Tuesday, June 09, 2009

from Raasay Island, the Inner Hebrides, Scotland

We’re walking back from our last hike on Skye. It’s evening, but the sun is still with us. June, the month of the white nights: even as it sets, the night light turns from dusk to dawn and in the space of a few hours the sun is with us again. I love this about the north, even as I dislike the seasons of darkness that inevitably must follow.

In someone’s front yard, there is a car with a For Sale sign on it.
How much, do you think?
I glance at the price – L550.
Really? That’s pretty cheap. Ed walks over to take a closer look at the ten year old Saab.
The owner comes out the front door. We’re just curious – we explain.
No problem.
Is it in good condition?
Yeh, we just don’t use it. Figure someone else could maybe take it over.
It’s a good price, but, unfortunately, the wheel is on the funny side – Ed says.
The owner laughs. I figured you couldn’t take it back in your packs.

We don’t have to take it back, I tell Ed. We’ll keep it here, on Skye and use it each time we come, which maybe should be quite often.

The Skye bug has bit me hard.

But in the morning, we have to leave, at least this corner of the island. The following day we’ll be making connections back to Edinburgh and there isn’t a good way to do that if you begin your journey in sleepy Elgol.

Sleepy indeed. People here work on Skye time, Leslie (Robin’s wife) tells us. We’re having the hot water tank replaced today. Several years ago, we were told that the old one is ready to explode. We said – change it! So now, today, they finally decided to show up.

We wave good bye and heave our sacks to the side of the road to wait for the bus back to Broadford. Send us an email when you get safely back home! Robin calls out.

We rumble back along the one lane road. Suddenly so familiar. Red Cuillins, Black Cuillins. Sheep fields, inlets, mountains across the sound.

We’ll be overnighting in Broadford, but we still have a good part of the day for other pleasures. I suggest a ferry trip to the further Hebrides island of Raasay.

In Broadford, at the bus stop (we need yet another bus to take us to the ferry landing up north), we weigh our options. We have all our gear with us. The bus is about to pull up. A Skye man listens to the deliberations. Just leave it with the ferry boys, they’ll take care of it for ya.

At the ferry landing, the wind is giving us a good whipping. I’m happy that there is an indoor space for the twenty minute ride across the sound. Skye weather. Always the subject before you, always setting the pace for the day. But how is it that an island so much farther north than Wisconsin never has snow? And can let you feel a sprinkle on the face, even as the sky looks mostly blue? (Ed tells me -- it's like you: you're the only one I know who can laugh and cry all at the same time!)

We leave our packs on the boat. We’ll be catching the late afternoon one back! I shout against the wind.

The island is a springtime marvel. Wild rhododendrons are crazily overflowing with pink blooms. And they grow everywhere – on hills, in forests, lining the sheep fields, the roads, the waterfront.


We have in mind a hike around the southern end of Raasay. This is a place of great tales of the MacLeod clan and the name still dominates the island. You can see it on the Memorial to island war heroes of the Great War (and then subsequently, on the other side of the monument, of the Second World War).


I want to see the Raasay House, where James Boswell once partied with Macleod and "his ten beautiful daughters" (so the books say). I never asked for whiskey in my porridge (some b&bs offer it), but I hear he had a splendid start to the day with it, before setting out on his own Raasay hike.

We stay to the shoreline at first. Past a lovely playing field, with a posted sign: "please do not use on Sundays."


And then we come to a police tape. The road is cordoned off. A man in uniform ambles over.

We want to see the Raasay House.
Can’t. It burned down.
Oh! When?
Just this January.
Don’t know yet. The inspector is still investigating.
No clues?
No. He’s also the fire chief and the police chief around here. Small island.
You’re not from here?
No, from Inverness. They hired us to guard the place.

I point to the construction down by the waterfront. What are they building there?
A new dock. The old one is falling apart. This one should have been finished years ago.
They work on Skye time?
Actually no. They’re English. Slow on the job.
(Ah. Make no assumptions.)
Well, anyway, it’s a fine day!
Aye, first time in a while. Rains all the time here.

We bypass the tragically blackened skeleton of the Raasay House and head further north. Past "the gardener’s cottage" (whose gardens does he tend?)…


(to the gardner:) Good day! First fine one in a long time here, no?
Aye, fine day. But, not the first, no. Wee sprinkle in the mornings, then sun, two weeks straight now!
(Ah. It’s all in how you regard it.)

The views to Skye and the sea beyond are incredible.


From the shore up toward the narrow road, sheep fields are bordered by carefully built stone walls.


The island may be small (just 14 miles long and maybe 3 miles across), but it is handsomely tended.

We turn off toward the forest – a spooky place of fallen timbers (a wind storm? Island weather!) and secret walls and within them, secret gardens.


Raasay feels different. Greener than the craggy Skye.

We pause at the one place on the island where you can get a refreshment. It will remain in my mind as the most atmospheric café of this trip.


I ask for tea and scones with jam and we sit there, at the wooden table, letting the streaming sun warm the quiet space around us.


A child pokes her head out from behind the door. There is laughter on the other side of the wall. Family life. But whose? I can’t tell. Like the secret wall and garden, the fire, the fallen forest, it is a part of the island that will remain unknown to us, the strangers passing through.


Ed asks – can we skip the next ferry and stay a bit longer? It’s so nice here.

And we do. He reads a book he finds on the history of the iron mine here (worked by German POWs during the Second World War). I read a magazine about the Hebrides. Minutes pass. The last ferry will be leaving for Skye soon.

We head back. Past the row houses where miners once lived...


Past the laundry, fiercely buffeted by the wind from the north...


... to the boat landing, where the ferry is about to deliver provisions from the mainland and from Skye, and pick us up for the journey back.


Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward, the sailors cry
Carry the lad that's born to be king
Over the sea to skye

One last evening walk along the shores of the Isle of Skye …


One last dinner – of fish stew, along with the heady Skye beer, golden and rich…


One last white night on the islands.