A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant
Author: Clint Cameron
Meandering languidly around the notoriously windy, single lane roads that pervade the Isle of Skye, the car was brought to a shuddering halt yet again by the oblivious interludes of the Isle’s charismatic black-faced sheep which, followed attentively by their little spring lambs, ambled ignorantly across the road to gnaw on sappy roadside grasses. I got out of the car to shoo the bleating nag along only to be overwhelmed by an eerie feeling perpetrated by the insurmountable bleakness of the landscape surrounding me- barren heathlands and desolate plains interwoven with a myriad of stoic, unperturbed castles, ruins and standing stones set against a concrete sky. This emotive vista pervades the senses and captures the imagination; I was under no pretences of passing through a callous land of ancient pedigree where people have lived, fought, farmed and died for millennia.
The Isle of Skye is wedged into the far north-western reaches of Scotland. Composed of 5 pincer shaped peninsulas deeply incised with sea lochs (drowned river valleys) and inlets radiating out from a central spine, the Isle forms an integral annex to the central Highland belt of the mainland. It is the largest of the inner Hebrides Islands and derives its name from the Norse word for cloud, ‘Ski‘ and ‘Ey’ which means ‘island’. The island is still commonly referred to as ‘The Misty Isle’ in accordance with its reputation for frequently inclement, inhospitable weather. Although, as the Isle’s much vaunted saying goes, ‘if you don’t like the weather on Skye, wait five minutes‘- which is to say that while the weather is rarely extreme, it is extremely changeable.
The succession of craggy and serrated peaks known as the Cuillin Mountains are undoubtedly the centrepiece of Skye. The Cuillin’s were propelled up from the seabed during the same tumultuous period of earth quakes and cataclysmic volcanic eruptions that shaped the rest of the Scottish Highlands 430 million years ago, and they’ve subsequently been cleaved open and whittled away by the irrepressible force of glacial erosion, fashioning vast U-shaped valleys in-between jagged pinnacles. The Cuillins are adorned with scrambling scree slopes and sporadic patches of low lying, wind ravaged scrub, and offer superb if somewhat arduous tramping opportunities during the milder spring and summer months. A daunting saunter up the intimidating, broodingly dark flanks of the omnipresent Munro (a title attributed to Scottish peaks over 3000 feet or 914m) Sgurr Alisdair is justified by an extraordinary mountainous panorama complemented by the majestic juxtaposition of the Cullins highest peak looming over tranquil Loch Coruisk far below.
Antiquated artefacts of Nordic heritage can be found at the base of Sgurr Alisdair and around the grassy knolls flanking Loch Coruisk, including the earthen buttressed remnants of a great Viking longhouse. Between the 8th and 12th centuries AD, Skye was a domain of warmongering Vikings who used the Isle as an over-wintering base during periodic breaks in-between raiding and pillaging townships throughout the British coast. Skye’s proud Celtic heritage, however, outlived the domineering influence of the Norsemen as well as the ensuing turmoil resultant from a history personified by belligerence, animosity and resilience. It remains strong to this day with around half the population still speaking in incomprehensible, vowel-deprived Gaelic tongues.
Hardiness is perhaps the most equitable term to describe the resolution and attitude of the Isle’s residents. Fashioned, moulded and attuned to the Isle’s inhospitable environment, generations of MacDonald’s and McLeod’s (the predominant Scottish clans that made Skye their historical seat) have lived on Scotland’s wettest island where rainfall averages 1200 mm per year in lower lying parts, up to 3000mm per year in the Cuillins and it rains 250 days of the year- the southern most peninsula is actually called ‘Sleat’.
The majority of the island is farmed, with green pastures riddled by tuffs of wind-shorn tussock on exposed plains grazed by hardy Highland cattle (or Hairy cows as their also known). Adorned with elegant, widely splayed horns and splendidly flowing auburn locks masking perceptive eyes, Highland cattle are a result of centuries of selective breeding to produce a breed well capable of enduring the harsh Scottish climate. Lower lying moorlands are embalmed by spongy sphagnum mosses; few arable crops are able to be coaxed out of the Isle’s sodden, boggy ground. Inland, translucent rivers stocked with an abundance of Brown trout and Atlantic salmon gush and bubble along, meandering past river beaches composed of shorn-off shale and granite slabs polished and rounded smooth by the tumbling action of cascading water and framed by blossoming broom, heather and gorse on the margins.
The sun does not set on Skye during the summer months until well after 11.00pm. The residual afterglow of dusk lingers on in the west while an eerie, strengthening radiance in the eastern sky proclaims the arrival of the sun, creating an atmosphere of seemingly perpetual daylight. At this latitude, the Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights can sometimes be seen on clear nights as hyper-charged electrons dance to the tune of the Earth’s magnetic field, producing mesmerising displays of shimmering luminosity.
Skye’s diverse plethora of experiences born of its esoteric, interwoven mix of people, place and history combines to create a vibrant cultural tapestry personifying this land of rugged charm. In this sense it really is a microcosm of all that embodies the Scottish Highlands.