THE first day of September 2018 saw me back in Portree, wondering what had happened to the blazing sunshine in which I’d travelled the day before. A band of low cloud had swept in overnight and was filling the air with the sort of misty drizzle that isn’t so much rain as floaty dampness.
Rather Rain Than Pain
There are many people who might have been disheartened by the conditions and reconsidered their plans to go walking that day. Those people didn’t go home from their last trip with nearly thirty painful bites from horseflies — vicious biting insects that fill the air on sunny summer days. Horseflies like rainy conditions even less than we do.
With my hood up and my head down, I splashed merrily through puddles and headed out of town. At the hour at which I chose to leave, very few others were about. One elderly bloke, who had clearly been to pick up his paper from the newsagents, plodded ahead of me for a while and I think may have been concerned that I appeared to be following him. Fortunately — to our mutual relief — he soon went one way and I went another as I followed the A87 north-westwards out of Portree.
The purpose of this trip was to complete my wanderings on Skye by rounding the Trotternish (Tròndairnis) Peninsula. This was something I aimed to do in my customary clockwise direction and so I was beginning by cutting westwards across the peninsula’s base. This meant that I was walking the very same A-road that I had previously avoided entering Portee upon, on account of the traffic. Initially, this would also be the Portree end of Thomas Telford’s 19th century Snizort Road.
Snizort Road (A87 Section)
The earliness of the hour went a long way to mitigate any traffic issues, and the weather forced those cars that were out to take things a little more sedately. Even so, I took advantage of the dead-end turn-off to Drumuie (Drum-aoidh, ‘isthmus ridge’), about two miles out of Portree, to pause out of the way of the traffic stream and check my progress so far.
As quiet and inviting as the road to Drumuie might have been, it was heading basically nowhere whereas I needed to continue west. I thus stepped back onto the A-road and followed it for another three quarters of a mile, by which time the traffic was starting to build as what passes for northern Skye’s rush hour approached. Fortunately, a turn-off for the village of Borve (Borbh) then presented itself and I took it with gratitude.
Borve means ‘fort’ and takes its name from the nearby broch of Dùn Borve. Confusingly, so does Skye’s other village of Borve, which has its own Dùn Borve, and through which I passed last time.
This Borve sits on a single-track side road that branches off to run parallel to the A87 in a manner that looks exactly like it ought to be the old road alignment but isn’t. The A-road in this case is more-or-less sticking to Thomas Telford’s original plan and Borve’s road is actually a number of access roads and farm tracks that merged to become public road sometime around the 1920s.
In fairness, the main reason why Borve wasn’t connected to Telford’s early 19th century road was that it didn’t really exist then; the modern village strung out along the road has grown up since. Although that’s not to say that there weren’t any structures at all…
The standing stones of Clachan Erisco are thought to be the remnants of an ancient stone circle, with three other monoliths lying nearby. The road’s buslessness must have just gotten too much so they needed a little lie down.
I was personally greatly enjoying how quiet the road through Borve was — not only were the buses and other A-road traffic passing it by completely, but I didn’t see a single moving vehicle on it. Even as I entered a slightly denser part of Borve and started to see cars parked outside houses, they seemed to be somehow frozen in a timewarp…
Austin A35 Van
This little beastie is an Austin A35 van, a popular Austin model produced between 1956 and 1968. That this one dates from 1964 is given away by its number plate — the ‘B’ at the end is a date letter signifying that year as part of what was then a novel scheme to show the age of a car in its registration. The scheme ran through most of the letters of the alphabet (skipping some that were likely to be confused with others at a distance) until 1983, after which they reversed the sequence and started again at ‘A’. When they again ran out of alphabet — in 2001 — reversing it again would have led to conflict with vehicles like this van, the rare survivors of the original sequence, so an entirely new system was introduced.
I spent some time gazing upon this A35, partly because it’s a great exemplar of design features long since vanished or transformed beyond recognition. For a start, it has a bonnet ornament, which is a thing that is pretty much just the preserve of Rolls Royce these days. In this case, it’s also the bonnet catch.
Something else the A35 has is functioning quarterlights (separately opening panes in the front corners of the side windows), which pretty much vanished from cars in the 1970s.
But, lest you think of it as something backwards, note that the A35 also has directional indicators. By 1964, that was pretty much standard but the A35’s predecessor — the Austin A30 — had been equipped with semaphore arms (called ‘trafficators’) instead of blinking lights, so their inclusion was pretty much a selling point when the A35 first went to market. Were you to get behind the wheel of an A35, you wouldn’t find the indicator switch as a lever on the steering column, though. They were activated via a knob in the centre of the dashboard — turn it left for the left indicators and right for the right. They were deactivated by that knob too, no automatic cancellation of turn signals on this van.
A Note of Nostalgia
I say I partly gazed upon this vehicle out of interest in its design, not to mention sadness at the state of its front left tyre. But I also gazed partly out of a sense of nostalgia. For, although they stopped making them before I was even born, my grandfather drove an A35. His wasn’t a van, nor was it red; it was the 1959 two-door saloon variant in ‘spruce green’, a shade similar to British Racing Green. I have many memories of going on holiday with my grandparents as a child, with his funny little car (as it then seemed to me) racking up the miles in Wales and the West Country.
Eventually, all nostalgia’d up, I tore myself away from the A35 van and said to myself ‘well, you don’t see many of those anymore.’ And then I pressed on. For about twenty paces, after which I stopped dead in surprise.
If the little red A35 van had brought on a feeling of nostalgia, the sight of a spruce green two-door saloon model pretty much shut my brain down. I stood there for a bit, unashamedly glassy-eyed, and then rallied some sense of self control. It was then that I started to notice the differences…
Austin A30 Saloon
This little beauty isn’t, in fact, an Austin A35; it’s an A30 (the previous model). The big giveaways are the grille at the front — chrome on the A30, painted on the A35 — and the rear window, which was bigger on the latter.
This particular vehicle has been upgraded with the addition of indicator lights to replace its trafficators; if you compare it with the previous photo you’ll see that whoever installed the lights didn’t put them in quite the same position as they would be in the later A35.
As it predates the date-letter scheme, its number plate gives no clues about its age but, having tracked down some details via the internet, I can tell you it was built in 1956, the year in which Austin stopped selling them and replaced them with the A35. My granddad’s A35 dated from just three years later, which was the last year they sold the saloon variant, though estates and vans were still sold until 1962 and 1968 respectively.
Trotternish Road (A87 Section)
Old Road Alignment
Feeling unexpectedly emotional, I carried on through Borve. It stopped raining at some point, but I was too lost in thought to notice. I also didn’t notice when I passed the start of a footpath to Annishader, which I had intended to take. I realised my mistake when Borve’s road came to an end and returned me to the A87 but I felt no need to turn about and go back. For, though the A-road was quite busy, I could see that beyond it was something that wasn’t.
I said before that the A87 more-or-less sticks to Thomas Telford’s original alignment. Well, this was one of the ‘less’ points, where it had been easier during 1990s road-widening to just build a new road next to the old one and stop using the latter. For vehicles anyway; I could still walk along it just fine.
Telford’s old alignment carried me most of the way towards Loch Eyre, a minor limb of Loch Snizort Beag. There was one short section where a gravelly footpath linked two sections of old road and at one point it needed to cross the B8036 — the road to Skeabost — but it was generally great.
I strode along, untroubled by traffic and no longer dampened by rain, and soon found the loch spread out before me, glinting like silver in the light.
Running side-by-side, the old and new road alignments passed by the turn-off to Annishader and made for their respective bridges over the River Haultin. That on the old alignment was only as wide as the single-track road and I suspect that having to replace it with a wider one is what led to needing a new alignment in the 1990s.
Kensaleyre & Eyre
Across the bridge was the township of Kensaleyre (Ceann Sàil Eighre), which quickly shaded into the equally small village of Eyre (Eighre) — both are visible in the photo above.
The old road ended in Kensaleyre but the villages had a pedestrian pavement that carried me safely through them. A pair of standing stones can be found at the edge of Loch Eyre although apparently not by me, as I merrily marched right past them.
On the far side of Eyre, I ran out of pavement and found myself once again dodging traffic on the A-road. The traffic had lightened up, now that rush hour was over, but such vehicles as there were had quite a turn of speed about them.
About the A87
Today, the A87 is a fairly lengthy A-road stretching 99 miles from Invergarry to Uig but, until 1995, it ended at Kyle of Lochalsh. Its Skye section was then part of the A850 and all of the A856, which together connected the ferries at Kyleakin and Uig. With the opening of the Skye Bridge it became a single continuous route and the A87 swallowed the other two up.
Some of the A850 remains as the road to Dunvegan but the road I was now walking had been the A856, which had stretched from Borve to Uig. A hundred and some years before that, it had been part of Telford’s Trotternish Road.
I followed the A-road through Romesdal, a hamlet of maybe half a dozen buildings but which numbered around thirty houses before the Highland Clearances.
About half a mile further north, the modern A-road veered slightly to the left while a suspiciously well-tarmacked farm track kept on straight. It was a bit muddy in places and liberally strewn with sheep but still, I could hardly resist.
The sheep were surprised to see someone walking on what they now felt was their road and eyed me warily as I passed.
The road only lasted about half a mile and it terminated in a bunch of cows who were even less certain about my presence than the sheep were. They nervously gave me a very wide berth as I clambered over the gate at the end and continued merrily on my way. I’d got less than fifty metres when a bloke on a quadbike roared up to them and dropped a load of cattle feed in their midst, which seemed to calm the poor things down again.
Reassured that I wasn’t the Wicked Traumatiser of Cattle, I strode determinedly onwards, soon reaching a point on my map labelled Hinnisdal Bridge. Though another short section of old Telford alignment could be found there, this time I restrained myself from following it.
After Hinnisdal Bridge, I continued north, dodging vehicles on the A-road. It was now late morning and the traffic had eased off considerably, though there were occasional pulses synchronised with the Uig Ferry.
Uig (Ùige) takes its name from Old Norse vík meaning bay or inlet and sits on the shore of Uig Bay about four miles on from Hinnisdal Bridge. Those four miles felt fairly long and it was with something of a sense of relief that I saw the buildings of Uig appear before me.
Captain Fraser’s Folly
One of those buildings was Captain Fraser’s Folly, a rather squat little tower constructed around 1860 by William Fraser, who was then the local landowner.
Fraser was not a pleasant landlord and enthusiastically evicted his tenants in the Highland Clearances to make way for sheep. Those that he had yet to evict had to go to the tower to pay their crippling rents to his factor, so I doubt that many of them looked upon it with relief.
In 1877, shortly after the clearances were over and Fraser’s tenants had been replaced with sheep, he suffered an upset that makes for a moment of perfect karma. His home — a large house named Uig Lodge — was washed away in a flood.
Another building in Uig is the Uig Hotel, a coaching inn dating to 1831. I was hoping to get a drink and a bite to eat in their bar but when I got there the bar was closed.
No matter, I thought, there’s probably food to found at Uig Pier, from where the ferry sails to Harris and North Uist. This assumption proved correct and I spent the best part of an hour resting and refuelling with a good cup of tea and a hearty bowl of Cullen skink.
Edward VII Memorial
When I felt ready to resume my travels, I discovered that King Edward VII had also been to Uig, exactly 116 years earlier.
Trotternish Road (A855 Section)
Ascending from Uig
The A87 had ended At Uig Pier, where various vehicles continued their journey by loading themselves into the ferry. I, however, had other plans. I backtracked to a junction where the single-track A855 branched off and zig-zagged with it up a steep incline, rising to 111 m.
Possibly it’s better that Hebrides can’t drink; she’s already had one incident that might raise eyebrows. In 2016, she got stuck in forward gear and ran aground at Lochmaddy on North Uist. She then spent the next three weeks being repaired at Greenock. This was coincidentally at the same time as I was walking through Greenock but, as she was shut away in a dry dock, I didn’t see her then.
Something else I’d not seen before was bus shelter seating, Trotternish-style:
I’d left most of the traffic behind when I left Uig and good proportion of what was left then eschewed the A-road for the unclassified seasonal Quairaing Road (actually the C1225), which cuts across the peninsula to Staffin and which is closed in heavy snow.
This left the A855 surprisingly empty and I ambled merrily along it, only rarely stepping aside for a car. The road began to offer sea views towards the Outer Hebrides as it headed northwards, passing through the tiny crofting settlements of Totescore (Totasgor) and Linicro (Lionacro). The latter gradually gave way to Balgown (Baile Gobhainn), where I rested outside a Victorian school building, built in 1875 by Scottish architect Alexander Ross (1834-1925) — just one of around 450 schools that he designed. Pleasingly, it’s still in use as Kilmuir Primary School, Kilmuir being the name of the parish.
Near to the school was Kilmuir Free Church built in similar style in 1860, again by Alexander Ross. I hurried past this however, keen to reach Kilmuir’s next township, which was the tiny Kilvaxter (Cille Bhacastair). My reason for so hurrying was that I wanted to look at a hole in the ground. A specific hole, mind you…
This gated portal to a mysterious underworld is a souterrain, or underground Iron Age storage chamber. It would originally have had a wooden door. It was built using a ‘cut and cover’ method — digging a trench, lining and roofing it with stone and then burying it — and was used for storage of foodstuffs such as butter and cheese. It would have been invaluable in ensuring survival through the winter.
This particular souterrain had lain long-forgotten beneath a field full of sheep for centuries until a period of extremely wet weather caused one of the lintels to slip in 2000. The site was restored and opened to the public in 2006.
You are free to venture inside, where the ceiling is somewhat higher than at the entrance. I took out my torch, intending to do so, but as I stooped to pass across its threshold, my knees indicated that they were not at all on board with this plan. Given that I’d already made them walk 20 miles to get there, I decided that maybe they had an actual point and that I didn’t need to see a prehistoric larder all that badly after all. Besides, Kilmuir still had other things to offer…
Museum of Island Life
I continued north along the A855, passing through the miniscule hamlet of Hungladder until, about a mile and a half on from the souterrain, I espied a bunch of thatched cottages of a sort once abundant on Skye but no more.
The buildings are crofters’ cottages, typical of the late 19th century, and are part of the Museum of Island Life opened in 1965. The museum looked to be quite popular, with plenty of visitors milling about, but I was more interested in heading past it, up a side road to Kilmuir Cemetery.
Flora Macdonald Monument
This large and no doubt staggeringly expensive cross is a memorial to Flora MacDonald (1722-1790), who in 1746 had Bonnie Prince Charlie rowed to Skye while disguised as a maid; he was on the run at the time following the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Rising.
Subsequently arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, she was freed in mid-1747. Her motivation for aiding the prince was not so much ardent Jacobitism — her guardian did not join the rising and her stepfather was on the other side — but charity and she told Frederick, Prince of Wales (George II’s son) that she would have done the same for him had he been defeated and in distress.
Emigration & Revolution
Flora later married an army captain, Allan MacDonald, who served in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and, in 1774, rising rents and disagreements with the MacDonald clan chief led the couple to emigrate to North Carolina. This proved a poor choice when the American War of Independence broke out the following year.
Allan raised a battalion of loyalist militia but was defeated at the 1776 Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. They lost their Carolinian estate with little compensation and, after the war, were forced to return to Scotland. She died in 1790 and was buried in Kilmuir Cemetery, her husband following two years later.
Not that the monument marks her last resting place, however, as it stands in a different part of the graveyard to where she was actually buried. The current monument, erected in 1880 and replacing a predecessor felled by a gale in 1871, is as much a testament to misty-eyed Victorian romanticism as anything else, having been paid for public subscription. Like seemingly everything else in Kilmuir that wasn’t a croft cottage, it was designed by Alexander Ross.
I was glad enough to find the Flora MacDonald monument although, since it towered over everything else in the graveyard, I could hardly miss it. It wasn’t the only item of interest there though. Elsewhere in the grounds was a memorial stone to noted fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) but the thing that I really wanted to find was this:
Whatever the qualities of Charles MacKarter (or MacArthur), their inscription onto this gravestone was being paid for his son. Unfortunately, the tale goes, the son drowned in a boating accident on the Minch and the mason, no longer having anyone to bill, simply downed tools and left. One would hope that, had the son not drowned, he’d have received a discount for the error — it reads ‘the the melody’.
Lùb an Sgòir
Greatly amused by the unfinished inscription, I backtracked to the A-road and kept heading north towards the end of the Trotternish Peninsula. I had now passed through all the scattered townships of Kilmuir and the road ahead wound along the coast across hillsides dotted with sheep and heather.
I really enjoyed this part of the walk, which was one of the most genuinely coastal sections of the day. The road dropped slowly as it snaked round the hillsides, until it passed beneath a scree-strewn slope and a cliff that made me suddenly crave snacks.
The road swung eastwards at the township of Duntulm (Dùn Thuilm), where I ventured off-road along the dead-end footpath to what little remains of Duntulm Castle.
This was a 14th century castle, built on the site of earlier Iron Age and Norse fortifications. It belonged to the MacLeods, under whose ownership it was visited by King James V but in time they lost it to their rivals, the MacDonalds. The MacDonalds first enlarged it and then, around 1730, abandoned it, contributing to its speedy destruction in the process by taking its stones to build with elsewhere.
I stopped for another rest by Duntulm Castle but I didn’t dare stay too long as the sky looked as if it was gearing up to resume the morning’s rain. Hoping to beat it, I forced myself to my feet and headed back to Duntulm and the A-road, where I paused briefly to look back at Tulm Bay.
I was feeling pretty tired by this point, having already walked 24 miles, but I still somehow mustered up a burst of speed in the vain hope that I might do the final four miles before the rain arrived. To the south, Meall na Suiramach and the Quiraing (A’ Chuith-Raing) started to play peek-a-boo with the clouds in a manner that suggested I didn’t have nearly that much time.
Conasta & Balmaqueen
The houses in the photo above were the hamlet of Conasta (Connista).
As the weather closed in and became, quite frankly, awful, I just put my hood up and my head down and concentrated on pressing forwards. A stiff breeze blew up, making that harder, but I pressed on, barely noticing as I passed the turn-offs to Conasta and Balmaqueen (Baile Mac Cuithein).
The road dipped to cross the Kilmaluag River on a stone bridge and then climbed 80 m in the course of a mile. I just kept plodding, paying no regard to the occasional houses and simply concentrating on closing the last couple of miles of distance. This felt like a slog, crawling in terms of both time and distance, until all of a sudden I was standing at the driveway to my hotel.
With impeccable timing, the rain stopped at that moment and I made my way down the steep driveway to stand at the hotel door.
The Flodigarry Hotel was a little more expensive than I usually opt for on these trips but its placement was perfect for my plans. I imagine its rates were devised with not just its situation in mind but also its history. For, while the main hotel building was built in 1895 as hunting lodge and became a hotel in 1928, only eleven of its eighteen bedrooms are located there. The other seven are to be found in an adjoining cottage, which was the married home of Flora MacDonald before she emigrated. It was also one of her descendants who built the hunting lodge.
To my great pleasure, my room turned out to be in Flora MacDonald’s cottage and, after a few drinks and a bite to eat, I retired there gratefully to sleep. Come morning, I’d be up and walking once again.
This time: 28 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,503 miles