THE fifth morning of my most recent walking trip brought me slight nausea and no desire whatsoever to eat breakfast, a situation I ascribed to insufficient sun hat discipline the day before. My desire to walk multiple miles under what promised to be another day of blazing sunshine was also somewhat eroded but, in that matter, I had little choice. I had a room booked in Dunvegan that evening and my vast array of transport options amounted to Shanks’s pony or begging a lift.
Every Cloud And All That
I was, I quickly decided, on Skye for walking if not for breakfast. Besides, maybe the fresh air would make me feel better? And so it proved. Also, a light scattering of cloud cover had materialised which, though it made no reduction in the temperature, promised to reduce my direct exposure to the sun. Blue sky without sunstroke was a wonderful weather win.
The lurch in my stomach had completely subsided by the time I found myself passing Carbost Burial Ground — also known as Trien Cemetery — which sits below the road, right on the shores of Loch Harport.
The cemetery is close to the head of Loch Harport, where the River Drynoch empties out. As is often the case, the loch head comprised a stretch of tidal salt marsh, which the road (the B8009) edged around. It first carried me across the Vikisgill Burn and then the Drynoch, both of which have been bridged since the Ordnance Survey’s 2nd edition map (1888-1913) but still needed to be forded (Vikisgill Burn also had pedestrian stepping stones) when the 1st edition was drawn up (1843-1882).
Having crossed with dry feet thanks to some forgotten bridge-builder, I climbed the short incline as the B-road rose to meet the level of the A863, where the carved ‘tattie bogal’ (i.e. scarecrow) tried to tell me that I was going the wrong way.
A863 Dunvegan Road
As lovely as the Minginish Peninsula undoubtedly is, it was in entirely the wrong direction to where I needed to go. I headed west along the A-road, following its winding turns as it stuck, more-or-less, to the alignment chosen by renowned engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834).
Telford became engineer to the Highland Roads and Bridges Commission upon its creation in 1803 and this particular road must have been one of the earlier ones as it was already in place when English cartographer Aaron Arrowsmith (1750-1823) compiled his Map of Scotland Constructed From Original Materials in 1807.
Pleased to be on another Telford road, I ignored the dead-end turn off for the hamlet of Drynoch (An Droighneach, ‘the thorny place’) but paused to peer over its head towards the distant Black Cuillin ridge, which was itself peeping over the intervening hills.
Signs of Realignment
The A-road described a series of abrupt bends where Telford had chosen to prioritise maintaining a consistent contour (to ease travel for carriages) over directness of route. This decision had been prompted by two streams, the Allt na Coille (‘burn of the wood’) and Allt Coir’ a’ Ghobhainn ( ‘smith’s corrie burn’) and had resulted in a particularly sharp turn in crossing the latter. Later roadbuilders had smoothed the alignment a little but Telford’s original bridge was still present, though crumbling and overgrown. I spotted it because I was on foot and I look out for these things but I doubt if one in a hundred drivers has ever noticed that it’s there.
Telford’s road was classified as the B883 when road numbers were issued in 1923 but within a couple of years it had been upgraded to ‘A’ status as befits the only road running up the west coast of Skye. As I followed it, it continued to show sporadic signs of realignment, with a number of suspiciously parallel farm tracks that I either switched to or didn’t as the whim took me.
Its route turned inland, cut off from sight of Loch Harport by the low hills of Cnoc an t-Sìthein (‘fairy knoll’) and Uchd Mòr (‘great breast’). Thus, when it once again cut Telford’s corner as it crossed the Allt Beul-àth na Glaiseich (‘burn of the dyke ford’), my attention was entirely taken by a fleeting glimpse of blue water, courtesy of the valley of Meadale.
A Missed Opportunity
Just past Meadale, the A-road made one of its more significant diversions from Telford’s route, cutting right across a loop of the latter. I fully intended to take the old alignment but I somehow missed it — possibly because at about that point I was once again mobbed by horseflies (they really love the taste of me) — and I only realised my mistake when I reached the point that the routes recombined. This was disappointing but somehow I managed to cope.
I picked up another horsefly bite as I passed along the valley between the modest hills of Glas Bheinn (‘green peak’) and Beinn Dhubh (‘black peak’).
This, combined with the building heat, sapped my will to make any further diversions. This quickly became pertinent because at the end of the valley I had another choice of route: I could take Telford’s old alignment past Coillure Farm, which required a bit of a climb over a hill, or I could stay on the A863. The A-road involved a slightly greater distance but all at one contour and also promised a viewpoint according to my map.
I paused to consider these options and, to my shame, judged them mainly as to which I thought would take the least effort. The A-road won out and, though I feared I might later regret deliberately skipping a Telford alignment, I trusted to the viewpoint to mollify Future Me…
Another arm of Loch Bracadale is Loch Beag (‘small loch’), which is essentially the mouth of the Amar River. This lay inconveniently right in the way of my route up Skye’s coast and necessitated a slight inland turn to where it could be bridged.
The A-road headed upstream for about a mile, where someone had thoughtfully built a causeway and a bridge.
I’m not sure exactly when the causeway and bridge were built across the Amar but, since it’s definitely not on the 1979 OS map and a lot of road-building was done in the 1980s and 90s, I’d presume it was sometime in that span of two decades.
Telford made his crossing another half mile upstream, with the Coillure road dropping down to run along the river’s shore on its way there.
Had it been less exhaustingly warm, I’d probably have sauntered upstream and used Telford’s bridge but I was loath to expend the additional effort.
Bracadale & Struan
Bracadale (Bracadal), on the far side, was tiny but neighbouring Struan (An Sruthan, ‘the streamlet’) pandered to my laziness by possessing a café and a small shop. The café was shut, it turned out, but it still had benches on which I could sit to eat snacks and drink cold drinks purchased from the aforementioned shop. Because sitting still and stuffing your face with chocolate is what this healthy hiking lark is all about. Apparently.
As is often the case, the shop and café were on a short section of road long since bypassed, sharing it with Struan Free Church (1854). I sat there for a little while, sipping my cold drink and waiting for my body temperature to drop below the danger level for spontaneous human combustion.
The Ullinish Option
Eventually, when I felt ready, I faced another route decision: stay on the A863 or divert to the hamlet of Ullinish?
Ullinish (Uilfhinis from Old Norse úlfa-nes, ‘promontory of the wolves’) is a tiny crofting settlement with pretty much nothing in it. The A-road, by contrast, had no immediate settlements but did promise a broch and another viewpoint. I carefully weighed their respective attractions and came down firmly on the side of continued minimal effort.
I really don’t deal well with heat.
Dùn Beag (‘small fort’) is an Iron Age broch, which is to say it’s a hollow-walled structure of uncertain purpose, of a type peculiar to Scotland. Whether they were primarily defensive structures or high-status dwellings are positions over which different camps of archaeologists are willing to beat the others to death with their trowels.
Dùn Beag is named in opposition to Dùn Mòr (‘great fort’), a hill fort about a third of a mile further north. Being within sight of the road, and directly opposite a layby with an alleged viewpoint, the broch was extremely popular with the park-and-gawk demographic. Not that I can criticise; they almost all bothered to head up the hill to see it properly.
Heading northwest, the A-road showed a few more signs of route-smoothing before suddenly abandoning all pretence and arcing seawards about three quarters of a mile from the village of Ose (Òs).
I guess the modern road was trying to stick to a contour but the old alignment hardly looked steep either. It was, however, grassy and covered in sheep and I decided to let them keep their horseflies to themselves; I stuck with the A863 for my walk into Ose, which sits beside a river of the same name (derived from Norse os meaning ‘river mouth’).
A little way beyond Ose, the road was forced to turn directly north again to divert around a third arm of Loch Bracadale, namely Loch Caroy. I was tiring again in the unrelenting heat and an old but quite serviceable seat beside a farm gate tempted me to sit down. Should I? Should I not? How far did I have left to go?
I didn’t sit for long, it was just a brief rest and then I pressed onwards, soon reaching the head of Loch Caroy. There, the A-road did its usual trick of rounding Telford’s corners, allowing me to admire from a distance the handiwork of Mr T.
I could, After Caroy, have left the A-road for the backroad to the hamlet of Balmore (Baile Mòr, ‘great township’), which would have run much closer to the coast. But by then I’d pretty much set the tone of the day as ‘way too hot, can’t be arsed’. I decided to stick with what felt like a winning theme.
Having made that decision, I ignored a couple of other possibilities for side-loops to the walk and just kept following the A-road to Dunvegan.
Soon, I crossed neck of the Duirinish Peninsula (Diùirinis from Norse dýr-nes meaning ‘deer promontory’ and found myself approaching the edge of Dunvegan. I had made it!
Dunvegan was so arranged along the road that I would reach my B&B before I’d passed through most of it. I thus availed myself of the opportunity to drop off my bag and have a short break. In the process, I quite baffled the landlady, who wasn’t expecting my arrival because she hadn’t heard my car. She turned out to be pleasantly quirky and I think my carlessness struck her similarly.
A short while later, unencumbered and briefly rested, I popped back out to explore Dunvegan and find myself something to eat. A nearby café answered my requirement for nourishment, without which my legs were getting ready to object.
Dunvegan (Dùn Bheagain of uncertain etymology but possibly ‘Beccán’s fort’) is a small town that serves as the seat of Clan MacLeod. It has a number of hotels and various shops but perhaps its most curious attraction is this:
Giant Angus McAskill Museum
Angus Mòr McAskill (1825-1863) was a Scottish-Canadian giant who stood at 7’ 9” and toured with PT Barnum’s Circus.
Angus was born on Berneray and lived in Stornoway before emigrating to Canada. So far as anyone knows, he never once set foot on Skye let alone had any link to Dunvegan. This makes it an odd choice of location for the museum; you’d expect that to be somewhere he actually lived (and indeed there’s another museum in Englishtown, Nova Scotia).
In fact, the only reason the museum is in Dunvegan is that that’s where Peter McAskill — who founded this museum to his fellow clan member in 1989 — happened to live. And still does.
I’d only vaguely heard of Angus McAskill and I’d never heard of Peter at all. I was, however, aware of Peter’s son Danny McAskill, a street trials cyclist who in 2014 released a video on YouTube titled The Ridge.
The video shows him riding his mountain bike atop the main ridge of the Black Cuillin and it’s pretty amazing. I’m not sure how I came to watch it but, given my general discomfort with heights, I did so mostly with my stomach doing backflips and my heart in my mouth. It’s remarkable.
If Dunvegan is famous for anything, it’s probably Dunvegan Castle, seat of the MacLeod of MacLeod. There’s probably been a fortification there since, well, forever (or at least since Norse times, judging by Dunvegan’s name) but the current castle’s oldest parts date only to the 13th century.
Having been the home of the MacLeods for some 800 years, it is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. Over that time, the clan chiefs have collected a number of interesting items including the Dunvegan Cup — a silver-plated wooden cup dating to 1493 — and Rory Mor’s drinking horn, a silver-tipped ox horn from which each chief is required to drink the full contents to prove his manhood; the horn is named for Ruairidh Mòr MacLeòid (c. 1562-1626), 15th chief of MacLeod.
The Fairy Flag
The MacLeod heirloom that I most wanted to see, however, was the famous Fairy Flag (Am Bratach Sìth) of the MacLeods, a tattered flag of yellow silk marked with red ‘elf spots’.
There is much contradictory legend about how and where they acquired it, with one tale suggesting that it was originally Harald Hardrada’s ‘Landwaster’ banner, which was supposed to always bring him victory but which failed him at Stamford Bridge in 1066.
Wherever they got it, the legend is fairly consistent that it is supposed to bring Clan MacLeod guaranteed victory if unfurled but with the caveat that it can only be used three times. They are said to have unfurled it in 1490 in a battle against the MacDonalds and again against the MacDonalds in 1520. Given its age and extreme fragility, I doubt enough of it would survive a third unfurling for the clan to use it a fourth time, whether it brought them a magical victory or not.
Latecomers Not Admitted
I don’t imagine that the fairy flag is on display but the castle and its five-acre formal gardens are open to the public. But only if you get there during opening hours. I reached the castle gates just after it had closed so the full extent of my visit can be summed up with this:
Duirinish Parish Church
Duly defeated, I turned about and headed back towards the B&B. On the way, I passed Duirinish Parish Church, belonging to the Church of Scotland and built in 1832. It is built in a Gothic Revival style resembling the American ‘Carpenter Gothic’, except this is built of crushed stone rubble with dressed stone corners.
I may have not got anywhere near the Fairy Flag but there was a consolation prize awaiting me when I finally retired to my room in the form of an unusual cloth:
The morning would bring the sixth and final day of the trip, in which I’d walk to Portree. But first, I would sleep like a champion…
Hofrsefly Bite Tally
This time: 5 bites
Total this trip: 23 bites
This time: 20 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,454 miles