In Pictures: Isle of Skye

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

Minginish: south central Skye.

Sheep in Heather
Quiraing

Quiraing: a distinctive, jagged landslip on the Trotternish peninsula

Trotternish

The Trotternish peninsula: Skye’s most northern peninsula.

Trumpan

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

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.

Flora McDonald's Grave

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.

Lee McQueen

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

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…

Still Edinburgh

Prepping for my annual trip home to Scotland and browsing photographs from last August’s visit.

I lose a little bit of Edinburgh the longer I am gone. There is still a thin, but sturdy, thread of history that stretches back there. Edinburgh changes with every year, but some places stay the same.

 

The Toddle In sweet shop on Cockburn Street is piled to the ceiling with jars of old-fashioned candy.

I used to lose hours rifling through the racks at vintage clothing store, Armstrong’s.The window displays are always creative.

Victoria Street: Individual boutiques, art galleries, brightly painted buildings and a steep climb.

And this? Well, it’s the castle. And it’s beautiful.

Circles

I was looking through my camera’s viewfinder at yet another Gaelic roadsign: Fàilte gu Port Rìgh, when I stopped short of taking the picture. I wondered why it was so important to me that all the signs in Skye were in Gaelic.

I was in Skye on part of a trip from my current home, Hawaii to my childhood home, Scotland. Since leaving 12 years ago, I had travelled all over the world but this was my visit Skye—an island only a few hours from my home. I knew I was looking for something, a connection to the land, perhaps. Skye drew me in as it opened up in front of me; so wide, wild and those signs inscrutable. I immediately regretted not knowing how to read them and desperately wished I could. I felt that I should.

I asked myself if I even had a right to claim this language as part of my culture when I had always been so dismissive of it. Growing up, we had always laughed at the obligatory Gaelic programmes on television; shrugged off attempts to teach us the language by asking “what’s the point? No one speaks it anyway.”

Not exactly no one, but very few. I read that roughly one percent of the Scottish population speaks Gaelic; if you consider that Scotland’s total population is around five million, you’ll realize that that is precious few.

Still, a concerted effort is being made to keep the language alive, one that has noticeably amplified in the 12 years since I have lived in Scotland. From Fort William up (and even, I noticed, a smattering in the Lowlands) all street- and road-signs are bilingual—I guessed at the commitment of each community by noting if the Gaelic was written above or below the English.

It is a tricky language and the pronunciation of only some came easily through the remembering of names of childhood friends—the mh in Mhairi sounds like a v, for example. With shame I found myself flipping through my Rough Guide (co-written by an Englishman, no less) to sound out the rest.

“dh – before and after a, o or u is an aspirated g, rather like gargle; before e or I like the y in yes; elsewhere silent

d – like the d in dog but with the tongue pressed against the back of the upper teeth; at the beginning of a word or before e or I, like the j in jam; in the middle or end of a word, like the t in cat; after I like the ch in church

rt – pronounced as sht”

From that starting point, through the slow unraveling meanings of Gaelic words, the geography of this wild and windy land began to reveal itself: a corr is a forest; inver a river mouth and strath a broad valley. Words I had spoken for years without bothering to think about the meaning.

My words “what’s the point?” seemed, in themselves, pointless. Words have meaning; a language isn’t just a string of words, it’s a way of looking at the world. A dying language, in particular, holds the key to the land; I respected this in Hawaii, why did it take so long to respect it in Scotland?

My dismissal of the language was cruel: it wasn’t just that Gaelic had to move aside for a more useful English, it had been suppressed following Culloden, swept away with the Highland Clearances and, by the late 19th century, I read, children were punished for speaking it in schools.

With just a week in Skye, I didn’t gain much knowledge, but I did gain an enthusiasm to learn. I found that connection I had been looking for too: slowing down and taking in the country alone had given me a sureness in my identity that I had missed on the last 12 years of rushed visits, dashing between friends and family before packing up and heading out again. I felt Scottish, and I felt at home for the first time in a very long time. Full circle.

Oidhche mhath

Loch Leven Castle

“Where do you live?” The man selling tickets asked me.

“Well, I’m from here but I live in the U.S. now.”

“It’s just where you live that matters,” he said, ticking the box for United States. I felt crushed: I’m not Scottish enough anymore?

I went outside to wait for the boat to take me over to Loch Leven Castle. A small boat cruised up to the jetty and the ticket seller came running out of the office to make sure I didn’t get on it.

“That’s no yours! That’s just for the grass cutter.”

I watched as one of the lads standing on the jetty jumped into the lawnmower and drove it on to the tiny boat. It shuddered and looked close to capsizing before getting the thumbs up from the rest of the lads and taking off across the glass-like loch.

My boat came along after, with a cheerful, rosy-cheeked skipper. I boarded carefully and edged up against a group of kids. The boat slipped along the surface of the loch; the reflection of the mountains in sharp focus along the water.

It took only a couple of minutes to get from the mainland to the castle, which used to almost entirely take up the island, but Mary, Queen of Scots didn’t have it so easy.

Mary was imprisoned in the castle for 11 months from 1567-68, during which time she was forced to abdicate her throne to her infant son and miscarried twins she had conceived with the Earl of Bothwell. She only managed to escape by so charming the teenage relative of her gaoler that he stole the keys and found her a boat to row her over to the mainland, locking the gate behind him and tossing the keys into the loch—they were found hundreds of years later.

There’s not much left of the castle now, a ruined tower that you can climb up; a few dark cellars that I was too nervous to go down into, and a couple of signposted piles of rubble pointing out various rooms.

Aside from the buzz of the lawnmower, safely arrived at its destination, the tiny island was silent, allowing my thoughts to settle on Mary, our tragic Queen. Her escape wasn’t the end: she was to spend 19 years in custody in various English castles, before being executed in 1587.

There’s not a whole lot to do at Loch Leven Castle, besides thinking about Mary and gazing out across the loch as she herself must have done, hoping for a better future. I strolled up to the jetty and waited for another boat to take me back. I was on my own in this one…apart from the ghosts.

Edinburgh Nights

Back in the day, Edinburgh was ours. Last night—our first night out in the city for many years—we saw how far Edinburgh had slipped out of our grasp.

We made our way up through the bars of Broughton Street—this one, too busy; that one, not busy enough—picking out a few familiar faces along the way. We worked our way up to the one we could depend on, opposite the club that used to be called Honeycomb and up from where Wilkie House was, before it burned to the ground.

I have such a strong attachment to this bar that my heart crumpled at the scene it had changed into: hens, stags, chavs (of course I’m a snob and precious for saying so). Louise and I sat sulking in the corner. What happened? This wasn’t what we wanted. I couldn’t pretend not to understand that what I had wanted was to resurrect a ghost. Was it just the bar, or had everything changed?

Across the street to the club that used to be Honeycomb, now called Cabaret Voltaire, Louise and I moaned to the bouncers—at least they were the same. “The people that used to go there have all gone to another place now, down on Candlewick Row,” they told us, agreeing in distaste about the new scene. We lingered for a moment, thinking whether or not to head down to the new place, still chasing ghosts, when the DJ spotted us outside: another familiar face, the pieces of ‘our’ Edinburgh were slowly starting to take form.

We descended into the basement to a sweaty, strobe-lit, banging club. It wasn’t our club—though half of the DJs were the same, just under a new name—but when Underworld’s Cowgirl came on, for five minutes I was back there: late nineties, young and filled with lust for the city.

The moment passed and we were back where we were. Saying our brief goodbyes—for how long? Another ten years?—we left. If I hadn’t have left Edinburgh back then, I wouldn’t have felt the disappointment so sharply. But really, how could I have stayed? I realized that though I was wishing places to stay the same, I always kept moving so that I wouldn’t.

“Free Today With Your Super Soaraway Sun!”

Here’s something you don’t see so much in America–freebies with your newspapers and magazines.

Within an hour of landing in Britain, I’d got myself a new shopping bag, Benefit mascara, and make-up case–all included free with glossy magazines I only bothered to flip through.
Evidently The Sun had gone all out on the day I spotted a copy in the magazine rack at City Cafe in Edinburgh: You got a free loaf of bread, free DVD, and a cryptic “free Oasis” with this one.