Summer in Skye by G.D. McDonald Banks

The general aspect of Skye is not upon the whole what travellers describe it; disagreeable, rugged, bare, barren and mountainous … it is on the contrary in many parts verdant, romantic and highly beautiful and even rich. … It is in truth a singular island … and capable by nature of one day astonishing the patriot and political economist. – James Macdonald, “A General View of the Agriculture of the Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland” (1811).

My memories of Skye were five years out of date. On my last visit the islanders, having accepted hydro-electricity, were waiting expectantly for whatever the newly formed Crofters Commission had in store for them.

I was ill-prepared, therefore, for the transformation which met my gaze as my caravan drew up at the Kyle of Lochalsh ferry: the new houses, the face-lift that bad been given the village, the vast high-level car park overlooking the Kyle, and, especially, the 12-lane apron which, conveyor-like, fed the four six-vehicle ferries shuttling to and fro across the narrows.

With a jolt I realised for the first time something of the impact on the island of the post-war tourist boom. The early prophecies had indeed come true. In 1955 this ferry handled 14,694 vehicles and 136,754 passengers. The 1959 and 1960 totals were 73,000 and 76.000 vehicles and 214,000 and 224,000 passengers respectively. My family and our holiday outfit were among 85,000 vehicles and 225,000 passengers making the crossing in the wet summer of 1961.

I was soon conscious that our faithful but undistinguished family saloon had exotic neighbours: cars, which, the automobile enthusiast at my side asserted, were the products of improbable places like Milan, Michigan, Billincourt, Interturkheim and Russelsheim-am-Main. The only other British car in sight sported a disc which our expert, hastily consulting one of the many volumes in the motoring library without which no car journey is to him complete, assured me showed that it came from Alderney in the Channel Islands.

Our arrival on Skye was greeted with a great shout, a welcome which I acknowledged modestly as a tribute to my driving skill. My beaming satisfaction was cut short however by the breathless arrival of a red-faced ferryman with the news that a plank from the ferry ramp had become entangled in the van’s suspension. By adopting postures which were unusual and extremely undignified the ferryman and I set to work under the critical eyes of a ring of spectators and by the time British Railways had retrieved their property we were practically blood brothers.

On the move again we roared up the slipway, now wider and smoother than I remembered, and squeezed past a long queue of cars, the dead-pan faces of whose occupants, gazing like goldfish through steamy glass, indicated that it was not so easy to get off the island as to get on it. Our progress was somewhat marred by what appeared to be a series of slit trenches, which had been dug along the edge of the quay, into every one of which our three near-side wheels fell in turn so that the way of our going resembled that of a drunk walking with one foot in the gutter. The accompanying crashes from inside the van brought wails of anguish from my wife. Of course I had persuaded her that there was no need to pack away the china.

Kyleakin, apart from some new shops near the ferry, seemed to have changed little. A spacious filling station, where the road turns away from the sea, was the first real indication of the effect of the tourist traffic on the island’s economy. At Breckish there was another and nearby it a new building which proclaimed that bottled milk was supplied daily by the van. Alas for my memories of warm, frothy milk straight from shaggy Highland cows!

Remembering the narrow roads I had decided to base the caravan at Harrapool. I was unprepared for the two caravan sites, cheek by jowl, one Macdonald, the other Campbell. the rash of coloured tents on the brae and the shop with its shelves packed like a supermarket.

Mrs Macdonald piloted us to the stance which had been reserved for us. It was screened from the main road by tall trees which were to scatter the raindrops so that they descended like machine-gun fire on our roof during the night and landed with deadly accuracy on anyone who opened the van door during the day. There we remained in sodden isolation while the waters gathered relentlessly around us.

Our nearest neighbours were the French campers on the hill who, compelled to drive up by the croft road, could not resist hurtling their diminutive cars down the grassy slope until it was criss-crossed like a ski slalom run and the mud at the gate, which lay between us and the outer world, was churned to the consistency of porridge.

A feature of this site was “the little hut.” There we greeted the campers, a patient, rain-soaked queue of French, German, Belgian, Canadian and English tourists who had come to Skye in search of sunshine, blue water and towering peaks. Occasionally, as we waited our turn, we saw the top of Beinn na Caillaich, twice Pabay emerged from the rain squalls, once we thought we could discern the hills of Wester Ross. Soon I was taking soundings around the caravan, and it looked as If our visit to Skye would have to be short if we were not to be there for the winter.

Then, to lighten our gloom, came another family of Macdonalds from their holiday croft high on the moor to offer us electric light, hot water, a peat fire and abundant Highland hospitality. The nightly ceilidhs in that moorland croft were the highlights of our holiday.

We went to Broadford for necessities not stocked by the Macdonalds. Broadford used to be a quiet roadside township. To judge by the August traffic it is due to have a zebra crossing any time now. Who knows, we may yet travel on the Broadford by-pass! After one stroll to the village on which I was hooted at, splashed with mud, drenched by spray, blasted into the ditch and generally ill treated by a succession of cars hell-bent on seeing the beauty of Skye, we did our shopping by car. It was safer and drier.

Everywhere there were signs of commercial initiative investments in plate glass windows, new shop frontages, deep-freeze cabinets and, in the establishments that catered for the thirsty, chrome and glitter. Young people of half-a-dozen countries clustered round the stands displaying coloured postcards in the shops.

We had come to see Skye, however, rain or no rain. We went south to Sleat which greeted us with all its traditional charm: Sunshine, lovely woodlands, quiet bays and ruined castles. The narrow road that turns away at Breckish gave little hint of the widened highway, with its wonderful views of the mainland hills and the white sands of Morar, that now leads by the shores of the Sound to Armadale. Here, in the Garden of Skye, preparations have been made for the greatly increased traffic which must follow the completion of the reconstructed Glenfinnan-Mallaig road and the opening of the future Mallaig-Armadale vehicle ferry. We took the road to Tarskavaig with its magnificent panorama of the Cuillin Hills and had that great expanse of rippled sands and Mediterranean-blue water to ourselves for a whole afternoon. Then by a maze of well-surfaced narrow roads that switch-backed through woodlands we found our way past the jagged tooth of Dunskaith to Ord. There we encountered what appeared to be a motor car rally but was we learned the normal traffic attracted to this remote part by the excellent afternoon teas provided by the house overlooking Loch Eishort.

We went north to Trotternish on a day for which local showers were forecast to find that the cliff-top road by Loch Ainort and Loch Slighachan which had so often wearied and, when ice-bound, as on my last journey, terrified me, had been tamed. In spite of a three miles stretch at Sconser, which was “under heavy reconstruction” we reached Portree in just over one hour. Our route was lined by hitch-hikers mostly ill-clad for the rigours of this summer in Skye.

Empty cable drums by the roadside marked the completion of a submarine cable to link the island of Sealpay with the electricity network which now supplies almost all the houses on Skye. The new forestry plantations, as yet only a five-o’clock shadow on the bare face of Glen Varragill, were a sign that another plan had become reality.

Portree, brightened by the watery sun, looked spick and span, its shops busy, its pavements crowded, its square packed with cars. The old hotel, where Prince Charles’ guinea proved an embarrassment to mine host, was resplendent in a coat of gleaming white. Nearby was a cafe with expresso-bar décor, which seemed to be patronised exclusively by foreigners eating fish and chips. We were told that there was even a juke box in another cafe down by the pier. In heartening contrast, however, we learned that the local pipe band had been revived.

We took the east coast road towards the pinnacles of Storr. Improvements begun during the construction of the hydro-electric scheme, which merged Loch Fada and Loch Leathan to feed the power house on the shore beneath the cliffs of Bearreraig Bay, had been extended, and the rough track beyond the Old Man of Storr replaced by a well-surfaced road. Where the Lealt River plunges over the cliff the diatomite factory stood silent and deserted: On my last visit this had been a thriving enterprise employing a score of local people.

With rain threatening to spill from the misty heights of the Quiraing we skirted Staffin Bay where to the casual eye both houses and land seemed in better shape than of yore. At Flodigarry my first impression was one of disappointment. The scattered crofts, set round the bay dominated by great columnar cliffs, had gained a better access to the south but seemed to have lost something of the out-of-this-world atmosphere that had captured my youthful imagination.

I had promised our very young geologist that there would be fossils for him at Flodigarry and I was propelled to the shore through a drizzle. My luck was in and his day made when we found the first “thunderbolt” near an old six-oared boat, the lovely lines of which might have inspired that wonderful rowing song “The Birlinn.” Having persuaded my youngest son to leave about half the “Oerlikon bullets” he had collected, as the caravan was already groaning under samples of granite, gabbro and Skye marble, we staggered back to the car to find it surrounded by a fine herd of black bullocks listening to the radio. Of the shaggy Highland cattle of my youth there was no sign. That I suppose is progress.

Amid rain squalls we crossed to Duntulm where the stark grandeur of the jagged ruin, to my regret, made less impression on my companions than did the sign “afternoon teas” beside the hotel’s crowded car park. Kilmuir was blotted out by driving rain, the hayricks in the water-logged fields mute reminders of the year’s ruined hay crop.

A white-washed ex-radio station within sight of Flora Macdonald’s Monument provided us with a demonstration of initiative and enterprise stimulated by tourism. Here Mr Jonathan MacDonald, a young crofter, helped by his father and other relatives, has established a handcraft centre which has become something of a showpiece.

For the rest of the coastal road, with all its Clan Donald associations, the windscreen wipers could scarcely deal with the deluge and upon us descended a gloom which Uig, looking like a South Georgia outpost, did little to relieve. At Borve we joined the main traffic stream, thus solving a mystery which had puzzled us – the destination of most of the cars that hurried from the ferry past our caravan stance. This preoccupation with Vaternish at least ensures that Trotternish retains a little more of the quiet of old-time Skye.

The Skye Council has stated that tourism is now the main plank in the economy of the island. Skye, I believe, has almost reached the stage of providing for all the basic needs of tourists; the next stage is to develop along lines calculated to induce the “Skye-in-a-day” motorists to stay longer and discover and savour the real and enduring attractions of the island, to get them off the roads, into the hills, and – remembering that six-oared boat – on to the water.

As we jolted in and out of the potholes that lay beneath the liquid mud of the Sconser diversion my wife and I decided that to prolong this visit would be unfair to Skye; we wanted the boys to like the island and to return.

The rain on the day of our departure would have disconcerted even a hydro-electric engineer and we could have usefully employed sub-aqua outfits while getting the van ready for the road.

Over a runway of old sacks, flattened bread cartons and car mats the van emerged from the field like a primordial monster waddling from the swamps. A cheer from the rear where my mud-bespattered spouse had been locked between two up-and-coming forwards in an ill-assorted rugby scrum front row assured me that it was indeed air tir. My crew slopped into the car; we waved to the Macdonalds and headed for the ferry. We hope to go back to Skye – in a real summer.