(james benedict brown) on the road

Passing Places

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 5 April, 2009

One of the lasting memories I have of the Isle of Skye is the ubiquity of the English accent. I spoke to more English people on this island in six days than I have in Glasgow in six months. My guidebook warned of a peninsula that was sometimes referred to as ‘Little England’ by native locals, being so full of those southerners who chosen to relocate here in the last twenty years.

I considered this early one morning during our five night stay on the island. A vaguely circular itinerary was taking us around the northern part of Skye, and that morning an hour long ride on a school bus was our only possible form of public transport to make the journey without a longer backtrack through landscapes we had already seen. I had found the bus listed in the island’s timetable, and had checked and re-checked the footnotes to make sure that it was actually running that morning. It was still a relief to see a bus pull up, though. Departing from Dunvegan, in the north-west of Skye, it follows a very leisurely route down the west coast of the island, pulling off the main road on several occasions to follow narrow winding lanes closer to the sea to pick up dejected looking school kids from junctions and driveways. After leaving us at the junction for Carbost (and a fruitless wait for another bus in torrential rain) the schoolbus would head inland and then turn back north towards the High School in Portree. I heard some English accents among the schoolboys and schoolgirls on that bus. I wondered whether their parents had chosen to ‘downshift’ to Skye to escape tedious commutes to and from England’s larger cities, only to commit their offspring to daily journeys of equal length just to get to school.

But what a bus ride. I know that those schoolchildren might disagree, but it’s worth getting up at six-thirty to see (although maybe not every day).

Visiting Skye in late March, we took a big chance on the weather. But then a trip to Skye at any time of the year seems to take a big chance on the weather: the Atlantic is right there; the Western Isles are too small and too tiny to offer any protection. Layer upon layer of clothing beneath a rigourous waterproof outer coat is the only way to maintain your body heat and sanity beneath skies that shift in a matter of minutes.

But when the sun shines, it shines on spectacular scenery. The day before that bus journey we had struck out from Dunvegan towards the relatively remote community on and around the Orbost estate. Not being well experienced or well equipped walkers, we stuck to roads and tracks, rarely being passed by other cars but always receiving a friendly wave when we were. One (a bus driver who had a few days earlier driven us from Sleat to Portree) even offered a lift, presuming that anyone walking at this time of year would appreciate a ride.

Only one day of our visit to Skye was completely lost to rainstorms. But it was also the day we visited the aforementioned Talisker Distillery and found one of the best pubs on the island. Skye supports a year-round tourist industry thanks to its fixed bridge connection to mainland Scotland and busy through traffic for the ferries to the Western Isles. We witnessed several tour buses, including the dreadful looking mini-coaches offering chaperoned backpacker tours of Scotland in 3, 5 or 7 days. But in March we were there on the shoulder between winter and spring, long before the real crowds arrived. During six nights in hostels, only one was in a room with someone else. In Dunvegan a local even professed that we were ‘the first tourists’ of the year and that the lambing season therefore couldn’t be far off.

It was not difficult to escape the English, therefore. We walked miles and breathed deeper than we might normally in Glasgow, and thanks to low off-season prices spent very little for the best part of a week. As a full-stop on a seven month period of unemployment, it was a fitting pause before work begins. More photos here.

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