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…

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