Lullabies and legends, the Isle of Skye, known to its own as An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, where ye cannae tell rocks from ruins, mist from mountains.
I’ve wondered often, driving around the island this past week, around and around actually and around again – where did they hide the lad who was born to be king?
And did he make fair crossing, for those winds do indeed howl, the waves do roar . . .
But not today. Today Skye is still, blue as blue, green as green.
They say the weather on Skye never changes – it is a joke; the only constant about the weather here is that it is always changing.
Speed bonnie boat . . . for some reason, even though the song sings of winds howling and waves roaring, I have always pictured Skye to be blue.
Today she is so.
Skye, where legends are born, not made.
Close your eyes for a moment and I will make for you small pictures of Skye:
Water spilling from sheer striking mountains, too close to be that blue; clouds strung like hammocks from mountain top to mountain top; sheep and cattle so fat they spend half their lives sitting down, like dogs in sunshine with nothing better to do; the hshhhh-shhh of small waves tipping onto a grey pebbly shore; white stone houses, scattered like jacks across hillsides and valleys; vast green hills of purple heather; blue islands lying low like dormant sea monsters; dawn rainbow shooting upwards from the roof of a table-top mountain; ancient trees in wet gulleys twisted with moss; mists pouring from the horizon like steam from a boiling kettle; silent eagles riding the wind, wing tips saluting the heavens; rainbows pouring light into the sea; waterfalls that become pathways and pathways that become waterfalls; tall towers of stone on craggy mountains; black and white collie dogs streaming from a pick up in a paddock; sudden bursts of sunlight that turn purple heather egg-yolk yellow; jumbled stones in labrynthine boggy paddocks; white feathers, precisely two, floating on the air currents of a high mountain crevice; stones chattering as they are resettled by the incoming tide; rain hammering the tin roof of a car (that would be me on the inside sheltered and warm); vaporous mists stealing mountain tops as they run with the wind; black crow holding steady, wings taut and stretched, feathers aflurry in the howling wind, telling me ‘camp here, camp here’ (I have a friend who once told me never to doubt the wisdom of a crow).
Thus I have encountered these past days on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, and more:
* Uig, a town whose name you can speak without moving a single muscle in your mouth: not your jaw, not your lips, not teeth – Uig must be the first sound ever uttered by a human being, perhaps even the first sound uttered by a single creature on Planet Earth;
* the Amazon College for Spear Welfare (I suspect they mean warfare – see below);
* the Stone of the Chief Church, a sacred site dedicated to the Pagan goddess Annaitis;
* the stones that supported legendary giant king Fionn’s cooking pot;
* a memorial to Mary of the Songs;
* The Giving Shop – great food and generous hearts at Ellishadder Art Cafe;
* and An t-Eilean Sgitheanach itself, the Isle of Skye: where legends are born, not made.
THE AMAZON COLLEGE FOR SPEAR WELFARE
Yesterday was wild: grey wind, sheet rain tearing across the landscapes (yes plural) in bursts. I spent the night tucked into the corner of a beautiful estuary on the island’s west, captured by the setting sun in front of a house that would be my pick – the writer’s pick – of homes on the island: a single story black stone cottage with red lintels and blue trim on the roof.
All the other houses are white. In a different story it would be the witch’s cottage.
The house had my back as I slept in the car, encloaked by rain, snug in my sleeping bag, nourished by a landscape that changes with every loop in the road, every shift in the light.
I spent the day roaming the itty bitty roads that stretch across the island, roads remote and tiny, on a treasure hunt with my list of ancient landmarks I’d picked up from the visitor information centre.
I’ll say a few things about Scottish signposting – mostly there is none, in the instance of an ancient landmark, for example, and, where there is, in the instance of a town, for example, there will be one sign, and not another, so you are never quite sure if the turnoff is here or there, this road or that. Also, while planners have kindly allowed for layovers in beautiful areas, to stop and take photographs, for example, the layovers are always somewhere other than overlooking the view – always. And otherwise there is nowhere to stop on Scottish roads.
Thus we have the background to my treasure hunt.
My list says ‘Dun Sgathaich: named after the Amazon who set up a college for spear welfare'; the directions say ‘off the road between Tokavaig and Tarscarvaig’.
There are so many things that intrigue me about this. In no particular order they are: the thought of being up close to anything at all truly Amazon; a college for spear welfare – only a woman could establish a college for spear welfare; spear welfare probably ought to read spear warfare and that ignites inspired pictures of women in training as warriors; Tokavaig and Tarscarvaig, be still my beating Viking heart.
Naturally, the map given to me by the information centre, being a Scottish map, landmarks only Tarskavaig (note the different spelling to the directions above: probably the same typist who memorialised spear welfare).
So off I go around the peninsular known as Sleat, on a mission to find the Amazon College for Spear Welfare.
The roads, as I have mentioned, are miniscule. The landscape is stunning, a patchwork of fields, mountains, water and scattered settlements. The day is wild and wet and windy. I make Tarskavaig and draw the common sense conclusion that if I stick to the same road, which isn’t hard because there is only one, I will reach Tokavaig. The college will be somewhere in between.
Uh-oh, I make Tokavaig without a single sighting. I have missed the college. I turn around at a hand painted sign that says ‘Castle Footpath’, vowing to make that my purpose if I cannot find the Amazon College for Spear Welfare.
I head back towards Tarskavaig. Along the road I spy a grove of trees, the kind an Amazon looking out for the welfare of spears might dwell.
But I do not see a college. High at the top of a hill is a man staring into a pair of binoculars. I stop, unwind the window.
‘Excuse me,’ I say, ‘can you please tell me where I can find the Amazon College for Spear Welfare?’
I cannot keep a straight face. Fortunately he is English and being English and somewhat elderly he understands eccentric; he too laughs.
At Tarskavaig I turn around again and head back towards Tokavaig. There is a camper van parked on a rare flat and grassy spot. Two men are packing away their breakfast.
‘Excuse me,’ I say, ‘can you please tell me where I can find the Amazon College for Spear Welfare?’
Again, I am speaking to Englishmen, somewhat balding, and we all start to laugh.
I make one more foray up a road where fat sheep and cattle can barely be bothered getting out of the way.
I make a right turn for an artist’s studio and pull into a stony driveway. Blue Studio has blue cars parked outside; the artist, a tall elderly druid-like Englishman with no sense of humour, tells me he has no idea where the Amazon College for Spear Welfare might be.
‘The Celts used to elect their queens you know,’ he said.
A-ha, a man who takes the Amazon College for Spear Welfare seriously.
He points to a painting on his wall, tells me it’s Dun Sgathaich.
‘That’s it!’ I say. ‘That’s the Amazon College for Spear Welfare.’
It is the ruin at the end of the sign saying ‘Castle Footpath’.
I turn around and drive back to the signpost, walk across boggy fields filled with fat cows, skirt around an estuary, past a farm house, and onto a tor tipping into the sea.
I am spellbound by my own story, an imaginary world in which Amazons pay attention to the welfare of their spears.
I’ll leave you now to tell your own story; here are the photographs.
THE STONE OF THE CHIEF CHURCH OF ANNAITIS
The goddess herself only knows whether I found her sacred site or not . . .
The directions on my list said ‘on the Elgol Road’.
Now, the turn-off from the main road to a blip called Elgol is the small matter of 15 miles. Fortunately, that road is so tiny rarely does the speedometer rise above 30mph, which means I can scan the roadside for sites dedicated to ancient pagan goddesses.
Unfortunately, even at such a slow pace, these roads demand attention, not least because 21st century transport makes a habit of barreling down them, buses and 24 wheelers carrying big yellow rolls of hay, the latter having no intention of pulling into a layby to let Hi Ho Silver, my clever little Astra, and me pass.
I scour the roadside, all the way to Elgol, looking for anything at all that might resemble a sacred site dedicated to an ancient goddess.
I spy a church . . . the Christians had a habit of building their places of worship on top of pagan sites, the minor matter of the
colonisation of anything at all not them and the obliteration of everything feminine on our good Earth.
But no sign of Annaitis.
I stop, somewhat excitedly, for a pile of rocks. A weathered sign stamped into a puddle tells me it is the Marble Road.
I drive on, a stunning stunning stunning drive all the way along the tip of a remote peninsular to Elgol.
On the way home, the opposite direction giving me new perspective, I grind to a halt by the Marble Road and clamber over the sodden grass to an upright stone.
A marble road . . . to an ancient temple – perhaps?
FIONN’S COOKING POT
Here are the stones that beheld Fionn’s cooking pot. Piece together the legend as ye will.
MARY OF THE SONGS
At the foot of the trail over the Quiraing mountains is an information board dedicated to Mary of the Songs, Màiri Mhòr nan Òran, and the lyrics to her love song to Skye’s east, Soraidh Le Eilean a’Cheò.
Mary of the Songs.
Who wouldn’t want to be known as Mary of the Songs?
THE GIVING SHOP
On an island whose people are often terse, clipped at best, pursed like sheeps’ bums at worst, which isn’t too bad when you think about it, unless you’re traveling alone and the kind word or minimum smile of the one to whom you’re about to impart money is the only human contact you’re likely to have all day – on this island, whose landscape and light is its glory, there is a shop I came to call The Giving Shop.
It has several names – Creagan Ban – meaning ‘fine hill’, this would be the name of the house itself, which sits on a plot of land in an open valley between An Storr, the Old Man of Storr, and Cuith-Raing, the Quiraing; Ellishadder Art Cafe is another name, and this would be the name of the sweetest little cafe on Skye whose windows, depending which one you’re looking from, stare directly at An Storr in one direction and the mighty mountains of the Quiraing in the other.
The cafe is owned by Maggie and Stuart: this would be them, outside their home/cafe – which was open when it said it would be, a hallelujah moment on the Isle of Skye.
In the door on a rainy blustery day, tourist after tourist splattered in mud from the mountain, all of us, strangers seeking sustenance in a small cafe, even the fluffy white dog with mud up to her elbows, meet warm welcome from a happy pair of people who not only built their house, cook the food in the cafe, grow the salads and herbs on your plate, paint the art on the walls and weave the soft wool cushions – they have time to talk to their customers. I mean generous talk, valuable talk.
I’m not sure if they chop the wood for the fire.
I had a running tab at Ellishadder over the few days I spent on the island, sometimes not turning up for days at a time.
Maggie brought me fresh mint tea at no charge – and, having spent time in her kitchen, I can say she washes her vegetables and chops out the bad bits!
Stuart welcomed the writer who needed time to chill out, taking up an entire table to catch up on her blogs, charge her camera, phone and computer.
It is important to note I wrote all that before this:
Last night I snuggled up to Stuart and Maggie’s gate, sleeping in my car in what has become my experiment with homelessness; I snuggle up to remote gates so I look like my car belongs to a house, and therefore not available for stealing, with varying degrees of confidence depending on where I am and how I’m feeling, and then I lie low, very low and still, so as not to draw attention to the fact there is a human in the car, thus another advantage of a house is that I can honk the horn and someone might come in an emergency (such is the sub text of a conversation I have with my unconscious mind every night).
And so it is that on this night, night 8 in the car, I had found a house where I did not feel quite so surreptitious, not quite as alert to my surroundings, not quite as confined to the shadows; rather, a familiar warmth in the snuggling up to a gate where, if I was not welcome, I was not unwelcome.
Just after nestling down into my sleeping back, the rising full moon over nearby fields for good company, I hear crunching on the gravel, a tap at my window: it is Stuart, come to say hello.
More than that, he and Maggie, who have worked all day cooking and serving, spent the evening baking and cleaning up, will rise early to do the same all over again, have made me a bed and insist – despite the fact I haven’t showered for a week (although in my defence I have gone to some lengths maintain a certain level of personal hygiene) – that I partake of it.
It is a beautiful act of kindness for a woman traveling alone. And anyone who’s read my travel memoir knows the kinship I share with clean white sheets.
The Ellishadder Art Cafe: The Giving Shop.
You can say it without moving a single muscle in your mouth – really, try it: Uig.
SKYE HIGH: LOVE SONG FOR SKYE