The Isle of Skye

The following is from the 1875 edition of Good Words (Edited by Norman MacLeod):

Part I

IT is difficult for a man to speak about his mother or the lady of his love, without either saying less than he feels, or saying more than other people can sympathize with. If, therefore, I should seem to speak with over-fondness of the Isle of Skye, let the excuse be that I was born there. The great blue mass of the Coolin, [It has become the fashion to call these the Cuchullin Hills, and it is hardly worth while to insist that it is a mistake, the name being a good and sonorous one if rightly pronounced. But the native name is The Coolin, without any addition, like The Caucasus, The Balkan, The Himalaya. The Gaelic name is Cuilfhionn, pronounced Coolyun, which has the advantage of being easier to say than Cuchuilin, there being some people that cannot sound the ch, who therefore inevitably call these mountains either Cuckoolin or Cutchullin.] with profile as clean cut and memorable as a historical face, was photographed in my mind before the days of Daguerre and Talbot, and the picture grows not dimmer but more distinct every year. Still more difficult is it to forget the kindly human souls, whose memories are associated with every green spot on which those great hills look down.

Some people are naturally not fond of islands, regarding them more or less as prisons, places not easy to get at, and sometimes still more difficult to get out of. Thus a certain metaphysical friend of mine maintained, when we were in Skye, the strange proposition that the sea is not so fine a horizon, nor so illimitable in suggestion, as dry land! Even from a metaphysical point of view, that seems to me absurd. But it so happens that my friend was born and bred far out of sight of the boundless sea, while to me it happened to be born so near it that I feel a natural brotherhood with sea-gulls and Solan geese, and a liking for everything belonging to the sea, with the exception of devil-fish, sharks, _c. For an island, simply as such, I confess to as great a partiality as Sancho had. I never saw one yet, however small, that was quite destitute of merit. There is always something of originality about an island, were it the most barren rock man ever set his foot on. It stands by itself, is self-contained, has its own distinct character and boundaries, not made by man, or changeable by him. What would Great Britain be if it were tacked on to the rest of Europe? It would be Great Britain no longer. Is not Iceland, in spite of its horrible wildness and cold, one of the most interesting bits of land in the world? And Ithaca? And Patmos? And Iona? And Juan Fernandez? And St. Helena? Did not Shakespeare, when he wished to invent a region for pure Imagination to work in, put Prospero on an island? Nothing but an island would suit for that atmosphere of the supernatural which is the setting of the Tempest, and makes it, of all his creations, the most perfectly ideal. The scenery of the Midsummer Night’s Dream is not so harmonious: you realise, in the midst of all the fairies, that it is but a dream. But Caliban and Ariel are beings of daylight, the natural inhabitants of that remote and isolated place.

Commend me, therefore, to an island; and of all islands, with the single exception of the “adjacent island” of Great Britain, commend me to the Isle of Skye! It’s all very well for Professor Blackie to sing of Mull as

“The fairest isle that spreads
Its green folds to the sun in Celtic seas;”

and let Mull be thankful that she has got so eloquent a lover to sing her praises. It was well to do so, considering that such a poet as the Ettrick Shepherd was so far left to himself as to speak somewhere of

“The rude and shapless hills of Mull.”

Set him up, indeed! Not to mention the majestic Ben More, there is no hill to be seen from Mount Benger equal in beauty of form or colour to Ben Talla; and, profane as it may seem, I would say that, but for association, St. Mary’s Loch itself is nothing to Loch Baa! If any doubt that, let them go and see it.

But though there is much to be said for Mull, much beauty and grandeur within its “green folds,” which few strangers ever come to look at, beyond the passing view they get between Oban and Ardnamurchan, it won’t do to put the crown on her head among all the Western Isles. That were privy conspiracy and schism, not to say flat treason and burglary, against the true Queen of the Isles! I have seen them nearly all, and would give them all their due. Arran I would call, on the whole, the most delightful, more enjoyable even than Skye, partly because smaller, though scarcely less wild, but chiefly because of the better condition of its inhabitants. Islay is, in a sense, the fairest of them all, the most rich and fertile, but for that very reason a little prosaic. Mull is more green and woody than the Isle of Mist, but her form and features, though good, are less noble and expressive. Jura is queenly in her stately and symmetrical grace, but she lacks variety. Tiree, though flat as a table, has many charms. Still more has Barray, though for the most part rough and rocky. So have North and South Uist, with their unnumbered lakes; and Harris, likest to Skye in mountain grandeur; and the great and boggy Lewis, with its glorious salmon streams, and its wild rocks, beaten by the wave that comes unbroken from Labrador. Colonsay and Oronsay are as two bright emeralds, set side by side in the blue sea. Very beautiful are Eigg and Cannay, and grand is Rum. The very names of Ulva and Go-metra are suggestive of wild green solitary beauty. Staffa and Iona, smallest of all, appeal most to the universal sense of wonder and reverence; the one as a prodigy of nature, the other as hallowed ground, ennobled by the dust of saints and mighty men of yore.

But nowhere among these western isles,

“That like to rich and various gems inlay
The unadorned bosom of the deep,”

is there to be found such a combination of grandeur and picturesque originality, if one may use the phrase, as in the Isle of Skye. Whichever of them be entitled to be called the fairest, it is past doubt that this island has long since been enthroned as the grandest of them all, the visible Queen, whose place and title it would be mere wantonness of disaffection or caprice in any one to dispute. There is no need for a plebiscite to settle that point. But if authority be required, there is one whose voice is worth a hundred thousand common ones, of whose voice, in fact, the common ones are but echoes:—

“Stranger! if e’er thine ardent step hath traced
The northern realms of ancient Caledon,
“Where the proud Queen of Wilderness hath placed,
By lake and cataract, her lonely throne,
Sublime but sad delight thy soul hath known,
Gazing on pathless glen and mountain high,
Listing where from the cliffs the torrents thrown
Mingle their echoes with the eagle’s cry,
And with the sounding lake, and with the moaning sky.

“Yes!’twas sublime but sad. The loneliness
Loaded thy heart, the desert tired thine eye!
And strange and awful fears began to press
Thy bosom with a stern solemnity.

Then hast thou wished some woodman’s cottage nigh,
Something that showed of life, though low and mean;
Glad sight, its curling wreath of smoke to spy,
Glad sound, its cocks’ blithe carol would have been,
Or children whooping wild beneath the willows green.

“Such are the scenes where savage grandeur wakes
An awful thrill that softens into sighs.

Such feelings rouse them by dim Rannoch’s lakes,
In dark Glencoe such gloomy raptures rise;
Or farther, where beneath the northern skies,
Chides wild Loch Eribol his caverns hoar—
But, be the minstrel judge, they yield the prize
Of desert dignity to that dread shore,
That sees grim Coolin rise, and hears Coriskin roar.”

I like to quote these verses (notwithstanding their being in all the guide-books), though I can’t quite sympathize with their ruling sentiment. That sense of loneliness and sadness which oppressed the genial soul of the minstrel, accustomed to Lowland greenery, and delighting in the haunts and the converse of men, is not natural to the born mountaineer, to whom the silence of the corrie is not the less delightful that it is unbroken by any sound of human voice. But these verses would prove, if he had written nothing else, how great a poet Sir Walter was, which some shallow people still are found to call in question, because, forsooth, he had none of the fiery passion of Byron, or the philosophical depth of Wordsworth, or the perfect music of Campbell, _c. I believe that Sir Walter will live, as a poet, as long as any of them; and the older the world gets the more perhaps will he be relished, for his manly and careless simplicity, his unaffected warmth, his unerring eye for the picturesque, his unerring touch of the chords that find response in the patriotic heart.

When I knew Skye first, the tourist was among its rarer Fauna. It was known to exist, and the fact that Dr. Johnson and Sir Walter had taken the trouble of visiting it was in its favour. But few strangers, except yachtsmen, bagmen, and a stray geologist now and then, ever invaded it. The facilities for getting to it were limited, and such a phenomenon as a male waiter in a white neckcloth was as unknown to the humble inns of the period (they were not called hotels then) as an electric telegraph or a needle-gun. Things are different now. There can be no doubt, whether one likes the fact or not, that Skye actually has become fashionable. The visit of a live Empress, though a discrowned one, would be sufficient for that, apart from anything that is to be seen there, apart from all reminiscences of King Hakon, Prince Charlie, Dr. Johnson, and Sir Walter Scott. It may be called, in fact, a distingue place to go to, which to the true British tourist is a great matter. Prince Arthur has been there, too, and left his clear pretty autograph in the visitors’ book at Sligachan. If our dear Queen would only visit the island—the rumoured possibility of which the autumn before last set the hearts of the inhabitants in a loyal flutter, then the fortune of Skye, or at least of the hotel-keepers of Skye, might be said to be made.

Personally, I have no wish to increase the number of visitors, and though the Spectator says, “Skye ought to be the Oberland of Scotland,” I am thankful to think that there is not the remotest chance of a railway ever being constructed to the top of Scur-nan-Gillean, or even through Glen Sligachan. But if people will come, by all means let them do so, and let us, who can, give them all the advice and assistance in our power On that broad Christian principle, I think it but fair to let the public know that they had better not come all together in the month of August. Those of them who have any partiality for sleeping in beds, rather than on tables and sofas, and who like the amenity of a basin-stand to themselves in the morning, cannot be certain in that month of these modest luxuries, and would do well, if they can, to come in June or July—June, by all means, if possible. Nor let them imagine that they are ill-used martyrs, and that the climate of Skye is the most detestable in creation, [A correspondent of the Glasgow Mail, whose sensational outcry found an echo in the London papers, last year described Skye thus:—”This island is gradually becoming an intolerable place for human beings to live in. Owing to the frightfully gloomy and stormy weather that prevails continually during summer and winter, spring and autumn, the very wealthiest can have no earthly pleasure in living in Skye.” There is nothing like drawing the bow well and strongly, when one’s hand is in! Not long after that was written, it was reported from Skye, that the island was suffering from prolonged drought. 1 hope the unfortunate writer of the above—presumably “a forlorn and shipwrecked brother” of the Sassenach race—has made himself the pioneer of that great army of emigrants from Skye of which he gave announcement, but which nobody else there seems to have heard of.] if they come there for three days, and the heavens refuse, even for such interesting creatures as them, to show one morsel of blue, or anything but an “even down-pour” of rain. Let them understand, nevertheless, that it does not always rain in Skye, and that if they can’t afford to wait for a fair blink, the rnore’s the pity for themselves. If they are in a hurry, Skye and its clouds (and its inhabitants) are in none, and the Coolin Hills will unveil their majestic heads in due time, and no sooner. To see them do so is worth a week’s waiting—to see the black peaks start out like living creatures, high above the clouds, which wildly career up the cleft ridges, now hiding and now revealing their awful faces, or calmly rising, like the spires and towers of a celestial city, out of a snowy sea of mist, which anon breaks into soft downy wreaths, white and graceful as the sea-bird’s wing, that go gliding with a ghostlike ease down the walls of precipice into the dark corries below, and then as softly float up again to the battlements above, leaving bare the mountain side, where from a hundred chasms and ravines the torrents come roaring down the glens, streaking their slopes as with threads of silver. All this is not to be seen every day or everywhere, and whoever does not think it worth enduring a few days’ rain to see it had certainly better go elsewhere than to Skye for enjoyment. But when the sun shines in Skye, and I can testify, on the word of a true man, that it does shine there sometimes, even for weeks, no words can describe the heavenly sweetness of its smile. The reader perhaps smiles at this, naturally. But let any one consider the difference between the shining of the sun in the Sahara, and the shining of the same sun in Glen Sligachan, and the thing will not seem absurd. The place he shines on, and the atmosphere through which he shines, make all the difference; with some allowance also, of course, for the difference in the eyes of those that look. Now the scenery of Skye is generally very grand, and the air is very pure and mild. I have seen on a miserable sloppy morning in November, after a night of unmitigated wind and rain, the sun break forth there with the softest of smiles, the light as it were sleeping on the green silent braes, and out on the glassy surface of the sea, leagues and leagues away, to the far horizon, bordered with the dim blue outlines of distant mountains and isles. In such a scene there is a strange charm, and the rudest bothie that sends up its wreathing smoke in the still morning air appeals to the heart and imagination with an unspeakable pathos, deepened by the contrast between the serene magnificence of nature, and the hard and joyless life of her human offspring. Talking of scenery, it is now a trite observation, that the taste for romantic scenery is quite modern. Scott and Wordsworth have had much to do with its development. Nor can it be doubted that it is now rather overdone, and is getting, like all good things, mixed with cant. It is quite amusing to find in the old books of travel, not only a total absence of enthusiasm about the scenery which we now go into raptures about, but even occasional expressions of horror at the wildness and bareness of the hills. Captain Birt (1746) expresses this feeling more than once very decidedly. Pennant (1774), who was an observant man, accustomed to fine scenery, and not without taste, does not bestow a single word of admiration on the scenery of Skye, except in describing the view from the top of Beinn-na-Caillich, where he says, “the serrated tops of Blaven affect with astonishment, and beyond them the clustered tops of Quillin” _c. He goes on to say, “The view to the north-east and south-west is not less amusing,” a very amusing phrase, characteristic of the period.

Neither Johnson nor Boswell has anything to say on the same subject, except in the way of contrasting the outer roughness and desolation with the comfort and elegance which they found within doors. In the very heart of the north-western Highlands, which, at the time of their visit in August, must have been in the full glory of heather, Johnson observes of the mountains, “They exhibit very little variety, being almost wholly covered with dark heath, and even that seems to be checked in its growth. What is not heath is nakedness, a little diversified by now and then a stream rushing down the steep. An eye accustomed to flowery pastures and waving harvests is astonished and repelled by this wide extent of hopeless sterility.” This feeling is to some extent shown even by Sir Walter Scott, as already noticed. “Sublime but sad,” is his phrase, and to him there would undoubtedly be no sense of exhilaration in the solitude of Coiruisg or Glen Sligachan. In like manner Alexander Smith, with all his love of Skye, very plainly had no intense enjoyment in that wild scenery. The grandeur of Glen Sligachan impressed him with more awe than delight, and the places in Skye which he liked best were, I rather think, the most green, cultivated, and Lowland in character. Custom and association have a great influence in determining one’s taste in these things; and it is unreasonable to expect that all men, even men of highly poetic nature, should take pleasure in scenery devoid of those softer charms to which they have been accustomed.

But it is a mistake to suppose, as is sometimes done, that the beauties of the Highlands are not appreciated by the natives, and that with them, too, the taste for scenery is an affair of cultivation. The finest poems of Duncan MacIntyre, in his way as true a genius as Burns, and purer, are descriptive. A long and beautiful poem of his is devoted to a single mountain (Ben Dorain), another to one corrie (Coire-Cheathaich), and he paints every feature of them with the hand of a master. And yet this man was but a gamekeeper, destitute of learning, ignorant, I believe, of all the three R’s, and with less knowledge of English probably than the majority of Highland street-porters. For him the love of nature and of scenery was as little the product of fashion and teaching, as was his delight in the warbling of birds and the belling of red deer.

It is not desirable to encourage any one to visit Skye, who has not a natural and true relish for wild scenery. But it is well in this educational age to contribute what we can to the diffusion of knowledge and the extinction of ignorance. People from the south are apt to have exaggerated ideas of the difficulty of getting to Skye. In England especially, a plentiful lack of knowledge on the subject of geography is sometimes found even among persons supposed to be educated, just as in France we find brilliant men of letters disdainfully careless about such trifles as the proper names and titles of British dignitaries —Sir Peel, Sir Palmerston, _c. Such persons will be found to have but a hazy conception of the difference between the Hebrides and the Orkney and Shetland Isles; and as they may be supposed never to look at a map except when they become tourists, it is most natural that they should imagine Skye to be the veritable Ultima Thule, a desolate and inaccessible region,

“Placed far amid the melancholy main,”

where all the people wear tartan and kilts, and see second sights, and never see the Daily Telegraph. Let such persons know, then, that there is no more difficulty in getting to Skye from London than in going to Gravesend. The distance is rather greater, that is all; the danger is perhaps less. Let them also be aware that if they dislike the sea, they can still get to Skye with the merest minimum of nautical effort—the ferry between the island and the mainland being passable in about ten minutes. It may also be a comfort to them to know, that the island is quite free from banditti (armed ones, at least); that there are only two policemen to about 20,000 of a population; that the inhabitants are, with the exception of a dozen or two, all Protestants; that there is, or used to be, an abundance of churches and schools (the latter, strange and sad to say, suffering in the meantime from the Education Act, or its administrators); that the telegraph wires go as far as Dunvegan; that there used to be in summer a daily post, which our poor nation, it seems, cannot now afford; that several copies of the Times come regularly; that there are shops where paper and ink can be got for writing letters to that great organ; that beef can be got, perhaps not daily; also cigars, creditable to the British manufacturer; that there is abundance of bitter beer, and a limited supply of Bristol bird’s-eye ; and that, in some places, the weary and luxurious traveller can even refresh exhausted nature with draughts of Moet and Chandon. Let no one therefore imagine that going to Skye is in the least a formidable undertaking, as it was in Dr. Johnson’s time. But let them not imagine that they will find everything exactly to their mind on getting there, and let them not abuse the place or the people because of such short-coming. Rome was not made in a day; still less was Skye. Above all, if they have not philosophy enough to stand a few days’ rain, let them, I repeat, go elsewhere for enjoyment—Aden, for instance, or Timbuctoo.

I have spoken of June as a desirable time to visit Skye. One great reason for this is the length of the days: there is scarcely any darkness at that time. I have read a newspaper there in June as late as midnight, with no light but that of the sky. Apart from the pleasure of witnessing the prolonged effects of sunset and twilight in that season, and doing so with comfort in the open air, the length of the day is an immense advantage for the purpose of taking long excursions; and all the best things in Skye require a long day to get at them and enjoy them. Another eminent recommendation of this month, even to the most hardy and romantic traveller, is that you have a much better chance than later in the season of getting a bed. There are few things more disheartening, not to say exasperating, than to arrive at a comfortable hostelry late in the evening, after a heavy day’s work, and be told that you cannot possibly be accommodated, but that you can have a “machine” to take you on to another place ten miles off, where you may, perhaps, get a bed ! And you, the hungry and weary soul, who receive this insufferable information, see, with feelings not to be described, a lot of careless comfortable fellows lounging about in slippers, their beds secure, enjoying the balmy evening air, smoking their delicious weeds, and making their plans for the morrow, while perhaps, to add to the attraction of the scene and your exasperation, you get a glimpse, on a neighbouring knoll, of the fair creature with whom you had such a pleasant conversation the other day on the deck of the Clansman. In such circumstances the best reply to a discouraging intimation from the host is simply to say that you don’t mean to budge; and if you combine firmness with good humour, and are not too proud, there is no fear but something can be done for you.

After these remarks, it is perhaps unnecessary to say that the hotel accommodation in Skye, though good so far as it goes, is not yet adequate to supply with comfort the wants of the tourists who crowd there in autumn. It may even be said that no one who has not the good fortune to be independent of inns can at present with full enjoyment, or without great fatigue, see all that is worth seeing in the island. For that purpose, you must either have command of a yacht, or have friends in the island. If you have both, and go in the height of summer, you can see Skye to perfection, and only then. The reason is that the distances between the hotels and the chief places to be seen are considerable, and that as regards the great point of attraction, Coiruisg, there is no getting at it, for anybody without fatigue, unless from the sea. The nearest inn is at Sligachan, and the next to that is at Broadford; from the one you can’t get to Coiruisg under three hours, and from the other in from three to four at the shortest.

I consider Sligachan the right central point in Skye for the “bona fide traveller,” i.e. the person who desires to get as near the mountains as possible, and to make their acquaintance. That there is no larger hotel there would be a wonder anywhere else than in Skye. Whether or not “a million might be spent in Skye, and spent to pay,” as the Spectator says, there can be no doubt that at any similar point of vantage in Switzerland there would probably be from three to six large hotels. The modest hostelry at Sligachan has, in ordinary circumstances, about a dozen beds available; but, I believe, that from thirty to forty people were sometimes put up there during my last visit. Of course, the remark is obvious, that during winter and spring a larger house would be useless. But the same remark applies to the hotels on the Righi, and other extraordinary places in Switzerland. I have no doubt whatever that a house of one hundred beds at Sligachan would be full every night in the season, if it were as well conducted as the present house is. I say this much for Sligachan, both because I regard it as the proper centre for the lover of mountains, and also because it seems at present not to be getting quite fair play. The tourists generally rush to Portree, drive from thence to Sligachan for Coiruisg, and drive back again as fast as they can. Few remain a night, or more than a night, from choice. They have generally an immense desire to be at the nearest convenient point for escaping out of the island, for getting their letters and papers, for buying stamps and envelopes. Even the small pavements of Portree, and the fact that it has pretensions to be called a town, a place with churches, banks, hotels, a court-house, a jail, and at least three streets, limited possibilities for the display of costume, are clear points of superiority over the desolate though glorious solitude of Sligachan.

People going to Skye are generally in a great hurry: otherwise, if they cared to see all that is worth seeing, they would begin at Kyleakin, where there is a capital hotel, which had the honour, two or three years ago, of harbouring, for a few nights, no less remarkable a visitor than Thomas Carlyle. The view here of an evening, when the sun sets over the distant Minch, lighting the hills of Applecross, and the archipelago between it and Skye, with infinite varieties of colour, is what “Mr. Thomas” would call “a sight like few.” The Kyle (strait) itself, with its speckled rocky shores and wooded banks, is strangely attractive, and seldom wants the animation and picturesqueness imparted by passing craft of every size and description. Through that narrow strait the long ships of the Norsemen were wont to sweep in days of old, on their way to and from their Sudreyar or South Isle Kingdom. From the gallant Hakon it undoubtedly derives its name, and very interesting it is to find the “Cailleach-Stone” mentioned, by the same Gaelic name which it still bears, in the Norse chronicle of his fatal expedition in 1263. Near that stone, which is marked by a beacon, is the anchorage of the Kyle, one of the best of many good harbours on the coasts of Skye. From Kyle delightful excursions may be made by sea to Balmacara, Loch Duich, and Glenelg; and by land to several places of great beauty in the parish of Sleat, including the drive to Lochindaal, from which the view of the opposite coast is superb, and by Isle Ornsay to Armadale, the beautiful seat of Lord Macdonald. A few miles from Isle Ornsay are Gillen and Ord, sunny spots, facing the south, from which Horatio McCulloch and Alexander Smith took their wives; between them is the picturesque ruin of Dun Sgathaich, perched on a lonely rock above the waves, full of traditions of the great Cuchullin, who was nursed in the Isle of Mist; and near Ord is one of the loveliest little birchen glens in all Scotland, to see the sun from which, sinking over the long ridge of Blaveinn, bathed in splendour, is

“A sight to dream of, not to tell.”

But this is getting into the guide-book vein, so it is time to shut up for the present.