Visiting the Isle of Skye ? Read on !

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Angus Mac Kinnon
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Visiting the Isle of Skye ? Read on !

Post by Angus Mac Kinnon » Sun Oct 03, 2010 10:52 pm

(Prepared in 1998 for a mainland colleague intending to visit the Island)


Skye, or An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, to give it its proper Gaelic name, is the largest and most well known of the Inner Hebridean Islands. The Norsemen called it Skuyo, meaning Isle of Clouds, on account of its cloud cap being visible long before dark mountains could be sighted over the horizon. From my Island, Eriskay, out in the Western Isles, or Outer Hebrides, we can often see this mythical cloud cap when we cannot see the Island below it. We call Skye ‘Eilean a’ Cheo’ - (the Misty Isle). Eriskay lies some 60 miles to the West of the southern end of Skye, namely Sleat, on more or less the same latitude, at 57 degrees 8 minutes North. With a land area measuring around 535 square miles, the population of Skye is relatively small at some 8,500 people. The best way by far of getting to Skye from the mainland is the Mallaig - Armadale crossing, bringing a wee bit of reality to the saying “Over the Sea to Skye”. Sadly, even the five-minute crossing from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyle Akin (now pronounced Kyleakin) no longer exists and the ignominy of crossing over to Skye via an ugly series of concrete pours and pre-stressed reinforced concrete sections has been thrust without choice on the local populace. (Okay, this is being a bit romantic - the reality is the bridge has proven to be a boon to the Island) The majority of the population of Skye live in the North and West areas of the island, this stems back to the days of crofting and the better soil in these areas, and also the fact that the mountain-dominant South tended to be a far wetter climate even though only a few miles away.

Skye was at one time once a lot more heavily populated, today it has less than a quarter of what it had before the infamous Highland Clearances cleared the majority of the island folk away from the land of their birth, many to perish in the nightmare sea passages that followed on board coffin-ships to barren corners of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Cape Breton, the Antipodes, and many other far flung corners of the globe. Although some 60 miles in length and 25 miles across at its widest point, one of the strange things about the island of Skye is that no matter where you go on Skye, you will never be further away from the shore than five miles, due to the spread-eagled nature of the island and the numerous limbs to the island. Skye has more than twenty offshore islands around it, the main ones being Raasay, Soay, Scalpay and Rona. (Raasay is the heaviest populated and may well by now be the only one with a populace, and the last time I knew the population of Raasay, about five years ago, it was down to about 180 souls) Skye is also prolific in its large number sea lochs and it follows that fishing was a very important aspect of Skye life and subsistence in the old days. Skye has produced many fine seamen over the centuries, amongst the best that could be found anywhere with the possible exception of Eriskay and Barra - but modesty precludes me deliberating any further into that aspect. Many master mariners came out of Skye, especially in the days of sail when seamen were really seamen. Skye and the Island of Tiree produced the greatest number and highest quality of captains and mates that sailed the greyhounds of the sea - the fast Clippers designed and built on the Clyde by the best designers and builders of these majestic vessels, Steele, Stephen, Connell, etc.

Returning the Skye, where are the places to go, what is the history of these places, etc ? Well, I am not a Skyeman, even though the name Mac Kinnon features predominantly on that Island, so I cannot claim to be in any way expert, but here is a brief synopsis of the Island. As I take you through it, refer to the map which I have annotated with this short narrative :

I think this was where you said you were staying whilst in Skye, so I will deal with it first. On the East side of the Island, it is only about 8 or 9 miles North from Kyle Akin or the Skye Bridge. Faces onto Broadford Bay with the small island of Pabbay sitting just offshore in the Bay. Faces out towards the awesome Applecross mountains over on the mainland. Only thing worthy of note with regard to Broadford is that it was there, in the Broadford Hotel, that Drambuie was first brewed, using a secret recipe (passed to the Mac Kinnons’ of Skye who retain the secret to this day) entrusted to the landlord by Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Kyle Akin
Small fishing port and formerly ferry port before the Skye Bridge came along. Predominant feature is the old ruins of 13th century Castle Moil - stronghold of the Mac Kinnons. Story goes that it was once occupied by a Norwegian princess who used to set chains across the narrow Kyle Akin to sink any ship passing through that did not pay her a toll. It is probable that the strait is named after King Haakon of Norway who is known to have brought his fleet of ships through the narrows on their way to annihilation in 1263 - The Battle of Largs.

The ‘Capital’ of Skye. The name comes from the Gaelic, Port an Righ, which means port of the King, and goes back to a visit by King James the fifth in 1540 when he arrived there with a fleet of twelve ships to try and persuade the unruly chieftains of Skye to swear allegiance to the Crown. Nice wee township with neat wee white painted houses, hotels and B & B’s, etc, but very tight crammed and can be a bit of a nightmare with cars and traffic in the summer tourist season. The tourist information office there is reputedly Skye’s oldest building, circa early 1700’s.

Dunvegan Castle, seven centuries old, has been the home of the ruling family of Skye, the Mac Leods, for about 21 generations of that family’s history. Reputed to be the oldest ‘house’ in Britain to have been continuously occupied by the same family. On the opposite shore lies Borreraig, which was home of the Mac Crimmons, hereditary pipers to the Mac Leods, and the Skye Piping Centre as well as a memorial to the famous Mac Crimmon pipers is situated in that area. To the South West lies the famous Mac Leod’s Tables - a series of flat-topped mountains. The Mac Leods took no part in Culloden, they refused to rise for Prince Charlie, still bitter from having lost over 700 clansmen in 1651 when they fought for Charles the second at the Battle of Worcester, so they were reluctant to go to battle for the Stuarts ever after that. It was for this reason that they were spared the ravages that followed the uprising in 1745, where all the other clans received severe and harsh treatment, so it was a good move for the Mac Leods, kept their lands, their position and got lots of brownie points later for apparently siding with the English Crown.

Famous because it was here at Monkstadt in the summer of 1746 that Flora Mac Donald brought Bonnie Prince Charlie when he was trying to avoid capture by the English redcoats and make his way back to France after the disaster of Culloden.

This is where you get the ferry out to the Western Isles (the real Hebrides) and it is one of my favourite spots on Skye, looking down Loch Snizort, which sounds like a bad cold. From Uig, there is a small single-track road North to Duntulm and round to the East side down to Trotternish and Staffin Bay which is worth a look-see. In particular look out for Quiraing, an amazing rock formation of pinnacles and peaks that are freakish and daunting as the mist descends on them and obscures them. Make sure you visit Uig, however, there is nothing much there but the scenery is something else. Down the East side will take you back down into the Portree area again.

Back down to the South end, Armadale on the shores of the Sound of Sleat is worthy of a visit. This is where the ferry comes in to from Mallaig, although I am not sure whether it runs throughout the winter months. A good walk would be from Ardvasar, just South of Armadale, to the Aird (Point) of Sleat. This area is known for its unusual coastal vegetation, they call it the Garden of Skye because of its rich growth and vegetation.

Raasay Island
There is a ferry service from Sconser in Skye to Raasay, I think it is a shuttle service to and fro, but I am not sure what happens in the winter. Fair size island, about 12 or 13 miles long. Most of the remaining islanders live in or around the main village place, Inverarish. Very strict Protestant people, even more so than on Skye itself, no fun and games on the Sabbath or you’re excommunicated, no messing with that lot. Plenty opportunity for walks over there, just don't do it on a Sunday. On the other hand, why not get adventurous and put it to the test - stop someone and ask them directions to the nearest pub or Chapel, or who to see to get some crack. If you are in any way concerned about getting back to mainland Skye this will ensure you an extremely rapid exodus from Raasay!

Trumpan and Waternish
Worth a wee run up to this remote and as far as I am aware almost uninhabited area on the North West side of the Island. Trumpan is famous for the great battle that took place there between the old enemies Mac Leods and Mac Donalds. The Mac Donalds in question were my lot, from Uist over in the Western Isles, and they had a bad habit of raiding Skye and feuding with the Mac Leods of Skye, which was typical of these Outer Isles hooligans. Anyway, things got a bit serious on this occasion, in 1578, when a party of these Mac Donalds landed and came across a congregation of Mac Leods worshipping in the church at Trumpan, whose ruins you can see if you go there. Without further ado, they set about the Mac Leods on the basis that they did not like them, so what the hell, fired the Church, cut down all the Mac Leods to a man, and only an old woman managed to escape, taking off over the moors and managing to reach Dunvegan where she reported the events and raised the alarm. The Mac Leods gathered in numbers and armed themselves and made their way to the scene. The Mac Donalds on seeing them coming fled for their boats, but, daft clowns that they were, they had allowed the tide to leave their boats high and dry so they could not make their escape back across the Minch to Uist. The Mac Leods set amongst them and gave them a severe dose of the malky - not a single Mac Donald survived the onslought and the dead were buried by toppling a wall over them. So, you see, we didn't need the Redcoats to finish us off, we were well capable of seeing to that within our own islands.

There are many other places to go and see but these are the key places and areas. You will find that there are many small museums and places of interest, restored croft houses and black houses, etc, but I am not sure if these places only operate during the tourist high season.

The primary interest for most tourists and visitors to Skye is, of course, the Cuillins of Skye. Some 20 rock peaks, they are an awesome and almost frightening sight, black and bare, hostile, covered in mist for a great part of the time, over 3,000 feet in height. I personally cannot see any attraction in mountains and hills and all that stuff, worth a look-see but nothing more exciting than that. What I find a lot more interesting and fascinating is that in the Inner Sound of Raasay you have the deepest waters anywhere around the British Isles - well over 1,000 feet, and where there are low level fissures the depths there have been sounded at 1,500 feet ! Incredible depth, the result of glacial deepening during the Ice Age.

Take care driving around the more rural areas, roads are narrow and very twisty in many places, often reducing to single track with passing places. Attached I have provided you with some selected phrases in case you find yourself in some remote area where only Gaelic is spoken.

Selected Phrases for a Townie Visiting the Western Islands

Gaelic is a wee bit tricky. The spelling system presents a few problems, because 18 letters have to cover some 60-odd sounds - there is no letter J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y or Z in Gaelic - and many sounds in Gaelic do not even exist in the English language. However the following selected phrases are relatively easy and manageable, even by non-speakers.

Normal English Gaelic Phonetic

Hawlawrerr ! : Good day ! : Latha math ! : la-a-mah

Howzitgaun ? : How are you ? : Ciamar a tha thu ? : kim-ar-a ha oo ?

Gaun rerr an tha' : Not bad, thank you : Chan eil dona, tapadh leat : Cha nyel donna, tapa let

S’pishinitdoon : It is raining : Tha an t-uisge ann : ha an tooshk-yown

Seezapintantha ? : May I have a pint ? : An toir thu dhomh pinnt ? : an tor oo gho peench ?

Bevvysawrite : The beer is very good : Tha an leann gle mhath : han lyown glay vah

Seezanurrapint : May I have another pint ? : An toir thu dhomh pinnt eile ? : an tor oo gho peench el-e ?

Wheryucumfae ? : Where are you from ? : Co as a tha thu thein ? : co as a ha oo hain ?

Wearfae Glesga : We come from Glasgow : Tha sinne fo-Glaschu : ha sheenu fo glass-a-choo

Fanciannurra swallie ? : Care for another drink ? : An gabh thu deoch eile ? : un-gav oo joch el-e ?

Whitsragemme ? : What is going on ? : De tha a-dol ? : jay ha doll ?

He’s fair blootert ! : He seems somewhat inebriated ! : Tha e an ghol e cuis ! : he e a gawl I koos
Angus Mac Kinnon

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Al Black
Posts: 46
Joined: Fri Jul 30, 2010 12:27 pm

Re: Visiting the Isle of Skye ? Read on !

Post by Al Black » Wed Oct 13, 2010 12:01 am

Speaking of Master Mariners, one who came from Soay (one of Skye's offshore islands) became rather well known and was remembered earlier this year during a very moving service off Point of Sleat. I refer of course to Captain John Cameron, master of 2 Waverleys. Captain Cameron commanded the 1899 Inglis masterpiece and took the paddler off to serve in the war against Hitler. She was lost at Dunkirk but Captain Cameron survived and became the first master of what is now probably the most famous paddle steamer in the world.
Greenock by birth, Gourock by the Grace of God! :)

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