The Isle of Skye has quite a lot to see.
That’s the short version. Here’s the slightly longer version:
Rolled out of bed to find that Mark hadn’t really slept at all thanks to a combination of my illness (?), his inability to sleep without something covering him, and the regrettable lack of top sheets. (In his defense, a duvet IS much too heavy.). Still, there was – is – nothing for it; our time is limited and we want to see and explore as much as we can…so off we go.
Our very first act was to book a table that evening at one of the local restaurants. We had cause to be glad we did, I think: even phoning first thing in the morning, we couldn’t get a table within the prime dinner range. 9:00 for dinner it was; this in mind we dropped by a grocery to collect picnic ingredients for lunch.
The Isle of Skye is sort of an assemblage of peninsulas – three of them to be precise. We came in along the southernmost, and today planned a circular route that would take us up and around the upper two. As you leave Portree to the north to head up and around the northeastern peninsula, you wind along the edge of the Cullin range (those mountains supposedly carved out and thrown up by the great battle between Cu Chulainn and Scathach) and come almost immediately to the first of the notable landmarks of our journey: the Old Man of Storr.
This is a spire of rock, perhaps one of the giants – legend has it some of them fell to earth and became stone. A path winds up to it, rocky and very steep; especially rainy as it was, it’s a strenuous climb, such that your calves burn in protest on the way up and your knees shiver with strain on the way down. We did a bit of it anyway, eventually scrambling winded (in my case anyway) to a point where we could see the Old Man from a bit closer than the road. It looks lonely there, standing all by itself, though lonely in a proud sort of way. Perhaps nobody fucks with him and gets away with it, either.
The rain continued, off and on, as we peered over the overlook onto Kilt Rock and its accompanying falls. The Rock is so named because its vertical “folds” resemble those on a kilt. Impressive, but we were being rained on pretty hard, so we didn’t stay long.
At least the rain slowed a bit as we rounded the northern tip of the peninsula, our path meandering along sometimes-precipitous drops, through and over rocky moorland. It isn’t the high season yet – not for a couple of weeks – but already the number of visitors we’re seeing is quite surprisingly large. Plenty of Europeans – Germans, French, Dutch – but also a surprising number of explorers from Asia. The Chinese folk I’ve seen tend to move in packs, on big buses, as we saw in Glencoe; Koreans and Japanese folk have been in smaller bunches. (Cat hats are plentiful.)
Our next main stop was the Skye Museum of Island Life, a collection of small thatched huts situated on a slightly bleak hillside. These were actual crofters’ huts, and inside were collections of artifacts and stories telling more about the lives of those on the isles before the days of, say, electricity, or plentiful ferry crossings.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like living with up to fourteen people out of three rooms in a little thatched hut that, to this day, smells strongly of peat – a dense, smoky, earthy smell that you can often pick up, in somewhat reduced strength, from a good whiskey. At least it keeps the wind out, I suppose. Harder still to imagine rising so early in the morning that there was time to scythe a sheaf or two of grain, thresh it, and turn it into oatmeal for everyone to eat before the children went to school. (No thanks; I’m not a morning person.).
Crofters’ wives often had the toughest of the work to do – field work AND cleaning AND cooking AND shopping, like as not; one of the items on display was an interesting contraption that would allow a crofter’s wife to carry eggs safely to market to be traded for other goods, a common practice. (One that still seems to be carried on on the island: as we drove around I saw a number of signs advertising fresh eggs, sometimes with essentially a little egg box and a place to deposit cash for them next to it. The honor system?)
Overall, I’m happy to live in an age where I don’t need to devote quite so much of my energy to obtaining sustenance; certainly I’m pleased that I have never had to bleed a cow, mix the blood with oats and whip up a “black pudding” to avoid starvation. (This was indeed a common practice; the family milk cow was so prized she was often kept in her own byre in the winter, to keep her warm and producing milk. Eating her would doubtless have been just about unthinkable.)
We also got a potential answer to why it is that we’ve seen so few pubs out here on the islands. In England there seems to be a pub about every ten feet or so; since it was pretty typical not to have much space for socializing in one’s house, pubs served as a kind of communal living room. On the island, though, it was more typical to co-opt one of someone’s buildings as “the ceilidh house” and have social gatherings there; this explains the absence of pubs to at least some degree, though it does make it a bit frustrating to find somewhere for lunch.
Ah well. We had other lunch plans anyway: to locate and picnic in the “fairy glen” on the island. This isn’t signposted really much of anywhere, despite being one of the isle’s notable sights; we had to ask a local which road to take. A sharp left, just past the Uig Hotel (Uig is the rather bizarre name of the port town from which our ferry will leave on Day 9.). This takes you up a steep and winding one-lane road – and then down an equally steep and winding one-lane road that looks very much as though it’s meant to be someone’s driveway: we stopped and asked directions from a local gentleman just to confirm we were on the right path. I couldn’t really make head or tail of directions like “It’s just down the brae”, but the answer seemed to be affirmative, so on we went…
And then, there we were.
It is instantly obvious why the islanders might believe fairies lived here. The glen is a rich, emerald green that almost glowed from within in the sunlight as we entered, and the rounded hills – almost conical in places – bear a startling resemblance to some of the cairns and mounds we’ve seen elsewhere on our journey, constructed by humans. One of them is crowned with a rock that looks for all the world like a tiny, turreted castle, and the sides of the hills have formed natural terraces through some quirk of erosion. A tiny picture-perfect mini-loch fills one part, and the trees and ferns and wildflowers seem more delicate here. An open area with a partially-ruined wall contains a soft carpet of green grass that would be ideal for dancing, and one of the rock faces nearby had exposed a patch of brilliant white shaped very much like a harp.
Here we stopped and had our picnic, though the light didn’t cooperate by lingering, and the rain meant we spent most of our dining time in the car. Still…”It’s not polite to visit someone’s house and eat without sharing,” I said to Mark, and tore off a bit of my sandwich, tossing it out into the glen for any, er, “locals” that might be there. (A few moments later I saw a kind of silvery flash dart through the greenery near where it landed. A bird with rain-slick feathers? Something else? Who can say? ;))
As we made our way out of the glen, the rain cleared, eventually brightening to a warm sunshine that would linger for the rest of the day (and indeed long into the evening; we’re far enough north here that it scarcely gets dark at all in the summertime. I expect in the winter the opposite is true; the idea of spending days and days and days barely seeing the sun makes rather a good ground for understanding why so many people, especially in historical sources, called Scotland a bleak country.
At any rate, our next stop was Dunvegan, seat of the clan MacLeod. Dunvegan is a good example of what I have christened “Clanstanding,” the apparent effort each clan makes to demonstrate their awesomeness in front of all the other clans. Dunvegan isn’t all that LARGE a castle, but it’s got huge, dramatic gardens: a Victorian-era round garden, an older walled garden, a water garden with carefully planned falls…
Two odd things registered for me. One: how remarkably luxurious, decadent even, it felt to walk across a soft, well-manicured lawn after days and days of hiking over rough Scottish countryside. Even through my shoes, the difference was palpable. Two: how starved I suddenly realized I had been for color. Oh, there IS color in the Highlands, right enough, but most of it is shades of green and brown and gray, with the occasional splash of pinkish-purple. To see red, or orange, or those bright deep blues, or pink…to see them all at once! So much color in one place! All of a sudden it makes complete sense that castle gardens like these are such attractions in themselves.
Within the castle, of course, other points of interest: the fairy flag, of course, wherever you believe it comes from – there it is, the once-golden fabric faded to a pale yellow-gray, mended here and there with vivid red thread. The MacLeods are firm believers in its power, though: according to the castle staff, the chieftain offered its power to Winston Churchill during WWII. (Churchill declined politely.). We also learned of a chieftain who murdered his first wife by tossing her into the dungeon (which, disconcertingly, is literally right next to the drawing-room; more of an oubliette than a dungeon as we normally think of it, with a rather cruel slit in the wall that would allow the prisoners to smell the food from the kitchens.) There was also a drinking horn that formed part of the initiation rite for new chieftains: it would be filled with claret and had to be emptied in one go, without flinching, choking, or stopping. (Since it holds a litre and a half that’s no small feat.)
We also learned a bit about St. Kilda, a tiny, TINY island in the middle of nowhere that is part of the MacLeod holdings. So remote is it that there was no mail service: instead, the islanders would literally toss a waterproof bag full of it into the ocean attached to a boat-shaped float that read “please open.” Astonishingly, this actually WORKED most of the time, even if it did mean that mail was often picked up in Norway to start its journey to the eventual recipient. No man of St. Kilda could marry without having first created a horsehair rope; this would be used to hunt puffins and such, and demonstrated that he could feed a family.
As we headed back toward Portree for the evening, we passed by a tiny little building that was marked “Giant Angus MacAskill Museum.” Curious, we took a look; though the sign said “OPEN,” the building didn’t appear to be inhabited. There was a bell, though, with instructions to ring it, so this we did – and a short time later an elderly gentleman came down out of the house next to the building to let us in.
He was a MacAskill as well, as it turned out, and had established this little place to…well, presumably to make a little coin out of the tale of his ancestor, who was a bona fide giant at something like 7 feet 9 inches (and apparently he spent some time in Nova Scotia.) The museum was little, but full of artifacts (a giant sweater, for instance, or a chair so big I felt like a five year old sitting in it) and stories of his feats of strength. There was even a replica of a coffin he’d have fit in, which was completely massive.
At this point it was still a long time before our 9:00 dinner reservation, so we headed out to Neist Point, the farthest west one can go on the Isle of Skye. It is a long way out there, and consists mainly of one of Scotland’s trademark super twisty roads with passing places that goes past farms…and fields…and hills…and fields…and farms…and, eventually, The Three Chimneys, the only restaurant in the isles with a Michelin Star. We weren’t wealthy enough to eat there (and anyway bookings are long LONG in advance) but it was still interesting to see, situated in a little white cottage so like all the others, very deliberately in the middle of nowhere. (It’s a little too bad, really; I hear the food’s amazing.)
The Point itself sees visitors park in a little lot at the top of a very long, very steep cliff. Stairs (with a fortuitous handrail) lead all the way down to the bottom, where one can stroll through what looks like the remains of a long-disused croft…and then all the way back UP on the other side, where a lighthouse overlooks the ocean amid picturesque rocks. The adventurous (or the mad) can climb up farther, off to the side, where a very very tall cliff provides amazing views. I know this because we climbed it. It was quite a haul; very steep up and very steep down. By the time we got back to the car my calves were shaking and my knees ached – but I’m not sorry I did it. It was a hell of a view.
This little side trip completed, we returned to Portree for a dinner of sea scallops over risotto, with a cider on the side that was easily one of the best I’ve ever tasted. (Thistly Cross, made in Dunbar over on the mainland. The packaging claims its secret is that it’s exposed to the elements during fermentation.).
From there, back to the B&B at last, for a hard crash after a long day’s Explore.