You have a week off work. You want to go backpacking, and you want to experience the best that Scotland can offer: mountains, sea, coastline, wildlife, and history. Where do you go? I think the answer is simple. It’s Skye.
When my brother James and I started planning our hike of the Skye Trail, we had few expectations. We knew that the trail weaves a complex route around the coastline and through the mountainous heartland before traversing the fabled Trotternish Ridge. We knew that, like all the best trails, there are several variants and no signposts. And – perhaps most of all – we knew that the weather on Skye is notoriously dreadful, and that we’d probably spend the week plodding along in mist and rain, wishing we’d stayed in the pub.
I was expecting a bit of exercise in the hills for a few days, but I hadn’t prepared myself to fall in love with Skye all over again.
‘Wow, look at this! Another ruin. And there’s a standing stone down there.’
I heard James’s call from some distance away. I’d crawled under the archway of a decaying house, part of the abandoned settlement at Boreraig. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine men driving cattle through here, a woman sitting outside her house weaving, perhaps children running along what must once have been a street. Now bracken and cotton grass grew tall where people once lived.
The standing stone marked a point of departure. Behind us lay Broadford, shops, people, our lives and jobs; ahead of us lay a journey into other worlds and realities.
Our first experience of Skye’s coastline was honest and rough with few hints of beauty. A wedge of cliffs plunged down through vegetation and bands of shattered rock to the edge of Loch Eishort. We followed a path up and down, always staying above the high-tide mark where washed-up fragments of multicoloured plastic looked like so many discarded Christmas decorations.
The Highland Clearances
Against a backdrop of major social and agricultural change in the 18th century, landowners throughout the Highlands began to clear their land of impoverished tenants to make room for more profitable sheep farming. Thousands of people were forced from their homes and many died in the process. On Skye it is impossible to ignore this dark episode of Scottish history; its legacy is everywhere. Abandoned settlements are found throughout the island and many areas have never been repopulated. The Skye Trail passes the abandoned village of Boreraig – an eerie and sad place, where in 1852 the community was removed by force and their houses burnt.
Later, at Suisnish, we discovered an abandoned farmhouse surrounded by trees bent low by the prevailing winds. Inside were the rusted remains of an old bed frame and the corpse of a long-dead lamb.
We camped at the head of Loch Slapin, having followed the coastline for most of the day, watching its moods change with the gusting winds and rain showers that swept in from the Atlantic. Bla Bheinn’s reptilian prow served as a constant reminder that soon we’d leave the coast and enter the mountains.