Sunday, June 07, 2009

from Elgol on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

We wake up to our first morning on this northern island. Not to be believed! In between the high clouds, there are streaks of blue sky. The forecaster was wrong: we will have a bright day ahead.

And that’s so important, here, on the Isle of Skye. I’ve heard stories where you can travel here for a week and never understand that the beauty of the landscape is in the rugged Black and Red Cuillins (“an adrenalin-drenched challenge with sublime hill and sea vistas” says one book). It’s not unusual for them to be completely hidden on a typical low-cloud cover day.

Downstairs, Tony and his wife (and their little boy) fix us a superb breakfast. Eggs, salmon, yogurt, heaps of fresh fruit, muesli, toasts, and jam made from the berries of Skye.

We eat leisurely. There are only two buses to where we are heading today and we’ve already missed the first.

Our son is jumping off the wall this mornin’ I think he’s so worked up on account of the sun, Tony says.

Well, me too. We pack up our gear and hike up to the village (Broadford -- the second largest on the island) toward the bus stop.



There is a narrow, one lane road that winds up the hills and down to Elgol, a small fishing village on the other side of the island. It dead ends there, so that the bus (a small vehicle that seats maybe two dozen) turns around and comes right back again.

The driver is not in a hurry. Realizing that I liked taking photos, he pulls over several times and suggests a shot here or there. But really, he drives slowly enough (what with the sheep on the road and the occasional car going the other way) that I can take plenty from the seat of the bus.

the older Red Cuillins

the younger Black Cuillins

Finally, he comes to a sharp stop. You’re here, he tells us.

Elgol is small (population: 75) and so I hardly notice that we are anywhere. True, somewhere down the road, there is, they say, a wee general store. And even a coffee shop that stays open only during slow times (“the man doesn’t like to work so if it gets too busy, he closes shop”). And a school with 15 pupils, ages 5 - 11. Where we're dropped, there is also a restaurant with rooms. For two nights, this will be home for us.

Robin, the restaurateur/inn keeper is yet a repeat of the same old story – lived in England, came here as a child, returned for good.

I should learn about people here in Scotland who hold a passion for outdoor life: they think and talk differently than I do. Andy, down at the Water Sports Center, the man who rented out the kayak to us, claimed the rapids were nothing more than a ripple, to be scooted over with hardly a thought. And now, here I am engaged in the same back and forth with Robin:

Can you suggest a hike for today?
Do you like mountains?
Well, yes, but (and listen, Robin, these are serious buts!) I don’t like big drop offs or paths that go through cascading scree.
But you’re okay with going straight up?
Yes… (he has to realize that I have my pride).
And you’re fast enough?
Here Ed jumps in to put a reality check: Robin, we’re old.
Robin laughs. On my sixtieth I practically ran up the mountain, just to prove that I can.
I’m thinking – I’m 56. I can do this. Without the run of course.

He gives us some tips. Follow the path toward the bay and then veer toward the heath. Just go up, cross country, until you get to the ridge. If it feels like it’s too much, turn back. But, you’ve got the weather for it, that’s for sure.

We head out. Initially, it is an easy trail. We know where we're going: toward the jagged peaks of the Skye hills.


But an hour into the trek comes the challenge. The path up the mountain tapers off. We are on our own. We scramble across heather-covered banks, past streams, up up toward the ridgeline (before the peaks, there is a saddle which we think we can manage without the need to climb rocks).


first heather buds

As the incline sharpens and the boulders turn into cliff-like structures, I waver. I have a wild and uncontrollable imagination as to tumbling down steep mountains. We haven’t a trail: we’re making it up as we go along. A slip and a fall would be bad news: too many ways to crack your head on the boulders even before you get half way down the mountain. Though, damn it, it would be a beautiful roll down to the sea!


When it becomes clear that we need to finish the climb on our hands and knees, I’m ready to call it quits.

And yet, we’re so close to the ridge! Still, I say to Ed – let’s turn back. He’s agreeable. This is no place to push someone to do more. As we retreat, I do an about face and, without comment, head back up. I don’t know what switch went off in my mind, but suddenly, reaching the ridge becomes all important. Look ahead, don't look down, keep steady, I'm only 56, I'm not running, shut off the imagination, don't slip, just a few more steps, well maybe more than just a few...

And we're there!

(the other side of the mountain)

The wind is vicious up there! I am convinced that it will toss us down if we linger – and now with a choice: I can tumble on either side of the mountain!


We don’t linger. Going down is arduous, but without the scare, it’s simply a matter of finding an optimal way to reach bottom.

Ed mutters – sheep do this without batting an eye. I mutter back – they have four legs.

Sheep do this, deer do this. Magnificent, fearless stag.


The clouds are hovering over the peaks now. An occasional gust of sprinkles hits us, but we know we're safe from big showers.


As we head home, we look at the extraordinary sky, showing off all that it can do in one corner of the island.


Seven hours later (it took us that long to do the hike) we're back in our room next to the restaurant. I’m delighted with the platter of local seafood that Robin cooks up for us (including the delicious Skye "squatties" – little langoustine-like shellfish that I’ve not seen before).


Ed is dozing off before our plates are cleared. I tell him to go on to sleep. I’ll finish up here. With a glass of port to give a sweet taste to the end of an island day.