That special feeling

Skye Full

Isolated rock formations that resemble huge stalagmites.  Photo Indranil Choudhuri

The weather on Skye is so unpredictable and quick to change that listening to the forecast becomes something of a joke, since everything is possible at any time. Bright sunshine and a startlingly pure, pale blue sky could vanish in an instant, as a flat gray lid of cloud slams down and emits a high-velocity spray of rain. When we woke up in our self-catering cottage, shafts of sunlight were sending fused rays over glen and heather. Yet, when we sat down for breakfast, rain was sweeping across the island.

The misty Isle of Skye, off the northwest coast of Scotland, is the largest of the Inner Hebrides. Dominating the land of streams, woodland glens, mountain passes and waterfalls are the Cuillin Hills. For the Scots, however, the island will forever evoke images of Flora MacDonald, who conducted the disguised Bonnie Prince Charlie to Skye after the defeat at Culloden.

Not wanting to be cowed down by the rain, we set off for a long drive in our rented Land Rover. We were staying near the village of Broadford. Perfectly placed between the spectacular Red Cuillin and the distant mainland Torridon mountains, the village centrepiece is a new landscaped garden area, where quiet picnics can be enjoyed while watching ducks dabble on the foreshore.

The main centre of population on Skye, and by virtue of that the focus of commerce and trade on the island, is the town of Portree. Wentworth Street, the main thoroughfare of the town, is packed with hotels and shops catering to every need. We were surprised to find a shop selling, of all things, Indonesian batik products. The chatty shop assistants told us the colourful sarongs and wall-hangings had, in fact, been produced in Sri Lanka.

Any visitor to Skye and Lochalsh and the Western Isles will quickly be made aware of the area’s rich and living Gaelic culture. Gaelic road signs point the way. Through Gaelic, place-names illuminate the landscape and the past. And whether it’s in song or conversation, the language can be heard throughout the island.

We reached Dunvegan Castle just after noon. Nowadays, the castle is still the official home of the MacLeod chief and is said to be one of the oldest inhabited castles in Scotland. However, instead of repelling invaders, the fortress is now open to visitors.
Among the prize exhibits is the famous Fairy Flag, the sacred banner of the Clan MacLeod. It is surrounded by legends of victory and the prophecy that it will be unfurled again to bring victory in the clan’s darkest hour. Also on display is the MacLeod drinking horn which each successive chief must drain in one gulp to inherit the title.

Given the fact that Skye is cheap, very comfortable and welcoming, why are there so few tourists? We certainly didn’t see too many on our outings. Several pleasant hotels overlook the loch adjoining Portree, but most of the people wandering its streets are there to market, bank or spend an hour at a laundrette.

Not that the island is bereft of virtues. For starters, it is easily accessible: You may drive from Inverness through Wester Ross to Kyle of Lochalsh. Of course, there are the old salts who charter sailboats and know Skye by its lochs, cliffs, waterfalls and modest marinas.

The lack of visitors could be because of the fact that the island bears the burden of much rain, May and June being exceptions. The sea that intrudes disarmingly into every nook and cranny is too cool for swimming.

Add to this the absence of sights for the compulsive sightseer — no churches, museums or palaces. And, importantly, there is no night life. You’re on your own with nature.
We travelled to the Trotternish peninsula in the northeast (mind you, Skye is a mere 60 miles across at its largest dimension) next day. On the peninsula, a dramatic road over tilting moors speckled with crofts (fenced, arable land) leads to the ruins of Duntulm, the MacDonalds’ stronghold before they opted for Sleat in the south. All that remains are the castle’s modest little ruins perched precariously high above the pounding surf with a frieze of islands filling out the background.

The peninsula, chief refuge of the Gaelic tradition on Skye, also boasts some odd stacks (isolated rock formations that resemble huge stalagmites): Quiraing, which rises off the road connecting Uig and Staffin Bay, and the Storrs, great rocky outcroppings standing on old glacial landslips, the Old Man of Storr holding himself elegantly aloof.

Can anyone’s holiday be complete without taking home long-lasting memories of a wonderful meal in new surroundings? Not mine, anyway! Home baking is the pride of many Scottish kitchens as we discovered when we entered a rather unremarkable looking café for lunch.

Superbly baked breads, cakes, scones, oatcakes, shortbread, fruit dumplings, tarts and crumbles were on display. And, if you are offered real heather honey, home-made marmalade, lemon curd, jams and chutneys, or savoury fruit and herb jellies, you will know that you are being looked after by someone who really cares about good Scottish food. Opting for a hearty meal of red pepper and lentil soup served with oatcakes, we finished off with chocolate brownies and ice cream.

On our last day in Skye, we headed for Glenbrittle — the starting point for many walkers and climbers who wish to experience the Black Cuillin mountains. However, we did not intend to walk or climb. We drove across the flanks of these magnificent hills to the dark sandy beach at Glenbrittle.

We hoped to catch the sunset, but found that we would have to walk a long way to get good photographs. So, we drove to Sligachan, which affords fantastic views of the rounded Red Cuillin on one side and the dramatic peaks of the Black Cuillin on the other.
We returned to our cottage on the shores of Loch Slapin. It was a quiet, still evening and there was no noise of traffic or mobile phone. Lichens were everywhere, covering bark in leafy rosettes. Even the ordinary felt special.

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