Skye at Night
One of the most atmospheric places in Scotland – after dark.
“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.