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

 

 

 

Eilean Donan

The bagpiper boy at a 13th century castle in the village of Dornie in Scotland. We met this young and earnest person bagpiping away like he had done it all his life during Easter break three years ago.

In the conversation that ensued once he had stopped for a break, it turned out that his surname was Mackenzie. “But a cannae tell ye for sure that a am fae yon family that lived in the castle,” he added in his soft burr. He was referring to the Clan Mackenzie who had long held the castle as their domain along with their allies, the Clan MacRae which owns the castle today.

His backdrop possibly could not be more dramatic as the castle of Eilean Donan, named after a Gaelic priest called Donnán who is supposed to have established a church on this island before he was martyred. The castle was built upon the small tidal island with the scenic Kintail ranges in its backdrop. Its main purpose was to be a fortification against Viking raids in those early times, but after, it went through the turbulent Jacobite rebellion period that haunts Scottish history and was abandoned for 200 years post the rebellion.

How to Get There: The preferred mode of travel is a car. Hire one from Glasgow and drive down to the castle via the A82 or A9. You are looking at a time span of roughly 4 hours. There are bus tours that bring you to the castle too from Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow. For train journeys, you can start with a train from Inverness, take another train to the Kyle of Lochalsh and finally a taxi or bus to Eilean Donan, because if you did plan to walk from the Kyle of Lochalsh, you would be on the road for a couple of hours. I repeat, a car would really be your most hassle-free option.

Best time to be there: Sunset. You see why?

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Entrance price: £7.50. Worth it. The MacRae descendant who bought and restored the castle in the 90s has done a bang-up job. You will see life recreated as it must have been once inside the castle.

Opening Times: Between 10am-to 6pm during high season (March-October). Otherwise it is open between 10am-4pm.

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Have you been to the dreamy Eilean Donan?