Reach for the Skye

In­spired by lit­er­ary heroes in Scot­land’s West­ern Isles

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - LUKE SLAT­TERY

“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

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