The Skye Experience

Most Australians are bemused by the British obsession with the weather, but as a Tasmanian I never was, much. The line about “four seasons in one day” was an old friend long before the Crowded House song of the same name; a phrase that holds the strongest meaning for temperate islanders, like Tasmanians, Kiwis, and the people of the British Isles. We live at the mercy of vast grey oceans, waiting to see what surprises they’ll throw at us.

When my parents visited in April last year and we travelled around the north and north-west Highlands, we were all surprised by what the Atlantic threw at us: nothing. An overcast day or two in Orkney, and a bit of wind, but basically day after perfect blue day almost to the end. As it was too early for the midges, and too early for most other tourists, the conditions couldn’t have been better.

It was probably too much to hope for the same again, setting out with Jane’s father for Skye and the Hebrides almost exactly a year later. The morning we left Edinburgh was deceptively warm and bright, with pink blossoms lining the streets; but spring turned to autumn once we reached Callander, and by Glencoe it was winter. Hunched shoulders of rock huddled under snow, which down at road level fell as a cold, penetrating rain. The ice indicator on the dash clicked on and off all the way to Loch Duish, where Eilean Donan, one of the most photographed castles of Scotland, hid from my camera behind a curtain of grey.

I’d thought about going via Glenelg to catch the old ferry to Kylerhea, which I still remembered strongly from my first visit to Skye in ’92. But crossing in a wee bonny boat in this weather was for the birds in the wind, so we drove on to Kyle of Localsh and the controversial new(-er than 1992) Skye Bridge. The toll did seem extortionate at a fiver each way; I sympathised with the local campaign to get it reduced... until we saw on the way out that you can buy books of twenty tickets for £26. C’mon, people, surely you leave the island more than once a year.

As we drove north to Portree, the weather got worse; but, in a way, also better. Raasay’s heft set against the turquoise water looked utterly incongruous in this downpour; and a few miles on, the road uphill faced directly at the snow-covered Cuillins. I’m not even sure I saw the Cuillins last time, and we didn’t see them again after this first day; Skye’s infamous clouds ensured that. I pulled over and snapped off some rain-blurred photos as four-wheel drives hissed past.

We reached Portree, and pushed on to our B&B at Loch Snizort, surely the best-named loch in all of lochdom; better even than Loch Oich and Loch Lochy. The monster hoaxers missed a trick; think how much more satisfying it would have been if all those postcards had pictures of Snizorty.

At Snizort the sun came out briefly, figured the situation was hopeless, and pissed off again. Back in Portree for dinner, we wandered around the sheltered harbour in the very last light. I stood and watched the reflections ripple on the darkness, hugging those minutes to my memory.

In 2003, we took a precarious one-lane coast road and walked for an hour to see the Old Man of Stoer, along with my old man. In Skye, we took another one-lane road (less precarious, or else we’ve got used to them) and walked for another hour to see the Old Man of Storr, along with Jane’s old man. Fortunately, the store of Old Men of Stoer/rr is now exhausted, because we’ve exhausted our store of old men. And ourselves; we followed our Storr-hike with a steep downhill one to Bearreraig beach so that I could satisfy my latent childhood fascination with fossils. Halfway down I felt like a fossil myself; a fossil jellyfish, the way my legs were going. It was too reminiscent of other downhill adventures; and once we were at the bottom we had to do it all in reverse. But at least I got myself a fossil, prised carefully from a crumbling lump of compressed mud: half a fossil worm.

The rain that had threatened all morning returned that afternoon, so our loop around the Trotternish peninsula went quicker than it might have. We tried to fill the extra time by visiting Portree’s award-winning Aros Experience and sea eagle exhibit. I should have known better about an exhibit you enter through a turnstile at the end of a giant gift-shop; hell, I should’ve known better about an experience that sounds like the Gaelic for “arse”. Four quid a head bought a few skimpy panels of information, an animatronic Samuel Johnson, and a short film showing sea eagles snatching fish from Portree harbour intercut with a helicopter ride over the Cuillins shot on unsteadycam. It might have been bearable if the soundtrack had some kind of descriptive narrative, instead of fifteen minutes of fiddle-de-dee. Exit left past shelves of Portree pottery.

Ah yes, the animatronic Johnson. (Now there’s an unfortunate phrase.) Skye, it turns out, is one of those destinations that stakes some of its tourist image on a film, TV series, or famous book. It’s hardly alone in that; just across the water is Plockton, the main location for Hamish Macbeth, which was certainly enough for me to make the six-mile detour from Kyle of Localsh on the way out. (Didn’t see any westies, sadly, but we saw a Land Rover.) Skye hardly needs the boost, though; it’s already famously beautiful and historic. The Johnsoniana reminded me of our week in southern Thailand in 2000, when we were told at every turn that the stunning tropical landscape all around us was As Seen in The Beach, and the stunning food on offer every evening was As Eaten by Leonardo di Caprio, and the video of The Beach playing in every bar was As Filmed on Koh Phi Phi Just Over There. We hadn’t even seen The Beach (although we eventually did; it was okay), and it sure wasn’t our reason for being there.

I’ve never read Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland either, though I admit my curiosity is now piqued. But I think I’ll try Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides first. One of the B&Bs on our trip had a library of and about Boswell in its guest lounge, and I spent an evening reading about the man who’s remembered for remembering Johnson. If I don’t follow through with the books themselves, it’ll be The Beach all over again. Not that I ever did read Alex Garland’s novel...

We washed away the taste of Aros with a tour of the Talisker Distillery on the west of the island. The pure Skye water was pouring from the sky in buckets, so it was as good a time as any to head indoors and watch it filter through malted barley, swirl around in a big vat, burble through a huge copper kettle, and something to do with wort, or whorf, or I dunno what, I just drink the stuff. Which I do now, a little; I never used to, but I’m sick of ordering cider in pubs, I don’t like beer, and that shelf of single malts in every Scottish pub was the obvious alternative. It takes some untraining; asking for a Scotch here is like wandering into a Sydney bar and ordering “lager”; and if you’re asked what kind, the correct answer is not “on the rocks”. On the smooth, buttery end of the single-malt spectrum, I quite like Highland Park, while on the peaty, gargling-a-charcoal-briquette end, you can do a lot worse than Talisker. I splashed out and bought a bottle. At twenty-three quid (with £3-off visitor’s voucher), I’ve been reluctant to open it.

That was most of what we saw in Skye, apart from a short sock-wetting walk to the broch (iron age stone fort) at Dun Beag, which we promptly rechristened Dun Bog. If only we’d known. The ferry was about to take us to the western isles that Boswell and Johnson never reached, where the bogs were all beag, and wet socks were the least of it.

→ Complete your Skye Experience with these photos of The Western Isles, part one; part two to follow soon.

Here’s what people said about this entry.

ahhh rory! worth the wait! beautiful beautiful stuff. like how you did the photos too.

(my favourite loch is Loch Errochty!)

Added by shauny on a Thursday in May.

Ta, Shauna. Two or three more bits to come.

Completely unrelated observation not worth a whole page to itself: yesterday’s front page of the Metro had the headline “18,000 terrorists ‘poised to strike’”

That’s a relief. No new attacks for a while, then.

Added by Rory on a Thursday in May.