TWO days into July 2018 and three days into a walking trip, I arose bright and early to find that outside it was brighter (though no earlier) than I was. The grey skies and rain of the previous evening — which had added a level of meteorological mockery after searing heat had prompted route revisions — had dissipated overnight and the air temperature was back to feeling like the inside of an oven. This was brought home to me as I stood on the shoreline, looking across to the harbour pier where I’d stood in the rain twelve hours earlier.
The very end of MacKinnon’s Pier sports the last remaining visible rails of the Skye Marble Railway, a narrow-gauge industrial line opened in 1908 to service Skye’s marble quarries.
The quarries had been worked since 1703, so the railway was something of an afterthought and its lateness impacted its longevity. Although Skye marble was much-respected for its qualities, the quarries were largely spent and it just didn’t prove economic to continue working them. They soon closed down — in 1913 — and the railway with them, having seen just five years of service.
I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, to my mind, it’s interesting. Not least because everything is interesting. And, secondly, because my plan for that morning involved following the railway’s alignment out of Broadford and up to where the quarries were. For most of that route I knew that the alignment had been turned into an easy-going footpath — no forcing my way through chest-high bracken this time — though the first half-mile would be along the road. Well, fair enough.
I stocked up with snacks and as much cold water as I could carry and set off along that road. As I left Broadford, I passed, like many a traveller before me, the white-painted façade of the Broadford Hotel.
The Broadford Hotel, under its previous name of the Broadford Inn, was the original home of Drambuie.
This whisky liqueur is unconvincingly claimed to derive from a recipe given by Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-1788) to a loyal clansman, Capt John MacKinnon, who aided in his escape after the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Rising. What is known, however, is that a man named John Ross acquired a brandy-based recipe in the 19th century and that in the 1880s his son James, proprietor of the Broadford Inn, experimented with it, switching the brandy to whisky. It proved quite popular and he registered the trademark in 1893.
After his death, Ross’s widow was forced by financial circumstance to sell the recipe and it was bought by a family of MacKinnons, who held it until 2014, when it was bought by the independent whisky distillers William Grant & Sons Ltd.
Grants is a pretty big name in whisky, with about half a dozen distilleries (including Glenfiddich and Balvenie) plus some non-whisky products such as Hendrick’s gin, but it remains a family-owned affair unlike its larger rival, the British-headquartered multinational Diageo, which owns a surprisingly large proportion of the alcohol brands in shops and pubs.
Skye Marble Railway
As it was way too early and way too hot for the drinking of Drambuie or any other spirit, I limited myself to sipping some cold water as I passed the hotel and set out along the road. There was no traffic and that first half mile flew by, bringing me to a gate and the start of the off-road path.
As promised, it was easy-going, being constructed of compacted stones and gravel. It initially veered away from the road but then ran broadly parallel, following it up a broad valley.
I was fully expecting to find ruins and remnants pertaining to the quarry at the far end of the trackbed but, before I got to them, I had other, unrelated ruins to examine.
As the scattered farmhouses of Swordale (Suardal) came into view, I diverted off the railbed onto a footpath that connected with the road. Fittingly enough, this also took me past a ruin — in this case a ruined cottage. As recently as the Ordnance Survey 2nd Edition (1888-1913) this cottage was not only intact, it was Suardal in its entirety. The houses seen behind it (in the photo below) had yet to be built.
The residents of the farmhouse on the far right, just clipping the edge of the photo, might. Their house sits where the driveway of original Suardal met the road. This strongly suggests that it’s the cottage’s successor, built as somewhere larger for its owners to move to. Possibly they know that the ruined building on their land is the old house. Or possibly they don’t.
The original Suardal cottage wasn’t actually what I’d diverted to see though. That stood about a quarter mile up the road…
The building shown above is Cille Chriosd (meaning ‘Christ’s church’) and was built around the end of the Middle Ages; its earliest mention is in a record indicating that in 1505 a man named Kenneth Adamson succeeded John MacGillivray as its chaplain.
Like many old churches, it wasn’t the first on its site, having been built to replace an obsolete predecessor. That would also have been Mediaeval replacing in turn the original parish church at Ashaig, which tradition says was founded by St Maelrubha in the 7th century.
Cille Chriosd (or Kilchrist) gained its first Protestant minister in 1625 in the form of Neil MacKinnon, a man whose meanness and greed became locally proverbial and who vowed to name every Catholic on Skye to the authorities.
One oft-recounted tale tells how he underfed labourers in his employ with two small meals on a working day and just one on a Sunday, which led the hungry men to shame him by working on their day of rest to earn that second meal — as a committed Protestant, working on the Sabbath would have been to him a scandalous no-no. Apparently, it worked, and they got two meals thereafter even on Sundays.
Cille Chriosd remained the parish church of Strath until 1840, when it was superseded by a new building in Broadford. This means that it was long gone and already in ruin by the time the nearby quarries transformed into a modern corporate endeavour around 1907 and the new company laid in the railway.
I sat on its steps to eat a snack, drink some water and contemplate the transience of all things. This thought was in itself fairly transient and soon I was heading back to the trackbed to continue my journey.
Retracing my steps past the remnants of Suardal cottage, I re-joined the railway alignment and followed it up its incline.
Before long, it visibly forked though only the left fork had been remade as a footpath. This climbed towards the quarry’s upper workings and I climbed with it. The right-hand fork remained level, curving around to the old lower workings and its lumpy, rocky, overgrown appearance betrayed how much work and ongoing maintenance had gone into making the footpath as easy-going as it was.
The lower workings were where the marble-crusher had been sited and I soon saw this location from my left-hand fork. Little remained of this once-busy worksite except low walls and discarded spoil.
Moving on, I climbed the rest of the trackbed incline to see what was at the top.
Having attempted to research it, I’ve seen the above structure described as both a turntable and a winding wheel, with consensus favouring the latter. Given where it is (at the top) a winding wheel — i.e. a winch to help haul carriages up the incline — would certainly seem quite likely. Either way, it made a good place to pause and look back down the line towards Broadford.
Beyond the Buffers
I might have reached the end of the line but it wasn’t the end of my walk by a long way. From there onwards the path became a narrow, stony affair, which passed near the western end of Loch Lonachan. It then followed the narrow valley of the Allt na Pairte with rocky hills on either side. This made for quite a different feel than the broad, flat valley of Strath Swordale (Srath Shuardal). It also helped funnel a cooling breeze, which was lucky because it was stiflingly hot and the trackbed incline hadn’t helped.
Before long, the valley opened out and I followed the path down to the shoreline of Loch Eishort, dotted along which were the ruinous remains of yet more abandoned buildings. This had once been the village of Boreraig (Boraraig), forcibly cleared in 1853 to make way for more profitable sheep farming.
In 1851, when the census was taken, Boreraig had about 120 residents, split across 22 households. Just under half went to Australia — or possibly died of disease en route — courtesy of the Highland & Island Emigration Society (HIES), the rest tried to find new homes on Skye.
The HIES was a charitable body set up in the wake of the 1846 Highland Potato Famine, upon realisation that Scotland could not afford to look after its own starving. Their solution was to help the poor emigrate to Australia but this was quickly seized upon by ruthless landlords, who saw in it an easy way to clear their tenants out to make way for sheep. And so it proved.
I’m not sure if it makes things better or worse that, as I descended into Boreraig some 165 years after Lord MacDonald evicted his tenants, sheep were still clearly in residence.
Actually, that sheep were in residence dismayed me, though not on account of any historical sympathies, nor any intrinsic objection to ovines. It dismayed me because the presence of sheep led inevitably to the presence of horseflies, which had been mercifully absent until now.
I was apprised of the reappearance of this menace in characteristically sharp and stabby fashion, followed by a swollen and painful reinforcement of the message.
Cursing the dastardly dipteran, and fervently hoping that my blood inexplicably poisoned it to death, I found myself approaching Boreraig’s standing stone, which I felt was watching with amusement.
The path became damp and boggy in places as it picked its way between ruined cottages and field walls. A number of sheep, hanging out in what was now their village, did that minimal effort evasion thing — trotting slowly away with no real alarm because you’re just not worth proper running.
I would have ample opportunity to observe this behaviour over the next twenty minutes or so, though as yet, I had no particular reason to suspect that. Thus far I’d seen just a handful of sheep and they were now behind me. Also behind me was the wide, green glen in which Boreraig sat. Ahead, the path skirted round a rocky, crumbling headland, precariously balancing between the cliff and a beach made entirely of boulders.
The path continued along in this vein for a while, passing in front of a couple of waterfalls just to keep things interesting. Even so, it clearly wasn’t interesting enough as it promptly tried a new trick in the form of angling steeply up the cliffside and climbing through rocks to the top. I was okay with this as a development — though narrow, the path was quite navigable and I had walking poles to help me climb up the rocks — but so, it appeared, was the rest of the flock of sheep.
Dozens of sheep were strung out along the path or — since they had all-terrain legs — dotted along either side of it. My legs aren’t nearly as good at off-roading as sheep legs, so I determined to stay firmly on the path, which aimed as if to take me right through the centre of the flock.
It didn’t, of course. Oh, I got quite close but then they did their ‘trot away’ thing, removing themselves to a couple of yards further on. But still, of course, right across the path.
I approached again, they retreated. Rinse and repeat for several iterations. It took some time before I reached the top, the whole flock now up there and eyeing me reproachfully. As I stepped away from the edge, they poured themselves beck down the path behind me, like a fluffy white tide.
As the sheep reoccupied the path, I paused for a much-needed breather, tired and dripping with sweat. This was a tactical error. I was warm and stationary beside a large body of livestock and, in no time at all, I had a personal cloud of horseflies, circling around me like tiny vultures, trying to get in close for a quick slash’n’slurp. Eventually, despite my best efforts, one succeeded.
Still hot and tired but now doubly bitten, I stomped angrily away and found somewhere else to take that rest.
The path veered slightly inland now, though not far, and revealed another set of village ruins. These had been Suisnish (Suidhisnis), the neighbouring village to Boreraig and cleared in the same year.
The clearance was witnessed by Archibald Geikie (1835-1924), a renowned Edinburgh geologist, who wrote:
‘As I was returning from my ramble a strange wailing sound reached my ears at intervals on the breeze from the west. On gaining the top of a hill on the south side of the valley, I could see a long and motley procession wending along the road that led from Suisnish. It halted at the point in the road opposite Kilbride, and there the lamentation became long and loud.’
Further describing the procession, he added:
‘There were old men and women, too feeble to walk, who were placed in carts; the younger members of the community on foot were carrying their bundles of clothes… while the children, with looks of alarm, walked alongside.’
But it seems they didn’t go quietly:
‘When they set off once more, a cry of grief went up to heaven; the long plaintive wail, like a funeral coronach, was resumed; and, after the last of the emigrants had disappeared behind the hill, the sound seemed to re-echo through the whole wide valley of Strath in one prolonged note of desolation.’
The sad remains of Suisnish perch atop the headland of Rubha Suisnish, the rounding of which meant that rather than Loch Eishort, I was now walking alongside Loch Slapin…
View of the Cuillin
The footpath joined an unmade access track that linked a modern sheep station to the public road. I followed the track up Loch Slapin’s edge, enjoying the sight of the mountains of the Cuillin looming over its head.
About halfway up Loch Slapin was the small, sheltered bay of Camas Malag, where the unmade track turned into proper road.
There were several vehicles parked up where the road ended, most with their former occupants lounging nearby in deckchairs, enjoying the sun. I plodded past the majority of these and found somewhere to plonk myself down and drink a soft drink I’d been saving in my bag and which, though no longer cold, was still cooler than tepid.
When my feet felt ready to do some more walking and my core body temperature could no longer melt lead, I clambered slowly to my feet. I was immediately beeped by a couple in a car who, assuming I had just finished my hike, offered to give me a lift. I was touched — by the sun, possibly — but I politely declined. I had a way to go yet.
The road headed north-east, away from Loch Slapin and in the general direction of Broadford. This was a necessary but short diversion as it cut inland to meet up with the B8083, the road running through Strath Swordale. On the way, it passed the back of Torrin Quarry, the modern remnant of Skye’s marble industry, producing crushed marble for lime and pebbledash.
This particular quarry was opened in 1960 by Glasgwegian paint manufacturer William Thomson Forsyth. Today it is owned by Leiths Group, an Aberdeen-based company with 14 quarries, 7 asphalt plants and 9 concrete plants, making it the largest family-owned independent quarrying and construction materials business in Scotland. Torrin quarry employs 12 of its roughly 550 employees.
I would get to see Torrin Quarry from its other side too as, having regained the B-road, I turned left to head towards Loch Slapin. This took me past the tiny hamlet of Kilbride (Cille Bhrìghde, ‘church of St Brigid’) and then past the main gate of Torrin Quarry. ‘Seen it already,’ I mentally sniffed, and kept going.
Beyond the quarry gates, I entered Torrin ( Na Torrain, ‘the little hills’), a crofting and fishing village that has half the population it did in the 19th century. One thing it did have, though, which made me very happy, was a café that was open.
I stopped by to replenish my supply of water, to down a couple of cold drinks there, and to enjoy a slice of Victoria sponge. Exactly what was needed. An enterprising wasp appeared to share my opinion but I’d honed my insect-batting-away skills on horseflies and she quickly decided it just wasn’t worth the effort.
Refuelled, refreshed and renewed by sponge, jam and buttercream — and surprisingly unstung — I left Torrin’s café with a spring in my step and, if not a song in my heart, at least some sort of tuneless humming.
The Loch Head
I descended a hill to the shore of Loch Slapin and from there it was a short walk around to the loch head.
Being a sea loch, Loch Slapin is, of course, tidal, which is why there wasn’t a great deal of water evident at the loch head. But, judging from a significant expanse of tell-tale grasses, a sizeable chunk of it was salt marsh, pushing the boundary of what it means to be ‘sea’ or ‘land’.
My Cunning Plan
My plan for the rest of the afternoon was basically to walk down the other side of Loch Slapin until I ran out of loch somewhere opposite Suisnish. I would then keep going to end of the peninsula, near which I’d find Elgol (Ealaghol), where I was staying overnight. There were some minor details to this plan, such as taking the right turn-offs to follow minor coast roads and so on, but essentially that was it. Easy peasy. And so I started walking…
Allt na Dunaiche
I hadn’t gone far when I crossed a small bridge across a small stream. I’d like to say that beside it was one of my favourite things to point out, namely an old, disused bridge. I’d like to but it would be a lie.
That’s actually the second non-bridge I came to — across the Allt na Dunaiche or ‘stream of misfortune’ — since I apparently never photographed the first one. Well, okay, that’ll be the misfortune, I expect. Anyway, missing old bridges was clearly going to be a theme for the B8083 and I was fine with that so I pressed on, following the leafy, wooded B-road as it wound its way along Loch Slapin’s western bank.
There weren’t a lot of named places along the way, though one that was was Faoilean (An Fhaolileann, ‘the raised beach’). This was originally just a shepherd’s house but now is arguably a small hamlet. Either way, it’s gained a slipway at some point between the 1960s (when one wasn’t shown on OS maps) and now, (when one is).
About a mile further on, the road climbed steeply up the coastal slope and veered inland, conveying me towards the tiny village of Kilmarie (Cill Ma Ruibhe, ‘church of St Maelrubha’).
There, I fully intended to take a minor turning via Old Kilmarie, which would dwindle into a footpath leading to Drinan and Glasnakille. Not that I expected it to dwindle too badly; my map showed a series of back roads and footpaths meeting suspiciously end on. Almost as if it had once been one road and sections had since become abandoned as vehicular roadways.
I intended to take the turn off. I didn’t take it. Partly, this was because I was sweaty and tired and the oppressive heat was sapping my will to walk. Partly it was because a horsefly bit me just as I reached Kilmarie Bridge and sucked most of the remaining enjoyment out of things along with a nummy serving of my blood.
‘Stuff it,’ I decided. ‘I can always do that route tomorrow’ and I stayed upon the B-road all the way to Elgol. This was actually slightly helpful, in that it showed me where a footpath I’d want the next day turned off from that B-road and it did shorten what was left of my walk.
The road began to climb after Kilmarie, gradually ascending the side of Ben Meabost. As it rounded the flank of that hill it offered me a last chance to take a side-road to Drinan and do the coast road after all. I declined the offer. Before long, the first buildings of Elgol crept into view and I knew I’d almost made it.
Actually, most of the time, I could see the sea, or at least glimpse it way off to my left.
I plodded along the final stretch of road, cresting that hill in the photo above, and entered the village of Elgol. There, I found my B&B and it was with no small amount of joy that I peeled off my sweat-sodden garments and had a long soak in the shower.
Dinner followed and a few drinks, and then some much-needed sleep. In the morning I would have to make some route choices, not least of which was should I really do that bit I’d just missed out? Should I? Would I?
I’ll tell you next time…
Horsefly Bite Tally
This time: 3 bites
Total this trip: 8 bites
This time: 19 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,411 miles