The Red Cuillin from the summit of Bla Bheinn
WE sat above the grueing, gurgling waters of the Minch at the very northern tip of the Isle of Skye. Beyond the shoreline lay the small islands of Fladda-chuain and Eilean Trodday and beyond those rocky outposts, lying in dim outline against the horizon, lay Scalpay and the hills of Harris. We had come to Rubha Hunish to begin a television walk for BBC Scotland that would take me through the Isle of Skye, a journey on foot that would link two of the most impressive landscapes in Scotland – the Trotternish ridge and the Cuillin.
I knew Skye reasonably well. Numerous sorties to the Cuillin had become pilgrimages over the years – where else in the UK can one pay homage to the Norse/Celtic mountain gods? And I had tramped the length of the Trotternish ridge some 30 years ago, but it’s only in recent years that I began peeking around the corners of these two landscapes, peering over the horizons of the pinnacled ridges so see what lay beyond. I had become intrigued by my new discoveries, enthralled by the history and the wildlife and the geology and the Celtic heritage of this island that once upon a time, in the Mesolithic period, would have been a very desirable location to live, a wooded place of richness, with a Mediterranean climate, seas full of fish and forests full of animals. But volcanic activity and the scourings and gougings of the glaciers had changed the face of the land. Just as the two major landscapes of Skye were linked geologically, the time had come, I decided, to link them together in a long walk.
Everyone knows about the Skye Cuillin. The savage grandeur of these Alpine-looking mountains is world famous and Munro-baggers know that these will be the most technical hills they will have to climb. But immediately to the south of us lay a rolling escarpment of basalt, the “best high level promenade in Scotland” as it was described by Sheriff Alexander Nicolson away back in the nineteenth century. These are the hills of Trotternish, the green hills that look to the tumbled landscapes of mainland Scotland.
We intended to spend the night here at Rubha Huinish, at the tip of the ridges’ northern finger, a wild and remote camp on a grassy headland, with the expanse of sea on three sides. After supper, before we crept into our tents for the night, we took a short stroll to the rocky headland and gazed out to sea for a time – we had been told this was a prime spot for watching Minke whales. Within minutes of settling down someone yelled “Yar she blows”, or words to that effect, and sure enough, about a hundred metres offshore, slicing though the agitated sea surface, we saw the arched shape and fin of one of these incredible sea mammals.
It may not have been watching Humpback whales off Vancouver Island or kayaking with Orcas off the coast of Alaska but watching these Minke whales had a curious effect on us. We all walked back to our tents in a state of mild euphoria, that condition of heightened awareness we reach when we are fortunate enough to encounter animals that are truly wild. Here we were, a hard-bitten, seen-it-all television crew, five grown men all experienced in the ways and sights of the outdoors, yet we were as thrilled as children, as excited as puppies.
Not for the first time, I lay in my tent and pondered on this curious reaction to seeing nature in the raw. It seems that we are so removed nowadays from the sights and sounds of nature that any close encounter with wildlife gets us really excited. In watching a whale arching into its dive, or wondering at the majestic flight of an eagle it would appear we become aware of the simple magic of the moment, an instinctive recognition of the existence of order, a determined pattern behind the behaviour of things, a celebration of order and harmony.
Over the years I’ve been blessed with several face-to face encounters with wild animals – bears, wolves, coyotes and here at home smaller but no less exciting species like otters and badgers. All of them have given me a sense of beauty and magic, sensations that never fail to fill me with hope and optimism, feelings that can be curiously rare in a sometimes dreary world.
I think we all slipped into our sleeping bags that night with a renewed awareness that even in the gathering dusk we had witnessed something of rare beauty, all the more astonishing because the sighting was so unexpected, as was its effect on us. But this awareness isn’t a contemporary phenomenon. Ancient Celtic spirituality was based on a deep connection with the natural world, and the Celts had an intellectual curiosity with all the creatures they shared their lives with. Perhaps our sighting of the Minke whale stirred some ancient memory of Manannan mac Llyr, the sea god, the northern equivalent of the Greek deity Poseidon?
The Celts believed in an Otherworld, a realm of the imagination where your mind could expand and flow, circle and explore. This realm of the mind could be entered by anyone who knew the entrance, the portal to this world of dreams, and the Celtic people continuously watched out for signs that an entrance to the Otherworld was at hand. One of these portals was through the eyes of a wild animal, an animal that would look at you and invite you to follow it…
Perhaps some enduring connection still haunts us through the sightings of wild animals, perhaps this euphoria that we felt as we trekked back to our tents on Rubha Hunish was a link to the subtle, evanescent place that our ancestors cherished as a realm of treasure and inspiration. Little did I know at that early point in our walk through Skye that in the days to come I was to experience this sense of delight with the natural world over and over again. Little did I realize how much of that ancient Celtic spirit still flows around the hills and glens of this fabulous island.
One of these curious “Celtic connections” occurred after I had climbed Bla Bheinn. I had wandered round the head of Loch Slapin, agitating a flock of oyster catchers who didn’t mind showing their annoyance with some high-pitched shrieking, and stopped in the shade of some trees as I approached the village of Torrin. Lying on a bed of Durness limestone, which accounts for the surrounding greenery, there’s been a community here at Torrin for over 2000 years and our Celtic ancestors would have treasured the fertility of the place. The word ‘druid’ comes from the Celtic words for oak tree – duir, and knowledge – wid. The oak has a special significance – it was thought to be a portal to sacred knowledge. Druids also tended to meet in woodland groves and they often slept on beds made from rowan (which was sacred to the triple-goddess Brigid, and used as a protection against enchantment) to try and induce prophetic visions. Hazel was used in much the same way.
Druids were a hereditary class of priests and magicians who characterised early Indo-European societies. They were the Celtic equivalent of the Indian Brahmins or the Iranian magi, and like them specialised in the practices of magic, sacrifice and augury. They were the wise men, the councillors of the Celtic world.
The wood of various trees all had a function in the Celtic world, sometimes practical, sometimes symbolic. For example the sap from the birch was used to treat rheumatism and was even thought to promote fertility. The yew, even today found in churchyards throughout the country, was associated with death and re-birth. The first three letters of the Celtic alphabet were associated with trees – Beith (birch) Luid (rowan) and Nuin (ash) and when a tribe cleared a tract of land they always left a tree in the middle. The symbolic power of the tree was very important, and it was here, below the spreading branches, that their chiefs would be inaugurated.
The special relationship the Celts had with trees was recognised by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica, a collection of prayers, incantations, runes and blessings, collected from the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland between 1855 and 1910.
“Choose the willow of the streams
Choose the hazel of the rocks
Choose the alder of the marshes
Choose the birch of the waterfalls
Choose the ash of the shade
Choose the yew of resilience
Choose the elm of the brae
Choose the oak of the sun”
Amidst the general starkness and rock and water-dominated landscape of Skye, I discovered this area around Torrin to be something of an oasis. I chose an ash, the ash of the shade, and sat below it, allowing its essence to seep into my own being, expanding my own mind to the skyward reach of the uppermost branches. And did I gain any divine revelation? Was I aware of my spirit being refreshed and revitalised? Well, not exactly, I was still a little bit footsore but it was great to sit in the shade for a while, at least until the midges drove me on. The good old midges – they have a habit of bringing you back to earth with a bump.
Earlier in the year, my wife Gina and I had enjoyed a most amazing reconnaissance trip to Skye, backpacking from Duntulm in the north of Trotternish to Elgol, the coastal hamlet that offers some of the most magnificent views across the sea waters of Loch Scavaig towards the Cuillin.
Our plan, like the best, was simple. In astonishingly fine weather we walked from Duntulm down the length of the Trotternish ridge all the way to Portree, visiting the two volcanic wonders of Trotternish, the Quiraing and The Storr, en route. From Portree we wandered down a quiet and tranquil road past Braes, scene of the last battle in Britain, before following a coast path along the west shore of Loch Sligachan to the famous hotel of the same name (some claim it as the cradle of Scottish mountaineering). From there the footpath down Glen Sligachan took us below the skirts of both Red and Black Cuillin to the high pass over to Scotland’s finest loch, Coruisk, before a skirmish with the infamous Bad Step and the scenic coastal path to Camusunary and Elgol.
With a television crew – producer and photographer Richard Else, cameraman Dominic Scott and safety officer Paul Tattershall – I repeated the route again, but this time we continued past Camasunary, over Bla Bheinn and down to Torrin and the old crofters trail to the ‘cleared’ villages of Suisinish and Boreraig. Beyond Boreraig the line of an old narrow-gauge railway took us past the old marble mines of Beinnn Suardal all the way to Broadford on the coast.
This so-called Skye Trail, for want of a better title, is a straightforward and logical route that takes in some of the finest features of Skye and for me, connects the two finest landscapes on the island, that of the Trotternish ridge and the Cuillin. Two years ago Richard Else and I made a television programme about a route through the old county of Sutherland. We called it The Sutherland Trail and last year we published the first guidebook to it. It’s our hope that the route will be ‘adopted’ by the communities it passes through, communities who might benefit from the increased trade such a route brings. We hope the Skye Trail might have the same effect on the communities it passes through. It’s no less than the Isle of Skye, and the route itself, deserves.
The Skye Trail DVD and book are available from this website. (read more…)