I AWOKE on the fifth day of my May ’18 walking trip serenaded by the patter of rain. This made the day relatively simple as I had a wet weather plan and a dry weather plan and now I didn’t need to agonise over how dry ‘dry’ actually was. Thus, when I emerged from my hotel, full of cheer and hearty breakfast, I knew what route I would take. It began with the A87, which would carry me off the British mainland and onto the Isle of Skye (An t-Eilean Sgitheanach).
Kyle of Lochalsh
The weather may have been grey and dismal but I was in fine cheer as I approached the Skye Bridge. (Drochaid an Eilein Sgitheanaich).
Built in 1995 to replace a ferry, Skye Bridge was the first major project to be constructed under the Private Finance Initiative. What that meant was that rather than the government funding the bridge’s construction, the companies building it provided the funds in return for the right to charge a toll, which is actually just an ancient way of funding bridges with a 1980s name stuck on it.
Having built the bridge, its owners proceeded to charge totally over-the-top tolls which had the locals outraged. Prosecutions for deliberate non-payment followed and the whole thing became something of a political hot potato, remaining so until 2004 when the devolved Scottish Government bought it and stopped charging tolls.
The view above is that up Loch Alsh (Loch Aillse), with Kyle of Lochalsh (Caol Loch Aillse) on the left and Kyleakin (Caol Àcain) on the right.
Somewhere below me was Eilean Bàn (‘white island’), which the crossing uses like a stepping stone as it soars above the disused Kyleakin Lighthouse at the tip of the island.
Kyleakin lighthouse was built in 1857 by two of the Stevenson brothers, scions of the family that built pretty much all of western Scotland’s lighthouses. It was automated in 1960 but decommissioned in 1993 when work began on the bridge.
The Kyleakin for which the lighthouse is named is a village on Skye, which takes its name from the physical feature Kyle Akin (Caol Àcain), meaning ‘Håkon’s strait’.
The Håkon in question is King Håkon IV of Norway who was overlord of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles, which included Skye. The mainland opposite belonged to Alexander II, King of the Scots, who felt he really ought to have the isles too. The conflict between them led to the 1263 Battle of Largs, which was in itself something of an inconclusive no-score draw but which proved strategically important and ended Norwegian rule over the isles.
Kyle Akin is one of the sheltered spots that Håkon moored his fleet before sailing south to moor it some more and generally fail at driving off the Scots.
It being early on a Sunday morning, the village of Kyleakin was mostly shut, so I just sat on a bench and did my best to enjoy the gently falling drizzle.
At the far end of the village, overlooking the harbour, were the ragged-looking ruins of Castle Moil (Caisteal Maol). This 15th century castle was an ancient seat of Clan Mackinnon but tradition says that it was built on the site of a much older Norwegian-built predecessor.
According to the tale, Findanus, the 10th century chief of what would become the Mackinnons, married a Norwegian princess whose castle it was. This princess is remembered as ‘Saucy Mary’ for she slung a chain across the Kyle and charged a toll to shipping, acknowledging its payment by flashing her bare breasts. She doesn’t appear to have faced a campaign of non-payment.
Old Road Alignments
Kyleakin had been a brief diversion for me, sitting on an unclassified dead end spur off the A87 that would once have been the part of the A-road that led to the ferry.
As I returned to the modern A87, I found that Kyleakin’s main road was not the only old alignment. The 1990s not only saw the construction of the bridge but extensive realignment of Skye’s main road network and, as I headed westwards along Skye’s coast, I kept seeing snatches of old road. I was expecting this, having spotted them on my map, and I’d rather hoped that I could walk them rather than dodge traffic on the A-road. So, could I?
I wasn’t that determined. The old road sections were mostly impassable, with isolated snatches emerging here and there such that you’d suddenly see two feet of road complete with lane markings slap bang in the middle of an impenetrable gorse thicket.
Approaching by A87
The A-road wasn’t too heavy with traffic on a Sunday morning but it wasn’t exactly quiet either. As I followed it down the coast, noting the scattered patches of old alignment, I suddenly realised that the drizzle had ceased. Visibility quickly began to improve and I looked ahead across Broadford Bay to Broadford (An t-Àth Leathann).
Beinn na Cailich
Behind Broadford loomed Beinn na Caillich (‘hill of the old woman’) and the Red Hills (Beanntan Dearga). Saucy Mary is said to have been buried atop Beinn na Caillich, facing out across the sea towards her ancestral homeland.
Keeping Away from Kylerhea
Before long, I reached the point where my dry and wet weather plans parted company.
Had the whole trip been dry, I might have taken a side road down to Kylerhea and from there tried to follow an ancient drove road. But even the most optimistic reports of the drove road that I found described it as being near-invisible on the ground and plagued at the Kylerhea end by ‘horrible bog’. That was not going to be fun after all the rain.
My wet weather plan had me head into Broadford for lunch and then head South by a different route. That seemed like a good plan.
I liked the sound of lunch, so I decided to hurry on towards it, crossing a stream — the Abhainn Lusa — via a modern road bridge.
Like so many of the roads that I had recently walked, this part of the A87 had been built around 1812 under the guidance of engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834). He had built it as the road from Kyleakin to Portree and, when road classifications were introduced in the 1920s, it had been designated the A850. Its transformation into an extension of the A87 had come about as consequence of Skye Bridge, which had essentially removed the gap between the two roads.
For all that I love an old Telford road, I now followed it only for about half a mile, which was literally until the next bridge, where Telford’s 1812 handiwork was still doing what it was built for:
The bridge spanned the Abhainn Ashik in the scattered township of Ashaig (Asaig, ‘ferry’).
Ashaig & Pabay
I could have kept going along the A-road, passing through Upper Breakish (Breacais Àrd) but the road was getting busier as the day progressed. A turn-off towards the shore offered a quieter route so I took it despite a sign warning that a bull might be roaming free. I saw no bull but I did see Ashaig’s old burial ground and, beyond it, the island of Pabay.
Ashaig has a traditional association with the Irish-born missionary St Maelrubha (c.642-722), who occupied Pabay and preached on Skye’s shore. A spring — Tobar Ashik — is also associated with him. The remains of a chapel on Pabay are much later (13th century) as was the now-vanished mediaeval church — Cill Ashik — that once graced the burial ground.
I turned away before reaching the burial ground, following single track roads through the village of Lower Breakish (Breacais Ìosal). I was about 90% certain that I’d find a footpath to Broadford when I ran out of road, even though one wasn’t shown on my map.
The footpath crossed a stream on a bridge and then headed over flat moorland. Just before it hit the shoreline, it took a sharp left and, passing a house, emerged at the end of a public road.
This was the eastern end of Broadford Bay and this also of Broadford. Specifically, it was Waterloo (Achad a’ Chùirn, ‘cairn field’) whose English name reflects that this expansion of Broadford was built in the early 19th century by and for veterans of the Napoleonic Wars.
Home of Drambuie
I followed the shore road round the bay further into Broadford, passing on my way a Broadford hotel though not the Broadford Hotel. As the Broadford Inn in 1893, the Broadford Hotel trademarked the liqueur Drambuie (though it was first commercially produced in Edinburgh in 1910).
A romantic tale that is sadly probably no more than a marketing ploy relates that the inn’s owners were given the recipe by the Mackinnons, who were given it by Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-1788).
Abhainn a’ Mhuilinn
The thought of Drambuie made me thirsty, though I think the now blazing sunshine might have had something to do with that too. Feeling increasingly motivated, I continued further into Broadford in search of a meal.
Actually, it really was close. I found my lunchtime salvation in the building that had been the old mill. There, I encountered a food combination that would never in a million years have occurred to me: a crayfish and mango sandwich. It was absolutely sublime.
I tarried over lunch because it was delicious, and my cold drink was cold and the sun outside had become something fierce. Eventually though, I had to prise myself away and perambulate.
Pausing first to smother myself in sunscreen, I retraced my steps to Waterloo and then kept going on the A87. Just beyond it, but before I got to Breakish, was Skulamus (Sculamus), where the A851 branched off to the south to head down the Sleat Peninsula. This was where I was going, for I was heading to Isleornsay (Eilean Iarmain).
Etymology of Sleat
Sleat (Slèite) is pronounced ‘slate’ and derives from Old Norse sléttr meaning ‘smooth’ or ‘even’. The peninsula mostly comprises gently rolling moorland and compared to the hills and mountains of central Skye it certainly does look flat as the A851 winds across it.
After my disappointment with the unusable sections of old alignment on the A87, I was resigned to potentially following this modern A-road (also realigned in the ’90s from an old Telford route).
As it turned out, I had about four miles — half the distance to Isleornsay — of disused old road alignment to walk upon while the modern A-road did its own thing off to one side.
For much of this distance, the new road was on a higher level than the old and essentially invisible until a car went past (the raised bank on the left in the photo above is the new road).
Canine Maypole Lady
Freed of traffic worries, I had a whale of a time ambling southwards, needing only to dodge a pair of cyclists and an elderly woman who appeared to be mobile maypole for a troupe of morris-dancing terriers.
Fortunately for my sanity, the old lady couldn’t walk very fast while wrapped in excitable dogs’ leads and I soon left her companions’ cacophony behind. For the next hour and a half there would be splendid near-silence as I enjoyed what Sleat had to offer. That turned out to be black lochs.
The so-called black lochs are a consequence of the peat bog biome. In this waterlogged terrain the main plant that grows is sphagnum moss, usually many varieties. This stuff sponges up water and when it dies it sinks and gets slowly compressed by the weight of subsequent layers.
Over time, this leads to anoxic, acidic conditions that preserve the moss fibres as peat and which also precipitates iron out of the water. The ground becomes essentially waterproof, causing the water to pool as peat-bottomed ponds and lakes — the black lochs.
The one shown below had a handy bench besides it, so I could sit and watch peat form if I had time.
Moss is Boss
Peat bog is rarely anyone’s favourite terrain but I quite like it. Partly this is nostalgia for student days throwing quadrats about to sample species. Partly it’s appreciation of their ecological importance — Scotland’s peat bogs store ten times the carbon of all Britain’s forests combined, for instance — but mostly it’s because there’s something about sphagnum moss I really like. It’s just so green and fluffy-looking and tactile.
My good friend the Lemming, when he joins me on a walk, always seems slightly perplexed that I find it hard to walk past a bank of sphagnum moss and not touch it. Which, I suppose, is fair enough.
Signs of the Past
While the bog remained quite consistent in character as I walked, the old road was less so. In some places it was narrow, in others broad. Sometimes it showed every sign of having been resurfaced; other times the signs it showed were left over from when it was the road.
As I headed south, what had been open moorland on both sides gave way to forest plantation on the far side of the new road. Increasing numbers of trees began to spring up around the old road too as if they were fleeing down the bank.
Further along, the old road became properly tree-lined, which gave me a welcome shady respite from the sun (I was burning through my sunscreen). Then, all too soon, the two alignments merged and I found myself back on the A851 near the turn-off for Drumfearn (Druim Fhearna, ‘alder ridge’).
Drumfearn is a small township (a scattered crofting settlement) of ten crofts sitting near the head of Loch Eishort. It sits at the end of a dead-end spur road that would have added three miles to walk to the end of and back. Consequently, I gave it no more than a cheery wave as I passed the junction and headed on down the A-road.
Loch na Dal
The woodland that flanked the A-road’s eastern side gave way not long after to the sight of water. Specifically, it revealed Loch na Dal (Loch na Dalach, ‘loch of the meadow’), a sea loch opening onto the Sound of Sleat.
The road followed the western shore of Loch na Dal, then dropped down beside Camas nam Mult (‘bay of the wether’, a wether being a castrated ram). This brought me to the hamlet of Duisdalemore (Duisdeil Mòr, ‘great Duisdale’), which had a hotel but not the one I was going to.
Now almost there, I kept going and was rewarded by sight of the actual island of Isle Ornsay (Eilean Orasaigh), whose name derives from Old Norse ‘Örfirisey’ meaning ‘tidal island’.
Ornsay’s position creates a sheltered natural harbour for the village of Isleornsay, whose Gaelic name Eilean Iarmain also means ‘tidal island’. A small stream, the Allt Duisdale, flows out into the harbour.
Hotel Eilean Iarmain
My destination was the Hotel Eilean Iarmain, which overlooks the harbour and the Sound of Sleat. I checked in, got washed and changed and booked a table for dinner. But first, I could enjoy a drink outside, looking towards the peninsula on which Glenelg sits. My camera chose that moment to die but I coaxed — by which I mean wrestled and battered — my ageing, rain-damaged phone into sullenly capturing the view.
Eventually, a rather awesome meal lured me back inside the hotel, after which I retired for an early night. I wanted to catch the first ferry back to Mallaig in the morning and, having been advised not to rely on the bus service, that meant I’d be leaving at five. But between now and then was some well-deserved sleep…
This time: 18½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,352 miles