The Sleat

Skuyö. A word that the Vikings bequeathed upon Skye as the ‘isle of clouds’. Wreathed in mist. Mystical. The Vikings must have been enchanted by it, you would think, when they invaded it towards the end of the 8th century.

On that isle of black and red Munros, jagged and gentle in parts, rising out of the land itself, an ancient land mired in bog and peat where purple heather thrives and turquoise fairy pools abound, the mist moves in fast. Even as you are exposed to the relentlessness of nature, under leaden skies when mist wraps itself around the peaks and hovers above the lochs, it is easy to be whisked into the kind of land that rests between the foxed pages of dusty tomes.

But the day on which we set off for the peninsula of Sleat (pronounced Slate), the sun was the willing fifth to our party of four. Serpentine A-roads skirted around lochs, the Munros dipped their feet into the waters, salmon farms with circular pens showed up alongside, then suddenly a grinding halt. A two-hour traffic jam, sandwiched between rows of cars, caravans and motorhomes.

Time for some banter with strangers. Nothing alleviates a dull situation better than a smidgen of humour. One of the friends demanded a wee, desperately. Desperate measures in this case meant rolling down into the loch, climbing the grassy slope by the road, or asking the owner of a motorhome to allow a stranger into his loo. There was really but one option if you think of it.

Eventually we were diverted. There had been a fatal accident earlier that morning. A motorcyclist had died. Reminders issued by life, of our mortality, from time to time.

‘His loss is our gain,’ observed one of our group. A chance remark referring to the longer and more scenic drive which we had embarked upon as a result of the diversion. Yet there it was. A remark that did weigh me down. Blinders in place, this is how we humans make our way towards happiness with single-minded determination – so focused that we cannot take a moment to feel the loss of a life.

By the time we reached the Sound of Sleat that flows between the isle and the mainland of Scotland, all Adi wanted was some shut-eye. It can get intensely tiring to chart those narrow roads when you are assisted by three ebullient co-passengers. He took us to the Armadale Castle, the erstwhile country home of the MacDonald clan, where he decided to sleep and get rid of us at the same time (calling it a bonus of sorts). We pottered around the castle.

I walked through a small portion of the 20,000-acre estate, exploring trails which lead into sun-dappled woods that are home to deer and skylarks and gannets and sea eagles. It was silent. Occasionally the chittering of birds yet the kind of silence where you can hear yourself think.

Sleat is the metaphorical lower claw of the isle radiating into the Sea of Hebrides and across the Sound you can see the peninsula of Knoydart on the mainland. There I stood outside the crumbling mock-style castle facade gazing upon the blue waters of the Sound, the hills rambling off unevenly across the horizon. The castle traces its history back to the 1790s when it was built yet it was abandoned by the clan later on. I wonder why. Makes the mind go places. I spent that early evening mooching around the estate on my own letting the mind travel as I came upon a part in its lush garden that made the heart thrill. A belt of daffodils. Sunny, yellow heads nodding away in the breeze that at once made me less forlorn.

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Salmon farms 
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Where travellers take time off to stare at the waters and reflect upon the vagaries of life.
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Crofts
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Lochs and the Cuillin

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The poetry of the Red Cuillin
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Dear Met Office, take that.

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Explorers
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Wild straggly beauty
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The crofting life
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The Sleat
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The Sound of Sleat
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Armadale Castle
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View from the castle of the Sound and Knoydart on the mainland
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The woods behind the castle

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Birches and more birches tower above you

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Trotting Around Trotternish

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?

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Kilmuir
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The Museum of Island Life
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On Kilmuir he sways to the tune of the wind in the grass
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Sepia tones
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The Outer Isles across Kilmuir
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Beinn Edra, the highest point on the Trotternish Ridge.
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Red Cuillin
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Gorse

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Dreamy noons
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The Cuillin
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Portree
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Scottish Gaelic bands in the house
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Mealt Waterfall with Kilt Rock in the backdrop.
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Erstwhile stomping grounds of dinosaurs and now that of the bagpiper and the traveller
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Curious inhabitants of the Cuillin

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Heavens, I Was Wallowing in Whisky

My former editor insisted one day that I write a story on single malt whisky. Now I have never been one for whisky, let alone pretensions of knowing one single malt from another. Plus I was young and callow. You know how youth will have its way and make you feel like you are all-knowing. I was always ready to take on any subject, learn a bit along the way, dream of new professions as a result, but this was a task I was not equal to. I did not Like whisky. There I have said it. Have my head, you there nursing the tan liquid in your glass. But an editor shall not be denied his idea and so I trudged to a few whisky bars in Delhi, letting many a dram of single malt dribble down the throat, leaving in their wake a warm burn.

I toodled back to office after the legwork and wrote a piece. Even as I drummed the words out, I knew I was delivering drivel. My editor changed every word in the copy – he knew his whisky – and I could not fathom why he could not have undertaken it in the first place. Naturally, I did not want the byline. But as a junior correspondent there is only that much you can do.

When the story saw the light of day, the CEO and owner of the newspaper – your atypical cigar-smoking, whisky-swigging media baron – called up my editor. He was aghast. Bad story about whisky! Unpardonable stuff. But here was the silver lining. My editor called me into his cabin to let me know about the gravity of the call. Involuntarily the words left my mouth, ‘But it is your story P. The idea And the words.’

Years later I was in the land of that earthy brand of single malt, Talisker, that Robert Louis Stevenson had declared ‘the king o’ drinks’.

In the boggy landscape of Carbost where myrtle grows thick and furious, the smell of peat palpable in the air, we made our way to an almost two-century-old distillery. Adi loves his single malt and would not be denied a visit to the Talisker Distillery.  So there I was, the same person who a few years ago had blanched at the taste of whisky, tasting an aged single malt and actually appreciating it. The classic 10-year-old Talisker.

If you tell me now that I was hallucinating, I might just believe you. But it tasted robust. Peppery and spicy. A few sips and I could think of it being paired with a strong meat. Not for the weak-hearted.

Maybe it was the atmosphere – the land itself had got to me. For Talisker is indelibly linked with the landscape of Skye and I was experiencing a way of life. That good ol’ London lover, who had decided for all of us that if we are tired of London we must be tired of life – yes indeed, Dr Samuel Johnson (Cuptain Cupcake shall have a cupcake ready for clever you) – had travelled to the western islands in 1773. He had made notes about the morning habit of a Scot. “A man of the Hebrides, for of the women’s diet I can give no account, as soon as he appears in the morning, swallows a glass of whisky.” And how Johnson himself loved his dram of Talisker.

At the distillery, an islander told us stories. Of the distillery, of liquor brewed the traditional way, the peaty nature of the brew. That the dark notes of Talisker are derived from the water that flows over peat and down the summit of Cnoc nan Speireag (translated means ‘Sparrowhawk Hill’).

The warm sensation of Talisker making my toes curl, I could well believe in fairies, I will have you know. We devoured salmon baps at a nearby oyster farm, regardless of the ammoniac vapour of seafood, and sped off to chase fairies in the Waternish peninsula.

Fairies are a part of the peninsular charm of the area. There is a fairy bridge, some fairy pools and then Dunvegan Castle, the seat of the MacLeods, where a fairy queen is supposed to have left behind her flag as token of her presence in the world. Fight that. She is said to have married one of the MacLeod chiefs and one day walked out on him. I wonder, could it have been the haggis that did it?

On a more upsetting note, the otters eluded us at the coral beach near Dunvegan. A woman at the tea shop nearby had told us gleefully about them, the whiskered boys who like to float on their back in the waters there. But not a single one showed up even though we stayed hours on the beach catching the glow of the setting sun upon the long grass that climbs over the hill leading to the white crescent of the beach, the ebb and flow of crystal clear water that glinted a heartwarming shade of turquoise and the strange bleached bones of Maërl, a red coralline seaweed that gets bleached by the sun and collects on the shore.

But I will not be denied an otter. So when I met Oscar at a small farm shop in a crofting village that sits in the shadow of the mighty Cuillins, he came home with me. Now he just makes the occasional trip to Skye when he needs his diet of wild fish.

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Carbost

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The only distillery on the Isle of Skye
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Whiskered fella of Talisker
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Non-whiskered fella at Talisker, oddly exultant about something
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The Red Cuillin

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Claigan 
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That tiny structure sticking out right at the end is Dunvegan Castle
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The coral beach at Claigan
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The walk to the beach through little piles of cow dung and kissing gates
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Dessicated bits of Maërl and a bit of cheesiness

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Meet Oscar. Here he is shamelessly flaunting his catch of the day. Then he shall slip it quietly into his satchel. 
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Oscar’s Skye home

Ruined Crofts on Sea Lochs

I was in a faraway land, the rays of the morning sun bathing me oh so softly. I stood by the burn that April day, the sound of the gushing water in my ears, and chirped out ‘howdy munchkins’ to the startled sheep. The whole flock started and stared for a few seconds at the intrusion. If their baa could have been translated into humanspeak, it would surely have run along the lines of, ‘Look ye, a streenger’, the Scottish burr coming through strong. They are Highlanders too, you know. Just a more fleecy variety, but I bet if we had a conversation they would let me know that they are passionate about the land too. They live off it. Literally.

The moorland heather had yet to shake off its brown winter coat, turn that hue of purple which enchants the eye. Dry stone walls ran along the gorge and burn, keeping it all in. The remnants of a simple crofting life. Our cottage was part of a croft sprawled over 17 acres of grassland. The ruins of a crofter’s cottage and some outbuildings sat nearby.

The word ‘croft’ is a part of the landscape of Skye. Simply put, it is land fenced off by regulations – and it is a legacy of the troubled past of the Highlands. A clutch of stories – quilted with heartache, aspiration, pride, defeat, devastation – revolve around it. And they are not myths or products of the imagination, mind you. In the late 17th century, in a standoff between the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths, the latter had a thumping win. The Roman Catholic Stuart king, James VII (of England and Ireland) and II (of Scotland), was deposed by his daughter Mary II and her Protestant Dutch husband, William III.

The Hanoverians sat upon the throne, and with that, the Jacobites came to the fore. The single-minded aim of their rebellions was to restore the Scottish Stuart kings to their ‘divine right’. Who cared about the writ of the Parliament? Not this devout lot who got their names from the Renaissance Latin word Jacobus for James. Thus, the supporters of James.

Now in Scottish Gaelic – which is sprinkled all over the isle – they have a word called cuimhnich. It means ‘remember’. The Skye folk remember. The entrance of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of the exiled James. This young man was deemed The Young Pretender, his father having been titled The Old Pretender to the throne. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived in Scotland and rallied an army around him to take on the king’s forces, and a year later, lost all at the historic Battle of Culloden but his life.

On the Waternish peninsula, where we were, the Bonnie Prince had been rowed over the waters, for refuge, by a brave young woman. Flora MacDonald is the famous daughter of the isle. She is straight out of the novels of Walter Scott where the feisty heroine makes you sit up and take notice. Though it must have been the other way around. Scott would have been inspired by her story when he set about writing his historical novels. It is reality, after all, that provides the best fodder for the imagination.

The Bonnie Prince fled to France but in his wake left devastation. His supporters, fierce clansmen, were decimated by the Cumberland Redcoats. Their graves lie in Culloden, marked by grave stones, grouped under the broad umbrella of their clan names.

The disbanded clansmen were hunted out. There was mayhem on the isle. Houses, boats and whole villages burnt. No wonder the Duke of Cumberland, the son of the reigning King George II, was nicknamed The Butcher as he went about systematically after the culture and language of the Highlanders. They were stripped of their tartans, the usage of Scottish Gaelic and their estates were annexed by the Crown.

Outsiders were made landlords of these estates. They rented out the infertile lands as crofts to tenants, formerly clansmen, chucked the rest from the land, driving them into small villages where they had to make their livelihood from fishing. This is also when there were mass immigrations of Scottish farmers to faraway lands – Australia, New Zealand and Nova Scotia.

So you see there is great heartache lodged into that beautiful landscape. You can hear the haunting strain in the ‘Skye Boat Song’, a Scottish folk number which derives the words from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem.

“Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.”

You must have heard it in Outlander.

We sat in the conservatory in the mornings, before setting out for our drives, and soaked up the view which was one for the books. The eye tumbled over the green squares and strips patchworking the length and breadth of the hills and rolled into the sea loch. Beyond the gentle dip of the slope lay the headland preceded by a  cluster of stone-washed cottages. In the evenings, we would sit outside the cottage with glasses of wine, by the sea, then lay back on the cold grass and stare at the stars as they popped up in the evening sky, one by one.

 

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Waternish Peninsula
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Solemn neighbours
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The conservatory of the cottage
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Views like these made it surreal
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Part of the crofting life
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Trawler on Loch Bay
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Sunsets in Waternish

The Road that Led to Skye

A one-of-a-kind road trip was on the charts that April in 2014. The kinds that throw up views like the one you see above, of the Red Cuillin, streaky cones of lava deposits thrown up by volcanic eruptions roughly 60 millions ago. Easter holidays were around the corner holding the promise of this remote and ancient landscape.

I had just returned home that spring, chuffed by a girly vacation at the time, made up of giggles, gelatos, ‘mamma mias‘ and wine by the sea in Sardinia, to a pouty husband and a trip to the upper reaches of Scotland, the day after. Anticipation is a sweet thing.

In the wee hours of the morning, accompanied by a couple of girl friends, Adi and I started for the Inner Hebridean island of Skye in our rented car. Located off the mainland of Scotland, Skye is shaped like the claws of a lobster. Or an isle with wings. You choose what takes your fancy.

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The distance from Northampton to the cottage that we had rented on the isle measured 570-odd miles. A matter of 11 hours if you travel at a stretch. But that can never be because there are the practical necessities of being human. Halting for loo, coffee and food breaks. So there we were, three exuberant girls and Adi. Incessant jabber and a spot of backseat driving too. You could almost hear the gnashing of my husband’s teeth (good thinking to pack in the tube of Sensodyne).

At Glasgow six hours later, we were delayed by the powers that held sway over us. A malignant anti-lock brake system made it necessary for us to stop at the Glasgow branch of the car rental agency. It was the last big stop because when you make a foray into the Hebridean islands you realise fast that you are alienated from everything except nature.

The veil of tiredness that had smothered the drive was lifted visibly once we entered the Highlands. We were back in that ancient land peppered by crumbling castles; roadside pipers bagpiping plaintive tunes atop hills that roll off into the glens; granny pines framing the roads and snow-capped mountains looming ahead. Such dreams are woven on the roads that take you through the Scottish Highlands.

Then there’s the possibility of encountering kelpies – those shape-shifting water spirits who inhabit the impossibly blue waters of the lochs – and the thrilling prospect of Nessie trundling across your path (yes, yes never give up on that old girl). Or being transported into another world peopled by bonnie princes and fierce clansmen. There is such poetry in the landscape. You see almost immediately why Sir Walter Scott wondered on paper, ‘Where is the coward that would not dare to fight for such a land as Scotland?’

Past the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, hamlets of the likes of Ardlui, the grand Ben Nevis, Fort William and we were finally on the Road to the Isles, the A830, that took us into Dornie to Eilean Donan. The sun had started the process of retiring for the day, in the backdrop of the castle, and with a touch of the alchemist turned the loch into a sheet of rippling gold.

Our brain fluids had meanwhile dribbled out, collecting into little pools at the bottom of our feet, but there it lay in front of us, the Skye Bridge, spanning over Loch Alsh into the Isle of Skye. Something had to be said for travelling in the year 2014 to Skye. A decade ago we would have had to pay a toll fare. There used to be a saying then, according to old-timers who did pay up the fare, per crossing: ‘Skye Bridge – the only place in the world where you get mugged And get a receipt.’

Forty minutes later after the beautiful crossing, driving up and down winding roads, we drew up outside our cottage on the Waternish peninsula to the spellbinding panorama of salmon pink skies tinged with lavender. The relentlessness of the past 14 hours was washed away by that view. Soon my head fell upon the soft pillow and as I slipped into blissful deep slumber to the gurgling sound of a stream gushing by, the sounds magnified by the silence of our surroundings, there was a momentary thrill that we had made it. That we were finally there in the heart of the wilderness.

 

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Ancient woods of pine
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Through the Highlands we pressed on.

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Loch Lomond
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The poetry of the Highlands
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Sunset at Eilean Donan
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Eilean Donan and the Kintail ranges
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The castle in daylight
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The laird pipes away
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Motto above the entrance to the castle in Gaelic. Translated it reads: ‘Whilst there is a MacRae inside, there will never be a Fraser outside.’
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Eilean Donan stands on a tidal island which offered perfect defence against raiding Vikings.
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Inside the castle
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I would suppose he is Saint Donnán of Eigg who brought Christianity to the Picts in medieval times. The castle is named for him because it is said that he had established a church on the island.
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Hearth and home
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The castle kitchen
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Skye Bridge
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Twilight gathers upon the Waternish Peninsula