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.
IN the course of a 470 mile walk through a country you get the opportunity to observe things at closer quarters than you would if you were to drive through it. Travelling by foot takes you into wild landscapes that most people, including policy-making politicians, are totally unfamiliar with. How to protect these wild landscapes is the question I have pondered on most while walking north from Kirk Yetholm.
I’ve seen massive changes in the Borders in my own lifetime, with huge conifer plantations shrouding historic hillsides, the loss of hedgerows and patchwork fields due to large-scale agro-industry practices and in more recent times the growth of industrial scale windfarms.
Further north the coniferisation is no less severe and the constant drive for renewable energy sources will change the face of highland Scotland forever unless we can, somehow, mitigate the visual effects of it. But how much of a sacrifice are we willing to make?
Climate change is a very real issue and Scotland is one of the few countries in the world attempting to seriously tackle the problem. Energy is another vital issue and until renewables like wave and tidal power come on-stream then politicians have to embrace whatever else is available. Giving that few Scots want nuclear power stations on their doorstep that alternative, for the moment, appears to be wind power, both onshore and offshore. But large-scale windfarm industrialisation is the biggest threat to Scotland’s wonderful landscapes, areas that attract thousands of tourists to Scotland every year.
I firmly believe we need areas of wildness, places where people can find renewal, and peace! The American writer Edward Abbey once said that we need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. Slightly tongue-in-cheek perhaps but I would agree with the concept.
Even in Scotland, with our much-acclaimed land reform legislation and freedom-to-roam, many of us still think of land predominantly in economic terms, rather than in aesthetic or philosophical terms. How can you put a price tag on the likes of the Cairngorms, or the Torridon mountains?
It’s time we took the advice of another great American conservationist, Aldo Leopold. He said that when we consider land as a commodity to be bought and sold we tend to abuse it. If, on the other hand, we think of land as a community to which we also belong, then we will treat it with love and respect. We are part and parcel of that community, whether we like it or not, but still we continue to abuse the land.
We even pollute the very air that we breathe. Dramatic changes to the world’s climate are obviously not enough to change our consumerist ways. If God himself appeared in some worldwide wondrous form and demanded change then we’d still think up ways of denying it. We’d still crucify him…
On the walk I often sat beside some long ruined shieling. I thought of the people who once lived and worked in these highland glens, many of whom were later evicted. Large scale sheep farming replaced people after the highland clearances and today those sheep have largely gone. Victorian sporting estates dominate the highlands and large areas of the borders and one wonders how sustainable they are in these very uncertain times. Very few of these estates are profitable and many landowners keep them on as hobbies, as playthings. While some landowners are working hard to regenerate native woodland and control deer numbers most estates are run on a monoculture basis, managing vast acres as a wet desert for a few grouse. Or encouraging large numbers of red deer, which browse every bit of new vegetation that pokes its head out of the dirt. This is surely not the way ahead for Scotland?
Land reform is one answer, where communities control the land on which they live and work, and there have been some success stories like in Knoydart, Assynt and the Isle of Eigg, but large-scale community buy-outs are still a long way off, particularly under the current economic climate.
So what’s the next throw of the dice for Scotland’s wild places? I wish I knew.
My end-to-end walk threw up lots of questions, but few answers. Renewable energy appears to be the most obvious bet and that isn’t a pleasant option for those of us who treasure the wild places, unless we can find a means of balancing our energy/climate change needs with landscape conservation.
I’ve probably enjoyed the best of Scotland’s wild places in my lifetime, but I have grandchildren and I want the best for them too. I want them to enjoy Scotland’s hills and glens as I have because I know the benefits of such a relationship. That’s why I’ll keep on campaigning and lobbying politicians to protect our wild places. The right to remain silent is no longer an option. We all have a duty to speak out for wild places, or we will lose them.
But first take the bus to Kirk Yetholm, tie up your boot laces, hoist your pack on your shoulder and gaze north. Lying before you is an adventure like no other. Step out and enjoy it before things change too much. A nation awaits you…
The American writer and ecologist Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” It was a credo deemed so important that another great writer and ecologist, John Muir, thought it worthy of plagiarism.
Muir, the wilderness prophet later wrote: “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.”
But as modern man becomes increasingly urbanised, the resulting shift away from such wildness has largely sequestered us from the values of nature. Those of us who live in large towns and cities have become less exposed to the natural world and unless we make a determined effort to return to such wild places for recreation then it’s unlikely we will be able to recognise, let alone take advantage of, its healing qualities.
Today increasing numbers of people are recognising the value of such a return to nature and many are embracing a more fundamental credo and another plagiarism of Thoreau’s words – in wildness is the preservation of the mind.
We can find renewal in the stillness of a forest, or on a wind scoured mountain top – the drift of cloud against the sky, the movement of sun and shadow, the warbling, liquid call of a curlew. And I’m convinced such encounters with nature can reduce the stress in our lives simply because they speak to us of eternal values, things that have always been, as ancient as the duration of days. And all of them, the flight of a bird, the sound of the wind surf in the trees, the beauty of a sunset, are completely and utterly unplanned – none of it has been previously arranged or rehearsed by man. And that I believe, is the important issue.
Statistics clearly show that more and more of us are becoming aware of the recreational benefits of mountains and forests. We are stimulated by the endorphins that are released in our bodies by exercise, we are thrilled by the far-flung view, enchanted by the beauty of our surroundings, encouraged by taking time-out with friends – but can it be that these places also help us reduce the levels of stress in our lives?
Sadly, most people fail to turn stress into a positive force in their lives. Instead, stress creates all sorts of physical and psychological problems like depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, mood swings and even cancer. The essence of it is this: our ancient psychology is failing to adapt to a modern way of life and the simplest way to overcome the problem is to return to the wilderness, as often as possible.
The above is a short extract from The Wilderness World of Cameron McNeish, available from this website at a special price of £12 (read more…)
In celebration of this we’ve slashed the prices of all our DVD’s and books until after Christmas.
All our normal BBC approved DVD’s have been reduced from £15.99 to £12.99 and all our double and triple DVD’s like Scotland End to End, The Great Climb, Triple Five and Extraordinary Climbs drop in price from £19.99 to an extraordinary £14.99.
In addition we’ve reduced the prices of our books too. The best-selling Scotland End to End, the story of the hugely successful Scottish National Trail, is now £15.00, as is The Sutherland Trail and The Skye Trail.
We hope you’ll take advantage of these price-savers and treat your friends and loved ones to a taste of walking in Scotland, whether it’s in Sutherland or the Hebrides, down the length of Skye or up the length of Scotland from end to end.
And don’t forget, our rock climbing DVD’s all features the incomparable Dave MacLeod, undoubtedly one of the great rock climbers in the world.
And a quick word on safety to finish… Winter is well and truly with us, please take care out there.
Cameron and Richard (read more…)