It is most often referred to as Eilean a’ Cheo – the Island of Mist.
I feel a gentle sadness towards those who, when touring Scotland, have missed visiting this princely island called Skye. I feel deeper sadness towards those who have said to me, “Sure, I’ve been there. We drove around the island one afternoon.”
“Come with me beyond the sea,
I’ll take you where you’ve never been.”
The map of the Island of Skye suggests that it is somewhat like a bird’s wing in shape; it is not a large island and is ringed in nearly 1,000 miles (1600 km) of continually contrasting coastline with high wind-swept cliffs and deep-sea lochs.
I knew very little about the Highlands and Islands of Scotland back in the 70s. I was aware that Scots in Australia spoke with a strong brogue and that there was a fairly common joke about their meanness in money matters. However, I must quickly affirm that I have found no evidence of this, it is a baseless rumour spread, I suspect, by their cousins below the border. In fact, in Scotland the joke is that the English are the ones who have short arms and deep pockets!
A glance at an atlas showed me that Skye is the largest island in the Inner Hebrides group and that it lies close to the mainland. There were two main means of access. A large Cal Mac ferry sails between Mallaig and the southern Skye village of Armadale, and at Kyle of Lochalsh vehicular ferries, until recently, made the short crossing to Kyleakin – a crossing that, depending on wind and tide, could take as little as ten minutes or as long as half an hour. When the northern gales blow, it can get mightily rough in the narrow stretch of water between loch and open sea, and more than once I have been close to panic as boisterous seas brake against the ferry side and surged over the vehicles. The infamous Skye Bridge has since replaced these Kyle ferries.
On my first visit to Skye, I took the overnight train from London bound for Fort William. It was early morning when we passed through Glasgow and as we climbed towards the Highlands I was fascinated by the uniqueness and wildness of the scenery where rugged mountains sloped down to peaceful lochs, where hillsides were screened by golden bracken fern and gorse already budded for its display of yellow blooms, and where strange looking sheep and hairy cattle stared at us as we swept by – all so unlike our land of sunburnt plains that now seemed as if in another world. We passed along scenic Gare Loch and Loch Long, and thundered across desolate Rannoch Moor, mantled in heather, brown after the winter snows, where herds of deer, down from the mountains for the summer, grazed contentedly among the many lochans. Onward beneath the crags of Ben Nevis to Fort William where, across the platform, another train waited restlessly with its engine noisily pumping out great clouds of steam as if to say, “Hurry up. I’m keen to be on my way.” It was headed for my next stop, the seaport of Mallaig.
For the next hour, the most rugged and beautiful scenery of any Scot Rail journey captivated me. This section of the West Highland line runs through 42 miles (68km) of some of the most spectacular countryside to be found anywhere. And historic too, for at one point the train passes over the curving 100 foot (30m) high Glenfinnan Viaduct with its breathtaking view of Loch Shiel and the Bonnie Prince Charlie monument far below. This marks the spot where Charles Edward Stuart unfurled his standards in 1745 on his ill-fated attempt to regain the Scottish throne. (Not all that distant is a small unadorned cairn at the site where he made his undignified escape to France after his defeat at Culloden.)
At Mallaig, bulky suitcases had to be manhandled from rail station to pier and aboard the Armadale ferry. I stayed on the top deck full of expectation and caught my first glimpse of my island. Clusters of sun drenched, fluffy clouds, drifting slowly across the Sound of Sleat, gave pleasing texture to the vivid blue sky and the ocean was smooth, cool and dark green. Overhead the circling gulls shrilly offered a chorus of welcome. I took this as a great augury.
A bus was on the Armadale quay to take us to the capital town of Portree where we stopped at the square that doubled as the island bus interchange and car park as well as the focal point of the town. Crowds of people milled about, without any apparent purpose; they were mostly tourists, flashily dressed if from a tour bus or in shorts with backpack if doing it the hard way. All were chatting excitedly and loudly in languages that were strange to me, and as they moved around they paused at stalls designed by the locals to relieve them of their disposable dollars. I quickly found my way to the Staffin bus and soon we were off on another leisurely ride that suited me as I was eager to absorb all I could of my new surroundings.
I had chosen Staffin as my base and was to live in a caravan for reasons of economy. Located on the northern coastline of Skye, the village was not much more than a wee hamlet with two Scottish churches, a spread of crofts and a schoolhouse, but I was not to discover this until my arrival. However, scenically, the location could not be faulted.
The bus driver knew where to set me down and I was left to trudge alone along a dirt road to what seemed to be an empty paddock – empty, that is, except for a smallish caravan that looked so out of place among a herd of long horned, long haired Scottish beasts. I called at the nearest cottage and found the caravan owner who showed me the ropes. Away on the boundary was an ablution block where I could shower if that was my fancy.
I had chosen a remote spot for my holiday, but the campsite was elevated so I had grand views over green meadows down to the sea and towards the magnificent Quiraing Mountains. Walking and biking from dawn to dusk I soon became physically fit and as I threw off accumulated stress my mind sharpened as if in readiness for the eventful experiences that awaited me. The closest hotel was ten miles away over the Quiraing and I peddled there whenever I felt the need to hear a human voice or to sip a dram. I was mainly a listener in the public bar of the Ferry Inn at Uig and encountered for the first time Gaelic speakers – their conversation, while strangely melodious, burst from their lips at a rate that would put a machine gun salvo to shame. But they were very friendly and as interested in finding out about Australia as I was about Skye.
After several weeks of introspection, I sought more regular company and moved to Portree where I stayed at a large guesthouse operated by an energetic, friendly and attractive lady by name of Grace. Thus commenced a courtship that extended over several years and several return trips to Skye. Eventually, Grace came to Australia and we were wed.
It was during my initial visit to Portree that I experienced my first ceilidh, or Scottish concert, where tourists are treated to Gaelic music, singing and dancing. The centrepiece of the entertainment is always the traditional kilted Scottish piper – his interpretations reverberating throughout the town’s Gathering Hall would either thrill your soul (as they did for me) or make you run screaming. What I enjoyed most was listening to “mouth music”; Gaelic sung without musical accompaniment – if you haven’t heard it then it’s worth a trip to the Highlands just to hear it.
I referred earlier to the attraction of the West Highland line. However, road approaches to Skye offer, in my opinion, a wider range of vistas and, importantly, the time to absorb them, but to comment on these would give my notes the appearance of a travelogue, something I wanted to avoid. My recommendation to readers is just this – “Go, see and judge for yourself.”
Over the years, Grace and I have hiked over most of Skye, sometimes walking established paths, but mostly striking off over heather covered moors and rough scree slopes. It would be no exaggeration to say that if you walked a different way each week it would take you years to cover all possible routes and, of course, the scene changes with each season so the possibilities are limitless. Who then has the gall to say that they have seen Skye in an afternoon?
When we were younger and fitter, we tackled the mountains. Skye is noted for a rugged mountain range called the Cuillins. The peaks are the most difficult to climb in Great Britain and are very dangerous – people are killed there each year. One peak we attempted and conquered is called Sgur nan Gillian, or Peak of the Young Men, and is 3,000 feet (914m) above sea level. Unlike Mount Koscuiszco in Australia, where most of the climbing is done by car, we tackled our climb from sea level, but first had a hard slog of several hours over boggy moorland to reach the base. It was then a rock scramble up the steep side. We were not amused when an older couple passed us effortlessly – obviously conditioned mountaineers!
In 1990, we bought a home in Portree. The block of land sloped steeply down to a nature walk that followed the course of the Leasegeary River (more a stream than a river as we know it) as it flowed into Portree Bay. In summer, its banks were ablaze with all types of ferns and wildflowers – primroses, bluebells, buttercups, marsh marigolds and, here and there, large clumps of white and red flowered rhododendrons. Wild raspberries were free for the picking and made a welcome addition to our diet.
Landscaping the garden bank, building steps and paths was a mammoth task, but when completed we found that we had our own little Garden of Eden, full of colour and inhabited by families of noisy robins who made their nests in the rock crannies. Mostly we hunted the road verges for our plants; weeds we were told, but the range of blossom and brilliance certainly pleased the eye.
Vegetation grows apace during Skye’s summer, and you may wonder why. The island enjoys the warmth of the Gulf Stream, but more importantly daylight extends from about 2 am until almost midnight. Forget the plants and think of what this means for the sheep and cattle – these animals can, and do, feed non-stop for nearly 24 hours. Sounds great doesn’t it?
By mainland standards, Skye does not have fresh water lochs of any size, but this does not mean that they are lacking in attraction. For instance, on the road from Broadford to Elgol, if you pause at the ruined crofts and graveyard of Cill Chriosd and cast your eyes across the weed fringed, still waters of its loch you will see in them the reflection of Beinn na Caillich crystal clear and distinct as if it were the actual mountain. In fact, with a blue sky and a blue loch you would be hard pressed to distinguish which “end is up” from a colour photo. Skye is also noted for the grandness of its sunsets over the nearby islands of Rhum and Eigg – these are best viewed over the shores of the sea lochs that cut wide and deep into the coastline. However, be forewarned – on a warm summer evening the wee Scottish midges rise from the heather in multitudinous swarms and wreak havoc among any who are unprepared for their vicious attacks.
Skye weather is unpredictable. Summer can mean a few days, a few weeks or three months. You have to be lucky if you are a visitor. But pick a settled period and you, too, will find the country magical. Wildflowers grow in a profusion of massed colour and size; the paddocks are afire with them and the road verges are so covered that the grass cannot be seen. Off the beaten track, you will encounter birch trees coming into leaf, cuckoos calling, bracken fern on the move and, along the banks of the burns, the lovely rowan trees heavily hung with bright red berries. Towards late summer, the hills and moors come alive with the rich purple of the heather.
Winter is another story. You can guarantee months of semi-darkness when the sun sets in mid afternoon and reluctantly reappears well after breakfast. The cold penetrates your whole body, skies are nearly always overcast and it can rain as if never to stop. The Gulf Stream means that snow does not generally settle for long but you must be on guard against the killer black ice on frosty roads. I haven’t mentioned the wind – well, in winter, it was the wind that I noticed most of all. There was no escape from it. When it blew from the north you had to turn your back to breathe and it carried away everything that wasn’t tied down. There is a lighthouse at Neist Point, the western most point of Skye, that stands on a sheer cliff 1,000 feet (304m) above the sea. Nearby, a waterfall tumbles down during calm weather, but when stirred by a northern gale it can be seen flowing upwards. Standing beside the massive foghorn you can actually feel and taste the salt spray.
Grace and I spent a month in a caravan in mid winter prior to moving into our house. That winter, there was snow; it lay thick and heavy on the roof and it was as though we were enclosed in an ice chest. Then the gales came. The caravan, taking their full force, rocked violently without any consideration for its occupants. One night, it was so fierce that each mighty gust threatened to blow the van over and we visualised our belongings – and us – being scattered to the four winds. There was no thought of bed, we sat huddled under blankets until towards midnight when, as the gale’s strength had gone up another notch, neighbours came to our rescue with the offer to move into their house. We were quick to accept their most welcome hospitality.
Macadamised dual carriage roads that now ring Skye greatly assist those intrepid tourists who are challenged to circumnavigate the island in the shortest time. However, like other remote areas in northern Scotland, Skye has its share of single-track roads that have passing places every 100 metres (30m) or so. It is normal courtesy when two vehicles come face to face for the vehicle closest to a passing place to back up and give right of way for under no circumstances would you be crazy enough to move off the hard surface and be bogged in the bordering deep gutters. It can be an interesting test of driving skill if you are required to back up a steep and winding stretch of road. Many of these secondary roads are not fenced and sheep roam at will. One early-learned lesson was “Sheep heads down, carry on. Heads up, beware”. The increased numbers of dead animals seen during summer months testifies that many tourists are unaware of this cardinal rule.
Everyone knows about the Scottish Clearances; the tragedy of those harsh and heartless events was driven home when, during our rambles, we came across the ruins of a croft village. All that can now be seen are the pristine walls of the “Black Houses” and the long-empty “lazy beds” where potatoes and oats were once grown. Not satisfied with evicting the crofters, the landlords set about destroying the buildings so that the people could not return. Until fairly recently, when the Highland Council turned to forestry, most of Skye was barren of trees. Some say that the landlords cleared the forests to deny the crofters a place to hide and avoid exile, but the true story is that rapacious owners wanted the land for their sheep. Even in those early times, greed was a great motivator. The Clearances are still spoken of by the old people, many had kin who were involved and whose families now live in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. They speak with pride of the resilience of the Highland Scot and love to recount tales of “those” days to anyone interested enough to listen.
I often wondered why so many Sgiathanachs were dark of skin and dark of hair when my concept of a Scot was a person of pale freckled complexion with hair of varying shades of ginger. I knew that Skye had been raided and settled by the Vikings, but they were of light colouring. Curiosity led me to the Portree library where I found the answer that the local inhabitants were unwilling to disclose. It seems that a few centuries ago, Spanish fishermen made regular visits to the West Coast, attracted by more than the prospect of a good catch, and they left their mark on the Hebridean scene.
“Come by the hills where the legends live”. Yes, many legends have passed down through the ages. One that comes to mind actually heralded the end of the bloody feuds between the Clans. In 1601, so the legend goes, there was the War Of The One Eyed Woman. A Macleod chief took as his wife a Macdonald woman. She later lost the sight of an eye through an accident. Soon after, the chief tired of her and sent her back to her Clan riding on a one eyed horse, attended by a one eyed groom and accompanied by a one eyed dog. The expected happened – the two clans met in furious combat under the brow of the Cuillins in Coire na Creiche. I forget who won.
One Highland custom that caught me unawares was the celebration of Hogmanay. The eve of New Year’s Day has always been of great importance in the Highlands and Islands, and takes precedence over Christmas that the olden day Kirk viewed as a superstitious celebration. More recently, the eve was celebrated by a ceremony called “First Foot” where the first person to set foot over the threshold after midnight was expected to arrive bearing three gifts: a measure of whiskey, a lump of coal and some food. This was to symbolise good fortune to come in the New Year in the form of warmth, food and drink. Now, no one cares about the coal or the food, or even about being the first over the step, but all friends are welcome provided they bring a sufficient supply of whiskey. It is considered a great insult if you refuse to take a dram when offered and the offering continues without a stop till the break of day. I warn you – beware of Hogmanay in the Highlands!
I have visited most of the Hebridean Isles and remain convinced that Skye is the gem of them all.
If you want history – it’s there.
Since commencing to prepare these notes, I have revisited old photos – hundreds of them – that record our activities on the island, all carefully identified and labelled by Grace. I have come to realise, forcefully, that the two decades when we visited and lived on Skye are among the golden years of my life.
Whenever I leave the island, reluctantly heading home, I glance back longingly towards those misty Cuillin Hills and reflect on so many happy times past. A soft breeze whispers in my ear,
“Will ye no’ come back ag’in?”
– Roger Cox
Canberra, ACT, Australia.