BREAKFAST in my Dunvegan B&B was a communal affair that could have easily been an awkward occasion as the mostly English guests avoided talking to each other. We were saved from silent discomfort by two things — firstly the rampant idiosyncrasy of our landlady, which prompted remark (from me at least as she decided I was sat in the wrong seat and made me move) and secondly that amongst our number were a couple from New York, for whom embarrassed reticence was quite literally something that only happened to other people. Panicked by their attempts to chat with total strangers, we took refuge in non-committal answers and trying to hide behind the marmalade…
Of course, once we’d been forced into conversation, everyone relaxed — I like to think the English contingent were simply bonding in adversity (oh, the palpable horror!) So much so that I ended up leaving almost an hour later than planned because it seemed rude to break out and flee mid-conversation (did I mention my Englishness?)
When I did eventually tear myself away, I made my way first to a shop to stock up on water and snacks and then to the far end of Dunvegan (Dùn Bheagain), where I headed to Dunvegan Pier.
The pier was privately owned by the MacLeod Estate and was built in 1865, replacing a nearby, now-disused pier that was built in 1815 by Thomas Telford (1757-1834).
In the 1890s, the new pier became a regular stopping off point for steamers to the Western Isles and a daily service linked to Oban. The (old) village post office was built near it, the better to receive mail carried by the steamers, which continued to call until the 1950s. After that, the pier slipped into quiet semi-retirement, frequented by yachts and fishing boats.
The pier (and its slipway, shown above) jutted out into the top end of Loch Dunvegan (Loch Dhùn Bheagain), which cuts into Skye, largely separating the peninsula of Duirinish (Diùirinis from Old Norse dýr + nes, ‘deer promontory’). Since I am inconsistent about my approach to our minor islands (not to mention basically rule-free even on mainland Great Britain), I felt neither shame nor embarrassment in skipping that peninsula entirely. I did however get a good look at one of its landmarks as I turned about and headed back into Dunvegan — Healabhal Mhòr, also known as MacLeod’s Table North.
The more northerly of two hills dubbed ‘MacLeod’s Tables’, Healabhal Mhòr is the shorter at 469 m, despite ‘mhòr’ meaning ‘big’ (it is lower but bulkier than the 488 m Healabhal Bheag).
Local tradition has it that a MacLeod clan chief boasted to King James V that he had a more spacious hall, with a finer, loftier ceiling and more ornate candles than those in the royal palace. When the King later visited Dunvegan, forcing MacLeod to prove it, he was honoured with a feast atop Healabhal Mhòr beneath a starry sky with MacLeod clansmen bearing fiery torches. It’s a lovely story, though it does rather disregard the prevailing conditions — at the height of summer it would have been marred by a billion biting insects and at any other time of year the weather would probably be a little challenging.
St Mary’s Old Church
Although I had no plans to walk up Healabhal Mhòr, I did plan to spend the whole day walking in summer conditions, which meant that further horsefly bites were likely on the cards. I did my best to put that thought from my mind but the array of painful lumps I’d already garnered over the previous days made it difficult to ignore. I tried to distract myself from it by looking at this:
This is St Mary’s Old Church in Kilmuir (Cille Mhuire, ‘Mary’s church’) on the edge of Dunvegan. It was built in 1694 and it graveyard contains several MacLeods and their MacCrimmon pipers.
It fell out of use in the 19th century (a new church was built in 1832, which I saw last time) and by the 1860s, it was in ruins, its roof already collapsed.
Two Churches Walk
The two churches are linked by the imaginatively-named ‘Two Churches Walk’, a footpath route that would probably have been more interesting than simply heading east out of Dunvegan on the A850. Unfortunately, I only learned of it as I passed St Mary’s on the A-road, by which time I’d missed my chance. Oh well.
With a nonchalant shrug and a muttered obscenity—the latter directed at the first biting horsefly of the day — I passed by the church and continued out along the A-road.
A850 Snizort Road
Horneval Old Bridge
I’d not gone far when it quickly became apparent that the modern, two-lane A-road — the last section of which was upgraded around 1990 — only approximates the alignment of Thomas Telford’s original Snizort Road. The latter showed itself as a ribbon of parallel asphalt, serving as farm track.
Any doubts I might have had — but didn’t — about this companion track’s provenance would have been quite dispelled when I reached the farmstead of Horneval, where it crossed the river of the same name.
The road swung north at Horneval, passing to the west of the foot of Ben Horneval, a 264 m hill. It continued north for about a mile and a half with the old road alignment appearing and disappearing on the way. Towards the end of that distance, it aimed for something called ‘the Fairy Bridge’ and I decided to follow it.
The so-called Fairy Bridge is the original road alignment’s crossing for the Allt Beinn na Boineide, which flows into the Bay River and thence into Loch Bay. Thanks to the fence above, I got to it by crossing on the modern (i.e. 1960s) bridge and then backing up the B886, which was Telford’s road to the Waternish Peninsula (Bhatairnis from ON vatnenes, ‘pond promontory’).
Though clearly a typical Telford bridge, the Fairy Bridge was already labelled as such on the Ordnance Survey’s 1st edition map (1843-1882) and is linked to one of the tales of how Clan MacLeod gained its famous Fairy Flag, which is said to bring guaranteed victory in battle when unfurled but can only be used three times. I mentioned last time how one yarn identifies it as Harald Hardrada’s ‘Landwaster’ banner, well, this origin story is quite different.
In this version, a MacLeod chief fell in love with a Faerie princess and wished to marry her, a match agreed to by the Faerie King only on the basis that she must return to Faerie after a year and a day. They married and a son was born and then, on the appointed day, she returned to her people, disappearing at the Fairy Bridge (for water is often a gateway between the worlds in these stories).
Alas, one day after her disappearance her son began to cry inconsolably, prompting the princess to briefly return and wrap him in a comforting shawl. It is, of course, the shawl that became the Fairy Flag of Clan MacLeod.
Ben Aketil Wind Farm
I guess I must have angered the fairies with my cynicism as they sent another horsefly to torment me as I walked away. Cursing the insect’s very existence, I returned to the A850 and followed it eastwards, cutting across the base of Waternish and adding the latter to my growing list of unperambulated peninsulas.
Once again, the old road alignment was visible as the A-road rounded the lower slope of Beinn na Boineide (318 m) but I turned my attention inland, where a broad expanse opened up before me, stretching to Ben Aketil (266 m) and its row of twelve wind turbines. Set up in 2007, Ben Aketil was Skye’s first wind farm.
Upperglen Old Bridge
Leaving the wind turbines to their apparent victory parade, I kept following the A850 as it snaked its way eastwards. Though bendy, it was less so than its 19th century predecessor, which insisted on repeatedly making its presence known. At the farmstead of Upperglen it chose to revisit its Horneval strategy, visually screaming ‘look at me!’ by showing off another Telford bridge.
Approaching Loch Greshornish
Just visible in the background of the above photo is the side-road leading to Greshornish (Grìsinis, ‘young pig promontory’), which sits on the shore of a loch of the same name. As I made my way eastwards, it wasn’t long before I caught sight of Loch Greshornish, which is an arm of Loch Snizort (Snìosort from ON sneis + fjordr, ‘snow fjord’).
The approach to the loch’s head featured a particularly straight and easily accessible bit of Telford’s old road alignment and I figured that it would be churlish not to use it. This got me off the A-road and its intermittent traffic but was not entirely without its own consequences.
Nursing a couple of new horsefly bites, I emerged from the end of this stretch of old road onto the modern A-road, which crossed its alignment. Almost opposite was the turn-off into the village of Edinbane (An t-Aodann Bàn, ‘the pale hill-face’) and the reason the turn-off was opposite was, of course, that it was more of Telford’s road alignment. I took Thomas Telford’s cue and entered the village, leaving the A-road to bypass it all on its own.
While Edinbane — spelt ‘Edinbain’ on older OS maps — is said to take its name from the white flowers of bog cotton that grow on its hillside, the part I was actually entering was contrarily named Blackhill (Cnoc Dubh). It was a pleasant little place with a shop, a school and a pottery plus a building that used to be a hospital.
Gesto Hospital has a story I found interesting. It was built in 1870 with funds bequeathed by a local man, Kenneth MacLeod of Greshornish and Gesto (1809-1869). The latter place, Gesto, had been his family estate for generations and was located on Loch Harport close to the viewpoint I walked past last time. A dispute between his father — Neil MacLeod of Gesto — and the clan chief in Dunvegan saw them disinherited however and young Kenneth did what many a young Scot did in that situation and went abroad to seek his fortune. Unlike most, he found it, though not without a little luck.
Kenneth MacLeod’s Fortune
At the age of sixteen, having worked for a year in India to little effect, Kenneth was taking a boat to Calcutta when it stopped in a place where the contents of an old sugar factory were being auctioned off. He purchased a copper boiler for one guinea (£1 1/- or £1.05), having been given the necessary guinea as a going-away present when he left Skye.
With his new possession aboard, he continued his journey to Calcutta, where the crafty lad sold the boiler for £30. That sounds like a fairly impressive profit as it is but, to put it into better perspective, a guinea (£1 1s) in 1825 had about the purchasing power of £80 today, while £30 then was equivalent to £2.4 k in 2018. The boy did good! He didn’t stop there though. No, Kenneth immediately headed back out to where he had bought the boiler and used his new-found wealth to buy the rest of the factory. He thus began to build up his fortune and in time became owner of an indigo plantation.
In the early 1860s he returned to Skye and attempted to buy back his family’s estate of Gesto. Norman MacLeod of MacLeod had become the 25th clan chief in the meantime and, though he refused to sell Gesto, mounting debts forced him to sell off other land including that at Greshornish, which Kenneth bought up. He built a hospital on his new land and endowed it with £30k (about £2.4 m in today’s terms) and named it Gesto Hospital. It closed (controversially) in 2006.
In addition to the hospital, much of current Edinbane was constructed by Kenneth, who laid out a model township. There had been a settlement there previously but it had been tiny. One remnant of it is the current Edinbane Lodge Hotel, which was originally a coaching inn dating to 1543 but was rebuilt by Kenneth as a hunting lodge.
The village also possesses an inn — simply named the Edinbane Inn —which inhabits an old farmhouse, built around 1800.
Hot, tired and horsefly-bitten, I regarded the Edinbane Inn with unalloyed joy. Taking refuge in the cool shade of its bar, I refreshed my flagging enthusiasm with a gin and tonic and a rather excellent crab mayo sandwich. Just the ticket!
When I felt ready, I emerged from the Edinbane Inn and followed Telford’s road through the village until it dumped me back on the A850. The A-road now headed north up the side of Loch Greshornish before curving round to the east and the south, broadly following the coastline. This threatened to be something of a straightforward road slog but, as it turned out, there were sufficient surviving stretches of Telford’s road running parallel that I could stay off the A-road for much of the way.
In some places, the old road was simply abandoned and flanked by gorse, in others it served as a side road. At one point it was mossy underfoot and clearly used as a bridleway. But in all cases it saved me from dodging A-road traffic.
And so, following in the footsteps of Mr Telford, I passed by the tiny settlement of Borve (Borbh), a crofting township overlooked by a broch called Dun Borve (‘fort fort’). This was once held to be the domain of fairies, who plagued the inhabitants of Borve by pestering them for payment for unasked-for favours (I knew I was right not to accept that sock).
Eventually, the tale goes, they resorted to a simple but effective ruse by yelling ‘the fairies’ fort is on fire! Flee for your lives!’ The fairies duly fled and never returned; I can only imagine that they were too embarrassed at having fallen for that.
Flashader, Breabost & Clachamish
After Borve, Mr Telford’s road accompanied its modern successor through or past the tiny settlements of Flashader (Flaiseader) — which also has a broch — Breabost and Clachamish (Cladh a’Chamuis, ‘bank of the bay’). At the latter, Tommy Telford let me down as I had to return to the A-road. Realistically, I guess that really means that the 1980s road improvers couldn’t actually better his alignment but it did mean I was back to avoiding cars as I entered the hamlet of Treaslane (Triaslann).
Treaslane’s name means ‘battle enclosure’, though what battle that refers to seems to have been lost to history; a clash between Norse and Gaels seems most likely.
Treaslane sits on the shore of Loch Treaslane, an arm of Loch Snizort Beag (‘little Loch Snizort), which is itself an arm of the main part of Loch Snizort. I had about a mile and half of A-850 to walk, as I headed past the hamlet and its loch.
Once I’d crossed the Treaslane River, Mr Telford came to my rescue again. The modern A-road bypasses the long, linear village of Bernisdale (Beàrnasdal ‘Bjorn’s valley’) whereas the original road ran right through it. Accordingly, I had roughly a mile of quiet village lane to idle down, the only moving vehicle a Royal Mail van.
Bernisdale consisted purely of houses and no shop, which was a shame because I was imminently going to run out of water and the afternoon was once again oppressively hot. I wasn’t really expecting to see somewhere I could buy some more but I held out hope right up until I ran out of village.
A quarter of a mile down the A850 from Bernisdale was Skeabost (Sgeitheabost from ON for ‘sheltered house’). The village sits by the mouth of the River Snizort not far from an island in the river upon which a tiny cathedral once stood.
Snizort (or Skeabost) Cathedral was built on Eilean Chaluim Chille (St Columba’s Isle), a location chosen because St Columba (521-597) had allegedly preached from a rock there. Exactly when it was built is uncertain but it may have existed as early as 1079 and it answered to the Archdiocese of Nidaros (modern Trondheim) in Norway as Skye was then part of the (Norwegian) Kingdom of the Isles, not of Scotland.
By the 12th century, the kingdom’s various sees had merged leaving Skeabost as the ecclesiastical seat for all the Isles and it remained so until the end of the 15th century, when the bishops moved to Iona.
Of particular note amongst the bishops of Skeabost is Wimund, who was Cumbrian-born and educated at Furness Abbey.
Elected as Bishop of Skeabost in 1134, he appears to have taken exception to the existence of the Diocese of Galloway. This had once been an Anglo-Saxon bishopric but had long since lapsed until its recent resurrection. Thus, churches in the Kingdom of Galloway had presumably fallen under the authority of Skeabost yet now had their own bishop, Gille Aldan, who answered to England’s Archbishop of York, not to Nidaros.
Wimund’s rage built until 1147, when he resorted to outright piracy, mounting a Viking-style sea raid on Whithorn to extort tribute! God was not on Wimund’s side however, for the buccaneering bishop was captured by his rival and blinded and castrated for his efforts.
Snizort Cathedral stood until at least 1501 but today only ruins remain.
Skeabost Bridge Free Church
The photo above actually shows Skeabost Bridge Free Church, built in 1847. So far as I can tell, none of its ministers ever turned into ex-pirate eunuchs but, given that it’s Presbyterian (and thus answers to no bishop), I imagine that Wimund would have angrily attacked them had they coexisted with him.
Skeabost’s other building of note isn’t a church but was the work of an architect who mainly designed them. That architect was Alexander Ross (1834-1925) and the building in question is Skeabost House, built as a hunting lodge for Lachlan Macdonald of Ord, who had purchased it from the MacLeods. Technically, it was rebuilt in 1871 as an 1851 sporting lodge already stood on the site.
Lachlan was noted as being a fair and benevolent landlord — a rare thing in the time of the Highland Clearances — and his son, Col Kenny MacDonald later gave financial support to Gesto Hospital in Edinbane.
An army officer, the colonel raised the Skye Squadron of Lovat Scouts —an early sniper unit which dressed in ghillie suits — during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). They would later use Skeabost House as a drill hall during WW1 and in WW2 the colonel’s own son, John MacDonald, served with them.,
Skeabost Country House Hotel
Unfortunately for the MacDonalds but much less so for me, Kenny MacDonald ploughed so much money into Gesto Hospital that he had to sell Skeabost House to stay afloat. It has spent most of the time since as a hotel, which is what it was as I walked up to its door, looking for its bar — I needed a cold, refreshing drink.
It says much about how hot a day it was, and how dehydrated I felt, that I eschewed the chance for another gin and tonic but instead drank three soft drinks in short succession. Only when I felt sufficiently cooled and watered, and had stocked up with more drinks for further on down the road, did I dare emerge, blinking, into the daylight and continue.
I could, on leaving the hotel, have gone straight back onto the A-road but the estate’s 19th century owners had seen fit to lay down a long, leafy drive. This ran between the river and the A-road and was a delightful alternative to the latter.
It was possible to keep going along the drive and cross the River Snizort on an old arched stone bridge but I foolishly let it treat me like hotel traffic and usher me onto the A-road before I got to that point. I thus crossed the river on the modern road bridge (1980s, refurbished 2012). Looking over the side, I saw that I hadn’t really needed it.
Carbost & Borve
On the northern side of the river Snizort was Carbost (Càrrabost, ‘brushwood farm’), a small crofting village straddling the A850 while it still had the chance. For the end of the A850 was only a mile and a half ahead, at the second Borve of the day, where it met the A87.
The A850 hadn’t always ended there; the road after Borve had been part of it until 1995, when the Skye Bridge opened. Now that it did end there, I had no desire whatsoever to follow it to its conclusion. I had been glad enough to get off the A850 and that had had only light traffic; the A87 promised to be a lot busier. Faster, too. Fortunately, I had a plan….
C1233 Coulnacraggan Road
My salvation was a turn-off about half a mile from the bridge, a tiny, unclassified road winding its way across the broad valley of the Lòn an Eireannaich (‘Irishman’s burn’) — a tributary of the Snizort — to the hamlets of Peiness, Uigshader and Coulnacraggan.
I say that the road was unclassified but technically that’s untrue. Officially, it was the C1233, but no map or road sign will tell you that. The road numbering scheme was introduced in the 1920s as a means to aid assigning maintenance budgets and the subsequent use of A and B route numbers for signage and navigation is really just a happy side-effect. The scheme allows for the lesser categories of C, D and U (which really does mean ‘unclassified’) but those aren’t considered important enough to make it onto signs and maps. Except, sometimes, when they do by mistake.
Macdiarmid Primary School
The road soon passed by Macdiarmid Primary School (Bun-sgoil Mhic Dhiarmaid, which sits pretty much out on its own, surrounded by fields. The school moved from Borve when the current building was built in 1893, using funds bequeathed to the parish by a Donald MacDonald who had emigrated to South Carolina.
As one would expect from a building constructed in 1893, it does not appear in the OS 1st edition (1843-1882) but is there in the 2nd (1888-1913). The same cannot be said of the bridge over the Lòn an Eireannaich located south of the school. That appears on neither map, both showing a footbridge and a ford. It would appear that motor traffic had to wait until the 1920s or 30s to get across the burn with dry wheels.
Peiness & Uigshader
About half a mile on from the bridge, I came to the hamlets of Peiness (Peighinn an Easa, ‘pennyland of the waterfall’) and Uigshader (Ùigseadar from ON Vík-sœtr, ‘dwelling at the riverbend’), one right after the other. These are tiny collections of farmhouses and cottages and are quite unusual in that, when comparing the early OS editions to today, they don’t appear to have grown much, if at all.
I encountered my one car on the C1233 in Uigshader, after which the C-road began a gradual climb up the southern side of the valley. And by ‘gradual’ I mean ‘barely perceptible’ to begin with.
The road began to climb more steeply as the valley floor gave way to the flank of Ben Grasco, a 237 m hill. At about 80 m, I came to the tiny hamlet of Coulnacraggan (Cul na Creagan, ‘back of the rocks’), beyond which the C1233, having served me well, bade me goodbye and set me upon the B885.
B885 Portree Road
The Road from Bracadale
This was a high-level minor road crossing from Bracadale to Portree and, had I turned right instead of left after crossing the Amar River the previous day, I’d have been on it then.
Well, I was on it now and that suited me just fine, as it would provide a low-traffic route into Portree. Indeed, I only saw a couple of cars while I was on it for it’s only used by people who live on it and adventurous (or foolish) tourists — everyone else, even if local, tends to stick to the A-roads which are faster despite being longer.
What is now the B885 does not appear on Aaron Arrowsmith’s map of 1807 (which generally does show Telford’s roads) so it was either a Telford afterthought or it came even later than that. Either way, it was in place by the time the OS 1st edition came out although the C1233 didn’t actually connect to it until the 2nd.
Whatever its provenance, the B885 did exactly what I needed — It led me, with minimal traffic risk, through the hamlet of Glengrasco and then along the last two miles to Portree. For much of the way, its elevated position meant that I could look across to the A87 and watch the endless stream of cars, campers and caravans. I had, I felt, made the right choice.
Eventually, the road dropped down into Portree and met up with the A87. But, since it did so within the town, I had a pedestrian pavement and so no longer cared. I followed first it and then the A855 as they led me to the seafront and then the town centre.
The Island’s Capital
Portree (Port Rìgh, ‘King’s port’) is the largest town on Skye and functions as the island’s capital. It has numerous shops, banks, hotels and restaurants plus the island’s only secondary school and is an important hub for the island’s buses (what few of them there are).
The modern town owes its layout and existence to landowner Sir James MacDonald who took the tiny village and began developing it into a fishing port in 1771. The early 19th century brought not only Telford’s roads but also a pier designed by the engineer and by 1826 it was a port of call for weekly steamers.
Etymology of ‘Portree’
Some claim that the name Portree derives from a visit by James V in 1540, though they hardly welcomed him at the time — he turned up with a fleet of warships to try to tighten his control over the isles. Others claim the name was Port Ruigheadh, meaning ‘slope harbour’.
The royal etymology seems more probable to me, not least because, prior to the 16th century, the village had been called Kiltaraglan (Cill Targhlain, ‘church of St Talarican’) and, while you might rename your village because the King showed up with his navy, you’re far less likely to rename it because you’ve only just noticed that the landscape has always been hilly.
A Trip Concluded
My arrival concluded my June/July 1018 trip. I enjoyed a very good meal in my hotel and a sleep only partly disrupted by the painfulness of many tender horsefly bites.
The following morning I began an eight hour bus journey to Glasgow (it took over an hour just to get off Skye), during which the vehicle’s aircon gave up and the temperature inside rose by nine degrees Celsius. And then I caught my train home…
I’ve been holding back on organising my next trip, mainly for two different reasons, both of which boil down to ‘summer’. On the one hand, it’s the school holidays and all the accommodation is either fully booked or, if not, then it’s usually not full for good reason. On the other hand — a swollen, painful hand — are far, far too many horsefly bites. I think I’ll wait out their season before I go back. Those vicious little buggers like the taste of me too much.
Horsefly Bite Tally
This time: 5 bites
Total this trip: 28 bites
This time: 21 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,475 miles