Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017

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Reach for Skye

Known for its rugged mountains and fierce clans, Scotland's isle of mist is waiting to be discovered

When Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited the Scottish island of Skye in the autumn of 1773, they were venturing to one of the wildest and most remote parts of the British Isles. "There are no roads," wrote Johnson, "nor any marks by which a stranger may find his way." And as there were no inns, they relied on the hospitality of islanders each night. Johnson also wrote: "the weather is not pleasing. Half the year is deluged with rain."

Things have improved considerably since the famous pair became Skye's first tourists. A toll-free bridge now connects the island to the mainland, but some things never change. The west coast of Scotland arguably has the worst weather in Britain and, during a four-day visit to Skye in early June, we had our share of it. But we had good rain gear and stuck to our plan to see as much of the island as possible, stopping at cosy pubs and restaurants to warm up along the way.

Driving from Inverness, we passed over the Skye Bridge in early afternoon and were headed towards Portree, the island's largest community. But at the head of Loch Sligachan we changed our minds and branched to the west. Taking advantage of a sunny day, we decided to get closer to the Cuillin Hills, the only mountains in Britain where mountaineering and rock climbing techniques are needed to reach many of the summits.

Just past Sligachan, we stopped to pick up a young woman with a huge backpack. She was heading to Glenbrittle, the base for Cuillin climbs. Lorraine was from Edinburgh and told us she was taking part in the Munro Peaks Challenge. "The Munro peaks," she explained, "are a list of Scottish mountains over 900 metres. I'm trying to do as many of them as I can this summer -- they call us Munro Baggers." Dropping our hiker at the youth hostel at Glenbrittle, we checked our map which showed at least seven peaks in the Cuillin Hills over 900 metres. Lorraine would have her work cut out for her -- if the weather held.

The day was one to savour. We stopped to admire the grandeur of the Cuillin crags sweeping up from the glen before we retraced the narrow, one-lane road back to the main road at Drynoch. Skye has many such narrow roads and driving them requires a combination of consideration and assertiveness.

Well-signed passing places enable one to pull off to let an approaching vehicle go by. If the passing place is on the right and you reach it first, you stop on the left side of the road opposite the passing place. Then the approaching vehicle can turn into the space, allowing you to proceed. And if a local is bearing down on you from behind, simply pull into a space and let them pass. Without exception, every driver we encountered acknowledged us with a wave -- which we always returned.


Clash of the Clans
On the way to Dunvegan we stopped to let a shepherd cross the road with his flock. "Aye, I was born over there," said John Beaton, gesturing up the hillside with his dog, Ned, beside him. "Always lived here -- but you've probably seen more of Skye in one day than I ever have." It was astonishing that someone in this day and age could still live a fairly remote pastoral life in Britain, particularly when I hardly recognize the south of England, where I grew up, with its traffic-clogged motorways and burgeoning towns.

That evening the sky was streaked with ribbons of pink -- a good omen -- and it was still daylight at 10:30pm. After all, Skye is at the same latitude as northern Labrador. But next morning rain blustered against our bedroom window and the hills at the end of the loch were lost in cloud.

It seemed like a good time to visit Dunvegan Castle, home of the Macleod clan for over 700 years, said to be the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland. Johnson and Boswell described their stay here: "very willing to be at rest, and found our fatigue amply recompensed by our reception." For centuries, Dunvegan could only be approached from the sea. As Johnson wrote: "They had formerly reason to be afraid, not only of declared wars and authorized invaders, or of roving pirates, but of inroads and insults from rival clans […] who, in the plenitude of feudal independence, asked no leave to make war on one another."

Amongst the castle's display of weapons, clan mementoes and heirlooms is the prized Fairy Flag -- or what's left of it. Reputed to date from the seventh century, the flag is supposed to bring the clan success in battle.

It was still raining when we left the castle and turned north on to the Waternish Peninsula to see where the Fairy Flag had once been unfurled. By the time we reached the end of the road at the ruined Trumpan church, gusts of heavy rain were sweeping in from the open sea. But the weather seemed fitting, for this was the site of one of the bloodiest episodes in Scottish history.

In May 1578, seeking revenge for an attack on them the previous year, the Macdonalds of Uist, in the Western Isles, sailed eight ships into Ardmore Bay under heavy fog. They landed unseen when most of the Macleods were inside the church at Trumpan. The Macdonalds crept up to the church, barred the door and then set fire to the thatched roof. Only one girl escaped, but she was able to raise the alarm and the Macleods, bearing their Fairy Flag, rushed from Dunvegan and slaughtered the Macdonalds before they could re-launch their boats. The Macleods pushed the dyke on top of the bodies of their victims -- and their remains are still there. The rain sent us scurrying from the place, but I don't think I would have lingered even on a sunny day.


Shooting Haggis?
Retracing our way down the peninsula, we dropped into Shilasdair, the Skye Yarn Company, to meet Eva Fleg Lambert. Originally from New Jersey, Eva ended up here in 1971 via Turkey and Spain. She raises her own sheep for wool that is spun in the Shetland Isles. It is then returned to Eva for natural dying. The vibrant colours produced are turned into a wonderful array of contemporary designs -- you might wish to take home some of Eva's wool and knit for yourself.

We turned down to the shore at Stein, built as a model fishing village in the 18th century. Like much of Skye, the whitewashed buildings and black-slate roofs perfectly complement the grey-green of the hills and sea. Stein is still home to local fisherman but it also has the delightful Stein Inn, the oldest on Skye, and the tiny Loch Bay Restaurant where we enjoyed steaming bowls of seafood chowder.

The next day under low, grey rain clouds, we headed for the Trotternish peninsula and stopped for an early lunch at the Uig Hotel overlooking the village of Uig. One item on the menu particularly caught my eye: "Freshly Shot Haggis served with Bashed Tatties and Neeps with a Creamy Whisky Sauce." Now I knew that haggis was a mess of organ meats and oatmeal stuffed into a sheep's stomach and that bashed tatties and neeps were mashed potatoes and turnip. It was the "freshly shot" part of it that puzzled me -- until much later when I did a Google search. I should have known better.

It seems that some people insist that the haggis is a small furry animal with three legs living only on Scottish hillsides. The little critter is apparently very difficult to spot -- something like the Loch Ness monster. Haggis and whisky sauce was more than I could handle at noon so I ordered Cullen Skink soup and a pint of Skye Brewery's Red Cuillin Ale. But next day I saw "freshly shot haggis" on another menu. Who says the Scots don't have a sense of humour?

Near the top of the Trotternish Peninsula, the Museum of Island Life is composed of seven thatched croft houses displaying artifacts and memorabilia from Skye's past. The island once had many such cottages but between 1840 and 1880, during the infamous Highland Clearances, over 30,000 people were evicted from their crofts and their homes were destroyed to make way for sheep. Conditions were exacerbated by the potato famine that began in 1847 and caused more migration to North America and Australia, but today Skye shows little evidence of those troubled times and scarcely any croft houses remain.

On misty days, colour is drained from the Skye landscape. One-dimensional hills rise above the lochs and sweeping grey vistas on the almost treeless terrain are dotted with lone white houses.

But when the sun comes out, the rich tones of heather and bracken come alive, the lochs sparkle and the magnificent Cuillins seem to dominate every view.

Before leaving Skye -- on a beautiful sunny day -- we travelled one last narrow road down the Strathaird Peninsula to the tiny harbour of Elgol. We walked out on the jetty and looked across Loch Scavaig towards the Cuillins rising out of the sea. That view alone was worth travelling, like Bonnie Prince Charlie, "over the sea to Skye."

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