Isle of Skye – More Highland Clearance Villages

After short walk yesterday out to an abandoned village now lying empty as a result of the Highland Clearances, I found another, longer, walk today to two more such settlements.

Whilst yesterday’s weather wasn’t sparkling, today’s was awful – raining continuously that fine soaking rain and a strengthening wind with it.  However, I’m on holiday so why waste it stuck indoors when there are spectacular places to be.

The start point of the 10-mile walk was a bit of a drive away and the weather deteriorated further before I got there, but I wasn’t going to let a bit of water get in the way.  I was soaked from the first five minutes and my walking boots were full of water for the second half of the walk – I gave up avoiding the puddles and the paths-come-streams.

After about a third of the way round the route, along a good but rocky track, I came to the first village, Suisnish. It appears larger than Lorgill, which I visited yesterday, but I didn’t stick around for long as the rain came down heavier still.

The landscape between the two villages is particularly spectacular, high cliffs with some tall cascading waterfalls; the path winds its way at the high water mark above the beach.

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Rounding a corner a white-tailed eagle launched itself off the cliff-face and disappeared.  As I came around further cliffs, two eagles appeared and were soon joined by a third; the first two again disappeared quickly but the last hung in the wind for a while. I sensed it was watching me as I approached and it finally glided off slowly into the rain shrouded distance.

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I began to see the remains of buildings as I crested a rise and eventually a village was laid out in front of me – Boreraig is larger again than Suisnish.  There are buildings dotted all over a low wide valley, facing directly onto a rocky beach. The scale of the place is quite breathtaking; that a large community once lived here but now there are only the crumbled remains of their homes and the harsh environment to surround them.

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32 families were cleared from the two villages in 1854, the furniture smashed and the doors barred, the women and children had to fend for themselves on the nearby beaches until their menfolk returned from working on the mainland. It strikes me that all three Clearance villages I visited are extremely remote from the larger settlements on the island and are in very exposed locations. I wonder just how harsh the living was there and just how sustainable the communities were in the longer term if they had been allowed to stay – we’ll never know.

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Walking on, the track led over the top of the moor behind Boreraig, up more paths and tracks turned into streams by the incessant rain.  The sky brightened momentarily but the gloom gathered once more as I descended past one last abandoned building and made it back to the car.

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Whilst getting soaked to the skin in pouring rain and a strong wind, walking along flooded paths and tracks, to go to look at some tumbled-down old buildings may not be everyone’s idea of a good day out when on holiday, I’m very glad I did it.

Isle of Skye – Lorgill: Left only to the Eagles

Tucked away at the end of a long, rough track, not far from the westernmost point of Skye, lies a hidden valley. I approach from a height, the track drops steeply to meet the valley bottom with a more shallow descent towards the sea. A narrow but fast flowing river makes its way between the two long hills, cascading from the moorland plateau through high falls and swift rocky channels, and begins to meander as the ground widens into a plain. As I walk down the slope, the track passes piles of rocks in amongst the short sheep-clipped grass and the thicker rushes covering the sodden areas of pasture. I approach a single one-storey house standing next to the river, built from stone but now without a roof, only one window left with a pane of glass. The track crosses the river and rises up the opposing hill and disappears over its summit.

I turn towards the sea, the wind whipping up the narrow channel between the hills, cooling me quickly and trying to take my hat. I follow the line of the sinuous river past further piles of rocks and then through low walls and enclosures, laid out on both sides of the water. These man-made structures are now a few cold and sunken remnants of what was once here, a community now gone and their homes now little more than lines of stones being overcome by grass and gradually consumed back into the earth.

Slowly picking my way along the sheep tracks, I finally come to the beach; not of sand but of dark grey rocks and pebbles, worn smooth by the powerful sea constantly trying to force its way over the lowest grassy reaches of the valley. Little can be heard over the sound of the wind and the rising waves, all except for the cries of the gulls and the calls of the oystercatchers whisked away on the air. The sights and senses of desolation are made more stark by the growing gloom brought on by encroaching dark rain-baring clouds, moisture now starting to cover my clothes and face.

Appearing from high above the southern hill slopes, an eagle floats on the wind, making its way northbound towards the high sea cliffs. It is joined by another, both now playing in the updrafts as the surging air is forced to rise as it hits the flat cliff faces. They look down on a valley that now has no human life, just the remains of a now long gone community, once living on the edge of this far northern land.

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In 1830, the inhabitants of Lorgill were read the following statement by the sheriff officer:

‘To all the crofters in Lorgill. Take notice that you are hereby duly warned that you all be ready to leave Lorgill at twelve o’clock on the 4th August next with all your baggage but no stock and proceed to Loch Snizort, where you will board the ship Midlothian (Captain Morrison) that will take you to Nova-Scotia, where you are to receive a free grant of land from Her Majesty’s Government. Take further notice that any crofter disobeying this order will be immediately arrested and taken to prison. All persons over seventy years of age and who have no relatives to look after them will be taken care of in the County Poorhouse. This order is final and no appeal to the Government will be considered. God Save the Queen.’

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The were twelve houses in the valley as well as 21 other buildings and 10 enclosures, but very little of this not insubstantial settlement remains; one roofless building, one standing enclosure and numerous piles of rocks and old lines of walls.

I was looking for a walk to take and this short amble out into the Lorgill valley over a rough track got my imagination going. To my embarrassment I don’t know enough about the Highland Clearances but it is plainly obvious that great wrongs were done to many; communities broken apart by those with the power and will to do so. There is a real atmosphere in the valley, an emptiness that is obvious in view but also in spirit.

The whole experience was made more spiritual by the wildlife; a close encounter with an otter as I started the walk was incredible. However, I saw four, not two, white-tailed eagles in one view (the following picture has three specks – three of the eagles – this is the best I could do with my phone). I spent 10 minutes watching the eagles playing and soaring in the wind – a spectacle I doubt I’ll forget for long time.

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This is only my third day on Skye and already it has given me amazing memories.

Isle of Skye – A Tour to the Wild Side

To learn where the best nature spots are in a new area I think it’s alway best to ask the locals and a good way to do that it to take a tour with a local guide.

I’ve been on fully led wildlife holidays both in the UK and abroad, and whilst I have enjoyed every one, I don’t think there is any need to have such holidays in the UK. With a bit of planning (not that I’ve done much this time), some maps and a bit of thought into what habitats there are, and what wildlife they may support, you shouldn’t go too far wrong. However, a little local help is alway a bonus!

So today I went on a guided trip, without my (not so) trusty camera, to help familiarise myself with some of the best places to spot the best wildlife on Skye. Setting off midmorning from the main car park in Portree, we immediately headed out to spot otters in a nearby bay. However, no otters were seen but two soaring golden eagles more than made up for it – slowly floating and circling on what little wind and lift there was, they eventually dipped behind the nearby hill.

Perhaps the most unexpected and astonishing sighting was next with thousand upon thousand of migrating thrushes (mainly fieldfares with a few redwings mixed in) forming fly-swarm like clouds passing over the heaths and hillsides. Everywhere we looked there were birds – on the trees, in the heather, on the telephone lines and all round us in the air. This was a true wildlife spectacular.

As the weather started to close in we headed on in search of more eagles. We went to several places without much luck, seeing some red deer instead, but as the rain eased, we were rewarded with two juvenile white-tailed eagles floating around the top of a hill, giving us very good and close views (they were much closer than the photo below suggests).

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Moving on again we scoured an area of water for otter but again no luck but at lunch we were rewarded again, but this time by two golden eagles displaying high up above us, one moment soaring and then next stooping and rising like on an invisible rollercoaster.

The afternoon was spent looking for otters and finally we were given a few fleeting views of a couple of these watery mammals. We saw one from a distance but it soon disappeared, so we moved on around to the far side of where we had seen it. From there we had a better view but almost as fleeting. A second otter was then seen, but for just as short a time, with neither to be seen again.

Heading back to Portree, after a few more stops to look for otters, we were given a final sight of a single white-tailed eagle as it flew past back to where we had just come from – a nice, last view to finish the tour.

The trip wasn’t just otters and eagles, however, with plenty of other birdlife seen, in addition to the masses of migrating thrushes – we had well over thirty species by my reckoning.

Although I didn’t have my camera, I still managed some scenic shots of the island with the following two being the best my phone would allow.

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I have to say thank you to Andy of Isle of Skye Wildlife Tours for such a great day – he certainly put in the effort to make sure we had the best chances of seeing some pretty spectacular wildlife and I hope everyone went away as happy as I did!

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Isle of Skye – Bad Day/Great Day

My first full day on Skye was a mixture of frustration and brilliance!

I was up and out of the door before nine o’clock and went to see if there were any good spots nearby to look for estuary wildlife – waders, wildfowl and most importantly (for me) otters.  I found a couple of good locations but it was close to high tide with little movement  around, so I headed north into the Trotternish area of the Island (half expecting to see a yellow three-wheeled van on my way round).  I thought I would easily cover the whole area by car in one day but there was so much to see, that I did little over half.

The frustration of the day came when I realised that my long camera lens had been damaged when I dropped it a few weeks ago and now it is firmly locked to my camera body and I think I’ll damage both even more if I try to part them.  So after some nice shots yesterday (with the shorter lens) that’s it for photography this holiday – save for my phone.

However, everything was far more positive after that.  This part of the island is truly epic in it’s beauty and has something of the Lord of the Rings about it, if hobbits lived in homes with white walls and grey roofs.  My journey around Trotternish was slow as I stopped at so many places to take in the views and scan for wildlife – they are eagles in these parts!  Uig, the gateway for the ferry to the Outer Hebrides, is just up the road from where I’m staying and had a selection of birds that, to me, are signs of the wild north – ravens, curlew and eider.

Pressing on, the landscape changed from moorland to large enclosed pastures, dotted with those white houses and long views out to the distant islands on the north-west edge of the British Isles. This was the one of the scenes I was expecting, and it was almost familiar, after being on Islay and Ardnamurchan in past years.  I stopped in this area, at a small harbour near Bornesketaig, to have some lunch.

The best I was hoping for, while munching away on my sandwich, was maybe one or two divers (the feathered variety) or some more sea duck but I was given a display (albeit far off) of cetaceans, and one of the best I’ve had from land.  First, there were harbour porpoises  popping up all over the place, with gannets following their paths. Then in the distance was a solitary minke whale, making its way south somewhere between me and the Isle of Harris. However, the best was saved to last as in the even further distance, a large shape leapt clear of the water and returned with a big splash.  At first, I thought it must be a porpoise but seeing one shortly afterwards and much closer, I realised the size was an order of magnitude larger and the dorsal fin was too big and a different shape – it can only have been an orca.  This selection of views was well beyond anything I expected to have and certainly made up for the issues earlier in the day.

The rest of the day was pretty spectacular too but I’ve run out of time and energy to write more – in any case, I’ll be returning to the area later in the week (maybe even tomorrow).  However, a couple of photos from later in the day…

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Scottish Islands – Isle of Skye

I have a bit of a thing for islands, as anyone who has seen earlier posts on my blog will probably realise.  One of the ways I want to feed my ‘thing’ is to visit all the main islands around the Scottish coast.  So far, I’ve visited Arran, Islay, Jura and Mull, and this week I’m adding Skye to the list.

I drove to Glasgow yesterday evening after work and spent the night under the flight path to the airport – getting disturbed every so often throughout the night wasn’t exactly a relaxing start to my trip!

Setting off this morning, there was fog lying thick across the land and it was only as I reached Loch Lomond that it lifted to reveal a cloudless sky and that’s how it remained all day until after sunset.

I love long drives and the four hours to Mallaig were spectacular; some stretches were familiar, previously driven routes whilst the last stretch from Fort William to the port was all new to me.

As well as a liking for islands, I also love a nice ferry trip, so whilst I could have crossed to Skye via the bridge, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch the boat across.  I wandered around Mallaig while I had a short wait for the ferry to come in; the weather making the port look particularly picturesque.

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I’m staying for a week in a small cottage, about seven miles north of Portree, the main town on Skye. Up a small single-track side road, the cottage is very quiet and has a nice view to the distant coast.

Skye is a lot bigger than I thought and it takes quite a while to drive from the southern end at Armadale, where the Mallaig ferry arrives, to Portree and beyond.  However, unlike some of the other islands I been to, the main roads are good standard single carriageways and the single-track roads are limited to the more remote areas of the island.

After a bit of unpacking, I headed off to do a bit of familiarisation and ended up at Claigan at sunset, walking along the coral beach – I just wish I’d got there earlier to take some more photos.  Here’s hoping that the weather stays as good as it has been today for the coming week!

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