Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Isle of Skye to Lewis and Harris

It’s a quick 25 minute trip across the Sound of Sleat from Mallaig to Armadale on Skye on a very comfortable Calmac ferry. We drove another 90 minutes along one-track roads in single file with the rest of the cars from the ferry and then, thankfully, on the major north south highway through some pretty stunning country with snow capped mountains, deep valleys, heather covered moors and vast seascapes to Edinbane and our accommodation at the Lodge Hotel.
Built in 1543, this building has had many uses over the centuries including a hunting lodge and coachhouse. It is now a pub with B&B facilities. Not the most modern place we stayed in, but our hosts Hazel and Peter made it like home. The bar with its sprinkling of regulars in the evening, the lounge with its huge peat fueled fire, the great breakfast (with haggis (OK) and black pudding (yuk)) and home cooked dinners made for a comfortable stay. Hazel was a wealth of tourist information and where else would the host race out to the car park with your room key when you arrived back from a day’s sightseeing. It also had a resident ghost which we never saw.

The following day saw blue sky and sunshine and was the day, we were told, to go on the Loch Coruisk boat trip on the ‘Bella Jane’.
We first explored the main town of Portree, a fishing port on a well protected harbor with its Thomas Telford designed pier. Here you can tie your fishing boat up and wait for the tide to go out to do some bottom scraping (of the boat that is). The town itself clings to the surrounding cliffs and is a hive of activity full of hotels, B&B’s and restaurants. The town centre has two main streets built around a nice square. There were the usual smattering of tourist businesses including the ubiquitous Scottish Woollens Shop, potteries and, unusually, a hand made soap and candle shop which managed to open one of our wallets.
After lunch, we drove back down south to Broadford where we picked up some really beautiful naturally dyed silk yarn. Then, on another twisting narrow hilly one-track road complete with wandering sheep without an ounce of road sense, we arrived in Elgol. There we picked up our small boat and motored across open ocean to the loch. This is the Cuillin Hills area of Skye with rugged snow capped mountains rising to a height of over 1000m. Islands at the entrance to the loch were home to a sun basking seal colony. They dropped us off just below a waterfall that drains the loch into the sea and told us they would be back in ninety minutes. Talk about isolation! An ‘on the run’ Bonnie Prince Charlie supposedly said of this place “even the Devil shall not follow me here”. We walked along the loch shore, found a sheltered spot in the sun and sat gazing at the most amazing scenery. Yes, they did come back and get us and after a pretty rough trip back to port, we wound our way back to Portree for a really nice seafood meal and a bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc which made our hard working New Zealand waitress happy.

Next morning was again bright and sunny, and it was the day to do the northwest circle tour. We drove down the Waternish Peninsula on a single track that leads to Stein, Lusta, Trumpan and other small settlements. Trumpan found its place in history as the site of two separate massacres on a single day in May 1578.
It helps to understand the background. In 1577 some 395 MacDonalds on the Isle of Eigg were killed by raiding MacLeods from Skye. The MacLeods lit a fire in the entrance to the cave in which the MacDonalds were hiding and suffocated them. On the first Sunday in May 1578, MacDonalds from Uist arrived in Ardmore Bay and caught the local population of MacLeods celebrating mass in Trumpan Church. In an act of revenge for Eigg they barred the door of the church and set fire to the thatched roof. All but one of the MacLeods were killed.
The girl who escaped managed to get word of the attack to Dunvagen. More MacLeods quickly arrived in force, capturing the MacDonalds' boats stranded by the retreating tide in Ardmore Bay. They attacked and killed the raiding party. The dead MacDonalds were lined up next to a turf dyke or wall, which was pushed over on top of their bodies. For this reason the Battle of Trumpan is also sometimes called the Battle of the Spoiled Dyke.
The ruined St. Conans church is still there and the view over Ardmore Bay is stunning.

We drove into Dunvegan catching a glimpse of the castle which is the seat of the MacLeod clan and then on to Waterstein with its lighthouse and magnificent views over Moonen Bay. Is it my imagination or were these single-track roads getting narrower and populated by more and sillier sheep?
At Carbost we sat in the beer garden of a loch side pub in brilliant sunshine and had a simple lunch before visiting the Talisker Distillery where a distinctive single malt scotch is made. We were given a tour and had the process explained. Distilleries have lost the human touch these days and are basically factories. Where once this one employed 60 now 6 plus computers do the job. We were also given a dram of the particularly fiery liquid to try. Hmmmmmmm…… a few of these might take the pain out of single-track road driving!
Next day was again bright, warm and sunny! What is going on here? Why did we bring our thick heavy waterproof jackets?
Time to do the northeast circle tour of the Trotternish Peninsula.
As we drove north out of Portree, we became aware of The Storr. This 720m mountain rises above the east-facing cliffs that run down the centre of the peninsula for most of its length. It is almost as if the entire eastern part of Trotternish slipped suddenly at some time in the distant past.

And if The Storr is not dramatic enough, sitting at the foot of its cliffs is a 50m high tooth of rock, the Old Man of Storr, so daunting it remained unclimbed until 1955. The Old Man is part of a weird wonderland of rock scenery and outcrops that lie above and below the cliffs. The road north took us along a coast marked by spectacular rock scenery. There are many stop off points and short walks along this road to enjoy the views. Best of all is Kilt Rock, 200ft high cliffs marked in an almost tartan-like pattern by the rock strata, and with a waterfall tumbling sheer to the pebbled shore below.
The grave of Flora McDonald, the woman who saved Bonnie Prince Charlie from capture by the English, is at Clarin. We stopped to pay our respects and met a couple on tour from Brisbane. They turned out to be friends of friends I grew up with. Small world!!!!!!
There is more to the Flora MacDonald story than her association with Charles.
After he eventually escaped to France, Flora was arrested after one of the boatmen had talked about the strange maid who had traveled with them to Skye. She was imprisoned, first in Dunstaffnage Castle, then in the Tower of London, where she was allowed to live nearby "on parole". Flora's story and her courage gained her much sympathy in London and in 1547 she was allowed to go free.
In 1750 Flora married Allen MacDonald of Kingsburgh. In 1773, like many other Scots, they emigrated, moving to the North Carolina Colony. During the American War of Independence Allen served with the British forces (in common with many other expatriate Scots). He was captured by revolutionaries at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge on 27 February 1776. Flora was exiled from the United States to Nova Scotia.
In 1779 Flora returned to Scotland and settled in South Uist amongst her clan. She was joined by Allan after his release in 1783 and they moved to Flodigarry, on the Isle of Skye. Flora died on 4 March 1790. To keep the Jacobite legend strong to the end, it is said that she was buried in a shroud formed of a bedsheet used by Charles. Apparently he never made contact with her again after his escape. The more I get to “know” Charles Edward Stuart, the less time I have for him. Is it treason for a man with 50% Scottish blood running in his veins to say this?

That afternoon, after lunch in Uig, we headed back to Stein and the Stein Inn for a few beers in blazing sunshine by Loch Bay. We stayed well into the evening (it didn’t get dark until 11pm) and it was a perfect end to a great three days on Skye.
Next morning we were up early to catch the ferry to Harris and Lewis. Hazel, the trouper she is, had our breakfast prepared and after our ‘goodbyes’, we set off in the fog back to the port of Uig for more adventure.

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