In Kilmuir, a tranquil village on the Trotternish peninsula where they speak the Scottish Gaelic tongue of their ancestors, we came across a strange sight. A prodigious Highland cow on a pasture staring at the sea. Add a single horn to that profile and we were in the exalted company of a one-horned meditating creature. I walked closer, yet keeping her at arm’s length, since startling cows and earning sharp pokes in the ribs was not on my list of things to do on Skye. The good news is that the Highland cattle do prefer to save their horns for more useful things like foraging during harsh winters than goring meddling humans.
As she turned her head towards me and watched me with bovine curiosity through a sheath of feminine fringe , I realised that I had besmirched her beauty. There was a second horn. It shot straight down, past her ears, hugging those bonny cheeks. Of course there was a customary one-sided conversation (what am I without those?) after which she decided she had had enough of this odd human. Swaying her sizable hips in slow motion, she turned her back to me and plodded through the long grass in the direction of the sea. There are a couple of shots below of this picture of highland gentility, but if you could pardon their poor quality. In those days I was afflicted by the overt use of effects, and for the life of me, I could not fish out the original frames.
It is a given that you will meet more cows and sheep on the Isle of Skye than your own fellow creatures. And you know what, I was content with that. No intelligent questions to deal with, no curiosities to fend off, nil judgement…it is easy to bask in the company of the four-legged beauties of this world. In the backdrop, the blue stretch of the Sea of the Hebrides, in the foreground a whitewashed cottage or two and a couple more stone cottages with thatched roofs on open grasslands.
There’s a cluster of stone cottages on Kilmuir for the history buff. The Museum of Island Life. An old croft, barn, smithy and weaver’s cottage. Inside they have recreated the picture of how a highlander and his family would have lived in the old days. When there was no electricity – even now on one of those islands on the Outer Hebrides they do not have electricity, if you will believe that – when life was hedged in by the simple chores of existence.
In his typically single-room home, after a long day of eking out a hard living, the highlander would have sat around a cosy peat fire with his family, reading well-thumbed copies of Gaelic bible, possibly instructing the children in the art of playing the bagpipe or the harp, the women busy sewing bed linen, cooking and performing other such household chores. Entertainment would have been cèilidh – gatherings in Gaelic culture where storytelling, dancing and singing form an intrinsic part of merry evenings. Tankards of home-brewed ale or drams of whisky would have made the rounds. It spoke of a hardy life, one of self-sustenance, and as a traveller you might view it with dewy eyes, but how lonely life must have been and still is for the islander… the kind of loneliness that is bound to get to you unless you are born into this way of life, in which case any other way of living would surely be unbearable.
There is also buried nearby that great icon of Skye, Flora Macdonald. The rescuer of Prince Bonnie Charlie. A woman whose story inspires this woman sitting in the middle of the 21st century.
We pottered through Portree (the Pride of Portree, if you get the quidditch ref., played for this very village), which happens to be the single biggest settlement on the isle and its capital. Then onto the pride of Trotternish, a landslip. Pinnacles, cliffs, buttresses, gullies, waterfalls. An antiquated landscape that reinforces that it has been shaped by the elements for more years than the mind can grasp.
Meet Bodach an Stòrr. Scottish Gaelic for Old Man of Storr. A giant who was buried on the peninsula and his thumb stuck out. An ancient landslide that left jagged ridges sticking out like digits. Moody and mysterious even on a sunny day, stoking the imagination with possibilities. And that wonderful escarpment, the Quiraing, which looks like someone decided to unfurl a length of cloth and it froze with the folds in place. Folds that helped in the concealment of cattle from Viking raiders once. More Highland cattle nestling at the foot of the round-topped slopes of the Red Cuillin.
Beaches with prehistoric footprints of dinosaurs and towering above them vertical columns of basalt that look like they have been pleated together like a tucked kilt. So the name Kilt Rock. And streaming down it, waterfalls that free fall into the turquoise waters of the Sound of Raasay below. To add to the overall effect, a bagpiper braving the cold wind to pipe out tunes that tear through the isolation with a haunting certainty.
A rugged land of crofts, waterfalls, sleeping giants, princes, shaggy cows and whisky. Is it any wonder that fairies people this remote land where you are stuck in time?