|21/08/2013||Filled under caravanning, mountains, Scotland, Skye|
We drive Ducky one hundred and thirteen miles in a northerly direction before turning off the road down a steep track heading towards the River Coe then park on a flood bank just a stone’s throw from the water. The air is warm, and were it slightly warmer we might have been tempted to swim here for there is a deep inviting pool of dark water in the otherwise shallow river but just as we come to rest the rain arrives, so we postpone such foolish notions for the moment. The Red Squirrel campsite has served us before as a convenient resting place and once again it provides us with a quiet night and plenty of sleep. The driving has been easy, as it so often is in the Highlands, on almost traffic-free roads with just the bends and the views to contend with and we sleep well, with ale inside us bought at the Clachaig Inn. In the morning with a light drizzle for company we drive on, shopping for food in Fort William, then turning west for the Isle of Skye heading for a Glen called Brittle where there is a beach of grey sand and the most dramatic mountains in Scotland.
Although we have both visited Skye before, together and separately, Kate has never been to this place. For me, however, I am returning here after an absence of more than forty years for this was once a much favoured climbing spot of mine. Strangely though, at first I recognise nothing. I have no recollection of the road beyond the Sligachan public house, set on its own wild piece of moorland, to which I would inevitably have travelled from the campsite in Glen Brittle, nor can I recall the camping ground itself. The memories I do retain are of the mountains that drew me here all those years ago but the only hint that they are looming over us today are the steep grass-covered slopes which disappear up into the cloud. The Black Cuillins seldom reveal themselves entirely.
We walk the grey sandy beach to escape the campsite midge population which, in the absence of anything of a breeze, swarm around our campervan. Since these tiny creatures can make life singularly unpleasant the trick is to know their limitations and plan a strategy around this so as to avoid them. They thrive in damp vegetation which they leave only when the air is almost calm and the sunlight not too bright. These two simple facts tell us that sitting outside on a calm evening may not be a wise thing to do so we avoid this by shutting ourselves inside our campervan. A million or so of them have followed us in because, of course, here the air is still and they are not in bright sunlight. What is more they have a captive feeding ground, our skin, to feast themselves on till they drop. Part two of the midge avoidance strategy involves a glass or two of wine (for us, not the midges) so soon we care little for their appetites. Perhaps the fact that this onslaught does not deter us is evidence of how the last twelve months has left us reeling and desperately in need of this holiday away from home. Our son Mike is now well enough to take a holiday himself so we have headed in the opposite direction to satisfy our own urges, to find somewhere remote and beautiful where we can lay low for a bit.
We are parked just a stone’s throw from the beach and awake to a rare hot and sunny day. Some time ago Kate was scanning the Internet and found a description of a gentle walk starting at the campsite and exploring the headland on the western arm of Loch Brittle, a place which many thousands of years ago was home to a substantial community who lived and farmed there. Only faint traces of these people remain today, a broken boundary wall, some stone foundations, areas cleared of stones and once cultivated, but we feel the echoes of their presence as we sit eating our lunch before returning along the shore path. Tiny flowers wink at us in every direction from amongst the lush, well-watered vegetation, uniformly green until you look closer and see the colour within, and all such a contrast with the distant looming dark shapes of the Cuillin range.
Glen Brittle camping ground is quite full, at first mostly with Germans and French holiday-makers. Their weekend departures coincide with a day of torrential rain and a gale of wind giving us plenty to watch as we huddle inside Ducky’s cosy interior. We feel sorry for those having to pack away wet canvas but the next day it is clear from the broken tent debris which fills the rubbish bins that many have simply not bothered. We are under no pressure to go anywhere and have more walking to do here if the weather improves.
Morning comes and steeling ourselves for a day of effort we shrug on backpacks and begin an assault on the Cuillins. Occasional rain squalls blow us up along the path and it becomes cooler as we rise higher. Above us, appearing tantalisingly through breaks in the cloud, there is a wall of black rock capped with the jagged-edged ridge that I remember attempting to walk in its entirety many years ago. The Cuillin ridge is a rarely-completed classic which needs a day of good visibility or else route-finding becomes impossible. Taking a wrong turn in this complex range of hills presents dangers too great to contemplate and I was thwarted by low cloud in my attempt back then. Kate and I have something far more modest in mind, a visit to Corrie Lagan, one of the most impressive places in Britain, some would say the world. The glacier which last flowed here some 12,000 years ago left scratches in the rock which can be seen today as clearly as the day they were made. Huge rock faces are rounded off like someone has taken a vast plane to them, worked and shaped them till they are smooth. They lie about like beached whales in this windswept world far above the sea, barely eroded at all by the elements. It is as if the ice has only just melted away and time has stood still in this spot, hidden from view by the ring of dark summits rising with impossible steepness around us. So long have I been away that I have forgotten almost everything, but not the magic this place holds. I linger here to top up my reserves of wonder and awe.
Arriving back at the campsite we are amazed to see a convoy of around twenty-five Italian campervans arrive all at once, big ones that make our Ducky look tiny by comparison. Glen Brittle seems an unlikely destination for the average tourist. There is a small camp site, a remote place to get to, at the end of an eight mile single track road, and the thought of all these large vehicles queuing up in the passing spaces makes us cringe. Although one might expect the air to be full of Italian voices we notice these arrivals make little effort to leave their vehicles and at eight thirty the next morning there is a rumble of diesel engines as they all depart, en masse, back along the single track.
We time our own departure from Glen Brittle so as to avoid the convoy and move on westwards towards Dunvegan. Kate poses beside an ancient Broch, a two thousand-year old hill fort, at Bracadale, before we drive out to Neist Point navigating yet another single track road. For a place where there is nothing really to see except the lighthouse this place is surprisingly popular with tourists. It is the most westerly point on Skye, there is a lighthouse, and…. well not much else apart from some spectacular cliffs – the MacLeod Tables fall into the sea here – but there are plenty of equally impressive sea cliffs on Skye. What we do find is another example of something we have seen closer to home on Arran, something I can only describe as a ‘Cairn Forest’. There is no sign or indication to say why this installation exists, it just does and has grown here fuelled by crowd enthusiasm. It serves no practical purpose yet hours of labour must have gone into its construction. Walking ‘through the forest’ is an unearthly, moving experience, not dissimilar to being in a graveyard, although there are no bodies buried here. Quite why I should feel such emotions I find hard to explain, but perhaps each cairn was built to remember some person, or some event and the thoughts of the builders linger on after they have left. Here is a popular tourist destination, a lighthouse on a point of land, which has a surprise bonus feature, something no holiday brochure can mention because its existence relies on human urges that cannot be controlled.
I have heard others speak of ‘Cairn Forests’ elsewhere and wonder if there will ever be a list of their locations or perhaps specialists who visit them, documenting them in some way. Is there an ‘ology for cairn building?
So let us recap. In just a week we have seen eagles hunting, gliding on the breeze yet stationary above the ground with their feathered legs dangling beneath them. One evening we watched the birth of clouds in a valley, the sides of which were green with damp vegetation, clouds that drifted slowly upwards on light airs. Footpaths have led us to settlements peopled by ancients vivid in our imagination or back to a time before man came to these isles, a time when the ice was still retreating. One road has led us to a corner of this land where piles of stones convey mysterious meanings and another to the best campsite showers in Scotland at Glen Nevis Camping Ground. We also discovered the sleeping place of ‘Snore the Scarecrow’ outside Glen Brittle Youth Hostel. Truly an amazing seven days.