Day 76 – The Desert of Heather

Starting mileage: 21854 km
Day started: 12:00
Day ended: 17:00

Skye

Skye

It’s official – the brief Scottish summer has ended when we arrived on Skye. The fierce Atlantic gale rolls down the Bens and brings with it the Arctic frost. Steering is a nightmare; the Beaufort scale guideline claims that cars start veering at Force 8, but that does not account for a vehicle as tall and unwieldy as a VW campervan. The nights are no better – on the unsheltered campsites, the van heaves, squeaks and screeches, but all that noise is muffled by the incessant wind, as if a dozen jet planes started at once. We got the thermo-mats out and they work to keep the heat inside, but can do little to stave off the wind and rain.

Each of the Scottish islands is beautiful in its own, unique way. On Skye it is the beauty of a desert. The wide, straight highways that cross the isle wouldn’t feel out of place on an American prairie or in the Outback – just replace the heather and tall grass with sand and cacti. It is a rough, broad landscape. The name “Skye” means “Island of the Mists” – and full of mist it is, rising into the thick white clouds which shroud the peaks of the hills. The island is full of water, gurgling in the brooks and roaring down massive waterfalls – the largest of these dropping nearly 200 feet down a sheer cliff at Loch Mealt.

But all this beauty is rotting from the inside: a vast majority of the houses are now transformed into holiday cottages and self-catering; a quick look at the estate agent’s board confirms: the house prices reach London levels. The locals can’t possibly afford to stay on Skye, and the island community is slowly dying.

There is still a lot of life left on Skye, though. We start with a drive to the Talisker distillery, for the usual tasting session (Talisker 10: sweet, citrusy, smooth, peppery finish); the distillery stands over one of the many peat-coloured brooks of the island. A sign at the parking lot points us to an Oyster shop “1 minute up hill”, so we head that way, over even more peat-coloured streams, towards a large shack selling smoked and fresh fish, including fresh oysters from the bay below. We bought more smoked salmon, white crab meat and shucked oysters from Loch Harport.

We go north; the land turns greener and even more heathery; the hills undulate gently on one side, the sea, grey and sapphire, on the other. The sign points to a Dun Beag Broch to the right; it’s the first broch on our journey, but certainly not the last. The brochs are iron age fortified towers, found only in the North-Western Scotland and the Isles. Their direct purpose is still unknown; they seem to fit the landscape perfectly, though – towers of grey rock upon hills of grey rock.

As I stand on the ruined battlement, up over the hill on the horizon I see two young golden eagles fighting-playing in the sky. It is a magic moment; two thousand years ago, some other men stood on these tall ramparts, looking at the same dark hills, watching the eagles soar.

We make our way back to the car across the pastures, through the prosaic reality of the omnipresent sheep poo; and drive still north. There is a grand castle in this part of Skye, like the Duart on Mull this one is still inhabited, and far larger: the Dunvegan, seat of Clan MacLeod (“There Can Be Only One!”). But the entry to its gardens is costly (£7.5 per head) so we drive off to see sights that are free and far more spectacular: the high roads of the Waternish peninsula. Here the narrow loch breaks through the hills, carving tall, perfectly straight cliffs and washing a golden beach. The peninsula is famed for its craftsmen, and we’re going to see one of them: a sheepskin tanner, the last one left in Scotland. Visiting a tannery may seem a strange destination for a pescetarian couple; but we are here to appreciate the craftsmanship, not discuss the ethics. Of the hundreds of tanneries once spoiling the air and waters of Britain the nation over, there are only two left – the other is in the West Country – and the one on Skye is the smaller, more traditional one. We are assured they use only sheep “leftovers” from the slaughterhouses, so no sheep dies just to provide us with the skin. The presentation of the craft is impressive and thankfully, due to the use of modern chemicals – the only bow to modernity in the workshop – the place doesn’t have the expected smell of piss and faeces.

The roads on Skye are long and difficult, and the wind makes further driving a chore, so we head towards the campsite earlier than usual, having booked a ferry for the early morning – a ferry that will take us the farthest away we’ve yet been on this journey.

On the ferry to Skye

On the ferry to Skye

Talisker distillery

Talisker distillery

Dun Beag Broch

Dun Beag Broch


It doesn’t matter where you camp on Skye – the wind is the same everywhere… we first stay in Ashaig, on a small, “quiet” camping, costing £15 per night. There’s lots of gravel and midges here, and the showers cost extra, but there’s a nice, slightly chaotic “home-like” atmosphere. The other site – Skye Family Camping – is a bigger affair, a 100-pitch strong site overlooking a still loch. There are some gannets on the lake, and cows on the hill sides, huge and grey like rhinoceroses. But all that vanishes before the night comes and brings with it still more wind…

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