Climb ev­ery moun­tain

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

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

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