The night was a rough one: I woke at 4 am from a nightmare of bugs crawling all over me and it was hours before the psychosomatic itchiness subsided.
Once more unto the breach: we opened the day’s travel with a drive into Glen Nevis, home of the Nevis Range and the mighty Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak. It’s also one of the wettest parts of Scotland, unfortunately, meaning that the rain and low-hanging clouds were veiling the whole thing pretty heavily in mist. We drove for a time, occasionally driving sloooooooowly up to the sheep standing in the middle of the road and waiting until they took the hint and ambled casually out of our path. As the road gradually got narrower, we had time to appreciate the differences between this glen and Glencoe; they’re both steep-sided and heavily verdant, but here the slides of sharp gravel are replaced by heavier, craggier stones nearer the road, dense trees covered with lichen.
We’d come to view the falls known as “the spout” in Gaelic, which lie about a kilometre from the end of the road, which gradually opens into a parking lot after spending some time as the now-familiar “one lane with passing places” model. Here, a sign warned “danger of death” and encouraged proper footwear; but we’d come to see at least part of the prettiest short walk in Scotland, so on we went.
Spoiler: we didn’t make it all the way to the spout. However, we did get to see a number of other rather beautiful waterfalls even though we did have to clamber over some nasty-sharp-looking rocks to do so. Some hardy soul had pitched a small campsite by the trail-side, and there were a few shirts hung out to dry on a line; optimistic, I think, given the omnipresent damp.
Eventually it was back to the car for us, and onward to Mallaig for our ferry crossing. As we drove, we noticed some great gouts of steam coming up in places; a steam train, most likely, very possibly the Hogwarts Express, which lives here. This is Harry Potter film country, apparently a boon to the tourist market. (It’s interesting to see just how much of Scotland seems to subsist on tourism; big chunks of this part of the country seem to make all their money in summer and then…I don’t know what they do in the off season.)
The ferry ride was brief – fortunate in more ways than one, as a large number of the passengers hadn’t bothered to turn off their car alarms. As the ferry pitched and rolled in the choppy crossing, a chorus of alarms accompanied every heave; it began as funny, then annoying and eventually warped round to being funny again. The waters below us were an interesting, shifting blue-green even in the rainy gray light; at one point we passed just above a…flock? school?…of jellyfish, watching them waver and swirl. (I scanned the rocks for seals, but haven’t seen any yet…though this is certainly selkie country.)
I suppose when Flora McDonald brought Prince Charlie over here it was a much worse crossing; if the song is to be believed it was outright stormy then, instead of just intermittently coming down.
The intermittent rain’s been fairly constant all day, unfortunately, making today an awkward day for sightseeing. It certainly makes the isle of Skye impressively atmospheric though. From our landing point at Armadale we soon found ourselves driving through miles of rolling, moorlike ground (with still more sheep!) as we made our way to an attraction with a bit more indoor facilities to tour: Eilean Donan castle. Every so often the moors were dotted with tiny little cottages that looked a bit like the way young children draw houses: window, door, window, pointy roof, chimney. Or in this case two chimneys, one at either end.
Eilean Donan is That Castle On The Island With The Little Bridge Going To It; I guarantee you’ve seen it before. Highlander? Yeah. That one. It’s the seat of Clan MacRae, strategically situated at the meeting of three waters, and for hundreds of years it was just a ruin, after the English captured the teeny pro-Jacobite Spanish garrison here and blew the castle to smithereens with its own gunpowder. Finally, in the 1920s, the then-clan-chief decided he really wanted his castle back up and running, so he teamed up with some colleagues to build himself one of the most romantic of the castles in the Highlands. And it is, I have to admit, rather charming, even a little coy as it poses for visitors, all daintily poised on its little island.
The interior’s all done up in Romantic Scottish Countryside, too; lots of little coats of arms and carven oak details.
Amusing aside: carved over the door in Gaelic is the date and “As long as a MacRae is inside this castle, a Fraser shall never be outside it.” Apparently the MacRaes and the Frasers were BFFs.
Arrived in Portree, a cute little seaside town, and checked into our lodgings; I haven’t been feeling fantastic, I must admit. Perhaps it’s tiredness, or perhaps I am flirting with being ill, or perhaps it’s the vague dread that’s been bugging me the last few hours, much to my irritation. It’s meant to be a vacation.
Things continued somewhat exasperating as we scoured Portree’s tiny “downtown” looking for somewhere to eat that actually had room for us. This was a surprisingly tough quest; we eventually ended up getting a place in line at a place called “The Antlers” which the Whitings held for us while Mark and I asked around at four or five other spots. Nothing available before 8:30…
…which was a problem, because we’d spotted a sign in the square advertising a storytelling/music event starting at 9.
In the end we did indeed manage to get a table at The Antlers – and despite Mark’s “It looks like a Kelsey’s” misgivings it actually turned out to be a pretty nice little place. I had a venison and apricot burger, which doesn’t sound as though it should work but did.
The real highlight of the evening, however, was the storytelling event. This was held in a little pub just off the town square, and was hosted with tremendous enthusiasm by an assortment of locals: Daniel, who appeared to be the ringleader, his second (whose name I forget – let’s call him Howard), Katrine, who played all the female parts, and their musical accompanist Minna, who provided very capable backing on her guitar.
It’s the first year the event has run, apparently; a medley of Skye island lore and traditional Scottish music they’re calling “The Misty Isle” after Skye itself. They’ve had some pretty small crowds up to now, but perhaps we formed a turning point: so many came to the show we went to that they had to pull out extra chairs.
They opened by telling of the Giants, beings as superior to men in virtue as they were in size and strength – and of the giant hero Fingal, who has left signs of his passing all over Scotland, including here. The tale of his marriage to – and loss of, spoiler alert – his wife Sadbh was interwoven with an assortment of fishing legends (including the last leviathan and the “blue men of the Minch”), the famous Fairy Flag of Dunvegan, the real-life story of Flora McDonald (unsurprisingly this was set to “Skye Boat Song”), and the creation of the Cuillin mountains due to a weeks-long battle between Cu Chulainn and the warrior woman Scathach.
It was rather community-theatre in production values – an assortment of costumes, props, and wigs and a single guitar before a painted backdrop – but it was weirdly endearing, and I think all of us found ourselves with warm feelings toward the motley crew of misfits storytelling their hearts out. It was actually a pretty good show – well constructed and with good singing/performances – and I sincerely wish them well with it.
Afterward I went home and passed straight out, still feeling vaguely feverish. Another rough night lay ahead as it turned out, but not just for me this time (unfortunately.)