We have, as the Andy Stewart song goes, just come down from the Isle of Skye. Some friends invited us to share a cottage in the north of the island for a few days and we leapt at the chance. Skye is very, very high on my shortlist of favourite places on Earth. It is where my husband proposed to me, on top of a hill looking out across the blue sea and mountains; it is where our elder son learned to crawl, in a cottage lit by midsummer sunsets over the Outer Hebrides; it is where my clan comes from, where good friends live and where layers of happy memories have been laid down.
When it comes to describing the fascination of an t’Eilean Sgitheanach, however, even the best writers have floundered. Virginia Woolf describes the problem well: ‘One should be a painter. As a writer, I feel the beauty, which is almost entirely colour, very subtle, very changeable, running over my pen, as if you poured a large jug of champagne over a hairpin.’ (This and following quotations are borrowed from ‘Scotland: An Anthology’, ed. Douglas Dunn, Fontana 1992.) Virginia Woolf would say champagne, rather than the more obvious whisky. Apart from that, I agree with her. Perhaps some photos will better suggest what is special about Skye.
It is a land of rushing water and massive, brooding mountains. One of its names is Eilean a Cheo, Island of Mist, for the summits are often swathed in cloud, revealing themselves only in tantalising glimpses. The light here is the light of sea and island and vast skies that change every minute, bringing weather sweeping across from the Hebrides, rain and hail and sudden bright sun and rain again, so that the colours of sea and land are constantly evolving, constantly defeating the camera or the written word.
In 1925, a visitor from Eastern Europe tried to describe his first visit to Skye in a letter:
‘The slopes ooze like a drenched sponge, the heather bruach catches in my feet, but then, readers, can be seen the islands of Raasay and Scalpay, Rum and Eigg, and then can be seen the mountains with strange and ancient names, such as Beinn na-Cailich and Sgurr na-Banachdich and Leacan Nighean an-i-Siosalaich, or Druim nan Cleochd…Once a week the sun shines, and then the mountain peaks are revealed in all the inexpressible tints of blue; and there is blueness which is azure, mother-of-pearl, foggy or indigo, clouded like vapours, a hint or mere reminder of something beautifully blue.’ (Karel Capek, from the anthology noted above.)
In October, however, it is not blue that predominates but the tawny colours of peat and whisky. The landscape is sodden brown –
or glowing russet, ochre, amber –
changing from moment to moment.
At this time of year, the weather is perhaps even more capricious than in the spring and summer. On Wednesday, the sun was warm enough for us to enjoy lunch sitting outside a friend’s house, looking across Loch Dunvegan. After lunch, my husband tuned up his bagpipes and we all had an impromptu ceilidh in the sunshine, to the amazement of the occasional passing carload of tourists. An hour or so later, however, we were engulfed in a massive hailstorm lasting half an hour or more. The temperature plummeted to four degrees Celsius and even photos seemed to ooze into watercolour.
By evening the storm had washed over, leaving winter’s first dusting of snow on the hills of Trotternish and the mainland, along with calm seas and an innocently peaceful sunset.
These are first impressions, then: mountain, cloud and changing light; peat bog, sea loch and distant islands. Then there are the beguiling details. The single track roads which still predominate away from the main axis routes.
The lack of enclosed land, meaning that the sheep share the roads with cars and expect you to wait your turn while they potter across. (It is very un-Gaelic to be in a hurry. There is the old joke about the islander who went to Spain for his first foreign holiday and was asked, on his return, what he made of it. ‘Och well,’ he replied ruminatively, ‘it was all very well…but you know, I am thinking that there is a terrible urgency about the word mañana.’)
The tiny shops in remote crofting communities: one wee cottage serving as grocer, post office, chemist, stationer and general stores.
And the darling little stone cottages, which still – just – have the upper hand over the flimsier bungalows that have sprung up as the prosperity and population of the island has grown since the Second World War. New houses, with central heating and double-glazed picture windows, are built facing the mesmerising views. The old cottages huddle down into the lee of the hills, part of the landscape.
It is easy for a visitor to romanticise such a land. I know that I often stray close. Skye’s landscape and history, however, are as full of incident and struggle and folklore as any in Scotland, and deserve respect and an attempt, at least, at understanding. The main stumbling block for a visitor is the language. As Karel Capek noted (above), the place names are impenetrably strange to a non-Gaelic speaker, yet they are the first clues to the history and the terrain of the island. Everyone speaks English these days, of course, and many inhabitants are ‘white settlers’ from the south. Nevertheless, Gaelic, the language of the Isles which was in danger of dying of neglect a generation ago, has undergone a revival in the past twenty years and is now taught in every school and at the Gaelic-medium college of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Sleat, in the south of Skye. A friend of ours on Sleat, himself a Gaelic-speaker and a stalwart champion of the language, insists that all his employees learn the Gaelic when they come to work for him. When he enquires of a stranger if he or she is ‘civilised’?, he means ‘have they the Gaelic?’ For who can be considered truly civilised, who does not understand the geography, history, folklore and poetry of their own land?
I myself am barely civilised: my Gaelic is limited to only a few words, phrases and snatches of puirt à beul (mouth music). It is worth persevering though. The clues, as I say, are on the map for those who can read them. Many place-names in Gaelic are purely descriptive. Taking some examples at random from the map of Skye, Meall Dearg means Lumpy Red Hill; Garbh Bheinn means Rough Mountain; Sgurr Dubh Mor means Big Black Pinnacle. The names sound less romantic once you know their meaning, but far more illuminating: you have a better idea of which hill you are looking at, or what to expect when you get to it.
Other names give a clue to the history of the island. Kyleakin, where bridge traffic arrives at the island, derives from the Gaelic Caol Acain, meaning the Straits of Haakon. Here, then, is an Anglicised version of a Gaelic version of a Norse name: Haakon was King of Norway, who sailed through these narrows many times before his defeat by Alexander III of Scotland at the battle of Largs in 1263. Many of the Viking raiders of earlier centuries had stayed and settled in Skye, enriching the landscape with almost as much Norse as Gaelic. So Beinn na Caillich, the great red mountain that looms above Broadford and which may be clearly seen as one drives over the bridge to Skye, means ‘Hill of the Old Woman’. The name is pure Gaelic, but the old woman in question is reputed to have been a Norwegian princess who became the wife of a local Celt. She requested that she be buried on the peak of this mountain, with her face turned towards Norway. Similarly, the beautiful northern peninsula which is now called Waternish, with a long English ‘a’ (Worternish) used to be known as Vaternish, with a short Scots ‘a’ (Vatternish), a name I still prefer. Waternish is an anglicisation of Vaternish; Vaternish is a Scots version of Bhatairnis; Bhatairnis is a Gaelic version of a Norse word meaning the headland of the inlet, a purely descriptive name given by seafarers. Layer upon layer of language and culture have built up over the centuries, each adding its own colour.
And there we are, back at colour again, perhaps the most striking and indefinable quality of the island. There is so much to tell of Skye. For now I will give the last word to another visitor, D.H.Lawrence, who came to the island in August 1926.
‘I liked it very much. It rains and rains, and the white wet clouds blot over the mountains. But we had one perfect day, blue and iridescent, with the bare northern hills sloping green and sad and velvety to the silky blue sea. There is still something of an Odyssey up there, in among the islands and the silent lochs: like the twilight morning of the world, the herons fishing undisturbed by the water, and the sea running far in, for miles, between the wet, trickling hills…like the very beginning of Europe’.