Reach for the Skye
Inspired by literary heroes in Scotland’s Western Isles
“I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western islands of Scotland, so long, that I can scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited.”
With these words the great Samuel Johnson — essayist, wit, lexicographer and literary celebrity — began the tale of his journey to fulfil that long-held desire of halfforgotten origins. The year was 1773.
Johnson’s younger companion was his biographer James Boswell, a highborn and well-travelled Scot who had met Voltaire in France and written a book about Corsica. The 63-year-old Johnson, in contrast, rarely strayed from his urban den. The “bear’’ of Fleet Street famously said, and doubtless sincerely believed, that “a man who is tired of London is tired of life”. Overweight, and dyspeptic at the best of times, he was a moody traveller.
Both published parallel, yet revealingly different, accounts of their ramble around the isles. When I read these short sketches, about a decade ago, they lit up a fierce desire to visit the Hebrides. I contained the compulsion for a time but once unleashed it could not be restrained; on three visits in as many years — most recently last month — I’ve journeyed to this windswept skein of islands in the north Atlantic to breathe the pure wild air.
Boswell and Johnson set out on August 18 from Edinburgh, travelling north to Inverness before cutting across the highlands along the shores of Loch Ness. “In the morning, September second,” writes Johnson, “we found ourselves on the edge of the sea.” They took a ferry to Skye; only one of the boatmen had any English.
I find myself on the edge of the same sea, looking towards the Isle of Skye, as they had done; but it has taken me not two weeks but half a day in black weather that lightens as I approach the Western Isles. There is even a cheering splash of sunlight on the waterway between Skye and its neighbouring isle, Raasay, to welcome me.
The approach to Skye, most poetic of the Western Isles, could scarcely be more prosaic. A modern concrete bridge vaults across the narrow channel and the ribbon of road that has bought me from the capital simply unfurls a little farther. There’s no break between land and sea and scarcely time to register the transition from mainland Scotland to a world that, for hundreds of years, considered itself a realm apart; as, indeed, it was. The Western Isles were ruled by their own lords, who claimed descent from Norse raiders.
Fierce Viking blood flowed — still flows — through the islanders’ veins. Of this Dr Johnson and Boswell were made well aware when, on their very first night at Skye, a bagpipe player entertained them at dinner. An elderly gentlemen told them, writes Johnson, that “in some remote time the Macdonalds of Glengarry, having been injured, or offended, by the inhabitants of Culloden, and resolving to have justice or vengeance, came to Culloden on a Sunday, where finding their enemies at worship, they shut them up in the church, which they set on fire; and this, said he, is the tune that the piper played while they were burning.”
I neither see nor hear anything of the islanders’ legendary ferocity in a few days of driving on narrow roads twisting around Skye’s fantastically sculptural peaks and deeply indented sea lochs. The closest is a chat with a group of locals at a pub, rather unimaginatively called The Old Inn, on the shores of Loch Harport at the village of Carbost.
The attractively whitewashed Talisker whisky distillery stands barely 200m away from The Old Inn. Prep- ping for a visit, I quiz local barflies about the national tipple. Could the pungent, somewhat medicinal flavour of the more hairy-chested island whiskies — peat smoke is used to dry the barley before distillation — be tamed by dissolving a sugar cube in the dram, I ask. Might the whisky then have less of an incinerated-house flavour? “Listen to this luv,” shouts one chap to the barmaid. “Bloke here is aiming to add sugar to his Talisker.” She cuts me a murderous look.
Unperturbed by my faux pas I submit, over the coming days, to Skye’s manifold charms. Some say it is the most beautiful of the Hebrides; certainly, it is the most majestic. When the weather is good it is very very good — one fine day is blue from dawn to dusk — and when it is bad it is horrid. It’s midsummer and in the course of one bizarre day the temperature refuses to budge from 13C for 24 hours.
I’ve hired a cottage above Carbost nestled in a sheepfold, with a fine view across the loch. As the sun inclines towards the west it picks out the sawtooth Cuillin mountains in the east, the taller peaks of about 1000m lost in their cowls of cloud. As it sets, towards midnight, the sun melts into the loch’s opening to the sea. And yet it never really allows itself to be claimed by the night sky and a blue-grey half-light lingers defiantly until dawn.
The next morning is grey and squally. I see grim-faced walkers heading for the hills in wet weather gear, but my quest runs in a different direction: I devour a mountain of fresh local oysters, scallops, mussels and halibut with a lovely matching Languedoc white. There’s no effort involved. I simply take a table by a window at a restaurant in the main town of Portree. I watch the wild weather sweep in and, just as suddenly, depart in a huff. Where a midsummer antipodean sun would bleach the colours, in these northern climes the sun allies itself with nature to amp up the bright purple and gold of the wildflowers carpeting the lush green of pasture.
By the time I reach the Isle of Mull, the next stop on my tour, the rain has settled in and waterfalls spout from the green mountains like overflowing gutters. My fantasies of this trip had been sun-filled because that’s how I first experienced the region on a visit in early spring. But I should have been paying closer attention to Dr Johnson, who judged that the Western Isles were “incommoded by very frequent rain”.
In the course of a long drive to Iona, on Mull’s western fringe, the weather seems to change with every bend in the road. By the time I reach the ferry for the short ride out to tiny Iona where the Irish missionary Saint Columba made landfall in the late 6th century, raising the walls of a monastery and bringing Christianity to Scotland, the sky is clear, if a little milky, and it pours through the pointed arches of the 12th century Iona Abbey.
The road to the Iona ferry at Fionnphort winds through muscular mountain scenery before hemming the tawny kelp and seawood-strewn southern shores of Lochs Beg and Scridain. On the far side of the waterway loom tremendous sea cliffs that look to have been freshly chiselled from stone and painted moss green, but here the land just seems to give up. It’s runty and undistinguished, although the stone is a pretty shade of rose.
Iona is, at least geographically, much of the same. A low bluff protects the abbey from the gales that come crashing into these parts along the North Atlantic storm channel — the next landfall west is Newfoundland — but otherwise the islet is pretty exposed. Perhaps that’s how the Benedictine community founded by Saint Columba, seeking privations of the flesh mollified by the anaesthesia of alcohol, wanted it. You don’t have to be a believer — I’m not — to sense the numinous beauty of this outlying cluster of modest religious buildings in bare stone: the abbey, cloisters and nunnery, the standing crosses beside the “street of the dead”.
In this isolated community the ecclesiastical arts flourished for centuries, despite the predations of Viking raiders beginning in the late 8th century. The illuminated
Portree on Skye, top; sawtooth Cuillin mountains on Skye, above; taking a sample at Bruichladdich distillery on Islay, above right