For the last few days I’ve been in the magical Orkney islands, exploring the Neolithic sites and diving the famous wrecks of Scapa Flow. All this activity means my travelogue has been a bit neglected, but I’ve finally managed to complete my post about the Isle of Skye which we visited way back in June…
The day we visited the enchanting Eilean Donan castle was also the day we crossed the bridge to the Isle of Skye. No doubt the bridge, opened in 1995, made life a lot easier for the locals, but for me some of the romance of the journey is lost without a wild sea crossing! That night we camped in the small town of Broadford on a forgotten strip of land by the sea. We parked so we could watch the grey seals basking on the rocks at low tide, seemingly undisturbed by the low key bustle of the town just behind us.
The following morning we set out for the Fairy Pools, a cascade of plunge pools created by the River Brittle as it flows away from the Black Cuillins mountain range. I love wild swimming, and on our journey there along tiny single track roads I day dreamed of a hidden valley with limpid clear pools of icy water. Rounding the last bend in the road I began to realise we may not have been the first with this idea. The tiny road ahead was choked with cars and coaches as far as the eye could see. Sightseers marched like ants across the landscape and the path to the pools was a series of deeply eroded tracks in the sheep cropped turf. We were dismayed to see quite so many people in this beautiful and remote place, but proceeded to cram our van into a tiny roadside space and set off for the pools in our own contribution to inappropriate mass tourism.
As you approach the pools you are gradually dwarfed by the bulk of the mountains, a towering wall of forbidding scree and rock creating an impregnable fortress of stone. These are serious mountains, and signs along the track warn you to proceed no further without a guide and mountaineering experience. Nevertheless, today the river plunge pools at their feet sparkle in the pale sunshine and the water is beautifully, enticingly, crystal clear. One or two brave souls have stripped off and are tentatively stepping into the water, but when I see the wall of tourists, snapping away like paparazzi at a royal wedding, I firmly shelve any thoughts of joining them. This is clearly not going to be my arcadian fantasy made manifest.
Sightseers marched like ants across the landscape and the path to the pools was a series of deeply eroded tracks in the sheep cropped turf.
After that slightly dispiriting start we made our way to the village of Carbost where we had heard there was an excellent pub, The Old Inn. The reviews were accurate and we found a lovely little pub next to the loch serving some of the best food we’d had on the trip so far. It was so good we decided to find a nearby camping spot and return that evening to catch the live music advertised on a board next to the bar. Walking back in around 8pm we found the bar packed with people and alive with the convivial chatter of locals and visitors alike. People lined the bar while old men sat on bar stools with their dogs at their feet and waitresses swooped in and out of the crowd, clearing the last of the food orders away. We found a tiny table near the bar and settled in. Soon after a group of young local lads appeared with their instruments and settled themselves at a table right next to us. Folk musicians don’t perform on stages here, they appear part of the pub crowd until they start playing! After a few final adjustments and gulps of Irn Bru, the band struck up an infectious, foot-tapping tune on the Scottish small pipes, whistle and bodhràn. Folk music is not normally my thing, but as the night wore on and the drinks flowed, the music wrapped us all in its simple magic, binding all who heard it in this timeless ritual of celebration and community.
The next day we left Carbost behind and made our way north to the Old Man of Storr. The ‘old man’ is a spectacular basalt pinnacle that forms part of the Trotternish Ridge, a geological feature in northern Skye. We had found a good hiking route that would take us right past it, but as we approached the start we spotted a now familiar problem, cars and coaches lining the narrow road and completely overwhelming the car park. Luckily this time the hiking route proved too difficult for most of the inappropriately attired, selfie-stick wielding day trippers so it wasn’t long before the crowds thinned out. As we climbed along the rocky path the views down into the Sound of Raasay became increasingly spectacular and we paused to eat our packed lunches on a stone outcrop where the rock pinnacles reached high into the scudding clouds.
The wind howled mournfully in our ears and we watched ravens play in the updrafts, casting off their somber demeanour for a moment of unruly delight.
After the success of the ‘Old Man of Storr’ hike we decided to tackle the Quiraing the following day. This is another walk along the Trotternish Ridge but the route is slightly more challenging. This time we managed to avoid the hordes gathered at the official start point thanks to the sage advice of a local who recommended an empty car park next to a windswept cemetery as an alternative. By the time we joined the main trail our companions were the usual collection of European backpackers and weatherbeaten septuagenarians in day-glo waterproofs. The walk itself is stunning, winding along stony trails with incredible views as you climb higher. Early on, as we passed a high rock feature called The Prison and moved into a forbidding, steep sided valley of rock pinnacles and scree slopes, we heard what sounded like a gun shot. Startled we looked around in time to see several large rocks tumbling and crashing down the scree slope to land on the trail about 10 metres in front of us. Rock falls are part of the natural reshaping of this mobile landscape but not something you want to experience too closely. After a slightly shocked pause, we hurried through the rest of that section, furtively scanning the rock faces for any further movement!
The rest of the Quiraing hike passed without incident and we finally made it onto the high escarpment overlooking the sea and the Torridon mountains. As we walked we gazed with delight at the incredible vista of land and sea, high cliffs lending us a giddying birds eye view of lochs and mountains in miniature. The wind howled mournfully in our ears and we watched ravens play in the updrafts, casting off their somber demeanour for a moment of unruly delight.
The following day the weather closed in, bringing plunging temperatures and soggy low clouds which erased the views and enclosed us in a flat grey half light. For the first time in several weeks our little van felt cold and I took to wearing five layers of clothing and a woolly hat under my waterproofs. Times like this can be hard when there’s no hearth to return home to but we decided to book into a campsite for our last night in Skye and wallow in the luxury of a long hot shower and a flushing toilet. Bliss!
On our final day we had a late sailing from Uig to the Isle of Harris, so spent the morning at a nearby feature called the Fairy Glen. Gazing at the pouring rain through our van window I was pretty skeptical about this final bit of sightseeing, but allowed myself to be persuaded outside with the help of a full set of waterproofs and a woolly hat so large I could barely see the path in front of me. After a brief tramp along a winding single track road we suddenly stumbled into the ‘glen’, an amazing Highland landscape in miniature. Small grassy hills form valleys studded with tiny lochs and there is even a basalt peak. It looks like the work of a bored eccentric, Willy Wonka dreaming of pixies in the land of the ancients, but it is a completely natural phenomena.
Soon after, the rain stops and we make our final descent into the small town of Uig to join the line of vehicles waiting patiently for the ferry. In the tiny ferry cafe we eat a delicious Cullen Skink (smoked haddock soup) and contemplate the next leg of our journey. Finally we are about to reach the Western Isles, the Outer Hebrides, a collection of islands so remote and shrouded in mystery that the vast majority of British mainlanders have never visited them. I cannot wait…