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Issue 30 - A changing Skye

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006


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A changing Skye

John Hannavy visits the beautiful island of Skye

To many people, the opening of the Skye Bridge a decade ago did something irreparable to Skye’s island status. Before 1995, there were only three ways of getting there – and they all required getting on a boat and sailing across a stretch of water.

Arriving on Skye across the bridge, it is almost possible to forget you are leaving the mainland for an island, as the bridge spans little more than a wide river. For the residents of Skye, of course, the advantages of the bridge are manifest, and the opportunities still largely unexploited – and the benefits well outweigh any loss of the unique individuality that comes with being an island. Island status was probably only ever really attractive to the visitors.

There are still two ‘classic’ ways of getting there, however, the short summer-only ferry from Glenelg to Kylerhea, and the longer 25 minute journey on board the appropriately-named MV Lord of the Isles from Mallaig on Scotland’s west coast to Armadale on the Sound of Sleat on the south east coast of Skye.

Like any port of entry, the two towns through which we enter Skye are probably more a reflection of the mainland we have left than the island we are about to discover.

The photographs on the website for the Skye Museum of Island Life at Kilmuir were all taken in bright sunlight under a clear blue sky. The day we visited the sky was heavy and leaden, the wind ferocious and freezing, with occasional bouts of squally rain. That actually offered a much more realistic impression of what life must have been like in the bleak but incredibly beautiful corner of the island, just north of the village of Kilmuir near the island’s northern tip.

A few miles further north, at Duntulm Castle we had to hold tightly to the fence as we made our way, in the teeth of the wind, to the castle ruins precariously perched above Score Bay. A few hours later the Isle of Skye had changed completely, the stormy weather was already a memory and the sun beat down. The character and quality of the light under which I was working had changed almost minute by minute. That’s what makes being a photographer exhilarating and immensely frustrating – exhilarating when you are in the right place at the right time, frustrating when you are not.

The traditional name for the island, Eilean a’ Cheo, means ‘island of mists.’ I wonder what the Gaelic for ‘island with every possible type of weather in a single day’ is? I believe I have experienced that on Skye.

To many, the attraction of Skye is the climbing it offers – from gentle slopes to terrifyingly vertical rock stacks. But for me, laden with heavy bags of camera equipment, less demanding walking suffices.

The views everywhere are spectacular, the variety endless. Huge areas of the island are, thankfully, inaccessible to cars, and that’s where many of the best pictures are to be found.

Luckily there are plenty things to see and magnificent views within easy driving distance, or within a few minutes’ walk of the roads.

Driving the length and breadth of the island, the views are successively more beautiful, the pubs successively more welcoming, and the experience more satisfying.

My selection of photographs from Skye are largely concerned with water – and as there is plenty of the stuff on and around the island, that seems appropriate. But Skye is much more than lochs, coastline, fast-flowing burns and rivers, and of course rain. There are some wonderful buildings to be explored – not least of them being the Museum of Island Life to which I referred earlier.

Here we can get a glimpse of just how demanding a crofter’s existence in the far north of the island a century and a half ago must have been.

When I first visited Kilmuir (more years ago than I wish to remember) only the blackhouse was open, and the museum described itself by the charming name of the Skye Cottage Museum. Now so much more of the site has been opened up and the experience is much more revealing.

Contrast this with one of the most popular visitor attractions on Skye – Dunvegan Castle, at the head of the loch of the same name. Dunvegan is the seat of the chiefs of the Clan Macleod, and can claim to have been continuously inhabited by the same family for more than 700 years.

That is just one of the many contrasts to be found on the island which, to many, epitomises Scotland.

To me, though, the most striking contrast is between the bustle of the population centres – Portree, Kyleakin, Broadford – and the peace and tranquility to be found just about everywhere else.

Like all good islands, Skye has a distillery – making the very fine Talisker malt whisky. Sited near Carbost on the shores of Loch Harport, Talisker distillery can trace its origins back to 1830.

Its strong peaty taste has appealed to generations of serious malt whisky drinkers – including Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote in 1880 that ‘the King o’ drinks as I conceive it, Talisker, Islay, or Glenlivet’.