Friday, May 27, 2011

Scotland, Day Three: The Isle of Skye

Years ago I saw a British film titled “Tight Little Island,” about a tiny island denied whisky until a cargo ship founders on its shore. Perhaps that shaped my idea of Skye as a remote wilderness, with barren cliffs, cold winds, and more sheep than people. It pretty much is those things—remote, unpredictable weather, craggy rocks, sheep wandering in the roads, but Skye is also much more. The word Skye means “cloudy” in Old Norse, and islanders call it “the Misty Isle.” Outside the two main towns, Kyleakin and Portree, there are occasional clusters of houses, looking almost forlorn in their isolation, and a few small villages. Long-haired sheep indeed wander freely in the road, which is in most places a single lane with every now and again a place to pull off and allow someone to pass. In planning our tour of the island, we followed the advice of Rick Steves and our host, Phillip, who predicted we would be gone all day. We were. We began from Portree, where we were staying, and headed north to the Trotternish Peninsula where, following Steves guidebook, we saw such rock formations as the Old Man of Storr and Kilt Rock. Colin and Megan got out at the overlook at Kilt Rock, but it was far too cold, wet and rainy for me, and they were glad I stayed behind when a sudden heavy shower sent them racing for the car.
Flora MacDonald is a heroine on the Isle—we passed the home where she hid Bonnie Prince Charlie, who had fled to the Outer Hebrides after defeat at Culloden. Disguising him as her maid, she rowed him to Skye and helped him escape. Eventually Charles spent his life in exile in France, and Flora was briefly jailed. But she went on to lead an adventurous life in America where she and her family were involved in the American Revolution, and only returned to Skye in later life. A monument in a small cemetery honors her bravery. I’m sure many books have been written about Flora, but she’s still a tempting subject for someone with my historical interests.
Our first castle of the day was Duntulm, abandoned around 1730 after, so says the legend, a nursemaid dropped the infant heir on to the rocks on the coast below. My children said I don’t get to count that as a castle because once again I didn’t get out of the car—the wind on Skye threatens to take the car door off its hinges. We drove around the Skye Museum of Island Life, where I was fascinated by the thatch-roofed stone cabins, once occupied by crofters (tenant farmers). One of these residences was occupied until 1957, which amazes me. It offered three rooms—a kitchen, with a peat-burning fireplace, the parents’ bedroom in the middle, and a bedroom for the twelve children!
Steves recommended the sandwiches at a service station in the western coastal town of Uig, from which a ferry departs for the Outer Hebrides. My sandwich, filled with red salmon salad, was delicious but would have been better on something other than ordinary white bread. Megan had a scone, and Colin, a ham and cheese sandwich which was ordinary. Rick Steves was a bit off on this prediction on this one.
Our real castle for the day was Dunvegan, home to the McLeod (say McLoud) clan for centuries. Although it is billed as continually occupied, it looks a lot like a museum to me, unless there are private apartments we didn’t see. I believe it is administered by the late chief’s sister in a trust, so I can’t figure out who would live there. Portraits of various McLeod nobles hang everywhere, including one of Dame Flora McLeod of McLeod who became the 28th clan chief in the absence of a male heir. The castle is somewhat in disrepair and its once-manicured grounds are now in need of a lot of attention, though we did see gardeners at work, particularly in the walled garden. The castle offers a striking view of a loch and the sea beyond. The other prominent clan on Skye is the MacDonalds (yes, Flora’s clan) but we didn’t see their castle if there is one.
We visited the first of three distilleries we’d see, arriving at Talisker in the late afternoon just as the last tour, already filled, was taking off. We contented ourselves with studying the artifacts in the tasting room. It was easy for me to get lost in the clan history—seems the MacDonalds attacked the McLeods from the sea, but a third clan served as coastal watchdogs for the McLeods, who were able to slaughter the MacDonalds. Tasting was another matter: I am not a Scotch drinker--the first sip was burning hot to me and left a medicinal aftertaste. Megan’s husband is a big Scotch drinker, so she bought a bottle for him. I kept silent about my worries about getting it back to Austin, Texas.
On the way back to Portree, we passed a bit of the Cullin Hills, tall, conical mountains on the south coast of the island. With their tops shrouded in clouds, the hills are favorites of climbers and hikers—no, we didn’t do that.
Back in Portree we finished our day with dinner at a restaurant called The Lower Deck on, uh, the lower deck, a small stretch of buildings on a level almost with the water in the harbor. You reach it either by walking down a steep hill or down an incredibly long staircase. (As Megan observed, Scotland is not a flat land!) I’d tried the staircase in our search for a restaurant the night before and got winded, so this time I preferred the road, even coming back uphill. The kids wanted seafood, but I had haggis on my mind, so I ordered a chicken breast stuffed with haggis (actually laid on top of it) and served with that roast onion whiskey gravy. Really liked it, though Colin said, after one bite, it reminded him of liver and Megan declined a taste. We started the meal with mussels—I know many people love them, but I had never tried them. Now I’m a fan. And we ended with sticky toffee pudding. A really good meal, as we sat and rehashed all we’d seen and done that day.
A long post but it was a long day—and as usual, it wore us out, even my much younger traveling companions. We slept soundly every night we were in Scotland.

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