I'm now completely won over to Skye, after a shaky start. (Yesterday's Beltane sunshine helped.) We spent a certain amount of time searching for the remains of a Pictish broch – the enigmatic Picts were my 'subject of interest', alongside the Mabinogion, at university – to no avail; only to realise that this part of Skye boasts many brochs, including one a couple of hundred feet above where we're staying (and where, incidentally, I watched a cuckoo in the garden for twenty minutes or so at close quarters this morning).
We also failed to find the standing stones and cairn marked in a rather inaccurate fashion on an incomplete 'tourist' map; but we did find an Iron Age souterrain with an associated round house.
There were also many other, later, ruins. Poignantly, Skye like so many other parts of the Highlands and Islands, shoulders still the low walls of little houses and crofting communities; stark reminders of the barbaric Clearances following on from the Jacobite Rebellion, where thousands of local people were forced, often savagely, from their homes (which were frequently set ablaze) and had no choice but to emigrate when landlords, often incoming English ones, cleared the land to graze cattle and sheep.
Looking out towards Harris and Lewis in an astonishingly blue sea, we arrived at the stupendously beautiful northern tip of the Trotternish peninsula on which stands this castle:
Duntulm Castle, possibly built on the site of an Iron Age hillfort, or a broch, was constructed in the C14th to be the home of the Clan MacDonald. It was inhabited until the C18th. Legend has it that it was abandoned after a nursemaid accidentally dropped the baby heir onto the rocks below. Her punishment was to be set adrift in a small boat onto the waters of the Minch.
Around the corner from Duntulm you can catch a brief glimpse of the Shiant Islands, of which their inheritor, Adam Nicolson, in his beautiful book Sea Room writes so knowledgeably and inspiringly. Between here and Harris in the Minch is the Sound of Shiant, which Nicolson says 'is also known as the Sruth na Fear Gorm, or the Stream of the Blue Men, or more exactly the Blue-Green Men. The adjective in Gaelic describes that dark half-colour which is the colour of deep sea water at the foot of a black cliff. These Blue-Green Men are strange, dripping, semi-human creatures who come aboard and sit alongside you in the stern-sheets, sing a verse or two of a complex song and, if you are unable to continue in the same metre and with the same rhyme, sink your boat and drown your crew.'
Some say that these blue creatures are mythic 'memories', vestigial remains, of the old Celtic sea-god Mannanan mac Lir. Others suggest that they're cultural memories of the Picts, the 'Picti' or 'painted' people, known for their woad-blue painted/tattoed skin, who as a seafaring people inhabited these farflung islands after they'd mostly vanished from the mainland. John Gregorson Campbell, writing in 1900, says that he'd heard on Skye a different mythic origin: 'The fallen angels were driven out of Paradise in three divisions, one became the Fairies on the land, one the Blue men in the sea, and one, the Northern Streamers, or Merry Dancers, in the sky' – the latter being the aurora borealis or Northern Lights.
Coming to Shiant Island
The sea thins. The birlinn’s bows
part the fog like a finger through milk.
Below, the blue-peopled underworld of the Minch
still churns and roils, clutches at your keel.
The wind keens. What you were
peels away astern. No journey
worth making is easy. Here what you
learn will come from winter gnawing
the shingle, the play of cloud on sea,
the fires you succeed in igniting;
from the endurance of turf and granite,
the puffins’ lack of fear. You will make
your home in light and storm and rabbit-
scat, in the arms of the four winds.
The keel grinds on the shoreline.
You step out. The future begins.
© Roselle Angwin, from All the Missing Names of Love
Later, sunset coming in, we dropped down to the crescent arms of Staffin Bay in the blue evening, looking across to the dramatic snow-capped mainland mountainscape of Applecross, Gairloch, and Torridon. The dogs played wildly at the sea's edge as we humans spent a happy if fruitless hour searching for the dinosaur footprints that exist here somewhere under the coating of green dulse, laver and kelp. Nearby was unearthed a domestic midden of shells and the like from 8500 years ago – barely a blink in comparison with the many millions of years ago that the Megalosaurus-type footprint was laid down.
Both my and my daughter's camera batteries packed up simultaneously at this stage, though I coaxed mine into a brief sigh of life twice more. This is one: the Lord of the Rings landscape of the Quirang –
– you can just see the curve of Staffin Bay to the right in the distance, and on the horizon the mainland.
Heading home for another music session in the local pub my camera declined to take a photo of the stone needle of the Old Man of Storr above Portree, but I caught, just, a little evening light here on Loch Leathan.