On Scotland’s northeast coast, Auchmithie sits atop a cliff —150 feet below, a dilapidated harbor belies the tiny village’s past life as a thriving fishing community. But a very specific type of smoked fish secures that legacy.
Auchmithie’s bay was once filled with boats and its stone cottages home to hundreds of fisherfolk. The women, known as “mucklebackit” (broad-backed) women, were renowned for their strength — carrying their men on their backs down to the boats so they’d begin their sea journey with dry feet. It was the women, too, who preserved the fish by smoking it in halved whisky barrels; a technique that would become known as the Arbroath Smokie.
The ancient Romans thought Foula was Ultima Thule, a place beyond the borders of the known world. Michael Powell used the island as a stand-in for St Kilda in his 1937 film The Edge of the World. All of which is to say that Foula feels pretty remote.
North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, shares several properties in common with the country’s other remote northern isles. There’s the Neolithic-era standing stone, for example, and the lighthouse built by members of the famed Stevenson engineering clan. But look out to the shoreline and you’ll spot something altogether more particular to this island. Small sheep—wrapped in thick fleeces of brown, black, white, and gray—nimbly pick their way across sand and wet rocks. As waves break close behind them, they pass basking seals and munch on seaweed, thick pieces of brown kelp trailing from their mouths.
A primitive breed, part of the North European short-tailed sheep group, and smaller than most modern breeds, North Ronaldsay sheep have evolved in isolation since their arrival on the island, possibly as far back as the Iron Age. There are currently around 3,000 on North Ronaldsay, grazing all along the coastline and eating seaweed at low tide. Aside from the Galapagos marine iguana, they are thought to be the only land animals able to survive solely on seaweed. This is not just a quirk, but the result of necessary evolution.
A walk around Papa Westray – a four-square-mile island on the northern edge of the Orkney archipelago in Scotland – is a walk through history.
From the 5,600-year-old Knap of Howar, northern Europe’s oldest standing house, you can walk up the coast to St Boniface Kirk. One of the oldest Christian sites in the north of Scotland, the church’s graveyard is filled with lichen-covered headstones indicating generations of families and shipwrecked sailors. Further on at the wind-battered northernmost point, where the Atlantic crashes into the North Sea and daunting cliffs are deeply ridged from centuries of erosion, a stone cairn marks the site where Britain’s last great auk – the now extinct ‘northern penguin’ – was killed in 1813.
But Papay, as the island is locally known, is not lost in the past. Thanks to its forward-thinking residents, it is thriving.
Read the rest of my article about the Orkney island of Papa Westray at BBC Travel.
I always take note of August 23rd. It was on that day in 1998 — so long ago now — that I set out alone to travel for the first time. I took the train from Dundee to London, then, although I’d never used an underground before, made it to Heathrow and onto a flight to Tokyo with an onward ticket to Australia. Each step of the way, I advanced by copying people around me. I followed strangers onto the tube, through the airport, and then, seated on the plane, watched my neighbor snap apart then position her fingers around chopsticks, and then imitated her — I was going to Japan, on a Japanese airline, and had never tried to use chopsticks before.
For each action, I chose to copy rather than to ask. I was painfully shy and that, perhaps, was the reason I was travelling. Travel would make me a better person, I hoped, more confident.
The thought of travel had been on my mind for as long as I remember. It started with a path behind one of the big fields in my small village. Time and again, I imagined myself walking down that path to … where? I imagined myself just walking and walking; entering the world that remained stubbornly outside of mine. Even as I grew older and the world became bigger, I never did walk down that path. I chose instead to go further, and so it was that on August 23rd 1998 I got on a flight to Tokyo, a destination chosen for no good reason. Maybe soon, to mark 15 years of setting out to travel, I should take a walk down that path.
The Jacobite steam train runs from Fort William to Mallaig, part of the West Highland Railway Line — probably Britain’s most scenic railway line. The train departs close to Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain and passes over the 21 arches of Glenfinnan viaduct, passes the Glenfinnan monument, which marks the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard to begin the 1745 Jacobite uprising. It visits Britain’s most westerly mainland railway station, Arisaig and passes the deepest freshwater loch in Britain, Loch Morar, before arriving in the small fishing village of Mallaig, where regular ferries depart for the outer isles.
The train has been operating on and off for more than 100 years and played the part of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter film series.
Take one book by David Mitchell: My favourite, Cloud Atlas, which begins on a 19th century ship in the South Pacific and ends in post-apocalyptic Big Island, passing through a pre-WWII Belgium, 1970s San Francisco, early 21st century England and dystopian Korea.
Take one gritty Scottish city: Glasgow; the place that visitors are told to skip over in favour of Edinburgh because “it’s so much nicer.” I lived in Edinburgh for two years, but Glasgow might be my current favourite Scottish city.
So, Cloud Atlas. The book is structured in a kind of Matroyshka doll style where elements of the preceeding segment appear in the next and so on. Each segment — the South Pacific story; the Belgian story, dystopian Korea etc… — ends abruptly, sometimes mid-sentence, before being picked up again in the second half of the book as if in a kind of loop.
Unfilmable, I had thought, and yet production started on the movie, directed by the Wachowski brothers, this month. To my surprise I stumbled across part of the film set while walking through Glasgow one chilly evening last week. Checking the newspapers, I learned that Halle Berry had been filming scenes on that spot earlier in the day. She was playing Luisa Ray, which meant that Glasgow was a stand-in for … San Francisco?
I scratched my head. Glasgow as San Francisco? Well, there are the steep hills and… and I can’t really think of anything else but I look forward to seeing the film and seeing if I can suspend belief enough to believe in old Glasgie as the city by the Bay. In the meantime, this has to be great news for Glasgow; it’s the second Hollywood movie to be shot there in just a few weeks. Brad Pitt was recently in town to shoot World War Z, with Glasgow standing in that time for Philadelphia.
This Guardian piece has some good notes on Glasgow’s role as film set, past and present, as well as some information on the thinking behind its doubling as San Francisco:
“…it is easy to see how these streets can stand in for San Francisco the layout’s “decidedly San Franciscan effects” are even noted in Andrew Gomme and David Waller’s book, Architecture of Glasgow.”
Although of course there is the inevitable cabbie moaning about heavy traffic.
For the second year in a row I spent a few days of my annual trip home to Scotland on the Isle of Skye. Skye is off the west coast; vast, peaceful and has a strong and distinct cultural heritage. Gaelic is on all the signs, fishing boats dot the water, old croft houses perch on hills and sheep roam across tiny single-lane roads.
Having rented a car, I got to see much more of the island on this trip. Last year I was at the mercy of the efficient but basic bus system and had to confine my visit to mostly the Trotternish peninsula — not that I am complaining; I still think that Trotternish has the most spectacular scenery on the island.
This time I stayed at a bed and breakfast on the Waternish peninsula, using it as a base to explore the rest of Skye.
Minginish: south central Skye.
Quiraing: a distinctive, jagged landslip on the Trotternish peninsula
The Trotternish peninsula: Skye’s most northern peninsula.
On the Waternish peninsula, Trumpan was the site of one of Skye’s bloodiest episodes. The invading Clan McDonald set fire to a church murdering all inside except a young girl who managed to escape through a window, severing a breast in the process. This led to a revenge attack by the MacLeods who slaughtered all of the McDonalds and threw their bodies in a ditch.
Talisker is said to be the peatiest of the island malts. Actually, even though I am not much of a whisky drinker, I found it quite pleasant. The tour of the distillery starts with a wee dram and tooks us step by step through the production, distillation and bottling process. The staff were a little concerned as two droughts so far this year (no rain for a few days) meant the whole distillery had to shut down — first for lack of spring water; second because they have to allow the water to feed the rivers first before the snatch it up for the whisky.
Jacobite heroine, Flora McDonald dressed Bonnie Prince Charlie as an Irish maid and smuggled him off the island to safety; distracting his pursuers by performing a Highland dance. For her trouble, she was arrested and jailed in the Tower of London. When she died, 3000 people attended her funeral.
Alexander McQueen was fiercely proud of his Scottish heritage, which he used often in his designs. His father was from Skye and he chose this spot, just a short stroll from Flora McDonald’s grave as his final resting place.
I met Lee McQueen several times when I worked at the Groucho Club in London. He was quiet; down to earth.
Eilean Donan castle is on the mainland, not far off the Skye Bridge. You may recognise it from the Highlander movies: There can be only one! etc…