Isle of Clouds, with a Fairy Flag that protects an ancient clan
From the sea, Skye’s cloud-cap can be seen long before its dark mountains climb over the horizon; so the Norsemen called it Skuyo, ‘Isle of Clouds’. Composed mostly of mountain and moor, Skye is a gathering of peninsulas. Tourism apart, crofting – small farming – is still the main occupation, though the Clearances hit the island hard and its present population of 7,500 is a third of what it was in the middle of the last century.
The harbour of the little fishing and ferry port is watched over by the jagged-tooth ruin of Castle Moil, a stronghold of the MacKinnons. The castle’s chatelaine long ago – so the story goes – was a fierce Norwegian princess who bore the unlikely name of Saucy Mary; she ran a chain across the narrow Kyle Akin strait to sink any ship that did not pay a toll. The strait is probably named after the Norwegian King Haakon who brought his fleet through the narrows to subsequent annihilation at the Battle of Largs in 1263.
To the south is the even narrower strait of Kyle Rhea, where, despite a fearsome tide-rip, Skye cattle were once swum across to Glenelg on the mainland.
A crofting village, and a scattering of houses, shops and a bank lie beneath the light-filled clouds rolling down the slopes of the Red Hills. The tiny, flat-topped Isle of Pabay lies out in the bay, and beyond are the seemingly unreal silhouettes of the mighty Applecross mountains on the mainland, dull black, or dappled and raised up by a shaft of sunlight.
The liqueur Drambuie was first brewed at the Broadford Hotel, following a secret recipe entrusted to the landlord by Prince Charles Edward.
Crofting, or subsistence farming, is the principal occupation on Skye, and the croft, a low, single-storey house built of large, squared boulders and roofed with rushes weighted down with stones, its most usual kind of building. The many roofless, abandoned crofts are probably the result of the land clearances of the last century.
At Luib, a croft has been turned into a folk museum showing the tools, appurtenances and ways of a crofter’s life a century ago. The walls and ceiling are lined with planks, plates wink on the dresser, and with peal burning in the range the effect is cosy.
The scenery on the road north from Loch Ainort represents Skye at its most majestic. The few houses at the foot of Leathad Chrithinn are turned to toys by the tremendous flanks of the hills; the summits, as often as not, are hidden in near-liquid cloud. The hills are immensely old, worn round and smooth, and scarred with ancient gullies; nothing grows on them but tough grass and heather, and with the seasons, their dress changes from olive-green to purple to old-gold.
The countryside is wild and magnificent, if lonely. But the people of Skye are not to be intimidated; at Sconser, on the shore of Loch Sligachan and at the base of the 2,500 ft Glamaig, they have established a defiant nine-hole golf course. Despite such apparent nonchalance, the hills must be treated with respect; no one should walk among them without heavy boots and waterproof clothing, nor without an experienced guide.
In the hotel at the head of the loch,
MacDonald of Clanranald met the Skye chiefs in an unsuccessful attempt at persuading them to rise for Prince Charles Edward. Later it became a favourite centre for early mountaineers in the Cuillins. A viewpoint beside the hotel looks over to those frowning battlements, though seeing them is another matter; not for nothing is Skye’s alternative name Eilean a’ Cheo, ‘the Isle of Mist’.
A mighty headland, Vriskaig Point, guards Skye’s capital, which consists mainly of neat white houses and small hotels grouped about the harbour or climbing the slope above. The name Portree – Port-an-Righ -means ‘king’s port’, and refers to a visit by James V in 1540 when he arrived with a fleet of 12 ships to persuade unruly chieftains of Skye that it was time to swear allegiance. Skye’s oldest building, built in Portree between 1720 and 1745, now houses the Tourist Information Office.
Most of Skye’s roads link at Portree, making it a natural touring centre as well as a resort in its own right. Highland games are held there in the summer.
Six miles to the north, reached by a road through a rolling desert of heather where every rock spouts water, is a great ridge called The Storr. In front of it stands a 150 ft high rock pillar, the Old Man of Storr.
There are many ancient ruins and monuments on Skye, from standing stones to roofless crofts, but the shell of Monkstadt has a special place in the island’s story. It was there, in June 1746, that the 24-year-old Flora MacDonald brought the defeated and fugitive Prince Charles Edward, after landing at what is now Prince Charles’s Point, just below the house.
A cluster of crofts near the cemetery have been restored and refurbished as the Skye Cottage Museum to show the life of a crofting community 100 years and more ago. the picture that emerges is one of astonishing self-reliance; almost everything was made, grown or contrived by the community.
The little ferry port for the Outer Isles is of no great architectural merit; the only building that really catches the eye is a tower of vaguely medieval aspect that was built in the 19th century by a Captain Fraser and is known as Captain Fraser’s Folly. But the setting is breathtaking – a great amphitheatre ending in two tremendous headlands that contains the green shore, the port and horseshoe of the natural harbour. Thus protected, green grass and even a few trees manage to grow within the shelter of the bowl, in marked contrast to the windswept heathery wilderness all about.
The road hairpins so high above Uig that to look down upon it is to see it miniaturised, as though from the air: a tiny pier, with fishing boats and puffers – Highland coasters-leaning amicably against it and, further out, the neat, red-funnelled ferry trailing its white wake to Tarbert on Lewis.
From Uig, a single-track road runs northeast for 6 miles across the Trotternish peninsula to pretty Staffin Bay, taking in some swooping hills on the way. At its highest point it passes the Quiraing, one of the most astonishing rock formations in Britain, a fearsome jumble of pinnacles and peaks thrown up in some geological cataclysm of the distant past. There is something uncanny about the Quiraing, especially in the evening when wreaths of mist begin to drift about its battlements.
The square-towered castle on the crag is seven centuries old, and the oldest house in Britain to have been continuously occupied by the same family since its building. True to their motto of ‘Hold Fast’, 20 generations of MacLeod chieftains have lived there, administering their lands and holding their people together with remarkable tenacity. There were never any Clearances in MacLeod country, and having lost 700 clansmen fighting for Charles II at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 later chiefs were reluctant to respond to subsequent calls from the Stuarts. Thus the clan was spared the ravages that followed the Uprising of 1745.
There are many MacLeod treasures in the castle, including the 12th-century chief’s drinking horn that holds the equivalent of two bottles of claret which he drained at a draught, and the clan’s famous Fairy Flag.
The curious, flat-topped mountains to the south-west are known as MacLeod’s Tables, and it is said that a long-ago chieftain held a banquet on one of them, illuminated by torches carried by a hundred brawny clansmen, to impress a Lowlander with the boundlessness of Highland hospitality. Another glimpse of the chieftains’ life-style may be obtained by visiting Borreraig, on the opposite shore of Loch Dunvegan. This was the home of the MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers to the MacLeods. There is a monument to them there, and a Piping Centre.
At Colbost, 3 miles up the loch shore from Borreraig, there is a folk museum based upon a croft of a much earlier period than the ones at Kilmuir. The peat fire is not in a range with a chimney, but in the centre of the floor. The smoke, in theory, escaped through a hole in the ceiling; it is little wonder that these older crofts are called Black Houses.
SILKEN DEFENDER OF THE MACLEODS Legend says that the Fairy Flag, in’ Dunvegan Castle, will save the MacLeod clan if waved at moments of great danger. It is said to have been given by the fairy wife of an early chief, but may have been the flag of Harald Haardrada of Norway who was defeated by King Harold of England in 1066. The Fairy Flag is made of Mediterranean silk, and Harald’s flag came originally from Constantinople.
High up on the western coast of the lonely Waternish peninsula, at Trumpan, there is a ruined church whose state is due not to the ravages of time but to an unpleasant incident in the endless feud between the Mac-Donalds and the MacLeods. On a Sunday morning in 1578, a party of MacDonalds, raiding from Uist, discovered a congregation of MacLeods at worship in the church. They fired the church, cutting down anyone who tried to escape. The only survivor was an old woman who ran over the moors to Dun-vegan to raise the alarm.
The Fairy Flag was unfurled – the only certain occasion on which it was displayed in battle – and armed MacLeods appeared as if by magic, racing for Trumpan. The outnumbered MacDonalds ran for their galleys, but they were beached on a falling tide, and the raiders were butchered to a man. The dead were buried by toppling a wall upon them.
For those who do not wish to climb the Cuillins this little hamlet on the southern peninsula of Straithaird offers the best of all views of the faintly terrible mountains, whose mighty bastions- fill the sky to the north-west. See them especially in the long gloaming of a summer evening, when the vast, black shapes seem to grow up the daffodil sky, then turn to see Soay, Rhum, Canna and Eigg adrift on a golden sea.
Ferry passengers from Mallaig disembark at Armadale, where part of a 19th-century castle has been restored to house a Museum of the Isles and an audio-visual display
STILL WATERS BENEATH RED GRANITE HILLS
Majestic as a jewelled crown, formidable as a castle’s ramparts, Leacnan Fionn in north Skye rises to craggy, flat-topped bluffs, casting dark shadows on the polished-glass waters of Loch Langaig. Less jagged in outline than the Cuillins to the south, the pink granite hills tower a mile or so north of the Quiraing and west of the A855 near Flodigarry. which tell the history, of the mighty Clan Donald. By the roadside, a former stable block now serves as a visitor reception centre, with restaurant and craft shop. There are numerous nature trails through the gardens and the surrounding farmland and shoreline.
The fertile peninsula of Sleat on which Armadale Castle stands is often called the ‘Garden of Skye’ because of its luxuriant coastal vegetation. A road from Ardvasar leads to the Aird of Sleat, from which a 2 mile walk leads to the Point of Sleat, Skye’s southernmost point.
The 13 mile long island is a far-away sort of place, its only contact with the outside world being the ferry to Sconser on Skye. Most of the 150-odd islanders are crofters, living in or about the village of Inverarish. They remain through love for the island, dependence upon one another, and the unifying influence of the strict Protestant denomination to which most of them belong.
Unlike MacLeod of Dunvegan, MacLeod of Raasay actively supported the Jacobite cause in 1745 and sent 100 men from Raasay and neighbouring Rona to join the Prince. The government responded by burning every house on the islands, slaughtering every domestic beast and destroying all the boats. Recovery was slow, and a century later 100 families were evicted to make way for sheep and game.
Protected by the bulk of Skye, Raasay is much more gentle and lush than the larger island – but there is not a great deal to do. There is an ancient chapel, and the ruins of Brochel Castle, a MacLeod stronghold. But best of all might be to climb the 1,456 ft hill of Dun Caan, and from its flat summit look out to the mountains of Applecross, to all the islands, and to the great clouds rolling in from the Atlantic. Then, as James Boswell did on the hill in 1773, the watcher might dance a reel from the sheer joy of living.