Storry Days and Starry Nights: November on the Isle of Skye

For a destination well-documented in tour guides and visitor websites, there is still much mystery surrounding this fabled place. From the debated origins of the island’s name to the almost perma-shrouding in cloud of the formidable Black Cuillin mountain range, this is a land mired in a rich tapestry of folklore and fairy tales. It’s little wonder that Skye has a reputation for encouraging the imagination of poets and artists, with its’ gravity-defying rock formations, mystical glens and infinite expanses of sky and sea. Perhaps unfortunately (if I’m being selfish), the popularity of the island as a tourist attraction has skyrocketed, and illusions of whimsy are that much more difficult to sustain when they’re neighboured by a freshly tarmacked visitor car park. For this reason, we decided to visit in the off-season and on two pedals (as always), and we experienced the island in its’ breathtakingly rugged and timeless glory.

Our view from the train

It’s hard to be sure at exactly what point on the train journey we left the real world — with its’ city centre sprawl of selfsame grey houses, its’ uninspiring trolley service of tar-black, bitter coffee in a single-use cup with a lid that won’t degrade in a hundred years — and the train began racing through open moorland pocked with racing stags with regal antlers, eerie thickets of barren, scoliotic trees, placid lochs and mountain passes, over gargantuan viaducts crossing fast-flowing rivers and past station platforms so remote that they can only be stopped at by request; station platforms so remote that they exist just as a block of concrete with a sign and just moorland all around.

Remember that scene from Trainspotting where the boys get off the train and go for a walk in the Great Scottish Outdoors? That was filmed at a stop on our route.

Skye is accessible over a road bridge, but we chose the ferry from Mallaig. A quiet service with few passengers. Seals loitered around returning fishing boats in the harbour. The sea was calm and the sailing was short. We arrived at dusk and with a chill in the still air, we cycled quickly up the road to our bed and breakfast, seeing nothing of the land either side of us but with an army of constellations watching over us from a clear, unpolluted sky.

~ Sleat ~

Sleat, the southernmost wing of the island (one prominent theory of the derivation of the name ‘Skye’ might be from an ancient Gaelic form of the word ‘winged’, describing the fan-shaped appearance of the land), seat of the clan Macdonald. Site of Dunscaith Castle where it is rumoured that Scáthach the warrior Queen trained Ulster hero-god and fabled Lothario Cú Chulainn the skills of combat and the ways of love, after which time he single-handedly defended Ireland from the Army of Connacht.

Or so our host explained to us over breakfast. He’s a tall, broad-set bloke with an ample beard who hails from the Duirinish peninsula to the north west of the island. In a different time one could imagine his beard matted with the blood of his human conquests and plaited with their small bones, as he stands in his kilt on the headland preparing for a skirmish with Vikings from an approaching longboat. In the present day he’s a mild-mannered vegetarian bed-and-breakfast owner who makes excellent pinhead oatmeal porridge, the Scottish National Party pin badge he’s wearing the only clue as to my imagined fierce clansman* roots.

* I just want to make a grammatical point here to any overseas visitors to this blog. ‘Clan’ with a ‘C’ = a very Scottish word to denote a group of families that share a common ancestry. ‘Klan’ with a ‘K’ = something altogether very different.

We took our host’s advice and cycled round to the site of Dunscaith Castle, past the tiny hillside hamlets of Tarskavaig and Tokavaig that had a Scandinavian feel befitting of their names. Each a smattering of immaculate white cottages with floor-to-ceiling glass windows which reflected the sea-loch and the formidable mountains that formed their backdrop. The Vikings that established these villages must have had strapping thighs to surmount the extreme angles of the landscape to continue their campaign inland. This bike ride is not recommended for those without a full complement of working gears!

~ Strathaird ~

Through Broadford, which would surely be the commuter town of Skye had the island a population that would warrant one. A quick stop for coffee at a deli brimming with Scandi hygge and on to a shepherd’s hut (with some modern conveniences) in Elgol, which feels like the end of the world and an unlikely place for a settlement. The Royal Mail van struggles not to stall on roads laid onto inhospitable inclines. The local bus looks positively set to keel over at every bend in the tortuous single-track road. The journey to get here, though stunning, was effortful. The next day we marched a well-worn path to a tourist-trap beach… and saw barely a soul. Barely a human soul, that is†. Deer were plentiful and unfazed, grazing as a family unit in the glen. A frog jumped onto the hubs’ welly boot and got a bit of a fright when it started moving. The turquoise sea crashed into the cliffs below to our left and roared with the sound of a million pebbles receding with it and the sound of hunting sea birds echoed around the bay and those murderous mountains, their ridge razor-sharp on a rare cloudless day.

Do non-human animals have souls? Do humans have souls, for that matter? These questions are beyond my superficial grasp of theology. For now, whatever your standpoint, just roll with it.

~ Trotternish ~

Arguably the wing of Skye the most well-trodden by tourists but by no means let this put you off. We cycled anticlockwise from Portree, past the brightly painted houses at the harbour and uphill until the views opened out over the sound to Raasay island and the Scottish mainland. The road undulates but the going is easy with spectacular views of open grassland, Highland cattle up to their ears in mud, and the barren face of the slipped Trotternish ridge looming large like the frontier of an army of behemoths charging east.

We took a short detour on foot to the Old Man of Storr, the proudest amongst a cluster of tall stalagmites of rock jutting jauntily out towards the sky. Saw the mighty power of Mealt Falls, passed through the town of Staffin, a town as barren and quiet on a Saturday in November as the kilt-shaped cliffs of this otherwordly north-eastern pocket of Skye.

A coffee made from freeze-dried Nescafe on a plastic chair like the ones they have at school, in a launderette at the back of a convenience store (I told you it was barren; no open café) barely sobered us for the sharp turn left and ascent of the fabled Quiraing climb.

If the Trotternish ridge is an advancing army then the Quiraing could perhaps be described as it’s most permeable point, but even so it would be like choosing to go head-on against an onslaught of sore-headed Vikings who blunted their axes trying to fight each other last night after a few too many flagons of mead in preference to a wall of their clearer-headed compatriots. I’m embellishing a little; my lasting memory of this climb was of being inadequately caffeinated. But it was tough in parts with some technical hairpin bends a real kicker at the end. I imagine the endless etiquette of stopping at passing places would make this single-track road ascent a little weary in peak season. As it stood, we were virtually alone to absorb the majestic beauty of the verdant landscape save for the bleating of the hillside sheep. Our Valhalla on summiting was a gradual and breathtaking descent across the peninsula towards Uig, harbour town to the west illuminated by the late autumnal afternoon sun, bright and low. And proper coffee and some of the best biscotti I’ve ever eaten. (Or maybe I’m romanticising because it was so overdue?).

~ Dunvegan ~

Our final conquest of the island, a walk from Dunvegan castle out to the coral beach. A winding track through a wilderness peppered with bright yellow gorse flowers – the gorse being perfect camouflage to crouch in patiently in wait for whatever caused that ripple in the loch to surface, so hopeful that it might be an otter; but those critters have beady eyes and can hold their breath underwater for a damn long time…

After the lochs came hedgerows either side of the track, empty of foliage but still teeming with bird life swooping and swapping from branch to branch. At a car park en route we were goaded for treats by some small, brazen tree birds that had clearly taught their humans well.

And finally, the unspoilt paradise of the beach. Its’ whiteness seems to glow against the sky. Its’ borders are the neatly washed-up layers of grey pebbles, fresh seaweed the colour of roast chestnuts and dried seaweed of deep crimson further up the shore. You can walk right out to the edge of the land, sit on a staithe of black rocks and look out onto the turquoise water, watch the kelps sway in the sea’s back and forth with the moon, see the Outer Hebridean islands of Lewis, Harris and South Uist on the horizon, and feel you’re about to fall off the edge of the world.

But this is a bike blog, so I suppose I should be talking about where you can cycle round here. Which is to say you could totally cycle from the castle to the car park (bring some treats in your pannier for the birds though yeah?) on a hybrid, e-bike or mountain bike, or a road bike with decent tyres. From there it’s just a short walk over muddy grassland mixed with sand. If you don’t fancy pedal power, do us all a favour and PLEASE don’t insist on driving up that single track in an SUV‡. It makes me truly crimson – like, dried SEAWEED crimson – with rage to see how many people choose to drive down these tiny, windy lanes, single occupancy in massive f*ck-off cars with fuel consumption the size of the national debt. And then resist swerving to make room for passing vehicles because that would mean driving into a puddle and getting the alloys muddy. GET A GRIP 4×4 WORLD, WHAT ARE YOU OVERCOMPENSATING FOR.

If you read more of my blog entries you’ll find a gentle undercurrent of hatred for Sports Utility Vehicles just simmering away. Please tune in to an alternative blog if you find this content offensive …

~ Back to Kansas ~

And so we beat our steady retreat back southwards, this time taking the quieter westerly road down through the valley to Bracadale, past the turn-off for the tucked-away Talisker distillery. We passed a boy riding up and down a farm track on a quad bike, herding sheep… he must have only been about 10 years old. But he was really good at it! I wonder if a young Danny MacAskill might have given up fooling around on his trials bike in Dunvegan if only he’d had a farm and a quaddie! Then we would never know if one could artfully orienteer the Cuillin Ridge on two wheels.

Like much of the rest of the island the Cuillin etymology is unknown; some draw parallels with the Norse word kjöllen, depicting the ridge as an upturned longboat. For about ten miles before our arrival into Sligachan we finally saw those gabbro mountains in their customary shroud of mist and mystery. Quietly they dominated the landscape. The only sounds were of each breath we took as they appeared and evaporated in the chill. After Broadford we took the old military road back to Armadale, navigating a Narnia of narrow paths with pine and fir trees huddled in, passing old stone bridges in geometric shapes. Couldn’t resist calling into our favourite new cosy bar from our first night on Skye, for a nip of Old Pultney (Wick, Caithness) and an impromptu lesson in whisky appreciation from a bartender with idle hands. (Tip: take a sip, hold it in your mouth, tilt your head back slightly and hold your mouth open with your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Now, breathe in and out a few times, inhaling the volatile compounds, then close your mouth and swallow and presto! You’ve hit new heights of gustatory appreciation!).

With light spirits and heavy legs we took the crossing back to the mainland, back to tannoy announcements and dual carriageways, drive-thrus and rush hours. If you’ve ever yearned for a trip back to a simpler time, where time is measured by the weight in your legs as you pedal or the daylight cast over the mountains rather than the hands of a clock, then you could do worse than visiting glorious Skye in the low season by bike.

Total miles by 🚲 this trip: 223.2

bVcc total mileage update for 2019 (as of 26th December, when this post was published): 🚗 4762.6 || 🚲 5660.8

25 November, 2019

3 thoughts on “Storry Days and Starry Nights: November on the Isle of Skye

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