Friday, 21 September 2007

Squelching on Skye

So, where was I?

Ah yes: Day 3 of our Skye adventure.

Although we had slept well and were delighted to see the rain had stopped, the weather remained grey and drear. However, we were all keen to do one of the pre-planned walks we'd promised ourselves, and the most sensible option seemed to be Rubh an Dunain - a 7.5 mile walk along the edge of Loch Brittle, to the ruins of a chieftain's house (chief of Clan MacAskill til the 19th century) and an iron age Dun on the shores of Loch na h-Airde.

In happy accord, we set off on our walk, which rates as a grade 3 in difficulty, with a bog factor of 5. They're not at all wrong, either. Without waterproof trousers I would have been utterly soaked within moments, but as it was it was rather fun squelching my way through the peaty moss. When we discovered a series of rivers in need of fording, the fun only continued ... especially for the dogs, who found themselves unceremoniously flung through the air by Spartan and caught by me. Baffie in particular was deeply affronted at such treatment - but after Bridie attempted to swim the river and would have been swept away had Spar not kept tight hold of the lead, instead almost garotting her as her little paws flailed at a 90 degree angle to her body, there was no way we were risking having them cross under their own steam.

The walk was beautiful, the weather almost tolerable, with occasional patches of sunshine struggling through the cloud, and the company good. We fortified ourselves with the odd dram of Edradour from the hipflask Spar bought me for my 30th, and Janus managed to traverse a steep hillside path with only minor heebie jeebies. We found the Dun, and I think we saw the chieftain's house, and the dogs had a whale of a time. In all it took us around 5 1/2 hours, which was slow going, but I enjoyed every second.

Back at the campsite, we cleaned ourselves up with showers and headed back to The Old Inn for supper. We'd been impressed by the smell of other people's orders the night before, and I was delighted to find the food lost nothing in the tasting. My steak pie (I knoooow! Bor-ing!) was rich and flavoursome, the chips excellent - and pudding was eagerly shared between us. We played more cards, drank a few pints, and reluctantly left the warmth of our new home only when we could think of no more excuses to remain. Still, the exercise had brought a healthy glow to our cheeks, and a few yawns were doing the rounds, while the previous night's comfort suggested this camping lark wasn't so bad after all, once you'd ironed out the kinks.

Poor fools, to be lulled into such false security!

Back at Glen Brittle, the wind was blowing a real gale. Our tents roared, indignant to be tethered to the ground when they longed to fly off in the storm, making sleep all but impossible. The rain lashed the canvas with equal fury, and from Spartan's tent could be heard many curses as water and icy gusts swept over him. Alas, while my sympathy was with him (for he had no inner lining to his tent) I was somewhat caught up in my own misery - while poor Fisher not only had the noise to contend with, but found herself acting as a wind break for me as well! (I can offer her only scant comfort by assuring her she wasn't a very good one, and I was almost as miserable as she).

Needless to say, the faces that emerged from the tent on our fourth day, were a far cry from the well rested, bright-eyed companions of yesterday. True, Spartan showed his eternal good humour by laughing at his failure to secure even a single, solitary wink of sleep, but the creases and bags marring all our faces revealed our true night time agonies. Nevertheless, not a word of complaint was uttered, save in the most light-hearted manner, and we embarked on day four with a will.

We'd decided to head to the island of Raasay for a moderate walk, before Spartan headed back to Auld Reekie and reunion with his wife. We piled into Keith and headed for the ferry, which was prompt - and tiny. Only twelve cars could fit on board at once, and with Keith and a caravan the numbers were reduced. The crossing took 15 minutes, and on the other side we headed straight for the nearest hotel for some nosh before walking. Sated by prawn sandwiches, we then set off on our walk.

Raasay is stunning. We were honoured by sunny spells, which lit up the heather and bracken like fireworks, while thick fields of ferns were already touched by autumnal rust. Our road took us along a brae, looking out over the sea to the mainland, to the cleared village of Hallaig and a memorial to Sorley Maclean. The memorial cairn overlooks an indigo bay, with majestic cliffs all around, and a brass plaque bears this poem, in both Gaelic and English:

Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood

There's a board nailed across the window
I looked through to see the west
And my love is a birch forever
By Hallaig Stream, at her tryst

Between Inver and Milk Hollow,
somewhere around Baile-chuirn,
A flickering birch, a hazel,
A trim, straight sapling rowan.

In Screapadal, where my people
Hail from, the seed and breed
Of Hector Mor and Norman
By the banks of the stream are a wood.

To-night the pine-cocks crowing
On Cnoc an Ra, there above,
And the trees standing tall in moonlight -
They are not the wood I love.

I will wait for the birches to move,
The wood to come up past the cairn
Until it has veiled the mountain
Down from Beinn na Lice in shade.

If it doesn't, I'll go to Hallaig,
To the sabbath of the dead,
Down to where each departed
Generation has gathered.

Hallaig is where they survive,
All the MacLeans and MacLeads
Who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim:
The dead have been seen alive,

The men at their length on the grass
At the gable of every house,
The girls a wood of birch trees
Standing tall, with their heads bowed.

Between The Leac and Fearns
The road is plush with moss
And the girls in a noiseless procession
Going to Clachan as always

And coming boack from Clachan
And Suisnish, their land of the living,
Still lightsome and unheartbroken,
Their stories only beginning.

From Fearns Burn to the raised beach
Showing clear in the shrouded hills
There are only girls congregating,
Endlessly walking along

Back through the gloaming to Hallaig
Through the vivid speechless air,
Pouring down the steep slopes,
Their laughter misting my ear

And their beauty a glaze on my heart.
Then as the kyles go dim
And the sun sets behind Dun Cana
Love's loaded gun will take aim.

It will bring down the lightheaded deer
As he sniffs the grass round the wallsteads
And his eye will freeze: while I live,
His blood won't be traced in the woods.

After reading the plaque we headed onwards to seek out Hallaig, leaving Janus behind as she found the hillside path too frightening. Unfortunately I was leading and failed to register we were supposed to cross a stream at some point, so led us well off track. By the time the path vanished entirely, we all decided we didn't really need to visit Hallaig after all ...

We did see it from afar, though, and there isn't much to look at, so I hope people don't feel too cheated by my poor navigation.

Back at the memorial we picked up Janus and headed back to Keith. In all, the walk took around 2 1/2 hours and was around 3 1/2 miles long - so an easy stretch of the legs (although I was beginning to feel the first stirrings of shame over my fitness levels. I thought my running, cycling and swimming would stand me in good stead - but my muscles had long started to feel the effects of our walks!).

We made it back to the ferry with plenty of time to spare, and dropped Spartan off so he could make his way home. After bidding him fond farewell, sad to lose his eternally cheery company, we decided to explore Raasay from Keith's cosy lap and set off on a drive.

It was absolutely glorious. The road twisted and turned over braes and valleys, passing always in view of the sea, until we had to pause for Fisher's ridiculous bladder. However, we were glad we did as she was able to read a plaque for us, which informed us we were heading onto Callum's Road.

Callum was just some Raasay local who lived in a neglected settlement at one end of Raasay, served only by a dirt track. The authorities refused to fund a proper road, so Callum decided to build one. By himself. With his bare hands. It took him 20 years, and as a mark of respect he now has a plaque. (I think he got a BEM as well.)

Once we'd driven to the end of Callum's road and back, we stopped at the Dolphin Café for a cuppa, then jumped on the ferry back to Skye. Back to the camp site we went, for a cold supper and a wash and brush up, before going back to - yes indeedy - The Old Inn. There we discovered the delights of a game called Once Upon a Time, where you have to make up a fairy story with the aid of cards in your hand, and whiled away a few hours in warm pleasure. We knew, after all, that the following day brought both treats and trials - not to mention a final night in a goddamned tent - so we took our time enjoying the simple delights of an evening in the pub with pals.