It had rained so heavily the night before it had woken us both. There is something soothing and comforting about the sound of rain pattering on the windows, right? But battering on the windows… hm. A log fire would have helped set a cozy scene but that just wasn’t going to happen. We’d woken in a pastel orange room with flowers and love heart leaves drawn in thick black marker on the walls. We felt like exiles we’d said and so we’d decided after a few days at Broadford to go higher up to Portree where we hoped there would be a little more to occupy us.
The barman at the Broadford Hotel had recommended a walk up “Bienn na Caillich” (which means ‘Hill of the old woman’) He’d wet my appetite with stories of a Viking princes buried under the cairn at the top. I later found out it was a true story and though she actually was from Norwegian Viking aristocracy and had for some reason settled there, she was known by the Scotts as Saucy Mary and apparently a very powerful woman in the region at the time. We did walk out there but nothing I said could persuade Orsi to ascend the icy snow covered peak. So I channeled Neal Oliver all day again as I’d found out the eastern slope was called “Goir a Bhlair” which is Gaelic for ‘The field of battle” where the Clan Makinnon had decisively defeated the Vikings at the time of Saucy Mary, you do wonder about the complexities of what went on from the snippets of remembered history and brings home just how fleeting ones own life is, no matter how important you may feel what your doing is.
We’d sat in the Broadford hotel bar the night before, me tapping away Orsi searching for accommodation and planning what we’d do that week. The locals were very friendly. An old chap from Preston an X fisherman who had moved there with his wife, the stone faced lady who worked behind the bar, he was funny warm and welcoming. Next time we’re up there there’s a boat ride waiting for us across the Sound of Rassay, he gave us his card so we could find him
That morning we’d sat in that unloved backpackers waiting for the 11.40 bus up to Portree. The old chap from Blackpool was sharing his travel knowledge whether we liked it or not. When he’d gone we chatted with a sea Kayaker who also turned out to be from Blackpool, he was fascinating he talked about the ocean with a glint and a far away look in his eye, he was the real deal. It seemed Lancashire was slowly populating the highlands. We’d said our goodbyes to the dark haired damp looking Catalans who ran the place and ran for the bus.
It was a remarkable bus journey along the edge of the ocean through blink and you miss villages, Luib, Sconser and Sligachan and looking back down the lochs as the road rose the little white washed stone houses, seemed like white beads or pebbles strung on a dark tarmac string. My thoughts were still disturbed about the keys, I just couldn’t accept they were gone.
It was only a forty-minute drive, but as we stepped of the bus into Portree’s Somereid square it was obvious in that short drive we’d ascended into different territory, it would be hard to get lost in Portree.
The hostel was just around the corner, there was nobody at reception so I popped my head around into the large dinning room, 6 gas cookers around an island counter, pots and pans hung underneath like a curtain, a group of people were sat around a table they all stopped talking and looked over their shoulders at me quizzically.
“Just wondering if there is anybody here from reception” I said “I called yesterday about a room”
A chap called Pat jumped up and got us all sorted. There were no double rooms, he suggested a 4 bed room at £17 each a night as it was highly unlikely there’d be anybody else coming he’d said. The whole place was startlingly clean, cheerful and brightly painted in gloss reds, greens, yellows oranges blues pinks and purples, walls doors skirting boards furniture everything. We breathed out, we knew instantly we’d be there for a few days, possibly more.
Later we wandered around the town in a sort of daze letting the weight of what had happened down in Sallachy drop off our shoulders, just breathing out. We walked the coastal path. Met another amazing Robin that had bobbed up and just stood staring at me, actually locking eyes, it was remarkable and I’d not been able to get it off my mind as we walked on around the coast. Robins for courage right, we’d just had to go back with bread. I’d put the shot on instagram, a friend had commented “nice capture” but it had actually posed for me, I have all these shots of it looking directly at me. It then bobbed down right at my feet. If anything during this whole time picked us up it was the constant communication by the Robins everywhere we went. It really was remarkable.
We met the Hungarian chip shop guy down in the harbour who’d ended up there because of the love of a woman and had stayed on there when cupid had moved on.
We gravitated to “the Isles inn” on the Square where we met Steve Millar with his wonderful collie dogs Blaze and Leox, Blaze was quite famous even had his own calendar. We loved them and watching Steve’s gentleness and the love of his dogs through his hands
The Isles Inn’ was simply perfect, an open fire roaring in the grate, stone slab floors, Punk IPA, vegetarian Haggis, cozy and quiet, we gravitated there every evening moving always as close as we could get to that fire. We honestly needed its warmth and its hypnotic healing stillness, you know how it is sitting close and staring into a fire? dreamy peaceful and empty of thoughts, healing itself. Above the fireplace were two compelling framed pictures, one I guessed of Bonny Prince Charlie and the other of a lady who looked simply incredible, I’d gone across and asked the barman who she was.
“Flora Mcdonald” he said
“Who was she his lover?“ I’d asked
“That and more” he said blankly
We sat there looking up at the charismatic portrait, she was a real beauty. The pictures were placed as if looking across and inwards towards the fire, so as to suggest they were an item but it probably wasn’t a possibility that they could have been. Flora Macdonald was a Jacobite heroin and every inch of her looked the part but it was all by accident you see, but then they say there are no accidents, do you see where I’m going with this? Some things are meant to be.
In 1776 through various twists of fate she’d been living on the island of Benbecula in the outer Hebrides. In June of that year Bonnie Prince Charlie had showed up, on the run after the battle of Culloden seeking refuge and believe me you don’t just appear in this place unless you either have a reason or the fates insist. One of the Princes companions a distant relative of hers had asked if she would help the Prince escape; after some thought she’d agreed. She would at a later date tell the Prince of Wales she acted purely from charity, that she’d simply felt sorry Charles Edward and would have done the same for him
Her step father Hugh MacDonald, who had abducted her mother and married her when her husband, Flora’s father had died, was the commander of the local militia on the island, she’d persuaded him to give her a passes for a journey over to the mainland for herself, a servant and a maid Betty Burke and a boats crew of six men. The Prince was famously disguised as Betty Burke and unknown to her step father they set sail and landed at Skye eventually making their way to Portree, but staying hidden for a time until it was arranged by Jacobite sympathizers there for the prince to be taken to a place called Glam on the Isle or Rassey. The distances involved and the effort are amazing. You didn’t just pop across from these places. Finally on 20th September that year after 5 months on the run the Bonnie Prince boarded the French Frigate L’Hereux and left the highlands and the dream of a Stuart king back on the throne; arriving safely back in France, never to return
Flora was imprisoned in the Tower of London for helping the Prince escape. But was released in 1747 at the age of 28 Soon after she married Allan MacDonald a Captain in the British army and lived in Flodigary on Skye for the next 22 years raising 5 sons and 2 daughters
You’d think that might be enough but then in 1774 the family decided to emigrate to North Carolina where they’d bought land and where her husband served in the British forces as a Captain in the war of independence. He was then captured after the British defeat at the battle of Moors Creek Bridge 1776. She was eventually reunited with him 2 years later but as all their land and possessions had been taken by the revolutionary’s Flora headed back to Skye in 1779 but during their passage their ship was attacked by privateers, she’d apparently refused to leave the deck and was wounded in the arm. Allan her husband finally arrived back in the highlands a few years later reclaiming the family estate where she eventually died at Kingsburgh Skye in 1790 aged 68. What a life, what a woman. We loved Flora MacDonald
Orsi then found out that her grave was on Skye in a place called Kilmuir on the most northerly point of the island, we just had to go. We set off next day it was a rough journey up there, we loved it though, everythingso dramatic from the creaking jarring and shaking of the bus to the bus drivers grim stone face and outside wild and desolate in that late November weather, both of were glued to the windows, peering through the filth and dirt stained windows at the scattering of white stone houses and the jagged line of the mountains
We’d stepped off the bus and watched with some unease as it driving down and out of view along that lonely road, the bitter biting winds slammed into us, straight off the sea they call ‘The Minch’, the snow covered mountains of the islands of Uist and Lewis clearly visible across the waters, it numbed our fingers before we’d even got across the road where the museum of the highlands stood empty and deserted, its thatched cottages with their stone weights on strings to keep the wind from stealing them away. The famous graveyard visible just a few hundred yards further along a dirt road.
The monument to Flora McDonald is huge, towering over everything, she really had become a heroine for the Jacobite’s and their melancholy. It was an impressive atmospheric place, I’d loved to have stayed longer but we were simply numb with cold, it was just the wrong time of year, the people who had lived up there must have been so tough and hardy, no doubt about that.
All across the land and along the roads in Skye are the overgrown collapsed stone remains of crofters cottages, slowly bringing home the reality of another historical calamity “the clearances” into a persons consciousness. Over a 100 year period in the 18th and 19th century a community had been devastated, Scottish and Gaelic culture shattered. The ruins all across the highlands were saddening, a reminder of what had once obviously been a thriving place, shame on the Clan Chiefs and their hypocrisy for selling out and shame on the British aristocracy and the government for allowing it to happen. I haven’t the time or space right now to write about it, it’s a complex story of betrayal greed and politics, nothing new there, but looking out onto all those ruined cottages and collapsed walls, was deeply saddening, it provoked a persons thoughts if you stood long enough to notice them sinking further under the moss and further back in time, a tragedy and to be honest, a disgrace.
We’d waited nervously for a bus to come the other way and the ride to Staffin. It was a relief when it appeared. The bus drivers southern English accent jarred us, he was so disarmingly happy, Orsi had ear wigged him chatting all the whole way along. Apparently he and his wife had started a dance company a few years ago called “Strictly Dancing” and done very well. A few years later out of the blue the BBC had written to him saying that he had no right to use the name and would he desist. He’d pondered and had written back informing them that in fact he owned the name. He’d then been invited to a few meetings in London where they’d eventually come away with licensing deal and a substantial sum to be paid to them ever year, they were basically made. He chatted away with that ‘life is good’ type of vibe, gave us cheerful advice over his shoulder about where to get a good coffee when we got off the bus, as we passed by the old lady who he’d been telling his story too she’d said to him
“So what are you doing up here driving a bus around northern Skye for?”
He’d said simply and happily “Well…… its something to do”
At Staffin we walked up to the Colomba 1400 center where we’d been directed had a coffee and caught up with the outside world, making plans. I’d spied a path that led up to the cliffs, a girl on reception told me it led all the way down to the beech, Orsi was heavy with apprehension, I’m always trying to get out there, she is always trying to stay on the path, that day I was having none of it
We came up and out on top of the cliffs, it was incredible, the wind the sheer scale, the elements, the wild raging sea below, we were startled. We made our way down excitedly, I made a bee line straight for the rocks and the spray at the edge of the ocean where the waves crashed in and up in funnels and explosions of foam against the black rocks, it was just exactly what I needed. We had to catch the last bus back to Portree so unfortunately we only had half an hour. I stayed until the very last second, paid my respects then caught up with Orsi and scrambled back up the cliffs and over to the bus stop
Another day we went out to the Coral beach at Dunvegan after a quick stop in at the wonderful Portree bakery with its bridies, oatcakes cheese and onion twists, scotch pies with “25% Scottish beef” in them. There was always a queue of polite but expectant school kids or locals whilst three or four rounded ladies served up the tasty goods with warmth and manners, an excellent place
From the bus stop at Dunvegan it was a 10-mile walk there and back. The beach when we got there was a remarkable place, a white stain, there in the middle of all that ancient black jagged rocks, and close up it had an almost tropical feeling, except of course it wasn’t tropical and although called Coral Beach is actually made up of desiccated sun bleached algae, it was fascinating
On the way back Orsi walked the tarmac road but it had begun to annoy me so I cut off over the hills and down along the coast enjoying the space wandering on my own for a while amongst the rocks and the winds. I climbed back up later and met up as it was our dear friend Jack’s funeral in Torque at 2pm that day. We walked back the rest of the way quietly together tuning in and sending to him and of course to Sheila and Anne. We certainly connected, I felt him pop in and then break away in a spiral as we walked on slowly and naturally we just began chatting again.
It was dark when we got back into Portree. I remember we sat in the kitchen that evening and watched open mouthed and astonished as a group of Japanese guys attempted to cook an egg, fat and water exploding in clouds of steam and flames, the clean air of the hostel suddenly saturated with burnt oil and burnt egg and though they’d not flinched as they were spattered with boiling oil we noted the next night they’d all opted for Chinese take away from the “Fat Panda” around the corner.
We’d been told of a traditional Highlands three piece in a pub down the road so popped in on another night. It was quite a thing to witness. Two accordion players and a snare drum player sat in a corner the stone dead quiet pub, all just sort of looking at the floor, whilst Orsi, Steve Miller, Blaze Leox and I looked on smiling, us clapping enthusiastically and the dogs running for the ball we threw for them between each song. I think that sort of enthusiasm can sometimes make a quiet room seem emptier and I think perhaps they may have preferred us to just go away and let them get on with it amongst themselves
We’d been up in Skye for five days and contemplated staying for another but figured if the keys came on Monday we couldn’t just sweep in pick them up and say goodbye, so we deiced to go back next day on the Sunday, optimistic they would arrive on the Monday or at least i’d find the ones i’d dropped.
Next day we caught the bus going south, it isn’t cheep to travel up there we paid £5.50 for 10-minute drive to Sligachan where we’d found out there was a psychic event at the only hotel in the village, well actually it was simply a cross roads. It seemed perfect as Irene and Jeff would be passing by later and we could wait enjoy the event and see how it was done up there. We’d had an interesting morning there and later a great day with them, driving right out to the ruins of the Old Macdonalds castle out near Tokavaig then back to the mainland and up to Sallachy
It was and I am sure always will be good to see Irene, Jeff too. We got back to her cozy clean home on the mountainside in darkness that night. The weather had been very mild so far considering it was now the 2nd of December. Friends had been sending us pictures from Hungary, southern England, France, and the Alps the snow had arrived there it seemed, but not in the highlands, not just yet, benefits of that Gulf stream apparently, it can be quite mild, but is usually wet.
We sat up late that night, Doobie had left the metal detector for us to use until the new set of keys arrived, we’d checked the tides and next day it would be unusually low again as the full moon reach its “pedigree” or “super moon” on the morning of Monday the 4th December meaning it would be much closer to earth than normal and its nearest point would be right above Scotland, so we were told. The tide in Loch Long had been very gentle so I was still optimistic we’d find the lost keys. I was tugging to get down there again. I still hadn’t been able to let go of the idea that the keys were lost forever. I felt sure we’d find them on that low tide.
Never give up, never never never, give up. Right?