Skye’s The LimitWritten by John Macpherson
Need a wee break from all that Brexit nonsense? This might be for you. Untaxing, easy on the eye and no unforeseen problems.
I took a few days off last week and went to the Isle of Skye. For those of you uncertain where Skye is, it lies off Scotland’s west coast. It’s big, the second largest island in Scotland (after Lewis & Harris in the Western Isles) around 80km long and 40km wide, and covers 1,656 KM Sq.
The deeply indented and very rugged coastline, with its numerous sea lochs, is long, stretching 650km, long enough to entertain coastal ramblers for several weeks, months or even years depending on your agility. It’s highest point, Sgurr Alasdair, is a 993m lump of scary jaggy rock, part of the Black Cuillin Mountains which dominate the island.
It would be fair to say Skye is impressive. Although that is, in fact, an understatement.
It attracts sea kayakers, climbers, cyclists, sailors, wildlife enthusiasts, lots of photographers and people who just stand and gape. There are several honeypot areas, which I have often visited, such as Fairy Pools, Elgol, Old Man of Storr and the Quirang but this time I was determined to avoid the crowds, stare at the sea, and see what passed my way. With high pressure building it was forecast to be sunshine all weekend, warm days and bitterly cold nights.
As a Lochaber native and well-used to grey skies and rain, my preference for photography, particularly on the west coast, is to have some ‘interesting’ weather: scudding clouds, shafts of light, rainbows and sweeping showers of snow or rain to make stuff glow. But this was going to be sunshine all the way, and I was going to have to put up with that, like it or not, and try to make the best of it!
Anyway, here’s some pictures. I’m not one for all that ‘highland wilderness’ malarkey, it’s not a wilderness, its a managed landscape that at its heart supports people. You can easily make it look ‘wildernessy’ but that just depends on the direction you point the camera and the things you choose to ignore. It is certainly ‘wild’ but that’s a totally different thing.
The personal challenge I’d set myself was to try to show that ‘wildness’ but wherever possible, to allude to the human presence that is never far away, intimately bound to the landscape. Sometimes that presence is overt, at other times it’s less obvious, simply time-worn scars of past human endeavours which are all but forgotten. And I have to confess I like that often-hidden ‘story of landscape’, it makes you look more closely.
So although these are just pictures, many also contain stories, and if you’ve never been to Skye, maybe this will tip you into making a trip, to read those tales for yourself, and learn a little of the land.
Be warned though, Skye is deceptively big, it’s time-consuming to do it any justice, and it’s addictive. You’ll want more…
I spoke briefly with James Sheene, who was doing pre-season maintenance & repairs on his boat in Portree.
“I hope you’ve got good sun screen on!” I shouted.
“I’m making the most of this!” came the jovial reply.
“Is this major surgery you’re doing?” I asked
“Nah, just some repairs, to the roof and a few other bits. Need to get some glassfibre on it whilst its warm and dry…”
“Is it a full-time working boat?” I enquired
“I wish, no its just a hobby of sorts. I built it myself, had a few decades of use out of it so far. I have a few creels I drop but just for my own benefit, I’m not selling anything. I love being out on the water, the stuff you see. Sea eagles, seals, birds all sorts. Watched a few killer whales one day taking seals off the top end of Raasay. One came right out of the water with a seal in its mouth. Scary stuff, but they’ll no harm people. Great to see!”
I left him to his labours, and headed on up the coast.
Driving along the north end of the island I spotted a pyramid, bright yellow and incongruous, and as I got closer I realised it was wood. Across the single track road opposite it was a man cutting up logs, and as I passed I shouted through my open window “Is that your log stack?” and he smiled and shouted “YES!”
I stopped. “Hi I’m John, do you mind if I photograph your pyramid?”
Not at all he said, and introduced himself, Glyn Sanderson.
He explained that he orders a lorry load of whole logs, spends the time cutting and splitting and then sells them bagged to whomever is passing.
“It’s good fun, keeps me outside and fit, and I get to talk to folks! If its a quiet afternoon and nobody is stopping I just amble across the road in front of cars with a barrow of logs and they have to stop, then I get a blether!”
“Aha sort of ambushing people then eh!” I joked.
I complimented him on his stack, which I thought rather impressive, and we swapped stories for the next wee while.
I spent the night on a hilltop near Duntulm, spectacular views north, east and west. The wind was bitterly cold and the ocean was sighing far below me. The low evening light glancing across the landscape revealed shape and shadow, marking lazy beds, signs of agricultural use over hundreds of years. The sun dipped, sea haze obscuring the distant coast of Wester Ross and Sutherland. But then as the sunlight’s angle changed, one after another tiny points of brilliant golden light sparkled to the east, sun reflecting on the windows of individual houses, a coincidence of window angle and light, marking each village. Like some ‘Lord of The Rings’ procession of signal fires the sparkles spread along the coast fading into distance and then extinguished as the sun vanished.
As it grew darker the wind dropped and the deep resonant thud of a marine diesel engine far out at sea betrayed the presence of a fishing boat, dropping a lazy trawl in the Minch. All around me left and right new lights blinked – the lighthouse on Rona, another on Red Point, smaller lights on Trodday and others far off on the Western Isles glinting in the growing gloom. Like the ancient marks made by farmers in the landscape, their field boundaries revealed by fading light, the lighthouses mark the boundaries of the sea, their blinking lights painting undulating lines across the furrowed ocean.
I had sat enthralled through several hours of, quite simply, light, just light, shaping landscape, reflecting settlement, protecting seamen.
I slept sound, warm, and woke early, pre-dawn. The sea was still. Sunrise was a mad splatter of light that spilled over the Wester Ross mountains. One by one small fishing boats became visible on the vast swathe of sea below me. Raucous calls distracted me as nesting ravens fell swooping from the steep sea cliffs below me and soared off to hunt.
I watched them climb and dive, jet black feathers sheening in the low warm light, eyes glinting now and then. They checked me out, then dived off to roll and fly upside down, lower beak uppermost, and dropped out of sight only to reappear behind me crrrrrawwwwing as they warmed.
Uig village is also the ferry terminal for the Western Isles ferry. Sea fog was rolling in, the foghorn further along the coast blaring unseen in the grey. The first tendrils spilled over the hillside above Uig. A family from the Far East were taking photographs at the viewpoint. I joined them for the show and bade them hello.
“Scyusa me sir” said the man in fractured English. “Wha issa tha on hiiiside there?” and pointed concernedly at the fog.
“It’s sea fog” I replied “…it’s rolling in from the Atlantic, behind the hill where I’ve just come from its very thick and the fog horn is sounding, you can just hear it…”
He looked perplexed. Thought for a moment and then replied rolling my explanation around on his tongue “…seefaaaag? seefaaaag? …was isss seefaaaag? We need concerned, iss safe seefaaag?”
I smiled broadly, reassuringly and offered “…yes you’ll be fine…we’ll all be quite safe…it’s natural…its just fog…mist….from the warmer air passing over the cooler sea.”
His face lit up with joy “AH FOG FOG…I see…only FOG!” he exclaimed and turned to his anxious companions and relayed the information in their native tongue, the word ‘fog’ pronounced in English with great emphasis. At which they all smiled towards me, relaxed and settled to enjoy the show. It was great to see visitors stumbling into natural phenomenon that went beyond their normal experience, and revelling in the sight.
We shared the moment and all laughed and oohhed and aaahed as the land was swallowed.
I finished my wander with a hasty detour into Glen Brittle.
It’s a few years since I’ve been there. It never fails to impress. I dutifully photographed the mountains and then turned my back on them and fought my way into a stand of plantation forestry. Severe gales over the last few years have destroyed huge swathes of woodland along the West Coast, bowling ball winds tumbling skittletrees all around.
The damage was considerable. I sat on a fractured trunk, once vertical now horizontal, until my eyes became accustomed to the gloom. And found a pattern. An X like some giant kiss, and behind it more X’s each one smaller and smaller.
Quite apt I thought, and headed home.