is just as likely a source of any light seen on peatland tracks at night. Even so, I don’t think I’ll be running along this track during the hours of darkness, at night, in the mist, alone…
*and absolutely nothing to do with an evil TV set by the name of Edna (does anyone know what I am talking about here or am I just showing my age...?)

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