The Isle of Skye – sounds magical, doesn’t it? Without knowing anything about an “isle of skye” I think I’d be tempted to visit.This isle was one of the primary drivers behind my highland fling, and I did know nothing of it, except that Talisker Whiskey is distilled there. And much as I love my wee dram, I promise that whiskey was not what lured me to the Isle.
At 9:15 am eleven intrepid travelers boarded a comfortable minivan with large, clean windows (the better for photography along the way), and took off for Skye, driven and guided by an amiable fellow named Joe. He was Glaswegian by birth but did much of his growing up near Inverness and worked on Skye itself for seven years, so he knew the territory well and shared many personal as well as geographical and historical stories and insights along the way. On the way to our destination the weather was predictable in that it was completely unpredictable. Those of you who are panicked by references to Macbeth (sorry! The Scottish Play!) should skip this paragraph, as I am about to quote from it: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Whether or not Shakespeare ever actuslly saw Scotland he got the weather perfectly in that one short sentence. Nearly every day I have seen in Scotland, and by this time I’ve seen quite a few, this statement nails it. Of course the tone in Macbeth (damn! Again, so sorry!) is ominous, whereas Joe the driver put it less poetically but more positively, bursting out happily with the words, “Where else in the world would you get sun and rain at the same time?”
Okay, I just left the dressing room, spit, and turned around thrice, so not to worry, I can continue safely with my story.
The concept for this trip was to introduce us to more than just the Isle. You have to get to it from Inverness, which is a bit of a journey itself, and as you head towards Skye you see beautiful highlands along the way. We made several stops, some to refresh and relieve ourselves, some just to take photos. The first stop was at Strathcarron. It takes longer to type the name than to view the village, which consisted of a hotel, a post office, a few houses, a stained glass shop, a red telephone booth and a rather interesting chicken coop. The hotel housed toilets and an assortment of breakfast goodies. I’d already eaten, so I took the time to circumnavigate the village – not much of a trip, but of course surrounding the village were beautiful mountains, green fields, streams. All in all not a bad place to which to retreat from the cares of life in…well, just about any place more “civilized.”
What interested me most was the chicken coop.
Joe was convinced, and I would hesitate to disagree, that it was the only chicken coop in the world with stained glass windows. I wanted to be sure it wasn’t just a highland yarn Joe was spinning, and sure enough the windows did boast staind glass, one hopes from the shop across the way. God forbid a rival creator of stained glass should have got the contract! The other peculiar aspect to the coop was the tv antenna on top. Joe, and here I think he WAS spinning yarn, told us that the idea was to allow the hens to rest easy, lulled by the dulcet tones of tv talk, but that the plan was foiled (or might I say fowled?) because none of the chickens could agree on which channel to watch!
And on we rode towards Skye. Joe spoke knowledgeably about the mountains and the ecology of the area. He pointed to mountains that had once been the domain of red deer and their natural predator, the wolf. When farmers moved in they raised sheep. When you have a natural predator you tend to figure out ways to avoid it, and red deer are clever creatures, so the wolves began to take the much easier route by attacking the farmers’ sheep instead of the deer. This angered the farmers and the wolves began to be hunted with vigor, so much so that they were nearly wiped out. The result? Good for the farmer, in that sheep thrived, but not so good for the natural balance of things, as so did the red deer, to the point where THEY have to be culled annually. So the wolf is gradually being re-introduced to the area, a move praised by ecologists, damned by farmers. The battle continues. Moral of the story? Not sure there is one really other than the obvious. Humans, well intended or not, have mucked up the natural world. One of many many tales of this kind, and hardly restricted to the highlands of Scotland.
Anyway! Everywhere we turned there was another beautiful vista, often the other side of one we had seen as we wound our way through the dramatic terrain.
And if it had been raining and mist-ridden on one side, it was as often as not sunny and gorgeous on the other (“so foul and fair…” sorry!) It often seemed we were not observing the same mountain we’d seen only fifteen minutes before. I suppose I could use a word here that I have tried to avoid in every paragraph: breathtaking. When Dottore Gianni’s breath get’s taken away every few minutes, he becomes dizzy, giddy, dazzled by the light and dark sides of the mountains. And gradually the good doctor became aware of it and after feeling slightly sick, weak at the knees, gave way to it. The day produced a sort of natural high that was as beautiful as it was unusual. Breathtaking.
We’re not even to Skye as yet, and there are many more tales of our move towards Skye. Would you like to hear the one about the road sign that states: “Strom Ferry – No Ferry. ” Of course you would, but it’s one too many to relate here! We stopped again a slight distance from the great bridge to Skye. The bridge itself is an impressive sight but pales next to the natural scenery. Once across that bridge we had at last reached Skye. Skye! And not much had changed actually. The scenery remained beautiful, Dottore Gianni remained in a dizzy, giddy state…ah!
|In the distance, shrouded in mist, mountains called the "Five Sisters"|
Our first stop on the Isle was for lunch at the Broadford Hotel. We were given menus early in the trip and had a great choice of two courses for £10. Joe phoned our orders in ahead so there was almost no wait for the food.We also had the option of eating elsewhere, but the village of Broadford boasts its hotel, a food co-op, a sandwich shop and little else but everything else: charming houses, beautiful views of mountains and lochs…and very changeable weather. While a picnic seemed a good idea in theory, the possibility of becoming soaked and remaining so for the next many hours was strong, So I, along with most of the others, opted for lunch at the Broadford Hotel. Which was splendid! Watching my waistline as always I opted for light fare: the Haggis starter and the pie made of local Scottish beef and ale, all washed down with a McEwan’s 80. No need for a lot of supper that evening! I had had haggis once before, on a day trip to the Highlands. It was better that first time than I thought it would be, but I doubted I’d ever do it again. I asked Joe if I should have the soup (the Scots make wonderful soups!) or haggis. He smiled and all but rolled his eyes. Haggis, hands down. This time delicious! Cooked in an oatmeal cake on a bed of summer vegetables. Heavenly haggis! Never thought I’d use that word duo to express my feelings for this particular delicacy. The pie was at least as good. The beef had been slow-cooked to the point where it literally melted, flavourfully, in my mouth. Heaven again! And the McEwan’s was…McEwan’s – it never fails.
After lunch I took a walk, accompanied part of the way by the tall, willowy, and very beautiful young woman, a Japanese IT specialist, who’d sat down next to me at lunch. Another reason for the giddiness of Dottore Gianni! Most of you who are reading this will I hope not roll your eyes at me as Joe did, as most of you will know that Dottore Gianni has an eye for beautiful women. He confesses it freely. Fortunately he has no more than an “eye” for women. Others of his sex have much more than that, and go for much more than that. She was traveling alone, I was traveling alone, and for a very short time we enjoyed the pleasure of each other’s company. Besides, solo travelers always depend upon the kindness of strangers to take pictures of them! Right?
Of course I’m right. And then we journeyed onward into Skye, to a rocky beach so beautiful that…well, when a fellow traveler asked what would happen if he were late to be picked up by the van, Joe reminded us that he could not wait for stragglers, as there were many of us, headed for distant destinations, some later that very day. I said to the fellow traveler that I would not mind being late, if it meant that I coulds stay here for the rest of my life.
|The Black Cullins|
The view from the beach was in part the sea, in part the magnificent Black Cullin (Scottish Gaelic: Cuillin – btw, Joe explained that the Scots pronounce the word “Gaelic” not as the Irish do, who say GAY-lic, but instead GAL[as in my gal sal]-ic), jagged mountains that seem to rise not from an archeological fault line so much as from an ancient saga…something out of The Lord of the Rings, perhaps. I looked at the mountains and the sea, and the collection of small sturdy houses that shared that awesome view. And I can no longer use words to express the feeling. I had found SKYE.
And then we rambled back to the mainland, along scenery that looked sometimes the same, sometimes very different from that which we’d seen already, even though we were retracing our path along the same roads. Most of these roads had one lane only, with areas to pull into that allowed traffic going the other direction to proceed. It’s a constant negotiation, and it seemed not an unpleasant one, at least not the way Joe handled it. As we neared the bridge to and from Skye, I began to notice something that somewhat irritated me. Tourist shops, all with special deals for the traveler, gas stations, quick-stops with everything you’d possibly need for your journey to/from Skye! We had had a few rich hours outside of the commercial world we know so well and give ourselves to so easily. Now we had left Skye we were back in the mire. So it goes. But how nice to have had a taste, for one brief shining moment, of that lovely Isle.
We had one last stop to make on the way back, that to a small but important Castle of Eilean Donan, first built in the thirteenth century, situated to protect the area from Viking invaders.
It was dramatic to walk through its worn passageways, and the landscape surrounding it is of course marvelous to behold. The castle’s history is too complex to detail here, but in a nutshell, it was named for a seventh century bishop, later saint Donan. In the thirteenth century the clan MacKenzie held it, and the MacRaes were first their servants, then their protectors. In the eighteenth century it figured prominently in the Jacobite uprising, then was abandoned until the early twentieth century, when it was restored by the McRae family. Joe regaled us with stories about the battles in the nearby mountains between British troops hidden in the trees and the massacre of Spanish soldiers loyal to Bonnie Prince Charlie. Joe really made the history of the area come alive for all eleven of us. The five pounds I gave him for a pint afterwards was hardly recompense for his well-told tales. We then followed the banks of Loch Ness back to Inverness, arriving just about twelve hours after we started. A full, fairly exhausting, but breathtaking day. Certainly a highlight of Dottore Gianni’s Highland Fling!
More to follow, on another great journey, to the Orkneys. But the sky is a brilliant blue in Inverness, and I must get out into it before the weather changes – after all, the rule applies, as the bard maintained: “so foul and fair a day Dottore Gianni has not seen…” Sorry!