ISLE OF SKYE

Scot­land’s moody, mys­ti­cal land­scapes are very pop­u­lar with tourists, but you can still ex­pe­ri­ence its quiet magic with­out break­ing the spell – or your bank ac­count

Getaway (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - WORDS & PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY CHRIS DAVIES

This Scot­tish is­land is very pop­u­lar, but Chris Davies finds an idyl­lic (and mostly free) way to ex­pe­ri­ence its charms

dis­tant screech echoes off the hills. We stop walk­ing and turn to look at the loch. This par­tic­u­lar in­let, Loch Nan Uamh, is one of more than 200 sea lochs along Scot­land’s west coast, and our nar­row foot­path has zigzagged up its south­ern slopes, of­fer­ing cloud-wreathed views of the pine-clad far shore. The shrill blast is un­mis­tak­able, and now a sec­ond and third bounces across the wa­ter as a bil­low­ing steam train crosses a stone bridge, then dis­ap­pears, still blast­ing away, into a tun­nel. Back on the path, we climb the fi­nal steps over a grassy ridge and get the first glimpse of our des­ti­na­tion for the night: Pean­meanach bothy, a soli­tary stone cot­tage over­look­ing a de­serted, sandy bay. The low cloud is turn­ing to rain as we nav­i­gate a suc­ces­sion of boggy pools and hop, rock to rock, across nar­row rapid streams. Six hours ear­lier, my part­ner and I had col­lected our rental car at Ed­in­burgh air­port and driven the beautiful Loch Lomond road north, past its wooded is­lands, through Glen­coe, Fort Wil­liam and into the Western High­lands. By 6pm we’d parked in a de­serted lay-by, donned back­packs and boots, and set out on the first hike of our Scot­tish walk­ing hol­i­day. It’s about 7pm now, but it’ll be light for a few hours yet. These long, sum­mer evenings are won­der­ful – you can get so much done. Now if only the rain would ease up a bit. It’s in­clement weather, how­ever, that’s largely re­spon­si­ble for the ex­is­tence of our shel­ter tonight. Both­ies are small huts or cot­tages – the tra­di­tional homes of labour­ers or game keep­ers – that are now left un­locked and free for cold, wet hik­ers to use. A vol­un­teer organisation, the Moun­tain Both­ies As­so­ci­a­tion, looks after al­most 100 such shel­ters, mostly in Scot­land but

also scat­tered across north­ern Eng­land and Wales. In­vari­ably iso­lated and usu­ally of­fer­ing lit­tle more than sleep­ing bunks and a roof, both­ies are not meant for com­fort, but with a bit of prepa­ra­tion you can bring your com­fort with you. And there is no bet­ter way to ex­pe­ri­ence the spec­tac­u­lar wild­ness of the High­lands. Smoke is ris­ing from Pean­meanach bothy as we cross a fi­nal grassy fen and draw near. Alex and James, univer­sity stu­dents from Glouces­ter, have found wood and built a small fire. They wel­come us in­side. You can’t book a bothy – any­one has the right to shel­ter. Par­ties of more than five are for­bid­den, but space should be made for smaller groups. If you’re ar­riv­ing late to a pop­u­lar bothy, a tent could save you an un­com­fort­able night, but bothy eti­quette is to make room no mat­ter how full. We trade whisky for crisps and bis­cuits, hang wet cloth­ing by the fire and de­vour our deli-bought chicken and rice be­fore re­tir­ing up­stairs, where we have the cosy at­tic to our­selves. The next morn­ing we say our good­byes and hike back to our car to catch the ferry at Mal­laig. There are more than 700 Scot­tish is­lands of var­i­ous sizes, but we’re head­ing to the sec­ond largest by area and fourth by pop­u­la­tion: the Isle of Skye. Since 1995 a bridge has con­nected Skye to the main­land at Kyle of Lochalsh. It’s only a short drive north, but I feel an is­land loses some­thing if you don’t ar­rive by boat. It was the supreme sea­far­ers, the Vik­ings, who named this is­land Skuy, or ‘mist’, and it is misty as we chug across the chan­nel, an enor­mous rain­bow dwarf­ing a sail­boat off the star­board bow. The ferry is packed, and we’ve heard that ac­com­mo­da­tion on the is­land is hard to find. Scot­land has be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in re­cent years – in 2017 it was voted the most beautiful coun­try in the world in a sur­vey by Rough Guides. With its wild coves and misty peaks, Skye is rightly a gem in that crown. The lo­cals also think highly of it: a 2016 UK real-es­tate sur­vey ranked it the most de­sir­able place to live in Bri­tain. Most vis­i­tors con­verge on Skye’s three main at­trac­tions: the north-east­ern rock for­ma­tions of the Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr; and a string of wa­ter­falls near the cen­tre of the is­land called the Fairy Pools. The queue of cars from the ferry seems headed that way. We peel

away from them and turn off to­wards our sec­ond bothy in the south. The Scots, they say, can re­ally tell a joke – a sense of hu­mour’s in­evitable, per­haps, when your na­tional stereotypes also in­clude stingi­ness, deep-fried ev­ery­thing and bag­pipes. Even so, it takes a spe­cial kind of lev­ity to en­shrine the uni­corn as your of­fi­cial na­tional an­i­mal. It’s been amus­ing me since I came across the fact while Googling in the car. Now, high up on the hik­ing trail, with the trin­kets and tourists far be­hind, a beam of golden light lances through the clouds into Ca­ma­sunary Bay be­low. And it suddenly seems plau­si­ble that the coun­try’s myths and leg­ends could be real. From lesser­known kelpies and selkies (su­per­nat­u­ral wa­ter horses and shape-shift­ing seals) to the world-fa­mous Loch Ness Mon­ster, why not the uni­corn as your of­fi­cial beast? Land­scapes like this are fer­tile ground for the imag­i­na­tion. Ca­ma­sunary is as charm­ing as Pean­meanach. Three Dutch hik­ers ar­rive as we reach the bothy door, and then a Scot­tish fam­ily, wild-camp­ing up the beach, pop in for some tea. Be­yond that, the sheep-scat­tered bay is ours, and after ex­plor­ing un­til sun­set we grab a deck of cards left by a pre­vi­ous hiker and play by can­dle­light into the night. We leave un­hur­ried the next day and take a me­an­der­ing, scenic drive. Our fi­nal bothy is way up on Skye’s north­ern­most tip; the hike in is short and easy – and we are re­warded with the best views of the jour­ney so far. The Look­out bothy was once just that – a coast­guard look­out that mon­i­tored the stormy ship­ping lanes north of Skye. The vis­i­tors’ book is full of whale and dol­phin sight­ings, and some­one has left binoc­u­lars and a marine-an­i­mals chart. De­spite much hope­ful search­ing, we don’t spot any­thing, but as the light fails, so the light­houses flash; I count more than a dozen blink­ing away in the deep­en­ing night. Back in Ed­in­burgh, I’m on a fi­nal mis­sion: a search for Scot­land’s most artery-clog­ging meal. Deep-fried any­thing (think pizza and cho­co­late bars) is sup­posed to be ubiq­ui­tous, but cen­tral Ed­in­burgh is ap­par­ently too hip for that these days. Be­sides, my part­ner is un­con­vinced, so in­stead we tuck into one de­li­cious meal after the other; this city is sat­u­rated with cheese­mon­gers and ar­ti­sanal delis, wine bars and cosy restau­rants. After five nights of camp­ing meals, we’re only too happy to feast on good food and then hit the streets to walk some more. Al­though far from the High­lands, a sense of the myth­i­cal re­mains in the city. Ev­ery sky­line seems to sport a gar­goyle and at ev­ery turn Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle tow­ers over all. It’s no won­der JK Rowl­ing’s Harry Pot­ter sprang from these streets. I sup­pose any­thing seems pos­si­ble when your na­tional an­i­mal’s a uni­corn. And that screech­ing on the bridge at pine-clad Loch Nan Uamh? That must have been the train to Hog­warts, after all.

LEFT Boats await the tide on Scot­land’s west coast. OP­PO­SITE The tiny Look­out bothy has fan­tas­tic cliff-top views across the North Minch chan­nel. Kind hik­ers have left binoc­u­lars for whale and dol­phin spot­ting.

The 10pm sun sets slowly over Ca­ma­sunary Bay, where sheep graze on the shore and a wel­com­ing bothy pro­vides shel­ter.

FROM LEFT Talisker is the old­est sin­gle­malt dis­tillery on the Scot­tish coast­line; the view from Look­out bothy to­wards the Outer He­brides isle of North Uist.

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