Climb every mountain
Skye was the limit on our northern tour this summer. The largest of the Inner Hebrides, it’s where I first properly discovered Scotland in my youth. The west coast is always a meteorological game of roulette, but, serendipitously, we missed the 72 hours of intense rain they’d had the week before and coincided with a streak of sunny days and light winds. We could see the up-and-down outline of Harris, looking like the FTSE 100 tracker post Brexit, from our friends’ house; inlets of sparkling water framed by green hills and rocky outcrops begged to be explored.
We climbed a Cuillin. The Black Cuillin range is meant to have some of the most challenging mountains in Britain. Ours was a more forgiving red one, but it still took four hours to get to the top, where the party—including young Alec Macdonald and his eight-year-old cousin John—had views above the clouds, the other peaks poking up like wizards’ hats through cotton wool. On the way down, some of us stripped off to bathe in a mountain burn, a long, smoothed boulder providing the perfect slide.
We spent the day on a converted trawler out of Uig hauling in mackerel, their silver bodies shimmering like a recently opened jewel chest. Children jumped from the boat to swim, clambering back on board using the fender, an old truck tyre. Curious dolphins came in closer to investigate all the merriment and gannets gave a diving display, wings arched back like Superman on a mission to catch their prey.
When the weather is right, is there anywhere else to match this special place? you need to know when to retreat from the midges and no rain means no spate rivers; sultry beach picnics and good fishing are rarely concurrent events. A Pictish symbol stone near the house is a reminder that these islands were inhabited millennia ago and the current population is far less than in centuries gone by.
However, judging by the proliferation of camper vans and the presence of visitors at previously deserted beaches such as Staffin, summer numbers are on the increase. The recent discovery of dinosaur footprints at Trotternish is certainly a draw, but the Old Man of Storr, a distinctive facial silhouette of rock, must resent the intrusion on his afternoon snooze.
Whether it’s the weak pound or the evidently growing Chinese tourist phenomenon, I can’t blame others for wanting to come.
When I first visited Skye, it was a question of catching the small ferry, which could only take six cars or so, from the kyle of Lochalsh to kyleakin. Now, there’s the graceful curve of the Skye Bridge, which we crossed on our way to Inverness, stopping off at the annual lairds versus stalkers shinty match at Cannich. Apparently, they’ve played shinty—a kind of hockey but with fewer rules and more robust sticks —in Scotland for 2,000 years and this small Highland village considers itself to be the ‘home of shinty’, with regular matches.
I noticed that the stalkers were well covered in thick tweed, the equivalent of pads and body protectors in other sports. One player was struck on the nose by the rounders-type ball, which prompted a dramatic sanguinary flow. Despite the heroically athletic efforts of comfortably padded cartoonist ‘Loon’ in goal and the appearance on the pitch towards the end of more and more lairds, including the 26th Chief of Clan Fraser, the stalkers, hardened by miles of hill walking, won the day.
The trophy was a magnificent Alpine cowbell, donated this year by a visitor from Switzerland. Referees traditionally ring bells rather than blow whistles, but, as it’s the size of a large saucepan, this one may not be used in earnest.
They may be embracing Swiss culture in the Highlands, but, further south in Clackmannanshire, the smallest county in Scotland, it’s turning Japanese. Or rather, returning. The Japanese Garden at Cowden Castle was the inspiration of an extraordinary lady, ella Christie. Her enthusiasm was sparked by a visit to kyoto in 1907 and she used Japanese experts, including the great designer Taki Handa, to create a pond and island garden, a stroll garden and a teahouse garden.
At the time, it was considered ‘the most important Japanese garden in the Western World’ by the 18th hereditary head of the Soami School of Imperial Garden Design. It was destroyed by vandals in the 1960s, but, now, ella’s great-great niece, Sara Stewart, is bringing it to life again.
When we last visited, more than a decade ago, the site was overgrown. The castle has long since been demolished and there was little evidence of what had been there before. Now, judicious clearing, replanting, rebuilding and landscaping are revealing the sleeping treasure.
Sara says that it’s ‘a third of the way there’, but more sponsorship is needed to complete bridges, build teahouses and restore it to Christie’s original vision, so that inhabitants of the smallest county can find tranquillity and solace once again in the lee of the Ochils.
‘Curious dolphins came closer to investigate all the merriment
Rupert Uloth is the former Deputy Editor of