Thursday, 1 March 2012

Travel: Scotland ~ Over the seas to Skye

A rendition of an old Scottish folk song (above)

THE ROAD to the Isle of Skye is paved with myth and mystery, history and histrionics. As we drive from the Kyle of Localsh to Kyleakin on this 1388 sq km popular Scottish island, the bridge sets the mood for our visit. "The tolls for crossing this bridge are higher than those charged anywhere in the world," says 27-year-old Sue, the driver of our sunny yellow minibus on an all-Scotland Haggis tour. "A return fare for a car costs £20!"

I do a quick conversion into rupees, and wonder how the islanders survive on a daily basis. So do my low-budget, backpacking companions in travel, mainly from Canada and Australia. The road bridge, inaugurated in October 1995, cost the British exchequer £128 million, despite an offer to build it free from the European Union. At every pub on the island, at every fish-n-chips stall, this remains a constant bridge of contention, especially since the withdrawal of all ferry licences. "There's a current public litigation pending for Skye's 12,500 residents because, under Scottish law, it's illegal to charge a toll for a road when there's no other form of crossing," explains Sue.

With the bridge as a backdrop, the Isle of Skye gently unfolds its wonders. On occasion, the horizon reveals a blur of blue, glazed with silver streaks, as waves seep into the clouds through watercolour washes, while seagulls skim the frame. Called Eilean a Cheo in Gaelic, or the Island of Clouds, Skye is Britain's second largest island. Its 570-km coastline is never more than seven km from the sea.

As we drive away from the bunk bed comfort of our Kyleakin hostel into a cloudy haze, Sue quips, "I'm often asked: do you know what the sun looks like? Do you ever have blue skies in Scotland?" That's when the July day clears to prove her wrong.

We gaze at the fertile Sleat valleys and the jagged ring of peaks that form the Black Cuillin range, the glaciated remains of a great volcano, which surround the waters of Loch Coruisk. Approaching Skye, rounded red hills first catch our eye, the Red Cuillin, which resulted from volcanic activity in the inner Hebridean islands around 55-60 million years ago. At the hostel, a local youth narrates, "In 1899, a Gurkha soldier named Harkabir Thapa reached the summit of Glamaig, the highest red hills peak, in only 37 minutes and returned in another 18 minutes. A century later, his record still stands."

Sue tells us of the giants and wee fairy folk who people the local imagination, of how a Gaelic revival is now the backbone of local education, and how strong the sense of community is in Skye. "People here rely on tourism, fishing and forestry. They're very superstitious and religious. They don't lock themselves up in their homes. They're always willing to help each other out," she concludes.

 Quiraing formations

A turn in the bend, and we're all bundled out towards the icy Sligachan creek, where we listen to tales of the warring MacLeods and MacDonalds of yore. Referring to a local grace who was granted the boon of eternal youth and beauty, Sue adds, "All you have to do is dip your face into the water like her for exactly three seconds, no more, no less." To encourage the timid, she takes the first dip. We all follow, even the beefy outdoorsmen from Australia. With dripping faces, we realise we're now wide awake, even if no more beautiful than before!

We gather nuggets of information en route to Portree, the village capital of Skye, populated 3,000-strong. After the decisive defeat of the Jacobite forces by the English at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped to Skye disguised as an Irish servant to Lady Flora MacDonald, despite a reward of £ 30,000 for his capture! They landed at Allt a Chuain, now known as Prince's Point.

We soon stop for a mystical trek into the cliffs and pinnacles called the Quiraing, created by massive landslides of rock. "These are still active on a geological time scale and will some day slide into the sea," a rock-jawed beer-drinker at the local Saucy Mary pub at Kyleakin tells us later.

We climb over the grassy knolls, past sheep droppings, jump over slippery streams, and realise we can no longer see the misty clouds because we're in them! Looking down from the table-top flatness, the lakes below appear crystal clear, clear enough to see the swaying foliage at the base. We're breathless, too awed to even exclaim.

After a very Scottish lunch of haggis — minced lamb cooked with oatmeal and spices — served with turnips and potatoes, at the AM Pub at Florigarry, the birthplace of Flora MacDonald, we drive to the purple heather-fringed Kilt Rock near Staffin, where dark and light bands of dolerite offer the optical illusion of a pleated kilt. As waves lash at the shingled beach below, we spot an otter playing in the shallows.

A bend and a drive away, Sue guides us to a craggy, grassy ledge by Lealt Falls that glistens in the evening sun, with the Scottish mainland a distant blur. After sharing her favourite grandma's tale about the Silkies, seals that became beautiful women when their pelts were stolen, she shifts gear into history: "Around 1770, many families here were forced off their farms by landowners. As a result, many fled to the new colonies in the US, Australia or New Zealand. The crests and troughs in the land below were fertilised with kelp by the poor, so that they could harvest some food of their own."

 Castle Moil in silhouette

We mull over that as we climb to the Castle Moil by Kyleakin, a 10th-century ruin built by the Norwegian king Haco Hakonsson. His fleet of 160 vessels sailed out of Skye in 1262, only to be defeated by Alexander III at the Battle of Largs. "Saucy Mary, the Norwegian princess who married a MacKinnon clan chief in the 15th century, would swing a chain across the bay and collect a toll from all vessels. Then, she'd flash herself to them as a gesture of welcome," explains a Skye barman, extending local lore over a Heather Beer at the pub that bears her name.

As we later sip Bacardi Breezers of fruit juice and white rum at the King Haaken bar, the Isle of Skye grows to a dimension beyond the immediate in time to a swinging jazz band. In terms of both history and mystery, Skye swings. That proved a happy home truth for distant wanderers like us.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Business Line, February 11, 2002)

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