The Storm in Skye falls once every nigh’
The first flurries fell in Stirling in the beginning of December lowering the heat on my university exams, when it was a snow-conducive 3 degrees Celsius. (When the temperature dips below zero, the snow won’t come anymore). Soon without warning, we were wrapped in the eye of a mid-latitude storm, dubbed ‘hurricane bawbag’ in Twitterverse, the cyclone that swept Scotland off its feet, winds leveraging 165 mph: overturned trees, roofs, cars, heavy vehicles, umbrellas, parachutes, every grade of human accessory splayed asunder, the web abuzz with climate updates and SOS. Americans had brought this along with their homesickness, accused a few. Wild images were turning viral. And I instantly knew what I wanted for my birthday: a 3 day road trip to the isle of Skye, hoping that the western extremities would gift me with a couple of tricks in resilience as I scouted storms by the teacup.
I live and study in the windiest country in Europe, where they plan to convert all their wind and water into energy and lose all dependence on coal. Now glamour always escorts resilience, be it in the military, or in the people’s minds; the intrigues of dramatic landscape and being subjected to fierce torrential winds, glens gushing over with imagery and gory flashbacks of the bloody clan rivalries and tragic royalty haunting numerous castles on the bedraggled breath of history, triggered my ache for adventure soup.
From merchants’ homes in Queens and Georges Streets, the Royal mile and town square address to Scotland’s poshest The Balmoral hotel and its lesser cousin the Caledonian Hilton where Scot expatriate Sean Connery puts up (but will not return until independence has been won), to the poorer bylanes of the Scottish capital, where the old servants lived, Edinburgh was bracing itself for another nippy new year on the same latitude as Moscow.
“What do you know about Scots” challenged Doug, the guy steering the wheel of a Mercedes bus, from Edinburgh.
“Whiskey, shortbread, kilts, bagpipes, haggis” shot back replies.
A native of the Scottish Borders, Doug claimed every nook and cranny from the lowlands to the very highlands; now an Edinburgh resident for the past eleven years Doug recalls every drift, fog, peak and trough, spotting every Ben and Munro in the neighbourhood with pride and veneer. After the Grampean range it is the Nevis range we cross, and its Ben Nevis, the tallest Ben–a Ben is a mountain above 1500 m–in the British Isles.
“Our Mountains are older than the Himalayas!” he glared, and then looked wistfully at the Nevis range, for what are merely ageing stumps in a foggy Scottish sky today. Years of erosion, storm and high weather have lessened these peaks.
Doug spent the next few days breaking our “tweed” notions of Scotland, sweeping us off feet, storm or no storm, by the breath taking mystique of his country. He expressed gratitude there were no Americans, Australians or Canadians on board asking him about why the highland’s hairy coos (cows) are actually dogs, because “how can cows run so fast?!” On the animal front, we spotted sheep, red deer, and lots more hairy coos; twisting cows’ legs was once a predominantly Highland Sport, test of prowess.
We drove along the fault line of a series of passes called the Great Glen, an active faultline that bisects the Scottish Highlands from the Grampian Mountains in the South east (south of Orkney/Shetland, that is), and the Northern Highlends in the North west (including the Western isles).
- Great Glen Faultline Scotland
Eighty percent of Scotland lives in the Lowlands and under, where cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, the Trossachs are. That leaves the Highlands inhabited by about 250,000 people only! In fact, there are more sheep than people in these parts with a ratio of about 8 sheep to 1 person in Skye! The winged island of Skye is strung together by peninsulas of different gradations.
Oh those fucking mainlanders… In Scotland it was England they cursed, and in the Highlands it was the lowlands they sniggered at likewise in the Outer Hebrides the Inner Hebrides; Units of contempt spreading thin, along the degree of extremities and seclusion you inhabit.
An Israeli and Indian couple, a Muscovite, a boy who wore no shoes, his friend, and myself ambled along a journey through storm, rain, snow, and eventually pitch wintry home. This was off season, and rates were low as the weather could keep them.
The feisty castle trail was an inevitable mix of Stirling castle, home to Scottish monarchs including the tragic Mary Queen of Scots who was almost destined to become the most powerful person in all of Europe, to the Eileen Donan castle, the world’s most photographed castle, locked between three sea-water lochs, and later on the Dun Vegan castle an important symbol of the McLeod clan’s power in the 13th century. Dun Vegan, we learn was popular for almost becoming Dun Vegas when a huge American corporation and Japanese corporation bid to buy out the mountain to make it into an amusement park.
But Scotland is not like in Hollywood! ranted Doug at half a chance; “how could Australia’s tallest dwarf (Mel Gibson) ever be cast as the real life over six-footer William Wallace?!”
But how does he know how tall William Wallace really was? Doug is quick to explain, tall swordsmen have tall swords, from the chin under Willy was measured to be at least of 6 feet. Similar miscasting in the portrayal of RobRoy, completes the grotesque distortion of Scottish Folklore in cinema.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was shot in GlenCoe, a walking haven and better known secret. I had travelled to storm country in the Bristish Isles to explore Scotland’s wealth of lochs (lochs are lakes, ranging from inland water filled ones to tidal seawater ones) beginning with Loch Scotland. We drove past the Grampean mountains, the Nevis Range, the Loch Ness (UK’s biggest water mass which we would revisit on our return journey), the picturesque loch-locked Eileen Donan castle, and then the remarkably ‘tollless’ Skye bridge into Skye. Once in Skye, we encountered the Cuillin mountains, before driving back to our respective accommodations.
The next day began with Doug pulling up after a drive along the Old man of Storr, behind the bride’s veil waterfall, forcing us to dip our head, for seven years of bodily peace, he said, himself a rolling testament to fortunes of the flesh, under the ubiquitous waterfall reappearing in Canada, Australia, and other parts of the Christian world.
As if in cue, a storm started chasing us north.
take nothing back / but you can leave a gift for faeries of the bog
I left behind a passion fruit in Fairy Glen, or Balnaknock, near Uig on the Trotternish peninsula. It’s where you made wishes. People walk bare feet like pilgrims of wonder, in spirals unwinding their minds of all troubles, and on return, thinking of things good to come, in the eerie but calming geological paradise possessed by faeries. Some leave gifts, but take nothing. No stone, not a blade of grass or it spells a bad omen, and has led to bodily fractures and grave vehicular mishaps in the past. We trekked the landslip of Quiriang.
Mountain biking, curling (throwing granite stones on targets on ice sheets) darts and snooker are the only games the Scots take pride in, and hate talking about sports because they are “rubbish” (their favourite word) at team sports. Bitter from their almost win in 1978 (Argentina), commentary replayed in their radios over and over. Andy Murray, however is a famous Scot tennis player at world number 4. It is at the passionate fringe, that these men of no sport, hoist their flags.
“It is not the size of a nation that is important, but the size of its ambition and of the contribution it can make to the world. Scotland is ready to meet that challenge” Alex Salmond, Leader of Scottish National Party and Scotland’s First Minister in The Economist, 17 November 2011
Scotland would have been the 5th richest oil producing country in the world surrounded as it was by the wealth of North Sea, Atlantic, and the Irish sea pouring into the Indian Ocean, if only it was independent. Will the Scots vote for devolvement in 2016? Doug will be glad for a more sustainable smaller country culturally and geographically different from the rest of the UK. First Minister Alex Salmand, seems confident, that Scotland is indeed ready for independence.
Travelling off season had its perks of lesser rush, giving the wild land an urgency. The pitfall was sometimes not being able to hike longer in wet windy weather, because the entire group would often want to stay in, and the driver unsure of the safety quotient in letting off ramblers to the fast flowing torrents of wind. These were the Western Isles, warmer than the far North, up at Orkney or Shetland. A heavy Viking influence in the northern islands did not mean these people are more Norse than Scottish, biological tests have proven they are as genealogically culturally and linguistically tied to other Scottish highlanders as Mainland Scotlanders are and they speak the same Gaellic too.
In the bar that evening, as we tuned into live music and some ceilidh, before and after the infamous Glasgow (Celtics) versus Glasgow (Rangers) football death match, betwixt which utter strangers told me in rapid verbal intercourse: “You are very fast”; “You don’t speak that fast” (as how they speak in Glasgow); “You have only Oriental friends?”; “You don’t have a Scottish boyfriend yet?”; “Are you okay?”; “You have lovely orange pants”; “You’re not fat.”; “You’re too happy to (want to) smoke”; and then “Intelligence test, fail!” When it turned midnight I cut a surprise chocolate cake and then moved on for drinks, pool playing, and sampling local cask ale with a set of new spirited friends. The final morning we bid bye unconditionally, moving back into our respective tours.
The drive back from Portree the largest settlement on Skye to Edinburgh the power capital was about 5 hours including pit stops at numerous cliffs, lochs, the hills and valleys, the picturesque and most voluminous water body in the UK Loch Ness both at Fort William and Fort Augustus ports, the ride back into Cenral Highlands from Pitlochry a village by the longest river in the UK, the Tay river of a staggering 127 miles, our descent into Perth and then Edinburgh.
The Royal Standard flag above is the banner of the King of Scots, made eponymous by the Red lion pubs that dot the Scottish suburbs and lowlands. Although we visited Taliskar Bay and the orginal Talisker distillery (Skye being the birthplace of this peat-smoked whiskey), the trip was in general devoid of beer stops, and the only liquid sunshine we guzzled on was rain (in local parlance)! While, the sun resembles whiskey in most parts of wintry Scotland.
When most of us thought London, the most commonly named city in the world is actually Aberdeen, also birthplace of the Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain. The second most common city name being Perth, after Bertha, the greek name for Green valley, and some will insist it is after the fast and furious river Perth flowing through the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
The journey back was delightful. Scotland with its colonial past and complex history, is alight with ancient marvels and modern inventions. They invented Penicillin, the telephone, the steam engine.
“What did the Indians invent?” he asked me suddenly.
And I kept repeating, the zero. I couldn’t think of India right then, even my half-pretension that Scotland was a hangover of India’s lake city of Nainital from the newly created state of Uttarakhand, was revised. The Highlands were so different, and the Hebrides, an expectation turner.
Ordinary landscape leaps out at you, in extreme climate, turning people stone Catholic at its extremities (in the Outer Hebrides and far north), spiritual, eccentric, fierce. The hills in Skye, the jaunty mix of Cuillins are likened to women, smooth and curvy as the Red Cuilins and sharp and pointed in the head as the black ridge Cuilins. We stormed past both ranges, weather not conducive to hiking just yet, and time did not permit such deviance.
No matter which part of the world you’re in, society judges you each day: who you brunch with and importantly, what you do for a living. The good news is that as trespassers, will not be prosecuted anywhere in Scotland. Doug is okay with being a tour guide for now, but also runs an online booking company alongside, to pander to his whim of working for something more than money, despite tapering losses. With the storm as a backdrop in the grip of heartbreaking scenery I was humbled yet another time, returning home with no steady answer to the forces of nature.
An interesting article by a Quercus author Peter May of the Lewis Trilogy (Isle of Lewis is north of Skye, in the Western isles but in the OUTER HEBRIDES) about “Guga Hunters”/and guga hunting
From Edinburgh and Glasgow a number of competitive operators run taxis, buses, lorries, bikes, and even hikes to the Isle of Skye, and depending on your personal requirement, time of the year, budget, and tour availability you can best make a personalised selection. Few names are Rabbies, Highland Explorers, Timberbush, GoScotland, etc.
From New Delhi there are daily flights operating to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Arundati Dandapani loves longer journeys in shorter periods of time and can be reached at email@example.com