Thursday 21 September 2017

Isle of Skye: Loch, stock and smoking trains

Eilean Donan castle on Lock Duich.
Eilean Donan castle on Lock Duich.
Cafe in Holmisdale
Highland cattle
Thomas Breathnach

Thomas Breathnach

Thomas Breathnach discovers a home from home on the Isle of Skye

They say fàilte, we say fáilte. There may be more than a slip of the fada separating us from our Scottish clans to the north, but with a Celtic language revival currently swelling on both our shores, age-old cultural ties seem to be knitting all the closer.

The far-flung Hebrides islands remain the heartland of the Gaidhlig tongue, so I decided to hit the rathad for a weekend adventure to the most accessible of the archipelago and find out if Skye really is the limit.

Rental car in tow, my Gaelic getaway began at Glasgow Airport on a misty Friday evening.

"Here's your map to help you get lost," jibed the desk agent.

Yet just 60 miles of plain cruising later, I'd already reached my first pit stop at Ewich House, deep in the wilds of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

With local eateries understandably thin on the ground, owner Ian tipped me off to the nearby Drovers Inn (thedroversinn.co.uk), something of a local institution for locals and passing tourists.

Amid the heavy drizzle, the gothic-style tavern, with its dim candelabras, mounted deer heads and kilt-clad barmen, is a fantastic oasis of Alba kitsch.

Sitting down to a hearty plate of gammon steaks, in the same bar where Rob Roy once dined on haggis and ale, it seemed that, just two hours into my stay, I'd already struck Highland cliché gold.

The next morning, I continued on my journey north through a charming route of ancient Caledonian pinelands, salmon streams and knotted willows, adding a fairy-tree magic to the landscape.

It would be a further three-hour drive to Skye but, as sightseeing luck would have it, the route is flanked by many of the nation's national treasures.

At Fort William, ski chairs dangled idly alongside a sugar-dusted Ben Nevis. Near the village of Dornie, Scotland's iconic Eilean Donan castle silhouetted into the waters of Loch Duich, while at Loch Ness -- just a five-mile detour off the route -- tug boats ferried eager tourists off for a morning of Nessie tracking.

All I needed was a busking bag piper and an Aberdeen Angus lunch (but both came within the hour).

While romantics still opt to take the ferry to Skye from the port of Mallaig (€47 per vehicle return), with off-season timetables and gusty seas, I made my entry via the bridge which has linked the island to the mainland since 1995.

The jagged Cuillin peaks provided an instantly dramatic skyline, as I cruised across the deserted island's open roads, feeling like the star of a real-life car commercial.

The scenery was rugged and vast, boasting one of Britain's most spectacular mountain ranges.

Although the same size as Co Kildare, Skye, which butterflies into the Sea of the Hebrides with magnificently diverse peninsulas, is home to just 9,000 islanders.

This truly is a getaway island -- even the capital Portree is a sleepy affair, aside from some lively young shinty players.

Skye is perhaps most famous for its hiking, so I headed for the green velvet ridges of the Trotternish range, which dramatically fold and saw across the island's northernmost tip.

At the peak of the Old Man of Storr -- a jagged mountain stack said to resemble a human face -- one billion years of geology spilled out before me.

It felt like landing on Middle Earth, and, unsurprisingly, the area is also one the best spots in Britain to hunt for dinosaur fossils.

"We call it the Jurassic island," a local hiker informed me, as we inhaled the vista.

Much like the west of Ireland, Skye is a burgeoning haven for artsy souls.

The next morning, I began my day with a visit to the Red Roof in Holmisdale (redroofskye.co.uk), a trendy gallery-cum-café run by Highland couple Elly and Craig.

"It's paradise here -- we generally only tend leave the island for a good curry," Craig told me.

The cottage, with its galvanised roof creating a splash of scarlet across the green glens, was an ideal haunt for a lazy Sunday morning spent perusing paintings, sipping coffee and musing over the views beyond.

Outside, local villagers carrying psalm books congregated at the local Free Church of Scotland, a conservative order known for its strict observance of the Sabbath.

"I don't think they'd be too happy if they saw us baking these scones," Elly joked.

After experiencing some of the best weather on the island this year, it was only natural the ying and yang of Scotland's climate would yield some rain.

And rain it did. My afternoon adventures of sea kayaking and wildlife spotting were moored but, luckily enough on Skye, sometimes the fauna simply comes to you.

That same day saw me spotting a herd of red deer, a golden buzzard harrying the heathers, and a skein of pink-footed geese dramatically swooping over my motor.

Even the shaggy-coated Highland cattle, with their yak-like tonnage, were a beast to behold.

Beyond the Outer Hebrides, Skye remains the main stronghold of Gaelic in Scotland, with the language spoken by 40pc of the population here.

A visit to the local supermarket here throws up a familiar lexicon of teatha, aran and bainne signs.

To seek out the heart of the Gaelic revival, however, I took a spin to Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Skye's Gaelic college in Sleat, which was established by the late language activist Sir Iain Noble.

The college is open to the public but with a no English policy, you may find dormant memories of Ulster-Irish cluastuiscints can help you out.

Channelling my inner Bibi Baskin, I exchanged a warm "Ciamar a tha thu?" with the receptionist, before I'm offered directions to the café via a vocally assisted semaphore.

It was quite the melting pot.

I pulled up a pew to hear the blended dialects of a language student from Germany, a poet from Kerry and a local college lecturer, who told me that Scottish Gaelic, much like the topography, is closely related to the now extinct Irish of Rathlin Island.

As homes from home go, Skye comes pretty close.

Just down the road was Eilean Iarmain, a quaint heritage hamlet of white-washed cottages and a number of Gaelic-speaking enterprises, also established by Noble.

Among the hotel, tweed shop and whisky distillery, I found perhaps the most charming pub on Skye, Am Praban (The Shebeen). Inside, with the lilt of traditional Scottish music and an open fire, it was just the bonnie nook to savour a peaty, toffee-toned scotch.

But is that English coming from the kitchen? "Oh gosh," smirked the barman, "Sir Ian is probably rolling in his grave."

With weather causing a lockdown on Skye, and quite possibly a lock-in at Am Praban, I retired back to the Rowans, my luxury, self-catering B&B, perched on a windswept moor above Portnalong.

It was stocked daily with delicious gourmet goodies, so I rustled up some smoked-salmon toasties before lulling to the sounds of the storm outside.

With 500 miles of spectacular scenes behind me, I realised that to visit Skye isn't just to experience something new, but also to celebrate something common -- even if that can include an aimsir.

Weekend Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in Life