Skye at Night

One of the most at­mo­spheric places in Scot­land – af­ter dark.

Trail (UK) - - Contents - WORDS AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY SARAH RYAN

“The raven is not watch­ing you,” I told my­self. Mist slipped over the cliffs and crept down the cracked walls, black­ened with damp. It twisted round rock tow­ers, un­furled, re­gath­ered and reached out again. I could al­most see the pil­lars ris­ing around me, al­most see the walls. Al­most see a gobli... No! “You can’t see a gob­lin,” I re­peated to my­self. “It’s just the mist.” I sent some good thoughts in its vague di­rec­tion any­way, just in case. It was not quite day, not quite night, and this sense of things half-seen; of not be­ing en­tirely there seemed quite within the na­ture of this very weird place.

The Quiraing is a huge land­slip at the north­ern tip of the Trot­ternish Ridge. Like much of Skye’s north­ern penin­sula, it’s formed of vol­canic rock, which here has bro­ken and eroded into eerie shapes. Elon­gated fig­ures with swollen bel­lies, men­ac­ing walls, humps, bowed heads, weath­ered fortresses... There are many tech­ni­cal rea­sons for the Quiraing to look the way it does, but the shad­ows fall­ing through twilit mist van­quish them all from my mind. I can’t quite align the cool physics of weather and time with the in­tan­gi­ble at­mos­phere. It’s creepy.

Or maybe un­canny is a bet­ter word. Orig­i­nat­ing in Scot­land and north­ern Eng­land in the late 1500s ‘un­canny’ means strange or mys­te­ri­ous, with over­tures of mis­chief and an as­so­ci­a­tion with the su­per­nat­u­ral. This labyrinth looks and feels like a dark fan­tasy land and be­cause of this, it’s best ex­pe­ri­enced at the in-be­tween times.

A nar­row path slips away from the nearby road and quickly into the tur­rets and ram­parts. By day, peo­ple throng its walk­ways, snap­ping pic­tures and mar­vel­ling at its weird­ness. But when I ar­rived, af­ter heavy rain and with evening im­mi­nent, those peo­ple were pack­ing wet wa­ter­proofs into the boot and damp bod­ies into the car. The few left, were on their way out.

The paths were hushed, with only the his­tory of boot steps other than my own. By sun­light the Quiraing was bright and fas­ci­nat­ing. Now, it seemed to be shuck­ing off that pleas­ant cos­tume, to re­veal a far less ac­com­mo­dat­ing char­ac­ter. To my left were cliffs, speck­led with lichen. To the right, tow­ers and pyra­mids of rock, once con­nected to the ridge, now stand­ing apart. I crossed an awk­ward burn and en­tered a small vale. Of this mis­cel­lany of rock for­ma­tions, three are marked on the map: the Ta­ble, the Nee­dle and the Prison.

“A GEN­TLE RUFFLE ACROSS THE LOCH, A PALE KIND OF DARK­NESS, AND VIBRANT SI­LENCE”

And like any good per­son on a quest, I was out to col­lect them. It didn’t take long. The path steep­ened through loose stone to a nar­row pass. Over one side, at its crest, loomed a crooked spire and across the other a fortress with un­smok­ing chim­neys. Un­mis­tak­ably the Prison; clearly the Nee­dle. I couldn’t shake the feel­ing that I was be­ing set some test of char­ac­ter as I passed be­tween the two.

Five big-bud­get films have used the Quiraing as a lo­ca­tion – ev­ery one of them high fan­tasy. It looks like a fan­tas­ti­cal land­scape, so it’s cast as one, strength­en­ing the as­so­ci­a­tion and in­creas­ing the ef­fect. Walk­ing here, I’m not just see­ing it with my own eyes and imag­i­na­tion but with those of the direc­tors who created that list of films. De­spite this strong al­lu­sion to the su­per­nat­u­ral, its name has a bluntly pro­saic mean­ing; from Kvi Rand in Old Norse. It means, round fold. This prob­a­bly refers to the Ta­ble, an el­e­vated patch of turf not vis­i­ble from be­low and said to be used to hide cat­tle.

Af­ter pass­ing the Prison, the Nee­dle and my test, the chaotic land­scape be­came a lit­tle less im­pos­ing. The path led down­hill away from the cliffs, pass­ing pools, pyra­mids and castel­lated blocks. Cupped at the base, just within the perime­ter of the place, was a loch. A short cor­ri­dor led past it, and be­yond this the ground, and the weird­ness, be­gan to sub­side. I didn’t go through the cor­ri­dor. I don’t think any­one comes to sleep in the Quiraing to es­cape the weird.

On the shore was a beach, of the grav­elly kind but flat enough, I dropped my bag and flipped out the bivvy. The Quiraing is formed from the col­lapsed eastern edge of Meall na Suira­mach, its gen­tle sum­mit hid­den be­hind steep rock faces. I sat and watched fog roll from the top, tum­bling, dis­si­pat­ing and lift­ing. Nearby, a tiny cater­pil­lar inched across a rock, hunch­ing its back then reach­ing for­ward. Not much hap­pened; a gen­tle ruffle across the loch, a pale kind of dark­ness, and vibrant si­lence. Even­tu­ally one bright star, and then an­other. I slipped into my sleep­ing bag, pulled it tight and gazed at those weird shaped rocks. In this weird shaped place.

That place had been formed by as­tound­ing but fun­da­men­tal forces and if it felt like an­other land it’s be­cause, in some ways, it is. Skye is part of the He­bridean Ter­rane, a scrap of one tec­tonic plate which has stuck onto the edge of an­other. It was once part of Lau­ren­tia, an an­cient land­mass in­clud­ing North Amer­ica and Green­land. As the land­masses started to pull apart, the At­lantic Ocean was formed and a string of vol­ca­noes emerged. In Scot­land, these ran from St Kilda to Ailsa Craig. Skye’s Black Cuillin are the re­mains of its own magma cham­ber and the Trot­ternish Ridge created from the lava

that flowed from its boil­ing in­te­rior.

The lava came to rest, cool and so­lid­ify on top of softer sed­i­men­tary rock, which has been un­able to with­stand such weight and den­sity. Over time it has col­lapsed un­der the pres­sure, sec­tions of the hill­side break­ing away to form chunky is­lands like Leac nan Fionn, which bar­ri­caded my camp­site to the north. Or smaller heaps and nar­rower spears.

It hasn’t stopped collapsing and con­tin­ues to move, crack­ing the road from Flodi­garry. Born of the in­side of its own vol­cano, in a way, this part of Skye has created it­self and there’s a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween it and the south-east of the is­land. The ig­neous rock be­neath my bivvy was about 65 mil­lion years old and it­self was sit­ting on sand­stone over 150- mil­lion years old. The meta­mor­phic and sand­stone rock at the south-east of the is­land though, is over 500 mil­lion years old. This rock tells the story of vi­o­lent breaches and a slow com­ing to­gether, of flood­ing and sur­fac­ing. It is full of life, or the re­mains of life, and fos­sils are com­mon. In the morn­ing, high on the crum­bling walls of the Prison, I found a minute twisted horn shell; that evening I found a dark vol­canic rock speck­led with pale stones. It’s young, up here, ge­o­log­i­cally. Is that vi­tal­ity where the le­gends come from? Or is it just that these rocks, and the way cloud and moss creeps over them, can’t fail to ig­nite the imag­i­na­tion? What­ever it is, the myth is recog­nis­able. It’s like The Lord of the Rings, it’s like Nar­nia, it’s like ev­ery story that ever con­tained a brownie, pixie, a wannabe sor­cerer or a mis­guided goat. It’s a place where sto­ries co­a­lesce.

Bun­dled in my sleep­ing bag, I left the bivvy un­zipped and gazed at the am­phithe­atre in the half-light of the sum­mer night. In the morn­ing, I brewed a cof­fee and sat at the edge of the loch. By the time I’d packed up and started the walk back, peo­ple were al­ready ar­riv­ing. Any re­main­ing sense of menace burnt away in the morn­ing sun and the Quiraing re­sumed its role as fas­ci­nat­ing des­ti­na­tion. I scram­bled up the Prison walls and ex­plored the paths I’d ne­glected the pre­vi­ous night. Later, in fog and rain, I crossed the sum­mit of Meall na Suira­mach, un­able to see any­thing be­low. It didn’t mat­ter much. A raven rose from the precipice to my right. It was def­i­nitely watch­ing.

A room with a sur­pris­ingly un­creepy view – no mat­ter how it might look. Leac nan Fionn as seen from be­low.

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